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Central Division Roundup: Week Two

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It’s been a busy week around the Central. Wait, that’s every week.

Minnesota WIld v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

One fortnight gone!

Standings:

NHL.com

Who’s Hot:

As Nick said in his recap earlier this morning, the Nashville Predators are going to be fighting fire with fire when they play the Calgary Flames tonight. They’re the only team in the Central currently on a multi-game winning streak; let’s see if they can stretch that streak for another game.

Who’s Not:

I had this great joke about the weather in the Twin Cities all ready earlier this week, but it’s actually pretty warm up there right now, and—even more relevantly—the St. Louis Blues are still the team that’s slowly freezing to the bottom of the standings.

A Closer Look:

Chicago Blackhawks (3-1-2):

Reports of the Blackhawks’ demise appear to have been exaggerated.

Although their most recent game was a loss in which they allowed four goals to the Arizona Coyotes (who had scored a total of three goals over their five prior games combined), Corey Crawford is back and looking like his old self. I said last week that Crawford’s injury was a serious problem for the Blackhawks, since he’s quietly been covering for their abysmal defense since their defense got bad. If he’s back and for real, that’s a huge benefit for them, especially since over the last few games they seem to have figured out which end of the rink the puck should go in.

Jonathan Toews (5-5–10) is sharing the team scoring lead with Alex DeBrincat (6-4–10). 19-year-old rookie defender Henri Jokiharju has five assists through the first six games—four of them primary assists—and an absurd, team-leading 63% shot share at even strength. Keep an eye on Jokiharju.

The biggest worry right now for the Blackhawks is probably Brandon Saad’s rough start to the season. He hasn’t been producing much, he hasn’t been performing well enough to make it seem obvious that the production will come, and he’s getting paid $6M a year—on a team whose cap struggles are notorious—for the next several years.

Conclusion: It really feels like at some point the Blackhawks have to get bad again, but I’m not sure this is the right year. They’re doing a lot of things right right now.

Colorado Avalanche (4-1-2):

Mikko Rantanen has eleven assists and is leading the Avalanche in points. He hasn’t scored on a goalie yet this season (though he does have two empty-net tallies), but his linemates Nathan MacKinnon (7-3–10) and Gabriel Landeskog (5-3–8) sure have. Landeskog, who’d started the season more slowly, had a hat trick earlier this week against the New Jersey Devils. Semyon Varlamov is also still playing outstandingly well.

The Avalanche did recently lose forward J.T. Compher to a concussion. Compher had started the season with four points in five games while hovering a little below even in shot share.

Conclusion: The Avalanche are going to want depth scoring, but so far it does look like they’re for real.

Dallas Stars (3-3-0):

The Stars are having a scoring problem. Alexander Radulov (4-6–10) and Tyler Seguin (3-7–10) are doing very well, but Radulov, Jamie Benn, and defender John Klingberg are tied for the team lead in goals, and Seguin is the only other player to have more than one. It’s early in the season, and there’s plenty of time for them to fix this, but if they want to play fun hockey—and I think they do, and I know their fans want them to—a few more goals would help.

But hey, they absolutely destroyed the Anaheim Ducks earlier this week, and I think that’s something that fans of 29 other teams can also appreciate.

Defender Julius Honka got some icetime this week and picked up right where he left off last season, keeping the puck on the right side of the ice. The Stars in general are creeping back to the middle of the pack in terms of shot rates, giving up fewer shots while taking some of their own, and are looking pretty acceptably average in that respect right now.

This is probably good, because Ben Bishop’s save percentage is falling back to earth and for some reason Roman Polak is getting fairly regular icetime.

Conclusion: I’m still a Stars believer. They’re trending the right way.

Minnesota Wild (2-2-2):

34-year-old Zach Parise, who is currently being held together with spit and duct tape, is leading the Minnesota Wild in points with seven (1G/6A). Jason Zucker, the team’s goalscorer (he has three) and Ryan Suter round out the team’s top scorers with five points each.

On the one hand, Parise and Suter are still a few months short of halfway through their current contracts, so it’s nice for Wild fans to see them still leading the team on the ice. On the other hand, I just checked the calendar and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be 2019 in less than three months, so Wild fans would probably like to see some contributions from someone born after the nineteen-eighties.

The Wild’s fourteen total goals scored is tied for fifth-worst in the league right now. Devan Dubnyk is continuing his great start to the season and has been keeping them in this, but I’m not sure how much trust they have in Alex Stalock, and there’s only so many games a starter can play before exhaustion sets in.

Meanwhile, Nino Niederreiter has been tilting—or untilting—the ice. The Wild have taken 52% of the shots at even strength with him on the ice, which is a lot better than they’ve been doing with almost anyone else (the team’s ES shot share is 43%). Niederreiter himself isn’t taking very many shots, and if he wants to start scoring goals he’ll need to change that, but some of what’s been going on for him and his linemates is probably just bad luck.

Conclusion: The Wild need more from the next generation of their core, and the sooner the better.

Nashville Predators (5-1-0):

Ryan Johansen (1-5–6) and Filip Forsberg (4-2–6) are sharing the team lead in points. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with going point-per-game over a full season, it’s hard not to make the comparison. The Predators do have only four players who have yet to tally a point, and one of them has only played in two games, so they’re getting contributions from around the roster, but the only person who’s been breaking games for them has been Pekka Rinne.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks to be a talented Swiss winger. Kevin Fiala has a sparkling shot share (his 60% at even strength is second-best on the team) but hasn’t been taking many shots himself and he and his linemates have been unlucky. If he shoots more... You know, my critical error was writing the paragraph where I had to keep typing “Niederreiter” before I wrote this one.

Conclusion: Good results. I’d like to see them keep working on the process. (Also, in case you missed it, check out Chris Brooks’s The Week That Was series, which looks at the Preds specifically.)

St. Louis Blues (1-3-2):

It’s been a miserable start in St. Louis. Brayden Schenn leads the team with six points (3G/3A), and four other players have five points each, but after that it’s a wasteland. The offense is sort of okay; the defense is bad. Jaden Schwartz is injured, and although he’s not expected to be out for long it’s still yet another thing gone wrong for the Blues. They’ve scored nine of their seventeen total goals on the power play, which screams unsustainable.

Jake Allen is looking like he’s going to allow about the same number of goals whether he gets shelled (four goals on 50 shots in an overtime loss in Chicago last Saturday) or gets to take a nap (three goals on 23 shots in a regulation loss in Montreal on Wednesday). If the Blues aren’t going to improve their defense, they need him to start stealing games.

As for Vladimir Tarasenko…he’s taken 51 shots at goal, which is almost twice as many as the next player on his team. 37 of those were unblocked, and 32 made it on net—again, almost twice as many as the next player. He’s getting those shots from good locations. He’s tilting the ice at even strength. He is not going to keep shooting 6.25% all season. Tarasenko, unlike Niederreiter and Fiala, is doing everything right.

Conclusion: Seriously, bubble wrap. And maybe a cursebreaker.

Winnipeg Jets (4-2-1):

It’s been a weird season for the Jets. Their penalty troubles are back and their top scorers have vanished.

Connor Hellebuyck is still doing fine, which has been helping the team stay afloat. They have been getting scoring from almost everyone on the roster, but not much from anyone—four different players have five points, which is the team lead. The Jets aren’t quite as reliant on their power play as the Blues are, but they’re still leaning heavily on it for their offense.

You can’t talk about the Jets’ power play right now without talking about Patrik Laine. All four of his points this season (3G/1A) have come on the PP. He looks fine on paper offensively at even strength—not great defensively, but good offensively—though he’s no longer helping the Jets outshoot the opponent to the extent that he was last week. I still think it’s too early to panic over him, but he does need to start finding a way to produce at even strength.

Dustin Byfuglien was injured in practice last weekend and missed two games, but returned Thursday and had a three-point game. He and Jacob Trouba have been the Jets’ two best defenders, limiting both shots and good chances. Anecdotally, Tyler Myers has really been struggling playing on his off-hand this season, but on paper he looks fine—I’m interested in seeing how that plays out.

Conclusion: There are some interesting storylines in Winnipeg, but they definitely seem like they should be a better team than they have been so far.