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Central Division Report

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It's almost halfway through the NHL season, so let's see how our Central Division neighbors are doing. Howdy, neighbors!

The Hawks celebrate scoring a goal because it makes them happy.
The Hawks celebrate scoring a goal because it makes them happy.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

GP Record Points GF GA GD Last Ten
Chicago 35 23-10-2 48 107 72 +35 7-2-1
Nashville 33 22-9-2 46 95 70 +25 6-4-0
St. Louis 34 21-10-3 45 100 86 +14 5-4-1
Winnipeg 35 18-10-7 43 88 81 +7 6-1-3
Minnesota 32 16-13-3 35 93 89 +4 3-4-3
Colorado 34 13-13-8 34 90 101 -11 4-3-3
Dallas 33 14-14-5 33 95 113 -18 5-5-0


CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Leading Goal Scorer: Patrick Kane, 16 goals
Leader in Points: Patrick Kane, 36 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
18.0% 91.6% 35.1 28.7 55.8% 55.1% 7.59% 101.3

The Blackhawks started this season with aspirations of a third Stanley Cup since 2010. They're still the class of the Central and once again proving why they're a top-three team in the league.

The Hawks started 6-3-1 and slightly outscored their opponent 25-19 in that stretch. The more concerning number for Hawks fans in that ten-game sample was the 25 goals for. When your team has been a powerhouse for so long, an average of 2.5 goals per game in ten contests can feel like another economic collapse if your vision is made entirely out of tunnels.

Shortly after that devastating ten-game stretch, Patrick Sharp, who had 9 points in 13 games, went down for a couple weeks with the always dreaded lower-body injury. His injury seemed to have woken up the Hawks a little. The result was a 14-6 record in their next twenty games. Specifically, the 16 games from Nov 4th - Dec 9th, Patrick Kane had 18 points, Toews and Hossa had 15, and most surprisingly, Kris Versteeg had 6 goals and 19 points. Versteeg has always been somewhat of a punchline to Blackhawks fans, but as of now, he has 9 goals and 25 points in 30 games played, good enough for third on the Hawks in scoring. His career high is 54 points in 71 games and is currently on pace to reach and break that total.

Brad Richards also started finding chemistry on a line with Versteeg and Patrick Kane during that time. Richards had 2 goals and 6 points in his first 13 games but since has rounded into form scoring 12 points in his next 20 games. And while their second line began to take shape, Brandon Saad finally started making his full presence felt on the top line with Toews and Hossa. Saad has 21 points in 33 games, on pace for a career year and possibly shattering his previous point total of 47 points in 78 games. This created a problem, or as Marlo Stanfield would say, "one of those good problems." When Patrick Sharp came back to the line up on Dec. 9th, Quennville couldn't break up the top two lines because they had been playing so well. So the Hawks third line has been Patrick Sharp-Andrew Shaw-Bryan Bickell. Once again it was one of those "good problems." But by the end of the night, Sharp's name had more ice time than Saad anyway.

The Hawks have also been trying to fill the hole left on their third defensive pairing since they traded Nick Leddy to the Islanders. Trevor Van Riemsdyk did the job beautifully for a little while until he went on Injured Reserve. David Runblad didn't do too bad either. Klas Dahlbeck was also given a few games. But for the time being, Runblad seems to be the guy who will take over at least until Van Reimsdyke is healthy.

In addition to the Van Riemsdyk and Sharp injuries, goalie Corey Crawford also got hurt, but his injury is a little bizarre. It's been reported as the insidious lower-body injury and he apparently got it at a concert...his story was he missed a step and hurt himself. In 18 games he saw 476 shots, had a .929 sv%, and gave up only 34 goals in that period. Antii Raanta and Scott Darling have been the Hawks goaltenders since and have done well. Crawford is due back before or just after Christmas.

Predictions:

Chicago will win the Central Division and make it to the Western Conference Finals. Again.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Goal Scoring Leader: Vladimir Tarasenko, 20 goals
Leader in Points: Vladimir Tarasenko, 37 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
25.4% 78.9% 31.3 27.3 49.6% 50.7% 7.71% 100.5

Much like the Hawks, the Blues had a good idea of who they were going into this season. They no longer need David Backes to be their top center as they signed Paul Statsny and (finally) brought KHL star Jori Lehtera to North America. They also added to their defensive depth by signing Carl Gunnarsson, who unfortunately has battled injury this season. Nevertheless, The Blues finally look ready to take that step into the Stanley Cup Final or just try and get anywhere near it.

St. Louis started a tad rocky. They won only 2 games in their first six and scored just 13 goals in those six games. Six of those goals came in a blowout of Arizona. The Blues responded by winning their next seven in a row and ten of their next eleven. In this time, Vladimir Tarasenko rose from budding star to human highlight machine. Tarasenko finally blossomed into the star Doug Armstrong and crew saw in the KHL and occassionally over the past few seasons. Jori Lehtera has been centering Tarasenko. Lehtera's transition from the KHL to the NHL was seemless as he's already made a huge difference in their top six with 25 points in 32 games. Their third linemate, Jaden Schwartz, also is starting to come into his own scoring 11 goals and 27 points in 31 games, third on the team in points. The line has since been nicknamed the STL line.

Paul Statsny, on the other hand, has struggled. Towards the start of the year, he was injured and since returning hasn't exactly found his footing. Statsny has scored just 7 goals and 13 points in 25 games. A few weeks ago, coach Ken Hitchcock said in response to a question about what Statsny needs to do to play better, "he just needs to play better." Now that's a real teacher for you.

The Blues identity is largely constructed around their defensive ability but until now they have never really had an elite right handed puck mover. Kevin Shattenkirk is finally looking like the Dan Boyle 2.0 player everyone thought he'd be when he was at BU. He's second on the team in points with 28. Shattenkirk is also second in defensive scoring, four points behind the dominant Mark Giordano and first in defensive power play points, three ahead of Erik Karlsson, Keith Yandle, and the surprising Sami Vatanen. Admittedly, Shattenkirk is getting favorable zone starts, but with a defensive core like theirs, they can afford it.

Jake Allen seems to have taken the starting role in goal for St. Louis while Brian Elliot is out with injury. Though the big headline for the Blue's lately has been them signing Martin Brodeur to fill in at least until Elliot gets healthy. If you have been paying attention to the Blues, you know that this is the MOST amount of time Brodeur can remain on that team. The second Elliot is back, Brodeur better be out the door.

Prediction

The Blues will end the season second in the Central Division and play Nashville in the first round. Tarasenko will end the year top five in goals and their power play will be terrifying for any PK going into the postseason.

WINNIPEG JETS

Goal Scoring Leader: Bryan Little, 12 goals
Leader in Points: Andrew Ladd/Blake Wheeler, 23 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
15.2% 84.4% 30.5 27.9 54.4% 53.6% 6.39% 99.5

Oh the Jets. Whatever are we going to do with you.

The Jets started this season off just like they have since being in Atlanta - with the exact same core. Many have wondered, "what is it going to take for the Jets to shake things up?" Could they end up trading Evander Kane, whom the media seems to make a lightning rod of criticism on a regular basis? Will they really stand pat with Ondrej Pavelec in net?

The latter question was answered in the offseason. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said Ondrej Pavelec would be the starting goaltender. And that's just what happened to the surprise of literally everyone. But also to the surprise of literally eveyone, Ondrej Pavelec started off the year much better than he had, well... EVER. After the Jets went 1-4 in their first five, they went 6-2-2 in their next ten. Pavelec started 14 of those first 15, and was pulled once. Over that span, Pavelec saw 401 shots against and stopped 372 of them for a .927 save percentage. In those 15 games he also allowed 30 goals, 22 of which were at even strength. Of course, this is all well above his very bad career averages and wasn't ever expected to last. Pavelec has since recorded a .894 save% on 218 shots against in nine games. But now there seems to be a goalie "controversy" (or mercy on Jets fans) with back up Michael Hutchinson.

It's amazing what even the most average goaltending could do for this team. While Pavelec was on his best stretch, the Jets were making ground in the tough Central Division. But now injuries have decimated their blue line. Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian were near catastrophic losses for an already thin unit, and it was enough to move swingman Dustin Byfuglien back on defense. Of course, then Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart get hit with the injury bug and are out until February. Now every big-minute defenseman (with the exception of Byfuglien) is out long term. Talk about catastrophic.

As much as it must have pained him to do it, Cheveldayoff made a trade. The Jets aquired veteran Jay Harrison from Carolina for a sixth round pick. This certainly isn't the fix they need considering how many important blueliners they are missing. But it will have to do unless there is another trade waiting in the wings.

Offensively, the Jets continue to struggle. They are 23rd in the league in goals for and outside of Kane, Wheeler, and Little, their offense is very thin. Kane's numbers are slightly down, but part of that has to do with a cold streak and unusual zone starts (46.3% of his starts in the defensive zone, he hasn't started less than 53.9% since 2009). Despite this, he has maintained a respectable Fenwick Close of 55.1%. Ladd, Wheeler, and Little remain the top line and the offensive catalysts to the Jets. Ladd and Wheeler both have 23 points while Little has 21 and leads all Jets in goals with 12. But all of these totals are with 33 games played suggesting that the Jets need more scoring depth beyond those three and Kane if they want to continue to hold their playoff position.

Predictions:

Sadly, Winnipeg will fall out of their playoff spot. It will be wrestled away either by LA or Minnesota. The problem is the Jets just don't have enough depth at any position to compete for a Wild Card spot, let alone a Central Division spot. If the Jets' fortunes continue to fall, they will move Kane at the trade deadline or draft, which is sad because the Jets numbers, while not the most sustainable, are actually an improvement from previous years. The Jets do have some promising youth in their development system or in juniors, though. If they can't make much out of this roster one last time, it may be time to continue building for a less immediate future because the honeymoon with the fans has been over for a couple of years and they want to see the playoffs.

MINNESOTA WILD

Goal Scoring Leader: Nino Niederreiter, 14 goals
Leader in Points: Zach Parise, 26 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
13.9% 86.5% 32.2 26.5 52.7% 53.9% 8.36% 98.3

The Wild are an interesting team this year. On paper, they look like they could really do some damage after a good showing in the playoffs last year. Their young, budding stars had another year under their belt and it seemed like it was time for Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Nino Neiderreiter and Charlie Coyle to take the next step and produce with the likes of Parise, Pominville, and Koivu. While Brodin is continuing to blossom alongside Suter, Granlund and Coyle have struggled to find the scoresheet.

Coyle played mostly wing at the start of the season but moved to third-line center in the middle of November. The 6'3" centerman has just two goals and eleven points in 31 games and has a Corsi Relative of -1. These numbers aren't necessarily that bad but they are below what Coyle should be capable of in his third year. However, that could change quickly. Coyle has 55 shots and a shotting percentage of 3.6% and a Corsi On of 7.2. That's a very low shooting percentage and a respectable Corsi On. Jason Pominville, who was a 30-goal scorer last year, has just seven goals on 109 shots, a 6.8% shooting percentage that is well below his career average. Both players are probably due for a hostreak or two, but the Wild's offense has so many issues they shouldn't rest their laurels on it

Granlud is also not producing the way the Wild probably want. Despite having more 5-on-5 ice time than any Wild forward and playing mostly with Parise, Granlund has 3 goals and 13 points in 30 games. His shooting percentage is 7.3% which is about the average of his brief NHL career. His possession numbers are pretty good (11.25 CorsiOn, 5.3 Corsi Relative, Score Adjusted Fenwick of 57.7%) but 61.2% of his 5-on-5 zone starts are in the offensive end. Granlund is only 22 years old and has his whole career ahead of him, but those numbers can really go two ways. Either he's not ready to be a 1C or he's having bad luck. Granlund's PDO is the second-worst for forwards on the Wild (leading goal scorer Nino Neiderreiter has the worst) at 95.6. Logic says that Granlund is due for an upswing. Whether it happens this year remains to be seen.

While veterans Parise and Koivu are their usual selves, Vanek has not been. The big offseason free-agent returning back to his college town hasn't gone according to plan. In 31 games Vanek has 5 goals and 20 points on just 54 shots. He is currently on pace for the lowest scoring and shooting totals of his NHL career. His struggles have been recognized by his coach who made him skate as the lone veteran on an optional skating day.

couple of weeks ago head coach Mike Yeo said in regards to the team's power play, "It's the one thing that's keeping us from being an elite team." In essence, that been the story of the Minnesota Wild this season. Because they are an elite team. The only thing keeping people from really noticing is they aren't scoring and their goaltending is overshadowing their defense. Oh BOY is it overshadowing their defense. No team averages less shots against per game than the Wild, yet they are 11th in the league in goals against. That's a goaltending issue.

Darcy Kuemper started the year very strong, posting three shutouts in his first four games including two back-to-back shutouts against the Avalanche. Since then, he has struggled. 42 of the 48 goals against that Kuemper has given up have been at even strength. He's seen a total of 429 even strength shots against and has posted very bad .902 save percentage. This is a big concern for the Wild. Almost all of their numbers are top-three in the NHL except scoring, PP%, and goaltending. Yet they still find themselves fighting for position in a Wild Card spot.

Predictions

The Wild will make the playoffs in a Wild Card spot. I believe they will get hot near the start of the playoffs and it will take them at least to the second round. Sadly, I don't think the Wild's goaltenders are up to the task of a deep playoff run. Their offense has more than a chance to turn things around, but if they don't have a capable netminder, forget it. Just ask the Sharks about capable goaltending in the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Goal Scoring Leader: Alex Tanguay, 11 goals
Leader in Points: Alex Tanguay, 22 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
14.0% 85.8% 28.8 34.3 44.0% 45.1% 8.24% 100.4

Many were skeptical the Avalanche could duplicate their success from last season, and with good reason. Their Score Adjusted Fenwick was fourth-worst in the league, (46.8%) their shooting percentage second-best (8.77%), and their save percentages fifth-best (.931) in the NHL and well above the league averages. Many bloggers and hockey writers predicted a downfall for the Avs unless they turned their possession numbers around and Varlamov has another Hart Trophy-esque year.

Well, they haven't. In fact, the Avs are kind of a mess. They currently sit last in the Central Division with 30 points and are 8 points out of a playoff spot. That's a steep mountain to climb when you have Minnesota, Calgary, Los Angeles, and Winnipeg ahead of you. Not to mention the Avs aren't all that great to begin with.

So what has gone wrong in Colorado, other than the law of averages catching up with them? Their goal differential is horrendous. The Avs are a -16 and have given up 101 goals. As a gauge of how bad that is, it's 21st in the league, three goals less than Arizona, 8 less than Dallas and Buffalo. That points to defense and goaltending, both of which have been very bad. Varlamov has been injured and only played 15 games, so their netminding has come by committee. In those 15 games, Varlamov posted a .891% on 404 even strength shots against. So much for the Hart. Reto Barra was poor through 10 games. But much like Michael Hutchinson in Winnipeg, Calvin Pickard has been solid for the Avs in his 12 games. He's seen a small sample of 314 even strength shots against, but he has posted a .949 even strength save% in those span. Maintaing that performance will prove very difficult as the Avs continue to give up the second most shots per game. But maybe Roy has the goalie touch, if not only for a single season.

Scoring has been another issue with the Avs. I think it should be a rule of thumb that 35 year old Alex Tanguay cannot be your leading scorer if you want to be successful. Not only is that absurd, but he only has 22 points in 30 games. That's 0.73 points per game. Iginla also has 21 points in 32 games for 0.65 points per game. At the risk of stating the obvious, those players are supposed to supplement your scoring. Guys like Jagr and Joe Thornton are anomalies. Instead of being the scoring cushion, they are the scoring leaders while Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Ryan O'Reilly all have 20 points or less in 32 games played.

There is a problem in Colorado. Their defense just isn't there (they have Brad Stuart in a top 4 role for goodness sake), their goaltending has lots of question marks, and now their offensive players can't seem to crack that code when the team has unsightly posession numbers. It also appears that Colorado will miss the playoffs for the 6th time in nine years. There is still time for the offense to show up, but it probably wouldn't do much to achieve a second consecutive postseason berth. If that's the case, Sakic and Roy should probably start looking to Edmonton to see what they shouldn't do moving forward because the two teams are starting to look an awful lot like each other.

Prediction

The Avs will miss the playoffs and secure a top five pick in the draft. If they're smart, they'd go after Noah Hanifin. Brad Stuart will remained signed through 2016-2017 (!!!).

DALLAS STARS

Goal Scoring Leader: Tyler Seguin, 25 goals
Leader in Points: Tyler Seguin, 42 points

Power Play% Penalty Kill% SF/PG SA/PG CorsiClose% FenwickClose% Shooting% PDO
15.4% 79.3% 29.8 31.4 50.7% 50.9% 8.73% 99.7

After an offseason of love letters being exchanged with the media and intense waves of honeymoon-like euphoria, the Dallas Stars have crashed back to earth.

One of the things about the Dallas Stars that made them a media darling was aquiring Jason Spezza and signing Ales Hemsky. The move gave them better center depth, better scoring depth, and a power play that many thought about while rosterbating. Since then, Seguin leads the NHL in goals with 25 and is second in points with 42. Other than that, not much else has gone right.

Dallas' offensive aquisitions overshadowed their porous defensive core in the offseason. Since this realization by the Stars, they have tried to rearrange the deck chairs on their Titanic. Gonchar was unloaded to Montreal after 15 games, assumingly because his Nursing Home costs became too expensive and the Habs needed a second unit PP guy. Brendan Dillion was also sent to San Jose in exchange for a right handed shot in Jason Demers. Demers is a good player, but probably won't be the piece they need on the right side long term.

I believe the Stars management thought they had a lot of young defensemen who were ready to take the next step in Jordie Benn, Jamie Oleksiak, and Patrik Nemeth. They also had rookie John Klingberg coming from the SHL. Early on, Nemeth was hurt and will miss the rest of the season. Oleksiak isn't having a great season as he starts 55.5% of his draws in the offensive zone and finishes them there 52.3% of the time. Usually that's alright but his Corsi Relative is -6.4 and his Corsi On is -4.46. That's bad. But Trevor Daley, who is second on Dallas in 5-on-5 ice time with 17.45 minutes per 60, starts 51% of his draws in the offensive zone but finishes only 47.8% of them there and still manages an abysmal -18.4 Corsi Relative and -11.2 Corsi On. That's really bad.

The bad defense has only compounded the goaltending issue. Kari Lehtonen has started 27 of the Stars' 32 games played. He's posted a slightly above average even strength save percentage of .915. That's about the best you can do when your team gives up 31.5 shots/per game. Lehtonen has also given up 53 even strength goals, third-worst in the NHL. But to be fair, it's not all on Kari as goals against are a combined product of goaltending and defense. As he said in this interview with Defending Big D, "It feels like, when I'm having a good game, the team can't score enough. And when the team plays well, my game is not good enough." There have been a lot of those games.

When the Stars aquired Spezza and Hemsky many thought the Stars would be a new offensive dynamo. But beyond Seguin, Ja. Benn, and Spezza, the Stars aren't scoring much. Hemsky only has 8 points in 28 games and has less points/60 than Vern Fiddler. Yeah, THAT Vern Fiddler. Part of this is a low shooting percentage, another is he's being outplayed. Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussell haven't excatly transitioned into a top six scoring role either. Their production (13 points in 28 games and 16 points in 31 games, respectively) and posession numbers are all very average. Both have a Fenwick% of 51% and an identical 1.9 Corsi Relative. It's not bad neccessarily, but the drop off in all offensive categories between Seguin, Benn, and Spezza and the rest of the team indicates the need for more depth.

Prediction

The Stars will miss the playoffs. They are 8 points out of a playoff spot. While not mathmatically eliminated, with their issues and the teams that will battle for a Wild Card spot ahead of them, their chances don't look great. But I think they can be patient with their roster. Benn is just about to enter his prime, Seguin and Eakin are still young. Nichushkin is hurt and they have some youth in the prospect system. Maybe the rise of Dallas was just predicted prematurely. Despite this season falling apart in their hands, they still have optimism for the futre. Especially if Seguin keeps playing like he is at 22 years old.