The NHL has reached the midpoint of its 2017-18 season. We’ve handed out our choices for the traditional, legitimate postseason awards. Now it’s time for a collection of bests, worsts, surprises and bummers.
Here is the ESPN NHL midpoint awards supplement:
The five best things about the Vegas Golden Knights, who were the best thing about the first half of the season:
5. The sweat they’re generating from bookmakers as they near a playoff spot, a division title and potentially a Stanley Cup.
4. The emergence of William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, Columbus Blue Jackets castoff, as the best example of a talented player given an increased role and rising to the occasion, with 22 goals in 41 games.
1. The unparalleled bond with Vegas fans that has played a central role in a record-shattering 18-2-1 home record. Well, that and the Vegas Flu.
Tampa Bay Lightning at Vegas Golden Knights, Dec. 19, 2017. The Knights were facing their biggest “is this for real?” test, as the Lightning entered the game with the NHL’s best record. Tampa jumped to a 2-0 lead. Vegas rallied to take a 3-2 lead. Tampa tied the game with 3:53 left in regulation. Vegas won with 2.3 seconds remaining on a Shea Theodore goal. As Steven Stamkos said: “It was the best atmosphere I’ve played in a regular-season game in a long time.”
The most disappointing team of the 2017-18 season
With due respect to the impending firing of the Montreal Canadiens‘ general manager, the Edmonton Oilers take this one. Their 18-22-3 face-plant featured everything from goaltender Cam Talbot turning back into a pumpkin to the league’s worst penalty kill to calls for coach Todd McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli to be fired to a team that traded Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle suddenly discovering it needs scoring help on the wings. It’s a sad development for the franchise until their inevitable draft lottery win nets them Rasmus Dahlin.
Most inspiring trend
The scoring surge. Through 650 games, teams are averaging 2.95 goals per game. That’s the highest scoring average the NHL has seen in more than a decade. Games have been more entertaining, and no lead feels safe. More, please.
Most disturbing trend
The coach’s challenge for offside calls on goals continues to be problematic, both philosophically (in taking away goals that logically should count) and in practice, with some reviews being outright wrong.
Hot take that will look freezing cold by May
“The Pittsburgh Penguins look too tired to win a third straight Stanley Cup.” The Capitals will remember this take after the Penguins win Game 7 in the first round.
Best free-agent signing (so far)
Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs. It didn’t come cheap, and they might end up regretting that third year, but Marleau has 15 goals in 43 games and is second on the Leafs in primary points (goals, primary assists) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (1.59). He’s streakier than old wipers on a windshield, but the intangibles he has brought to the Leafs this season can’t be underestimated. “It’s scary how good he’s been for us,” coach Mike Babcock said.
Biggest free-agent bust (so far)
Steve Mason, Winnipeg Jets. The bad news is that Mason is 2-6-1 with a 3.47 goals-against average and a .899 save percentage in 10 games. The good news is that his crash landing in Winnipeg opened the door for Connor Hellebuyck to ascend to his rightful throne as Jets starter.
The Nashville Predators‘ acquiring Kyle Turris in that three-way Matt Duchene dance. Turris has cooled down a bit recently, but GM David Poile addressed a glaring need for his team (second-line center) well before trade deadline prices went nutty. Turris has 19 points in 26 games with the Preds.
Worst sense of timing
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s using the occasion of his team’s NHL centennial celebration outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens to cast doubt on everything from Erik Karlsson‘s future with the franchise to the future of the franchise in Ottawa. “Happy birthday, NHL … I got you this box of relocation panic.”
The best and worst hockey thing on Twitter
The Vegas Golden Knights Twitter feed, which managed to amuse fans with goofy jokes …
the other team just got whistled for too many men on the ice and now they are not allowed to have enough men on the ice��
– Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) January 3, 2018
… while also sparking widespread condemnation for misogyny after it announced the Boston Bruins’ lineup as a series of girls’ names, in a joke taken from the movie “Ted,” and having to apologize to the Nashville professional hockey writers after claiming they were cheering in the press box:
– Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) December 9, 2017
Ah, growing pains.
Most surprising statistical season, positive
Josh Bailey of the New York Islanders scoring 50 points in 42 games. His career high was 56, in 82 games last season. Besides the future of the franchise and its franchise player being secured through a new arena at Belmont Park, he’s probably the most heartwarming story of the season for the Islanders.
Most surprising statistical season, negative
Matt Duchene of the Ottawa Senators. When he was waiting for a trade out of Colorado, 10 points in 14 games was understandable. When he arrived in Ottawa, 10 points in 26 games is unacceptable. Duchene is on pace for his worst offensive season in the past six.
Radko Gudas has been given a game misconduct for this play.
What do you think of the call? pic.twitter.com/tTL5rQnF6E
– NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 17, 2017
Kevin Bieksa is Alain Vigneault and Radko Gudas is the Rangers playoffs chances pic.twitter.com/0aOYiMIEBP
– Matt (@Shattykirk) October 25, 2017
And Kevin Bieksa of the Anaheim Ducks on Andy Andreoff:
– Joe Rizzo (@rearnakedchoke) November 26, 2017
You’ll believe that a man can fly.
Best off-ice NHL news
Key Arena refurbishment was approved in Seattle, and the expansion exploratory process appears well underway for an NHL team there. Let the realignment debates begin!
Worst off-ice NHL news
From positioning the Olympics as a labor negotiating tool to the bonus structure of player contracts, it doesn’t take a telescope to see the work stoppage approaching. Unless, of course, Gary Bettman and the owners take inspiration from the NBA and somehow manage to avoid it.
Most depressing injury
Jaden Schwartz‘s getting off to the fastest start of his career with the St. Louis Blues (35 points in 30 games) because he’s finally healthy and then going on the shelf for six weeks with an ankle injury.
Most inspiring comeback
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The offensive exploits of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos get infinitely more attention than their goaltender, despite the fact that he has bailed out the Bolts on a dozen occasions during their NHL-best start.
Anaheim Ducks. On paper, before the season, this looked like a Stanley Cup contender. Now, it’s a bubble team with some atrocious even-strength numbers that is being kept alive by John Gibson like it’s a “Weekend At Bernie’s” remake.
The Edmonton media vs. former Oilers and current Oilers fans. Or, failing that, Ducks and Kings because it’s always Ducks and Kings.
Worst reminder that our bodies are ever-decaying vessels
Jaromir Jagr‘s notching one goal in 22 games with the Calgary Flames, as the 45-year-old hockey deity appears to have reached the sunset of his career — well, his NHL career. One assumes that Jagr will still be playing in Europe until around age 70.