If you look at the two conferences, it's obvious that it will take all 82 games to settle the top eight teams in each. In the East, however, first-half separation has left five teams with double digit deficits to overcome just to attain the eighth seed. Of those five, the Carolina Hurricanes (in ninth, three points out) and Buffalo Sabres (10th, eight points back) have legitimate top-eight aspirations.
Not that a team can't go on an unbelievable rip from January to March. The St. Louis Blues did it two seasons ago in the West, rising from fifteenth to sixth. But right now, the Hurricanes look most likely to shuffle the deck in the East, and they will be doing it in a season of payroll thrift and roster shift.
The reason why the Hurricanes have a real chance at making the playoffs has to do with the merging of young players with the established core that includes All-Stars Cam Ward in goal and captain Eric Staal. Both veterans will have the pleasure of playing in front of their hometown fans in the All-Star Game on Jan. 30 in Raleigh. The pair hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2006, with Ward winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Staal is playing at a point-per-game pace and has already registered his sixth straight 20 -goal season. Historically, he has been a stronger player in the second half of a season.
The rest of Carolina's veterans include Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen up front with Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo on the back end. Proven NHL players all, they provide a solid foundation along with Ward and Staal. Augmenting the vets are youngsters Jeff Skinner, Brandon Sutter, Jamie McBain and. more recently, centers Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, who were called up from the AHL. All five have come into the lineup and given the Hurricanes a fresh look and feel while playing with a welcome zest and zeal. The team's combination of seasoned experience and youthful potential is what makes the future -- even the near term -- look so promising.
Skinner has been the first-half story, leading all NHL rookies in scoring with 32 points. The former competitive junior figure skater can fly and, at 18, is the youngest player in the league. Taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2010 entry draft, Skinner progressed from prospect camp to training camp and through the preseason to landing a roster spot with eye-catching energy. His production has exceeded expectations, but it is exactly what these Hurricanes needed: another legitimate scoring threat.
While Skinner stands out in the race for the Calder Trophy, more subtle but equally important contributions have come from McBain on the blueline and Sutter as the checking center. McBain, another product of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, is making his mark at the NHL level. The lanky right-handed rearguard plays with poise in his 20 minutes of nightly action. Sutter was the 11th pick overall in the 2007 draft and he scored 21 goals last season, his second in the NHL. His role is evolving and although his scoring is down, his effectiveness in the team's scheme is on the rise.
Dalpe and Boychuk have been making the most of their call-ups. Dalpe is fast; Boychuk feisty. Boychuk was a first-round pick in 2008 with a proven scoring pedigree coming out of Lethbridge of the WHL. Dalpe, a second-rounder that same year out of Ohio State, was a late bloomer. The pair has added a quality to Carolina's mix that seems to just be coming together at the right time.
With the NHL descending upon Raleigh for the All-Star festivities and the promise shown in the first half by the reconstructed Hurricanes, the locals have lots to look forward to the rest of the way. Likely even a playoff berth.