The NHL Down The Stretch: Central Division

With the trade deadline passed, every team in the NHL knows where they stand, and while some are gearing up for what they hope will be a long and successful run, others are simply playing out the string and waiting for the draft in June. 

The LWOS hockey department has taken a division-by-division snapshot of where each team is at going down the stretch run of the 2015-16 season, and what each team can expect by season’s end, taking into account recent deadline moves, as well as the team’s remaining strength of schedule. 

First up, the Central Division, brought to you by Ken Hill (@LWOSPuckHead).

The NHL Down The Stretch: Central Division

1. Chicago Blackhawks – 41-21-5, 87 points, 40 ROW

As expected, the Blackhawks are once again a powerhouse, leading the Central in total wins, regulation/OT wins, goal differential (+31) and goals against (160), while their power play (24.1%) is tops in the entire NHL.

Much of the team’s success has been carried on the shoulders of winger Patrick Kane, who has turned in a career-year with 38 goals and 89 points, including a league-leading 32 on the power play. The Art Ross is his for the taking, as he’s built a comfortable 17-point lead over runner-up Jamie Benn (he could realistically miss the rest of the regular season and still secure the scoring title), and the Hart is a very real possibility too.

At the deadline, GM Stan Bowman was, as always, proactive, bringing in a number of depth pieces that should help the team in its pursuit of a 4th Stanley Cup since 2010 and cement their place as the league’s first post-2005 lockout dynasty. Those moves included bringing back former Blackhawk and two-time Cup champ Andrew Ladd, who has sparked Jonathan Toews’ game, as the captain has points in four straight since the trade playing primarily on a line with Ladd and Andrew Shaw.

Also coming over prior to the deadline were forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann, giving the Blackhawks one of the deepest forward groups in the league, while the other new addition, blueliner Christian Ehrhoff, should be able to give coach Joel Quenneville more options on defense than he had in the 2015 post-season, where he famously ran his top three rearguards into the ground on the way to the Cup.

Chicago has struggled a bit of late, winning just two of their last five, and while normally that would be of little concern for the Hawks, as the playoffs are all that matters for this club, how they play over their remaining 15 games could have a huge impact on their first round matchup. Chicago will want to win the division, assuring them a much easier opening round against likely one of Nashville, Minnesota or Colorado, while dropping to second could mean a much tougher series against either Dallas or St. Louis (though it’s worth noting a matchup with the Wild could be a tough one, as Minnesota leads the season series between the two 3-0-0).

Ultimately, the Blackhawks likely aren’t worried too much either way, as they appear to once again be the best bet to make it out of the Central and earn a berth in the Western Conference Final, where they will likely play either the Anaheim Ducks or L.A. Kings. Is yet another Stanley Cup Final appearance in their future? With the newly-added depth, solid scoring throughout the lineup, an elite blueline, and goaltender Corey Crawford continuing to prove his critics wrong with a Vezina-quality season, there’s no reason they won’t be there at the end yet again to face the best the East has to offer.

2. Dallas Stars – 40-20-7, 87 points, 38 ROW

After a disappointing 6th place finish in the Central last season, the Stars have taken the next step this year to join the elite in the NHL. Currently tied with the Blackhawks in points, Chicago gets the edge based on the tiebreaker and will have an easier schedule down the stretch than Dallas, so the Stars will need to make up a bit of ground if they hope to secure the first seed and the opportunity for an easier first round matchup.

That said, the Stars certainly have the firepower to do it. The team leads the entire league in goals for with a whopping 213, four goals ahead of Alex Ovechkin and the high-flying Washington Capitals. The duo of captain Benn and center Tyler Seguin has again been one of the best in the NHL (they rank second and third in league scoring with 72 points and 68 points, respectively), while the depth scoring from the likes of Jason Spezza (24 goals), Patrick Sharp (47 points) and defenseman John Klingberg (53 points, 3rd among all NHL defenseman) have propelled them to the top of the league scoring charts. However, a recent injury to Klingberg is concerning.

At the trade deadline, the Stars addressed their biggest weakness, defense (the team is currently ranked 23rd in goals against with 190), and snatched arguably the biggest fish available on the blueline, Kris Russell from the Calgary Flames. Russell is a solid penalty killer and will be counted on as a key contributor on the defensive side of the puck in the post-season if the Stars hope to advance.

Whether it was enough is the question. The Stars undoubtedly have the ability to score their way out of trouble, but as things tend to tighten up in the playoffs, the team might struggle if they aren’t able to get better defense and, more crucially, better goaltending.

The team’s Finnish tandem in net, incumbent Kari Lehtonen and newcomer Antti Niemi, have been, to put it nicely, subpar this season and a huge reason the Stars have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, as the club has the second best possession statistics as a team at 5-on-5 in the NHL. Niemi has won a Cup before, in 2010 with Chicago, but has struggled with consistency over the last four post-seasons as a San Jose Shark.

The Stars should cruise into the post-season with no problems, but will only go as far as Niemi and Lehtonen can take them. If neither steps up their game, the Stars are unlikely to advance beyond the second round.

3. St. Louis Blues – 38-20-9, 85 points, 34 ROW

On the flip side of Dallas we have the Blues, who have been one of the more defensively sound teams in the league, but boast a lackluster offense. Despite consternation about the team’s performance this season, the Blues are quietly 4th overall in the NHL, just two points back of both Chicago and Dallas, and still pose a real threat to (finally) go on a playoff run.

As mentioned, the bread and butter for the Blues this season has been their defense, and with team possession numbers in the middle third of the NHL, much of that can be attributed to two factors: The team’s top ranked penalty kill (86.6%) and very solid goaltending. The pair of veteran Brian Elliot and 25-year-old Jake Allen has been outstanding, currently ranking 2nd and 10th in save percentage in the NHL among goalies who have played at least 20 games (Elliot is at .929, while Allen boasts a .922). Elliot is currently injured, meaning it’s Allen’s crease and he’s likely to run with it all the way to a start in the team’s opening post-season game.

At the trade deadline, the Blues only made a minor deal for third string goalie Anders Nilsson, choosing instead to stand pat with the group they currently have (partially due to cap constraints). However, that doesn’t mean they won’t get a boost from an influx of players, as Elliot and injured forwards Alexander Steen and Steve Ott are hopeful to be back in time for the post-season. The return of Steen in particular would be a boon for the club, as he’s second in team scoring with 47 points, behind only the sublime Vladimir Tarasenko, who has again hit the 30-goal mark already and has been the team’s lone consistent scoring threat up front.

Given all this, how they will perform in the post-season when they get there is anyone’s guess. Under head coach Ken Hitchcock the club has made the playoffs each season, finishing no lower than 2nd in the Central, but won just one round in four years. If the Blues can manage to take advantage of their comparatively weaker schedule and make a drive for the first seed, thereby avoiding Chicago or Dallas in round one, they have a good chance of making another second round appearance.

However, that’s the best case scenario for this club, as they are eventually going to run into one of the big clubs in the West, and how they fare in such a series will have an impact on the future of both Hitchcock, who has been given many chances to get this team over the top, and maybe the entire roster, as the team has a number of prominent free agents this offseason. Expect a second round exit at best, and some tough decisions to follow.

 4. Nashville Predators – 33-21-12, 78 points, 30 ROW

The Predators are the wildcard (literally) in the Central, as they’re a team who appears to have a pretty comfortable playoff position (eight points ahead of Colorado after a big 5-2 win over the Avalanche on March 5th), has been on a great run with points in 12 straight games, as well as the easiest remaining schedule. If there’s one team to emerge as a dark horse who could come out of the Central, it’s the Preds, as they appear to be rounding into form at just the right time.

21-year-old forward Filip Forsberg has been one of the best offensive players in the NHL in 2016, particularly of late with eight goals and 12 points in his last six games, while James Neal (23 goals) Mike Ribeiro (46 points) and the dynamic blueline duo of Roman Josi (47 points) and captain Shea Weber (41 points) have carried the bulk of the offense. The team has also been a possession beast, with a CF% of 52.5 at even strength, 4th in the NHL.

Like the Blues, the Preds stood pat on deadline day, having already made their biggest move earlier in the season with the addition of center Ryan Johansen from Columbus. Johansen has largely been on the second line with Ribeiro and Calle Jarnkrok, giving the team two solid scoring lines they can rely on going into the post-season. So far as a Predator Johansen has scored 18 points in 26 games, but has struggled to put the puck in the back of the net himself.

Based on the playoff format and how the standings seem poised to shake down, the Predators are most likely going to play the Pacific Division winners in round one, meaning either the Anaheim Ducks of the L.A. Kings. Either matchup is an unenviable one for Nashville, as both teams are considered Stanley Cup contenders.

The x-factor in any first round matchup is going to be goalie Pekka Rinne. The 35-year-old Finn has been showing his age this season, posting numbers below his career averages, and while he’s been better of late, the team desperately needs him to find his form in time for the playoffs. It’s a big ask, and likely the reason the Preds are going to suffer a second consecutive first round exit.

5. Minnesota Wild – 31-26-10, 72 points, 30 ROW

The Wild currently occupy the second, and final, wildcard spot in the Western Conference, and while they aren’t likely to face any competition for that position from the Pacific Division (the Vancouver Canucks are a distant 10 points back), the Avalanche are nipping at their heels.

Minnesota has been middling in both goals for and goals against this season, ranking 13th in both categories. Offensively, despite having solid depth (eight players have hit double-digits in goals), the team lacks a true game-breaker, and Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek, both former 40-goal scorers, have struggled to the tune of 18 goals each. However, there have been some pleasant surprises, including 24-year-old Charlie Coyle, who has emerged as a top-six center and scored 21 goals this season.

At the trade deadline, many felt the Wild made a big mistake by not making any major moves to address their offense, only adding David Jones to play a bottom-six role, though, like many teams who were quiet on deadline day, Minnesota didn’t have much cap space to maneuver with, as the effect of big contracts to Parise, Vanek, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, and Jason Pominville were felt.

Making the playoffs will be a fight for the Wild, who recently had a modest four-game win streak snapped, but they will have a relatively easier schedule than the Avs, particularly over the next five games against non-playoff opponents. If they do manage to squeak in, expect them to be easy fodder in the first round for whoever wins the Central.

6. Colorado Avalanche – 33-30-4, 70 points, 30 ROW

The Avalanche are in a position very similar to the Wild as a team that probably isn’t quite good enough at this point to be in the playoff race, yet finds themselves right there (just two points back) thanks to the relative weakness of the Pacific Division.

If anything, Colorado is even less deserving of being invited to the post-season dance, as they boast the worst even strength possession (CF% of 44.0) as a team in the entire NHL, and their 2.90 team goals against average is the 7th worst.

Offensively, the team is led by the usual suspects in Matt Duchene (50 points), Nathan MacKinnon (49 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (46 points) while blueliner Tyson Barrie has again been dynamic with 45 points. Those numbers aren’t spectacular, but the team’s scoring overall is playoff-quality… though it’s on the other side of the puck where some scary numbers emerge. There is no single regular roster player on the club who carries a CF% above 50 at even strength, with defenseman Zach Redmond the leader at 47.40 CF%. The club simply bleeds chances against.

Sensing his team needed a boost, President of Hockey Operations Joe Sakic was active at the trade deadline, swapping an aging Alex Tanguay for the speedier, and younger, Mikkael Boedker from the Arizona Coyotes. However, most people felt the deal was a sideways one at best, though Boedker’s played well with two points in three games in a top ling winger role alongside Landeskog and MacKinnon. The Avs also added defenseman Eric Gelinas from the New Jersey Devils.

The road to a playoff spot is going to be very tough for the Avalanche. Despite being just two points back and matching the Wild in regulation/OT wins, the more difficult schedule against a greater number of playoff teams and very very poor underlying numbers seem to indicate Colorado could fall short. If, by some miracle, the team continues to buck the trend and gets the points it needs, they should be no match in round one for whoever wins the Central, be it Chicago, Dallas or St. Louis.

7. Winnipeg Jets – 27-33-5, 59 points, 25 ROW

Down at the bottom of the Central are the Jets, the only team in the division with no playoff aspirations and a clear focus on the offseason and perhaps the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Winnipeg is currently tied for 27th in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, just one point ahead of the Calgary Flames and seven points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. So what went wrong?

Amazingly, the Jets have been one of the better possession teams in the NHL, posting a team five-on-five CF% of 51.9, good for 9th in the NHL, while their goal differential at even strength is only -1. However, it’s their special teams which have really sunk the club, as their power play (15.9%) is 29th, and their penalty kill (77.7%) is little better at 26th. With results like that, it’s no wonder they’re hovering near the bottom of the NHL.

However, the news hasn’t been all bad for the Jets, as the team has had a number of promising individual performances this season. Big winger Blake Wheeler is on his way to his third consecutive 60-point season and hasn’t scored less than 0.77 points per game since the team moved from Atlanta. At 29 years old, he still has a few prime scoring years left as the team hopefully turns the corner soon. Center Mark Scheifele has taken another step forward as well, posting his first 20-goal campaign, while rookie Nikolaj Ehlers hasn’t looked out of place with 31 points in 63 games. Throw in rookie goalie Connor Hellebyuck’s solid numbers (2.34 GAA, .918 SV% in 26 appearances) and there’s a number of exciting pieces for the future.

The team stood pat at the deadline, likely a wise decision with new contracts needed for Scheifele and defenseman Jacob Trouba, while the earlier trade of former captain Ladd garnered a nice little package of Marko Dano and a first round pick in return.

The Jets are a team smack dab in the middle of their rebuild, and with two first round picks coming in June, one potentially very high, the Jets look poised to add to the impressive stable of prospects that has them ranked 2nd by Hockey’s Future.

 

Stay tuned for more stretch run previews of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Metropolitan divisions.

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