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Division Primer: The Central

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Home, Sweet Home

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The final installment of this year’s divisional primers takes us home. Here’s what you need to know about the Central Division.

Best Off-Season Acquisition

Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

After an unfortunate season in the Gateway City, the Blues’ front office approached the summer with one goal in mind: find a suitable replacement for Paul Stastny.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Rangers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

They may not have found the perfect replacement, but the ex-Sabres center will more than suffice. He posted a basic stat line of 24–37—61 on a line with youngsters Alexander Nylander and Sam Reinhart.

O’Reilly will also be a huge help for the Blues on special teams. Nearly a third of the 27-year-old’s points have come on the power play, where he’s boosted the Sabres’ entire offense. The Blues, who finished with the second-worst powerplay percentage in the Western Conference last season, will look to O’Reilly to provide some much-needed scoring.

Another aspect of O’Reilly’s game that will be a huge help for the Blues is his prowess in the faceoff circle. His faceoff win percentage of 60% was tied for best in the league with Antoine Vermette ’s last season. While faceoffs weren’t a struggle for the Blues last year, they weren’t a particular strength either, and O’Reilly will be a great addition at the dot.

A quick glance does also show us that O’Reilly’s +/- last season was a career worst –23, but that should be taken with more than a grain of salt. The Sabres finished with the league’s worst points total, with 62 on the season, and +/- is not a helpful stat for evaluating good players on bad teams.

In a division where the Blues finished at the bottom in power play percentage, as well as one with talented face-off centers like Stastny, Ryan Johansen, Jonathan Toews and Tyler Seguin, the addition of Ryan O’Reilly should prove to be a huge help in the push to get the team back into the playoffs.

Worst Off-season Acquisition

Zac Rinaldo, Nashville Predators

First of all, let’s just put aside the whole suspensions issue for a minute (don’t worry, we’ll get back to that later) and talk about Rinaldo’s hockey talent. Zac Rinaldo, in six years of NHL hockey, has never scored more than nine points in a season. NINE. A forward with less than 9 points each season is ridiculous.

Oh, and that rookie year, when he had the two goals and seven assists on the Flyers, he totaled 232 penalty minutes. Again, that’s two hundred and thirty-two penalty minutes. In 66 games. That’s roughly 3.5 penalty minutes per game, for those trying to do the math in their heads.

Now, not only does Rinaldo fail to produce as a hockey player, but he is suspension-prone. His five NHL and one AHL suspensions in his six years across both leagues do not bode well for his odds of avoiding one in Nashville—or Milwaukee, for that matter.

It surely doesn’t outweigh the good that GMDP has done for this team, but I do have a single word for David Poile: why?

Other Notable Additions

  • Dan Hamhuis, Nashville Predators: Former Calder vote-getter (11th place, but that’s just semantics) for the Nashville Predators Dan Hamhuis is coming home to replace Alexei Emelin.
  • J.T. Brown, Minnesota Wild: Full-time Fortnite streamer and part-time NHL winger J.T. Brown is headed to the Twin Cities, where he’ll get another chance to try to hit the ten-goal mark.
  • Simon Bourque, Winnipeg Jets: A goaltender, a forward, and two draft picks for a prospect? Who let Marc Bergevin into the Jets’ front office after hours?
  • Nicolas Kerdiles, Winnipeg Jets: Kerdiles has only played in 4 NHL games so far in his career, but the former second-round pick could thrive in the well-oiled Jets offense.
  • Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche: If the Avs can find a way to keep up the pace in a stacked Central Division and make it into the playoffs, having Grubauer on the bench instead of the Hamburglar could be vital to the team’s success if injuries plague the Avs’ goaltenders again.

Player To Watch

Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

The Central Division is loaded, and I mean loaded, with talent.

The division is home to two of the 2017-18 Vezina finalists, including the reigning winner, Smashville’s own Pekka Rinne. The Blackhawks still have old talent with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith, as well as rising young talent Alex DeBrincat. The Avalanche have put together a competitive roster led by 22-year-old Nathan MacKinnon. The Blues have Vladimir Tarasenko and co. The Stars will do their best to hold on to Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg for eternity. The Wild have Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Zucker. And the Jets are the Predators’ biggest rivals for control of the division this season. Despite all of that, our very own Prince Who Was Promised is my pick for this year’s Central Division player to watch.

Filip Forsberg has set the NHL on fire in his four full-length professional seasons. He has 138 career assists, which puts him seven assists away from joining Greg Johnson and Cliff Ronning for tenth on the Predators’ all time assist leaderboard, and his 117 goals have him six behind Craig Smith for fourth on that list. More importantly, though, Forsberg is 46 goals away from passing the player he was traded for. Martin Erat, Shea Weber, and David Legwand have topped most of Nashville’s all-time skater leaderboards for a long time, but every season Forsberg gets closer to bringing new blood to the top three.

Forsberg was ranked at 48 on the NHL’s top 50 Players list and 15 on the Top 20 Wingers list, both of which seem low for a player of his talent. If Forsberg keeps his offensive prowess up, we can hope for him to be ranked much higher heading into next season.

Also, expect more of this:

Coach or GM On The Hot Seat

Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks

I cannot believe I just typed those four words as the answer for who’s on the hot seat.

Do I think Coach Q is to blame for the Blackhawks’ lack of success? No, or at least not enough to warrant a firing. But hockey is a business, and someone has to take the blame.

A big part of the Blackhawks’ struggles comes down to injuries. The team lost Corey Crawford for the season last December, had a month without Artem Anisimov, and were without Marián Hossa all season due to a health condition that will probably be career-ending.

In case anyone had forgotten, Chicago was forced to play emergency goalie Scott Foster last season. Foster, a 36-year-old accountant, stopped shots against some of the best in the league and made a great story, but needing to rely on the emergency goalie is not a sign of a team that’s having a lucky year overall.

The Blackhawks’ age is also a huge factor. The team’s core from their championship years is aging out of its prime, but some of those aging stars are still there playing with the newer players, creating hype and high expectations in the locker room, on the ice, and in the city as a whole. When you look at the roster you can’t help but think of the champion Blackhawks teams of not long ago, even though their window might already have closed.

As unfair as it may be, if the Blackhawks are at the bottom of the division in late December, Quenneville may find a pink slip in his stocking.