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Central Division Roundup: Week Twelve

It’s a mini-roundup for a mini-week.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators
It went pretty much like this.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Blackhawks and Stars have each played two games this week, but they’re the only Central Division teams that have so far. For everyone else, we’re running on one game, so I’m going to zoom back out as I run through.

Standings:

NHL.com

Who’s Hot:

You know, the St. Louis Blues haven’t lost a game this week, and they’re the only team in the Central of whom that can be said. In the spirit of the holiday season, let’s give it to them.

Who’s Not:

Remember last week, when the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild were both skidding into the break on a four-game losing streak with key players injured? Yeah, uh, they’re both on five-game losing streaks now, still with some key injuries.

A Closer Look:

Chicago Blackhawks (14-20-6):

The 2018-19 Blackhawks have thus far been a testament to the futility of trying to create a perennial champion in the cap era. We can argue dynasties some other day, but they were very good for a while, and now they are not very good. Time catches up to us all.

They’ve gone from being a team on the right side of the puck—albeit the wrong parts of the ice—to a team getting relentlessly outshot. They got Corey Crawford back from a ten-month absence with a concussion and then lost him to another one. They do have some promising young players, but they also have an aging and expensive core with some serious trade protection. Oh, and then there was that time that Stan Bowman fired Joel Quenneville. That was weird.

The Blackhawks’ defense is a goalie’s nightmare; their special teams are also bad, though not as bad as the defense. Their offense, which is fairly average both in terms of what you’d expect to happen and in terms of what is actually happening, runs mostly through Patrick Kane (20-27–47), Jonathan Toews (16-18–34), and Alex DeBrincat (17-15–32). Erik Gustafsson leads their defenders in points with 20. Artem Anisimov and Chris Kunitz have been among their better players in terms of shot share and shot quality.

This week: The Blackhawks played twice. Dylan Strome had five points. Kane had four. Collin Delia had another excellent game, putting up a .958 sv%. Cam Ward did not have an excellent game.

Colorado Avalanche (19-13-6):

The 2018-19 Avalanche have built on their rebound season last year. The odds were against them continuing to be as bad as they were in 2016-17, but they’ve been fairly lucky as far as injuries go, they’ve continued to get offense from their top line, and they’ve mostly continued to get goaltending as well. It’s not an adequate recipe for a real contender—and I say that as someone who’s watching a Preds team with a similar construction—but it’s good enough to bring the fans joy, and that’s a good thing from a sports team.

As the season has progressed, they’ve taken more shots and allowed more shots, but they’ve slowly been improving where their own shots are coming from. It could be enough to set them off on an exciting new path of success, if they can get some secondary scoring. They have what looks like it should be a bad power play, but it actually converts among the league’s best; I’d guess it’s pre-shot movement and shooting talent that make it so deadly.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody on the entire planet, the Avalanche’s offense runs through Mikko Rantanen (16-44–60), Nathan MacKinnon (22-35–57), and to a lesser extent Gabriel Landeskog (24-19–43). Rantanen is on pace for a 129-point season. It is December. Tyson Barrie leads Avalanche defenders, and is fourth in team scoring, with 24 points. In addition to leading the rest of the team in, uh, everything, the top line is making an excellent impact on shot share and quality—especially, interestingly enough, Landeskog.

This week: The Avalanche played once. J.T. Compher had the only goal, but fear not, Rantanen and MacKinnon had the assists. Philipp Grubauer played extremely well, allowing just two goals on 43 shots, but it wasn’t enough to get the Avs the win.

Dallas Stars (19-16-3):

After another year of winning the offseason, the Stars don’t appear to be winning the regular season. New head coach Jim Montgomery seems to have the right ideas, but the team hasn’t been executing quite as he’d wanted and the rest of us had feared. The Stars are underwater and sinking in shot quantity, though they’ve managed not to give up better chances while giving up more shots. Their penalty kill is pretty decent, but there’s nothing much going on with their special teams.

They have struggled with injuries, relying at one point on the thirteenth defender in their depth chart and losing Norris contender John Klingberg for an extended period. The team has some very talented young blueliners, including rookie Miro Heiskanen, but the load isn’t being carried as evenly up front.

The offense runs through Stars CEO Jim Lites’s least favorite players, Tyler Seguin (11-21–32) and Jamie Benn (15-15–30). It also runs through Alexander Radulov, who has played ten fewer games than either of the others but has just one fewer point than Benn, with 11-18–29 in 28 games. Heiskanen leads Stars defenders in points with 17, though Klingberg will probably pass him again soon. Radulov has been the one making sure the puck is where and when it should be, consistently showing up among the Stars’ better players in shot share and shot quality, but Benn and Seguin are the Stars’ only other forwards regularly getting to the right parts of the ice.

This week: The Stars played twice. Anton Khudobin had a very good week, shutting out the Predators and managing a decent performance in a loss to the Islanders. Tyler Pitlick and Mattias Janmark had two points each.

Minnesota Wild (17-16-3):

There’s plenty of time yet, but it’s looking like the Wild might prove to be a team that even Bruce Boudreau can’t get to the top of the division. They’re relying very heavily on an aging core, and I’m not sure whether the prospect cupboard has enough in it to make up from the production they’re getting from a group of guys in their mid-thirties.

The Wild are playing competent low-event hockey and excellent low-danger hockey. They give up nothing, and are working their way towards giving up negative amounts of anything. They’re on the right side of the ice, when they exist, doing the right things, when anyone does anything. They do have a great penalty kill and a surprisingly effective power play, but the power play is the closest there is to excitement.

The offense has gone through a cluster of players with few real standouts. Mikael Granlund (11-24–35), who leads the team in points, has been a reliable playmaker with some finish of his own. Zach Parise (16-14–30) leads the team in goalscoring and has done some setup work as well. One thing that startled me was that the offense does not really go through Ryan Suter (4-23–27, third on the team in total points)—a staggering 17 of those assists are secondary, and he has almost three times as many secondary assists as the player with the next-most. From a less point-based angle, it’s difficult to single out one or two Wild players for good shot anything because they almost all have good shot everything, but Granlund and Eric Staal are doing pretty well.

This week: The Wild played once. Staal and Granlund each had two points. Devan Dubnyk had an extremely bad 24 minutes. Alex Stalock, in relief, had a pretty bad rest of the game. The Wild are clearly also doing their part to help keep Jack Hughes out of Chicago. [sad fistbump]

Nashville Predators (22-14-2):

The Nashville Predators entered 2018-19 after the two most successful seasons in franchise history, got off to a fantastic start on the back of some great goaltending and lucky shooting, and then fell flat as injuries started to pile up. Losing three of the top six would be a problem for any team, but for a team as reliant on its top line as the Predators were, there was an issue. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have done their best, with Saros experiencing a brief dip in play while Rinne was out, but it’s been a rough second quarter of the season.

They’ve been improving in terms of both shot quantity and shot quality as the season went on, but have gotten some bad luck. They’re also missing finishing talent, a lament that teams like the Carolina Hurricanes know all too well—you can play a great 198-foot game, but the puck has to make it that last foot one way and not the other. Arvidsson’s return (and Forsberg’s hopeful return) should help with that, especially if the team can keep up the positive trends with regards to possession and fix the special teams.

The Predators’ offense runs through Ryan Johansen (6-25–31), Filip Forsberg (14-8–22), and Roman Josi (7-21–28). Various other players have also contributed, but it’s worth noting that Johansen, Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson are the only forwards on pace for even a fifty-point season; they’ve also been among the best players in terms of shot rates and shot danger. Like the Avalanche, the Preds are a one-line team. Unlike the Avalanche, their one line hasn’t been dominating; Johansen, the Preds’ leading scorer, has barely half as many points as Rantanen. It’s not fair to compare anyone to Rantanen and MacKinnon, maybe, but the Preds have still reached the lowest ceiling of anyone on any Central team. That hurts.

This week: The Predators played one game. Maybe. Pekka Rinne had what should have been a fine performance, but his team was shut out. Arvidsson and Mattias Ekholm both took twelve shots at goal, and P.K. Subban took ten. Ekholm had eight shots on goal. Let’s move on.

St. Louis Blues (15-16-4):

The Blues signed Ryan O’Reilly in the offseason after losing a win-or-go-home 82nd game of 2018 and were primed to be a real threat in the Central, make some noise, make the playoffs this time... Yeah, that didn’t happen. Everyone got hurt, Vladimir Tarasenko has had a run of terrible luck, Jake Allen has been about what you’d expect from a Blues goalie (while our mutual old friend Carter Hutton is doing just fine with the Buffalo Sabres), and, well, things just haven’t gone that well. They fired Mike Yeo (probably a good call), inexplicably failed to hire Joel Quenneville to replace him, and are currently going nowhere fast.

As the season has progressed, the Blues have slowed their pace to a glacial crawl and slowed their opponents’ pace even further. They haven’t figured out how to win the shot-quality battle yet, but they’re inching their way towards breaking even on managing to get more than they give up. It’s some progress, but odds are it won’t be fast enough to help them much this season, especially since their special teams are forgettable.

The Blues run their offense through the usual suspects—O’Reilly (14-19–33), plus David Perron (12-11–23), Tarasenko (11-11–22), and Brayden Schenn (7-15–22). Sophomore Vince Dunn leads Blues defenders in scoring with 16 points. Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz both stand out among skaters in terms of on-ice shots. I have to believe that Tarasenko is going to rebound pretty spectacularly and pretty soon, whether for the Blues or for another team.

This Week: The Blues played once. Perron, Alexander Steen, and rookie Robert Thomas each had two points. Jake Allen was excellent in the win, stopping 30 of 31.

Winnipeg Jets (24-11-2):

The Winnipeg Jets made a lot of noise in 2017-18, when all their pieces clicked together and they started playing fast, exciting, eventful hockey. Like the Avalanche, they picked up right where they left off. It hasn’t been as good a season for Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck as last season was, but the Jets have been conjuring enough offense to stay on the right side of the scoreboard.

As the season has gone on, the Jets have sharpened their offense and tightened up a lot defensively. Their power play remains their greatest asset; their play in other situations is fine but not great. There’s been a lot of discussion, including in these roundups, of their 5v5 play and their strength of schedule, but when it all comes down to it the Jets have been consistently doing what they need to do, and that’s no small thing. Patrik Laine (23-7–30) had a hilarious November where he scored eighteen goals—the Predators do not have a player on the roster with eighteen goals all season—and added a single assist. He’s gone quiet again this month; we’ll keep an eye out for January.

The Jets run their offense through Blake Wheeler (5-43–48) and Mark Scheifele (22-27–49), with a lot of finishing help from Laine. Dustin Byfuglien leads their defenders in points with 28, tied for fourth in team scoring with Kyle Connor. Unsurprisingly, Mathieu Perreault is once again having a really good season in terms of being in the right parts of the ice and not the wrong ones; he’s very good whether you’re looking at shot quality or shot quantity.

This Week: The Jets played once. Hellebuyck had a bad game with a sv% of .893, but Adam Lowry’s unassisted goal was the only point from any Jets skater. Good job, Adam Lowry.