We continue our evaluation of where all 32 NHL teams are at this stage in this COVID-19-marred year by zeroing in on the Central Division.
We began the analysis Monday with an examination of the Atlantic Division, and Tuesday we focused on the Metropolitan Division. Other than Colorado, which has played 27 games thus far this year, every other Central team has played either 29 or 30 games.
At present, there’s a six-team race in the Central for its four playoff berths, meaning that there are going to be two extremely disappointed teams by season’s end. We’ll examine all Central teams in order of their place in the standings:
1. Minnesota Wild. Games Played: 30. Record: 19-9-2.
What went right: The Wild won their first four games of the regular season, five of their first six, and nine of their first 12 games. Uncharacteristically for this organization, offense was a major strength for Minnesota as they ascended the Central standings. Their goals-for-per-game-average of 3.63 is second only to the Colorado Avalanche (4.22) in the entire league. Winger Kirill Kaprizov left no doubt he is a legitimate NHL star, with 24 assists and 36 points in 30 GP. Their offense came from basically everywhere: all but two of their top-12 forwards had at least 10 points, while five of their top six blueliners posted at least 11 points. From the start of November through Dec. 9, the Wild went 14-3-1. Goalie Cam Talbot has earned his starter’s spot, going 15-7-1 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.83 goals-against average. Winger Ryan Hartman scored 14 goals in 30 GP, a pace that should see him smash his previous career high of 19 goals in 76 GP.
What is cause for concern: In their final four games before the holiday break, the Wild went 0-3-1, and were outscored 18-11. Top center Joel Eriksson Ek was injured in their final game before the break, and his injury is not a short-term problem. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon also was sidelined by injury, and though the Wild have a deep defensive unit, they’ll continue to miss him. Minnesota was the best team in the NHL through Dec. 10, but now have just a one-point lead in the standings, ahead of both Nashville and St. Louis. Minnesota is a dynamo at home (10-2-1), but ordinary on the road (9-7-1).
Rest-of-season outlook: For as good as they looked for much of this season, Minnesota is only four points ahead of the fourth-place Avs, who have three games in hand on the Wild. There’s a more precipitous drop-off after that, with the fifth-place Winnipeg Jets three points behind Colorado, and sixth-place Dallas four points behind the Avalanche. They can’t afford to be complacent, but if they can continue to be a high-offense squad, they should at least be a playoff competitor.
2. Nashville Predators. Games Played: 30. Record: 19-10-1.
What went right: Star goalie Jusse Saros was a one-man wrecking crew on defense for the surprisingly solid Predators, who stumbled out of the gate with a 1-4-0 record before they buckled down and began dominating teams. They entered the holiday break on a seven-game win streak, and they’re behind the Wild by a single standings point. Captain Roman Josi is having another Norris-Trophy-caliber season, leading all Preds players in points (29) and average ice time (24:46). Forwards Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund are producing points at nearly a point-per-game pace.
What is cause for concern: Offense is still an issue for the Predators, whose goals-for total of 89 is the second-lowest of any team currently in a playoff position. Backup goalie David Rittich’s individual stats (3.10 G.A.A., .880 SP) aren’t good.
Rest-of-season outlook: If anything happens to Saros or Josi on the health front, all bets are off for the Predators’ playoff aspirations. They’re not deep enough in any area to thrive in spite of any injuries that may occur. Otherwise, they’re likely going to be a post-season team that lives or dies depending on their play in their own zone.
3. St. Louis Blues. Games Played: 31. Record: 17-9-5.
What went right: Star winger Vladimir Tarasenko is fully healthy and producing like he has in most of his seasons as a Blue. Off-season acquisition Pavel Buchnevich is thriving, tying Tarasenko for the team lead in points (29). Center Ivan Barbashev has 25 points in 31 GP, leaving him just one point shy of matching his career high of 26 points, which he set in 80 games of the 2019-20 campaign, and equalled in 69 games last season. And the Blues’ power play is third-best in the league, at 29.6 percent efficiency.
What is cause for concern: The Blues are a stellar 11-3-2 at home, but only 6-6-3 on the road. Starting goalie Jordan Binnington has managed to put up only an 8-6-3 record and a .910 SP. They’ve had five goalies who’ve played at least one game this year. Forwards Brayden Schenn and David Perron and D-man Torey Krug have missed time with injuries. And GM Doug Armstrong has next to no cap space to help bulk up his Blues for the post-season.
Rest-of-season outlook: St. Louis won five of seven games entering the holiday break, an indication they can sustain their level of play well into the final two-thirds of the regular season. Head coach Craig Berube has experience and high-end skill galore in his lineup. And of course, the majority of their roster has the experience of playing on a Cup-winning squad. It may not always be pretty, but the Blues get the job done more often than not.
4. Colorado Avalanche. Games Played: 27. Record: 17-8-2.
What went right: The Avs were many observers’ pick to win the Central and be a frontrunner to claim their first Cup win since 2000-01, but they struggled to start this season, going 4-5-1 in their first 10 games of the year. Since mid-November, though, they’ve looked every bit the championship contender, going 13-3-1. Cale Makar has grown into one of the game’s elite young blueliners; incredibly, he is second on this team in goals (13) and fourth in points (26, in 23 GP). No team created as much offense (an average of 4.22 goals-for per game) as the Avs have.
What is cause for concern: Colorado’s changes to their goaltending tandem have not led to ideal results: Starter Darcy Kuemper has a mediocre .907 SP and 2.77 G.A.A., and all three goalies the Avs have used other than Kuemper have save percentages well below .900. And their overall health has taken a beating, with only four players appearing in all 27 of their games.
Rest-of-season outlook: The Avalanche’s offense is fearsome, but they’ve still got some bugs to work out on defense. If they have better luck injury-wise, they almost assuredly will challenge for top spot in the Central, and be a playoff favorite. GM Joe Sakic has done his job. Now it’s on the players to do theirs.
5. Winnipeg Jets. Games Played: 30. Record: 14-11-5.
What went right: The Jets had big expectations heading into this season, and they’ve had some flashes of solid play. They employ some true talent up front and in net, including wingers Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor, center Pierre-Luc Dubois and goalie Connor Hellebuyck. They’re not a horrible team. But that’s damning with faint praise.
What is cause for concern: Their penalty kill, for one thing: Winnipeg’s 70.6 percent efficiency killing off penalties is third-worst in the league. The Jets also aren’t great on the road, going 4-5-4 so far this year. But there’s a reason former coach Paul Maurice recently stepped down: he’s as frustrated with their middling play as fans are. Somehow, they are less than the sum of their parts, and with Dallas breathing down their necks for fifth in the Central, they have very little room for additional error.
Rest-of-season outlook: Winnipeg appears headed toward the dreaded mushy middle of the NHL – too good to receive top odds at the No. 1 draft pick, and too bad to make the playoffs. If there is more separation between them and a post-season berth between now and the trade deadline, the Jets may be looking at significant changes, if not to the core, then certainly, to the supporting cast. They can’t keep spinning their wheels with the same cast, though.
6. Dallas Stars. Games Played: 29. Record: 15-12-2.
What went right: The Stars posted a solid home record of 11-3-1, and they showed they could create momentum for themselves, winning seven in a row and nine of ten games from mid-November through early December. Twenty-three-year-old goalie Jake Oettinger has earned more playing time thanks to his 7-2-0 record, .922 SP and 2.24 G.A.A.. Their power play is tied for fourth in the league at 26.7 percent. And they have one of the game’s best defense corps.
What is cause for concern: Dallas has not had success as a road team, going 4-9-1 thus far. Veteran Jamie Benn is not putting up great numbers on offense, with only eight goals and 15 points. Veteran Tyler Seguin has only eight goals and 12 points. Veteran Alex Radulov has only one goal and 12 points. There are too many passengers on this team, and they can’t expect Oettinger and Braden Holtby to bail them out all the time.
Rest-of-season outlook: Give the Stars credit for their win streak, but take that credit back for instantly following that streak up with a five-game losing skid. Dallas can’t hope to close the four-point gap between themselves and a playoff spot if they don’t have an immediate and lasting increase in offense. They won their final two games before the holiday break, but they’ll need another lengthy win streak or two to control their own destiny down the stretch.
7. Chicago Blackhawks. Games Played: 30. Record: 11-15-4.
What went right: As an abuse scandal rocked the Hawks organization off the ice, their current group of players underachieved on it. So not very much at all went right for Chicago, which went winless in its first nine games (0-7-2), and dropped 11 of its first 12 (1-9-2), virtually guaranteeing they’d be missing the playoffs for the second straight year and the fourth time in their past five seasons. If they believed they’d be notably improved from the team that finished sixth in the Central last season, the Blackhawks got a sobering reality check in the early part of this season. Yes, there are many talents worth building around, but Chicago also has more holes than playoff teams should expect to have.
What is cause for concern: Former head coach Jeremy Colliton lost his job because of the Hawks’ disastrous start to the year. Interim coach Derek King has gotten slightly more out of the group, but the fact remains that, other than a four-game win streak at the start of King’s tenure, the Blackhawks have been completely unable to put together even a single two-game win streak. And there is no sense this pattern is about to end.
Rest-of-season outlook: Much change already has come to this Original Six franchise, but it’s clear more change has to come for the Hawks to return to their days of recent glory. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both are 33 years old. It’s time for their younger players to assert themselves, or else Chicago will once again be back to the drawing board.
8. Arizona Coyotes. Games Played: 29. Record: 6-21-2.
What went right: Zilch. Zero. The Coyotes are the NHL’s worst team. They don’t score goals (57 goals-for) and they don’t stop goals from being scored on them (109 goals-against). And let’s not get started on their off-ice, ownership issues. Suffice to say, they are abysmal by almost every metric.
What is cause for concern: Everything from their future in Arizona to their lineup on any given night. There is nothing currently in place to assure their fan base the organization will be anywhere close to a playoff spot anytime in the next few years.
Rest-of-season outlook: The Coyotes have 53 games left, and given that they’d lost eight of the ten games prior to the holiday break, nobody should think they’ll be any better once the league restarts. Barring a Vatican-approved miracle, they’re in for many, many more losses.