We are nearing the halfway point of the 2016-17 NHL season. And man, do things ever look different from a year ago.
If the playoffs were to start today, there would be six new playoff teams. Four Canadian teams would be in the postseason after all seven missed it last year. The Columbus Blue Jackets would be the NHL's best team and the Edmonton Oilers would end an 11-year playoff drought. The Tampa Bay Lightning wouldn't even be in the playoffs after being the most popular pick to win the Stanley Cup in 2017.
Also, many NHL superstars will be coming off their worst seasons as pros if they don't start turning things around soon. There have been plenty of surprising disappointments so far this season. But there is plenty of time for struggling players and teams to turn things around.
But those turnarounds don't happen overnight. A lot has to go right to make it happen. Here are the NHL's 15 biggest disappointments so far in 2016-17, and how they can be repaired.
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16 Loui Eriksson: First Line Minutes
The Vancouver Canucks put the full rebuild on hold by signing 31-year-old Swedish forward Loui Eriksson to a six-year deal worth $36 million. He and the Sedin twins flourished for Team Sweden at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. It was as if the Canucks had a bonafide top line going into the season.
Well, Eriksson, a great two-way forward with 25-goal consistency, has just eight tallies, 18 points and a minus-nine rating. He's looked lost with the Canucks and didn't find the chemistry with the Sedins. He was demoted to the second line and Jason Megna (who?) has been playing with Daniel and Henrik.
If the Canucks want to get their money's worth, Eriksson is going to have to go back to the top line with the Sedins. Playing with second-liners isn't going to do any wonders for him.
15 Anthony Duclair: Change of Scenery
The prized 21-year-old was traded from the New York Rangers to the Coyotes in exchange for Keith Yandle. Anthony Duclair seemed to embrace his time in the desert, scoring 20 goals and 44 points while posting an excellent plus-12 rating on one of the league's worst teams. If Duclair could just avoid the sophomore slump, then there'd be a lot for Coyotes fans to be excited about.
That's not the case in 2016-17. Duclair has just three goals and four assists with an awful minus-five rating. Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported in November that the Coyotes were fielding offers for the young forward.
Duclair doesn't have a lot of talent around him; Max Domi is also developing his game and there aren't any stud veterans to help Duclair out. The best for him would be to get traded to a contender and have a proven first-liner work with him. The Coyotes could also get a nice return for Duclair.
14 Anze Kopitar: Wait For It...
The Los Angeles Kings top forward always scores 20-plus goals and 60-plus points a season, but 2016-17 hasn't been the best season for Kopitar. In 33 games (as of this writing) he has just three goals and 14 assists with a minus-two rating. His 21:0 time on ice per game is his highest since the 2011-12 season, and it's clearly taking a toll on his body.
The thing is, we know how great Anze Kopitar is. He's a real leader, slick two-way player and usually brings his best game in the playoffs. The Kings are barely getting by with third-stringer Peter Budaj in net as Jonathan Quick battles a groin injury. Los Angeles wasn't exactly a scary team heading into the 2012 and 2014 NHL Playoffs, yet they wound up hoisting the Stanley Cup both years.
For the Kings, they don't have the salary cap space to make big moves. They just have to let their franchise star rediscover his game. There's no reason to believe he won't do it - for now at least.
12 Daniel and Henrik Sedin: Trade Time
The Vancouver Canucks have somewhat accomplished their goal of not relying on the Sedins so much. Bo Horvat is the team's goals and points leader and Sven Baertschi is second on the team in tallies. But that comes with a price to pay - as Daniel and Henrik Sedin are finally showing their age (36).
Henrik is on pace for just 53 points and Daniel is on pace for 47. That would be the lowest for both (in an 82-game season) in over a decade. It's clear these two aren't fitting into the Canucks youth movement, and a chance to win a Stanley Cup elsewhere would be best for them. They would be ideal second-liners on another team.
The Canucks aren't going to trade them, though. The Sedins have expressed their desire to stay, and president Trevor Linden won't orchestrate it unless they ask for it. The reality is, though, that these two won't turn it around unless they get a fresh start.
11 Patrice Bergeron: Decrease his workload
The three-time Selke winner is having his worst offensive season since 2008-09, with just three goals and 14 points. Patrice Bergeron has spent over a decade logging first time minutes while shutting down the best players in the NHL. Unfortunately, being a two-way player in today's NHL wears down the body rapidly.
Bergeron isn't able to score as much because it's taking a toll on his physique to play nearly 20 minutes per game, with plenty of that coming in the defensive zone. The Bruins don't want to wear out the rest of Bergeron's prime years, so they should try to let him play more offence. That's really the only solution.
Having Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on a line should mean you're scoring lots. Bergeron is a consistent 30-goal and 60-point man. But those days won't come back unless they let him play more offensively.
10 Nashville Predators: Patience, Don't Panic
The Predators were expected to compete for the Central Division title after reaching the second round of the playoffs last season. Trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban was a win-win for both sides, as Nashville got a faster and better puck-moving Subban to fit the team's system better.
Well, Subban's season is in jeopardy now with a back problem. Even before the injury, he was incredibly inconsistent in the Music City. Meanwhile, Ryan Johansen hasn't rediscovered his true number-one centre form that he had in Columbus. Pekka Rinne has regressed, and the Predators find themselves out of the playoffs right now.
But betting against one of the NHL's most star-studded teams is foolish. Rinne, Johansen, Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Colin Wilson and James Neal make up so much talent. Logic says they'll turn it around if they stick to their guns and wait it out. There is no need for GM David Poile to panic and make a drastic move.
9 Colorado Avalanche: Wheel and Deal
The Avalanche weren't a trendy pick to be among the NHL's best teams at the start of the season, but after just barely missing the playoffs last season and replacing Patrick Roy with Jared Bednar behind the bench, many thought the Avalanche would show some progress.
Well, let's just say they should have listened to Roy's demands by making trades instead of letting him resign. The Avalanche are far-and-away the NHL's worst team with a 12-25-1 record and minus-52 goal differential. After so many years together and little to show for it, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are expected to be on the trade market.
The solution is pretty obvious for Colorado. They can easily fetch three nice assets from each of those players, and it's time to start over on the rebuild. Landeskog and Duchene haven't taken this team to the next level, and it'd be silly for Joe Sakic to think they'll magically turn it around.
8 Florida Panthers: Make the Youth Younger
After winning the Atlantic Division a year ago, the Panthers are freefalling. They sit at 16-15-8 and are 12th-overall in the Eastern Conference. Many were surprised over head coach Gerard Gallant's firing, and the replacement choice of Tom Rowe hasn't been enough to turn this team's fortunes around.
In a stacked Eastern Conference, it's hard to see the Panthers making up much ground. Barring a ridiculous hot streak (like 16-straight wins, for example) the Panthers should just be sellers at the deadline.
Jaromir Jagr is a pending UFA and any playoff team would overpay to acquire him for a postseason run. Jussi Jokinen could also bring in a draft pick and young roster player if the Panthers find the right team. But no matter who gets traded, the Panthers should get this fairly young team even younger by trading away their top veterans at the deadline and prepare for 2018.
7 Detroit Red Wings: Host a Fire Sale
Well, this is a weird paragraph to type.
After two-and-a-half decades as the model of excellence NHL organization, the Red Wings are among the NHL's worst teams, sitting third-last in the Eastern Conference. Years of bad free agent signings and mediocre drafting have put them in the position to see a 25-year playoff streak come to an end.
If this team wants to ice another long-term contender, they'll have to accept the end of the streak. Thomas Vanek is on his way to another 20-goal season and could get Detroit a first or second round pick. Defenceman Jonathan Eriksson could also be on the move, and either Petr Mrazek or Jimmy Howard would be a great pickup for a playoff team lacking a reliable netminder (Calgary, Philadelphia, among others).
The bottom line is that Detroit isn't going to the playoffs this season. But if they trade away some of their veterans for young assets, they could be on their way to building another powerhouse in the long run.
6 Andrew Ladd: More Time with John Tavares
The New York Islanders thought they had themselves a winger for John Tavares with the departure of Kyle Okposo. Andrew Ladd, the two-time Stanley Cup champion, was signed to a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million. That's a lot of money for a 31-year-old who A) isn't a superstar and B) Isn't usually good for more than 45-50 points a season.
So far this season, Tavares has just eight goals and 12 points in 36 games. He has been demoted to the third/fourth line and predictably hasn't been able to find his game. Ladd isn't going to succeed with Alan Quine as his center. The Islanders are stuck in a messy contract, but Ladd still has something left in him.
And if they want to get some of the money's worth in the Ladd deal, they'll have to surround him with the team's best player. Otherwise, Ladd will go down as the most overpaid fourth liner in NHL history.
5 Patrick Marleau: New Uniform
The long-time San Jose Sharks superstar is now 37 years old and we've talked aplenty about how he's past his prime and no longer one of the faces of the franchise. He and Joe Thornton are losing to father time, and Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have become the new stars for the Sharks to build around.
Patrick Marleau is a pending UFA and has been asked to waive his no-trade clause before. The Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers are reportedly teams on his preferred list. He's projected to finish with just 22 goals and 35 points by ESPN.com, and it's tough to see him finding his old form again.
But perhaps a chance to play on Ryan Getzlaf or Anze Kopitar's line will do wonders for Marleau. Thornton isn't the player he once was, and Kopitar (29) and Getzlaf (31) would be better options than the 37-year-old. If Marleau truly wants to score again, he's going to have to accept a trade.
4 Sean Monahan: To the Second Line Mobile!
The sixth pick from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft became a star right away for the Calgary Flames. In his rookie season, he scored 22 goals and 34 points. He followed it up with consecutive 60-point seasons while scoring 31 goals in 2014-15 and 27 last season. In other words, he's a superstar.
But the Flames franchise player has struggled as we enter the half-way point of the season. Sean Monahan had just 10 goals and 22 points (as of this writing) with a minus-14 rating. The Flames had a miserable October, but have since turned it around and are in the running for the Pacific Division title.
Monahan should have a temporary move to the second line and play with Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk. Mikael Backlund (the second line centre,) has more points than Monahan and deserves a chance on the top line. Perhaps Monahan can regain his form if he spends time with new linemates.
3 Tampa Bay Lightning: Trade Ben Bishop For Assets
After consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Final, it was widely expected that the Tampa Bay Lightning would strike fear into their opponents once again. They were the most popular pick by experts to win the Stanley Cup, as a healthy Steven Stamkos would put Tampa over once and for all.
Well, not exactly.
Stamkos has played just 17 games and won't return until March. The Lightning aren't getting a lot of scoring outside of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman can't carry the defence alone and Ben Bishop (before his injury) was getting heavily outplayed by Andrei Vasilevskiy. Bishop is set to become a free agent at season's end, and the Lightning don't have the cap space to keep him.
No point in losing him for nothing. Steve Yzerman needs to add another forward and top-four blueliner. Trading Bishop would get him at least one of those - and possibly more. It's time to pick up the phone and start finding solutions to save Tampa's season.
2 Winnipeg Jets: Fire Paul Maurice
The Winnipeg Jets brought on Paul Maurice as Claude Noel's replacement three seasons ago. In 2013-14, the Jets finished 18-12-5. It was enough for Maurice to have his interim label removed and become the head coach the following season. Winnipeg made the playoffs, only to get swept in the first round.
The Jets had a horrible 2015-16 season, finishing 35-39-8 and were among the NHL's worst team. Absolutely zero progress from a promising season. But for some reason, the team stuck to Maurice. Now, here they sit at 19-19-3, with little progress made (again) despite All-Star performances from Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine.
Winnipeg has way too much talent - Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Bryan Little, Drew Stafford and Blake Wheeler give them a roster of riches that rivals any other in the NHL. But why in the world is Maurice still here? To coach them into mediocrity some more?
With all due respect to him, the Jets need a new head coach. His voice and system are clearly not bringing the results from a team that should be a Stanley Cup contender now.
1 Dallas Stars: New Goalie and Defencemen
The Stars were the best team in the Western Conference a season ago - finishing with 109 points before losing to the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the playoffs. With the explosive duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the expectation for many was that the Stars would compete for the Stanley Cup.
Instead, the Stars are third-last in the West with a 16-15-8 record and are miles out of the Central Division race. The main reason for that? Awful defence and goaltending. The Stars are allowing a whopping three goals per game, while Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have combined for a .900 save percentage - fourth-worst in the NHL.
2016 sensation John Klingberg has taken a step back, while free agent pickup Dan Hamhuis has been a healthy scratch on numerous occasions. Dallas has been linked to Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ben Bishop is also available, and same with Ryan Miller of the Vancouver Canucks. There are many options for GM Jim Nill.
The defencemen market isn't that high right now, but the Stars are enriched with forwards and should think about moving a couple for defence. This is a real talented team, but Benn and Seguin can't do it on their own.
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