As the NHL continues on in the month of February, teams are hitting the 54-game mark which means it’s the time where almost every team has played two thirds of the NHL schedule. With student’s report cards being sent home to the moms and dads of the world, it’s only fitting to give every NHL team a report card of their own. Every day, this week leading into the weekend, Last Word On Sports will cover one division a day, and break down each team into five separate categories; Offense, Defense, Goaltending, Coaching, and Management. Just like a school report card, each section will receive a grade between A+ and F. Today, we take a look at the Central division.
Kings of the central division, the Nashville Predators have surprised the hockey world as their near-perfectly assembled team continues to push for both the division and league lead. The St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, two powerhouses of the Western conference, continue to remain a cut above the rest but are both having a hard time figuring out the Predators ways. The Winnipeg Jets continue to hope for clutch performances from their youth in nets while they push for a playoff spot without one of their better goal scorers. The Minnesota Wild are also in the hunt for a wild card spot, while the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche battle to stay out of the division basement. The final two will really need a miracle to make the playoffs this year.
NHL Report Card, Term 2: Central Division
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS – (41-14-7)
The team’s 186 goals for is third in the Western Conference and is well above expectations. Filip Forsberg is a legit Calder trophy candidate. He teams with Mike Ribeiro and James Neal to give the Preds one of the best first lines in the Western Conference. Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Mike Fisher and Calle Jarnkrok have been nice secondary scoring options.
Shea Weber gets the headlines, and its well deserved as he’s one of the best defencemen in the NHL, and a Norris contender this season. That said, this Predators defense is very deep. Roman Josi actually leads the defensemen in points with 42, and is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Seth Jones is developping into a third top notch defender on the blueline. Matthias Ekholm is a nice piece, and Cody Franson was recently added for depth. Overall this is amongst the best defense cores in hockey.
Pekka Rinne has been outstanding this season and is a candidate for both the Hart and Vezina trophies. With a 2.01 GAA and .930 GAA he is second only to Carey Price in both categories. His 35-8-3 record is also sparkling. Backup Carter Hutton did a decent job while Rinne was injured, but is clearly not close to the same level. He has a .906 save percentage so far this year. The Preds must keep their main man healthy.
Peter Laviolette has been a breath of fresh air after years under the defensive structure of Barry Trotz. This isn’t to say Trotz was a bad coach, just that it was time for a change in Nashville. Allowing the team to play more offensive style, is a big reason for their success this year, and Laviolette must be a Jack Adams candidate.
When the Predators were starved for centre help, General Manager David Poile took the quantity approach and signed three cheap veterans in the off-season. He struck gold with Mike Ribeiro. While Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen didn’t work out, he managed to move them in subsequent deals. He’s also addressed his depth with a smart move for Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson from Toronto. Add in the absolute robbery that was the Filip Forsberg deal and Poile has had the midas touch recently.
2. ST. LOUIS BLUES – (39-18-4)
Following last season, it became clear that the Blues needed a game breaker, and one of the big stories in the NHL this year has been Vladimir Tarasenko emerging as just that. His line with Jaden Schwarz and Jori Lehtera has become a top notch unit. Add in returning players like David Backes, Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie; and this year’s big free agent signing Paul Stastny, and the Blues offense is deep and talented.
This group can challenge Nashville for the best in the NHL. Kevin Shattenkirk was playing like a Norris Trophy contender prior to his abdominal injury, but should be back for the playoffs. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are elite defencemen. Carl Gunnarsson was a solid pickup in the offseason, while the development of Ian Cole and Petteri Lindbom provides depth.
Brian Elliott (.921 save percentage) has proven to be the team’s go to goaltender and emerged as the victor in the battle for starts with Jake Allen (.905 save percentage) this season. Allen started well, but has faltered a bit and must be better to be an NHL starter going forward. The Blues also had a few games of Martin Broduer while Elliott was out with and injury. Elliott’s ability to win in the playoffs will be questioned until he does it for real though.
Ken Hitchcock is one of the best coaches in the NHL and institutes a highly disciplined defensive system. The Blues have opened things up offensively this year with 190 goals so far, but this hasn’t come as any detriment to the defensive game, as they remain amongst the NHL’s best defensive clubs. Hitchcock must now prove he can get them over the playoff hump.
The signing of Paul Stastny showed that the Blues are all in, in trying to win their first Stanley Cup. While that is the headliner, trades such as Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarson, and Max Lapierre for Marcel Goc might be minor moves, but the Blues greatly upgraded their depth with both of them. Overall the club is being built according to a well defined plan, and should contend again.
3. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – (37-21-5)
Patrick Kane was playing like an Art Ross and Hart Trophy Candidate until his recent injury. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa have been their usual selves, while Brandon Saad has taken another step forward this year. That said, Patrick Sharp has been a little disappointing with just 10 goals so far this year. Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg, before his injury, provide solid depth. If there is one thing the Hawks would like to see, its Teuvo Teravainen take the next step, but he’s still young and has time if it doesn’t happen this year.
Duncan Keith may not be having another Norris Trophy season, but he continues to lead the Blackhawks offence from the backend, while Brent Seabrook is an outstanding two way defender. Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjalmarsson provide their normal solid second pairing play. The Hawks have been searching for a bottom pairing defender all season, and hope to have found it in Kimmo Timonen, who hasnt played a game yet this year due to blood clots.
Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta have done a solid job in the Chicago net. The club even had to use Scott Darling for nine games due to injuries and the third stringer has a .930 save percentage this season. The Blackhawks have gotten everything they could have expected out of their goalies.
Joel Quenneville is one of the NHL’s best coaches, and continues to get the most out of this Blackhawks team. He does a great job of shuffling his lines and changing things up when the offense becomes stale, and gets them going again. Managing egos on a team full of stars can’t be easy, but Quenneville has been great at it.
Stan Bowman should receive a ton of credit after winning two Stanley Cups. He’s once again put together one of the NHLs best teams, but there are some problems looming in the summer. Inevitably, all this winning, and having all these great players in one place has made cap management an issue. Nick Leddy was traded away due to a lack of cap space, and it looks like more moves to shed cap dollars may come this summer. Bowman faced a similar situation after the Hawks first Stanley Cup and rebuilt the team into a Champion very quickly. He will need to do so again this summer. That said, winning a third cup is the priority heading into the trade deadline..
4. WINNIPEG JETS – (31-20-12)
The Jets have a few big wingers that have carried the load this season for a team fighting to get into the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg. Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, and Brian Little have 45, 41, and 44 points respectively. Dustin Byfuglien chips in defensively and when moved to forward with 37 points and Matthew Perreault has been a pleasant break-out performer with 30. Outside of that, the Jets have been struggling to get consistent offense out of their group, ranking 18th at a 2.68 clip. The departure of Evander Kane and arrival of Drew Stafford indicates Winnipeg wants help in this department right now.
Winnipeg is 22nd in the league in terms of shots against and has given up an average of 29.2 shots per game as well. Despite this this, they hold the first Wild Card in the West, with a new face coming aboard for the playoff push. Highly coveted trade piece Tyler Myers is coming over from the Sabres, coming at a price that included rugged defenseman Zach Bogosian. It’s clear the Jets see something in Myers over the once third overall pick for the franchise when it was in Atlanta, and with a deeper defense to work with, it will be interesting to see how Myers works out and improves this area.
Ondrej Pavelec was again looked upon to be the guy in Winnipeg, but an unexpected newcomer has stolen the show. Michael Hutchinson has been a force in the crease so far, posting a 2.18 GAA and a .925 save % with 15 wins as a back-up in 24 starts, opposed to Pavelec’s 13 in 32 starts. Pavelec’s goals against is higher and save % lower, as the former is 2.54 and latter is .911. Not bad, but Hutchinson in a smaller sample size is showing more. Good story to follow as the Jets push for the playoffs.
After a brief hiatus from the NHL, Paul Maurice has found a home in Winnipeg. He was named at a mid-season replacement last season, and the Jets seem to have a different feel under his watch. Maurice has been to a Stanley Cup Final and was four wins away from another appearance in 2009. With Winnipeg hovering in the playoff picture, experience will help in them possibly making noise in April.
Kevin Cheveldayoff has been the General Manager for the Winnipeg Jets since their move, and has quietly put pieces together for the team to be a contender. Depth forwards Matthew Perreault and Michael Frolik have helped a team that’s struggled to score goals. The big news made on February 11th certainly turned heads, as the Jets acquired Drew Stafford, a first, Tyler Myers, Joel Armia, and Brendan Lemieux for Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Jason Kasdorf. He’s clearly in it to win it in the short-term and longterm with the acquisition of Myers and this move could be the turning point of a rather conservative tenure.
5. MINNESOTA WILD – (32-22-7)
Zach Parise has gone through a tough year off the ice with the illness and death of his father, but you wouldn’t know it on the ice as he’s putting together one of his best NHL seasons. Nino Neiderreiter has 21 goals, and it looks like Jason Zucker will get there as well with 18 so far. However these three may be the only Wild to hit that mark. More goals were expected out of Jason Pominville, but with 41 points so far, the Wild can’t complain too much. Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu have 39 and 38 points respectively, and that is slightly below expectations, though not horrible.
Ryan Suter remains one of the NHL’s best defenders and plays a ton of minutes. Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, and Jared Spurgeon provide quality depth, while Christian Folin and Matt Dumba are showing a ton of potential as NHL rookies. The Wild’s backline is full of quality youth and should continue to grow.
If we were only grading Devan Dubnyk, we would give the Wild’s goaltending an A+ as he has been sensational in his 19 games with the club. However this is a full season grade and the play of Darcy Kuemper (.904 save percentage) and Niklas Backstrom (.887 save percentage) left a lot to be desired.
Many have criticized Mike Yeo for his public meltdown during a Wild practice this year, but the fact is that the team has played much better and gotten back into the playoff race since that happened. They are still a bit of an underdog to get in though, and will need another late season push to take a wild card spot.
The trade for Devan Dubnyk appears to be the work of genius as its turning out better than even the most optimistic in management could have hoped. Some other moves, such as the Vanek acquisition, havent worked though. Chuck Fletcher and the Wild management group have shown a real willingness to spend money and bring in pieces to fix problems, but its unclear if the team is improving or treading water as a playoff bubble team.
6. DALLAS STARS– (27-25-9)
Tyler Seguin was great before his injury, and Jaime Benn has been great all year. Jason Spezza has brought what was expected when he was acquired from Ottawa, but Ales Hemsky has been a disappointment. Erik Cole is having a nice bounce back year and could be trade deadline trade bait. The Stars have scored the most goals in the Western Conference so far this year, and thats without Russian wunderkid Valeri Nichushkin playing most of the season due to injury. The Stars offense certainly isn’t the reason they are on the outside looking in for the playoffs.
John Klingberg has been a revelation as an NHL rookie with 32 points this year. Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley have also provided points from the backend, but their work in their own end can be improved. Overall this defence needs to be improved in the off-season and the Stars need to find a true top pairing guy. It won’t be easy, but neither was acquiring two number one centres in successive years.
Kari Lehtonen has had a down year, and a .906 save percentage is just well below expectations. Anders Lindback was one of the worst backups in the NHL this year, and it prompted the team to go after Jhonas Enroth from Buffalo. Overall there is not much else to say here other than the fact that this unit has really let the Stars down this year.
As mentionned above the Stars don’t have the best talent on defense and goaltending has been a let down, but Lindy Ruff also must take some blame for the fact the team’s 202 goals against is fourth worst in the NHL. They just don’t seem to have a strong defensive system and its really got to come down to the coaching at some point.
Jim Nill committed highway robbery in the Tyler Seguin trade, and also got Jason Spezza for pennies on the dollar. He took a chance on Nichushkin despite the Russian factor, and with these moves has made the Stars into a dynamic offensive team in little over two years. With other teams completely unable to get top centres, the ability to grab two must be respected. Now he will need to rebuild the back end, but we’re not betting against him.
7. COLORADO AVALANCHE – (26-24-11)
The team has taken a drastic drop off from a year ago, as free agent addition Jarome Iginla has not replaced free agent loss Peter Stastny, Nathan MacKinnon has gone through a sophomore slump, Matt Duchene is not having the same season as a year ago, and overall the team’s shooting percentage has reverted to the mean. This is the biggest difference between last year’s team that won the division and this years team that finds themselves in the basement.
Tyson Barrie has emerged as a top offensive threat from the blueline, and has been a pleasant surprise for the team. Erik Johnson has been a capable top unit defender, but the team has really suffered when he has been injured this season, highlighting the lack of depth behind him. Jan Hedja is aging and likely will be moved before the deadline, Brad Stuart, Nick Holden, Zach Redmond and Nate Guenin are a group that needs a massive upgrade going forward.
The team’s bright spot. Semyon Varlamov (.917 save percentage) hasn’t been as good as last year, when we felt he deserved the Vezina trophy, but he has still been good. Calvin Pickard (.936) has filled in nicely for injuries, and the team seems confident he will be a backup next season (and possibly more with time). Meanwhile Reto Barra’s struggles have played himself out of a job (.890).
Patrick Roy has suffered through a bit of the sophomore slump that has effected MacKinnon. Without an unsustainably high shooting percentage benefitting his team this year, he no longer looks like a coach of the year. That said he has taken the team from a very slow start back above .500, and that turnaround earns him some bonus marks as a coach.
Refusing to pay Stastny and then giving Iginla a three year deal must go down as a bad move, as should the move that brought in Brad Stuart. Trades such as Steve Downie for Max Talbot, and P.A. Parenteau plus a draft pick for Daniel Briere also haven’t worked out for the Avalanche. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy are so respected that they have the time to turn things around, but must start to make better moves.
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