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NHL at the break: Ted Kulfan's contenders, surprises and disappointments

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The NHL season has reached its All-Star break, which symbolizes the halfway point.

Never mind that most teams have played about eight to 10 games more than half the schedule.

Edmonton Oilers forward Conor McDavid has bounced back from a knee injury to lead the NHL in scoring.

So what have we learned to this juncture?

That many questions remain to be answered in the next couple of months.

Teams such as Washington, St. Louis, Boston and Tampa looks capable of winning the Stanley Cup — but also face nagging questions that could derail their expected runs.

There appears to be a growing number of sleepers that could be getting healthy, or hot, at just the right time — a group that includes Pittsburgh, Columbus, Colorado and Dallas.

Some of the best stories have come from individual stars who continue to dominate.

Connor McDavid (Edmonton) has returned from a scary-looking knee injury to star yet again, and veterans such as Patrick Kane (Chicago), Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin continue to marvel.

Another exciting aspect of this season has been the spectacular play of rookie defensemen Cale Makar (Colorado) and Quinn Hughes (Vancouver), each of whom is playing beyond his age.

The tight races and lack of clear-cut favorites promise to make the stretch run one of the best in recent memory.

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

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon has 30 goals and 72 points in the first half of the NHL season.

Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player)

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado: The Avalanche have had some key injuries and the goaltending hasn’t always been outstanding. But MacKinnon, with 30 goals and 72 points, has kept the Avalanche near atop the standings with an electrifying brand of hockey.

McDavid:  If the Oilers get to the playoffs, there’s a good chance McDavid leaps to the top of this list and earns the Hart. McDavid has returned from a scary knee injury to lead the NHL in scoring and lift the Oilers into playoff contention.

David Pastrnak, Boston: For almost two seasons now it seems Pastrnak simply scores a goal every night. Every team knows they have to stop the Bruins’ top line, and no one can consistently do it. His 37 goals lead the NHL.

Also considered: Artemi Panarin, N.Y. Rangers; Brad Marchand, Boston.

The Washington Capitals' John Carlson is the front-runner for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top defenseman.

Norris Trophy (best defenseman)

John Carlson, Washington: At this point of the season there isn’t much of a race for the Norris. Carlson has been on a prolific scoring pace with 60 points, his defense hasn’t been affected, and he is a major reason the Capitals have the NHL’s best record.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis: The defending Stanley Cup champions haven’t been totally healthy, but Pietrangelo — who is unsigned beyond July 1 — has played outstanding hockey and kept the champs focused.

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina: Because of a major leg injury, Hamilton’s season is done. But let’s give Hamilton credit for an outstanding half season with 14 goals and a plus-30 rating.

Also considered: Seth Jones, Columbus; Roman Josi, Nashville.

Calder Trophy (best rookie)

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes, a Michigan product, appears to be chasing Colorado's Cale Makar in the race for NHL rookie of the year.

Makar: This award is Makar’s to lose the remainder of the season. Makar starred in a brief playoff appearance last spring, and has continued to be spectacular with 37 points while playing more than 20 minutes per night.

Hughes: Hughes is likely Makar’s lone threat. The former Michigan star has 29 assists and 34 points and, like Makar, is quarterbacking the power play like a savvy veteran.

Victor Olofsson, Buffalo: The Sabres’ rookie forward was enjoying an outstanding season with 16 goals and 35 points, but will have missed 4 to 6 weeks with a lower-body injury.

Also considered: Dominik Kubalik, Chicago; Martin Necas, Carolina.

Jack Adams (coach of the year)

Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh: The fact the Penguins are firmly in the playoff chase despite Crosby and Malkin having missed weeks, and numerous other injuries, this has been a masterful job by Sullivan in cobbling this roster into contention.

John Tortorella, Columbus: What Tortorella has done with a roster that was decimated to free agency and with two untested goalies has been remarkable. This is a scary team if it reaches the playoffs.

Dave Tippett, Edmonton: With pretty much the same personnel, the Oilers were a disaster last season. Tippett has instituted accountability and professionalism on a young roster that needed it.

Also considered: Paul Maurice, Winnipeg; Craig Berube, St. Louis.

St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington has collected 22 victories so far this season.

Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)

Jordan Binnington, St. Louis: Binnington has showed last season’s magical run wasn’t a fluke. He has 22 wins, and has solidified what was a troublesome position.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh: Matt Murray has been inconsistent, so Jarry has stepped into a larger role and has 16 victories, with a sparkling 2.16 goals-against average and NHL-best .929 save percentage.

Ben Bishop, Dallas: Bishop continues to produce solid season after solid season, leading the Stars into playoff position. His 16 victories and .927 save percentage highlight a strong season thus far.

Also considered: Darcy Kuemper, Arizona; Tuukka Rask, Boston.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis: This award as sort of evolved into the league’s best two-way forward, and O’Reilly has become one of the NHL’s best the last two seasons. O’Reilly has been dominant at both ends of the ice and been a key leader on a powerful St. Louis team.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston: Don’t underestimate Bergeron not making a second-half charge. A fifth Selke award would move Bergeron ahead of Montreal Hall of Famer Bob Gainey for most all time.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa: Two statistics stand out regarding the surprising Pageau. His 19 goals are a career high for a Senators’ team that desperately has needed the offense. Also, Pageau’s plus-13 rating on a poor defensive team is really eye-opening.

Also considered: Aleksander Barkov, Florida; Sean Couturier, Philadelphia.

Stanley Cup contenders

St. Louis Blues: The defending champion looks primed and capable of winning it two  years in a row. There aren’t many weaknesses in the lineup, and the Blues play a playoff winning brand of tough, physical  hockey.

Washington Capitals: They’ve won 33 of 49 games thus far and have been machine-like in doing so. The goaltending has been a minor concern, but otherwise, this lineup is deep, experienced, and talented.

Tampa Bay Lightning: They didn’t look like contenders for much of the season, but the last month has been much different. Tampa could be getting hot at the right time.

Surprise teams

Edmonton Oilers: Former Red Wings general manager Ken Holland didn’t add many pieces last summer, but the professionalism and calmness Holland has brought to the organization has completely transformed the Oilers.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Many analysts felt this was going to be one of the weakest teams in the NHL. Instead, the Blue Jackets look like a dangerous team on the verge of the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks appeared to be another year or two away from being contenders. But the young players have matured quicker than expected, and underrated acquisitions have starred.

Surprise players

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida: Playing in a non-traditional hockey market, Huberdeau hasn’t received the credit or notoriety he deserves. With 65 points, he’s enjoying a banner season for a rapidly improving team.

David Perron, St. Louis: Perron has found a home in St. Louis with team-leading 21 goals and 49 points, including a staggering eight game-winning goals.

Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus: Merzlikins has a .926 save percentage and stabilized a goaltending position that looked weak after the free-agent loss of Sergei Bobrovsky.

Disappointing teams

The Vegas Golden Knights' disappointing first half cost head coach Gerard Gallant his job.

Vegas Golden Knights: Some big-name veterans haven’t produced as expected, the goaltending has been subpar most nights, and because expectations haven’t been met, coach Gerard Gallant surprisingly lost his job.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Everything appeared to be in place for a long, successful playoff run, but they’re outside the playoff picture today. The team defense is simply too weak for this team to be championship-caliber.

San Jose Sharks: The goaltending hasn’t been good enough, some veterans have gotten old, and there isn’t enough depth. The next few years could be rough.

Disappointing players

Taylor Hall, Arizona: Hall started the season poorly in New Jersey, and has only marginally picked it up in Arizona (13 goals, 40 points). The pressure is on Hall to lead the Coyotes into the playoffs.

Jamie Benn, Dallas: For a player with a $9.5 million salary cap hit through 2024-25, Benn has been a major disappointment with only 12 goals and 23 points.

Brent Burns, San Jose: Signed through 2024-25 at an $8 million salary cap hit, Burns has a minus-23 rating and only 23 points. He’s no longer in Norris Trophy discussion.

Most likely traded

Chris Kreider, New York Rangers: The Rangers are going to keep rebuilding, and Kreider will attract bountiful offers from teams like Boston and Tampa Bay, among others, for a big winger who can score.

Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles: He’s not a big name, but Toffoli will be an unrestricted free agent and he’s played a lot of playoff games in L.A.

Brenden Dillon, San Jose: The defenseman has played a lot of big games in San Jose and appears to be the best defenseman available in a suspect group of available players.

Keep an eye on during the second half ...

Pacific Division: Five teams are within one point of each other atop the division. The race is sure to go to season’s final days, and it will be exciting.

The trade deadline (Feb. 24): There simply aren’t very many big names likely to be available, and maybe not many trades to be made.

The Red Wings’ chase: Three seasons ago Colorado completed the 2016-17 season, with the NHL’s worst record, (22-56-4, 48 points) with a minus-112 goal differential (166 goals scored, 278 allowed). The Wings (12-35-4, 28 points; minus-90 goal differential) are challenging all those marks to be the worst salary cap era team.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan