Having recovered from a slow start, the Canucks are on top of the Western Conference and the league's overall standings. Goalie Roberto Luongo's game has rounded back into form (19-8-4, 2.33 GAA, .920 SP), their defense has improved, the offense — led by the Sedin twins — topped the league in goals per game, and their power play and penalty killing ranked first and fourth, respectively. Head coach Alain Vigneault has this team firing on all cylinders and performing like the dominant club it was predicted to be at the start of the season.
Expectations were low for the rebuilding Oilers entering this season, and sure enough, they're dead last again in the West. But unlike last season, Oilers fans have a reason for optimism. The play of rookies Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark suggest these kids have a bright future, which can only benefit this club down the road. Prior to being sidelined by a recent ankle injury, defenseman Ryan Whitney was not only the Oilers' leading scorer but was on pace for a career high in assists and points. The Oilers still have work to do, but with their young foundation, improvement appears to be on the horizon.
NHLI via Getty ImagesAndy Devlin
When Jay Feaster took over as general manager in December, speculation was rampant the Flames would start overhauling the roster, possibly by moving stars Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. Feaster dismissed that talk. With 40 points in 42 games, the Flames still have a shot at getting back into the tight Western Conference playoff race, but they face a long, tough road ahead. The next month could determine whether Feaster starts to dismantle the roster or keeps it intact for a chance at a playoff spot. Iginla, Kiprusoff and defensemen Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano and Robyn Regehr won't be dealt, but the same cannot be said for most of the current lineup.
Getty ImagesJustin K. Aller
Columbus Blue Jackets
A promising start has come undone in recent weeks. The team won only six games in December, lost four straight to begin January and is a club in turmoil as its playoff hopes appear to be slipping away. Disgruntled defenseman Mike Commodore has demanded a trade, but his salary and style of play could prove difficult to move. GM Scott Howson has been busy shopping for a skilled puck-moving defenseman for weeks without success. If the Jackets fail to pull out of their tailspin soon, it could kill their playoff chances and push Howson from buyer to seller by the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
St. Louis Blues
After a strong start, the Blues find themselves locked in a tight battle with several teams for one of the final playoff berths in the West. Injuries to forwards Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie and David Perron hurt the Blues' offensive game, and attempts to find affordable help via trade or free agency proved fruitless. Management appears resolved to wait for most of their injured scorers to return, meaning they'll need to rely on goaltending and solid defensive play to hold down the fort for the time being.
It's obvious the impact of last summer's salary-dumping deals are still being felt by the defending Stanley Cup champions, especially when injuries sidelined Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at various times in the first half. GM Stan Bowman said a month ago he'd like to add depth to his blueline and at center, but with just more than $300,000 in available cap space, there's little he can do. The Blackhawks offense remains potent, but it's their defensive game and goaltending that has suffered so far. The champs still have the talent to make the playoffs, but at this point, it appears chances for a Cup repeat are slim.
San Jose Sharks
Halfway through this season, the Sharks find themselves in the unaccustomed spot of battling for one of the final playoff berths in the conference. Their usually high-scoring offense — led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley — is 14th overall in goals per game (though they've got the third-best power-play). While their defense has the sixth-best shots-against per game, they're 15th overall in goals-against and 19th overall on the penalty kill. The Sharks have the depth in talent to be better than they are, but they need to address consistency and more experienced blueline depth.
It's been a disappointing follow-up so far to their 50-win, 107-point performance last sason. Their defensive game has struggled at times, but it's their lack of offensive production that is the biggest concern. Only two forwards — team captain Shane Doan and winger Scottie Upshall — have scored 10 or more goals this season. And GM Don Maloney has warned changes could be made if the offensive numbers fail to improve. Given how tight the standings are in the conference, the Coyotes must get better at both ends of the ice if they're going to return to the playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings
Predicted by some to be a Stanley Cup contender, the Kings are barely clinging to one of the final playoff berths in the conference at midseason. Consistency has been a significant problem — look no further than their recent five-game losing skid after a four-game winning streak in late December. They're believed to be in the market for a veteran scoring winger with leadership skills, but such a player remains elusive. The Kings already have notable talent in forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, and goalie Jonathan Quick. Ultimately it'll be up to that core to help themselves and their teammates get back on an even keel.
It has certainly been a wild season so far for Minnesota. A lousy start led to speculation head coach Todd Richards might be fired, their offense has sputtered at times, key players such as Guillaume Latendresse and Marek Zidlicky have been sidelined, age appears to have finally caught up with winger Andrew Brunette, and a nagging hip ailment has dogged starting goalie Niklas Backstrom. The good news is Martin Havlat is healthy and productive, Mikko Koivu is on pace for another 70-plus point season, defenseman Brent Burns is having a career year, forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard has finally returned after being sidelined for nearly two seasons, and backup goalie Jose Theodore has been outstanding in relief of Backstrom. It's still touch and go for the Wild, but with a little more health and consistency, they should remain in playoff contention.
It's been a season of fits and starts for the Ducks. They're among the lowest-scoring teams in the league (21st in goals-per-game average) but possess the sixth-best power play. They've given up the second-most shots per game but have been bailed out by Jonas Hiller's strong goaltending. Winger Teemu Selanne continues to play well, but they've lost captain Ryan Getzlaf for four to six weeks to a serious nose injury. The Ducks have been scrapping and battling to hang on to a playoff berth in a very tight conference and at this point still seem to be searching for consistency.
For much of the first half of this season, the young Avalanche team was winning games primarily through its offense and clutch goaltending. But approaching midseason, the Avs appear to have stumbled. Despite being fifth overall, they've won only two of nine games between Dec. 21 and Jan. 8. Starting goalie Craig Anderson has not been as strong between the pipes as he was a year ago, but he's gotten little help from his defense. Only the Edmonton Oilers and Atlanta Thrashers have given up more goals so far while their penalty killing is third-worst in the league. The Avs will have to improve their defensive play if they want to rebound in the second half.
After spending most of the first half bouncing up and down in the very tight conference standings, the Predators are fourth overall at midseason. Credit their usual strengths — strong coaching, goaltending and team defense — for this achievement, but also their remarkable determination in the face of adversity. Their anemic offense was dealt a serious blow losing forwards Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat and Cal O'Reilly to injury, yet the Preds rattled off five consecutive victories leading up to the midseason point. Given the closeness in the standings, the Predators cannot be assured of maintaining their position in the second half, but their defense and determination should keep them in the playoff hunt.
Entering this season, the Stars weren't expected to be playoff contenders, but at midseason, they're leading the Pacific Division and holding down third overall in the conference. The Stars have confounded the experts so far thanks to the high-scoring first line of Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson and James Neal along with the clutch goaltending of Kari Lehtonen. The recent improvement in their overall team game should be bolstered by the addition of veteran winger Jamie Langenbrunner. Despite uncertainty over their ownership and Richards' future with the club beyond this season, the Stars are in good shape heading toward the second half.
Detroit Red Wings
Despite an aging lineup and injuries to key players, the Red Wings remain among the very best teams in the league, challenging the Vancouver Canucks for the conference lead. Head coach Mike Babcock's vaunted puck-possession system has played a major role in the Wings' success. Credit should also go to the on-ice leadership of veterans such as Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Brian Rafalski and 40-year-old team captain Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings will only improve when Pavel Datsyuk, Dan Cleary and Brad Stuart return from injury.