This week’s article is a change from the norm. Rather than focus on recent Risers and Fallers due to the minimal number of games since the prior column, this one covers First Half Studs and Duds as the NHL exits from the All-Star break. All stats are prior to Tuesday’s games.
First Liners (Risers)
Auston Matthews, C, TOR – Matthews entered the league with substantial hype after Toronto selected him first overall in the last draft. So far this season, the phenom has met and exceeded the hype. Matthews has 23 goals and 16 assists in 47 games and his teammates have gone out of their way to praise his leadership skills. The Maple Leafs’ third line center shouldn’t be there for long, as it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the team’s top pivotman.
Vincent Trocheck, C, FLA – Trocheck made a name for himself last season, scoring 25 goals along with 28 assists in 76 games. Coming into this year, he was expected to be the Panthers’ second center behind Aleksander Barkov, moving Nick Bjugstad to the third line. With Barkov sidelined, Trocheck has moved up a line and continues to produce and shouldn’t suffer when/if the Finn returns.
Patrik Laine, LW, WPG – Like Matthews, Laine came into the NHL with almost as much hype. He showed he belonged in the World Championships last year and carried that strong play into the World Cup and season. Laine already has 22 goals and 18 assists in 40 games while serving as Winnipeg’s second-line left winger. The new Finnish Flash has a heavy shot and loves to set up from Alex Ovechkin’s spot at the left dot on the power play.
Rickard Rakell, LW, ANA – Rakell took a step forward last season with 43 points, earning a six-year, $22.8 million contract extension. The delay in signing that contract coupled with an abdominal surgery resulted in him starting the season late. He has more than made up for lost time, tallying 20 goals – tying his career-high – with nine assists in just 40 games. Rakell is in the catbird seat, skating next to Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, so enjoy the ride.
David Pastrnak, RW, BOS – Pastrnak was profiled two weeks ago but he clearly earned a spot as a First Half Stud. Of course, I was silly enough to let him keep slipping in my home league, but hopefully you didn’t make the same mistake. Pastrnak has 20 goals and 18 assists along with a plus-14 rating in 45 games as the B’s top right winger. On this pace, the 25th pick in the 2014 Draft looks to be a lock for 30 goals..
Justin Schultz, D, PIT – Schultz continues to rack up points, posting nine in his last six games. That production has give Schultz eight goals and 27 assists in just 48 games topping his career-high of 33 points set in 2013-14 when he made 74 appearances. Schultz opted to re-sign a one-year, $1.4 million deal with Pittbsurgh in July, betting on his ability to earn a big deal. So far, so good, as Schultz should get rewarded with a big payday this summer.
Nikita Zaitsev, D, TOR – Zaitsev, another of the Baby Buds, has seamlessly transitioned from the KHL to NHL. The hope was that his strong positional play, offensive skill and good shot would carry across the Atlantic. Those wishes has proven prophetic, as the Russian has a goal and 19 assists in 47 games along with 102 hits and 77 blocked shots while playing the right side on the second pairing. Zaitsev likely has another level in his game, especially as his teammates mature.
Cam Talbot, G, EDM – Talbot showed how he felt about his All-Star snub, winning six of the last seven appearances, posting a .950 save percentage and 1.37 GAA. Talbot entered the break at 26-12-7 with a 2.33 GAA and .922 save percentage, besting his top numbers. Edmonton is batting for the Pacific Division lead, as their defense is mildly better. Talbot leads or is near the lead amongst goaltenders in games played, minutes, saves and shot attempts, showing just how valuable he has been to the Oilers.
Sergei Bobrovsky, G, CLM – The Bob had a brilliant first half, leading the league in wins with 28 while ranking fifth in GAA and fourth in save percentage. The 2012-13 Vezina winner is once again in line to contend for that award, projected to be battling Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby for the right to be known as the NHL’s top netminder.
Others include Alexander Wennberg, Ryan Kesler, Bo Horvat, Mark Scheifele, Nicklas Backstrom, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Eric Staal, Ryan Johansen, Bo Horvat, Mikael Backlund, Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner, Paul Byron, Viktor Arvidsson, Anders Lee, Michael Grabner, Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander, Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Miller, Filip Forsberg, Mike Hoffman, Conor Sheary, Jason Zucker, Mats Zuccarello, Patrick Maroon, Ryan Ellis, Matt Niskanen, Troy Stecher, Brent Burns, Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Werenski, Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan McDonagh, Martin Jones, Matt Murray, Pekka Rinne, Thomas Greiss, Braden Holtby and Frederik Andersen.
Training Room (Injuries)
Evgeni Malkin (knee, placed on IR on Tuesday), Alex Galchenyuk (reaggravated knee injury that previously cost him 18 games, was able to skate Tuesday), Aleksander Barkov (undisclosed, on IR, could be back within the week), Kevin Hayes (injured left leg/knee, out 1-2 more weeks), Jonathan Huberdeau (Achilles, could miss rest of the season, but was on ice Monday and now may return in early March), Tyler Toffoli (lower-body injury, getting closer to return), Kris Letang (knee, returned to action Tuesday), John Carlson (upper-body, returned to action Tuesday), Roman Josi (upper-body, on IR, was not activated Tuesday as originally expected), Morgan Rielly (lower-body, missed sixth straight game Tuesday), Tyson Barrie (lower-body, missed four games, played Tuesday), Jimmy Howard (sprained MCL, skated with team Monday, will play a couple games in AHL), Craig Anderson (wife’s illness, practiced Monday, will need two weeks of conditioning and may also get short AHL stint) and Semyon Varlamov (season-ending hip surgery).
Fourth Liners/Press Boxers (Fallers)
Jonathan Toews, C, CHI – Toews salvaged what was a lousy pre-All-Star half of the season with six points in two games just before the break. With just 28 in 42, subtracting those six points reveals how poor of a season he was having to that point. Toews likely should not have been selected to the All-Star Game, but he is a name and a draw, which likely drove the nomination. Hopefully for his owners and the Blackhawks, the elite playoff pivot builds off his recent success.
Boone Jenner, LW, CLM – Jenner had a career year in 2015-16, tallying 30 goals and 49 points, seemingly establishing himself as one of the team's building blocks for the future. He was rewarded during the campaign with a two-year contract extension with an average value of $2.9 million. Jenner entered this year prime to build off that fine season, but totaled just 11 points in the first 39 games. He has rebounded slightly, though not enough to make owners who drafted him happy – especially those who drafted him high in leagues.
Sami Vatanen, D, ANA – Vatanen, who was profiled last week, gets another mention due to the nature of this column. He sat out last Monday’s game as a healthy scratch, continuing his downward spiral. The Finnish rearguard was in the lineup the following game, but failed to score again, giving him just two points his last 12 games. It’s been a year to forget for Vatanen, who signed a four-year, $19.5 million contract extension in June of 2016, which includes a partial no-trade clause between 2018 and 2020. He only has 17 in 46 games after notching 37 and 38 the past two seasons.
Jaroslav Halak, G, NYI – Halak was unable to build off last year’s playoff success and solid showing in the World Cup, posting a 6-8-5 record with a 3.23 GAA and .904 save percentage over 21 appearances. Those numbers earned the Slovak a spot on waivers and, after passing through, a trip to Bridgeport of the AHL. The Islanders are still on the hook for the $4.5 million on his salary this year and next and look for him to be exposed in the expansion draft.
Others include Henrik Zetterberg, Nick Bjugstad, Adam Henrique, Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin, Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, Anthony Duclair, Jiri Hudler, Troy Brouwer, John Carlson, Shayne Gostisbehere, Erik Karlsson, Adam Larsson, P.K. Subban, Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, Jake Allen, Steve Mason, Brian Elliott and Connor Hellebuyck.