Yahoo Sports NHL's midseason roundtable: Most fun team, Cup predictions and more

Yahoo Sports Canada

We’re entering the second half of the NHL season, the All-Star break is coming to a close, and now the real fun is about to start.

It’s been an exhilarating start to the year, however, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t go through what’s been a jam-packed season to date.

A panel consisting of experts from Yahoo Sports NHL’s staff came up with their predictions, favourite storylines and other topics that have captivated their attention so far through 2019-20.

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What has been your favourite storyline?

Arun Srinivasan: Don Cherry's firing from Sportsnet was long overdue and provided some imminent, if only temporary relief for hockey fans disenfranchised from the sport's core demographic

From an on-ice perspective, the NHL's young talent boom being on full display has been the best storyline. Cale Makar has established himself as a staff favourite, Quinn Hughes has all the qualities you'd expect from a modern defenceman and we often forget that Connor McDavid just turned 23 this month. Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak and Jack Eichel among others have continued to establish themselves as the faces of the league and none of them have celebrated their 25th birthday yet. 

Ailish Forfar: Maybe “favourite” isn’t the right word here, but my most intriguing storyline would be the rise of players speaking up and the shift towards holding the league/coaches/teams accountable for wrongdoings. This season could mark a big step forward in truly making hockey for everyone one day.

Thomas Williams: For me, it has to be the Pittsburgh Penguins refusing to lose, despite losing their stars to significant injuries through the first half of the season. Forwards like Zach Anton-Reese becoming one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL, and Bryan Rust producing at a full-season pace of 100 points, is unreal. The Penguins will never die.

Ashley Hufford: 3-on-3 OT! 3-on-3 has made overtime more dramatic, more highlight-worthy, and just more fun. You can't look away and when the buzzer rings to go to a shootout, the players, coaches and fans are all disappointed. Everybody wants more, so come on, NHL, give us the 10-minute 3-on-3 OT we deserve.

Also, we can thank OT for giving us the soundbite of the season courtesy of Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice: “It’s a free-for-all of fecal matter. It’s a s—show out there, and that’s great.”

Stan Temming: Noel Acciari's scoring stats so far this season. The guy's got 18 goals and just three assists in his first 46 games. Should have known he'd be a likely candidate for the NHL's 2019-20 Cy Young Award, though. He scored 10 goals and only had one assist in 60 games with the Bruins two years ago. 

Andrew Zuber: Hope you didn't pay for goaltending! Here are some of the names in the top-10 in save percentage and their salaries: Tristan Jarry ($675K), Darcy Kuemper ($1.84M), Elvis Merzlikins ($874K), Ilya Samsonov ($925K), Pavel Francouz ($950K). 

Not only is there some young unknown and drastically underpaid talent at the top of the leaderboard, some of the highest paid goaltenders in the league have struggled mightily. Carey Price ($10.5M) is 30th in save percentage, Sergei Bobrovsky ($10.5) is 47th, and Braden Holtby ($6.1M) is 49th.

Of the top-10 highest paid goalies in the NHL, only Tuukka Rask has delivered top-10 numbers, with Connor Hellebuyck and Corey Crawford sneaking inside the top-30. Jordan Binnington's mid-season explosion onto the scene and into the Stanley Cup Final last season probably has a few GM's wondering if there isn't a cheaper option hiding somewhere in their organization that can give them a lot of performance for very little cost. And those teams with a sizeable chunk of their cap space tied up in net have put themselves at a disadvantage out of the gate to try to build their team. 

Kyle Cantlon: The fact that Alex Ovechkin has a somewhat legitimate chance to catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goal-scoring crown when all is said and done is mind blowing to me. This chase to 894 has me smitten.

Which team has been the most disappointing?

It's been a nightmare year for P.K Subban and the New Jersey Devils. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
It's been a nightmare year for P.K Subban and the New Jersey Devils. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Srinivasan: It's the New Jersey Devils. P.K. Subban, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev to go along with a team that already had Taylor Hall, sign me up, right? Turns out, everything that could've gone wrong for the Devils did go wrong, as Subban isn't anywhere close to his top form, Hughes has looked like a rookie, head coach John Hynes was fired and replaced by the untested Alain Nasreddine, while Hall orchestrated a trade to the Arizona Coyotes.

You're better off watching reruns of The Sopranos than tuning into the Devils for the remainder of the year.

Forfar: It’s a tie between the Devils and Rangers for me. I was so looking forward to this rivalry re-igniting with the additions of No. 1 and No. 2 picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, plus off-season acquisitions P.K. Subban and Artemi Panarin… but it’s simply been a snoozefest.

Williams: The San Jose Sharks have been extremely disappointing as they tough it out at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 21-25-4 record. Poised to have a final go at the postseason with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau reunited, the loss of Joonas Donskoi has been felt and young Timo Meier has had a rough go after his breakout last season. Oh, and they don't have their first-round pick.

Hufford: How do you not say the Leafs here? The Leafs came into the season with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Frederik Andersen and Morgan Rielly all signed to long-term deals and then just preceded to fall flat - while things have improved under Chief Keefe they're still currently out of a playoff spot with 33 games left to go.  I think they find a way to sneak in, but can they beat Boston?.....I guess we'll find out. 

Temming: The New Jersey Devils. After watching him dominate at the Olympics, I got a little too excited about Nikita Gusev. I took him way too early in all of my fantasy drafts. Now look at me. 

Zuber: My instinct is to say the New Jersey Devils because they came into the season built like an NHL 20 franchise go awry, but I think this has to be the San Jose Sharks.

Outside of the high profile P.K. Subban addition, the Devils are still mostly a young core that needs to grow, while the Sharks have found themselves victims of an unwillingness to fix the very problem that likely cost them a Stanley Cup in their window of excellence, with the bulk of their roster and key players are 26 or older, and they no longer possess the elite possession and goal scoring talent to overcome the issues the team has in net.

It isn't that Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been worse than usual this season, it is that they are playing exactly as they normally do but are being tasked with a lot more. There are a lot of big names making big money with no trade clauses on the roster, meaning this freefall could make things ugly in the bay for an extended period. 

Cantlon: New JerseyI thought the Devils would be on the playoff bubble, not fighting to avoid relegation to the KHL. 

Which team is the ultimate league pass team? 

Cale Makar is a favourite of the Yahoo Sports NHL team and the Colorado Avalanche are just so much fun to watch. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Cale Makar is a favourite of the Yahoo Sports NHL team and the Colorado Avalanche are just so much fun to watch. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Srinivasan: With due respect to the Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights, I'm going with the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado's collective team speed is just at a different frequency than everyone else, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar - staff favourite of Yahoo Sports NHL - are among the most electrifying players in the league. They shouldn't be under the radar as a genuine Cup contender either, we're all in on the Avalanche. 

Forfar: I’m sure everyone feels the same way, but I’m obsessed with the Avalanche. If I need to add another for diversity, the Hurricanes. And also, just Gritty on his own.  

Williams: The Vancouver Canucks are a close contender, but every time the Carolina Hurricanes are playing, it turns into a must-watch event. The loss of defenceman Dougie Hamilton puts a massive dent into their watchability, but forwards Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov more than make up for it.

Hufford: They aren't a playoff team but the young, fast, and high-scoring New York Rangers are not to be missed this season. After a big off-season contract, Artemi Panarin will almost undoubtedly hit a career-high in goals and points proving he was worth the dough, 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko is learning his place in the NHL with top-line minutes, and - mostly dramatically - after 15 seasons as the No. 1 goalie on Broadway, Henrik Lundqvist is spending more time on the bench than ever before thanks to the emergence of Russian duo Alexander Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin.

While this season is not their season, the future is bright in New York.

Temming: The Vegas Golden Knights. I could honestly watch Mark Stone play hockey every single day of the week.

Zuber: I will always find time for the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon's combination of gifts is as entertaining a skillset as there is in the league, and the emergence of Cale Makar as the prototype of the league's next great wave of defensive talent has been a nightly gift to observe. Nazem Kadri gives them an edge they didn't have previously and the run they made last year has given them the confidence that they can beat any team they face.

They also get the league pass bonus of starting their games in Mountain Time, which allows you to jump into their games in the 3rd period after finishing off the early slate. 

Cantlon: EdmontonThose two mega stars have me itching to flip on every Oilers game. Mike Smith is always a good time, too. 

What is one surprising development you expect in the second half of the season? 

It's a time for a commitment to a sustainable women's professional hockey league. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)
It's a time for a commitment to a sustainable women's professional hockey league. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Srinivasan: Steven Stamkos was the last player to reach the 60-goal mark in 2011-12. This year, four players will hit 60 goals as Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Ovechkin all continue their torrid paces to the season. And at the risk of sounding like the inverse of "The Hockey Sweater" let's just re-name the trophy after Ovechkin, anyways. 

Forfar: I'm a bit off script here, but we’ve seen a lot of individual teams start to invest in the women’s game this season which has been huge for us players. After the huge addition of women having their own platform at the All-Star Game, I hope to see this momentum grow into a bigger partnership at the end of the season.

Williams: I expect the Boston Bruins will show more of the morality than they have at the first half of the season. They are a team that is heavily reliant on their top players to beat out the odds every night and things might start come crashing down. A bang average team when it comes to possession and shot quality could find themselves in a tough division battle with the Lightning and Panthers on the rise.

Hufford: Keep your eyes on Columbus, who will battle its way through the second half of the season into the playoff spot. The Jackets had a rough start to the season, but are 15-2-4 since December 9th, mostly thanks to the three goalies in rotation: Joonas Korpisalo (currently injured), Elvis Merzlikins, and Matiss Kivlenieks. I expect Kekalainen to make some roster moves before Feb. 24, but my bold prediction is that the Blue Jackets will push past the Flyers, Hurricanes, and Islanders to secure that 3rd spot in the Metro.

Oh, and while I'm making bold predictions, expect Gerard Gallant to become to head coach of the currently unnamed Seattle franchise.

Temming: Gritty gets a restraining order filed against him... but in all seriousness (kinda), Acciari keeps this good thing going and scores 30, shattering his previous career-high by 20. In the process, he only picks up a total of, let's say, eight assists and cements himself as Florida's most valuable free-agent addition of last summer. 

Zuber: Can Canadian teams really sweep the Pacific Division playoff spots? Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary are currently 1-2-3 in the Pacific, and with the way these three teams feel about each other (thanks, Matt Tkachuk!) hopefully the bad blood continues to bubble up as the games get more and more important. The mini arms race on Canada's west coast could make for a fun trade deadline, as well. 

Cantlon: I think Nathan MacKinnon has a monster second half (not surprising) and edges out Connor McDavid for the Art Ross (fairly surprising!)

Stanley Cup winner?

Will this finally be the year that Steven Stamkos lifts the Stanley Cup? (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Will this finally be the year that Steven Stamkos lifts the Stanley Cup? (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Srinivasan: By process of elimination, it's the Blues again. Stop booing me, I'm right! Even though they play a brand of anti-hockey that's been a bit of an eye sore, it certainly works while Jordan Binnington has been outstanding in net again. Much as I'd like to see the Avalanche surge through the Western Conference, it has to be the Blues, while the Eastern Conference's juggernauts fight to the death and come up short. 

Forfar: I said it in August, and I’m no quitter. Leafs. Imagine a combined Raptors/Leafs Championship parade?!?! A girl can dream.

Williams: Picking a top team is boring, so Arizona Coyotes, 2020 Stanley Cup champions sounds alright to me. Phil Kessel can now cement his Hall of Fame case.

Hufford: I hate to say it, but I have to go with the Boston Bruins. If the city of Boston doesn't win one championship per year the world might end

Temming: If I learned anything from the last year's playoffs, it's don't bother making predictions when it comes to the NHL. Making a Stanley Cup prediction is like expecting your date to actually show up to prom... it probably won't happen and many tears will be involved. (Ed. note: Booooooooooooooo!)

Zuber: Washington over Colorado. 

Alex Ovechkin is at it again and looks like he could continue scoring 50 a year well into the 2030's. John Carlson has taken another leap forward and this team has been through battle enough times to know what it takes to go all the way. If Braden Holtby finds his mojo again or Ilya Samsonov fully establishes himself as one of the game's elite goaltenders they are a force to be reckoned with.

Along with the top line skill, they play angry and physical. Even when the Caps don't come out on top of the scoreboard they make sure teams gets a physical reminder of every matchup. Have fun facing Tom Wilson seven times in two weeks! 

Cantlon: LightningOn paper they still boast the best top-to-bottom roster, in my mind. A top-heavy yet deep defense core and a goalie who has the ability to save a high-volume of high-danger shots and string together multiple wins in a row. If the team is peaking and healthy heading into April, yikes. I smell a Victor Hedman Conn Smythe, folks.

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