The All-Star break is a great time for reflection. Obviously the breather gives us an excuse to look back and the break comes just a bit after the halfway point of the campaign, so we’re far enough along that every team’s position has significant weight, but not so far along to prevent teams from changing their fate.
I mean, I think we can safely say that the Detroit Red Wings won’t be making the playoffs. They could go 31-0-0 the rest of the way and only end up with 90 points this season, so yeah, this season is a write off for them. But the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils? They’re probably not making the playoffs, but can we truly say they’re out of it yet? Not entirely.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a few teams of particular interest at this point of the campaign. Then tonight I will be posting something of a companion piece to this where I highlight the standout fantasy players of the first half.
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The first team I want to talk about is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ve been significantly better since Sheldon Keefe took over as the bench boss for Mike Babcock, but the same inconsistency that plagued them in the first quarter of the campaign is still present. The defensive woes are still very much there as this team’s strategy seems to boil down to all-out attack while hoping that goaltender Frederik Andersen can hold on just enough to allow their offense to snatch the win. To be clear, Andersen is absolutely vital to this strategy. When Andersen isn’t at the top of his game or when he needs to rest, the Maple Leafs’ shortcomings are on full display and they tend to lose, as we’ve seen.
It hard not to say that this strategy is by design, at least at the front office level. While Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has clearly tried to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense with some of the trades he’s made, if you look at where they’ve prioritized their cap space, it’s clear that this is an all-out attack team at its heart. The jury is still out on the Maple Leafs and whether or not they’re truly built for success though. Certainly they haven’t looked like a serious Stanley Cup contender so far this season. They’ve had flashes of brilliance, but their 25-17-7 record, which puts them four points out of a playoff spot, is representative of how they’ve played. They have a lot to prove once the break ends.
If the jury is still out on the Maple Leafs though, we seem to be pretty close to a ruling on the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks. Could they still salvage this season? Yes. But they need to hit the ground running after the break to pull off what would be a miracle run. With a 21-25-4 record, San Jose is a staggering 11 points behind in the playoff race.
Very little has gone right for the Sharks this season. Goaltender Martin Jones struggles last season and he’s been even worse in 2019-20. At this point, Aaron Dell is arguably their better option, not because Dell is good, but just because he’s been less bad. The Sharks’ issues aren’t solely related to their goaltending though.
It was thought that the Sharks would be able to overcome the loss of Joe Pavelski over the summer. It would hurt to be missing Pavelski, his leadership, and the 38 goals he provided them last season, but the team’s offensive depth was a strength in 2018-19 and aside from Pavelski, that group would be back this season. Pavelski’s absence has ended up being sorely felt though.
The Sharks have gone from having one of the league’s top offensives in 2018-19 to being in the bottom third of the NHL this season. Other than the absence of Pavelski though, there isn’t any one problem among their forwards or offensive defenseman that you could point to. Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier…none of them have been disasters this season, but they’ve all taken just a half step back at a time when the Sharks needed them to find a way to step up and fill the void.
What we’re left with is a team that looks like a contender on paper, but is far from one in practice. They might even be sellers at the deadline, though they’re unlikely to trade away any core players at this time.
If this season is a write-off for the Sharks, it wouldn’t be devastating for the franchise. They still have a compelling core that’s mostly in its prime, so with some tweaks and a fresh start, they could conceivably bounce right back in 2020-21. It would be sad for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau though. I strongly believe this is the last season for both of them. They were stars of their era, but at the age of 40, neither player is a meaningful contributor anymore. It wouldn’t make much sense for the Sharks or any other team to sign them in 2020-21.
Marleau and Thornton came close to winning the Stanley Cup, but were never able to capture the ultimate prize. Originally it looked like they would have another good shot at the trophy this year, but the prospects of that happening are fading. If the Sharks don’t bounce back, perhaps they would be willing to trade them to a contender at the deadline. In the case of Thornton, that would require him to waive his no-movement clause, but maybe he’d be open to that for the sake of having one more shot at the Cup. It’d be nice to see them in the playoffs one last time, even if it’s not with San Jose. As for the team acquiring them, honestly, they wouldn’t be getting much of a boost, but Thornton and Marleau can still serve as bottom-six forwards and provide some veteran leadership. Teams wouldn’t tripping over themselves to acquire either one at this stage of their career, but they come with a significant cap hit and the Sharks probably wouldn’t expect much in return, so it wouldn’t be a bad grab.
Let’s end this on a more positive note by highlighting two surprising standouts this season in the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. As things stand right now, I would say that John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are the leading Jack Adams candidates for their work as the head coaches of Columbus and Pittsburgh respectively.
The Blue Jackets had a disastrous summer. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky also decided not to sign with them. In spite of that, the Blue Jackets entered the break in a playoff spot with their 27-16-8 record. Defense and goaltending has led the way for the Blue Jackets. Joonas Korpisalo did a great job as the starter until he suffered a torn meniscus. When he went down though, Elvis Merzlikins assumed the starting gig and has been outstanding. At this point when Korpisalo gets healthy, the Blue Jackets will be in the enviable position of having two worthy number one goaltenders.
As for the Pittsburgh Penguins, they’re 31-14-5 despite dealing with far more than their fair share of injuries, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist…that’s not just a list of the Penguins’ top forwards, it’s also a list of all the players on the Penguins who missed significant chunks of this season due to injury. Defensemen Kris Letang and Justin Schultz have also been forced to spend time on the sidelines. The Penguins have become the counter argument for anyone who writes off their team’s struggles as being injury related. After all, the Penguins managed to absorb that many injuries and still be in a healthy position in the playoff race. Imagine what they would be like if they were able to stay at full strength for a sustained period of time.