In the blink of an eye, we’re already more than halfway through the NHL regular season, as the All-Star festivities await this weekend. For teams like the Washington Capitals, Minnesota Wild, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the midseason break comes at a time when they’re all red hot. For teams like the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, and even the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s a time to regroup and try to bounce back for a postseason run if you’re the Blues or Bolts, or if you’re the Avs, figure out which players you’re going to sell off at the trade deadline.
With the All-Star game just two days away, it’s time for us to take a division-by-division look at our Midseason Awards, as I’ll go over each division’s best player, best rookie, and most surprising and most disappointing teams in addition to the most surprising and disappointing players. Starting today, I’ll focus on the Eastern Conference. Tomorrow, we’ll dive into the Western Conference.
Most Surprising Team: Toronto Maple Leafs
Heading into this season, the Leafs were expected to be improved, but weren’t expected to make a serious push for the playoffs. The team made it public that their rebuild was going to stay the course and that they were making the kids the focus of their rebuilding plan. That plan is about a year ahead of schedule. The hype around Auston Matthews was intense, but 2016’s top overall pick has not only survived the intense media glare of Toronto, but has thrived in it, leading the team in goals and points and putting himself on pace for over 40 goals. William Nylander and Mitch Marner have been just as crucial to this team’s success as rookies, while Frederik Andersen overcame a rocky start to establish himself as the team’s legitimate number one netminder. The Leafs are only one point out of third place in the Atlantic Division and one point out of the last wild card spot. There have been a few bumps on the road and some blown leads, but that’s normal for a team with as much youth as Toronto.
Most Disappointing Team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Many pundits, including yours truly, had the Lightning as the favorite to capture the second Stanley Cup title in franchise history. The Bolts were coming off back-to-back deep playoff runs, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2015 and coming within one win of getting back there in 2016. The entire core was intact for at least one more year, they re-signed Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos to long-term deals, Jonathan Drouin rescinded his trade request, and all seemed well. But injuries to Stamkos, Ben Bishop, and a host of others, as well as inconsistency, poor defensive play, a pair of goaltenders in Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy that have struggled at times, and an offense that has run hot-and-cold have all contributed to the Lightning’s season-long struggles. Despite all of that, as well as their penchant for allowing the first goal and a penalty killing unit that has been among the league’s worst, this is a team that is still in the mix for a playoff spot.
Best Player: Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
This is the division I struggled with the most for this category. Carey Price has been fantastic for the Canadiens, as always. Tuukka Rask is the main reason the Bruins are in a playoff position right now. The Lightning’s Steven Stamkos probably would’ve been in this spot had he not gotten hurt, as he was having a tremendous season before his injury. Auston Matthews has been incredible for the Leafs. Brad Marchand has been tremendous for the Bruins, while Max Pacioretty has been a force for Montreal. But I give Weber the nod, as a lot of people thought the Habs got the short end of the stick when they traded P.K. Subban to Nashville for Weber last summer. However, he has been a monster for them on their blue line, sitting third on the team in points and goals and placing second in assists while logging a ton of ice time and playing in all situations. As he goes, so goes the Habs’ blue line.
Best Rookie: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
He was touted as one of the most NHL-ready teenagers to make the jump straight to the NHL after being drafted, and he has exceeded the hype, scoring 23 goals and 39 points through 47 games. At the age of 19, he makes the game look very easy, and he’s already got the size to be able to handle the rigors of the league for many years to come. He’s on pace to break Toronto’s rookie scoring records and, barring injury or a major slump, appears to be a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Most Surprising Player: Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers
Marchessault was lost in the mix of Tampa Bay’s forward depth, and decided to leave as an unrestricted free agent last summer and head to Sunrise. He’s been one of the league’s biggest surprises (at least to those outside of the Tampa Bay area) despite the struggles of the Panthers this season, sitting second on the team in goals (14) and points (17). He has flourished while receiving more ice time than he ever got with the Lightning, proving to be a key contributor for a team that has had to deal with injuries, inconsistency, and a coaching change.
Most Disappointing Player: Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings
As a 19-year-old rookie, Larkin broke out in a big way, proving to be a dynamic, speedy player that was one of the few legitimate offensive weapons the Red Wings had while also making it to the All-Star game. This season has been the definition of a sophomore slump, as Larkin only has 18 points, 12 of them goals, and is a minus-14 a season after he finished plus-11. For a team that is struggling to keep their 25-year playoff streak alive, they’re going to need a lot more from him going forward if the Wings are going to extend that streak to 26 years.
Most Surprising Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
This one is an absolute no-brainer. While the hockey world thought the Jackets would be improved, nobody saw this coming. Second place in the Metro Division at 32-12-4. A goal differential of plus-46. Sergei Bobrovsky staying healthy and looking like a Vezina Trophy contender. The top power play in the league. But most of all, that 16-game winning streak that is now the second-longest in NHL history. If someone told me that was going to happen, I would’ve laughed at them. Even though Columbus has fallen back to Earth a bit over the last couple of weeks, they’ve proven themselves to be one of the top teams in the entire league. The only question remains is how far they can ride this magical season through the playoffs.
Most Disappointing Team: New Jersey Devils
It was tempting to put the Islanders in this spot, but after they let Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin walk in free agency, a decline really wasn’t all that surprising. But seeing the Devils at the bottom of the Eastern Conference at the midseason point is rather surprising, especially since Cory Schneider is one of the best goaltenders in the league. His numbers have been pedestrian, but he hasn’t gotten much help in front of him, as New Jersey is 21st in goals allowed per game while scoring the third-fewest goals per game in the league. And that’s even with the addition of Taylor Hall in an offseason trade with Edmonton. Hall has provided the team with some offense, but he can’t do it all by himself.
Best Player: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby missed the first six games of the season due to a concussion. It didn’t matter, as he still leads the league in goals (28), while sitting second in points (55) behind Connor McDavid. Although he’s only scored twice in his last 11 games, he’s still on pace for over 50 goals. For all the hype about so many of the league’s up-and-coming younger prospects, the 29-year-old Crosby has shown why he’s the best player in the world, playing some of the best hockey of his career at both ends of the rink. Not only is he on the best goal-scoring pace of his career, but he’s scored his goals in a wide variety of ways. If there’s a front-runner for the Hart Trophy, it’s Crosby.
Best Rookie: Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
A big part of the Blue Jackets’ resurgence has been the play of the 19-year-old product out of the University of Michigan. Werenski has turned into Columbus’s top blue liner, leading all rookie defensemen with 29 points (eight of which are goals), while turning into the team’s power play quarterback. His play is a big reason why the Jackets have the top-ranked power play in the NHL, and he gets a lot of ice time in numerous situations. His emergence has taken a lot of the pressure off of Seth Jones, and those two have become quite the pairing on Columbus’s blue line.
Most Surprising Player: Sam Gagner, Columbus Blue Jackets
Noticing a trend here? While there have been other players in this division that have been pleasant surprises, none of them comes close to what Gagner has accomplished. Gagner had bounced around the league with several teams and it looked like this would be his last shot. His career high in points was 49, set in his rookie season with the Edmonton Oilers. With just 33 in 47 games this season, he’s on pace to have a career-best season. He also has been putting up numbers at the bargain basement price of $650,000.
Most Disappointing Players: Steven Mason and Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers
I nearly went with Andrew Ladd of the Islanders, but when you hand a now 31-year-old a 7-year contract worth $5.5 million a year with a full no-movement clause, the disappointment isn’t all that surprising. I’m going to give the nod in this category to the Flyers’ goaltending duo of Mason and Neuvirth. A year ago, their play was a big reason why Philadelphia was able to make a late-season push and earn the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This year, it has been the exact opposite, as they have both struggled mightily. While the Flyers’ play in front of them hasn’t been the most stellar in the league, Philly hasn’t gotten enough timely saves from either of their goaltenders this season. They remain a contender for a playoff spot, but if their goaltending costs them a postseason berth, don’t be surprised if the Flyers hit the market in the offseason looking for a new goalie.
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