As the Trade Deadline on April 12th looms large, it is time to take stock of the interesting storylines unfolding in the Central Division. With most teams having less than 20 games remaining, we have now entered the crucial phase of the stretch run. Here are five talking points to look out for as the playoff race heats up.
*All stats have been sourced from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated.
Trade Deadline: Five Talking Points For The Central Division
1) Tampa’s Kalashnikov is playoff ready
Who needs to go out and make deals with chump change when you have your very own big-ticket item currently defrosting in his carbonite casing? As teams quibble and quarrel over picks and prospects in a push to bolster at the deadline, Bolts’ general manager Julien Brisebois can continue sinking pints at the nineteenth hole. For his major acquisition is welcoming back two-time 100-point scorer Nikita Kucherov from injury. Quite the ace in the hole!
Foolishly, one might have thought that the Lightning would have struggled without one of the best wingers in the game. Or at least, have been noticeably affected. But over 65 percent through their season and the Bolts are second in the NHL in points, second in goals per game, third on the powerplay, fifth in high-danger goal rate and eighth in expected goal share.
That being said, I don’t think they’ll worry about the team chemistry suffering from slotting Kucherov back into the lineup. Word on the grapevine is that Tampa can expect to have their Russian marksman back in time for the playoffs. With this in mind, you can be sure that the Bolts aren’t planning any trade deadline business with their current status as Central Division favourites, safely in the bag.
Whoever has the misfortune of finishing fourth, get ready to be gunned out of the building; I expect it’ll be death by firing squad.
2) Sunrise Surge Needing a Deadline Boost?
The Florida Panthers have probably been the best underdog story of the NHL this year. Wily pick-ups in the offseason like Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas and Anthony Duclair coupled with a career year from bargain-buy goaltender Chris Driedger have given the Panthers the perfect springboard to kick on from years of mediocrity; Florida has only made the playoffs three times since the turn of the century.
However, the horrific season-ending injury to Aaron Ekblad has dealt a severe blow to the team’s aspirations of advancing in the postseason. Surely now, the team will be in the market for a defenceman. Ideally, they’d be shopping for a right-shot but Mattias Ekholm must be a tantalizing proposition as the standout talent on the market.
Although, when it comes to spending, Florida’s biggest issue is its internal budget. The team struggles within the larger context of the league to make money and it’s hard to see them plunging deep into their pockets, especially when there is no financial incentive of packed-out arenas for this year’s playoffs.
Alternatively, could they capitalize on Driedger’s heater via a trade?
Their surprise-star goaltender becomes a restricted free agent this summer and would be exposed in the expansion draft. With Sergei Bobrovsky on the books at $10 million and Spencer Knight in the prospect pool, Florida may want to cash in on Driedger’s lightning-in-a-bottle-type season, now. Though the team could also use him as a glorified rental themselves; his .931 save percentage may just come in handy in a best of seven series.
One thing is for certain, rookie general manager Bill Zito is working wonders with cents on the dollar.
3) Streaking in the opposite directions
Nashville and Chicago are streaking in opposite directions. As the Predators beat the Blackhawks for the fifth consecutive time this season, they finally overtook them in points, laying claim to the final playoff place in the Central Division. The Predators have won nine of their last 11 games while the Hawks have lost eight of their last 11. Though there are obvious parallels to each team’s stretches of success in 2021.
Chicago’s form found its apex in February (9-3-1). They hit a playoff spot on February 15th and had occupied the fourth spot or tied fourth in points until this week. Their rise through the Central division ranks came on the back of a dominant powerplay and a goaltending bender.
Since rookie Kevin Lankinen (.920 this season) started his first game in the NHL, the Blackhawks were benefitting from the best team goaltending (92.43 percent) in the league before their slump. But as spring sprung, Chicago’s save percentage plummeted to 25th as both Lankinen (.910) and backup Malcolm Subban (.885) came back down to earth from their early-season hot streaks.
No Lack of Finnish
Nashville’s situation is not too dissimilar. Since Juuse Saros has come back from injury, he has saved 268 of 277 shots across eight games. Meanwhile, Pekka Rinne has supported admirably too (91 out of 97 shots saved). This gives the Predators a whopping 95.49 save percentage (best in the NHL). Clearly, like the February Blackhawks, this is not sustainable.
During this span, Nashville has outscored their opponents 31-17. However, if we take Rinne and Saros’ career numbers and apply them to the shot totals faced during this hot streak, they would have conceded an extra 15 goals with career-average performances. In other words, the Predators should see some regression, which leaves fourth place up for grabs for anyone getting hot at the right time.
The fact of the matter is, both Chicago and Nashville have ridden unsustainable goaltending. If either ends up finishing in the final playoff spot, they will likely be a glutton for punishment in a series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
4) Powerplay Pandamonium
Carolina is on pace to challenge the 30 percent success threshold which hasn’t been surpassed in a single season since the 1978-79 New York Islanders. Their current powerplay pace of 29.09 percent tops the league. Divisional foes Tampa Bay and Chicago rank third (26.22 percent) and fourth (25.83 percent) respectively.
Unsurprisingly, having three Central teams at the top of the powerplay efficiency table has also led to bad penalty kills within the division. Detroit, Nashville and Chicago are all in the bottom five in the NHL in penalty kill success rate. This relationship is, in part, due to the causality that stems from the interdivisional schedule. Although, it still might be too simplistic to say that the likes of Carolina and Tampa Bay are merely profiting against weak killing units this season.
After all, the Blackhawks are averaging over 23 percent against everybody except Nashville, (bizarrely); they have tallied just once in fifteen attempts against the Predators. Similarly, Tampa Bay and Carolina have combined for a 30 percent success rate against Florida’s respectable (12th ranked) penalty-killing unit.
Looking ahead, the mouth-watering prospect of a Hurricanes-Lightning playoff matchup may well be decided by which penalty kill blinks first. So far this season both of these impressive powerplays have struggled to make in-roads against each other. Tampa is two for 18 against Carolina while the Canes have scored only three times in 22 attempts against the Bolts.
5) Will Dallas run out of runway?
It is amazing to think that Dallas is still in with a chance of making the playoffs. The entire team went down with COVID before the season started, they endured a city-wide power outage crisis and their two-best players have missed the entire campaign. Not to mention the fact that they can’t put away a chance at five-on-five to save their lives!
Despite owning the lion’s share of high danger chances (54.17 percent) and expected goals (52.25 percent), the Stars shooting percentage (28th with 6.95 percent) drags their overall goal production down. Naturally missing goal-scoring commodities like Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov is playing its part.
If they do end up making the postseason, then huge credit must go to two players at opposite ends of their careers. Veteran Joe Pavelski leads the team with 15 goals, (11 on the powerplay); he has already outproduced himself from last season (in 32 fewer games). Meanwhile, rookie Jason Robertson has exploded onto the scene as a playmaking guru. His 1.52 primary assists per 60 at five-on-five rank fifth in the entire league.**
Right now, Dallas is six points off fourth with three additional games to play. Though, at this stage, points in the bank are more valuable than the promise of those from games in hand.
With 20 games to play in 36 days, Dallas’ gruelling schedule may impact their final charge for a playoff berth. They still have eight games against the three-best teams in the division.
Taking The L On The Season?
However, even if everything goes south over the next week, it is hard to imagine general manager Jim Nill dealing at the deadline. Looking at the Stars’ contracts, there aren’t many must-trade assets that pop off the page. So much so that Dallas will likely be the quietest at the trade deadline among their Central Division peers.
If they fall off a cliff, they will likely chalk this year off as an outlier and move on.
**Minimum of 200 minutes of ice time.
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