What We Learned: Our 30-team second half preview; who wins the East?

What We Learned: Our 30-team second half preview; who wins the East?

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

As we begin the second half (and really it's more like the second two-fifths, but don't worry about it), there are a lot of questions facing a lot of teams in the league. The biggest one is, “What does the future hold?”

Most teams in the league have about 35 games or so remaining on their schedules and some serious decisions to make as the trade deadline approaches over the next six weeks, we're almost certainly going to learn a lot about the quality of various teams around the league.

The weird thing is both the East and West are kind of boring already; a lot of what we're going to see in the season's remaining games is a lot of jockeying for position. There aren't too many teams that are really going to be able to pry a playoff spot out of anyone's hands at this point, because already 13 of the league's playoff spots are all but assured (that is, that many teams have at least a 92 percent chance of making it according to Sports Club Stats and its invaluable projections). But even after that, there are really only teams in the West that have a lot to figure out, as Boston has a 70.8 percent chance of making it in the East, and the next-closest team is Ottawa with 16.7 percent.

The jockeying out West is mainly between Calgary, San Jose and Los Angeles, three teams fighting for two spots, and while LA's the underdog in that race (46.8 percent) you still have to believe a lot more in their chances to pull things together than Calgary's, especially because the reigning champions trail the possession-deficient challengers by a single point in the standings (due entirely to their having gone 1-7 in shootouts this year).

So neither of the races at the bottom are all that interesting, and it sure looks like Anaheim's going to run away with the top spot in the West as Nashville goes through its perhaps inevitable Rinne-less stretch. In the East, though, it's an entirely different story.

Here we have three teams within a point of each other for the top spot, and two more within four. Five teams separated by a mere four points, and with the caveat that the leader has at least one game in hand on everyone behind it. Tampa's 64 points from 48 games is the third-best total in the league, but in terms of points taken per game, but it's seventh in the league.

No one is saying the Lightning aren't a very good team, because they are. They're the second-best possession team in the league (54.8 percent fenwick for, even after adjusting for score effects) and they're dramatically outscoring their opponents at evens despite the fact that Ben Bishop hasn't really been that good this year. The effect of the team's shooting percentage — a second-in-the-league 9.3 percent — helps a lot. Mediocre special teams have been a problem, too, but not so much of one that it really matters all that much. They're the best team in the East.

For now.

Right behind them are the Islanders and Red Wings, and these are teams that also seem poised to overtake them. This is for two reasons. First, the Islanders and Red Wings have generally had more success in the games they've played, and have a better foundation for it than do the Bolts. Both are right around where they should be in terms of PDO (100.1 for the Wings, 99.5 for the Isles), as opposed to Tampa having been a little lucky. And likewise both are elite possession teams in the league (a No. 1 score-adjusted 55.3 percent for the Isles, and a No. 5 53.5 percent for the Wings). They're not simply getting the bounces, as Tampa kinda-sorta has, and they have the puck far more often than their opponents, which tells you a lot about how sustainable their success is.

The other teams that are theoretically in the hunt for the East are, of course, Montreal and Pittsburgh, but I kind of reject the idea that they could make a push out of hand. While Pittsburgh has the possession numbers (ninth-ranked in score-adjusted fenwick), Montreal certainly doesn't (they're No. 21 in the NHL right now). That doesn't do a lot to guarantee the Habs' ongoing success, even in a relatively soft conference.

And while Montreal at least gets by with the sustainably excellent goaltending of Carey Price, a proven elite netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury has kind of spent the last month regressing to what we know he is: a little better than average in the regular season. The Penguins have built their case of being one of the better teams in their conference mostly on the basis of Fleury being a .928 goalie for the first three months of the season, a full 17 points above his .911 over the first 514 games of his career. That he's gone .891 in the month of January, a tough stretch we can probably expect to continue as he regresses to his career average, should come as no surprise. With him go the Penguins' chances of realistically seizing the East by the scruff of its neck.

(It should also be noted here that the Rangers are charging hard of late, and certainly putting in a credible performance, but their deficit is probably a little too big to overcome; six points is actually a lot, unless they keep up this recent run for another two months.)

So the question here is whether it's the Wings or Islanders who sit in the catbird seat to overtake the Lightning and win the East.

I think the answer is obvious.

Even aside from Jimmy Howard's injury potentially putting a damper on the Wings' chances — which it unquestionably does — Detroit's underlying numbers haven't been good lately. In fact, like Tampa's, they've dropped of considerably while the Islanders remain more or less where they've been all year.

That's not a direction in which a team wants to be headed, and ascribe any reasons to it you like, but the fact is that slipping down toward 50 percent, or beneath it, significantly reduces your chances to win. The above chart shows possession over five-game segments, and obviously just going by “the start of January” is a small sample size, but the point is that the Islanders (orange and blue) aren't dropping off anywhere near Detroit (red) or Tampa (blue and white).

Jaroslav Halak has been steadily decent to good in net, and while the team allows a lot of goals (their 89 conceded at even strength is the 11th-largest total in the league) they can probably be expected to pick up his game a little bit; Halak has only allowed 38 of those 89, and his even-strength save percentage is only five points higher than his pre-Islander career average.

And here's one last thing that should be a point of concern for all non-Islanders contenders in the East: Among them, only the Penguins have played a harder schedule to this point. For the Wings and Bolts, the schedule only gets harder from here on out. There's not a lot of quality on this remaining schedule (two more with the Sabres, Leafs, Flyers, and Hurricanes, three more with Columbus, etc.) and the difficulty in beating those teams they otherwise might have had is only going to diminish as those teams sell off useful assets or resign themselves to fate. Their longest road trip left is six days, and they play Dallas, Nashville, Florida, and Toronto in that stretch; not exactly daunting.

The Islanders have basically done nothing but impress since the season began, and given what's in front of them, it doesn't seem as though they're about to start.

This was basically unthinkable in September, but now it's the expectation.

What We Learned (Second half preview edition)

Anaheim Ducks: The thing with the Ducks is that they're not going to keep winning these one-goal games. They're somehow 22-0-6 in them. But if they can keep the special teams rolling, they might end the year with fewer than five losses in such games.

Arizona Coyotes: Sell, sell, sell. Sell everything. This is the only way for this team to get ahead. Who wants one slightly used Mike Smith?

Boston Bruins: The Bruins are better than their record and they're going to keep improving, which is good news for everyone because it probably keeps Charlie Jacobs off their backs. They're obviously too far back to catch up with most of the “best” teams in the conference, but they could be terrifying underdogs if things go as they should come playoff time.

Buffalo Sabres: They're still not tanking, guys. So expect a big ol' turnaround in the second half. They might win 10 more games this year!

Calgary Flames: This team is baffling. Every goalie they have goes through stretches of either being white-hot or turd-brown, with almost no in-between. The latest of these is Joni Ortio, whose AHL numbers suggest he's not that good, but the Flames are probably going to keep riding him until his save percentage hits .900 too. I sincerely doubt this team makes the playoffs.

Carolina Hurricanes: This legitimately could be the year that Eric Staal and Cam Ward get traded. Wouldn't that be something? They have to clear out some roster space, though. Or hey maybe they keep wining now that Jordan Staal's back healthy and they keep rolling with this roster (but that would be dumb).

Chicago Blackhawks: Yeah this is, was, and will be one of the best teams in hockey. There's no reason they're going to drop off at all. They might actually get better, and that's a scary thought.

Colorado Avalanche: One thing this team is definitively not doing is getting anywhere close to the playoffs. A potential Ryan O'Reilly trade awaits. The return should be fascinating.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Just the fact that this team cannot get away from injuries to key players basically means the only focus they ought to have for the second half should be getting healthy and hoping Ryan Johansen doesn't spontaneously combust. Try again next year, gang.

Dallas Stars: The chances that this team makes the playoffs are slim, but all the indicators say they're heading in the right direction. They'd need to get almost 60 percent of the points available to them to reach the playoff threshold, and you can put this fumbled season squarely on the goalies' shoulders.

Detroit Red Wings: Would you believe the Red Wings continue to target a right-shot defenseman for the stretch run? Yeah, maybe that'll fix whatever's gone wrong the last month.

Edmonton Oilers: They're trading everyone, don't worry folks. The rebuild continues, hilariously.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers are in a real interesting spot here. The playoffs are theoretically possible but not all that likely for them. The interesting thing is they have enough veterans to sell that it might be worth their while to do so. Buying, though? I don't Buy It!!!!!

Los Angeles Kings: Here's another team in an interesting spot, and they at least seem more likely to make the playoffs than not, given the quality of that roster. And while they don't have a ton of ground to make up, the recent run of losses can't be encouraging.

Minnesota Wild: This is a fundamentally decent team for which their best option in net is either Darcy Kuemper or Devan Dubnyk. They're too far out of it to do anything at this point, so you might as well start planning for the summer now. Wonder if they keep Mike Yeo, but I think he's done a good enough job with this club to get one more spin around the parking lot.

Montreal Canadiens: Now, this certainly isn't saying much, but the thing with the Habs is that they're really not that good. Carey Price is that good. And thus any ability to make another strong run in the playoffs goes more or less entirely through him. Neither this roster nor its play screams, “Cup contender.”

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: The Preds are likely to take a bit of a hit in terms of winning percentage during Pekka Rinne's absence (given how tied it often is to save percentage for teams that rely on goaltending so heavily). But when he comes back, if he's 100 percent, they could seriously crack some skulls in the final month and a half or so.

New Jersey Devils: That Adam Oates' coaching has been a highlight of late tells you everything you need to know about this season for the Devs. The less said the better.

New York Islanders: Weird that having a goalie who isn't among the worst in the NHL is now leading to the Isles being a team that isn't abjectly terrible. Weird.

New York Rangers: Run a search for news stories on the Rangers and basically everything you're going to see about them is that they're looking to buy at the deadline. And they should. They're a very good team, with some fairly obvious holes that shouldn't be too difficult to fill via the trade market. The question is whether they have the cap room without moving another valuable piece.

Ottawa Senators: This tells you everything, really. Not a great franchise, just spinning its tires, no ability to improve by spending. This season is already a lost cause. Woof.

Philadelphia Flyers: Yeah, when your team is this good you gotta stand pat.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Obviously this is still a good team and everything. Maybe Fleury rebounds to the kind of numbers he was posting earlier this year (but I doubt it). They don't have a lot of space to add anyone of note without shipping a deal out, and if you're “Stanley Cup or bust,” err on the side of the latter.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks will almost certainly be looking to buy something at the deadline because they're basically assured a playoff spot. They're really good, but what they need is defense, and the line for it stretches around the block. I don't see how they improve that much without ripping someone off. Sticking with what they have won't leave their chances beggared, though.

St. Louis Blues: This is certainly a team on the upswing after a disappointing start, but I'd guess their quality is somewhere in the middle of what they've done in various stretches this year. Probably on the higher end of that, but I can't see them as being legitimate Cup contenders when it comes right down to it.

Tampa Bay Lightning: When this is what the locals are worried about at the All-Star break, you're in pretty good shape. They're hoping Ben Bishop picks it up in the back half, but it's not going to be easy if the possession keeps dropping.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The only question left in Toronto is, "Do you really blow up the Leafs?" So weird how all these Toronto media people are suddenly so down on a roster they loved, like, two months ago.

Vancouver Canucks: Of all the truly good teams in the league, this is the one that seems to have been the quietest. I have no idea what they're going to do, especially with Kevin Bieksa out indefinitely, because you can see this group either going on a nice little run in the back half or collapsing altogether, and neither would be much of a surprise.

Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin is “definitely more mature” now that his coach is actually good. And also they're winning by the strangest coincidence. You wonder how much consideration Barry Trotz really ought to get for Jack Adams considering that Peter Laviolette's only real accomplishment is “watched Pekka Rinne play out of his mind for three and a half months.” The Caps look like a totally different, and very threatening, club.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are really good, and would be in much better shape if they hadn't started Ondrej Pavelec so much. They've sorted out that latter problem, though, and could be a real problem for the rest of the West as long as Michael Hutchinson can keep it up. (How much longer that will be, though, isn't clear.)

Play of the Weekend

Brilliant play by Max Domi in the OHL the other night.

Gold Star Award

Team Toews head coach Peter Laviolette, second from right rear, takes a picture of his daughter, left, who joined him behind the bench during the first period of the NHL All-Star hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. Team Toews won 17-12. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

I absolutely love everything about All-Star weekend that isn't the All-Star Game. Hockey can be so fun if people let it be fun.

Minus of the Weekend

Team Toews' Johnny Gaudreau (13) of the Calgary Flames, stretches during warm ups before the NHL All-Star hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Let him light the damn stick on fire.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “nucksauce” is sniping all the ginos and providing sick flow with this proposal.

NJD trades
D. Severson
T. Zajac
1st 2016
One of Ruttu, Salvador, Ryder
2nd 2015 (can downgrade pick based on salary retained)

EDM trades
3rd 2015 (2nd 2015 if salary is reatained)

Yeah, whatever, if you want. Hey J.J., save me a waffle, man.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is hereand his Twitter is here