Contenders and Pretenders: Central Division

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ST. PAUL, MN - FEBRUARY 08: Minnesota Wild Left Wing Zach Parise (11) and Chicago Blackhawks Center Artem Anisimov (15) battle for the puck during a NHL game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on February 8th, 2017 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. The Blackhawks defeated the Wild 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s mini-series that will be distinguishing the playoff contenders versus the pretenders of each division in the Eastern and Western Conferences. In a league full of parity, it seems like everyone is in the race for a playoff spot, but is it a product of the league, or is the team just that good that they could challenge for the Cup? Find out as we continue with the Central Division.

Contender – Minnesota Wild

Season So Far:

A 35-12-6 record will certainly put the league on notice and the Wild are looking to rid themselves of the surprise label and turn that into an expectation. They added a savvy veteran in Eric Staal in the off season and younger players are finally turning their potential into results. Much like the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic division the success Minnesota has achieved has a lot to do with the man between the pipes, Devan Dubnyk.

Why They’re Contenders:

The are first in the Western Conference in goal differential at +54 and are third in the league in goal for/ game at 3.34 as well as goals against/ game at 2.32. Their roster also has four players that have reached the forty point mark already. Mikael Granlund leads the team with 48 points, followed closely by Staal 43, Charlie Coyle 42, and Nino Niederreiter 40. Mikko Koivu continues to be a productive player at 33 years old, and the twelve year veteran wears the captaincy with pride having never played for another franchise. His 38 points rank sixth on the team, further highlighting the depth this team has.

This team has also remained healthy, with the only big injuries coming to Zach Parise, who missed nine games, and young defensman Jonas Brodin who missed ten. A healthy team is a successful team and that recipe is demonstrated in Minny. Most top end teams find ways to win when their top players miss a few games, but if your goalie goes down it’s a different story. Fortunately for the Wild Dubnyk has eluded the injury bug and his 1.99 goals against average, .933 save percentage, and 5 shutouts have him well on his way to a Vezina worthy season.

Second Half Outlook:

17 of their remaining 29 games are at home with only four against division challengers for their playoff spot. The trade deadline will be interesting as it is highly likely that Marco Scandella or Brodin will be snatched up by Vegas. Front office may decide to move one, or both, of these players to ensure they get somethings in return. Minnesota should enter the trade deadline season with the mentality of if it’s not broke don’t fix it. They have the players to contend and 2016-17 is looking to be their year.

Chicago Blackhawks – Contenders

Season So Far:

Second in the division with a 33-17-5 record the Blackhawks have been a team to fear for the entire decade and this season is no different. We all know what Patrick Kane can do, and the veterans have played in a way we have come to expect. The surprises have been Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman. The Hawks have also been executing more of a tandem in net between Corey Crawford (36 games played) and Scott Darling (22 games played).

Why They’re Contenders:

They’re the Chicago Blackhawks, not more needs to be said. This team knows how to win and when the playoffs arrive they hit another gear. They have the combination of youth, Artemi Panarin (48 points) and Artem Anisimov (37 points), and veterans like Marian Hossa (33 points) and Jonathan Toews (33 points) that winning teams model. Add in a MVP caliber talent to lead the charge like Kane with 53 points, and few obstacles will stand in your way.

Second Half Outlook:

The team will take an extended break with no games between Febuary 12th-17th. Their will be two key areas for them to address however before April arrives. They rank 27th on the penalty kill at 76.7% and 23rd in shots allowed at 31.2. If they do not tighten up in these areas their first round opponent certainly has two big weaknesses to exploit.

Nashville Predators – Contenders

Season So Far:

Third in the division at 26-19-8 the Preds are having a respectable campaign. Unlike the top two teams in the Central this franchise has had numerous injuries that have derailed their season, but only slightly. Defensive core Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and P.K. Subban have all missed time this season. If they had all played in 53 games this team may very well be closer to the heels of the Blackhawks.

Why They’re Contenders:

They have a great group of young forwards who will help this team succeed well beyond the 2016-17 season. Ryan Johansen leads the team with 40 points while Viktor Arvidsson has netted 35 and Filip Forsberg 34. Pekka Rinne is also proving that age is just a number as the 34-year-old continues to play at a high level. His 2.30 goals against average and .923 save percentage give Nashville a fighting chance each night. The team also ranks 9th on the penalty kill at 83.4% and 5th in shots per game with 31.6. Of course quality of quantity is key when it comes to shooting the puck, but anytime you pepper the opposition with over thirty shots, they’re having a long night.

Second Half Outlook:

They are off February 13-17 and four of their final five games are against division foes. The final week will determine if they finish top three in the Central or cling to a wild card spot. The Preds also have a 21-year-old net minder in Juuse Saros who shows a lot of promise. In 11 games he has a 2.00 goals against average and .935 save percentage. If they have a collapse, his playing time may increase with the end of Rinne’s career soon on the horizon, the front office will want to see what the kid brings.

St. Louis Blues – Pretenders

Season So Far:

28-22-5 is not a record this team aimed to have at the beginning if the year. They have drastically underperformed which lead to the firing of head coach Ken Hitchcock. Beyond Vladimir Tarasenko‘s 53 points, the team does have some depth in their front six with seven players scoring ten goals or more and five players have 30 points or more.  Defenseman Kevin Shattenkrik is second on the team with 37 points, and at least there defensemen have 27 points or more. One of them, Robby Fabbri, will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Outside of the top guys, one other forward has more than 20 points and their bottom six scoring is lacking. General Manager Doug Armstrong added that there were too many players that were “independent contractors” that “do not lose with pride,” leading to inconsistency.

Why They’re Pretenders:

Struggles between the pipes have been a prime reason why the Blues have not been as solid as years past. Jake Allen is having a down year with a 2.69 GAA and .903 SV%. If your goalie struggles, the team does, and the 2016-17 Blues are a prime example. They rank 24th in goals allowed at 2.95, even though they allow 27.7 shots per game to rank 5th in the league. That tells one something. In addition, contending teams have deep rosters with scoring threats on multiple lines. The Blues are thin and need a lot of help to make a playoff run, and for Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, and Jaden Schwartz to step up, especially in the absence of Fabbri. The team with them still ranks 26th in terms of shots per game at 27.7. Their offense needs to complement their defense by bing more consistent.

Second Half Outlook:

They play three games between February 21- March 4. Follow that up with five games in seven days between March 10-16 and they have a very unbalanced second half schedule. What will help them reach the playoffs is facing the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche in four of their last eight games. They’re great on special teams (6th on the power play at 21.9% and 6th on the penalty kill at 84.1%). They just need to get more consistent goaltending and better depth scoring.

Winnipeg Jets – Pretenders

Season So Far:

A 25-27-4 record is not where this team should be. Four players have surpassed forty points, with Mark Scheifele‘s 53 leading the way and Patrick Laine‘s 43 keeping him in the Calder discussion. Losing key players like Brian Little, Jacob Trouba, and Drew Stafford for extended periods of time has certainly affected this team.

Why They’re Pretenders:

They aren’t ready just yet. Though their offense carries four big guns, one other forward has at least 20 points. They’re close but another year or two away from competing in the Central division as youngsters fill out. Hellebuyck is a solid goalie but not the answer to surpass the Wild or Blackhawks. They’re special teams is also dismal ranking 27th on the penalty kill at 76.6% and 18th on the power play at 18.6%. If they can add another top four defenseman and stay healthy in 2017-18 they may be able to snatch a wild card spot, but this season will be another one that has them headed in the right direction with young players taking the next step, but not to the playoffs just yet.

Second Half Outlook:

A home heavy schedule will help, but the injuries and dominance of the teams ahead of them is just too big a hurdle to leap. The trade deadline will be active for them, as they will look to acquire pieces for the future, without losing the impactful core they have established.

Dallas Stars – Pretenders

Season So Far:

A 21-24-10 record has the Stars looking ahead to next season. They have had their share of injuries, with key players missing extended periods of time. Jason Spezza has suited up in 45 of their 55 games which is a bonus in comparison. Patrick Sharp and Jiri Hudler have both missed half the season and key defenseman Johnny Oduya has played in only 36.

Why They’re Pretenders:

They rank tied for last on the penalty kill at 73.8% and will be lucky to reach 40 wins this season. Their 10 overtime loses are also the most in the division and turning those overtime loses to wins would have them in a much different spot right now. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are a formidable one-two punch but beyond them the offensive prowess takes a steep downfall, with two other double digit goal scorers up front and a dismal defense that has one puck mover in John Klingberg (31 points) and no others. The goaltending has also been less than desirable in 2016-17 with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi combining for a goals against average over 3.00 and a .902 save percentage. The team has also recorded only one shutout all season, further highlightening that a change in goal is needed.

Second Half Outlook:

Dallas plays only four games at home in the whole month of March. The trade deadline will shake things up drastically in Lonetstar state as they look ahead to next season. Patrick Sharp has been a name on the block, and Marc-Andre Fleury has been connected to the team in goal as well.

Colorado Avalanche – Tanking

Season So Far:

This franchise has a long way to go before they’re even considered pretenders, right now they are tanking. 15-34-2 is dismal at best and with Nathan MacKinnon‘s 37 points leading the way, there is little to say in a positive light for this team.

Why They’re Tanking:

They rank last in goals for (2.04) and goals against (3.35). Semyon Varlamov is no longer the 41 game winner he was in 2013-14 due to the defense in front of him, and has not played since January 17th, sidelined for the rest of the season due to a groin/hip problem. A 3.38 goals against average and .898 save percentage are nothing a winning franchise has in their goalie, not even their backup. 24-year-old Calvin Pickard is better, but only slightly with a 2.94 goals against average and .906 save percentage. The team scored four goals twice in all of December and January and over the season their team has a goal differential of -68.

Second Half Outlook:

April 9th is their final game, and that day can only come soon enough for Colorado fans. They’ll be a dumpster fire at trade deadline day and no player is safe. The song should I  stay or should I go by The Clash comes to mind when you’re lacing up your skates for the Avs and most players would elect go these days, especially veterans Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque, and Francois Beauchemin.

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