The 20 game mark in the NHL season is usually a time when the strengths and weaknesses of a club have been fully exposed, giving not only team executives but also fans time to ruminate on where their franchise needs to improve.
The LWOS hockey department has done the same, taking a division-by-division snapshot of where each team is at at the quarter mark, and where they are heading as a result.
Next up is the Central Division covered by Cristiano Simonetta and Charlie Clarke.
The NHL at the Quarter Mark: Central Division
Dallas Stars: 17-4-0, 34 points, 74 GF/50 GA, 1st in the Central
Surprises: Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. The Stars are well-known for their offensive firepower with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and a strong supporting cast featuring Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza. So being near the top of the league in goals is no surprise. The real question heading into the season was whether Dallas would be able to keep the puck out of their own net. They have done that well, thanks in large part to the tandem of Niemi and Lehtonen, who have both managed to maintain top-thirty save percentages so far.
Disappointments: It’s hard to criticize the top team in the NHL, but if one has to be picked it would be Valerie Nichushkin. He has just 5 points in 18 games, and has been demoted to the Stars’ third line, after being projected to at least be the team’s second-line right winger behind Patrick Sharp. Nichushkin has started to show signs of picking up steam recently, but he has yet to truly regain his offensive form.
Outlook: The Stars are easily the best team in the Western Conference right now, and deserve their spot on top of the league with the tough schedule that comes naturally from playing in the Central Division. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn together have been lighting up the entire league, both in the top 5 for goals and points (with almost identical totals). John Klingberg, in his second NHL season, leads all defencemen in points, and sits sixth in the whole league. And of course newcomer Patrick Sharp has thrived on the top line, completing what could be the most dangerous trio in hockey.
Prediction: The Dallas Stars will win if they can continue scoring and receive decent support from the defence and goaltending. The offence shows no signs of cooling down, and the goalies have been rock solid. The Stars may not hang on to their lead in the division, but they will certainly be a top-ranked team come April, and a serious threat in the playoffs.
St. Louis Blues: 13-6-2, 28 points, 57 GF/52 GA, 2nd in the Central
Surprise: Colton Parayko. Not too many St. Louis Blues fans knew of the 22-year-old defenseman out of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks at the start of training camp a couple of months ago. Now, only a quarter into the 2015-2016 season, the 6’5” blueliner has been praised immensely by the Blues faithful, even comparing him to Al MacInnis thanks to his explosive slap shot. In the 19 games he’s suited up for, Parayko’s +10 rating ranks 12th among all NHL’ers and 5th among defensemen.
Despite the defensive prowess Parayko has been exemplifying in his play thus far (while playing just under 20 minutes/game), he’s been just as dominant on the offensive side. He has 12 points on the year and is the only defenseman who has scored three game-winning goals. It’s truly been a blessing in disguise for Ken Hitchcock’s club with “Colt 55” and his emergence into the NHL, among the several injuries the Blues have faced already.
Disappointment: Injuries. The Blues were depleted from a health standpoint before the season even started as Patrik Berglund injured his shoulder during an offseason workout, which will continue to sideline him for several more weeks. Paul Stastny broke his right foot in a game versus the Canucks while Jaden Schwartz fractured his left ankle in practice…all in the same week of October. Kevin Shattenkirk missed a few weeks after re-aggravating an injury he suffered last year and Steve Ott missed time as well. Although the Blues have been able to keep pace in the Central Division, they will need to be healthy at the end of March if they want to contend in the playoffs.
Outlook: As previously mentioned, this Blues team is battered and bruised, but still has managed to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Jake Allen is one of the main reasons for that as he has emerged as the number one goalie in St. Louis. He currently sits top five in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts (he’s tied for the league lead with three).
Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team in points after coming off a monster contract extension this summer, but we all expected that. What we didn’t expect was the depth of the Blues to come up as big as they have when they’ve needed it. Who would have thought that Scott Gomez, Scottie Upshall and Troy Brouwer would be playing some of the most responsible hockey on the team? Kudos to Doug Armstrong.
Prediction: Simply put, barring a lengthy injury to Tarasenko, Alexander Steen or Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues will be just fine as they have been in the regular season for the past four years.
Minnesota Wild: 11-5-3, 25 points, 57 GF/51 GA, 3rd in the Central
Surprise: Jason Zucker’s leadership. At only 23 years of age, Jason Zucker still has loads of time to develop into an NHL talent. After scoring 21 goals last season in 51 games, perhaps that time is now. In the first 19 games of the season that he’s played in, Zucker ranks 4th on the team in points with 14 (6G, 8A). While he is producing more on the stat sheet, his possession numbers are benefitting from his play, too. His Fenwick (58.1%) and Corsi (57.5%) numbers have never been higher in his career; his +6 rating is also best on the team. Head coach Mike Yeo has placed Zucker on the second line with Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter this season, a line which sees a majority of the opposition’s top forward groupings.
Zucker’s time on ice has been increased in the process, averaging 18:30 minutes/game, a career high from the 15:04 he was used to in the 2014-2015 season. He’s also on the top powerplay unit, one that has improved over the past few games, sitting currently at 18.5%. The Newport Beach, CA native’s speed has always been a factor in his ability to provide offense, but he looks like a more well-rounded asset to the Wild than he did last year thanks to his knack for gaining the red line and beating defensemen to the puck in the offensive zone.
Disappointment: Road struggles. In the highly-competetive Central Division, you can not afford to have a lapse away from your own rink. The Minnesota Wild are an example of a team that has fallen into a lull when it comes to stacking up victories away from the Xcel Energy Center, amassing a record of 3-4-3 (which is the tied for the least amount of wins along with Chicago in the division). Last season, the Wild were 24-15-2 on the road, so it’s been quite the struggle.
It’s certainly a tale of two teams when it comes to the home and away records of the Minnesota Wild as they are 8-1 on home ice this season. They don’t seem to be able to maintain the pace and energy. On their latest four-game road trip, Minnesota went 1-2-1, allowing 13 goals in the process. Luckily for them, the Wild started a four-game homestand last night against Nashville and will not be on the road until December 1st against the Blackhawks.
Outlook: Led by Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild boast a roster that is blended well with speed and strength. While Devan Dubnyk has not played as spectacularly as he did last season with the Wild, his record of 11-5-2 is reflective in large part to his team’s performance in front of him.
With basically a quarter of the season gone by, Minnesota has continued to prove that they are a dark horse for the Central Division title and can do some damage with the talent they possess up front and on the back-end.
Prediction: The teams in the Central are dominant at possessing the puck and defending it; the Minnesota Wild are no exception. As of late, they’ve found ways to qualify for the postseason and win a playoff round (defeated Colorado in 2014, St. Louis in 2015). No Mike Yeo blow-up in January needed this year…right?
Nashville Predators: 11-5-3, 25 points, 53 GF/48 GA, 4th in the Central
Surprise: James Neal. The 28-year-old in his second season in Nashville currently leads the team with 9 goals and 15 points total. He’s on pace for over 60 points, which would be a massive improvement on last season’s 37. Of course, Neal isn’t known only for his scoring touch. He’s developed a reputation in recent years for his aggressive (some might say dirty) style of play. He leads the Predators in penalty minutes as well.
Disappointment: Cody Hodgson. Since coming into the NHL as a highly-touted prospect with the Vancouver Canucks, Hodgson has never managed to meet expectations. Before this season, the Predators became the latest team to give him a shot, and he has disappointed again. Playing on Nashville’s third line, he has just 4 points, and only one goal.
Outlook: The Predators boast one of the best defensive lineups in hockey. Shea Weber and Roman Josi lead an extremely strong squad of blueliners than includes Seth Jones, who is beginning to break out, and Barret Jackman. Pekka Rinne in goal has been solid, and has given Nashville a chance to win pretty much every game. They currently sit third in the Central Division, not too far behind St. Louis in second but just barely ahead of Chicago in fourth.
Prediction: Nashville should comfortably make the playoffs; how far they go will be the real question. They have a good enough team (on paper, at least) to make a deep run as a Cup contender. They haven’t delivered in recent years, but is this the season they finally pull it off? It is a distinct possibility, with some of the other Western powerhouses beginning to falter.
Chicago Blackhawks: 11-8-2, 24 points, 57 GF/55 GA, 5th in the Central
Surprise: Artemi Panarin. The 24-year-old Russian phenom was well-documented after putting up 102 points in 105 games in the Kontinental Hockey League over the past two years. How would he fare in the NHL with these high expectations attached? Well, making the transition to North American hockey has been quite easy for Panarin after being placed on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. He has 21 points (7G, 14A) in 21 games and he’s not been producing in one simple way. We’ve seen the accurate wrister from the high slot to slick hands in tight around the goal crease; Panarin is a pure goal scorer with a knack for setting up his teammates.
He recently had a six-game point streak snapped, but has been what Joel Quennville and the Blackhawks coaching staff have asked from him and more. Although he has been a menace on the forecheck, the Korkino native has only taken two minor penalties. If he’s played this well in his first 20 NHL games, imagine what he can do in the next Similar to Parayko in St. Louis, maintaining consistency will be the biggest test for Panarin in the coming weeks.
Disappointment: Trevor Daley. Trading away Patrick Sharp and defensive prospect Stephen Johns to Dallas was hard enough in the offseason, but Daley was mainly brought into Chicago to take over the top-four spot left vacant by Johnny Oduya (who joined Lindy Ruff’s team as a free agent this offseason). Daley scored 16 goals last season but has failed to score in 20 games thus far with the Hawks. In his last six out of seven games with the team, he’s failed to hit over 15 minutes of ice time. His 15:40 average TOI/game this season is the lowest in his entire 12-year NHL career. The main problem with the 32-year-old is that he’s not being aggressive at both ends of the ice like we’re used to seeing him. He’s been slow in the defensive zone, losing puck battles along the half-wall and utilizing the weak-side on breakouts has been unusually troublesome for the Toronto native.
Offensively, his shots are either getting blocked in front or missing the net completely. Jumping into the play has been one of his strong suits throughout his entire career, but he’s been having problems picking the right spots to transition up ice with his new team. While he is not overly concerned just yet as to how he hasn’t performed up to his liking, he might want to start as he has been rumored to be on Stan Bowman’s trading block.
Outlook: The Chicago Blackhawks core consists of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa. Patrick Kane, by the way, is on a warpath. Love him or hate him, #88 is on a 15-game point streak and leads the NHL in goals (13), assists (18) and points (31). His Art Ross hopes were cut short when he fractured his clavicle in February of last season, but a healthy Kane has the opportunity to take home the scoring title and cement his name in history as the first American-born player to do so.
If Chicago fans are perhaps nervous about their slow start, they should think again. Last year, the Blackhawks were 8-7-1 in their first 16 games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. This year, they were 9-6-1 over that same stretch. The team is built different with young guns like Panarin, Marko Dano, Tanner Kero, there’s no lie. But it’s still the same Blackhawks team that won’t go away as long as their top players continue to keep them in the playoff hunt.
Prediction: There’s a reason why this team has won three Stanley Cups in six seasons with different roster setups. Whether they win the Central Division or secure a wild card spot, Chicago will be a completely different animal when they get into the playoffs.
Winnipeg Jets: 10-9-2, 22 points, 57 GF/65 GA, 6th in the Central
Surprises: Blake Wheeler. It seems like Wheeler is having a career year, putting up just about a point per game, and sitting in the top ten of the entire league. He and his linemate Bryan Little have been a serious bright spot in a lacklustre start to the season for the Jets, with both of them scoring at an impressive rate.
Disappointments: Discipline. The Jets have been unable to stay out of the box this season, leading the entire NHL by a wide margin in total minor penalties, PIM and average penalty minutes per game. This would be more acceptable if their penalty kill was better, but Winnipeg is 17th in the league, a large portion of their goals against coming with a man in the box.
Outlook: Despite a slow start, the Jets are definitely in the playoff race for the West. They’re very close behind Minnesota in the final wildcard spot. What Winnipeg needs is to stay out of the penalty box, and to receive better goaltending (or just to start Michael Hutchinson more – Ondrej Pavelec is NOT the answer).
Prediction: It’s very difficult to say where the Jets will end up, as it really could go either way. The way things are trending, they will be a playoff bubble team, and could well be in the thick of the race up to the final week of the season. Whether or not they manage to take one of the wildcard spots will effectively come down to how well they can cut down on their goals against.
Colorado Avalanche: 7-12-1, 15 points, 56 GF/61 GA, 7th in the Central
Surprises: Nathan MacKinnon. After a slightly disappointing sophomore season, MacKinnon appears to have bounced back in a big way. He’s producing at over a point-per-game, and has returned to being the powerful offensive force he was in his rookie year. With a good supporting cast on the top line with Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon has returned to form and is ripping up the league.
Disappointments: Semyon Varlamov. Just two years removed from coming second in Vezina Trophy voting, Varlamov has looked completely lost this season. 43rd in the league with a save percentage well under .900, and a goals against average well over 3. A serious part of the reason the Avalanche have struggled is they haven’t received the necessary support from their goalie.
Outlook: Not all is lost for Colorado, but most is. They’re hovering around the bottom of the league, and aren’t showing signs of picking up speed. There are rumours of the Avs management making a rash move, particularly trading Matt Duchene – which would be a very impatient move, to say the least. They aren’t really all that deep up front, so trading away one of their best forwards would make no sense. There is a bounty of prizes available at the draft in June, so they’d be smart to run with this team.
Prediction: They might start winning a little more, but don’t expect Colorado to make the playoffs. With the new NHL Draft lottery system, tanking is less rewarded, so they certainly will not stop trying to win, but with the start to the season they’ve had and the difficult division they’re in, it’s unlikely the Avalanche end up higher than 12th in the West.