Early Season Report Cards: NHL Central Division Summary

Central Division Report Cards
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The 2021-22 NHL season is well underway. With most teams having played at least 10 games, we as fans are beginning to build a general impression of how each franchise’s season is shaping up. In this summary series, we take a closer look at each division and evaluate how each team has done in their first month of the season. This is a breakdown of the big questions facing every team as they entered the season and whether they are playing over, under, or right on par with expectations. This article will cover the Central Division summary.

NHL Central Division Summary: Early Season Report Cards

Minnesota Wild: 8-3-0 (16pts)

3.1 GF/G (12th)

NHL free agent frenzy

3.4 GA/G (7th)

18.8 PP% (20th)

75.0 PK% (24th)

Analysis

The Minnesota Wild have quietly gone about their business and are enjoying a remarkable start to their campaign. Pundits had this team floating around the wildcard range, and rightfully so, as there was a lot to speculate about this roster. Last year’s Wild were certainly fun to watch as rookie Kirill Kaprizov single-handedly rejuvenated this team. But the big question coming into this season was whether he could replicate, or improve upon his Calder winning season. 

Well, it took Kirill nine games before he would pocket his first goal of the year. Although it wasn’t necessarily a slow start – he had six assists in the previous eight games – but he is well off the 40-goal pace he was on last year. Regardless of his early output, Wild fans must be happy that their Russian star has the monkey off his back and is rolling along now. 

The Wild were one of many teams to start the year on a four-game win streak, but since that run, they have become a little streaky. What’s more, prior to Sunday night’s game, they had conceded four goals to the opposition in four straight games. Goaltending continues to be Minnesota’s weak point. Cam Talbot is sporting a 2.85 goals-against average and .904 save percentage across nine games and he and teammate, Kaapo Kahkonen, have looked shaky, to say the least. Minnesota is a playoff team in my eyes but they are going to need their goalies to improve if they want to finish above a wildcard spot. Though I think Talbot will find his groove which will keep the Wild rolling.

Central Division Summary Grade: B+

St. Louis Blues: 7-2-1 (15pts)

4.0 GF/G (3rd)

2.2 GA/G (28th)

32.0 PP% (2nd)

90.6 PK% (2nd)

Analysis

If you expected the St. Louis Blues to perform this well to start the year then you saw something I didn’t. Though I’d say we can confidently assume that most of us had another team running away with this division *cough cough Colorado*. But the Blues have been a pleasant surprise to start the year. Craig Berube‘s men flew out of the gates, starting with a five-game winning streak where they outscored their opponents 25-11. 

The question facing the Blues was if their offseason acquisitions would be enough to bring an infusion of scoring that would get them back into serious playoff contention. Well if you count the return of Vladimir Tarasenko as an “offseason acquisition”, then it certainly has. Tarasenko’s 11 points in nine games have generated an influx of offence and have propelled the Blues into early Cup-favourite consideration.

As for their actual offseason acquisitions, Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad have proven to be integral parts of the depth of this team, for which the Blues are now becoming known. The two forwards are currently driving the third line with Tyler Bozak and are helping to shut down opposing teams’ power plays by putting in hard minutes on the penalty kill. 

The Blues went out in search of more offence but in return came away with something much better – an all-around, complete team. The Blues have the third most goals scored, conceded the fourth-least goals against, and sport the second-best power play and penalty kill in the league.

Although an argument can be made that the early season success is in large part due to the easy schedule to start the year; of the Blues’ first 10 games scheduled, they only played against three teams that were in the playoffs last year – the Vegas Golden Knights once and Colorado Avalanche twice. That argument is certainly valid, but they are winning these “easy matchups” where other teams are not. So that alone makes me an early believer in this team.

Central Division Summary Grade: A

Winnipeg Jets: 6-3-2 (14pts)

3.3 GF/G (7th)

2.9 GA/G (12th)

28.1 PP% (4th)

65.7 PK% (32nd)

Analysis

After being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets had some roster issues to address. The Jets boast a big, fast, and skilled offence that can wear you down and score in bunches. They also have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Connor Hellebuyck. But after the exodus of players on the blueline in 2019 (Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba) Winnipeg has struggled to build a dependable backend that can stifle the opposition. 

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff continued his blueline rebuild during the offseason by trading for Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon and re-signing offensive defenceman Neal Pionk. These were good moves but they haven’t translated to a more stout defensive game yet. The Jets have allowed almost three goals against per game and their penalty kill is a league-worst 65.7% 

The bright side for the Jets is that the offence continues to be stellar. Pierre-Luc Dubois has found his stride in Winnipeg, putting up 11 points through 11 games. A more offensive-minded system in Winnipeg has proven to bring out the best in him. Kyle Connor is also off to a blistering start with eight goals and 16 points through 11 games. And getting Mark Scheifele back in the lineup has been a boost as well. The Jets faired well in his absence, getting four wins in five games while he was out, but obviously, the team is much better with him on the roster. 

The Jets have two options here. Either they do a better job keeping the puck out of their net, or they find a way to keep up this torrential scoring pace. They will be better off improving on the backend than relying on their players to maintain their lofty point-per-game paces.

Central Division Summary Grade: B

Nashville Predators: 6-5-1 (13pts)

2.7 GF/G (20th)

2.8 GA/G (16th)

28.6 PP% (3rd)

80.0 PK% (19th)

Analysis

Entering the 2021-22 season, general manager David Poile had to take a good look at his roster and decide if it was a playoff contender or time to rebuild. The Predators did just make the playoffs the previous season, however, the offseason trades of Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson, and the retirement of Pekka Rinne, have greatly altered the landscape of this team. 

Nashville got off to a predictable start with four losses in five games. During that stretch, it looked as though David Poile would be forced into full rebuild mode. But the players have recently found some chemistry and John Hynes’ roster now has five wins in their last seven games to show for it. 

Roman Josi is having a Norris calibre start to his 11th season with the Predators. He is tied for the league lead for defencemen with 12 points in 12 games. Goaltender Juuse Saros has settled in as the true number one goalie in the post-Rinne era. And Nashville has been getting a surprising amount of consistent offence from their top-six forwards, resulting in the third-best power play in the league.

However, an upper-body injury to Filip Forsberg might be what derails this bright start. Forsberg is currently week-to-week and his absence has reflected on the score sheet and was emphasized by a lacklustre 2-1 loss to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks. There is not a lot of margin for error with this club, so the longer Forsberg remains out, the further this team falls in the standings.

Central Division Summary Grade: B-

Dallas Stars: 4-5-2 (10pts)

2.1 GF/G (30th)

2.8 GA/G (16th)

24.0 PP% (11th)

78.8 PK% (21st)

Analysis

There’s no other way to put this. The Dallas Stars have been a big disappointment. Where optimism and excitement once surrounded the former Stanley Cup finalist team, it has now all but vanished. After last night’s 6-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, coach Rick Bowness tore into his team. Frustration has reached an all-time high for the Stars. A team that is spoiled with offensive talent in Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Jason Robertson, continues to fall flat out on the ice. This group has struggled to find the net the last three seasons and now sits 30th in the NHL in goals scored. 

Yes, the Stars have won four games but they have yet to win in regulation. The team lacks any sort of killer instinct to put games away early. So it begs the question, is this group capable of winning a cup or is it time to blow it up? I believe the pieces are still here for this team. They have some excellent young talent coming through but the worry is it will be wasted on the current strategy which lacks any sort of direction and leadership. I think the problem is at the coaching level. I’m a Rick Bowness fan but he’s lost his locker room. His players aren’t buying into his system. They come out night after night with no passion or competitiveness. It’s time for Dallas to change the coach and create a new identity while they’re still in their championship window.

Central Division Summary Grade: D-

Colorado Avalanche: 4-5-1 (9pts)

2.9 GF/G (14th)

3.6 GA/G (3rd)

10.5 PP% (29th)

84.6 PK% (10th)

Analysis

Well, I don’t believe anyone had the Colorado Avalanche struggling like this out of the gate. Yet here we are: 10 games in and the Avs find themselves below .500. The loss of Philipp Grubauer in the offseason to the Seattle Kraken is clearly being felt. As is the absence of role players Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. The question facing the Avs was how their departure would hurt their Cup chances. Well, here’s your answer. The Avalanche have been scored on the third most out of any team in the league. The only teams worse are the teams they are directly ahead of in their division – the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes. Ouch.

The top defensive pairing of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard is a combined -15. And Gabriel Landeskog is their only regular forward who has a plus/minus above zero. This Avs team sure looks like a shell of their former selves. There were high expectations for them entering the 2021-22 season; most pundits even had them winning the Stanley Cup.

Of course, it’s still very early in the year so no need to panic yet. Fixing their abysmal power play (10.5%) will go a long way in giving their goalies some breathing room in tight games. Colorado would also benefit from going out and finding a better backup goalie to lighten some of the load on Darcy Kuemper. The Avalanche have greatly underperformed but the pieces are all there, they just need to get rolling. The wins should begin to pile up soon enough. 

Central Division Summary Grade: D

Chicago Blackhawks: 2-9-2 (6pts)

2.2 GF/G (29th)

3.9 GA/G (2nd)

22.2 PP% (13th)

87.5 PK% (5th)

Analysis

The offseason additions of Marc-Andre Fleury, Seth Jones, and the return of captain Jonathan Toews brought optimism to the Windy City. The Chicago Blackhawks performed above expectations early last year before their goaltending crumbled and blew any shot at the playoffs. So there were realistic expectations that adding a bonafide defenceman in Jones and last year’s Vezina winner in Fleury would get them over the hump. Unfortunately, it’s done nothing of the sort.

The Blackhawks have been in turmoil to start the year. Failures in leadership were exposed with an investigation into a 2010 sexual assault scandal, and, unrelated to the investigation, head coach Jeremy Colliton has been fired 12 games into the season. Derek King has been promoted to interim head coach and enters a situation no one in the NHL envies. The failures of how the Kyle Beach incident was handled will forever leave a stain on this franchise. And now, Derek King has a big responsibility in turning the page for this club and helping to instil a better culture in Chicago.

I believe the ‘Hawks will flip the script on the first 10 games and play to the level this roster is capable of. It’s an uphill battle to get back into the playoff race but they have the luxury of a long season to turn this around.

Central Division Summary Grade: D

Arizona Coyotes: 1-10-1 (3pts)

1.6 GF/G (32nd)

4.0 GA/G (1st)

10.7 PP% (28th)

65.8 PK% (31st)

Analysis

Yikes. There really isn’t more to say here.

To be fair, we knew the Arizona Coyotes would be bad. At the beginning of the year, I predicted they would match the 1996 and 2020 Detroit Red Wings for the earliest elimination from the playoffs by their 63rd game. Though, it may come sooner than that. 

The Coyotes are at the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category. They are clearly in full rebuild mode. Wait, didn’t they just do a rebuild? This organization has failed to give its fans much to cheer about in the last decade. There will be more trades to come as the Coyotes look to retool quickly; I can’t imagine Phil Kessel finishing the year in the desert.

This far into their rebuild and I still can’t figure out their plan here. The only bright spot has been the play of rookie goaltender Karel Vejmelka. The former fourth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2015, has put up a 2.84 GAA and .913 SV%: decent numbers, considering what’s in front of him. Hopefully, this team can find some offence and give their fans something to cheer about. But when your leading scoring forward is a third-line grinder with six points in 12 games, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Central Division Summary Grade: F

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