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5 questions entering second half of NHL season

Figuring fortunes for Golden Knights, Penguins; navigating trade winds; projecting 100-point scorers

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Now that the Vegas Golden Knights have joined the NHL, the regular season consists of 1,271 games. We reached the midway point of 2017-18 on Saturday. 

Here are five burning questions entering the second half:

 

What will George McPhee do before the NHL Trade Deadline?

McPhee, the general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, was supposed to be a major seller leading up to the trade deadline on Feb. 26, moving pending unrestricted free agents for assets. The Golden Knights weren't going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their inaugural season, right? 

Well, they're not only in contention for the playoffs, they lead the Western Conference. McPhee has signed two pending UFAs already: defenseman Brayden McNabb and forward Jonathan Marchessault. Now what will he do with defensemen Deryk Engelland and Luca Sbisa and forwards James Neal and David Perron?

A lot depends on how the Golden Knights play between now and the deadline, of course, and on what the UFAs demand. Will older players accept shorter-term deals? It seems unlikely McPhee would burn assets for the long term to add to his roster for the short term, but he has a surplus on defense and a need for size up front.

 
How high will the Golden Knights finish?

The question has gone from how good they'll be for an expansion team, to whether they can make the playoffs, to whether they can win the division or the conference or even the Presidents' Trophy.

Through 40 games, they're 28-10-2 with 58 points. They have the second-best record in the League in terms of point percentage (.725) behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (.762). Could they come back to Earth? Sure. But they haven't yet, and why put limits on them at this point?

And consider this: They could secure home ice in the playoffs for a round or two or three or -- gasp! -- four. They have the best home record in the NHL (17-2-1) and Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltender who carried the Pittsburgh Penguins through the first two rounds of the playoffs last season. Soon the question will be: How far can they go in the playoffs?

Video: Breaking down Vegas' win over Chicago

 

Who will make a splash before the trade deadline?

Keep an eye on the 2017 Stanley Cup finalists. 

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has acquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and center Riley Sheahan already, and the two-time defending champs are a point out of the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. 

Nashville Predators GM David Poile is the boldest in the business and has made the biggest trade of the season, acquiring center Kyle Turris from the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 5. Afterward, Poile said, "If I needed to make another trade, we still have our first-round pick." The Predators made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time last season, and remain in win-now mode.

Secondary question: Will the results of last season cool the trade market this season? The Washington Capitals (defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk) and Minnesota Wild (forward Martin Hanzal) paid high prices to make major additions last season. The Wild stumbled down the stretch and lost in five games against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round. The Capitals lost in seven games against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

 

Will the Penguins make the playoffs?

It's certainly possible they will miss. The Los Angeles Kings missed in 2014-15 after winning the Cup twice in three years (and are fifth in the NHL standings with the same core now).

The Penguins have played a lot of hockey over the past two years and look lethargic sometimes, like they did in their 4-0 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. But then, just like that, they can look like themselves again, like they did in their 4-0 win at the New York Islanders on Friday.

Center Sidney Crosby had four points (one goal, three assists) against the Islanders. Forward Daniel Sprong had two goals. Can Crosby rediscover his form? Can Sprong make an impact as a midseason call-up the way forwards Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did the past two seasons?

Could the Penguins end up as a wild card and first-round nightmare for a team like, say, the Capitals?

Video: Penguins struggle heading towards the playoffs

 

How many scorers will reach 100 points?

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid led the NHL in scoring last season with 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists). No one else had more than 90.

The NHL hasn't had more than one 100-point scorer in a season since 2009-10, when it had four: Vancouver Canucks center Henrik Sedin with 112 points (29 goals, 83 assists), Crosby with 109 (51 goals, 58 assists), Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin with 109 (50 goals, 59 assists) and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom with 101 (33 goals, 68 assists).

Three players are on pace for 100 points this season: Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov (117) and Steven Stamkos (102); and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (100).

A few others are close: Philadelphia Flyers forwards Claude Giroux (98) and Jakub Voracek (98); Islanders forwards Josh Bailey (97) and John Tavares (97); Winnipeg Jets center Blake Wheeler (94); Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau (92); and McDavid (91).

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