NHL surprises at the halfway mark of 2016/17 season

The NHL is entering the second half of the 2016/17 season as most teams have reached the 41-game mark. There have been a few individual and team surprises over the first half and we’ll take a quick look at them, both good and bad. As far as teams go, the biggest news has been the fine play of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on a 16-game winning streak and ended up just one short of the league record set by Pittsburgh back in 1993. In addition, the Minnesota Wild reeled off 12 straight wins until running into Columbus, and Washington was on a nine-game winning streak as of January 16th.

To put things into perspective, Columbus had just 76 points last season and had earned 62 already after 42 contests this year. However, they were still a point behind Washington for top spot in the league, and the Wild were third in the overall standings with 61 points. Washington, Columbus and Minnesota all led the NHL in the first half of the season with the fewest defeats at just nine. The best goaltenders during that stretch belong to these three clubs as they were Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota, Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus and Braden Holtby of Washington.

Dubnyk had a 21-7-3 record at the halfway point with a league-leading 1.78 goals-against average and 94.0 save percentage. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky (26-6-3) won 14 games in a row and had a fourth-best goals-against average of 2.00 with a third-ranked 93.1 save percentage. Holtby (21-8-6) had a 1.85 goals-against and a 93.3 save percentage, which were both second-best in the league. Boston netminder Tuukka Rask (22-9-5) has also been excellent with a third-best goals against of 1.98 and fourth-best save percentage of 92.5.

The most disappointing teams in the league have been the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Florida was third-best in the Eastern Conference last season with 103 points, but were tied for ninth at the halfway mark with 48. The Islanders were fifth-best in the East with 100 points last campaign and were in last place in the conference and 28th in the NHL with just 40 points. Meanwhile, Tampa finished last season sixth in the East with 97 points and were fourth-worst this time around with 44 points.

There’s been a lot of ink concerning this year’s excellent crop of rookies and the competition for the Calder Trophy. At the halfway mark, the race couldn’t be much closer as both the first and second-overall picks last summer, Auston Matthews of Toronto and Patrick Laine of Winnipeg, each had 21 goals and 16 assists. Fellow forward Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs was just a pair of points behind them with 10 goals and 25 assists. We can’t overlook Zach Werenski of Columbus either, as he was the top-scoring rookie defenceman with 26 points, was a plus-8, and a big reason for the Blue Jackets’ resurgence this season.

When it comes to offseason free-agent acquisitions, the best pickups have been forwards Michael Grabner of the New York Rangers, Eric Staal of Minnesota and Sam Gagner of Columbus. Gagner was signed from Philadelphia for just $650,000 and had scored 30 points in half a season after registering just 16 in 53 games last year. Staal had 39 points at the halfway mark this season after scoring 39 points in 83 games with Carolina and the Rangers last campaign. As for the speedy Grabner, he had 19 goals and 27 points at the midway mark compared to nine goals and 18 points with Toronto in 80 games last year.

The most valuable player over the first half was contested by physical defenceman Brent Burns of San Jose and forwards Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Connor McDavid of Edmonton. Crosby led the league with 26 goals in 36 games at the halfway mark as well as in points-per game at 1.28. McDavid led the league in overall scoring with 50 points and Burns has been the top-scoring defenceman with 17 goals and 44 points. McDavid was scoring a pace of 1.11 points a game and Burns was at 1.02 points per outing.

We shouldn’t forget the coaches either as John Tortorella of Columbus, Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota and Mike Babcock of Toronto have all done wonders. Columbus was by far the surprise of the league and also owned the third-best goals for and goals-against records at the midway point. They were 27th in goals for last season and 30th in goals against. Boudreau had his team in top spot in the Western Conference with 61 points in his first year with Minnesota. They missed the playoffs last year with 87 points. As for Babcock, the Leafs were the worst team in the NHL last season with 69 points. They were tied for ninth in the East at the halfway mark with 48 points at 20-13-8 with eight rookies in the lineup.

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