Yesterday, I took a look back at the midseason awards from the Eastern Conference, breaking it down division-by-division and looking at the best player and rookie, as well as the most surprising and disappointing teams and players from the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions. Today, we shift over to the Western Conference and look at the best and most disappointing from the Central and Pacific Divisions as the league prepares for it’s All-Star festivities this weekend.
Most Surprising Team: Minnesota Wild
Over the last few years, the Wild have always been a team that has been good enough to get into the playoffs and give the top teams in their division a hard. But they haven’t been quite good enough to be able to take that next step, especially due to the fact that the Central Division has been the toughest in hockey in that time (until the Metro stole that unofficial title this season). But while the bottom half of the Central has taken a step back, the Wild have jumped to not only the top of the division, but reside at the head of the class in the Western Conference. They’re tied for third in the NHL in goals scored per game and are second in goals allowed, while also being in the top 10 in power play and penalty killing. They haven’t gotten quite as much publicity as Columbus, but the Wild have been a model of consistency the entire season. Seven players have 30 or more points, with two of them (Mikael Granland and Eric Staal) that have more than 40. Captain Zach Parise isn’t even among that group, as he missed some time with injury. But most importantly, Devan Dubnyk is having a Vezina-caliber season (more on him in a bit). This could be the year we finally see the Wild make a deep playoff run.
Most Disappointing Team: Winnipeg Jets
I nearly put the Dallas Stars into this category, but they didn’t make any improvements to their goaltending, so they’re lying in the bed they’ve made. Coming into this season, the Jets boasted a roster that was young, but chock full of talent that, on paper, looked like they could make a return to the postseason after missing out a year ago. Despite boasting one of the most productive lines in hockey in Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers, the Jets are stuck in 12th place in the Western Conference due to a combination of general inconsistency, sloppy defensive play, and poor goaltending. The duo of highly-touted prospect Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson hasn’t been getting it done in the crease, leading to the Jets recalling Ondrej Pavelec, their former starter they had banished to the AHL. Patrik Laine has been a huge bright spot as a rookie despite missing a little bit of time due to a concussion. If Winnipeg can get some consistent goaltending, they’re a team that could make some noise down the stretch, as they have the talent to go goal-for-goal with anyone else in the league.
Best Player: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
Two seasons ago, Dubnyk finished third in voting for the Vezina Trophy. This season, Dubnyk appears to be the favorite in the running for the Vezina. First in the league among qualified netminders in save percentage and goals-against average at .936 and 1.88, respectively. While Minnesota’s offense has been balanced and productive this season, Dubnyk has been absolutely stellar in the crease, and is one of the main reasons the Wild are in the top spot in the entire Western Conference. Don’t be surprised if he finally takes home Vezina this season.
Best Rookie: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
Despite missing eight games due to a concussion, Laine still leads all rookies with 40 points and is second among rookies in goals with 22. The comparisons to Alex Ovechkin have been validated, as he has been a dynamic force with a blistering shot capable of scoring from anywhere in the offensive zone. Laine, along with Matthews, is one of the faces of the league’s current youth movement, and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the NHL’s marquee players for a long time and a guy the Jets will build around for many years to come.
Most Surprising Player: Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild
At the end of last season, Staal’s career was given up for dead. He had spent his entire career with Carolina, but the Hurricanes traded him to the New York Rangers at last season’s trade deadline since they wanted to get younger and he was going to be an unrestricted free agent. Staal finished the season with 39 points, his lowest since he had 31 in his rookie season in 2003-04. The Wild took a chance on him with a three-year contract worth $3.5 million a year, and the 32-year-old has rewarded Minnesota with a resurgent season, leading them with 16 goals and placing second on the team in points with 41.
Most Disappointing Player: Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues
During the summer, the Blues made the decision to trade Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames, freeing up Allen to be their undisputed number one goaltender. Elliott and Allen had been platooning, but the Blues decided that he would be their guy going forward. While Elliott has been struggling with Calgary, Allen’s season has been nothing short of disastrous. A 2.83 goals-against average and .897 save percentage aren’t good enough number for the AHL, much less the NHL, but what has been alarming is his play since the start of 2017. Over the span of six games, he was pulled four times, including twice in his last start, a 7-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on January 19th. St. Louis needs its goaltending to improve over the second half of the season, or they could be on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason party.
Most Surprsing Team: Vancouver Canucks
You’re reading this and you’re probably thinking, “What about the Edmonton Oilers?!” Look, the Oilers have Connor McDavid on their roster, and with Cam Talbot finally stabilizing their crease, their success may be a great story, but it’s not necessarily a surprise. The biggest surprise is the fact that the Canucks are just one point out of a playoff spot at the All-Star break. Many writers and media members (myself included), thought the Canucks would not only finish dead last in the Western Conference, but would be a strong contender for the number one overall pick in the draft. But thanks to some pretty solid goaltending from Jakob Markstrom and Ryan Miller, the emergence of Bo Horvat, some timely scoring from Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund, Vancouver is right in the middle of the playoff hunt. The Sedin twins are getting older and aren’t quite as productive as they once were, but are still two of the team’s top three point-scorers. This is a team that still has some holes on its roster and doesn’t have much in the way of depth, but head coach Willie Desjardins deserves a lot of credit for getting so much out of this group.
Most Disappointing Team: Los Angeles Kings
On opening night, the Kings lost starting goaltender Jonathan Quick to a groin injury that is expected to keep him off the ice until March. Despite such a devastating setback, goaltending has actually not been a problem for them, as Peter Budaj has done a very good job keeping Los Angeles in the playoff hunt. What has held them back has been their offense, or the lack of it, as they currently sit 22nd in the NHL in goals-per-game. Jeff Carter is one of the few players on this team that has provided any sort of an offensive spark, leading the Kings with 24 goals and 43 points. Tanner Pearson is the only other forward in double digits at 15 goals. Anze Kopitar has had an off year offensively, while Tyler Toffoli only has eight goals a season after he scored a career-high 31. The Kings are 11 points out of third place in the Pacific, but are only one point out of the last wild card spot in the Western Conference. They’re going to have to generate more offense if they’re going to squeak into the playoffs.
Best Player: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
What we’re seeing from McDavid this season is a surprise to absolutely nobody. Even though he missed 37 games in his rookie year due to a broken collarbone, the skill, speed, and offensive production that make him such a special player were quite evident when he was in the lineup. In his second season, he leads the league in assists (42) and total points (59) while playing in every game up to this point. He looks like a guy that will be the heir apparent to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as one of the faces of the NHL for the next decade or longer. There’s a very small group of players in the world that stand out and are instantly identifiable. McDavid is quickly becoming one of those players, as he’s so dangerous with the puck on his stick and has blazing speed. If he gets a step on you, he’s gone.
Best Rookie: Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Tkachuk just turned 19 on December 11, but he’s already conjuring up memories of his father, former longtime NHL All-Star forward Keith Tkachuk. Like his dad, Tkachuk has the size and the skill to excel playing a power forward game at the NHL level while also having a nasty edge to his game. He’s already spent time getting under the skin of the opposition while also sitting in a tie for third on the Flames in points with 31, 22 of them assists. He’s helped pick up some of the scoring slack from Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, as Monahan was going through a slump and Gaudreau missed some time with a broken finger. He appears to be a guy that’s going to grow into a productive, agitating player that Flames fans will love and everyone else will hate because he’s not on their team.
Most Surprising Player: Chad Johnson, Calgary Flames
A year ago, the Flames’ goaltending situation was a nightmare, as the foursome of Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, Niklas Backstrom, and Jonas Hiller collectively combined for a save percentage of .892. None of those four were brought back, so Calgary traded for St. Louis’s Brian Elliott with the intention of him being the starting netminder. The Flames also brought in journeyman backup Chad Johnson as a free agent to be the number two guy. Elliott faltered out of the gate and continued to struggle going into mid-November, so Johnson was given a chance to start and ran with it. He has stabilized the Flames’ crease and given them a chance to win on a regular basis. Calgary is currently in the final wild card spot in the Western Conference with 53 points, and they’ll need more of Johnson’s netminding in order to maintain that spot.
Most Disappointing Player: Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Perry is a former Hart Trophy winner and 50-goal scorer who hasn’t scored fewer than 33 goals in a non-lockout season since he finished with 27 goals back in 2009-10. He has finished with 30 or more seven times in his career. Through 51 games this season, he has just nine goals to go along with 26 assists. At the rate that he’s going, he’s probably going to finish with around 15 or 16, which would be his lowest goal total since his rookie year of 2005-06 when he tallied 13 in 56 games. He’s too good of a player to keep struggling to find the back of the net, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get on a hot streak in the second half of the season. However, when you look at his scoring ability and his proven production in the past, there’s no doubt he had a disappointing first half of this season.
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