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NHL's first half belongs to Tampa Bay Lightning, young stars

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The Tampa Bay Lightning own the NHL's best record at 37-10-2 for 76 points.

Detroit — The Tampa Bay Lightning are winning practically every night they play.

Alex Ovechkin seems to be scoring a goal every time he plays.

And players like Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane continue to dazzle, while young stars like Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon and rookie Elias Pettersson are making huge names for themselves.

Welcome to the NHL regular season at the All-Star break, where the intriguing headlines have come nightly with a variety of entertaining teams and stars.

The Lightning, though, have been dominant in every way.

Some analysts felt maybe Tampa could take a small, small step backward after the disappointment of losing in the third round of the playoffs with much the same roster last season.

But, if anything, the Lightning are using that motivation to reach new heights, and possibly challenge for some of the best single-season records the NHL has ever seen.

A roster led by high-scoring forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, defenseman Victor Hedman, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been entertaining and dominant.

Young players such as Gaudreau, MacKinnon and Pettersson, among others, have dazzled fans with powerful offensive performance.

Gaudreau and MacKinnon both play on some of the NHL’s best offensive lines, with several such units around the league producing big offensive statistics.

Here is a look at the NHL, heading into its All-Star break:

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL in points (78) and assists (56).

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay: Arguably the best player on the best team in the NHL. What Kucherov has done this first half is remarkable, statistically, highlighted by his league-leading 78 points and 56 assists (also has 22 goals). Kucherov could have made a strong case last season and didn’t get this award.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary: Watching Calgary’s top scoring line operate these days is a work of art. But it’s Gaudreau who seems to initiate every big play, with 44 assists and 73 points (with 29 goals). He also has an impressive plus-20 rating.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado: Another key member of a dynamic scoring line, MacKinnon has 70 points (27 goals, 43 assists) and has followed a stellar season from a year ago. MacKinnon consistently backs up opposing defenses with his speed.

Also considered: Connor McDavid, Edmonton; Alex Ovechkin, Washington

Norris (best defenseman)

Mark Giordano, Calgary: On a Flames team that is arguably the West’s best, Giordano is driving the charge with a 41 assists, 52 points, and a league-best plus-29 rating, while playing almost 25 minutes per game (24:45).

Morgan Rielly, Toronto: Rielly has consistently developed into a force, with 35 assists and 48 points this season and a plus-23 rating, while averaging one point per game.

John Carlson, Washington: The pressure of a new, big contract with the defending Stanley Cup champions hasn’t affected Carlson, who is plus-19, with 38 assists, while playing 25:20 per game.

Also considered: Seth Jones, Columbus; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh

Vancouver's Elias Pettersson appears to be the runaway choice for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top rookie.

Calder (best rookie)

Elias Pettersson, Vancouver: With all due respect to all rookies, this race isn’t even close. Pettersson (23 goals, 21 assists) has been a revelation with his powerful shot, instincts, and savvy. He will star for a very long time.

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo: The No. 1 overall pick has been lost somewhat in Pettersson’s dazzling play, but Dahlin hasn’t been a disappointment at all. Playing 20:43 a game, with 26 points and a plus-6 rating, Dahlin truly is a generational talent.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa: This hasn’t been an easy season in Ottawa, with much controversy swirling off the ice, and losses on the ice. But Tkachuk has played passionately every game, with 23 points and an even rating on a defensively challenged team.

Also considered: Miro Heiskanen, Dallas; Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal

Jack Adams (coach of the year)

John Cooper, Tampa Bay: The Lightning are, essentially, lapping the field with 76 points (37-10-2) and making a bid for some legendary records. Cooper has deftly managed a talent-laden roster, which rebounded nicely from a Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals defeat last spring.

Barry Trotz, New York Islanders: Weren’t the Islanders supposed to be a wreck, after John Tavares left for free agency? It hasn’t happened, as Trotz — who guided Washington to the Stanley Cup in June — has transformed the Islanders to a division-leading team. And with 63 points, the Islanders have more than Toronto (60), with Tavares. Nobody would have predicted this.

Bill Peters, Calgary: Peters got somewhat of a raw deal in Carolina, where he should have gotten some more time. In Calgary, he’s molded a roster that’s ready to win to the top of the Western Conference.

Also considered: Phil Housley, Buffalo; Claude Julien, Montreal

Vezina (best goaltender)

Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson has faced 1,330 shots so far this season.

John Gibson, Anaheim: He’s facing an incredible number of shots (1,330) and has almost singlehandedly kept the Ducks in contention despite numerous roster issues.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville: Those whispers about Rinne maybe losing some of his edge have been grossly overestimated. His .915 SVS and 2.47 GAA rank high on the leaderboard.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay: The backbone of the league’s best team, Vasilevskiy is having another brilliant season, highlighted by a .925 save percentage.

Also considered: Robin Lehner, New York Islanders; Frederik Andersen, Toronto

Selke (best defensive forward)

Mark Stone, Ottawa: It’s time this all-around winger deserves to be recognized for his performance. On a bad defensive Senators team, Stone leads the league with 76 takeaways and, incredibly, has a plus-15 rating.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida: Playing well over 20 minutes per game, Barkov has 67 takeaways, only has 2 penalty minutes, and has become a defensive stopper along with his offensive talents.

Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis: O’Reilly is helping the Blues make a late run, with a 58.8 faceoff percentage and 55 takeaways and plus-13 on a mediocre defensive team.

Also considered: Patrice Bergeron, Boston; William Karlsson, Vegas

Surprise teams

New York Islanders: No one, nobody, believed the Islanders were going to actually be better without John Tavares. But coach Barry Trotz has gotten the Islanders to the point where they’re leading the Metropolitan Division, and greatly tightened this team’s overall defense.

Vegas: A surprise only in the fact the Golden Knights have followed their magical expansion team with another playoff-caliber season. So, last season was no fluke.

Montreal: Many analysts felt the Canadiens were going to be challenging for the top overall pick, not a playoff spot. But Montreal is right in the thick of playoff contention behind several solid surprises.

The Colorado Avalanche's Mikko Rantanen has 50 assists and 73 points this season.

Surprise players

Mikko Rantanen, Colorado: He plays on that powerful Avalanche line, so he’s going to get points, but still, 50 assists and 73 points are huge, huge numbers.

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay: Point has taken his game to yet another level, with 30 goals at the break. And he’s a restricted free agent, too. The Lightning will have salary-cap issues.

Elias Lindholm, Calgary: Do the Hurricanes regret trading this guy away? You have to believe so, after Lindholm has produced 21 goals and 58 points.

Disappointing teams

Philadelphia: Going through seven goalies because of injuries and poor performance hasn’t helped. But this Flyers roster should be doing much better than it is (44 points).

Florida: Injuries haven’t helped, but the Panthers were expected to be much closer to the playoffs than they are with 48 points.

Toronto: They have 60 points, so it’s been a mild disappointment. But the Leafs have appeared broken these last few weeks and offense has been in short supply.

Disappointing players

Jamie Benn, Dallas: The Stars’ front office was critical of Benn and teammate Tyler Seguin last month, and probably, rightfully so. Benn ranks 93rd in scoring with 18 goals and 16 assists, with a cap hit of $9.5 million.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey: The reigning league MVP has been bothered with injuries, but only 11 goals in 33 games and a minus-6 rating have marked a disappointing season.

Max Pacioretty, Vegas: With 14 goals and 27 points in 38 games, and a minus-5 rating, Pacioretty (Michigan) has struggled while Tomas Tatar, sent to Montreal, has starred.

Most likely traded

Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia: An unrestricted free agent on July 1, the Flyers will begin their rebuilding with getting a bounty for his aggressive winger who has underperformed this season.

Matt Duchene, Ottawa: It seems unlikely the Senators will reach a new contract extension with Duchene, so a playmaking center with 45 points will strengthen some team quickly at the deadline.

Micheal Ferland, Carolina: Ferland doesn’t get a ton of attention, but he’s a tough wing with 25 points, is out of the Hurricanes’ price range, and be an effective rental for some contender.

Keep an eye on during the second half

Tampa Bay: The Lightning are on pace to finish between 124-128 points. The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens had 132 points, and had 129 the year after. The Lightning could challenge point totals.

The trade deadline: With so many teams already out of the playoff chase, there could be a glut of sellers — way more than the amount of buying teams.

The Red Wings: With a rugged schedule, especially in March — could the Wings actually finish with the worst record and have the best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick?

Twitter: @tkulfan