The first half of the 2013-14 NHL season has had plenty of intrigue, but the home stretch could bring a flurry of new storylines to go along with the resolution of the ones that have developed in the opening months of the campaign.
There have been several breakout stars, from rookie sensations like Tomas Hertl and Seth Jones to young players who have inconsistent pasts like Cam Fowler and Tyler Seguin, and even veterans reaching new heights like Alexander Steen and Josh Harding. Some of the sport's biggest stars have missed time with injuries, and others have stepped to the fore in their place.
So who are some of the players that could change the narrative of the 2013-14 season and play a starring role in the second half? Here are 14 names to keep in mind as the back half of the schedule leads into the Olympic break, the trade deadline and the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick can make Team USA a dangerous opponent at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Kings have remained among the top teams in the NHL despite Quick not playing like he has in the past two postseasons and then missing nearly two months with a groin injury. Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens have both been nice stories, but the Kings with a healthy and productive Quick are likely the greatest challenger to the Chicago Blackhawks. If that happens in the next couple of weeks, it could also make the United States a more dangerous opponent at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Malkin has 26 points in his past 13 games. The problem is he missed three weeks with a leg injury in the middle. After a slow start, the big Russian center looked like Sidney Crosby's top challenger for the Art Ross Trophy for about a week until the injury. The Penguins have rarely had Malkin and Crosby rolling at 100 percent capacity in the past four seasons. His native Russia needs the "great Geno" next month in Sochi as well.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stamkos had ascended to the rank of "world's greatest goal scorer," but the next guy on this list has roared back into that conversation with a strong finish to the 2012-13 season and ridiculous start to this campaign. As much as Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin has been the biggest individual rivalry in the League, Stamkos vs. Ovechkin for "best goal scorer" is at least a fun argument. Stamkos still wants to play in Sochi as well, which would mean the culmination of a remarkable recovery from a broken leg.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Ovechkin has been scoring goals at a vintage pace, but he's actually been really unlucky when he's on the ice and not the guy shooting the puck. Washington's shooting percentage when Ovechkin is on the ice in five-on-five situations is at 5.3 percent, which is tied for 30th-worst in the League, according to ExtraSkater.com. Remember, that includes all of Ovechkin's shots, and he leads the NHL in even-strength goals. It is very likely more of his teammates' shots will go in in the second half, which would likely lead to more assists for Ovechkin. A strong second half can do wonders for a player's candidacy for major awards, just like … Ovechkin last season.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Among the 50 players with the lowest team shooting percentage at even strength, Chara is tied for first in Fenwick-for percentage (55.9 percent) and second to New York Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman in Corsi-for percentage (55.7 percent, one-tenth of a percentage behind Stralman). He has also done this while facing the toughest competition of anyone on his team. He should be one of the top contenders for the Norris Trophy, and a boost in points that comes from his luck progressing toward the mean would certainly help his cause.
Zach Parise/Mikko Koivu/Jason Pominville, Minnesota Wild
This trio of Wild forwards does not always play together when the team is at full strength, but they have at certain points. They have all been pretty unlucky, with the team's shooting percentage below seven percent when any of them are on the ice at even strength. An issue that could derail a Minnesota surge led by these top forwards? The team's overall possession stats have been in a steady decline after a great start to the season and have dropped the Wild from the elite to the middle of the pack. Individual production could increase for these three guys, but that might not be enough to snap the Wild out of its funk. Koivu is expected to miss a month after ankle surgery, which won't help either.
Eric Staal/Alexander Semin, Carolina Hurricanes
Staal and Semin combined with Jiri Tlusty to form one of the most productive (and underrated) lines in the NHL last season. This season has not gone as well for any of the three for various reasons. Staal started slowly, in part because of a knee injury sustained during the 2013 IIHF World Championship. Semin has missed time with a concussion and Tlusty is currently out after needing an emergency appendectomy. The team has shot seven percent or less with Staal and Semin on the ice at even strength. On a personal level, Semin's shooting percentage is a career-low 6.5 percent and Staal's is the worst since his rookie season. A big second half from both could propel the Hurricanes into a playoff spot in the mediocre Metropolitan Division.
Rick Nash/Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
Rangers center Derek Stepen could be key for New York if he and Rick Nash begin scoring consistently. (Photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI)
Speaking of sometimes linemates, Nash and Stepan should be the top two offensive players for the Rangers. Instead, Stepan is third and Nash, who missed significant time with a concussion, is eighth on the team in points. Neither player is shooting better than seven percent, so there is also some bad luck involved. The Rangers will be a different team if Stepan and Nash are point-per-game guys in the second half.
Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets
Kane has always been a volume shooter, and he's second in the League to Ovechkin in shots per game at 4.4. He has 23 of his 164 shots on goal when the Jets are on the man advantage, and only one of those has gone in. A little better luck, especially on the power play, could lead to a 35-goal season.
Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers
It has been a rough go for "Yak City" in the first half of the season. Healthy scratches, fourth-line minutes, special teams demotions … there's been a lot more "stick" than "carrot" from new coach Dallas Eakins. The team has shot only 6.9 percent with him on the ice at even strength, but the real issue is the team's .868 save percentage in five-on-five play with Yakupov involved. Is he responsible for some of that with substandard defensive effort? Probably, but a little better goaltending behind him could lead to more confidence and better minutes from the coaching staff. Yakupov proved last season when he gets hot, he can pour in the goals in a hurry.