Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir discuss first-half surprises, second-half storylines, the potential of the Florida Panthers, and the difficult decisions ahead for the Minnesota Wild.
• Now that we've hit the midway mark of the season, what in your opinion was the biggest surprise of the first half?
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: I’m really impressed with the staying power of the Predators. They win 3-2 games against Carolina and Dallas in the same month when they beat Los Angeles, 7-6. They find different ways to win. Even after Pekka Rinne left the game against Vancouver on Tuesday night, Carter Hutton stepped in and stopped 10 shots in his first appearance all season on home ice, where the team is now 17-2-1. Getting James Neal back in the lineup should be a help, too. After having one coach and one system for its entire history, the club has really responded to Peter Laviolette. He's given the Preds some freedom to open up or shut things down. There is no guarantee that the club can keep this up through a long playoff run against some tough Western opponents, but its been an impressive half-season in Nashville.
SARAH KWAK: You know, I thought Nashville would be fine this season, but I don't think I saw the Predators leading the NHL at the midpoint. Definitely didn't see Nashville averaging three goals per game. But still, I think my biggest surprise may be the league's leading scorer, Philadelphia's Jakub Voracek. Don't get me wrong. I always thought he was a pretty talented player, but one of the league's elite? The fact that the Flyers have two of the top four scorers in the NHL and are still more than 10 points out of playoff position just goes to show how important the full roster really is.
ALLAN MUIR: Good choices both, but for my money I'll take the emergence of Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson. Voracek as the league's top scorer is a shocker, but at least he has the pedigree of a top 10 draft pick. Johnson, who sits just six points behind Voracek, barely got a sniff from scouts, going undrafted and then getting the "yeah, we'll be in touch" routine after a brief free agent tryout with the Minnesota Wild. (Could they use him now, eh?) The Lightning finally gave him a chance after his fourth season of junior hockey, but even his Calder-finalist 2013-14 campaign didn't really hint at what was to come. You can make the case that he, not Steven Stamkos, has been the MVP of the Lightning this season and if the Bolts end up challenging for top spot in the East, he could be in the mix for the Hart Trophy. Score one more for the little guys.
• Looking ahead, what do you predict will be the most compelling storyline of the second half?
I’d like to see whether the teams that have emerged this season can maintain strong showings during the second half. We just mentioned the Predators, but what about the Islanders, who have been good all season, and the Capitals, who have gotten hot during the last month? Players such as Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson have played over their heads for New York, and Jaroslav Halak manages to win games even on off nights. I like the way the Caps players have seemingly bought into what Coach Trotz has them trying to do. It took a while, but around the beginning of December things began to click, even for Alex Ovechkin, whose commitment to his own end of the ice is notably better than it was last season.
The most compelling second half storyline, in my opinion, is how underachieving teams rebound. I'm curious to see if the Bruins, playing better of late, can eke out a playoff spot, and if the Wild have it in them to turn their season around (more on that later). I tend to believe in the Bruins, as I think I said last week, but they have a bit of an uphill battle. The majority of their remaining games are on the road, where they've struggled this season, and 20 out of their final 38 games will be against teams that are currently in playoff position. They definitely need more offense, but will GM Peter Chiarelli be able to make a move to add to his arsenal? Expect the chatter in Boston to ramp up, especially if the Bruins remain squarely on the bubble.
Ovechkin and the Caps is definitely one worth watching. I haven't exactly been a fan of his game during the past couple seasons, so I have to give Ovi full marks for adapting his it and putting winning ahead of scoring. The race to the bottom of the standings should be perversely interesting as well. I think my money is still on Edmonton—you can't underestimate their ability for self-sabotage. But the most compelling story will evolve in Toronto, where it's clear that a couple of core players need to quickly prove that they can be part of the solution. If not, the Leafs could make some real noise by moving perennial 30-goal man Phil Kessel and/or top-pairing defenseman Dion Phaneuf. A trade of either or both would signify a massive shift in philosophy for the team, and that's one tree falling that everyone would hear.
• They're young, they're disciplined and they're not going away. Is it time to believe in the Florida Panthers?
Believe in what exactly? Believe that the Panthers are a playoff bubble team with some promise in years to come? Sure, I can believe that. After all, they have enjoyed a top-three pick in four of the last five drafts. But beyond that, I'm not going to say they're a Stanley Cup-contending team today. I don't even really think they're a playoff team. Listen, having high draft picks is not everything. The Oilers continue to prove that on a daily basis. It also takes a good system in which young players are given the chance to succeed and grow, and I think the foundation is being laid in Florida. GM Dale Tallon has some success in building a solid youth movement (read: Chicago). I still think it's premature to say that it's there and that the Panthers are destined for success now, but Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau are giving the team some hope.
I’m not completely sold on the Panthers just yet. They looked pretty bad against the Jets on Tuesday night, and Gerard Gallant was very blunt in saying his team just didn’t compete. Granted the Panthers are in the middle of a long road trip through Western Canada that had been pretty successful before Tuesday, but both the Canucks and the Flames have been up and down and you should only get half a win on some nights when you beat the Oilers. The Panthers have a five-game home stand coming up that isn’t that tough. Their schedule is harder in February, when the also-rans tend to slip out of the playoff picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens in Florida, especially now that the Bruins are starting to play better and the Red Wings always seem to eke out a playoff spot.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for the underdog, but I think they've got a chance to make the cut this year. They've gone 13-6-3 over their past 22 games, a pace that should keep them in the mix. They've got an All-Star goaltender in Roberto Luongo who has proved that he can cover up the occasional youthful mistake. Gallant has them adhering to a tight, smart system. And they play 24 of their final 41 at home. The wild card is Tallon. He has the cap space and the assets to make a significant add before the deadline. If there's a player or two available who could juice up their popgun offense, expect him to be in on the action.
• The Wild have come to a fork in the road. Is there any hope for their season without a significant change?
A lot of people have coach Mike Yeo on the hot seat for the club’s recent struggles. But I’m not sure the axe should fall on his head yet. First, he hasn’t been the one playing goal. And has any team in the league had more goaltending issues during the past two seasons than the Wild? Also, look at the teams they have been playing during their recent skid: Pittsburgh, Nashville, a pair against Chicago. These are some of the elite teams in the league. The team has also been dealing with the loss of Zach Parise’s father, J.P. and Zach missed a couple of games and hasn’t recorded a point since his return. He has exactly one, an assist, since the first of the year, and he hasn’t had a plus night since Dec. 29. He can and should play much better in the coming weeks.
See, I disagree, I think Mike Yeo's seat is pretty hot. It perhaps shouldn't be because of the reasons Brian laid out, but I think it is, and I think Yeo knows it. His on-ice rant—well in the view of cameras and front office types—hasn't produced wins. And by bringing things to a boil in public, his players have had no choice but to address their shortcomings head-on, admit their embarrassment and take all of the losing to the chin. Does that inspire his team or build resentment among his corps? I would imagine he'd have a good enough sense of his players to know what buttons to push and how, but I also have a hard time believing that pro athletes appreciate a public flogging. Do the Wild need a change? Yes. They need better goaltending. But more than that, they need inspiration. What Yeo said on the ice was probably right. They need to shed the loser's mentality, to quit believing their best isn't good enough to win. They need hope to last a full 60 minutes. In the last month, Minnesota's goal differential in third periods has been -9, fourth worst in the league. Their schedule this week is looking relatively kind—Sabres, Coyotes and Blue Jackets. How Minnesota's players respond during this stretch could be illustrative.
Addressing the goaltending is key, but unless the goalie fairy drops a Lundqvist or a Rask in his lap what exactly is GM Chuck Fletcher supposed to do? There aren't a lot of options out there. Would someone like Jhonas Enroth or Michal Neuvirth rate as a surefire improvement over what they have now? And would bringing in a new keeper even be enough? I like Yeo. I like his system. But this team feels like a group that needs a different message ... and a different messenger. After that debacle in Pittsburgh, I don't see how they can move forward without making a big, splashy change.