NHL at the break: Larkin leads impressive rookie crop

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Jaromir Jagr still dominating at age 43?

The Panthers leading the Atlantic Division?

Sidney Crosby looking average?

Halfway through the NHL season, there have been surprises — good and bad.

The Panthers and their unexpected success, led mainly by the ageless Jagr, has been one of the good.

The underachieving Penguins, headed by the mysteriously ordinary Crosby, has been among the bad — although recently Pittsburgh has begun to resemble an elite team.

But there have been other surprises.

■The Stars have roared near the top of the West with an exciting roster former Red Wings executive Jim Nill has constructed.

■The rookie class could be one of the deepest and most talented in memory, led by Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin.

As for the Red Wings?

New coach Jeff Blashill has kept the young roster in contention, overcoming a few hurdles in the quest for a 25th consecutive playoff berth.



■Patrick Kane, Chicago: There was speculation his turbulent summer would cause him to lose focus. It hasn’t. Kane leads the league with 73 points and had a 26-game point streak.

■Jamie Benn, Dallas: Benn and linemate Tyler Seguin are like those Heisman Trophy candidates in college football from the same team or conference that cancel each other out. Both have been sensational, although Benn has a more varied game.

■Braden Holtby, Washington: G Carey Price won this award last season, and Holtby is making a strong argument to be considered. Holtby is among the leaders in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.929) and leads with 30 wins.

Top defensemen

■Erik Karlsson, Ottawa: He’s never going to be considered an elite defensive defenseman, but Karlsson’s strength is handling the puck and making explosive plays many wouldn’t consider possible.

■Drew Doughty, Los Angeles: One of the reasons the Kings season took off was because of Doughty’s domination at both ends. He’s not exciting offensively, but his defense is superb. It’s surprising Doughty hasn’t won a Norris.

■John Klingberg, Dallas: A 2010 fifth-round pick, he’s emerging into a dangerous offensive defenseman. He’s not at Erik Karlsson’s level, but Klingberg is getting there.

Top rookies 

■Dylan Larkin, Detroit: He gets the edge because of his ability at both ends and the fact he’s five years younger than Chicago’s Artem Panarin. Don’t underestimate Larkin being among the league-leaders in plus-minus rating, either.

■Artem Panarin, Chicago: The Blackhawks needed young players to fill some holes, and Panarin has done his share. He leads this rookie class in most offensive categories.

■Max Domi, Arizona: The Coyotes have been a surprise team, and a big reason is the excellent play of Domi, son of former Toronto fighter Tie Domi. The younger Domi plays a more skilled game.

Top coaches 

■Gerard Gallant, Florida: Most analysts believe the Panthers would be an excellent team at some point — but Gallant has molded them a season earlier than anticipated. Gallant, a former Red Wings player, relates well to veterans and young players.

■John Hynes, New Jersey: The Devils were expected to be near the bottom of the East with a roster that lacked experience, skill or depth. But the youngest coach in the NHL at age 40 has the Devils in the thick of the chase.

■Dave Tippett, Arizona: It seems as if Tippett’s name is yearly in this discussion but there’s a reason for that. He’s an excellent teacher, capable of getting the most of a young team, and pushing them to be better than they appear on paper.

Top goaltenders 

■Braden Holtby, Washington: The Capitals have a lot of talent and an excellent coach, but a big reason they have the NHL’s best record is because their goaltender is playing out of his mind.

■Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles: The Kings are among the Cup favorites because of Quick dominating. Few goaltenders are as flexible and athletic, and Quick has the experience (two Stanley Cups).

■Cory Schneider, New Jersey: The lineup in front of him isn’t great, but Schneider has done a wonderful job keeping the Devils in contention. There was pressure with a middling roster and having to follow Martin Brodeur, but Schneider has handled it well.

Best defensive forwards

■Patrice Bergeron, Boston: One reason the Bruins are in contention is because of their improved defensive play. Bergeron is a vital reason why, with his work in the face-off circle, penalty kill and ice time (shorthanded).

■Mikko Koivu, Minnesota: He is making his mark hanging around the league leaders in faceoffs, ice time and various defensive statistics. Always valued for his leadership, Koivu also produces offensively and has developed into one of the best two-way forwards.

■Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles: In this era of excellent defensive forwards, Kopitar is another of the established veterans who have propelled the Kings near the top of the standings. He’s a big center who wins important face-offs and loves the challenge of stopping opposing stars.


■Florida: The Panthers have surged atop the Atlantic Division a year (or two) ahead of schedule. The talent is there, and the mix of veteran leadership (Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Brian Campbell) appears just right. It’ll be interesting to see how the Panthers handle the pressure.

■Toronto: A surprise from the perspective no one thought the Maple Leafs would be remotely within the playoff chase. They won’t make the playoffs, but give Mike Babcock credit for making them more competitive than expected.

■Arizona: This roster doesn’t overwhelm anyone, and the goaltending has been shaky, but somehow coach Dave Tippett has a handful of extremely good rookies and a handful of established veterans thick in the playoff hunt.


■Jaromir Jagr, Florida: He will be 44 in a month, and he’s among the team leaders with 15 goals and teaching linemate Alex Barkov how to be dominant. Jagr was thought to be on his way out about four or five seasons ago.

■Taylor Hall, Edmonton: A surprise from the fact Hall has managed to stay healthy and been a nightly force, which was becoming to be a real question mark with the 2010 No. 1 pick.

■Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey: Always in the background in Anaheim, Palmieri has been given a larger role and responded with a 20-goal season, leading the non-descript but gutty New Jersey roster.


■Tampa Bay: After an exhilarating run to the Stanley Cup Finals, many expected the Lightning to continue the sprint. But injuries, slumps, and contract issues have made making the playoffs a question mark.

■Columbus: Many analysts believed this would be the surprise team to watch — a young and talented roster ready to contend in the East. But an eight-game losing streak to open the season forced a coaching change, a cornerstone (Ryan Johansen) has been traded, and the Blue Jackets seem to be in rebuild mode.

■Anaheim: A roster with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Cam Fowler shouldn’t be struggling to make the playoffs.


■Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh: He is 21st with 41 points (17 goals), and only recently begun to look like the dangerous and elite Crosby.

■Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim: Three goals through 43 games. Dating to last season, there was a stretch of 40 games Getzlaf hadn’t scored an even-strength goal. Talk about slumps.

■Ryan Kesler, Anaheim: Twenty-three points (11 goals) in 47 games and a minus-nine rating are not acceptable statistics for the one-time Selke finalist.


News Sports Writer Ted Kulfan ranks the 30 NHL teams at the All-Star break:

■1. Washington Capitals: One of the few teams that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. But past playoff failures still follow this organization.

■2. Chicago Blackhawks: Even as defending Stanley Cup champs, their performance has surpassed expectations.

■3. Los Angeles Kings: The class of an average Pacific Division, and looking like the team that’s won two Stanley Cups.

■4. St. Louis Blues: Typical Blues —strong regular season. But can they advance in the playoffs?

■5. Florida Panthers: Good blend of experience and youth. Can that youth sustain this level of play?

■6. Dallas Stars: Have come down to Earth a bit after a sensational start. Could be a future powerhouse.

■7. Tampa Bay Lightning: They have begun to settle down and look like last season’s Stanley Cup finalists. Shocking if they miss the playoffs.

■8. Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin and Petr Mrazek have been outstanding, and this team wins low-scoring games. Jeff Blashill has done a fine job.

■9. Boston Bruins: This could be a dangerous team. You get the feeling they’ll make a significant move, and they may not have played their best hockey.

■10. N.Y. Rangers: The window of opportunity could be closing on this veteran nucleus that hasn’t had its best of seasons.

■11. N.Y. Islanders: There’s too much young talent here not to be a factor. Goaltending is a question mark, though.

■12. Anaheim Ducks: After an inexplicably poor start, the Ducks are beginning to roll. There’s too much star-quality talent not to be a Stanley Cup threat.

■13. San Jose Sharks: Tough to figure these Sharks. Look like Stanley Cup contenders for a few weeks, then pitiful for weeks after that.

■14. New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider is an elite goaltender, but the offense has been non-existent for impressive new coach John Hynes.

■15. Minnesota Wild: Same old story with the Wild. After all these years and free agent signings, they still don’t score nearly enough.

■16. Montreal Canadiens: It all depends on when G Carey Price (lower body) returns.

■17. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins have shown signs in recent weeks of looking like the dangerous team everyone thought they would be.

■18. Carolina Hurricanes: Closed the first half demolishing Chicago and looking every bit the playoff team no one thought they would be.

■19. Nashville Predators: This team hasn’t played to its potential, including G Pekka Rinne. But this also wouldn’t be a team anyone would want to play early in the playoffs.

■20. Ottawa Senators: Have never been able to sustain a high level of play, and they’re poor defensively. Last season’s miracle run to the playoffs looks like a mirage.

■21. Arizona Coyotes: Utterly shocking the Coyotes are in playoff position this late. Coach Dave Tippett has done a masterful job.

■22. Philadelphia Flyers: Things were looking good until a three-game losing streak before the break. The Flyers aren’t bad, but they have a big hill to climb.

■23. Colorado Avalanche: Credit coach Patrick Roy with developing a young roster into a playoff contender. But defensively, this team needs help.

■24. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets will be a major story up to trade deadline day because of key potential free agents.

■25. Vancouver Canucks: The Sedin twins and G Ryan Miller (Michigan State) have carried this team. They’re playoff contenders because the Pacific is so weak.

■26. Calgary Flames: A major disappointment.

■27. Edmonton Oilers: Can the Oilers make a playoff move once Connor McDavid (collarbone) returns?

■28. Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have come down to Earth after a decent run most of the season. Rookie Jack Eichel is heating up.

■29. Toronto Maple Leafs: Give Mike Babcock credit for making this roster more respectable than anyone would have imagined.

■30. Columbus Blue Jackets: What appeared to be a playoff team during training camp has been one large, disappointing mess.