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NHL mid-season takeaways: MVPs, favourite moments and bold predictions

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With the NHL schedule on pause for all-star weekend, the league is at its unofficial midway point. When the games get going again on Monday, we’ll be within the orbit of the trade deadline and the playoff races will be in full force.

Here, four Sportsnet writers (Emily Sadler, Sonny Sachdeva, Mike Johnston and Rory Boylen) share their favourite moments from the first half, who they think the league MVP is at this point, and make one bold prediction each on what’s ahead in the second half.

Rory Boylen

First half MVP: Connor McDavid

Best player in the league and, yes, most valuable to his team. Where would the Oilers be without McDavid? No. 97 has been held without a point just nine times this season and in those games the Oilers have a 2-7-0 record. It’s no coincidence that when the Oilers struggled through a 14-game stretch in December and January that McDavid was kept off the board six times and “slowed” to under a point per game pace. McDavid hits the break tied for third in overall points with 60 in 41 games, and second to only teammate Leon Draisaitl in points per game. The two Oilers stars lead the league in power play points. McDavid surely isn’t running away with MVP honours this season as a number of other candidates are making strong cases. But he’s my guy still and the fact he’s not the league scoring leader at the half shouldn’t take anything away from his performance.

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Favourite first half moment: Cale Makar throwing back to Bobby Orr

Colorado’s top defenceman is built different. He’s first in points per game among all NHL blueliners at the half (1.10) and his 18 goals are five clear of the next-highest scoring defenceman, Roman Josi. Those 18 goals are tied with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Ryan Hartman and Pierre-Luc Dubois, all forwards having excellent seasons. At this rate, Makar should be able to crack 30 goals and be the second defenceman in the salary cap era to get there — Mike Green scored 31 goals in 2008-09. Most of Green’s success came on the power play that season and Makar has actually already surpassed Green in even strength tallies.

Can Makar get to 35? 40? Paul Coffey, Doug Wilson and Bobby Orr are the only defencemen in NHL history to ever score at least 35 goals in a season; Coffey and Orr are the only ones to score 40. The most even strength goals by a defenceman ever is 30 by Coffey in 1985-86 — Makar has 14 so far.

He has been unbelievable to watch in the first half and my favourite moment is probably a tie between two of his goals in particular. One was an end-to-end power play marker that embarrassed a sleepy Flyers defence, and the other was this dirty OT winner over the Blackhawks.

Bold prediction for the second half: Edmonton Oilers are the last Canadian team standing

In picking up Evander Kane the Oilers did a lot to help their scoring depth and Dave Tippett’s ability to build out three more challenging lines. That was one problem the team had been facing. Another is goaltending. Yes, this position could absolutely sink Edmonton either before or during the playoffs. Mike Smith will return at some point and, when healthy, should be good enough. But if Edmonton has just gotten through its worst part of the season (which I believe to be true), and start rising up the standings over the next month, it’s hard to imagine GM Ken Holland won’t try to help his team’s situation in net by the trade deadline.

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Toronto is a playoff team with an extremely tough road through Round 1 no matter where they finish in the Atlantic. Calgary has been a nice surprise and could carry that into the playoffs as well. But I’m going with the Oilers getting to the post-season and winning at least one round — that may be all it takes to be Canada’s last team in 2022.

Mike Johnston

First half MVP: Igor Shesterkin

The New York Rangers likely wouldn’t be in a position to challenge for a Metropolitan Division title and home advantage in the opening round of the playoffs without Igor Shesterkin.

The 26-year-old Russian is 22-5-2 so far this season. That includes just three outings in which he allowed more than three goals. Shesterkin leads all goalies in goals saved above average and boasts the best quality starts percentage among goalies with at least 17 appearances, per hockey-reference. His .966 save percentage on unblocked shots leads all regular starters and his 4.10 wins above replacement is best in the NHL at his position, per Money Puck. The Rangers have as many one-goal wins as any team and Shesterkin is a huge reason for that. There are 14 teams with a points percentage better than .600 and the Rangers score the fewest goals per game (3.02) among those teams.

Carey Price (2015) is the lone netminder to win the Hart Trophy in the salary cap era. Miikka Kiprusoff (2006), Roberto Luongo (2007), Martin Brodeur (2007), Henrik Lundqvist (2012) and Sergei Bobrovsky (2018) are the only other goalies to finish top-three in Hart voting the past 16 seasons, so it’s rather uncommon for goalies to gain ground in the Hart race. An argument against Shesterkin is his relative lack of playing time. He ranks 17th in time one ice among goalies and would be considered quite the longshot in the MVP race.

Favourite first half moment: Nazem Kadri’s emergence, all-star recognition

Nazem Kadri has been a rather consistent forward ever since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2013. Skilled, productive, well-rounded. Sure, his reputation has taken a few hits over the years due to the handful of boneheaded, reckless hits he dished out resulting in multiple suspensions – several to the detriment of his own teams in the post-season – however his breakout 2021-22 campaign has been something to behold and it’s changing the narrative around the seventh-overall pick from 2009.

One of just 10 players on pace for a 100-point campaign at the halfway point, the Colorado Avalanche centre ranks second in league assists, sits third in the scoring race, is one point shy of tying his previous career high, and he’s tracking to set a new personal single-season goal record (as long as he ends up playing at least 72 games at his current pace).

Suffice it to say Kadri, who was initially omitted from the All-Star Game roster before fans voted him in, has fully found his stride in his third season in Colorado and his impact on his teammates is extending beyond the ice as well.

Kadri’s previous best season, statistically, was his 32-goal, 61-point effort in 2016-17 when he was still with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was during the first year of his soon-to-expire contract and he’s bookending that deal with his most impressive numbers yet. Could he be simultaneously pricing himself out of town? Kadri, a pending unrestricted free agent, has a team-friendly $4.5 million AAV and is due for a hefty price hike before next season.

Bold prediction for the second half: Panthers win Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup

The Presidents’ Trophy winner has only won the Cup twice in the cap era and it hasn’t happened since the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. Ironically, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s back-to-back championships followed their Presidents’ Trophy-winning 128-point season which famously ended in a first-round sweep.

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This year, the Florida Panthers will stave off their state rival in both the standings and in a playoff series to finish first in the NHL and go on to win the franchise’s first championship. While we’re at it, Jonathan Huberdeau will become the first player in Panthers history to record 100 points in a season.

Sunshine State shenanigans in many past seasons has amounted to lots of ugly, meaningless hockey late in the regular season. That’s far from the case this year. In fact, either the Panthers or Lightning have occupied first place in the Atlantic Division for more than 90 per cent of the season, including every day since mid-December.

Florida will also need to outpace the Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes, both of whom could leapfrog the Panthers in the league standings if they win enough of their games in hand.

Sonny Sachdeva

First half MVP: Johnny Gaudreau

There are a handful of worthy candidates who’ve put up absurd performances over the first half of this season, but I have to show some love to Jonathan Hockey.

It’s been a tumultuous couple years for Gaudreau since he broke out with that 99-point performance back in 2018-19. Despite that elite campaign (which saw Gaudreau finish on par with Nathan MacKinnon, and above scoring-race mainstays like Steven Stamkos and Mitch Marner), his Flames continued to flounder in the playoffs, heaping plenty of doubt on the team’s top star and eventually prompting GM Brad Treliving to bring in old-school, hard-nosed Darryl Sutter to turn things around.

It seemed like Sutter’s arrival might be the end of Gaudreau’s high-flying ways. Instead, it’s only made him better. The winger’s got 54 points in the bag through 42 games, putting him on pace for more than 100 for the first time in his career. At even-strength, no one has outscored the Flames winger, who sits tied atop that leaderboard with Alex Ovechkin. Defensively, he’s become a new player, a truth backed up by a closer look at the numbers and by his own no-nonsense coach offering a rare bit of praise by calling him “one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now.”

This is the best we’ve ever seen from Gaudreau, and after all his club has been through over the past couple years, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Favourite first half moment: The Dishigan

Even watching it back for the hundredth time, it’s wild. Trevor Zegras behind the net, Sonny Milano posted up out front. And then a moment of confusion as the puck’s flipped up and over the cage, floating from the former to the latter, occupying air-space where pucks just don’t go. Zegras’ own reaction to the alley-oop goal summed up what everyone else was thinking after he and Milano pulled it off, the Ducks centreman going full Home Alone with his hands on his head in shock as teammates skated over to celebrate.

Brilliantly dubbed ‘The Dishigan’ by Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne, it was an incredible display of gutsy, skillful creativity. And while it drew plenty a curmudgeonly response from hockey’s old guard, it was a taste of exactly what the game needs right now: a generation of young stars brimming with elite skill, enough confidence to use it, and no fear of pushing the boundaries of what NHL offence looks like.

There will always be grinders, structured systems, defensive battles, and all those blue-collar elements of the game we know and love. But I’m all for what we’re seeing in Anaheim, too. The kids are here to play, and they’re ridiculous.

Bold prediction for the second half: Kris Letang becomes a Norris Trophy finalist

Alright, maybe not wins. As good as Letang looks, Cale Makar still exists, which is a key thorn in the side of all other Norris hopefuls. But I’ll offer up the bold prediction that the Penguins veteran finishing among the finalists.

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Perennially underrated and largely overlooked for the majority of his career — as has been the case for many a Penguin playing in Sidney Crosby’s shadow — Letang’s been dominant in 2021-22. He’s scoring at just a shade under a point-per-game clip, his 41 points through 42 games ranking among the top five defenders in the game. At even-strength, his 25 points are tied for second-most in the league, on par with Makar, while his near-26 minutes of ice per night rank among the league’s elite at his position as well.

While Letang’s long been one of the game’s most gifted offensive defencemen, some occasionally suspect decision-making in his own zone over the years has held him back from consideration as one of the league’s best at his position. He’s transformed that aspect of his game this year. Though still burned here and there, Letang has on the whole been a far more consistent, reliable version of the two-way force that’s led the Penguins’ back end for the past decade and a half — a turn of events that’s been crucial to the team’s success this season as they’ve dealt with a rash of injuries that included both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin early on.

Will he win the Norris? Probably not, given the back-end performances we’re seeing elsewhere in the league. But amid a career year from the 34-year-old — no small feat given he has a few Cup rings and a past Norris nomination already under his belt — he’s earned a spot in the conversation.

Emily Sadler

First half MVP: Alex Ovechkin

Honestly, I’m not even sure what to say about the play of Ovechkin through the first half of the season. I seriously feel like we’re witnessing history with every goal he scores on his way to catching Wayne Gretzky’s record. I’m just here to enjoy the ride.

Favourite first half moment: Canucks hire Emilie Castonguay

We talk a lot about the need for diversity in hockey, but don’t necessarily see a lot of action in that regard at the highest level. So, it was thrilling to see the Canucks announce the hiring of former agent Emilie Castonguay last month. In doing so, the Canucks just brought in one of the brightest hockey minds in the game — and they’re showing the rest of the league that yes, you can (and absolutely must) think outside the box if you want to grow. To me, this hiring is just the beginning of so many doors being opened to people who haven’t historically been given a shot to shine in a role like this. I can’t wait to see where Castonguay and the Canucks go from here.

Bold prediction for the second half: Zegras sprints down the stretch and takes the Calder with him

Over the course of the first half of the season, Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras dazzled us with some truly awesome hockey feats, reminding us all that hockey is, at its core, fun. But things start to get serious down the stretch in Anaheim… as in, serious about challenging for the top spot in the Pacific and a long playoff run. And Zegras is a driving force in that. As the points rack up, so does his position in the Calder race and what was once a trophy destined for Detroit’s Lucas Raymond is quickly and decisively claimed by Zegras.

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