Detroit — If there’s been one major story in the NHL during the first half of the season, it has to be the Vegas Golden Knights.
Expansion teams aren’t supposed to be all that good.
It’s a collection of players other teams didn’t want, with no real stars, veterans slipping into oblivion, and young players with marginal potential.
But with an elite coach like Gerard Gallant molding this squad, the Golden Knights entered Wednesday’s schedule with the a Western Conference-leading 29-10-2 record (60 points), best in the West, and having gone 9-1-0 over its last 10 games.
The Golden Knights aren’t slipping back to the pack. They are surging.
The talk now isn’t are the Golden Knights going to make the playoffs? It’s whether this team is actually good enough to, dare we say, contend for the Stanley Cup?
There’s been other headlines.
Notably, the play of the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning — 65 points, five more than Vegas – which has rebounded from an injury-plagued campaign last season to dominate the first half.
The Lightning have leading contenders at three of the individual awards — and it wouldn’t be surprising to see all three there at season’s end.
The rookie class, not expected to be deep or impactful at the beginning of the season, has instead been surprising.
But, when it’s said and done, the first half has been all about those Vegas Golden Knights.
Who would have thought?
Here is a look at the NHL at the halfway mark in the schedule.
HART TROPHY (MOST VALUABLE PLAYER)
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay: Kucherov has been the most dominant player on the league’s best team throughout the first half. As good as he was last season, Kucherov has taken another step forward in his career this season (NHL-leading 27 goals, 60 points) while playing with a healthy Steven Stamkos (who merits MVP consideration as well). Truthfully, you could consider a third Lightning player, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, as well.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay: It’s great to see a talent like this healthy and producing at a tremendous clip (35 assists, 52 points), given his health problems the past few seasons.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado: The Avalanche are suddenly relevant again, and MacKinnon’s resurgence is a major reason why. MacKinnon is tied for second with Stamko in the NHL in scoring (52 points) and singlehandedly pushing the Avalanche toward the playoffs.
NORRIS (BEST DEFENSEMAN)
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay: Another Lightning player who deserves serious consideration for a major trophy. Hedman’s career has taken off the past three years and this season he easily can be mentioned among the NHL’s best defensemen. Hedman is averaging 26 minutes on the NHL’s best team and is plus-24 in plus-minus rating.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles: Admittedly, Hedman only has a slight edge on Doughty, who is a major reason for Los Angeles’ resurgence. Doughty is playing over 27 minutes a game on the NHL’s best defensive team and is plus-21.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis: He’s always on the cusp of these sort of lists, maybe not the leader or favorite, but always considered among the NHL’s best. On a very good Blues team, Pietrangelo is playing dominant hockey (25 minutes, 28 shifts, 30 points).
CALDER (BEST ROOKIE)
Charlie McAvoy, Boston: This defenseman is averaging 23 minutes and has 21 points with a plus-14 rating, and watching him, you can’t believe you’re watching a 20-year-old. The other two rookies mentioned here are fantastic. But McAvoy is a big reason the Bruins are as good as they are.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver: Give Boeser his due. With his 22 goals, he’s on pace for about 45 goals. Boeser has been compared to Brett Hull in terms of his release and shot, and that’s not a crazy comparison.
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: There was a lot of under the radar hype for Barzal, and as it turns out, it was much warranted. He’s been tremendous, with 39 points (26 assists) and is solidifying the Islanders’ lineup. Great vision on the ice.
JACK ADAMS (COACH OF THE YEAR)
Gerard Gallant, Vegas: This should be a unanimous selection at the end of this season, if Vegas plays even close to the level it is currently. What Gallant has done with this expansion team is incredible. Mind-boggling.
John Hynes, New Jersey: Any other season, Hynes would warrant much more consideration. The Devils weren’t expected to be nearly this good, maybe another two of three seasons away from contending. But there they are, right now, right in the mix.
Bruce Cassidy, Boston: Many people felt the Bruins would be competitive and in the thick of the playoff race. But probably not challenging for the NHL’s best record. Or being a Stanley Cup contender. Cassidy has worked multiple rookies into a tough lineup.
VEZINA (BEST GOALTENDER)
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay:The statistics are almost like something out of a video game. Vasilevskiy has a .933 save percentage (has been above .940), has a 27-6-2 record, 2.10 goals-against average. The Lightning handed Vasilevskiy the starting job this season — and he’s done pretty well with it.
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles: Quick has returned from a significant knee injury last season and is back among the NHL’s best with 19 victories and a 2.31 GAA.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville: Rinne keeps rolling along, with a .924 save percentage and winning 21 games for a team that’s aiming to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
SELKE (BEST DEFENSIVE FORWARD)
Patrice Bergeron, Boston: At some point in the future, the NHL might rename this award after Bergeron. If he continues at this season’s level, Bergeron would win his record fifth Selke. And deservedly so (58 percent faceoffs won, plus-20, 32 points, 20 minutes).
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia: It’s nice to see Couturier gaining attention because he’s been an underrated player for some time. With 23 goals, he’s strengthened his offensive element.
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles: Another player who always seems to be on this list, but after a lengthy slump a season ago, Kopitar is back to being a two-way force.(44 points, plus-15),
Vegas: Again, its amazing what this expansion team is accomplishing. It’s a rag-tag collection of talent other teams didn’t want to keep, and they’ve been absolutely superb, with Gallant’s coaching guiding the way.
Boston: To a certain extent it’s a classic Bruins team. A bunch of hard-working, grinding players with a core of highly skilled talent. They could really be difficult in the playoffs.
New Jersey: A lot of NHL fans probably still don’t know half the names on this roster. But they are having an outstanding season.
Edmonton: So many analysts had the Oilers picked to win the Western Conference and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Boy, were a lot of people wrong.
Montreal: An injury to goaltender Carey Price didn’t help, and now defenseman Shea Weber is out, but the Canadiens have simply not got it going right from the start.
Chicago: The Blackhawks have had a brilliant run but age really does seem to be catching up — along with so many salary cap issues over the years.
Anaheim: The Ducks have stayed very much in the race despite some significant injuries. Those players are returning, and the Ducks will only get better.
Washington: Every season the Capitals dominate in the regular season, they falter in the playoffs. They’re beginning to dominate again. Maybe this time, in the spring, they can keep it going.
Winnipeg: Most people probably don’t know, or care, but the Jets have a terrific collection of younger talent. It wouldn’t be shocking at all to see them roar through the West come playoff time.
Malcolm Subban, Vegas: Many scouts felt this goaltender was a washed out 1st-round pick of Boston’s. Has resurrected his career with the Golden Knights (11-2, 2.38 GAA, .918 SVS).
Josh Bailey, N.Y. Islanders: Where in the world did all this scoring come from (38 assists, 50 points)? Another of the Islanders’ young, exciting offensive talent.
William Karlsson, Vegas: It’s safe to say Columbus regrets leaving Karlsson off its protected expansion list (22 goals).
Jonathon Toews, Chicago: Toews still has the intangibles, but for much of the first half, his offensive production (31 points) isn’t close to what the Blackhawks have needed.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa: A significant reason the Senators have struggled as badly as they have is because of Karlsson’s ragged season. The minus-16 plus-minus is eye-opening.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh: The two-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender hasn’t bailed out the Penguins on nights when they’ve needed him thus far (.903 save percentage).
MOST LIKELY TRADED
Evander Kane, Buffalo: Arguably the biggest name rental on the market. Kane has 16 goals, he’s fast and big and can play with an edge, but consistency and off-ice issues have been troublesome.
Mike Hoffman, Ottawa: Offense is at a premium, and Hoffman has always been able to score goals (slumping to 10 this season). One of the hardest shots in the NHL.
Mike Green, Detroit: If (when?) the Red Wings fall out of the playoff picture, this offensive defenseman — and July 1 free agent — will be a much in demand rental at the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Vegas: This has become a fascinating story. Can the Golden Knights actually contend in the playoffs? This expansion team?
Edmonton front office/coaching staff: The Oilers h ave been brutal of late, leaving GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan both in danger of losing their jobs.
Pittsburgh: Can the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions — make the playoffs?