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12 things learned from first half of '15-16 NHL season

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

The exact midpoint of the 2015-16 season took place Saturday at Wells Fargo Center when the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders played the 615th game of the NHL's 1,230-game regular season.

So much is still to come in coming months -- the Stanley Cup Playoff race will intensify, All-Star Weekend in Nashville, outdoor games in Minnesota and Denver, and the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. But so much has already happened that has taught us all quite a bit about the teams and players this season.

What have we learned? Well, here are 12 things we didn't know before the puck dropped between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Oct. 7 for the first game of the season:

1. The Washington Capitals are legit Stanley Cup contenders…

This might be the year Alex Ovechkin helps the Capitals play beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It hasn't happened yet, but the Capitals have arguably their most complete and balanced team since Ovechkin got to Washington, D.C. in 2005. The additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have given depth, offense, experience and veteran leadership to the forward group. Evgeny Kuznetsov is proving he is among the best No. 2 centers in the NHL. He's only a No. 2 center because Nicklas Backstrom is still among the best No. 1 centers in the League. Braden Holtby is a Vezina Trophy candidate. The Capitals are also winning without defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has missed the past 28 games because of a lower-body injury.

2. Jaromir Jagr has still got it…

He's 43 years old and it doesn't matter. It doesn't seem like there's any stopping Jagr's motor and desire to play and be effective in the NHL. Jagr entered the Florida Panthers' game Sunday leading the team with 30 points on 14 goals and 16 assists. The next oldest player who leads his team in points is Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin, who is 35 and has 35 points. Jagr has played a huge role in helping along the development of Florida's young forwards, including Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Jagr's linemates. Huberdeau is second on the team with 29 points and Barkov is third with 26 despite missing 10 games.

3. And the Panthers are for real too…

Florida entered its game Sunday against the Edmonton Oilers riding a franchise-best 11-game winning streak, which is also the longest winning streak for any team in the League this season. The Panthers are doing it with production from Barkov, Jagr and Huberdeau, but also with excellent defense and goaltending. Roberto Luongo has a 2.06 goals-against average and .931 save percentage entering Sunday. Al Montoya was 6-1-1 with a 1.69 GAA and .938 save percentage. Florida has quietly built one of the top defense corps in the League. Balance is key. Brian Campbell is the only defenseman averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per game. Four others are playing at least 20 minutes per game.

4. The Dallas Stars have arrived…

Two years ago, when general manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff were in their first season together in Dallas, the Stars surprisingly made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were ahead of their time. They fell back last season and missed the playoffs. It gave them a better indication of where they were in their development and what they needed to speed the process along. They needed another scorer, a veteran defenseman and better goaltending. Enter Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi. Those three players have helped push a team led by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to the next level. The Stars are an elite team in the NHL now.

5. Patrick Kane has never been better…

The Chicago Blackhawks right wing led the NHL in scoring with 60 points through 43 games entering play Sunday. By comparison, Kane had 64 points in 61 games last season before fracturing his left clavicle on Feb. 24. This season, he has already set the record for most points in consecutive games by an American-born player at 26, which also was the longest point streak for any player in the NHL since Mats Sundin scored in 30 straight games in the 1992-93 season. Kane had 16 goals, 40 points and a plus-10 rating during the streak. He was on pace for 43 goals and 113 points. He has never had more than 30 goals and 88 points in a single season.

6. They're better than expected…

The Arizona Coyotes and New Jersey Devils were expected to be near the bottom of the overall standings this season. Instead, the Coyotes are second in the Pacific Division with 42 points. They wouldn't be better than seventh in every other division, but all they need to do is finish in the top three of the Pacific to get into the playoffs. The Devils, under first-year coach John Hynes, were one point out of the second wild card in the Eastern Conference entering their game Sunday against the Minnesota Wild.

7. They're not as good as we thought they'd be…

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks were expected to challenge for the Presidents' Trophy. The Columbus Blue Jackets were expected to challenge for a playoff spot. None are close. The Ducks and Lightning have been better of late and have moved into a playoff position, but overall they've been inconsistent and at times inept offensively, especially Anaheim. The Lightning have also been dealing with a rash of injuries. The Blue Jackets started the season with seven straight regulation losses, enough to get coach Todd Richards fired and replaced by John Tortorella. They are 15-17-4 since the coaching change. They're tied for last in the overall League standings with 34 points.

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 31
SOG: 122 | +/-: -6
8. Steven Stamkos' future in Tampa Bay is still unknown…

The longer Stamkos goes without a new contract, the more likely it is he will either be traded before the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline (3 p.m. ET on Feb. 29) and/or become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Stamkos has stated publicly his desire is to stay with the Lightning, but he remains without a contract beyond this season. Stamkos, his agents and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman have largely kept the negotiations out of the public eye, so it's still possible they are negotiating, but with the trade deadline looming, Stamkos' future in Tampa Bay is very much in doubt.

9. Connor McDavid looks like the real deal, but…

The Edmonton Oilers rookie came into the League awash in hype as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. McDavid looked like he was coming on strong and ready to push for the Calder Trophy everyone expected him to win until he sustained a fractured clavicle when he went hard into the boards against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 3. Prior to the injury, McDavid had five goals and 12 points in 13 games, including 12 points in seven games from Oct. 17-29. He won't return until after the All-Star break and make a push for the Calder Trophy, but he has some catching up to do. However, in a 13-game snippet, he looked like the real deal.

10. Jack Eichel is the real deal…

The Buffalo Sabres rookie came in with a similar level of hype as McDavid because he was the No. 2 pick in the draft. He hasn't gotten injured, so he is living up to the hype. Eichel was third among rookies with 13 goals and fourth with 26 points in 41 games entering play Sunday. He was also first among rookie forwards in ice time, averaging 18:59 per game. He has shown the skilled, power game that was expected of him. He had 12 points, including a four-point game against the Boston Bruins, in a seven-game stretch from Dec. 17-Jan. 5.

11. A new star is born in Detroit…

Forward Dylan Larkin, 19, was the first teenager to crack the Detroit Red Wings' opening night lineup since Jiri Fischer in 1999-2000. Halfway through his rookie season, Larkin is making the biggest impact of any teenager in Detroit since Steve Yzerman in the 1983-84 season. Larkin is the Red Wings' lone representative for the NHL All-Star Game, and it's a well-deserved honor. He was tied for second among rookies with 14 goals and 28 points in 40 games entering play Sunday. The Red Wings are notorious for bringing their prospects along slowly. They were smart to speed up Larkin's development and turn him into an NHL player this season.

12. And Chicago has a new star too…

There was concern in Chicago after general manager Stan Bowman traded Patrick Sharp to the Stars and Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets. Sure they still had loads of offensive talent in Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, but who was going to make up for the offense they were missing from Sharp and Saad? Artemi Panarin, of course. Panarin, 24, signed a two-year contract with the Blackhawks on April 29, 2015 after scoring 102 points in 105 games for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL over the past two seasons. He is quickly becoming a household name in the NHL. He had 38 points entering play Sunday, first among rookies in the League by 10 points. He is a dynamic offensive player who quickly found a home on a line with Artem Anisimov and Kane. It has arguably been the best line in the NHL since the start of the season.

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