We've now surpassed the approximate midpoint of the season and though the number of games for each team have fluctuated to COVID-19-related postponements, we've seen enough to evaluate the league as a whole through this abridged 56-game campaign.
Yahoo Sports NHL writers Justin Cuthbert, Kyle Cantlon and Arun Srinivasan weigh in on the Hart Trophy race, the best storylines, what to expect from the second half, and of course, offer their Stanley Cup predictions.
What's been your favorite storyline?
Justin Cuthbert: I think it’s Connor McDavid’s pursuit of a round, three-digit number — even if it’s all a bit arbitrary. Think about it: We are only six years removed from Jamie Benn winning the Art Ross Trophy with 87 points and wondering if that’s the new standard in a game desperate for an injection of life. Now in a 56-game season, the Edmonton Oilers captain is pacing just below a 100-point trajectory following an 18-point surge in his last eight games. His 1.77 points per game is enough for 144 points in a normal 82-game schedule, which would serve as the highest single-season point total since Mario Lemieux racked up 161 points in the 1995-96 season. He’s up 16 points on Patrick Kane in the Art Ross race and is now just one goal behind Auston Matthews for the league lead. It’s time to give Connor all his roses, whether he hits 100 points or not.
Kyle Cantlon: I am absolutely intrigued by the Ottawa Senators right now. I’m not sure if the storyline here is moreso the excitement around this team or my own rapid personal pivot from Sens Hater to Sens Truther, but I love a lot about this group and I don’t care who knows it.
Brady Tkachuk is just straight chaos with some absurd skill to match — top three “watchable” guy in the league for me currently. Tim Stutzle is already ridiculous and the future is looking equally ridiculous for this dude. Thomas Chabot on the back end is worth the price of admission all on his own, there's something about D.J. Smith that just has me pulling for him, and their goaltending is an absolute tire fire. Must watch TV right now for real.
But yeah, let’s move on now, this has been an important but hard pivot for me to embrace.
Arun Srinivasan: This is technically cheating, but I'm highlighting two stories.
Off the ice, the Seattle Kraken are building a truly diverse staff, have shown a genuine commitment to anti-racism efforts, have embraced thinkers who don't necessarily fit hockey's traditional mold and are a shining example in a league that has been vastly performative, or outright indifferent and negligent in their anti-racism efforts to date. With the possible exception of the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals, the Kraken are far and away the correct example to follow in a league that's often been clueless on how to handle any intersectional approach to anti-racism and making hockey safer, generally.
The Central Division race has been fascinating and far more competitive than expected. As a byproduct of the divisional realignment, the defending champion Lightning appeared to be a benefit from a weakened division, with the Bruins and Maple Leafs out of sight, but new challengers are standing in their way. The three-headed race between the Lightning, Hurricanes and Panthers will be fun to watch down the stretch, as the Hurricanes may be the Lightning's biggest overall test.
Which team currently outside the playoffs will make it in?
Cuthbert: Boy, it’s a long way to climb at the moment but I’ll roll with the Dallas Stars, who have had everything go wrong this season, it seems. Rick Bowness’s reigning Western Conference champions are eight points behind Chicago for the final postseason spot in the Discover ™ Central with five games in hand. Everything about the Stars’ performance has been painfully average to this point, but they are too talented for that to endure. If they raise their level with four head-to-head meetings with Chicago ahead (and four straight versus the Detroit Red Wings in April), Dallas seems like the best bet to crash the party.
Cantlon: I’m reluctantly going to take the Flames here, but more so by process of elimination than anything else. In the North Division, I don’t see either of the other two outside clubs — Ottawa or Vancouver — getting in. Around the league, I like the 'Hawks, 'Canes, Lightning and Panthers making it in the Central, and I really don’t see much changing in the East or West divisions, either.
With the jolt of life that a midseason coaching change often brings to a struggling squad, and that jolt being named Darryl Sutter, I think the Flames will ride straight-up fear to a playoff berth.
Srinivasan: With no strikingly obvious candidates in mind, I'll go with the Los Angeles Kings. After a few dismal seasons, Drew Doughty has returned to prove his haters wrong and though he's not the Norris Trophy-caliber rearguard he once was, Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are taking one last stand. Although Los Angeles will certainly be careful in its asset management, it also has arguably the deepest prospect pool in the league, which could be leveraged in a trade, or via midseason call-up – we're looking at you, Quinton Byfield!
Based on this season, would you rather start your franchise with McDavid or Matthews?
Cuthbert: Connor. Based on any season.
Cantlon: This question is chaotic and evil. McDavid, though. The best player in the world is always the right answer.
Srinivasan: Goal-scoring is at a premium, but McDavid is also gunning for the Rocket Richard this year, too and is right on Matthews' tail. McDavid is the league's preeminent playmaker, the fastest player ever to ever lace up a pair of skates, and one constantly wonders how he would do if he traded places with Matthews. McDavid has almost become the NHL's version of LeBron James in that he could be the MVP every year, and should absolutely be the choice this season. Although this shouldn't be a barometer this early in their respective careers, McDavid has advanced past the first round of the playoffs before, something that has eluded Matthews and Toronto's young core.
Which team has been the most fun to watch
Cuthbert: Shoutout to the Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers for entering this discussion for the first time ever, but it has to be the Colorado Avalanche. For the purists who can appreciate such things as the evolution of modern defense, and for the fly-by viewers who just want to be wowed by a dude like Nathan MacKinnon, this team has it all.
Cantlon: The Colorado Avalanche, and it’s not particularly close. I can give you MacKinnon and Cale Makar as reasons why.
Srinivasan: There are several good candidates here, the Avalanche are a shot-creation machine with a nearly unmatched tempo, the Lightning's high-end skill always makes them compelling and I often wonder how much fun it would be to clone Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch 11 times and fill out the roster accordingly. But for me, it's the Hurricanes because of their transition offense, because all their lines are actively encouraged to create risky chances and Andrei Svechnikov tries so many audacious plays every night.
Stanley Cup prediction
Cuthbert: Based on what we’ve seen and what’s possible at the deadline, it’s Colorado.
Cantlon: Since I so bravely and correctly picked the team with the most talent, grit, best coach and best goaltending to win it all in 2020, you’d be a fool not to take my prognostication seriously this season. That said, I am once again sticking my neck out and going with the Bolts to win it all.
Srinivasan: Tampa Bay might even be better than last season while Nikita Kucherov waits in the wings, and like Cantlon, I'm in full agreement that Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman will be bringing home some individual hardware. But it's just so hard to repeat, and for that reason, I'm taking another well-rounded team with two excellent goalies in the Vegas Golden Knights.
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