Central Division Roundup: Week Eighteen

The entire division is in the playoff picture, but not for good reasons.

The Western Conference is...bad right now. Let’s just put that out there. Never mind that after years of alternating Blackhawks and Kings championships the Stanley Cup has taken out a new lease in the Metropolitan division, or that the Lightning are currently leaving the rest of the league in their dust—that’s about the Eastern Conference being good. The West, where this year the playoff cutoff is probably going to be around eight points lower than it is in the East, has its own problems.

Right now the Kings have the worst record in the West and fourth-worst record in the league with 50 points through 54 games. The Ducks and Coyotes have 51; the Blackhawks, Oilers, and Avalanche have 53 (the Oilers have one game in hand and the Avalanche two); the Canucks and Blues have 55 (the Blues have three games in hand, and thus a higher points percentage).

If the playoffs started today, the Blues—five points away from the bottom of the division—would be in the second wildcard spot. This isn’t even parity, or at least not the good kind of parity; it’s deadening mediocrity.


Who’s Hot:

The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues have muscled their way back into the playoff conversation after freefalling out of it (in Chicago’s case) or never having been in it (in St. Louis’s) by winning a lot in recent weeks. The Blackhawks are on a six-game win streak. Love is dead.

Who’s Not:

The Colorado Avalanche continue to plummet. They’re currently tied with the Blackhawks for last in the division, and although they have two games in hand I’m not entirely sure they’re capable of winning those games right now. A lot is going to depend on the scheduling, as well as whether current trends continue.

A Closer Look:

Chicago Blackhawks (22-24-9):

This week the Blackhawks lost center David Kampf to a broken foot. Kampf hasn’t produced much offensively, but has arguably been their best defensive player—that’s a definite loss for a team that doesn’t so much bleed chances as hemorrhage them.

The Blackhawks got some quality goaltending this week from both Collin Delia and Cam Ward, despite the fact that Delia ended up facing 43 shots on goal in his overtime win against the Canucks. [checks notes; notes still say “43 shots on goal” and “Canucks”] Yes, he did allow three goals, but that’s a lot of saves he had to make. Ward had a less busy day and secured a less fraught win, as the Blackhawks routed the Oilers.

Weird trend of the Blackhawks’ winning streak: they’ve been following up high-scoring blowout or near-blowout wins with much narrower ones. 8-5 over the Capitals, 3-2 in the shootout over the Islanders; 7-3 over the Sabres, 4-3 in overtime over the Wild; 6-2 over the Oilers, 4-3 in overtime over the Canucks. Only the Sabres/Wild games were back-to-backs. There’s probably no meaning to this, but it’s weird.

The Dylan Strome trade is looking worse and worse for the Coyotes’ talent-evaluation department. Strome led the team with four points in this week’s extravaganzas, bringing him up to 27 (10G/17A) in 31 games for Chicago. He’s been atrocious defensively, but his most common linemate has been Patrick Kane, and Strome hasn’t been nearly as bad the rest of the time while still getting plenty done on offense.

Kane (32-47–79), Jonathan Toews (24-30–54), Alex DeBrincat (28-22-50), and Brandon Saad each had three points this week, while several other players had two.

Also, despite reports that the Blackhawks were asking Brent Seabrook about waiving his NMC, that is apparently not the case after all.

Conclusion: If they want to make a playoff run, they really should be trying to move Seabrook. Heck, if they want to rebuild, they should also be trying to move Seabrook(’s contract). Since they’re reportedly not, he might want to look into getting a food taster.

Colorado Avalanche (22-22-9):

It was another quiet week and pair of losses in Colorado, though they at least got a point out of the Capitals. Nathan MacKinnon (28-45–73) and Gabriel Landeskog (29-27–56) each had two points, as did defenders Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson.  Mikko Rantanen (24-51–75) and several other players each added one point.

Once again, it was the goaltending that sunk them. Semyon Varlamov actually managed a vaguely competent game in the overtime loss to the Capitals, finishing with a not-great .905 sv% against an alarming 42 shots on goal, but Philipp Grubauer continues to flounder. He had a .861 against the Blue Jackets for his third straight game with a sub-.900 sv%. In related news, it was only the fifth start he’s been given in 2019, probably because night-by-night he’s saved 71.4, 96.0, 70.0, 82.1, and 86.1% of the shots he’s been asked to stop in this calendar year. It’s a testament to the Avalanche’s struggles of late that he’s been allowed to finish all but the first of those games.

The Avalanche started the season as a mediocre team that lived and died by their first line and their goaltending. Although they’ve sorted a lot of things out since then, stepping up the pace—good if they trust their star players more than the other team’s, bad if they can’t—and outshooting their opponents consistently, their first-liners have stopped averaging multiple points each per game and their goaltending has imploded. It’s bad luck, and the goaltending situation in particular is bizarre, but to some extent it’s a cautionary tale as well.

With the situation so strange in Colorado, nobody is sure whether they’ll be buying or selling at the deadline. They were at the top of the division a few months ago and could easily make it back up there if everything falls back into place, but if it doesn’t they could find themselves with two top-five picks in the 2019 draft instead. Now there’s a scary thought.

Conclusion: Depth is a good thing to have. Also, still waiting on that Cat Silverman goalie analysis.

Dallas Stars (28-21-5):

The Stars are one of only six teams in the West and three teams in the Central to have won more games than they’ve lost. Fittingly enough, they’re in a divisional playoff spot at the moment. Will this be the year that winning the offseason produces some kind of results?

Well...with Ben Bishop just placed on IR due to “soreness,” maybe not, actually. It’s retroactive and the team says they expect him to be well enough to play after this weekend, but that does raise a few eyebrows nevertheless at this point in the season.

Tyler Seguin (22-29–51) and Miro Heiskanen each had three points this week, while Jamie Benn (19-18–37) and Jason Dickinson had two. Almost every other skater, including the team’s second leading scorer Alexander Radulov (14-19–43) added one point, with the only exceptions being defenders Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell and forward Brett Richie, who was ejected from the Stars’ first game this week, for a boarding major against Alex Goligoski, before all the goals happened.

In goal, Anton Khudobin finally had a mortal game against the Preds, allowing an overtime loss, while Bishop was merely adequate against the Coyotes but got the win (and in regulation) anyway. If it weren’t for the whole IR thing, Stars fans would probably feel more or less okay about this week’s goaltending; as it is, there might be a flutter of nerves.

Conclusion: I’m not sure how far their defense and goaltending will get them in the postseason, but right now the Stars are doing just fine playing very safe hockey.

Minnesota Wild (26-23-5):

In a serious blow to the Wild, perennial Selke-conversation-snub Mikko Koivu suffered a season-ending knee injury this week. Koivu’s 29 points (8G/21A) through 48 games are sixth on the team and he’s done that while also being one of the team’s better defensive players. Losing both Koivu and Matt Dumba (no date for return; may miss the rest of the season) is not ideal for the Wild’s ability to drive play while not letting it be driven.

Luke Kunin led the team in points this week with three. He now has eight on the season. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Charlie Coyle each had two, while a few other players, including top scorers Zach Parise (21-25–46) and Mikael Granlund (12-32–44) added a point each.

Devan Dubnyk played both games for the Wild, despite their recent decision to sign backup Alex Stalock to an extension, and had a .885 sv% while allowing seven actual goals in the pair of losses—there was also a shootout, but that’s not really hockey so nobody cares.

The Wild have actually been playing truly stifling hockey as their recent losing streak settles in, allowing only about 39 shots at goal for every hour of 5v5 hockey they’ve played this week (nine fewer than the second-best Golden Knights and way outside the pack). It’s two games, but if this keeps up their fans had better start packing caffeine pills.

Conclusion: The Wild are hanging on to the first wildcard spot at the moment, but they could easily cede it to the Blues or drop out altogether. We’ll see what Bruce Boudreau does with them as the trade deadline approaches.

Nashville Predators (33-19-4):

The Predators got both goals and goaltending this week, in a pleasant change for their fans. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros each turned in a good performance and helped secure a win. The team even scored a power play goal in there!

Roman Josi (10-32–42) led the team with four points this week, while Ryan Johansen (10-37–47) added three and five additional players, including Filip Forsberg (19-15–34 in 39 games) and Viktor Arvidsson (22-8–30 in 32 games), added two each. Mattias Ekholm’s offensive production has slowed down after his recent scoring binge, but he’s still third on the team with 38 points (6G/32A), just ahead of Forsberg.

Kyle Turris returned from injured reserve, Zac Rinaldo was placed on injured reserve, and David Poile acquired Brian Boyle from the Devils and Cody McLeod from the Rangers, while also making an AHL trade with the Coyotes. It’s a very Coyotes week in the Central, apparently. Foreshadowing?

Conclusion: The Preds looked pretty good with Turris back, even though Turris himself didn’t play much of a role in that. Hopefully they can keep trending in the right direction.

St. Louis Blues (25-22-5):

The Blues have continued their upward surge with another pair of wins this week. They’ve turned their play around over the last couple of months to go with the wins, possibly as a result of firing Mike Yeo and replacing him with Craig Berube.

Robert Thomas returned from IR but Carl Gunnarsson is broken again. He’s not on IR at the moment, so it might be temporary, but despite his own low production totals Gunnarsson straddles the borderline between effective hockey and exciting hockey; Blues games are livelier with him around.

Vladimir Tarasenko (18-19–37), Brayden Schenn, and Colton Parayko had two points each this week. Ryan O’Reilly (20-33–53), Vince Dunn (leading Blues defenders with 6-16–22), and Oskar Sundqvist each had one point.

New goalie Jordan Binnington continued his remarkable play, allowing two goals in a close win over the Panthers and then shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning (!) to end the week with a .964 sv% and bring his sv% for the season back up to .931.

You can read more about the Blues in Bobby’s preview of today’s game if you missed it earlier this morning.

Conclusion: The Blues might be for real, and Binnington looks like trouble for everyone else.

Winnipeg Jets (34-17-3):

How do you have an average week while allowing four goals a game? Connor Hellebuyck’s .912 sv% and eight goals against last week were the result of facing 91 shots on goal. That’s a lot. The Jets pretty much opened up an all-you-can-eat buffet in their own zone of late, and Hellebuyck is paying for it. Then again, so is the rest of the team, with the Jets taking just one of four points this week.

Nikolaj Ehlers should be returning from IR before too much longer, but for now he’s still there. Meanwhile, Jacob Trouba was the only Jets player to score multiple points last week; he had two. Ten players, including team production leaders Blake Wheeler (11-54–65), Mark Scheifele (27-36–63), and Kyle Connor (22-21–43) also made it onto the scoreboard.

Conclusion: A deeply forgettable week for a usually-memorable team.

Statistics courtesy of naturalstattrick.com. Big-picture analysis assisted by the dataviz work of Micah Blake McCurdy and Sean Tierney.