Well, friends, we’ve finally arrived. The first half of the NHL season is officially over, and now we await the drama and storylines of the next month and a half.
By the end of this upcoming week, the league could be looking a lot different. Every game will now have some level of playoff implications. Rosters could change dramatically with the trade deadline season in full effect. Rivalries have had the time to escalate and tensions may be higher than ever before. It’s a trying time for any fan, but it’s ultimately part of the reason why the game of hockey is so easy to fall in love with.
If you’ve followed along with my rankings, you know that the last few weeks have been full of speculation. Whether teams should be buyers or sellers at the deadline, who they should target or trade away, who could be available for the Seattle Kraken in a few months, the whole nine yards. To commemorate the first half of the season, however, I decided to go with a topic that’s a little more concrete.
While hockey is very much a team sport, you still need your stars to do well if you want to reach the heights of contention. Key contributions could be the difference between the promised land and the gutter, especially at this critical juncture of the season. With that in mind, these rankings will highlight a player from each team that has been responsible for where their team is at.
Who’s the first-half Hart Trophy candidate from each team? And where do the teams stand from last week? Let’s take a look.
Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to March 20.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (Even): The Lightning’s stellar season has been in part to many key pieces, but Andrei Vasilevskiy deserves special mention for cementing his place as the best goaltender in the world. Among goaltenders who have played at least ten game, he ranks first in wins (20), tied for first in save percentage (.933), second in GAA (1.86), and has nearly doubled the field in GSAA (goals saved above average) with an eye-popping 16.66.
2. Vegas Golden Knights (+1): Like Vasilevskiy above him, Marc-Andre Fleury deserves all the credit in the world for helping a star-studded Knights squad play to their potential. He’s regained his starting job by ranking third in wins (16), tying Vasilevskiy for first in save percentage (.933), and coming in just a sliver under Vasilevskiy in GAA (1.87).
3. Washington Capitals (+4): In a first half where stars missed time due to suspension (Tom Wilson) or COVID protocols (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Samsonov), Nicklas Backstrom had to go from a supporting role to the spotlight. He’s rewarded the team by leading them in points with 34, as he enjoys his best offensive season in a decade.
4. Florida Panthers (Even): Long underrated due to a lack of exposure in Sunrise, Aleksander Barkov is aiming to shed that label at last. He currently leads the team in goals with 13, tied with Jonathan Huberdeau for the team lead in points with 35, and his work in his own zone and on the penalty kill makes him the current front-runner for the Selke Trophy this season.
5. Carolina Hurricanes (-3): I’d love to give Vincent Trocheck some love, but the Canes will need a top star like Sebastian Aho to continue his offensive production if they want to break through. Aho is currently tied with Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter for the team lead in goals with 13, as well as pacing the Hurricanes with 28 points.
6. New York Islanders (Even): Understudy Ilya Sorokin may be starting to shake off a rough start, but Semyon Varlamov has been the key to the Islanders continuing to frustrate teams and maximizing their strengths. Enjoying his best season in a decade, Varlamov is currently sixth in save percentage (.923) and eighth in GAA (2.17) among goaltenders who have played at least ten games.
7. Colorado Avalanche (+6): Just when it appeared Vasilevskiy and Fleury were the clear front-runners for the Vezina Trophy, Philipp Grubauer had to make a dark-horse run. Currently on a personal six-game winning streak, Grubauer ranks second in wins (18), third in save percentage (.929), and he currently leads the league in GAA (1.74) and shutouts (five, with three of them coming on this current win streak).
8. Minnesota Wild (+2): The Wild have long held the label of being uninteresting to watch, but Russian dynamo Kirill Kaprizov has changed that in an instant. The Calder Trophy front-runner currently leads all rookies with 10 goals, as well as leading his team with 25 points.
9. Toronto Maple Leafs (-4): The Leafs may have come out of this week with questions to answer on the back end, but there’s no denying that Auston Matthews has continued to be an offensive force. The preseason favorite to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, he has come out of the first half tied with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for the league lead with 21 goals.
10. Winnipeg Jets (-2): Mark Scheifele would be the easy choice but, in a year where underrated players are finally getting their respect, Nikolaj Ehlers deserves some recognition. Leading the team in plus/minus with +12 and second in both goals and points (15 and 33, respectively), Ehlers is on pace to enjoy the best offensive output of his career.
11. Pittsburgh Penguins (+1): With goals in six of his last seven games, Jake Guentzel is starting to find his stride at the right time for the Penguins. The Omaha-born sniper is currently leading the team with 13 goals, and is only behind Sidney Crosby in points with 29.
12. Boston Bruins (-3): The Perfection Line continues to be the heart of the Bruins’ offense, and David Pastrnak hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury. Despite playing in seven less games than his linemates, he leads the Bruins with 14 goals and is second to Brad Marchand with 26 points (for context, he’s outpacing Marchand in points per game with a 1.24 mark over Marchand’s 1.21.)
13. Edmonton Oilers (-2): It was nice of Connor McDavid to remind everybody that he’s still the best hockey player in the world today. Tied for the league lead in goals with 21 while also currently being the only player to sit at the 60-point mark, McDavid is continuing to keep an inconsistent Oilers squad competitive.
14. St. Louis Blues (Even): In his first year as the Blues’ captain, Ryan O’Reilly has continued to be one of hockey’s best two-way players. O’Reilly is not only tied with David Perron for assists (21) and second to Perron in points (31), but he also currently leads the team in plus/minus with +11.
15. Montreal Canadiens (+2): Long known for his skills in the offensive zone at the expense of being a defensive liability, Jeff Petry has been enjoying a spectacular year on both ends of the ice. Finding new life with defensive partner Joel Edmundson, Petry not only leads all defensemen with 11 goals, but is also on pace to finish with a positive mark in plus/minus for the first time in his career.
16. Calgary Flames (+4): Jacob Markstrom has been dealing with bouts of inconsistency this season, but Elias Lindholm has been finding new life as a top-line center for the Flames. Currently leading the team in points (28) and plus/minus (+8), Lindholm’s strong two-way play must continue if the Flames want to sneak in to the postseason.
17. Philadelphia Flyers (-2): It’s looking like a disappointing season for the Flyers, but fans can take Joel Farabee‘s impressive development as a step in the right direction. Tied with James van Riemsdyk for the team lead with 13 goals and second to JVR with 25 points, he’s taken the mantle as Philadelphia’s new marquee young gun.
18. Chicago Blackhawks (-2): If the Blackhawks sneak in to the postseason, Patrick Kane should be the one getting the Hart Trophy this season without question. Kane currently sits only behind Edmonton’s powerful duo of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with 42 points.
19. Los Angeles Kings (-1): The aging core of the Kings are doing their best to turn the clock back, with Anze Kopitar leading the charge as usual. If Kopitar leads the team in points this season (he currently is doing just that with 35 points), it will be the 13th season in Kopitar’s career where he has led the Kings in that category.
20. Vancouver Canucks (+4): After a rocky start to the season, the version of Thatcher Demko that nearly carried the Canucks to a postseason run has finally arrived. Winner of eight of his last nine starts, Demko is on pace for career highs in both save percentage and GAA (he currently has .921 and 2.66 marks in both categories, respectively).
21. Columbus Blue Jackets (+1): On a scrappy team trying to fight for a postseason berth once again, Oliver Bjorkstrand has continued to produce offensively. Tied with Cam Atkinson with 11 goals and leading the team with 27 points, Bjorkstrand is looking to beat his current career high of 40 points in a shortened season.
22. New York Rangers (-1): Despite his strong play this season, especially in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s hiatus, Pavel Buchnevich‘s future on Broadway is not guaranteed. Second behind Chris Kreider for the team lead with 11 goals and leading the Rangers with 28 points, Buchnevich could be one of the pieces that get flipped if GM Jeff Gorton pulls the trigger on a blockbuster Jack Eichel trade.
23. Arizona Coyotes (-4): Clayton Keller has endured an up-and-down start to his NHL career, but he’s seemed to improve this time around. The only Coyote so far to hit the 10-goal mark, he will need to continue the production if Arizona wants to remain competitive.
24. Dallas Stars (-1): Looking at Joe Pavelski‘s stats this season is indicative of the Stars’ offense. The good news is that Pavelski leads the team with 14 goals and 27 points; the bad news is that he’s nearly doubled up the rest of the team in goals and a near double-digit lead in points.
25. Nashville Predators (Even): There’s a reason why Filip Forsberg is the most sought-after trade chip on the market this deadline season. The catalyst for the Nashville offense with a team-leading 10 goals and 27 points, it will take a convincing package to pry Forsberg away from the Music City.
26. San Jose Sharks (Even): Off-ice issues not withstanding, Evander Kane has been able to focus completely on the game. It’s paid off for him so far, as he leads the Sharks with 26 points and is second to Logan Couture with 12 goals.
27. New Jersey Devils (Even): It may have taken a year for him to get situated, but Jack Hughes has finally found his game at the professional level. Tied with Pavel Zacha for the team lead with seven goals, the former top overall pick’s development will be crucial for the Devils to compete with the big boys in their division in the future.
28. Detroit Red Wings (+1): Jonathan Bernier is likely playing his final games in a Red Wings uniform, but he’s certainly doing his part to help the rebuild out. Putting up a solid .918 save percentage and 2.78 GAA, Bernier looks like he’ll net a nice trade package for Steve Yzerman to continue implementing his vision.
29. Ottawa Senators (+1): The Senators are beginning to form their new young core, with Brady Tkachuk taking on most of the offensive responsibility for now. Tied for the team lead with 11 goals and leading the Senators with 22 points, Tkachuk is on pace for his third consecutive 20-goal season.
30. Anaheim Ducks (-2): Don’t look now, but Rickard Rakell is beginning to find his touch again. Leading the team with 21 points, Rakell has become an increasingly valuable trade chip if Anaheim decides to kickstart their rebuild.
31. Buffalo Sabres (Even): There hasn’t been much of anything to get excited about in Buffalo. If you’re a fan who’s been loyal throughout this entire process, no one can question your team spirit.