With the NHL reaching the unofficial midpoint of the season, let’s look back at some of the key takeaways from the first half:
• Three-on-three overtime was the right decision
As someone who opposed the concept early on I have to admit that the new-look OT has been everything its proponents said it would be: fast, creative and packed with edge-of-your-seat action. Sure, it’s still a gimmick but it’s a great gimmick. Can’t wait to see how it plays out over an extended time frame during Sunday’s All-Star Game.
• The job of a linesman is much tougher than it appears
Bang-bang plays at the blue line pose a nightly challenge for NHL linesmen, but the general perception held that they were doing a creditable job. So it’s been surprising to see how many of their calls have been proven incorrect via the coach’s challenge. Heading into the final weekend before the All-Star break, a total of 55 challenges had been raised regarding potentially offside plays. Of those calls, 22 (a full 40%) were reversed upon video review. That’s a startling number, one that suggests the fastest game on earth might be getting too fast for the naked eye to officiate.
• Braden Holtby is the best goaltender in the game today
With reigning MVP Carey Price languishing on IR, Holtby has stepped up his game, establishing himself as the league’s most effective stopper and, arguably, the season’s most valuable player. He leads the NHL with 30 wins, powered by a dazzling 16-2-1 home record, and ranks among the top six in both goals-against (2.07) and save percentage (.929). He’s found the consistency that eluded him during his early, promising years, and finally seems ready to carry the Capitals deep into the postseason.
• A teenager could win the Norris Trophy
Alright, so Aaron Ekblad will have turned 20 by the time the hardware is passed out in June, but let’s not split hairs. Whatever his age, the young defender has emerged as one of the absolute best at his position. His high-end skill and smarts are what catch your eye but his composure under pressure sets him apart. Ekblad might make a mistake, but he’s never rattled.
That calm, controlled presence has been a key factor in Florida’s breakthrough season. While he’s unlikely to earn enough votes to upend Drew Doughty (long overdue for this recognition), Erik Karlsson (and his eye-popping numbers) or Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi (they’ve paid their dues), Ekblad has proven himself a viable candidate for the award.
• The Stars finally have their No. 1 defenseman
It’s been seven years since Sergei Zubov’s departure created a void on the Stars blueline, but John Klingberg has proved he’s ready to handle the role. Building on a brilliant rookie campaign, his confidence and poise are the foundation of Dallas’s devastating transition game. He ranks fifth among defenseman with 16 primary assists, but, more tellingly, second in the league with 18 secondary assists. That stat speaks directly to the plays he’s making out of his own zone, that all-important first pass that moves a team from defending to attacking. Meanwhile, he’s handling a heavy load (averaging just over 23 minutes a night) and routinely lines up against the opposition’s top forwards. He’s still young, only 23, but he’s up to the part.
• Joe Pavelski is this year's “Mr. Underappreciated”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Pavelski is off to another terrific start with 25 goals in 48 games, but that’s the curse of playing on the West Coast—an accomplishment like that tends to get overlooked. Maybe his status as the game’s most underappreciated star will change this weekend in Nashville. Pavelski is making his first All-Star Game appearance, and he arrives with a telling stat: Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the man Brian Burke called “a Swiss Army knife” has been one of the game’s most lethal finishers, scoring 150 goals in 342 games. Only Alex Ovechkin (202) and Steven Stamkos (178) have been more prolific during this stretch.
• I might have been wrong about Carl Soderberg ...
I’ll admit it: I scoffed at Colorado’s decision to extend a five-year, $23.75 million offer to the former Bruins third-liner. During his tenure in Boston he was someone whose play was affected by those around him, rather than someone who made those players better. That’s changed since he’s joined the Avs. There’s not a lot of flash to Soderberg’s game, but he’s helped them get over the loss of Ryan O’Reilly. He sits third in team scoring (10-26-36) and has become a consistent presence on their power play and penalty kill. Fair to say he’s been a key to their surprisingly competitive season, and a bargain compared to what The Factor would have cost them.
• ... but the Bruins were right to ditch him in favor of Ryan Spooner
The 23-year-old remains a work-in-progress, especially when it comes to his play without the puck. With it, though? He’s magic. Despite being used primarily as a third-line center, Spooner has emerged as an elite creator. He sits fourth in the league with 22 primary assists and has been a force on the NHL’s second-ranked power play. He’s shown some versatility as well, moving up to play the wing on the top line. And he’s a bargain compared to what The Yeti would have cost them.
• Kyle Palmieri was the summer’s best trade acquisition
Ray Shero knew his Devils needed an immediate transfusion of offensive ability if they were going to be competitive this season, so using draft assets acquired in the deal that sent Jaromir Jagr to the Panthers, he pounced when Palmieri was made available by the Ducks. The 25-year-old winger made an immediate impact, leading the surprising Devils with 20 goals and sitting third with 35 points—both career highs. And as a Jersey native, he’s helping to shape a new identity for a team that hasn’t always been the easiest to support. An RFA this summer, he should land a contract that will keep him in the red for years to come.
• Jaromir Jagr is still worth the price of admission
He’s not content just playing the role of elder statesman. At 43, Jagr is driving the bus for the surprising Panthers and remains one of the most entertaining players in the game. His ability to dictate the flow of the game is something you can’t fully appreciate by watching him on TV, so go ahead and splurge on a ticket when Florida comes to town.
The numbers game
• Gordie Howe, not surprisingly, holds the NHL mark for most All-Star Game appearances (23). Ray Bourque ranks second, with 19. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux share the career mark for All-Star goals, with 13 apiece.
• Last season’s edition of the NHL All-Star game, in Columbus, set a record for most goals (29) by the two sides: Team Toews 17, Team Foligno 12. They also set a mark for most tallies (11) in one period (the second.) The combined All-Star record for fewest goals is two, set in 1952 at Detroit (First Team 1, Second Team 1) and equaled in 1956 at Montreal (All-Stars 1, Canadiens 1). In 1967, the Habs shut out the league’s best, 3–0. Imagine that.
• The All-Star Game record for most combined shots is 102, set at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1994 (East 56, West 46) and equaled in Montreal in 2009 (East 48, West 54).
• During the All-Star Game at St. Louis in 1970, the two teams needed all of 37 seconds after the opening face-off to light the lamp, with Jacques Laperriere of the East tallying at the 20-second mark and Dean Prentice of the West answering 17 ticks later.
• The good folks over at Hockey By Design have ranked the best and worst All-Star logos.
• Steve Buffery argues that Scott’s presence is just one of the reasons that it is time to abolish the All-Star Game.
• Some in Chicago aren’t happy that Jonathan Toews will be suspended as a result of skipping the All-Star Game.
• Here’s a look at some of the crazy (and expensive) merch available this weekend in Nashville.
• This list of the top-five hockey man-caves is everything. Look on in slack-jawed wonder ...
• Don Cherry says there are a lot of guys who should be in the Hall of Fame before him.
• This season’s most coveted college free agent has a familiar last name.
• Mexico is the new king of the hockey world. Well, one division of it, anyway.