Thursday January 7th, 2016

With the majority of NHL teams at or approaching the halfway point of their schedules, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about each of them this season. Here’s our look at the Western Conference. For our thoughts on the East, click here.

Anaheim Ducks: Not (quite) dead yet

They’ve put that 1–7–2 start behind them and climbed back into the playoff race in the weak Pacific Division, but the Ducks still aren’t the contenders they were expected to be. John Gibson, who went 5–3–1 with a 1.62 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts on his way to a Rookie of the Month nod for December, has the defense humming at 2.36 goals against per game (sixth in the league). The problem is he can’t score ... and neither can anyone else. Anaheim’s offense is averaging just 1.85 goals per game, by far the worst in the league. Even scarier: They Ducks have managed just 22 goals in 14 games since Dec. 1, an average of 1.57 per. There’s time for this team to get back on track, but something has to change.

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Arizona Coyotes: Kids are alright

The ’Yotes just aren’t a good team. Their tissue-paper defense is allowing 3.15 goals per game, second-most in the league. Their penalty kill and power play both rank in the bottom 10. They spend more time chasing the play than any team other than Ottawa or Colorado. And yet, there’s good reason for hope. Forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair have the look of future stars, and rookie goalie Louis Domingue has played with surprising maturity since stepping in for the injured Mike Smith. With a bit more defensive discipline, this team could surprise in the second half.

Calgary Flames: Future looks bright again

Their defensive play has rebounded nicely after struggling early on, helping Kari Ramo get his wheels (mostly) back on the track. The result: an 11–4 run since Dec. 1 that has the young Flames nicely positioned for a second-half playoff run. Might want to do something about that 30th ranked penalty kill, though.

Chicago Blackhawks: Bowman knows best

Facing a cap crunch, Chicago GM Stan Bowman trimmed a top-four defender (Johnny Oduya) and a pair of top-six forwards (Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad) from his roster over the summer ... and somehow ended up with a team that’s ahead of the pace of last year’s Stanley Cup champs. Credit him for the signing of Artemi Panarin, a natural complement to Patrick Kane, and for acquiring Artem Anisimov, who has answered the Hawks’ need for stability at second-line center.

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Colorado Avalanche: Imminent danger

Nice to see Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene back in top form, but the Avs are an afterthought in the Western Conference race. Sure, they’ve enjoyed a modicum of success, but until they shore up the defense and settle on a game plan that allows them to spend less time chasing the puck, they’re a six-game skid waiting to happen.

Dallas Stars: Old habits die hard

After carpet bombing the league for the first 10 weeks of the season, the Stars have been served a harsh reminder: Without defensive commitment, they’re not all that scary. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are both on track for 100-point seasons, but they’ve been glaringly guilty of selfish play for the past couple weeks. And when the team leaders veer from the program, everyone else follows them off the cliff. That said, this stretch might turn out to be exactly what this team needs—a spot of adversity to get it focused on playing the right way again.

Edmonton Oilers: Missing Big Mac

What might this team have accomplished if not for Connor McDavid’s collarbone injury back in November? The top pick of 2015 teased his immense potential in his 13-game stint, and it’s easy to imagine the Oilers in a playoff position if the 18-year-old was skating alongside top-10 scorer Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl, who leads the league with 3.08 points per 60 minutes of even-strength hockey. Instead, the Oilers find themselves in familiar territory: the Western Conference cellar. Four points removed from third place in the Pacific, but still. After nine years of playoff disappointment, this team needed to move out of the basement.

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Los Angeles Kings: Cruise control

Last season’s meltdown behind them, the Kings look as dangerous as the teams that won it all in 2012 and 2014. They boast the best defense in the West, allowing just 2.21 goals per game. Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick are in the mix for the Norris and Vezina trophies, respectively. Tyler Toffoli is emerging as an elite sniper. And now that Anze Kopitar (10 points in his past six games) and Marian Gaborik (three points in his past three) are getting back on track, Los Angeles looks like the class of the West.

Minnesota Wild: Still stuck in neutral

The Wild are what they are: a team good enough to beat you on any given night, but not quite good enough to really put a scare into anyone. It’s been feast or famine with the offense, but Devan Dubnyk has kept Minnesota in the game even when the sticks have gone cold. Since Dec. 1, he’s posted a 1.83 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage, reminiscent of his amazing run last season.

Nashville Predators: Question answered?

It’s been clear from the start of the season that the Preds were not a legitimate playoff contender as long as they iced a center corps of Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad and Cody HodgsonRyan Johansen won’t transform their offense singlehandedly, but the newly acquired pivot gives Nashville the big No. 1 horse it’s been looking for. So forget the first half. It’s all about what happens next for the Preds.

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San Jose Sharks: Hometown blues

There’s something to be said for owning a share of the best road record in the West, but that’s offset by their abysmal 5–11–0 mark at SAP Center. That home record, the worst in the entire league, has the Sharks sinking to within one point of the conference cellar (albeit with games in hand). First-year starting goalie Martin Jones has struggled after an impressive run to begin the season, exposing the team’s lack of depth between the pipes.

St. Louis Blues: You don’t deserve these leads

St. Louis: the only town in the league where being ahead of an opponent is seen as a disadvantage. “It's difficult to play when you have the lead,” coach Ken Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch last month. “The other team has got a sense of urgency and your discipline with the puck really gets challenged.” The takeaway: Winning is hard, which explains why the Blues blow those leads like no other team in the league. That’s inexcusable given the talent they have on hand.

Vancouver Canucks: Mixed results

With the NHL’s two cheapest playoff spots up for grabs in the Pacific, it's easy to forget Vancouver’s focus is on the development of young talent rather than results. And in that sense, the first half had its ups and downs. Bo Horvat and Jared McCann are contributors now and have great potential down the road. Jake Virtanen ... well, he needs some time. The question now is: When does GM Jim Benning kick off the veteran fire sale?

Winnipeg Jets: Hellebuyck is ready

The Jets are a disappointingly average team this season. They’ve yet to string together more than two consecutive wins, in large part because they commit too many infractions (first in the NHL) and ice an inept penalty kill (27th). And their power play is even worse, clicking at just 15.2% and ranking 29th. But Winnipeg has learned that it’s got a star in Connor Hellebuyck. Not in the future. Now. The young netminder has been brilliant through his first 13 starts, posting a save percentage of .970 or better in six of them.

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