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The Off-Kilter NHL Midseason Awards

A win streak in Columbus, fresh faces in Toronto, predictable greatness in Pittsburgh, and more of the best, worst, and weirdest of the season so far

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Recently there has been much talk of an “unprecedented” battle between the barnstorming Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets. To kick off the New Year, the NHL scheduled not one but two outdoor games. An expansion team in Las Vegas prepares to snag players in an upcoming expansion draft. And discussion about whether the pros will play hockey at the Pyeongchang Olympics next year continues to take place.

Yep, it’s been a bit of an off-kilter NHL season, with new talent dominating, unusual locations rising, and lots of eyes turned toward the future even as the league celebrates its centennial anniversary. So as we begin 2017 just a few games shy of the season’s midway point, here’s a look at some of the league’s best, worst, most, and least so far.

Most Unexpected March Toward History

The Columbus Blue Jackets. Few would have anticipated that a New Year’s Eve tilt between the Blue Jackets and the Wild would end up being the holiday season’s biggest game. Both teams entered the night riding long win streaks — Columbus had won 14 straight, Minnesota 12 — and led by coaches, in John Tortorella and Bruce Boudreau, who have made several recent stops on the employment merry-go-round. The Blue Jackets won 4–2 and now stand two more wins away from tying the league record of 17 straight wins set by the 1992–1993 Pittsburgh Penguins. I can’t think of anyone who saw this coming.

The Blue Jackets have long been regarded as one of the more doomed franchises in the league, stuck in a pattern of bad trades and meh drafts and weak management. (For good measure, their arena is even built atop the grounds of a former penitentiary that was believed to be haunted.) And while the organization has made strides over the past few years, it still got off to its worst start in team history last season, fired head coach Todd Richards, and brought in the controversial Tortorella.

Tortorella has the face of Henry Winkler, a love for dogs, and his name on the Stanley Cup from Tampa Bay’s win in 2004. You’d think he’d be a crowd-pleasing kinda guy. But while his tenure as head coach of the Rangers included an Eastern Conference final appearance, it was tempered by his unpopular Charge of the Light Brigade shot-blocking strategy and a number of interactions with the New York press corps that got occasionally heated. (Sample headline from those halcyon days: “Tortorella defends shot blocks, slams ‘idiots.’”) When he was let go by the Rangers and picked up by the Vancouver Canucks, he said he had learned a lot about how to handle himself. But things there were even worse, and he lasted just a single season. This fall, he was the head coach of a hapless USA team that did nothing at the World Cup.

But things have been different in Columbus, where over the last month, the young Blue Jackets have visibly clicked. Their blue line includes 19-year-old Zach Werenski, who has been getting some rookie-of-the-year love, and 22-year-old Seth Jones, who by comparison is practically a veteran. Brandon Saad, 24, won two Stanley Cups as a Chicago Blackhawk and has 32 points this season; 22-year-old Alexander Wennberg has scored as well as scrapped.

The Blue Jackets and Tortorella ought to enjoy this while it lasts. One of the big reasons for the team’s success has been the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a .934 save percentage that will be difficult to maintain. The same thing has been going on with the Wild, whose goalie Devan Dubnyk has an even loftier save percentage of .941 (if he were to keep that up for an entire season, it would be the highest of all time). It’s why one Blue Jackets fan gave Saturday’s big game the apt, if pessimistic, nickname: #Unsustainabowl.

Runner-up: Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers. Jagr’s greatness is not a surprise, but it long ago seemed to have already come to an end. The pages of the 44-year-old’s extraordinary career were bound out of order. Those years he spent wearing a now-abandoned Washington Capitals color scheme? Those three seasons he played in actual Siberia? Those would usually be the sort of situations that precede a retirement. Instead, Jagr returned to the NHL in 2011 and, this season, passed Mark Messier to become second all-time in scoring. More importantly, the man is getting ever-closer to inspiring a full-fledged JagrCon.

Most Fun Rookie Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ fresh-faced foursome of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman. OK, Hyman is probably the weak link here, but I’ll include him because this adorable reality TV segment featuring these children on a Ferris wheel does too. It’s been awhile since I’ve been moved to say this, but … it … seems like a pretty fun time to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan?

When Matthews, the first-overall pick in this summer’s draft, opened his NHL career with a four-goal game against Ottawa, there was no question that Toronto had something special on its hands. But the development of Marner and Nylander this season has been just as exciting to witness, and the Leafs now have three of the top five rookie scorers — and two of the top two Bon Jovi sing-alongers — in the league on their team. In Sunday’s Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Leafs and the Red Wings, Matthews scored twice (including the overtime winner), while Marner added a goal and Nylander and Hyman picked up assists.

Runner-up: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. There’s a good chance Laine will win the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie, and not just because the Yung Leafs might split a few votes among themselves, or because Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will be unfairly overlooked. Laine took the Finnish league by storm and was drafted by Winnipeg second overall this summer, after Matthews. He’s a guy who definitely grooves to his own beat, and sometimes, yes, that might mean that he’ll score on his own net. (And not just score, but snipe the puck and then, dare I say, start to celebrate?!) But he’s probably made up for it with his other 19 goals and 12 assists this season.

Biggest Disappointment

The Buffalo team owned by Terry and Kim Pegula that hired a name-brand coach in 2015. No, the other Buffalo team owned by Terry and Kim Pegula that hired a name-brand coach in 2015. I would think Sabres coach Dan Bylsma is on a much longer leash than recently ousted Bills coach Rex Ryan, but let’s hope he is less impulsive about his car decor decisions either way. With young star Jack Eichel missing time earlier this season and Evander Kane living down to his critics’ expectations, the Sabres find themselves in a familiar spot: the basement of the Eastern Conference. It’s not even that the Sabres were supposed to be that good this season — they just definitely weren’t supposed to be this bad.

Runner-up: New York Islanders. Free John Tavares! One of the NHL’s finest players, Tavares showed a commitment to the Islanders franchise when he signed a six-year extension in 2011. But despite last season’s much-anticipated move to Brooklyn and some feints in the right direction, the Islanders have regressed this season — uncomfortable timing for everyone, given Tavares’s contract expires next season. (While he has said he would like to stay with the Islanders, that was before New York drifted toward the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.) Tavares is currently getting paid the same amount as Andrew Ladd, who the Islanders signed to a seven-year deal this offseason to provide an offensive boost but who didn’t score his first goal until nearly a month into the season. With the Islanders recently assigning goalie Jaroslav Halak to their AHL affiliate, it’s clear the organization has issues from top to bottom.

Best Use of Goalie Equipment by Carey Price

This save with his paddle:

Runner-up: This punch with his blocker:

Most Predictable Course of Events

For the next few weeks, there will be doubt over whether the NHL and the Players Association and the various hockey federations and the IOC will all be able to come to an agreement regarding NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Bill Daly, or maybe even Gary Bettman, will issue a low-key sarcastic statement, and everything will feel doomed. We will hear that things are “not looking good” and that various parties are being stubborn and that Alexander Ovechkin is NOT pleased.

Then a happy announcement will come saying that the players are going to go after all, and we’ll be reminded that life is just a series of negotiations. We’ve been here before.

Runner-up: The St. Louis Blues will lose in the second round of the playoffs to the Sharks; Brent Burns will buy a zoo.

Most Highly Respected yet Still Somehow Underrated Pittsburgh Penguin

Evgeni Malkin. When Sidney Crosby fed Malkin on the power play last week it was the big Russian’s 800th career point, a milestone reached by a few other not-bad Penguins: Mario Lemieux, Jagr, and Crosby. And when Malkin scored in overtime on New Year’s Eve to give the Penguins a 4–3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, he tied for the league lead in scoring with Edmonton Oiler sophomore sensation Connor McDavid. (Malkin has two more goals.) A knock against Malkin is often that he is injury prone, but the number of games he has missed only underscores his remarkable career: His points-per-game average of 1.177 places him 14th all-time. The only active player with a better ratio is Crosby.

Runner-up: Crosby is a bit more properly rated, but only slightly. Just more than a year ago, with the Penguins floundering and Crosby in a scoring drought, “What’s wrong with Sidney Crosby?” became a common question around the league. Crosby responded, in a matter of months, with a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, and a World Cup title for Canada. He missed the first six games of this season with concussion symptoms but leads the league in goal scoring with 26 goals in 32 games. (The two second-place scorers have 20 goals each despite having played in more games.) Still, he did not win the Lou Marsh award that is given annually to Canada’s best athlete, an honor that went to 16-year-old Olympic swimming medalist Penny Oleksiak. How rude!

Owner Most Likely to Hang at Mar-a-Lago

Vinnie Viola, Florida Panthers. Viola grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before it was cool, spent much of his young life hanging around an old-timey Italian joint called Bamonte’s, and got into West Point. Now, he takes the Florida Panthers — the franchise he bought in 2013 with a fortune he amassed mostly within the electronic trading space — to dinner at Bamonte’s and on “grueling” hikes near the military academy. If the NHL ever winds up executing the idea of holding an outdoor game at West Point, Viola would ostensibly want to be involved.

Now it’ll be harder to say no. On December 19, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Viola his Army secretary. The Washington Post article announcing the assignment said that Viola has “pressed for innovation in cyber warfare” and that he has called for a new sort of soldier: “We’ve got to find geeks who love their country,” Viola said. “At my company, I’ll gladly trade 10 pull-ups and five minutes on a run for 20 IQ points and heart.” That mentality is present within the Florida Panthers franchise, too. And while there has been a growing focus on statistical analysis in the era of Viola and his close associates, there have also been some growing pains.

“Guess the computer boys ran the numbers and it didn’t add up,” the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons tweeted with disdain after the Panthers fired well-regarded head coach Gerard Gallant in November over philosophical differences. Other critics scornfully brought up spreadsheets and “a life-size calculator.”

One thing such a device — which I imagine looks like a cross between Clippy and Jeet Heer’s Twitter avatar — might try to explain is why the Panthers have been legitimately unlucky this season. They are a top-10 NHL team at controlling puck possession, but have a league-worst shot percentage of 5.93 in five-on-five play, a rate that is so bad it’s not really sustainable. Furthermore, when it comes to the Panthers, a major object of blame is the inevitable fallibility of the human form. Nick Bjugstad missed the first month and a half of the season with a broken hand. Jonathan Huberdeau had an Achilles injury in October and isn’t expected back until February. Aleksander Barkov went down just a few days ago with a “mysterious injury.”

The Panthers reached the playoffs last season but currently sit a few points out of the race. They have the talent to get back to the postseason, but (pauses to receive a dot-matrix printout from a breathless computer boy) the math is not in their favor. Will Viola help make them great?

Runner-up: Jeremy Jacobs, who owns the Boston Bruins and the Delaware North concessions company, is hosting a $5,000-a-ticket dinner in Buffalo for Trump for America. Maybe he’ll be the next commish of the FDA!

Best Connor McDavid Goal

There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to Connor McJesus, the league’s next great one. (Like the OG Great One, he’s a hell of a passer who can also score from behind the goal.) Many of McDavid’s goals look alike (here you can see streaking breakaway after streaking breakaway), but during his first career hat trick, against the Dallas Stars, he netted three that were different — that came from second chances and keeping the puck in the zone and creating something out of nothing. The third one is the best: You have to watch it more than once to appreciate how he swoops in as backup, never breaks stride, and scores so devastatingly casually. As an American, my only solace here is that if the NHL eventually does the “Ryder Cup”–style tournament it’s been talking about, this guy can finally be an allied force.

Runner-up: Scoring on the Flyers and then chirping them? Automatic inclusion.

Most Whimsical Story

During the recent annual New Jersey Devils Dads Trip, young Miles Wood’s father told a childhood story about his son on Facebook Live: When Wood was a kid, he sent a hockey card to Ovechkin and threatened to bodycheck him someday if he didn’t respond with an autograph, which Ovechkin never did. When the Washington Capitals caught wind of this story before the Devils’ game in D.C., Ovechkin not only signed a photo for Wood, he met up with him after the game. Judging by this photo, we know Wood will be played by James Franco in the Disney movie about all this. Does that mean Jonah Hill plays Ovechkin?

Runner-up: Every NHL “emergency goalie” story is the best story, but this one is particularly great: After a series of unfortunate events led the Carolina Hurricanes to have to dress their equipment manager Jorge Alves as a fill-in backup goalie — Alves even continued to sharpen skates while wearing the bulky netminder gear — the Hurricanes took the hasty assignment one step further. With just over seven seconds to play against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Canes down 3–1, they let Alves into the game. “You’re starting to make me emotional,” he told a broadcaster who asked him what it was like to have officially played in an NHL game, and he wasn’t the only one.

Most Confusing Team

The New York Rangers have one of the NHL’s most prolific offenses; early in the season it became a routine event for them to score three or more goals. They have gotten everything they could have possibly hoped for and more out of rookie Jimmy Vesey, who picked New York during a mini free-agent sweepstakes after he graduated from Harvard and who has 11 goals this season. And he’s not even one of the nine players on the team who have 20 points or more. On Saturday night one of them, Chris Kreider, scored a hat trick in a winning effort. (It was against the terrible Avalanche, but still.)

But these offensive performances have covered up some troubling tendencies. The Rangers may have the best five-on-five shot percentage in the league, but they struggle to possess the puck. They score a lot but give up a lot, too. And their most reliable asset, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, has had a weird season that has included being benched for a string of games and pulled from several others.

Last season, the Rangers went into the playoffs with similarly unimpressive possession rates and fell quickly to the Penguins. They will need to figure out a new formula if they want this year to be any different.

Runner-up: The aforementioned terrible Avalanche. How can a team with Gabriel Landeskog have a minus-48 goal differential? Patrick Roy, a voodoo doll, and French expletives are definitely involved.