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Best and worst of the NHL at the halfway point

Concussions and turbulence in coaching ranks have been the biggest stories in the first half. Columbus replaced Coach Scott Arniel with Todd Richards on Monday.

January 09, 2012|Helene Elliott
  • Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby crawls on the ice after being injured during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2011.
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby crawls on the ice after being… (Keith Srakocic / Associated…)

The NHL season reached the halfway point Monday with the New York Rangers leading the East, slightly ahead of the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins. In the West the Vancouver Canucks have overcome a slow start to rank first, though the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues aren't far behind.

The alarming incidence of concussions has been the season's biggest and most worrisome story. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby remains out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms, as do such stars as Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger and Kings left wing Simon Gagne. According to records kept by agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Sports, 53 players have missed time because of concussions — and there's no end in sight.

Turbulence in the coaching ranks was also a trend, with Scott Arniel of 30th-ranked Columbus becoming the seventh coach to be fired. He was replaced Monday by Todd Richards, who was dismissed by Minnesota last April. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, which keeps records for the NHL, the largest number of teams to make changes during a season was nine in 1981-82 and again in 2000-01.

Here's a look at the best and worst of the first half:

Most Valuable Player: Claude Giroux of Philadelphia. Honorable mention: Henrik Sedin, Vancouver.

Giroux (18 goals, 48 points in 36 games) makes the Flyers go and has kept them afloat through a series of injuries. Through Sunday's games the skillful center shared the league lead with 19 power-play points and 1.33 points per game, excluding Crosby's 1.50 points per game in eight games. Sedin (11 goals, 49 points in 42 games) has led the Canucks to the top of the West.

Best goaltender: Jonathan Quick, Kings. Honorable mention: St. Louis' tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers.

Quick plays for the league's lowest-scoring team, which puts him under constant pressure to make a goal or two stand up. His stats — 1.93 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and a league-leading six shutouts — are superb. He deserves better support and less angst.

Rarely do goalies split playing time as evenly as Elliott and Halak (21 starts each) have done with such outstanding results. Elliott has a 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage; Halak is at 2.29 and .911. Lundqvist (1.89, .939) has been the Rangers' backbone.

Best defenseman: Zdeno Chara, Boston. Honorable mention: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Brian Campbell, Florida; Ryan Suter, Nashville; Duncan Keith, Chicago; Dan Girardi, Rangers.

A lot of fine performances this season. Chara stands out at a league-leading +27, with 25 points in 36 games. Karlsson leads defensemen in scoring with six goals and 41 points for the surging Senators. Campbell, sent to Florida by Chicago in a salary dump, has had a fine season with three goals and 33 points while averaging 26 minutes and 21 seconds per game. Suter, always a standout, ranks second in average ice time at 27:01, behind the steady Girardi's 27:19.

Rookie of the year: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton. Honorable mention: Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado.

Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 draft pick last June, had 13 goals and 35 points in 38 games and was running away with this until he injured his left shoulder last week. He's out indefinitely. Henrique (12 goals, 32 points, +9 defensive rating) could pass him by season's end. Kudos also to No. 2 overall pick Landeskog, who has eight goals, 21 points and a +10 defensive rating with a team that has had a lot of ups and downs.

Coach of the year: Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis. Honorable mention: Alain Vigneault, Vancouver; Claude Julien, Boston.

Hitchcock succeeded Davis Payne when the Blues were 6-7-0 and has had a dramatic impact. Vigneault steered the Canucks through an early-season goaltending flap and back on top of the conference. Julien didn't let his players fall victim to the Stanley Cup hangover and has the Bruins excelling at both ends of the ice. Their goal differential of +68 (141-73) is staggering.

On the rise: The Rangers (9-1-0 in their last 10), Senators (6-3-1), San Jose (8-1-1), St. Louis (three straight wins, 6-3-1).

In decline: Tampa Bay (goaltending/defense flailing), Edmonton (youth and injuries), Pittsburgh (Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang were recently joined on sidelines by James Neal and Jordan Staal), Buffalo (2-6-2 in its last 10), Minnesota (1-7-2).

Weirdest injury: Kings left wing Dustin Penner said his back seized up when he sat to eat pancakes his wife had made, causing spasms that kept him out of last Saturday's game. Fill in your own punch line.

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