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NHL surprises and disappointments from the first half

Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter run through the new NHL Power Rankings, discussing how lineup changes have unlocked the Florida Panthers’ best hockey and why the Minnesota Wild are leaping up the ranks.

The NHL reached the official midway point of the season Tuesday night. The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in two months but there is still lots of hockey left to play and many things to monitor in the second half.

We’ve had plenty of surprises, disappointments, and news to discuss in the opening two months of the 2020-21 campaign. This unique season has been fun to watch and the divisional alignment has increased the opportunity for some teams to get to the playoffs.

As we get started on the season’s second half, the PHT team gave their picks for the surprises, disappointments, and more.

Let us know your choices in the comments.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Biggest surprise (team)

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. If you would have told me the Panthers would be in the running for a playoff spot in the potentially-crummy Central, I wouldn’t have been too shocked. They’re in the mix with the Hurricanes and Lightning, though, and that’s a knuckleball.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. Every offseason this team adds six or seven new players and every year it is the same result. So you will have to forgive me if I expected the same this year. But here we are now and they are not only headed to the playoffs, they are competing for the division with Tampa and Carolina. I figured they would need a huge season from Sergei Bobrovsky for that to happen and they are not even getting that. It is a legitimately good team!

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: New York Islanders. I know the Isles were a final four team last year, but they always seem to go under-appreciated. Same deal entering this season, where many were pegging other teams in the stacked East Division to come out on top. Right now, it’s the Isles’ to lose.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s start out with saying that yes, they’ve beaten up on a weak first half schedule thanks to the division alignment for this season. But they’ve won the games they needed to and getting contributions from players who could help them in the future like Pius Suter and Kevin Lankinen while doing so without their top two centers. It likely won’t last, but they’ve banked 33 key points in 30 games.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Chicago Blackhawks. They are the biggest surprise as I thought they would be battling Detroit and Ottawa as the worst team in the NHL. At the start of the season, they had no goaltender and were missing their best two centers as well as having an aging blueline. But Chicago has turned it around as Kevin Lankinen has turned himself into a solid starting goaltender and they are fourth in the Central.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Minnesota Wild. Wow, things have really been wild, eh? The Kaprizov show and Joel Eriksson Ek have made the Wild -- yes, that Wild -- one of the most enjoyable teams to watch every night. I do not think that has ever happened before.

Dallas Stars v Florida Panthers

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NHLI via Getty Images

Biggest surprise (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Carter Verhaeghe. He is turning out to be one of the best free agent signings of the offseason and a great find for the Panthers. He dominated the AHL, could not really get much playing time on a loaded Tampa team, and is now getting a chance in Florida and playing like a bonafide top line player with his point production and ability to drive possession.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Patric Hornqvist. Half way through the season and he’s second on the surprising Cats with 11 goals. We knew he was a power play asset, but this? This was unexpected.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Aaron Ekblad. This season may put to rest any notion that the former No. 1 overall pick was a bust.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Joel Eriksson Ek. Remember when Eriksson Ek seemed like a bust? Now he looks like a possible Selke finalist.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nikolaj Ehlers. Ehlers has been solid for a long time but he might surpass his career points total this season during a condensed schedule. The North is the wild west and goals are being handed out like candy, but the Jets have been a pleasant surprise led by Ehlers.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Marc-Andre Fleury. He continues to amaze me. Just when you think his career is on the downside, he bounces back. He was supposed to backup Robin Lehner but he has been spectacular as is 15-5-0 with a sparkling 1.77 goals-against-average and an equally sparkling .936 save percentage.

Carolina Hurricanes v Philadelphia Flyers

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NHLI via Getty Images

Comeback player of the season so far

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Oskar Lindblom. The fact that he is back on the ice for the Flyers and contributing is amazing to me (even if it does make me incredibly nervous for a cancer survivor to be playing during a pandemic). He is not just coming back from a bad season or something like that.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nolan Patrick. His story is really cool and he’s clearly vital to the Flyers success. He missed a whole season with a migraine disorder, and as a migraine disorder sufferer myself I think it’s really impressive he’s been able to come back and play really well.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Vincent Trocheck. He’s 100% healthy from that terrible leg injury he suffered in 2018 and he’s now leading the Canes with 13 goals and is second with 24 points.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, he entered COVID protocol recently, and dealt with a rough patch. But with Robin Lehner unavailable, MAF has put up the sort of numbers that could make him a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Alex DeBrincat. He’s had a tough year last season with only 18 goals and 45 points in 70 games. He has been a stud this season with 15 goals and 29 points in 25 contests.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Drew Doughty. He heard the criticism of his play loud and clear, and vowed to put his name back in the conversation of best defenseman in the league. So far, he’s delivered.

Dallas Stars v Columbus Blue Jackets

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NHLI via Getty Images

Biggest disappointment (team)

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Dallas Stars. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season and are in tough to make it to the playoffs this season. Maybe the play of Jake Oettinger can save them.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Stars. It’s not totally fair because they got off to a delayed start and everything outside of their control has been very bad but I think we all expected a more dominant Stars team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Calgary Flames. As much as the Canucks have been a bummer, the Flames are far more lost and their older core faces a much smaller window. Failing in the North Division removes any remaining excuses, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Nashville Predators. The rubber may soon be hitting the road in terms of a rebuild for the Preds. Here’s hoping that somehow, some way, David Poile can get his name on the Cup before the end of his illustrious executive career.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: New York Rangers. You’d have hoped they were ready to take a big step forward this season, but not a lot has gone right so far.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Vancouver Canucks. Maybe expectations were a little high based on their bubble performance, but I really thought Vancouver would be more competitive than this, especially in that division. I know they are winning more games now but it is entirely goaltender driven with Thatcher Demko carrying them. This is just not a very good team after the top six or seven players on the roster.

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo Sabres

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NHLI via Getty Images

Biggest disappointment (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Taylor Hall. It is hard for me to go with any player other than Hall. He took a one-year deal, reportedly turning down multi-year offers, to sign a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He is now not only stuck on the worst team in the league, but he is having a rough year that is doing nothing to help his value in free agency this offseason.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Taylor Hall. I thought he would have a huge year in Buffalo alongside Jack Eichel but he has only two goals on a horrible Sabres team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Look, it was obvious Erik Karlsson’s contract would be a headache for the Sharks. It would’ve been nice to see him put together a last hurrah before albatross status; instead, Karlsson’s been disastrous.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Only 30, I hoped there was something left in Karlsson’s tank. Instead, we’ll be talking about how much an albatross his contract — which expires in 2027 — will be on the Sharks going forward.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Jeff Skinner. A bad investment by the Sabres.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Carter Hart. I really thought the Flyers were going to go big this year and Hart was going to break out and establish himself among the elite. He’s had a tough go of it. I do think he has it in him to turn things around.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders

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Next coach fired (UPDATE: As we found out Wednesday, Ralph Krueger is the big winner here.)

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. Tortorella may be a favorite, but his contract expires after this season. That’s an easy decision to make if they miss the postseason. The situation in Buffalo, though, is reaching a boiling point and Kevyn Adams may be forced into making a change.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Ralph Krueger. We’ve seen this story before in Buffalo, but it seemed like they had finally found their guy in Krueger. This season has not gone their way, and Krueger may end up paying for it.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. It is the obvious choice, but sometimes you have to go with the obvious choice. Maybe Krueger has not done a good job or been the right coach for Buffalo, but at some point when a team keeps changing general managers and coaches and the results stay the same you have to start looking for the real problem.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: John Tortorella. Maybe it happens during the offseason, where it might technically count as merely letting Torts walk. But end the misery for everyone -- Torts included.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: John Tortorella. He was my choice for the first coach fired before the start of the season and I still think he won’t last the season.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Eakins. Feels like the situation in Anaheim could boil over at any point. It’s probably not Eakins’ fault, everything there just feels volatile.