The NHL’s Central Division at the Quarter Mark

    Jonathan Toews
    WINNEPEG, MB - NOVEMBER 15: Hawks Jonathan Toews (19) is checked by Jets Jacob Trouba (8) during the NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Chicago Blackhawks on November 15, 2016 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg MB. (Photo by Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    With most NHL teams about to hit the 20-game mark, it’s time for some reflection and a review of how all 30 of the league’s clubs have fared thus far one quarter of the way through the 2016-17 season.

    The last article in this series was the Metropolitan Division, and up next is the Atlantic Division coming tomorrow.

    The NHL’s Central Division at the Quarter Mark

    Chicago Blackhawks: 13-5-2, 28 points, first in the Central

    Coming off of a career-high 35-win season last year, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford was expected to shoulder the heavy load during the 2016-17 campaign. He’s arguably the main reason as to why Chicago has jumped out to the best record in the Western Conference through 20 games. Through 16 starts, Crawford has allowed only 17 goals at even-strength. At 31-years-old, the Montreal native allowed three or more goals in the first four starts this season. Since then, he’s allowed three or more goals only three times. He lost out on a Vezina Trophy nomination last season; perhaps that serves as extra motivation to get his name in the discussion early and often this season.

    Offensive consistency was hard to come by for captain Jonathan Toews last season and that trend has trickled over into his 10th year in the National Hockey League. Through 20 games, he has 12 points (4G, 8A), which may not seem bad when viewed as a whole. However, aside from a six-game span where he registered eight points, the 28-year-old center has been struggling to put his name on the scoresheet. It took him eight games to score his first tally and he has only two assists in his last seven contests. His team hasn’t seemed to be affected by it, but they can’t expect to continue their impressive run without Toews chipping in up front. After a scoreless postseason last year, Blackhawks fans (and the NHL for that matter) are heavily awaiting Captain Serious’ return to two-way dominance.

    Remember when 37-year-old Marian Hossa was written off as a sluggish, ineffective version of his former self before the start of the season? He doesn’t, either. The Slovakian forward is one goal behind the league lead with 11 in 19 games so far. He lit the lamp only 13 times in 64 games in 2015-16! More importantly, three of his goals so far have been game-winners. Hossa knows when to dial up his game and take control, utilizing his puck-controlling ability to create space and chances. He’s attacking the front of the net, getting elevation on his shots in close and retrieving the puck at will through all three zones. If he stays healthy, this could be one of the best statistical seasons in quite some time for #81. Not bad for a supposed fourth-liner.

    The biggest upset so far for the Blackhawks has been from their special teams department. Their penalty-kill got off to a horrific (comical, even) opening to the season and has settled down since then. But, they are ranked dead-last in the league at 68.3 percent and that number needs to rise, fast. Their power-play stands at 14th in the league, yet they’ve allowed the most shorthanded goals out of 30 teams (4). They all came during a ten-game stretch, too. Last season, the Blackhawks allowed three goals shorthanded all season long. They are 3/34 with the man-advantage in the past 11 games, which won’t cut it over the grueling 82-game season. Their five-on-five game can only carry them so much; the PP/PK units must get back to simplicity, and in turn, proper execution.

    A 13-5-2 record and sitting atop the Western Conference is exactly what Hawks personnel and fans needed after a first-round elimination in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s no secret that the additions of young guys like Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz, Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, and Gustav Forsling have been an adjustment early on. Crawford, Toews, Hossa, Patrick Kane (who leads the team with 20 points), Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook have led the charge from a leadership standpoint, as anticipated. Head coach Joel Quenneville’s line blender has been awfully busy once again, hoping to stir up newfound synergy and balance among the four forward lines. The hockey world outside of Chicago understood all of this, rooting for the Blackhawks to take a step back after three Stanley Cups in seven years. But, they haven’t budged. They haven’t even flinched.

    – Cristiano Simonetta, @CMS_74_

    St. Louis Blues: 11-6-3, 25 points, second in the Central

    The St. Louis Blues haven’t had the start to the season they wanted. They are only 11-6-3, but they should be doing better than that. So far, the Blues have experienced three losses by four goals or more. One of these came in a hard loss to the New York Rangers, which ended up being 5-0.

    The Blues have had some trouble. They haven’t been able to stay consistent in the defensive zone, and have found themselves pursuing the puck quite often. After an 8-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a loss that would’ve been a lot worse with better goaltending from the Jackets, the Blues finally realized they had some fixing to do.

    After a practice that coach Ken Hitchcock called, “the best in two years,” the Blues are on a four game win streak. They’ve drastically improved on their puck movement, defensive awareness and chasing, and overall play on the ice. They’ve worked as a team more, and the lines have been shaken up which has also shown signs of success.

    Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko are still together, but they have a new winger in the form of Robby Fabbri. So far, the line has been lethal. In the loss to Columbus alone, the three accounted for all four goals the Blues scored. This is what has led to the Blues recent success. Instead of relying of team leaders like Tarasenko, the Blues are working more as a team and everyone is chipping in. Even the Blues fourth line of Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Reaves, and Scottie Upshall has combined for 11 points. This number is impressive considering how little the three of them scored last season.

    What the Blues need to do is solidify their lines. Dmitrij Jaskin and Nail Yakupov have fought over a spot on the third line, and the effects of it have shown in the Blues’ play. There isn’t as much chemistry on that line as their should be, and both of them seem almost uncomfortable on the ice. So far, Jaskin has shown he deserves the spot more; and the other 17 players on the Blues bench seem to have more chemistry with him.

    If the Blues are able to keep up the work they’ve put in, and keep their lines the same, they have a good shot at showing up in the Western Conference Finals. They’ve competed well with every team they’ve played, but rookie mistakes have held them back from early success. Now that they have their heads on straight, they could prove to be one of the NHL’s best yet again.

     – Gabriel Foley, @GabrielFoley20

    Dallas Stars: 8-7-5, 21 points, third in the Central

    The Dallas Stars didn’t exactly start off the season on a high note, as they struggled to get out of the gates. They have seemingly shored up the shaking ship, as they currently sit at third in the Central Division, and have a record of 8-7-5.

    The one thing that has been a positive note for the Stars this season is their offensive production, which isn’t exactly a surprise. Patrick Eaves is leading the way with nine goals on the season and not far behind him is Tyler Seguin, with seven goals, and Jamie Benn, who has six to his name. Seguin and Benn are also leading the way in creating goals with 15 and 10 assists respectively, showing how much weight they carry offensively for this organization. The fact that Eaves has 16 points in 19 games this season is definitely adding another dimension to an already dangerous offensive outfit, considering he only had 17 in 54 games last year.

    The one major downside to the 2016-17 season for the Stars, however, has been the lack of consistency in the other end of the ice, and this includes the two-goalie system they choose to employ. Kari Lehtonen has played in 12 games this season with a 4-5-3 record, 3.31 GAA, and an .889 save percentage. When you take into account that Antti Niemi is 4-2-2, with a less than impressive 3.18 GAA, and a pedestrian .903 save percentage, you don’t get a mixture for a team ready to make a deep playoff run.

    There are two things that are must-haves if the Stars want to make the playoffs and possibly make a run for the Stanley Cup. The first one is that they need to sustain, and possibly improve on, the offensive production that currently has them sitting in the top half for both goals for and goals for per game played. The second would be shoring up the play on the blue line and getting their two Finnish-born netminders to stop letting so many pucks in the net. If they can do both of these, or at least improve on them, they are a team to be feared come the end of the season and will likely find themselves as one of the eight teams in the Western Conference playing hockey in April.

    – Nic Hendrickson, @RedArmyNic

    Minnesota Wild: 9-7-2, 20 points, fourth in the Central

    The Minnesota Wild have started the 2016-17 season with a respectable 9-7-1 record and currently hold the top wild card spot in the Western Conference. They lead the league in one key category, allowing a mere 1.88 goals against per game. Devan Dubnyk is the main reason behind that and his Vezina like play has also lead him to a league best four shutouts in twelve games played.

    Dubnyk has been the Wild’s first quarter MVP and sits fourth in the league at both save percentage, .948, and goals against at 1.59. He joined Minnesota two seasons back and has been a dominant player for the team between the pipes. He has been playing at an elite level, unfortunately that cannot be said for all the members of the Wild roster this season. The biggest disappointment to start the season has been the man who wears the C, Mikko Koivu. After a 56 point campaign last season, he has managed to register only six so far in the 2016-17 season. Himself, along with Jason Pominville and Zach Parise, all need to get on track, and quickly, if the Wild have any playoff aspirations.

    There has been a pleasant surprise with the Minnesota Wild this season, however, and it comes in the form of Eric Staal. He is currently tied for the team lead with Ryan Suter at thirteen points and has seemingly found another gear at this point in his career. After a 39 point season last year, it looked like the twelve year veteran was slowing down, but at his current pace he may register his first seventy point season since 2011-12.

    There is a key area in which the Wild have excelled in this season as a team, the penalty kill. They rank fifth in the league at 86.5% and that is an area they will need to continue to dominant to excel this year. Ryan Suter provides the offensive spark from the blue line, the others need to keep doing what has been working and limit Dubnyk’s workload. With the exception of Parise missing six games due to a foot injury, the Wild have been able to stay healthy to begin the season, and staying healthy can be the difference between the rink and goal course come April. If the aforementioned trio of veterans get hot, this team could vie for a top three spot in the division and make a playoff run.

    – Graham Anderson, @GHam614

    Winnipeg Jets: 9-10-2, 20 points, fifth in the Central

    The Winnipeg Jets‘ top players have taken the NHL by storm. Mark Scheifele is second in league points (23), rookie phenom Patrik Laine leads the league in goals (12), and sophomore Nikolaj Ehlers quietly leads the league in assists (14). These three have been the team’s driving force.

    The injury bug has been their Achilles’ heel, with seven position players sidelined due to injury. Possession drivers Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault are missed dearly and the absence of Tyler Myers on the blue line is more than noticeable. The bug has given opportunities for AHL recalls Nic Petan and Marko Dano to shine, however. Both are on right side of Corsi for percentage (CF%) with 56.73% and 50.99%, respectively. The two are already top ten scorers on the team despite only playing a combined 21 games. At the very least, they have earned themselves consideration to stay on the roster. The team will face some interesting decisions when (and if) the lineup is at full strength.

    Goaltending has been suspect. Both Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson have a glaring weakness this year; high short side saves. They often position their gloves too low to properly react to shots above them. This shouldn’t be overly concerning however, as mechanical issues such as glove positioning can be fixed. The return of Myers will also help clean things up on the back end. When healthy, he will certainly replace one of Mark Stuart or Ben Chiarot in the top six. The two of them have been their normal disastrous selves this year. Chiarot possesses the fifth worse relative Corsi among active defensemen at -8.4%.

    While the Jets sit at fifth place in the Central right now, many teams behind them have games in hand. There’s a foreseeable drop in the standings for them, but not by much. This team, when fully optimized, can fight for a wildcard spot.

     – John Malloy, @JMall95

    Nashville Predators: 8-7-3, 19 points, sixth in the Central

    The Nashville Predators might not have had the busiest offseason, but they certainly drew the biggest headline. They traded Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for P.K. Subban, generating excitement for his debut in yellow.

    The season, however, didn’t start as expected. Nashville kept losing and Subban struggled to produce at even strength. Nashville’s possession metrics were also uncharacteristically weak. The Predators finished last season ranked 2nd in Fenwick for at 53.56%. They started this season ranked 28th and currently sit in 16th with a very mediocre Fenwick percentage of 49.86. The good sign is that they’ve steadily improved as the season progressed. Subban himself started the season’s first 7 games at 45.69% in Fenwick, the weakest numbers of his career, but now sits at 52.83% and seems back to his usual strong play.

    For the rest of the team there’s also steady improvement, but issues remain. Filip Forsberg finished last year with 33 goals and 64 points. This year he has one goal through 16 games and didn’t get his first until game 14. He does have 11 assists to go with the one goal and should regain his usual scoring touch.

    Ryan Johansen hasn’t been playing up to par, causing concern throughout the organization. Johansen was acquired last season at a steep price; they gave up one of the best young defenseman in the game in Seth Jones. Johansen finished that first season with a strong 34 points in 42 games with the Predators. This year he has 9 but, like Forsberg, just 1 goal.

    Goaltending has arguably been the biggest positive so far. Pekka Rinne only has 6 wins in 13 games started, but by no fault of his own. He has a stellar .933 save percentage and seems back to his elite level of play.

    The Predators aren’t where they want to be yet but the signs suggest that they’re headed in the right direction; back to contending for the Stanley Cup.

    – Patrick Dejbjerg

    Colorado Avalanche: 9-9-0, 18 points, last in the Central

    Perhaps the biggest addition in Colorado this season has been by subtraction. The Avalanche finished 30th and 29th in Corsi for percentage (CF%) their previous two seasons under ex-coach Patrick Roy. Where do they rank at the 2016-17 quarter season mark? 15th. New coach Jared Bednar is bringing noticeable changes to this Colorado club already.

    The usual suspects are providing the most offense. Matt Duchene leads the squad in goals (7) despite missing four games. He’s two shy of a point per game pace. Nathan MacKinnon leads the team in points with 13. It’s the lack of secondary scoring holding the Avs back. They’ve mustered up a measly 1.68 goals per 60 minutes due to this lack of scoring depth.

    Newly signed defenseman Patrick Wiercioch has made a quick impression on the Avalanche staff. With seven points and a positive Corsi, he’s greatly exceeding the value of his $800,000 cap hit. His ability to suppress shots on cheap contracts has made him sought after by the advanced stats community for quite some time. Bednar is aware of how big an impact shot metrics can have, noting that “you have to pay attention” to the information that’s out there.

    Netminder Semyon Varlamov is settling in after a sluggish start. His save percentage has exceeded .950 in three of his last four appearances. Youngster Calvin Pickard on the other hand has been solid all year. He currently ranks 9th in even strength percentage.

    Colorado is in the Central Division basement now, but are adapting to the times with their analytic approaches. If this club finds the right pieces to complement their top end talent, they will be a force to be reckoned with. For now, consider them a promising work in progress.

     – John Malloy, @JMall95

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