Handing out midseason grades in a 56-game season presents its own sample-size challenges. Handing them out in a season in which some teams have yet to actually hit the midpoint, due to postponed and rescheduled games, only complicates things.
That established, here are the 2021 NHL midseason report cards for all 31 teams, including our picks for potential class president and which students might flunk out by the end of the term.
Note: Emily Kaplan graded the East and Central teams, while Greg Wyshynski graded the North and West clubs.
Players: B. The biggest surprise is how stellar the defense has been, despite losing key veterans in Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy has held down the fort as the new No. 1, but young players have fit nicely into new roles. Boston’s top forwards, as usual, are putting on a show, but GM Don Sweeney explained it well to reporters this week: The 5-on-5 offense is not where it needs to be, and scoring — specifically depth scoring — is “a major concern.” Boston is 27th in scoring goals at 5-on-5 this season. The Bruins, overall, have been slumping to lose their grip in the East Division race, now sitting comfortably in fourth place.
Coach: B. Bruce Cassidy is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NHL. He has shuffled lines to find more offensive consistency, but hasn’t been able to find it yet. Cassidy isn’t afraid to call out his team’s for poor effort — like he did after a 4-0 drubbing by the Rangers last week — and he typically gets the right response.
GM: B-plus. GM Don Sweeney is looking smarter for letting Chara and Krug walk — despite how difficult it was on the players, as well as the fan base. The young blue line has held up, but the GM might get defensive reinforcements at the trade deadline anyway. Craig Smith has been a good cultural fit, but isn’t chipping in as much productionwise as hoped. It’s one of the reasons the Bruins are still shopping for offensive help.
Class president: Brad Marchand. He has led the Bruins with 33 points in 26 games, and his coach says he should be getting love for the Selke Trophy — as well as the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Said Cassidy: “I think there’s probably other players in the league with better numbers that people will gravitate towards, but if you look at what Marchy brings to this team in terms of offensive ability, scoring, penalty kill, power play, 4-on-4, overtime and he’s got an ‘A’ on his sweater, he’s become much more of a leader in terms of setting an example in practice, in games. I think he should be in the conversation.”
In danger of failing: Jake DeBrusk has been a popular target for fans, and was demoted to healthy scratch this month. “Feels like everyone thinks I’m done around here,” he said. If nothing else, he’s carrying a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the season. DeBrusk, 24, said he took the scratching personally — and he responded by scoring a goal in his next game back.
Overall grade: B. The Bruins are a veteran-led team, but the changes this season mean it’s taking more time than usual to find their stride. It’s fine for now as long as they get clicking before the playoffs.
Players: F. The expectation was that the Sabres would take a step forward this season — especially with improved center depth and a hungry Taylor Hall on Jack Eichel‘s wing. Instead, the team took two steps backward. It’s not just that the top-paid players (Eichel, Hall, Jeff Skinner) haven’t put up production. Eichel, the team’s emotional heartbeat, was playing hurt, and now is sidelined indefinitely. Lapses by some of the young defensemen (Henri Jokiharju, Rasmus Dahlin) have been jarring. At midseason, the Sabres had scored the fewest goals at 5-on-5 of any team, while giving up the second most.
Coach: F. The Sabres fired coach Ralph Krueger at the midseason mark, with plenty of justification. The team had lost its way. His lineup decisions were befuddling, players didn’t perform well in his system and regressions (specifically Skinner) were hard to ignore. Krueger blamed the struggles on losing confidence, but unfortunately that’s something that also would fall on him; and it should be noted, he literally wrote a bestselling book on motivation: “Teamlife: Beyond Setbacks to Success.”
GM: F. The Sabres firing Krueger is only a bandage to bigger issues that have paralyzed the organization over the past decade. After all, this is the third coach they’ve cycled through since 2017, after the team also found issues with Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley. Kevyn Adam, a longtime Sabres employee, is in his first year as GM, and he’s in a tough spot. His team needs to rebuild, he might need to trade players, and mass layoffs during the pandemic still have the team without a full scouting staff.
Class president: When he was healthy, Linus Ullmark (15-4-2 record and .919 save percentage) was the Sabres’ best player. Offensively, Sam Reinhart (11 goals through 26 games) has carried the load. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer.
In danger of failing: Everyone. The Sabres, on the verge of missing the playoffs for an league-high 10th straight season, must become sellers at the trade deadline. It feels like every player on their roster — yes, even Eichel — has the potential to be moved out of town.
Overall grade: F. Midway through the season, Buffalo is the team everyone pities. There’s no clear path forward for the Sabres and the fan base is frustrated, albeit accustomed, to a lack of progress.
Players: C-plus. The Devils had a promising start, with some young players taking their next steps in development. The play at 5-on-5 was improved from last season. Things came crashing back to Earth the last few weeks, after a COVID outbreak on the team. It’s been inconsistent efforts night-to-night, and even period-to-period. The Devils are hoping for better play from some of their veterans — including Kyle Palmieri, who is not as effective as usual. While Mackenzie Blackwood goes through some growing pains, you are reminded why New Jersey wanted Corey Crawford this season, to shoulder some of that burden; instead, he retired just prior to the season.
Coach: C-plus. No matter how many combinations the Devils try, nothing is clicking on the power play. The penalty kill has regressed from last season, though New Jersey may be turning it around. The defense has major breakdowns. All of that said, with the lineup Lindy Ruff inherited, it would have been very difficult for him to field a playoff team. Ruff’s main job this season is to foster development, and it’s a great sign that Pavel Zacha is finally breaking out while Jack Hughes, Ty Smith and Damon Severson all are making strides.
GM: B-minus. Tom Fitzgerald said the team won’t be big spenders until their two core players — Hughes and Nico Hischier — are ready. We’re still in the can’t-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel phase. The roster is still paying for past mistakes, and Fitzgerald will have to be a little patient. The grade could turn depending on how he handles next month’s trade deadline, since the Devils should be sellers.
Class president: Jack Hughes. In his rookie season, Hughes showed why it’s so hard to jump right from the U.S. National Development Team Program to the NHL — or really, for any teenager. Hughes looks noticeably more comfortable, and dominant, in his second season, showing he really is a player worth building around.
In danger of failing: Nikita Gusev. The Devils had high hopes when they traded for the winger — a former KHL scoring champ — in 2019. But he has yet to find consistency, or a consistent role in the lineup. Questionable deployment is at play here, too.
Overall grade: C-plus. Though expectations weren’t high for the Devils this season, it’s shaping up to be another forgettable season in New Jersey. At least there have been some bright spots.
Players: A-minus. Veteran Matt Martin sums up the first half as such: “We had early struggles, a little adversity to start the year, but we’ve found our groove since then.” Have they ever. After stumbling through the first month, the Islanders have taken off, especially offensively. As usual, the Islanders are comfortable rolling four lines, and have gotten contributions from everywhere. New York has 12 forwards who have played in at least 10 games and are averaging 10 minutes per game at 5-on-5. They’re also seeing top prospects (Noah Dobson, Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows) step into regular roles.
Coach: A-minus. You know what you’re getting from a Barry Trotz-coached team. He steered the players through a rough first month, and has them buying into the signature defensive structure. But the Islanders are also getting more dangerous offensively. They rank second in the league in high-danger goals for percentage, whereas they were 15th in that category last season.
GM: B-plus. The Islanders had a tough summer working against the salary cap, which forced some tough decisions, like trading Devon Toews. Lou Lamoriello is a man of conviction and he likes what he likes. One of those players is Martin, whom it was important to re-sign. That has worked out, as Martin is having a stellar season (and averaging more goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Alex Ovechkin).
Class president: The answer here is Anders Lee, the captain, who unfortunately is out for the rest of the season following ACL surgery. Lee had been fantastic, scoring 12 goals in 27 games, and is one of the best net-front presences in the league. Semyon Varlamov (.923 save percentage) is another strong contender.
In danger of failing: Mercifully, this is Thomas Hickey‘s last season as an Islander, where he has been paid for the last two campaigns to not play. The Isles would welcome anyone who would take on his contract ahead of the trade deadline.
Overall grade: A. The East was pegged as one of the most competitive divisions heading into the season. The Islanders are on top of it at midseason. That’s an automatic A.
Players: C-plus. The Rangers have jettisoned all veterans (except for Chris Kreider) from their last contending team, and their lack of experience can be apparent. Many of the young players are going through growing pains. Both goaltenders have performed below expectations, Mika Zibanejad hasn’t replicated last season’s success (aside from his wild, six-point game this week of course), and it doesn’t help that the best player, Artemi Panarin, has missed 11 games. There have been a few bright spots, like Pavel Buchnevich, Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller and Filip Chytil (pre-injury).
Coach: C-minus. A lot of folks in the league say David Quinn’s days are numbered in New York. He was hired to help usher the Rangers through the rebuild, but the stalled development for several of the top young players is troubling. Games slip away from the Rangers too easily, and the power play has been dreadful. In fairness, Quinn also has had to lead the team through a few off-ice diversions, which hasn’t been ideal.
GM: C-plus. It’s sometimes easy to gloss over and forget where the Rangers are in their rebuild — they aren’t quite back yet. As MSG analyst Dave Maloney told me earlier this season: “The expectations got a little beyond where they are realitywise.” That explains why the Rangers probably aren’t a playoff team. Still, GM Jeff Gorton doesn’t skate criticism-free. His offseason signing of Jack Johnson has predictably bombed. The 2020 No. 1 pick, Alexis Lafrenière, and 2019 No. 2 pick, Kaapo Kakko, are acclimating slower than anyone hoped.
Class president: Chris Kreider — the team’s longest tenured veteran — has been the MVP. Kreider leads the team in goals (14 through 27 games) and trails only Panarin in expected goals for percentage (65.39%)
In danger of failing: Johnson. He was signed to a cheap, $1.15 million deal to fill the veteran blue-line void following the departure of Marc Staal. The signing felt like a mistake when it happened, and it’s been just as bad as expected. Johnson, 34, is currently on the taxi squad, with an unsightly 38.89 Corsi for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick.
Overall grade: C. While the Rangers arrived ahead of schedule last season, they are on the brink of falling behind. A strong second half is imperative to staying on track.
Players: B-minus. The Flyers have been a mixed bag. The obvious disappointment is Carter Hart, who ranks second-to-last in the league in goals saved above average, per Natural Stat Trick. Other young players have fluctuated, too. There have been enough consistent performances though to keep this team afloat, just not where they expected to be heading into the season.
Coach: C-plus. Alain Vigneault has been happy to spread the healthy scratches, using it as a tool to help players reset, or get them going. It has worked to varying degrees. The Flyers do have a bad tendency of allowing the opponent to score immediately after they do, and need work with defensive breakdowns.
GM: B-minus. The Flyers were dealt a blow this offseason with Matt Niskanen‘s surprise retirement. GM Chuck Fletcher was caught off guard by the move, and didn’t (or couldn’t) adequately replace Niskanen’s role on the top pairing alongside Ivan Provorov, which is affecting the team early. Otherwise, it’s hard to fault the Philly GM for having an uneventful season so far. This is a team on the cusp — soon reaping the rewards of years of good drafting.
Class president: Sean Couturier missed 10 games with an injury, but an argument can be made for him to still be the team’s MVP so far. His Corsi for percentage at even strength (61.22) is more than 10 points higher than the team average. James van Riemsdyk is enjoying a renaissance, leading the team in points, while Joel Farabee (12 goals, 24 points through 25 games) has stepped up as a regular contributor.
In danger of failing: The Flyers aren’t in panic mode, so they’re definitely not going to sell low on any of their slumping players. Philippe Myers has not taken the step forward that some expected, and has especially struggled since returning from COVID-19. Hart is having a poor season, but the Flyers have not lost faith.
Overall grade: B-minus. Philadelphia was a trendy Stanley Cup pick ahead of the season. It’s deep and talented, just a little disjointed right now, but it has all the tools to go on a strong second-half run (like last season).
Players: B. The Penguins have been led by their best players. Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel have been excellent — and Evgeni Malkin is really turning it on of late. The blue line is in decent shape, thanks to strong performances from newcomers Mike Matheson and especially Cody Ceci, though John Marino and Marcus Pettersson both have regressed some. The goalies got past rough starts. The fourth line still needs work.
Coach: B-plus. Once again, Pittsburgh has been plagued by bad-injury luck, but coach Mike Sullivan has the team persevering. The Penguins’ resilience — they lead the NHL in comeback wins — has been a story of their season. Pittsburgh once again has renewed its reputation as the place defensemen can go to rehab their careers. Special teams are a problem.
GM: Incomplete. Ron Hextall and Brian Burke were hired to run the Penguins’ hockey operation department in February, after Hall of Fame GM Jim Rutherford abruptly resigned. While the Penguins began winning around when Burke and Hextall got to town, it’s too early to correlate any success to that event, and they have yet to make their stamp on the roster. They face an interesting trade deadline, balancing the pressure to win now with an already bare draft pick and prospect pool they likely don’t want to dip into any further.
Class president: It was a slow start for many Penguins. Not Sidney Crosby, who in his age-33 season is still the team’s best player, and heartbeat. Though he’s tracking for his lowest points-per-game average of his career, Crosby is still a huge force, scoring seven points in the recent five-game winning streak.
In danger of failing: Special teams. The Penguins are bottom 10 in the league in both the penalty kill and power play. The Penguins do have a new assistant coach, Mike Vellucci, running the penalty-kill unit. It looked like it was taking awhile for Pittsburgh payers to adjust to Vellucci’s aggressive style, but they’ve been making progress lately.
Overall grade: B. It was a slow start for the Penguins, but they’re finding their game. The organization is in win-now mode, squeezing the last out of the Crosby era before a rebuild, so it’s all about clicking at the right time.
Players: A-minus. The Caps faced early adversity when Alex Ovechkin and three other important players were suspended for violating COVID-19 protocols. Washington picked up seven of the possible eight points in the captain’s absence. There have been plenty of strong performances sprinkled across the Caps’ lineup, from Nick Jensen to Nicklas Backstrom to Vitek Vanecek. And the players were able to get through a second-month swoon to find their stride again.
Coach: A-minus. Peter Laviolette came in with no proper training camp, no proper exhibitions, and installed an entirely new system and philosophy on a team expected to win now. The players are buying in, and the results are following. As T.J. Oshie told ESPN earlier in the season: “He’s been very upfront about what he expects and how he expects us to play — and also why he wants us to play that way. And I think it’s gotten through to some guys that in the past, maybe didn’t want to play a simpler game, or get pucks deep.”
GM: A-minus. GM Brian MacLellan is going to monitor his goalie situation ahead of the deadline, seeing if they’ll need to add a veteran (especially since we’ve had such a small sample of what Ilya Samsonov can bring as a healthy, No. 1 starter). Speaking to reporters recently, MacLellan said he doesn’t see any “glaring weaknesses” on the Capitals’ roster, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Class president: Nicklas Backstrom is used to being underrated and flying under the radar. In that sense, 2021 is completely on brand for him. In his age-33 season, Backstrom quietly leads the team in points, and is tracking for his best goals- and points-per-game averages in a decade.
In danger of failing: Ilya Samsonov. The Capitals still view him as their goaltender of the future. But Samsonov, 24, missed the bubble this summer after suffering injuries from an ATV accident, and then had a rough bout with COVID-19 this season, from which it took time to recover. Though Vanecek was heroic in his absence, the Caps might see the need to add reinforcements.
Overall grade: A-minus. Laviolette was brought in because the Caps had become stale after winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. Washington looks reinvigorated and could be a huge threat; now it’s all about peaking at the right time.
Players: A. The Canes are looking like one of the most dangerous teams in the league. They were the first team to have four players with double-digit goals, and (when healthy) have enviable blue-line depth. They’ll have to work out an extension for Dougie Hamilton this summer, and balance which of their defensemen are left exposed for the expansion draft. That’s a long-term problem, though.
Coach: A. Rod Brind’Amour is a demanding coach, but he always gets his players to buy in. Under Brind’Amour’s tutelage, we’re seeing a guy like Martin Necas blossom before our eyes. The team did have an issue with letting leads slip away in third periods, but Brind’Amour isn’t worried it’s an issue. “The other team gets paid a lot of money,” he said after one such game this month. “And they’re gonna come out and play hard in the third period.” Hard to argue when the Canes still usually end up in the win column.
GM: A-minus. Don Waddell lucked out big time that Alex Nedeljkovic cleared waivers earlier this year. The goalie has been stellar filling in for the injured Petr Mrazek (while outplaying veteran James Reimer). Not getting a goalie when the market was flush this offseason was a risk, but it has paid off. Jesper Fast had a slow start but is starting to find his game in Carolina. And last season’s big deadline move (sending multiple players to Florida for Vincent Trocheck) seems tilted in Carolina’s favor.
Class president: Vincent Trocheck. He’s averaging a point per game for the first time in his career, and is tied for the team lead in goals, with 13. After dealing with lingering effects of a broken leg the past two years, he finally looks comfortable. Oh, and he’s been a revelation as a net-front presence. “I think he’s found a home,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s no different than any job, I think when you’re feeling good about yourself and where you fit, I think you have success. Obviously you don’t expect him to score at this rate, but we’ll take it for as long as we can.”
In danger of failing: Jake Gardiner. The defenseman is in the second of a four-year, $16.2 million contract — and it’s not going great. He landed on the taxi squad in March for cap flexibility. His tenure hasn’t been a total disaster, but Carolina was surely hoping for more.
Overall grade: A. The Canes are top five in the NHL in points percentage, despite playing in the same division as the two teams that made it to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final and the surprisingly good Florida Panthers. They’re off to the best 25-game start in franchise history. Not much to complain about here.
Players: B-plus. Chicago’s top players are shining. Patrick Kane is a legitimate MVP candidate and Alex Debrincat is scoring like his 2018-19 self again. But the Blackhawks committed to playing younger players — so far, six have made their NHL debut this season — and many are contributing ahead of schedule. While post-Corey Crawford goaltending was a huge question mark coming in, Kevin Lankinen‘s breakout has calmed all fears.
Coach: B-plus. The Blackhawks were thrown several curveballs on the eve of their season. The captain, Jonathan Toews, was taking a leave of absence to deal with a mysterious illness. Kirby Dach, maybe Chicago’s star of the bubble, would be sidelined a while. So too would Alex Nylander, while the health of veterans Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook remained murky. Oh, and the team finally admitted to its rebuild, which didn’t sit well with all veterans. Most people pegged Chicago as a bottom-dweller this season. Somehow it’s in the playoff mix. Credit to Jeremy Colliton for helping keep it all together.
GM: B. Though it was a harsh goodbye to Crawford, maybe we should credit Stan Bowman for having the foresight that one of his young goalies just needed an opportunity. He has also brought in some decent role players. But for the Blackhawks, it’s still about the big-picture rebuild, where Bowman’s work will be judged most thoroughly.
Class president: Patrick Kane. Two years ago, when he was putting up another MVP-level season, I talked to Kane about his new training regimen, which focuses mostly on mobility and bodyweight movements. “I honestly think I feel better now than I did in my 20s. I really do,” he said. Two years later, the proof is there. Kane is tracking the best points-per-game average of his career, while playing a ton of minutes. He might still be an elite player when the rebuild is over.
In danger of failing: Lucas Wallmark. He wasn’t the most high-profile free agent (signing a one-year, $905,000 deal), but the Blackhawks were hoping they could find upside with the 25-year-old forward. A bout with COVID-19 made for a rough start, and he’s already had a few healthy scratches.
Overall grade: B. The Blackhawks are considerably more competitive than anyone expected them to be. If they make the playoffs it’s a pleasant surprise, but there’s still fundamental flaws with this roster, which will take time to address.
Players: C-minus. Columbus isn’t getting the same solid goaltending as it did in 2019-20, but part of that is the fault of the defense, which is much leakier than last season. There are a handful of Blue Jackets players performing below expectations, and cohesion and consistency are the two biggest issues. While there have been a few bright spots (Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Michael Del Zotto) the Blue Jackets lack a strong team identity, which is uncharacteristic of them.
Coach: C-minus. The Blue Jackets have yet to put together a winning streak of more than two games (and yet to win consecutive games against the same team), and they’re constantly juggling lines looking for something that sparks magic. Some of this must fall on coaching, and we’re starting to hear whispers wondering if John Tortorella’s grating style is still effective — especially after continual benchings of the team’s most talented players.
GM: C. Jarmo Kekalainen hasn’t been dealt the easiest hand over the last few seasons, and always seems to make the most of it. The two moves this summer to fortify center depth (Max Domi, Mikko Koivu) haven’t exactly panned out, with Domi still finding his way in Columbus and Koivu abruptly retiring last month.
Class president: Cam Atkinson. Bjorkstrand probably should be the team’s MVP so far, but his usage remains questionable. Atkinson, meanwhile, has bounced back from his disappointing 2019-20. The 31-year-old winger has proved he still has the goal-scoring touch, and has been the most consistent offensive producer.
In danger of failing: Mikhail Grigorenko. The 26-year-old forward signed with Columbus this offseason, looking for another shot at the NHL (he played for the Sabres and Avs from 2012-2017, before signing in the KHL). Grigorenko, who regularly played center in Russia, has been used as a wing — but lately, not used much at all. Since he’s having a hard time staying in the lineup, or producing, Grigorenko’s second NHL stint could be a short one.
Overall grade: C-minus. The Blue Jackets have qualified for the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and that streak is in serious danger of ending. Columbus has been one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments this season.
Players: B-minus. The Stars aren’t as bad as their record suggests, as they can play quite well at even strength (they are top 10 in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick). But they’re still relying on just a few players to generate offense. Dallas has had to manage a few key injuries early in the season, as it has notably been without its two best forwards: Tyler Seguin (whose hip surgery has kept him out all season) and Alexander Radulov (who recently returned after 15-game absence).
Coach: B-minus. Though they’ve been dealt some early adversity — including injuries, and playing the fewest games thanks to two schedule pauses — the Stars have been able to maintain their defensive identity. Slow starts can be an issue for Rick Bowness’ team. In 13 games where the opponent scores first, Dallas has just one win. The power play was red hot to start the season, but cooled off. On the plus side, Bowness has navigated a potential goalie controversy pretty well, with Jake Oettinger outplaying Anton Khudobin.
GM: B-minus. GM Jim Nill didn’t have to do much with the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year. He is also unlikely to make any changes, letting this group run its course and try to make up ground after a slow start. The Stars will get their own deadline acquisitions, with Ben Bishop and Seguin due to return over the next several weeks.
Class president: With some other big names sidelined, Joe Pavelski, 36, is carrying the load. He followed up his strong performance in the bubble by scoring 14 goals through his first 25 games; that’s double what any of his teammates have produced, and as many as he scored all of last season.
In danger of failing: Denis Gurianov, 23, was one of the Stars’ breakout stars in the bubble run, showing he can be a reliable and dangerous offensive threat. But after scoring four goals in the first seven games, Gurianov has just one in the 18 games since. Dallas is hoping for more, all around, from the forward.
Overall grade: C-plus. Though it’s hard to put too much blame on the players, coach and GM, the truth is the Stars just aren’t where they should be. But of all the teams that disappointed in the first half, Dallas is best poised for a second-half run.
Players: C-minus. We know the Red Wings don’t have the same talent or depth as other teams, thanks to being in the middle of their rebuild. You’re not going to see any Red Wings put up eye-popping production. But they’ve also become much harder to play against. The captain, Dylan Larkin, gives it his all every night, though he’s not being rewarded (and, largely recognized) on a mostly middling team.
Coach: C. The Red Wings are improved from last season, and there’s more competitive buy-in — but still too many execution failures. Coach Jeff Blashill was dealt a blow a week into the season when the team, after a promising start, got a cluster of COVID-19 cases. It took them a bit to put it together, but it feels like they’re back on (their development) track.
GM: C-plus. Steve Yzerman is famously coy about his timeline for the rebuild, but we know he’s not expecting the team to contend as early as this season. We’re still in the honeymoon hopeful period, so we’ll be patient and let the former Tampa Bay architect do his thing. Yzerman didn’t hit on every free agent this summer, but it’s hard to argue that Troy Stecher, Jon Merrill, Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan didn’t make Detroit a better team.
Class president: Jonathan Bernier. Detroit brought in veteran Thomas Greiss as a free agent and that was supposed to give the team better goaltending depth. But Greiss has struggled in his first season after playing in the Barry Trotz system, and Bernier has often been the better option. He has a .918 save percentage and has kept the Red Wings in many games; though we’ll see what happens with the 32-year-old who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
In danger of failing: Frans Nielsen, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm. This could be it for the NHL careers of these three veterans — especially Nielsen and Filppula, both 36, who have spent time healthy scratched or on the taxi squad. All three will have their contracts expire this summer, helping Yzerman get much-needed cap flexibility.
Overall grade: C. The bar for the Red Wings was so low (they finished last season with a minus-122 goal differential (let that sink in) and they’ve definitely made improvements. They’re still not ready to compete, consistently, with most teams in this league.
Players: A. The Panthers have been a fun team to watch, with several players taking their game to new heights. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau look like they’re having a blast, racking up a ton of points. When expensive goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky had a slow start, Chris Driedger filled in admirably. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is having a renaissance. At mideason, Florida ranked second in expected goal for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick, and the Panthers only trail the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning in goals per game.
Coach: A. Joel Quenneville is in year two of a five-year, $30 million contract, and it seems like players are much more comfortable playing under him this season. He’s squeezing the most out of his players, striking the right cords (like cutting down on practice time) and the buy-in is apparent. The team doesn’t quit, either; Florida trailed at some point during 14 of its first 19 wins.
GM: A. Even Bill Zito, in his first year on the job, is a bit taken aback by the team’s success. As Zito told me last month: “I think if you would have told me before the season started, without watching our group, here’s what the record would be after  games that we’d have 29 points, I’d say, ‘Wow.'” While plenty of credit is owed to players and coaches, Zito made a handful of strong additions, including Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist and Alexander Wennberg.
Class president: The captain, Barkov, has been the biggest star for Florida (though Huberdeau is right there behind him, also scoring 34 points through the first 28 games).”I think [Barkov is] the best player in the world,” teammate McKenzie Weeger said this month. “To watch him every single night just giving it his all and really leading by example, it’s really inspiring.”
In danger of failing: Brett Connolly was a part of the Panthers’ big 2019 free agency spending free. The veteran forward (who helped the Caps to a 2018 Stanley Cup) is in year two of a four-year deal that pays him $3.5 million annually, but has been squeezed out of the lineup and is currently on the taxi squad.
Overall grade: A. For the first quarter of the season, folks around the NHL were asking if the Panthers are for real. Florida has been so consistent since then that they’ve commanded attention — and look like a legitimate contender.
Players: C-minus. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom in Nashville — just mostly doom and gloom. The team can flash effort and grit. There have been a few pleasant surprises, like the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen. But it’s been mostly incohesive efforts from the Preds. Players hoping for bounce-back seasons (Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen) have us still wanting more. Goaltending is shockingly unsteady. Injuries have mounted. And so has the list of Predators who could potentially be traded; Nashville’s poor play has officially made them a seller at next month’s deadline.
Coach: D-plus. John Hynes is probably going to keep his job through the rest of the season, and we do have sympathy for the situation he walked into; he has not been set up for success. The Predators made several changes this season to their forecheck, entries and exits, as well as the penalty kill, and the execution just hasn’t been smooth. Predators players often look paralyzed by decisions, and make the wrong ones.
GM: D. GM David Poile kept promising a youth movement, but when the season started it looked like the same, old Predators. The Predators have been steadily declining since their 2018 appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, and could have prepared better for this crash. On one hand, he did get out of Kyle Turris‘ contract this summer. On the other, his four offseason signings to “add toughness” don’t really make sense at this point, and are just another bandage.
Class president: Filip Forsberg has led the way offensively for the Predators, scoring 27 points through his first 28 games. He also leads the team with three game-winning goals (nobody else has more than one). Of all of Nashville’s forwards, he would command the most from the trade market.
In danger of failing: Matt Duchene. Poile was able to rid himself of the Turris mistake, but the Predators have another regrettable signing with Duchene. In 89 games in Nashville, his goals-per-game average is 0.18 (down from 0.42 over his two campaigns in Ottawa) and points-per-game average is 0.56 (down from 0.91 with Ottawa). The problem is, he’s due $8 million through 2025-26, making him very difficult to trade.
Overall grade: D. Though the Predators’ decline was inevitable, it hit hard this season. The roster could look a lot different at this point 12 months from now.
Players: A. There is no team in the league as deep as the Lightning. Six players have at least two game-winning goals. Tampa Bay returned essentially the same Stanley Cup-winning roster, but is without top sniper Nikita Kucherov (hip surgery) and a few salary-cap casualties. It helps that Steven Stamkos has fully returned to form, and Ondrej Palat is having a career season. The right side of the blue line is still a concern, but few teams can match up with the 1-2-3 punch of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev on the left side (backed up by the best goalie in the world right now, Andrei Vasilevskiy).
Coach: A. There has been practically no Stanley Cup hangover, despite the quick turnaround. Credit Jon Cooper for keeping his players motivated and fresh. This season, he has also been tasked with incorporating younger players in the lineup. Though prized defensive prospect Cal Foote has been sheltered so far, he does seem to be coming along nicely.
GM: A-minus. GM Julien BriseBrois gets equity credit here for the roster he (and former GM Steve Yzerman) built. Though it sucks seeing a player like Carter Verhaeghe thrive elsewhere, the Lightning weren’t able to give him the same role this season. Tampa Bay’s only controversy so far was what to do with Tyler Johnson, who is no longer a financially viable option — both to Tampa Bay, and to the teams that didn’t claim him on waivers. But he stuck around and rediscovered a role, and has played his natural center position again.
Class president: Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s been a Vezina Trophy finalist (or winner) for three consecutive seasons, and at the midpoint of 2021 is again the favorite for the award. Per Natural Stat Trick, the 26-year-old leads all goalies in even-strength save percentage and high-danger goals saved above average. “He’s a big reason why we are the team that we are,” Hedman said recently. “We have him back there making some saves that shouldn’t be saved, and he makes it look easy.”
In danger of failing: No one. Tyler Johnson was in danger of failing when the cap-stressed Lightning put him on waivers. But he’s found a second life with the team this season. Despite bouncing around the lineup, he has found ways to be effective.
Overall grade: A. The Lightning are deep and experienced and dangerous. They hold the potential to be the NHL’s next dynasty.
Players: C. The Flames have been wildly inconsistent and overall underwhelming. Elias Lindholm (27 points), Johnny Gaudreau (24 points) and Matthew Tkachuk (24 points) have all been difference makers, but have also been quiet in other stretches. Andrew Mangiapane (17 points) has continued to improve. Free-agent pickup Chris Tanev has paired with Noah Hanifin to form the team’s best defensive unit. But while Sean Monahan has been a shade better than last season, he hasn’t regained his form; and defenseman Mark Giordano‘s days of massive point production are behind him. They could use a few more saves from Jacob Markstrom, their free-agent prize, and David Rittich, too.
Coach: Incomplete. Geoff Ward paid the price for the Flames’ middling 11-11-2 start, as the team convinced former coach and general manager Darryl Sutter to leave his farm and take over the bench. Eventually, this team will play Darryl Sutter hockey — lots of possession, low events, supporting your own zone more than flooding your opponent’s zone. But through his first few games, the two-time Stanley Cup winner has seen first-hand the inconsistency that cost Ward his job.
GM: C-minus. You never want to fire the guy you just hired. GM Brad Treliving made Geoff Ward the team’s permanent coach after Ward took over on an interim basis following Bill Peters’ resignation. That permanence lasted just 24 games. That’s a symptom of having committed significant salary to this roster and even more of it last offseason in the form of free agents like Tanev and Markstrom. The latter player is a little concerning: He’s dominated the Canadiens (3-0, .975 save percentage) and Canucks (4-2, .935) but looked ordinary against everyone else. Markstrom papered over a porous defense in Vancouver last season. He hasn’t been able to do the same in Calgary.
Class president: Andrew Mangiapane. Of the Flames’ top five most common lines in terms of 5-on-5 ice time this season, the 24-year-old forward has appeared on three of them. That speaks to his effectiveness but also to his adaptability: Calgary has slid him up and down the lineup, and he’s second on the team in expected goals over average (7.7).
In danger of failing: Sam Bennett. The center has six points in 27 games in a season where his agent floated the possibility that Bennett wanted out of Calgary. But while his grades are in the toilet this term, there’s some hope that Sutter can calm things down and get more out of him.
Overall grade: C-minus. Earlier this season, Ward best defined the collection of players that Treliving has put together in Calgary: “It’s not that the team doesn’t give a crap. It’s that we need to find consistency in how hard we work.” The entire season, and likely the general manager’s job, rests on whether Darryl Sutter can increase that work rate and help the Flames find some level of consistency in their game.
Players: B. The Connor McDavid (56 points in 32 games) and Leon Draisaitl (49 points) show is once against powering the Oilers, who are the fourth-highest scoring team in the NHL (3.44 goals per game) this season. Coach Dave Tippett has had them playing apart — McDavid with Jesse Puljujarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (25 points), Draisaitl with frequent linemate Kailer Yamamoto — and on the same line when necessary. Needless to say, the supporting cast at forward is a step down from the top six; any line without the Big Two has struggled to stay on the positive side of goal differential.
Defensively, Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie have seen plenty of time together, with the latter having bet wisely on a one-year deal with the Oilers, scoring 28 points in 32 games. But again, there’s a big drop after that. Goalie Mike Smith has quieted down critics (again) with a strong season in goal (.920 save percentage, .714 quality starts percentage) while critical darling Mikko Koskinen has struggled (.901).
Coach: B-plus. Tippett has a team that can score a lot of goals, especially on the power play, where the Oilers have been automatic for two seasons. His job then is two-fold: Find ways to keep the puck out of his own net and smartly deploy two of the best hockey players on the planet in his lineup. On the first task, it’s a work in progress: Edmonton has shown a slight improvement defensively, but is still 23rd in the league in expected goals against per 60 (2.29). On the second … well, it’s McDavid and Draisaitl. You could put them with the Oilers’ scary mascot and they’d still get their points.
GM: B. Ken Holland is in his second season as Edmonton general manager, and still has a roster that isn’t deep enough to support his superstars. The Barrie addition was great. The Kyle Turris experiment, not so much. Additions like Dominik Kahun and Slater Koekkoek have been average at best.
Class president: Connor McDavid has reached a new level of dominance this season, which is really saying something. His 1.75 points-per-game average would be a career high, projecting out to a 144-point campaign in an 82-game season. He’s also figured out the defensive side of the game better than in his previous five seasons. An MVP front-runner again, for sure.
In danger of failing: Kyle Turris has just four points in 21 games, though his season was interrupted by a trip to the COVID absence list. In his last 11 appearances, five of them saw Turris’ ice time dip under 10:00.
Overall grade: B-plus. The Oilers in a playoff seed at the midpoint. As long as Connor and Leon are their engine, there’s no reason to believe they won’t reach their destination in the postseason.
Players: B-plus. Who had Tyler Toffoli down for 18 goals in 29 games? Anyone? The free-agent winger leads the Habs in goals and points (27) this season, having done so with a variety of different linemates. Josh Anderson, the other big offseason arrival up front, has 11 goals. He skated primarily with Jonathan Drouin (20 points) and Nick Suzuki (18 points), the second-year center who has cooled off as of late. The line that’s gotten the most attention for inconsistency has been Brendan Gallagher‘s trio with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar, which was recently split up. As a unit, they were outstanding, with a 67.98 expected goals percentage. But while Gallagher’s produced consistently, Danault and Tatar haven’t found an offensive groove. Young Jesperi Kotkaniemi has seen his game pick up since the Habs changed coaches.
The defensive highlight has been Jeff Petry, who is having a career year. Joel Edmundson saw time with him and Shea Weber. In goal, offseason arrival Jake Allen (.922 save percentage) has outplayed incumbent Carey Price (.907), which isn’t how this is supposed to work.
Coach: B/B-minus. Claude Julien started the season 7-1-2, and everyone was very happy. They were 9-5-4 when he was fired following back-to-back losses to Ottawa. Assistant coach Dominique Ducharme took over and went 4-3-4 in his first 11 games. For those keeping score at home, Julien had a .611 points percentage while his successor is at .545. Ducharme’s grade can improve if his line shifting can get some of the ordinary players in the lineup going.
GM: B-plus. This would have been an ‘A’ for Marc Bergevin were it not for the questionable, reactionary firing of Julien and choosing a neophyte in Ducharme to replace him. But otherwise, his offseason additions have uniformly paid off: Toffoli, Anderson, veteran winger Corey Perry, defenseman Edmundson and especially Allen in goal.
Class president: Jeff Petry has 25 points in 29 games, skating to a plus-15, in what is by far the best year of the 33-year-old’s career. The spotlight placed on him for playing in the All-Canadian division has put him squarely in the Norris Trophy conversation, and rightfully so.
In danger of failing: Artturi Lehkonen. What happened here? The 25-year-old forward has two goals and two assists in 21 games, seeing his ice time cut by over two minutes to 13:07 per game. That is, when he plays, as he’s been a healthy scratch at times.
Overall grade: B-plus. The Canadiens are right on the cusp of an A-minus. They could have gotten there with a better season out of Price and if they weren’t 0-8 in games that have gone past regulation.
Players: D-plus. Not much was expected from the Senators this season. Sometimes, expectations meet reality. There have been some highlights: Brady Tkachuk (22 points) has continued to progress towards stardom; Drake Batherson (21 points) leads the Sens in expected goals above average (8.4), and his rookie linemate Tim Stützle (18 points) might be the best first-year forward not named Kirill Kaprizov this season. Josh Norris and Connor Brown have been good. But the team got one goal in 20 games from Derek Stepan before his season-ending surgery, and free-agent forward Evgenii Dadonov hasn’t made any impact on the team’s power play despite nine even-strength goals.
Thomas Chabot (20 points) is once again the best thing about their blue line, but rookie Artem Zub has played better than expected. In goal … well, this is where we arrive at a D-plus, as Matt Murray, Marcus Hogberg and Joey Daccord have combined to be the worst net-minding group in the NHL this season.
Coach: C-minus. D.J. Smith is in his second season, and the Senators are a worse team (348 points percentage) than they were in 2019-20. While much of that is on the goaltending, Ottawa is still third worst in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.44). He’s managing a very young roster and making some impactful decisions, like putting blue-chip defenseman Erik Brannstrom in the healthy scratch doghouse. Say this for Ottawa: When properly motivated, they can be a tough out.
GM: D. We’re trying not to be harsh here, as GM Pierre Dorion has done some good work during this extended rebuild for the Senators. But it can be successfully argued that the Matt Murray trade and signing — four years with a $6.25 million AAV — is the worst transaction for any team this season. Murray’s minus-9.5 goals saved above average and .880 save percentage are putrid.
Class president: Brady Tkachuk. The team’s leading scorer, he’s consistently good and getting over 20 minutes in ice time with some regularity. He’s continued to be one of the NHL’s most prolific shooters, leading the league with 141 shots on goal in 33 games.
In danger of failing: Team defense. Through 33 games, the Senators have a team goals-against average of 3.91. The NHL hasn’t seen a team finish with a GAA above 4.00 since the 1995-96 San Jose Sharks (4.35). Considering the offensive teams in the North Division, the Senators might be the next.
Overall grade: D-plus. Ottawa is squarely in the midst of a rebuild, and the growing pains are evident. But the Senators had their moments: Beating Montreal to the point where they fired their coach, and rallying from a 5-1 deficit to get one of their three wins over Toronto. (The less said about their 0-7-0 record against Edmonton, the better.) It’s a rough ride, but at least the Sickos love it.
Players: A-minus. The stars are shining for the Leafs this season. Mitchell Marner leads the team with 39 points in 30 games. Auston Matthews is right behind him (36 points). John Tavares isn’t having a productive goal-scoring season (nine), but has 26 points. William Nylander continues to quiet critics with 24 points (and an underappreciated all-around game), while Zach Hyman has contributed offensively too. The Leafs aren’t getting a ton of production from their bottom six, and veteran additions Joe Thornton (12 points) and Wayne Simmonds (five goals) have been in and out of the lineup due to injury.
On the blue line, Morgan Rielly (23 points) has been terrific with T.J. Brodie, while Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have been a solid second pair. This would have been an ‘A’ for the Leafs were it not for Frederik Andersen‘s struggles in goal this season.
Coach: A-minus. The Leafs are fifth in goals per game (3.40) and ninth in goals against per game (2.63), with a potent power play balanced out by an underwhelming penalty kill. Coach Sheldon Keefe was tasked with trying to get Toronto to play a better defensive game and has seen some positive movement to that end, despite the team’s inconsistency in goal. He’s also done a fine job keeping his team prepared most nights, considering every team in their division approaches every game against Toronto with playoff intensity.
GM: B-plus. GM Kyle Dubas did well in acquiring Brodie, who has been the Leafs’ second-best defenseman this season. Thornton has played well — when he’s played. Zach Bogosian hasn’t been bad, but neither of Dubas’ gambles on depth players (forward Jimmy Vesey and defenseman Mikko Lehtonen) panned out. He said he’s hitching the team’s wagon to Andersen in goal this postseason. It’s nice to have Jack Campbell in reserve if necessary.
Class president: Auston Matthews has 21 goals in 27 games, the best goal production season of his career. He’s been a dominating presence, especially on the power play where he has eight goals. A legit Hart Trophy candidate even if he doesn’t end up leading his own team in points.
In danger of failing: The penalty kill. The Leafs were 21st on the kill last season and that unit has slipped to 22nd at a 75.6% success rate. Andersen has played a part in this, having been sub-replacement level on the penalty kill.
Overall grade: A. The Leafs are 19-9-2 through 30 games this season and have looked like the class of the (We The) North Division. In true Toronto sports fashion, they’re treated like a juggernaut one week and have “what’s wrong with the Leafs?” stories written the next week. But Toronto looks like a legit Stanley Cup contender if the defense and the goaltending level up.
Players: C. The good news starts with Brock Boeser, who has 15 goals and 30 points in 33 games this season. It continues with Bo Horvat (24 points) and JT Miller (27 points), who is nearing his points-per-game pace from last season. Goalie Thatcher Demko has been outstanding in the last few weeks, with a .920 save percentage on the season.
The news gets a little muddier when it comes to Quinn Hughes, who is producing offensively (25 points) but has regressed defensively; and in Elias Pettersson, who is heating up but still not on the same scoring pace as his first two seasons. The news is downright bad after that, with a supporting cast that’s not contributing, and with goalie Braden Holtby unable to regain his form after leaving the Capitals.
Coach: C-minus. Travis Green and his staff knew the Canucks had to be better defensively, especially after the team lost goalie Jacob Markstrom to free agency. But they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league this season until recently. A six-game losing streak in early February left them at 6-11-0. Another four-game losing streak followed soon after. This was a team that had such promise after last postseason, but it clearly wasn’t ready for primetime — and Green, despite being an outstanding coach, was seemingly unprepared for how to reverse their fortunes after an early-season stumble.
GM: D-plus. GM Jim Benning added defenseman Nate Schmidt, who has been fine, and Holtby, who has not. But the problem with the Canucks is a problem created by Benning over the course of a few seasons, handing out bloated contracts to depth players that hindered his ability to make a contending team better — or even keep it at a high level of contention.
Class president: Nils Hoglander. The way things are trending, this is eventually going to be Demko’s oval office, but let’s give a little love to the 20-year-old rookie. The Swede earned his way into a top-six role through his strong play at 5-on-5. His 13 points in 33 games aren’t game-breaking stats, but on a team with its share of unsatisfactory performances, Hoglander has been an undeniable highlight.
In danger of failing: Jake Virtanen. A cult hero among Canucks fans, “Shotgun” Jake has been shooting blanks this season, with just three goals in the 28 games in which he’s appeared, and earning a handful of healthy scratches. Yet another member of the Vancouver rank-and-file that hasn’t played up to standards.
Overall grade: C-minus. The Canucks are one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL this season, based on their supposed growth as a contender in the bubble playoff run. But this is a grade for the first half of the season. Their recent 7-3-0 streak, buoyed by Demko’s performances, has them trending in the right direction. But with a .485 points percentage after 33 games, is it too late?
Players: B. Nikolaj Ehlers has been a revelation this season with 31 points in 29 games, the best offensive production of his career. He’s done it with a variety of linemates, including his most recent trio with Kyle Connor (16 goals) and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has 10 points in 14 games since coming over from Columbus. Paul Stastny, previously their second-line center, shifted to the wing with Mark Scheifele (37 points) and Blake Wheeler (26 points).
There aren’t many teams that can match the offense of the Jets’ top six. There are plenty that offer a stronger supporting cast, especially on the blue line, where Winnipeg ices a thin defense corps in front of goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who has been solid if not close to this Vezina Trophy-winning form last season. We will give some credit to defenseman Neal Pionk, has been a rock.
Coach: B. Paul Maurice rightfully takes some heat for some of his decision-making — the way Ehlers has been playing this season, there’s no justification in having him cook just 1:35 per game on the power play — but he’s gotten more out of this roster than expected. Bonus points for his surly rebuke of analytics in defending Wheeler recently, Not that he was right, mind you, but we appreciate the candor.
GM: B-plus. It’ll take a few years before we know if GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s decision to trade Patrik Laine to the Blue Jackets for Dubois was a win. We have to see what Dubois does for the rest of the season in Winnipeg. We have to see if Laine can find a more complete game. We also have to see if acquiring a center for the Jets’ most desirable young asset was smarter than, say, making their version of the Ryan Johansen-for-Seth Jones trade and landing a defenseman instead. Beyond that, the Stastny reacquisition has paid off so far.
Class president: Connor Hellebuyck. For all the offense the Jets can pour on, they’re second worst in the NHL at 5-on-5 defense, with an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 2.54. Even with a .911 save percentage, Hellebuyck acting as safety net behind the leaky defense is the reason the Jets remain in contention. It’s not the heavy lifting he did last season, but he’s played in 23 of their 29 games.
In danger of failing: Starts. The Jets are minus-2 in first period goal differential and have led after the first period in 11 out of 29 games. They’ve trailed after the first 12 times this season.
Overall grade: A-minus. After 29 games, the Jets have the second highest points percentage in the North Division (.655) and are threatening the Leafs for the division lead. It may defy logic on several fronts, but there’s no denying this early success for Winnipeg.
Players: D-minus. Looking at the performances this season, you can easily see why this team had a .367 points percentage through 30 games. The Ducks were the second worst offensive team in the league (2.20 goals per game), with only one player — Max Comtois, with 19 points — improving on their 2019-20 season. Rickard Rakell (19 points) had a nice stretch of scoring to make his season respectable. They’ve found a nice defensive pairing in Cam Fowler and rookie Jani Hakanpaa. Yet while there have been injuries, the team has seen underwhelming performances from the veterans through the kids. Perhaps most frustrating of all: Goalie John Gibson, previously known for carrying mediocre Ducks teams to respectability, is playing through his second straight down season.
Coach: C. Dallas Eakins has been handed a roster that isn’t close to playoff-quality. But one of his virtues as a head coach was connecting with younger players and getting them to meet their potential; however, that hasn’t happened dramatically enough with the Ducks’ supporting cast, despite some incremental improvements.
GM: D-plus. Murray and Eakins are both signed through 2022. That’s the only conceivable reason to bring either back for next season. Murray stuck too long with Randy Carlyle as a head coach and continued to stick too long to a veteran roster that was getting diminishing returns. He could be one of those general managers who is looked back upon kindly for stocking the cupboard with draft picks like Comtois, Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, but it’s likely time for a change. Still, this grade could improve with some smart trade deadline sell-offs for a rebuild.
Class president: Max Comtois. Pretty much by default, but we’ll give the winger his due for leading the team in points for most of the first half.
In danger of failing: Ryan Getzlaf. The captain is 35 years old, in the last year of his contract and has full no-move protection. We’d love to see what he’d do in a more competitive environment, because his 11 points in 28 games is the statistical nadir of his otherwise stellar career.
Overall grade: D-minus. Lacking success and direction, Anaheim is primed for a rebuild around the next generation of ducklings.
Players: C. Conor Garland (22 points in 28 games) and Clayton Keller (0.72 points per game) have seen an uptick in offense from last season. Center Nick Schmaltz, forward Christian Dvorak and defenseman Jakob Chychrun have been solid, too. After that, it’s bleak: The shell of Phil Kessel, three points in 26 games from Lawson Crouse and the kind of season from Oliver Ekman-Larsson (no goals in 19 games) that doesn’t help his trade value — assuming he ever expands his list of acceptable destinations. Defensively, the Coyotes haven’t been able to depend on goaltending to bail them out. Darcy Kuemper (.914) and Antti Raanta (.912) have done what they can through middling defense and injuries to both, but neither has been as good as in recent seasons.
Coach: C. Through four years of coach Rick Tocchet, the Coyotes have been a team that struggled to consistently score but had outstanding goaltending to buttress their season. Offensively, this Arizona team has been perhaps the most punch-less in that span, averaging 2.34 goals per game and with a shooting percentage in the bottom third of the league. The problem here isn’t necessarily coaching, but the Coyotes have become an even more ineffective possession team and have looked listless in some key games.
GM: D. Rookie GM Bill Armstrong inherited an overpriced and ineffective roster from John Chayka, with few draft pick assets through which to improve it. He hasn’t done much to improve it, including his inability to move Ekman-Larsson last offseason to either of his trade destinations. But he earns this grade for his conduct off the ice: Armstrong came off absolutely terribly in reporter Katie Strang’s exposé of the Coyotes for The Athletic, including a threat to “tell general managers around the league” about how she conducted herself professionally.
Class president: Jakob Chychrun. While many of Chayka’s contracts haven’t worked out, the six-year, $27.6 million deal he gave Chychrun in Nov. 2018 is looking like a bargain. The 22-year-old is having his best offensive season (0.66 points per game) and has handled increased ice time well. Also, shoutout to the Coyotes for winning their series (4-3) against the St. Louis Blues, as the two teams faced each other for seven straight games due to a rescheduling quirk.
In danger of failing: Their reputation. Let’s be honest here: Outside of the glory of their Reverse Retro jerseys, the only notable thing about the Coyotes this season was Strang’s story. She reported on layers of dysfunction in the organization, from owner Alex Meruelo through the hockey operations department. It described “a ‘toxic’ workplace environment and financial troubles that far exceed what has previously been disclosed.” It’s not the first time the Coyotes have been defined by off-ice issues, of course.
Overall grade: C-minus. Arizona was supposed to contend with Minnesota for the last playoff spot behind Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis. Instead, they lost four of five to Minnesota, and the playoffs seem like a distant concept.
Players: A-minus. Given how high the expectations are this season for the Avalanche, this is admittedly graded on a curve. Should they be punished because Nathan MacKinnon is “only” at 1.09 points per game through 23 games instead of 1.35? Among the forwards having outstanding seasons are winger Mikko Rantanen (14 goals in 27 games), Nazem Kadri (24 points in 27 games), Brandon Saad (19 points in 26 games) and Andre Burakovsky (19 points in 24 games). Offseason addition Devon Toews has been great on the blue line, skating with either Cale Makar (14 points in 15 games) and especially Samuel Girard, who is having his best NHL season. The only negative, as it was last season, has been injuries.
Coach: A. At 5-on-5, Jared Bednar has the Avalanche as the NHL’s best possession team and the best defensive team in expected goals against per 60 minutes (1.77). The Avalanche have allowed a league-low 24.9 shots per game. He has managed the roster through injuries for the second straight season, and done it expertly.
GM: A-plus. As we’re fond of saying to the NHL’s general managers: If Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche are calling, don’t pick up the phone. He flipped Nikita Zadorov for Saad. He snagged Toews from the capped-out Islanders for a pair of draft picks. Combine that with the shrewd free-agent pickups and trades that built out the roster in the past two seasons, and the Avalanche front office is one of the NHL’s best. Now they just need the playoff success to validate it.
Class president: Philipp Grubauer. With Pavel Francouz injured, Grubauer has played a lot and posted incredible stats (.925 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average). He appeared in 24 of the team’s first 27 games this season.
In danger of failing: Starting off strong. The Avalanche are 23rd in the NHL in first-period goals (20), and are a plus-5 in the opening frame. They’ve led after the first period in 12 of 27 games.
Overall grade: A. Few teams boast the depth that the Avalanche possess. Few teams have an MVP force like MacKinnon or a game-breaker like Makar. Few teams have a chance at the Stanley Cup like the Avalanche do — if they can emerge from this division.
Players: C-plus. To repurpose an old “South Park” meme, the Kings are the ‘Member Berries of the NHL. Hey, ‘member when Anze Kopitar was a point-per-game player? Well, he had 32 points in his first 27 games. Hey, ‘member when Drew Doughty was a point-producing plus player? He had 22 points in 27 games — 14 of them on the power play — and is currently on the good side of plus-minus. ‘Member when Dustin Brown was an effective power forward? His 13 goals in 26 games is the best scoring pace of his career. Alex Iafallo and Adrian Kempe had contributed as well in a season that has seen the Kings return to semirelevance while waiting for their young collection of prospects to ripen; however, there has been a learning curve down the lineup.
Coach: B. Todd McLellan knows this is still about the long game in Los Angeles, but he has done a good job challenging his players this season and getting the Kings to play more consistent defense.
GM: B-plus. Rob Blake has helped amass the deepest collection of prospects, and has exhibited incredible patience in bringing them along. He faces another big trade deadline, with Iafallo among the players who could move.
Class president: Cal Petersen. Due respect to the veterans having their moment this season, but the Kings have outkicked their coverage thanks in part to Petersen (.921 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against average). He’s fourth in the NHL is goals saved above average (13.7) and has started more games than incumbent Jonathan Quick.
In danger of failing: Jeff Carter. He has two points in his past eight games and a team-worst minus-3.8 expected goals scored above average. His 14 points in 27 games is better production than his previous two seasons, how long can the 36-year-old sustain that?
Overall grade: B. “I wouldn’t say we’re 100 percent going to make it or anything like that, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I definitely could see us hopefully getting in the third or fourth slot there, that’s our goal,” Doughty told ESPN. It’s good to have goals, but the fact that they’re flirting with the playoff bubble midway through the season is a win itself.
Players: A. The Kirill Kaprizov Effect is real and it’s spectacular. The rookie sensation had 25 points in his first 27 games, giving the Wild the game-breaker they’ve lacked since the apex of Marian Gaborik. But his arrival also energized Mats Zuccarello, who is producing at better than a point-per-game pace, and Victor Rask, who is having a redemptive season. Two more breakout campaigns: Joel Eriksson Ek, who is in the Selke Trophy conversation, and linemate Jordan Greenway, having his best offensive season. Lesser results have come from Zach Parise, who is sub-replacement in expected goals (minus-4.7) and Kevin Fiala, who hasn’t been able to match the heights of last season’s point-production breakout, and earned a three-game suspension for boarding Matt Roy.
On the blue line, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba have become an elite duo, with Brodin being a stealth candidate for the Norris Trophy. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter have also been effective. When you have those two units playing well over two thirds of the game, you’re in good shape. Especially when the goaltending has been as good as it has, with rookie Kaapo Kahkonen (12-4-0, .927 save percentage) and Cam Talbot (.916).
Coach: A-minus. The changes Dean Evason made as an interim coach late last season, after Bruce Boudreau was fired, have carried over effectively to this campaign. The defense is more active. The offense is allowed for more creativity, and doesn’t play with the same tightness that it had under the previous coach. That said, Boudreau also wasn’t gifted the league’s top rookie forward and best rookie goalie in the same season, both of whom are making Evason look very good.
GM: B-plus. Bill Guerin is the first to admit that he’s the beneficiary of the good drafting and player acquisition that came before him with the Wild, having been hired as GM in 2019. His veteran additions to the roster — C Nick Bonino, F Marcus Johansson, C Nick Bjugstad, D Ian Cole — have had varying degrees of impact. But he’s earned his grade here for signing Talbot as a free agent, committing to Kaapo Kahkonen with a two-year deal and, most of all, keeping Evason around.
Class president: Kirill Kaprizov. A rock star on the ice and off, the Calder Trophy front-runner has infused the team with his enthusiasm, his determination to win and his undeniable offensive flair. Runner-up: Those sweet, sweet North Stars-inspired Reverse Retro jerseys.
In danger of failing: The power play. It’s remarkable how many points Kaprizov has considering how awful Minnesota’s been with the man advantage, clicking at just 8.1% through 27 games after being 18.5% last season. It’s the primary reason they were only 0.03 goals per game ahead of last season’s pace despite being a better offensive team.
Overall grade: A. The Wild looked like a team that was going to be on the playoff bubble. But they’re a team pushing for a division title, playing some of the most exciting hockey in the league, which is not something we ever thought we’d say about the Minnesota Wild.
Players: C. If the bar was set at last season’s performances, then a number of Sharks have cleared it. Evander Kane (26 points), Logan Couture (22 points), Timo Meier (19 points) and Kevin Labanc (18 points) have all improved their offensive output. Brent Burns has been more engaged and effective. But the Sharks have many more players that aren’t hitting their marks — only two regular contributors (Kane and Couture) were skating to a plus rating in the first 27 games. Patrick Marleau has one goal in 27 games, and has a team worst minus-3.4 goals scored above average. Goalies Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk have combined for a .891 team save percentage.
Coach: D-plus. Bob Boughner‘s first full season at the helm has seen the Sharks struggle to a .463 points percentage in the West Division. A lot of that is a problem with construction. Where coaching comes into play is in San Jose’s inability to defend. They’re second-to-last in the NHL in goals against average (3.52). Some of that is obviously on the sub-replacement goaltending. But Pete DeBoer was fired last season for the team’s defensive deficiencies, and the Sharks were the seventh best team at shot suppression. Under Boughner, they’re now 29th (32.3 shots allowed per game). This is a bad possession team that gives up the fourth most high-danger shot attempts in the NHL at 5-on-5. It’s not all on the head coach. But enough of it is.
GM: C-minus. Most of Doug Wilson’s sins are in the past, as bloated and immovable contracts have made it quite difficult to flip this roster away from an aged core. Some of his recent draft picks have been interest to watch, in forward John Leonard and defenseman Mario Ferraro. Offseason pickup Ryan Donato is producing above his output last season. But while Dubnyk has been more respectable than his 3-7-2 record would indicate, Jones is now in his third straight season of being abjectly terrible. Wilson simply hasn’t done enough to fix the most glaring problem on his team for multiple years.
Class president: Tomas Hertl. A consistent performer despite a season interrupted by a COVID-related absence, Hertl had 16 points in his 21 games and has been better defensively than many of his teammates.
In danger of failing: Erik Karlsson. Once every few games, Karlsson has a performance that whets the appetite of those hoping the 30-year-old, two-time Norris Trophy winner can regain his form. But he can’t seem to maintain that consistency, and remains a shell of his former self. He said recently he didn’t sign with San Jose to be a part of a rebuild again. The Sharks certainly didn’t sign him for $11.5 million annually through 2027 for this, either.
Overall Grade: C-minus. The Sharks were one of those teams that looked like they could surprise as a bubble team in that West if they stayed healthy, saw players rebound from down years and finally got some quality defense and goaltending. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Players: C-plus. It has been quite a roller coaster for the Blues, a team beset by injuries and inconsistency. They’ve had veterans with expectedly outstanding seasons in David Perron (29 points in 28 games), Ryan O’Reilly (27 points), Brayden Schenn (24 points) and Torey Krug (15 points). They had Jordan Kyrou take a leap forward (21 points) and Justin Faulk have a resurgence. But they’ve also seen Colton Parayko struggle to the worst start of his career before going on the shelf with an injury. Oskar Sundqvist has had an uncharacteristic ineffective season. Plus, Tyler Bozak, Robert Thomas and especially Vladimir Tarasenko have missed significant time.
Coach: B. Craig Berube has had to coach through significant injuries and schedule quirks like having to play the same team (Arizona) for five straight games. For that, he deserves credit. But the team’s 5-on-5 offense has been underwhelming and the mental focus that’s been the Blues’ calling card in recent seasons hasn’t always been there. Witness their horrible starts on home ice (minus-8 goal differential in the first period) that have led to a 4-7-3 record in St. Louis, and their hot starts (plus-7) on the road where they’re 10-2-2.
GM: B-minus. Doug Armstrong’s gambit of letting Alex Pietrangelo walk in favor of Krug in free agency has worked — to a point. The fact is that the Blues’ new blue line doesn’t defend with the physicality it once did, to the point where Berube called their play “soft” this week. But Armstrong has done some good things overall. Free agent Mike Hoffman has 19 points in 27 games, for example. If there’s a knock on him, it’s in goal. Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso have combined for a .892 save percentage. This isn’t to say that the Jake Allen trade shouldn’t have happened, but entrusting Binnington with a novice backup was a misstep.
Class president: Jordan Kyrou. You have to love when a long-gestating prospect is handed a significant role, sees his ice time jump by nearly five minutes per game, and takes full advantage of the opportunity. The 23-year-old leads all Blues forwards with 5.1 goals scored above average in 28 games.
In danger of failing: Ville Husso. Not to pile on here, but the Blues’ rookie has an .879 save percentage and a 3.57 goals-against average in 10 appearances, with a minus-8.4 goals saved above average. Yikes.
Overall grade: B. That the Blues are in a playoff spot through all of this adversity is either indicative of their championship spirit shining through, or a commentary on the state of the West Division. Your choice.
Players: A. The Knights are absolutely stacked and have been the class of the division through the first half. The trio of Chandler Stephenson, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty have an expected goals percentage of 58.73%, with Stone leading the team in scoring (34 points in 26 games) and Pacioretty in goals (14 goals in 27 games). Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson are at 57.62% expected goals at 5-on-5. Alex Tuch continues to level up as a power forward with 13 goals.
Defensively, the Knights have withstood the absences of Alex Pietrangelo (18 games) thanks to the continued dominance of Shea Theodore, as well as Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud, one of the division’s most underrated duos. But the Knights’ success can be traced to Marc-Andre Fleury, whose resurgent season in the absence of Robin Lehner (concussion) has propelled the team.
Coach: A-minus. There’s always room for improvement, as the Knights are only 12th in expected goals percentage (51.30) at 5-on-5, but Pete DeBoer understands what buttons to push and what pieces to move around on this roster.
GM: B-plus. Kelly McCrimmon had a challenging offseason thanks to the flat salary cap. He moved out popular Knights in Nate Schmidt and Paul Stastny to be able to fit free-agent coup Pietrangelo on the roster. Turns out the move he couldn’t make was his best one: Keeping Fleury after being unable to move his contract, following the signing of Lehner to an extension. If there’s a concern about the roster, it’s that the Knights don’t have a classic top-line center.
Class president: Marc-Andre Fleury. After last postseason’s goaltending soap opera, no one was sure what to expect from Fleury this season, or even if he would still be a Golden Knight. But with Lehner sidelined, Fleury took the crease and absolutely dominated: 16-5-0, .933 save percentage, four shutouts and 18 goals saved above average in his first 21 games.
In danger of failing: The checking line. The trio of Ryan Reaves, Tomas Nosek and William Carrier have spent the majority of their time together this season, but haven’t been as effective as they traditionally have been as an on-ice demolition crew.
Overall grade: A. The Golden Knights are 20-6-1 through 27 games (.759 points percentage) and have excelled in nearly every facet of the game. They’ll only get better when Pietrangelo and Lehner are contributing on a regular basis.