Central Division Stanley Cup Chances: Why Each Team Could or Couldn’t Win

central division stanley cup
DENVER, COLORADO - JANUARY 02: Tyler Bozak #21 of the St Louis Blues advances the puck against Samuel Girard #49 of the Colorado Avalanche in the third period at the Pepsi Center on January 02, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The NHL’s Central Division is the only division where each team qualifies for the 2020 NHL playoffs. Three teams, the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, won’t even have to compete in the unique play-in round as they finished top four among the Western Conference. It’s a strong Division, to say the least. With so much power, the odds of a Central Division Stanley Cup seem high. But even with their strength, there are pros and cons for each team.

Central Division: Why Teams Could or Couldn’t Win

Chicago Blackhawks

Why They Could Win

The Chicago Blackhawks defence is certainly a weak point, but the talent upfront is where they thrive. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane may not be as dominant as they once were, but they are excellent offensive players. Their supporting cast includes a plethora of young talent. Featuring 2020 Calder nominee Dominik Kubalik who scored 30 goals this past season. Dylan Strome serves as a great young, playmaking center to feed the team’s scorers. Alex DeBrincat is just one season removed from a 40 goal campaign. 2019 third-overall pick Kirby Dach and recently acquired Alex Nylander; both looking to break out. And it’s topped off with former 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup winners Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, two names who could also make a splash.

Why They Couldn’t Win

The Blackhawks were the NHL’s worst Western Conference team to qualify for the play-in round. Unfortunately, a lot of their fortune come playoff will depend on the status of Corey Crawford. Crawford was incredibly good, boasting a goals-saved-above-expected of 7.44. He ranked second among goalies with at least 35 games played. With him being deemed ‘unfit to play,’ the Blackhawks may not have him available. For the team that ranked dead last in the NHL in xGA/60 (2.78) and just 26th in xGF% (47.38) at five-on-five play, that is a significant loss.

Minnesota Wild

Why They Could Win

The Minnesota Wild are a polarizing team. The underlying numbers indicate the Wild are actually a decent team that underperformed all season. The teams xGF% ranked fourth in the NHL (53.09). Moreover, their xGA/60 ranked second at 2.0. The only weak link was the team’s xGF/60, which placed 26th league-wide. The Wild have very under-the-radar veterans like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal. The younger players include Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and, most notably, Kevin Fiala. Like their forward core, the team’s top four defence is also considerably under-appreciated. Jared Spurgeon has quietly been a top ten defensemen in the league for years. Additionally, Sweden’s Jonas Brodin is one of the best pure defensive defensemen in the NHL. Along with Ryan Suter and Brad Hunt, the teams top four is very strong.

Why They Couldn’t Win

So what brought this team down? Goaltending. Out of 85 goalies listed, Alex Stalock ranked 82nd (with -16.64) and Devan Dubnyk ranked 85th (-27.49) in expected-goals-saved-above-average. The Wild may very well have the worst goaltending tandem in the league. Devan Dubnyk was last a positive for goals saved above expected back in 2014-15 (10.7). The Wild are a good team, thwarted by subpar goaltending. All it takes is two months, if they get a hot goalie, this team is dangerous.

Winnipeg Jets

Why They Could Win

Goaltending can take a team all the way. If this year’s Winnipeg Jets are hoping to lift Lord Stanley’s cup, it all lies on Vezina nominee, Connor Hellebuyck‘s shoulders. Unlike Minnesota, this team was the complete opposite. Connor Hellebuyck was the NHL’s best goalie with 19.86 expected-goal-saved-above-average. He played the most minutes and faced more shots than any other goalie in the league. The extended break will certainly help keep him from burning out.

Why They Couldn’t Win

This was a bottom-five team in the NHL. Their xGF% was dead-last at just 43.1. The Jets were 29th in xGF/60, with 2.07. They were also 29th in xGA/60, with 2.73. Three of the team’s big names, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Conner were not very productive five-on-five. The team generated a lot of their offence through the power-play. These are talented players that simply were not playing to their capability. Makings things worse is the fact that the Jets have arguably the worst defence in the NHL. Neal Pionk is a power-play specialist. Dylan Demelo and Josh Morrissey are solid defenders. But following them, not one defenceman is above replacement level. None of Pionk, Morrissey or Demelo are studs. Ville Heinola looked very good in his brief showing. However, the team is reluctant to burn a year off his entry-level contract.

Nashville Predators

Why They Could Win

The Nashville Predators are a team that was very middle-of-the-road. Their xGF% was 50.19, good for 17th in the NHL. Their xGF/60 was 15th with 2.39. Lastly, their xGA/60 was also 15th, at 2.38. The underlying numbers projected them as a middle-of-the-pack team. With the 16th best points percentage in the league standings, that is exactly what they were. Despite such a mediocre 2019-20 campaign, this team has weapons. With the likes of Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis, the top-end talent is there. If the depth can hold up, this is a largely similar group to the one that went to the Stanley Cup Finals just three years back.

Why They Couldn’t Win

So what makes them so average? Well, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are two amazing defensemen. After them, the team is rather mediocre. Mattias Ekholm‘s underlying numbers took a dip and Dante Fabbro didn’t perform quite as some may have hoped. Upfront, Matt Duchene, the newest acquisition, has been good but not amazing. Long time Predator, Filip Forsberg has also not had his greatest season. He hasn’t been bad, but his offence was overall just lacklustre. Their goaltending was also suspect. Veteran goalie and career Predator Pekka Rinne ranked 83rd in expected-goals-saved-above-average with -21.27. Only Jimmy Howard and Devan Dubnyk were worse. Juuse Saros was quite solid with an expected-goals-saved-above-average of 1.19, good for 25th among goalies.

Dallas Stars

Why They Could Win

The Dallas Stars were one goal away from the Western Conference Finals last season, so it’s no surprise they have returned to the playoffs this season. The teams xGF% was sixth-best in the NHL with 52.7. A lot of this has to do with a stout defensive group that posted xGA/60 of only 2.17, sixth-best in the NHL. Their offence was slightly above average, ranking 13th with an xGF/60 of 2.42. Their goaltending is simply fantastic. Among goalies with at least 30 games played, Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop ranked fifth and sixth respectively in expected-goals-saved-above-average, with 6.15 and 5.71. Structurally, this is a strong defensive team with strong goaltending.

Why They Couldn’t Win

The problems lie in the team’s offensive output. Their offence boasts a middle-of-the-road power play (13th in NHL, 21.1 percent) and ranks 29th in overall scoring. Tyler Seguin was the only player to eclipse the 40 point mark and Denis Gurianov is the only player that hit the 20 goal plateau. Compare that to divisional rival St. Louis, which saw six players hit 40 points, five of whom cracked over 50, along with three players with at least 20 goals. There is no doubt this is a good team, but the lack of offence has to be a concern. Their superstars, Jamie Benn and Seguin, are no longer performing like superstars and veterans such as Alexander Radulov and Joe Pavelski haven’t produced as expected. However, any team that is as hard to score on as Dallas is dangerous and that might be enough to push them over the top.

Colorado Avalanche

After the Colorado Avalanche annihilated the Calgary Flames in five games last postseason and went to Game Seven against the San Jose Sharks, the team had high expectations coming into 2019-20. Offseason additions of Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Pavel Francouz, and Andre Burakovsky compiled a roster that had Stanley Cup hype, behind the Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen line, one of the most productive in the league. With the league’s eighth best-xGF% (52.29), the 16th-best xGF/60 (2.38) and the fifth-best xGA/60 (2.17), the Avalanche are a great team. What may surprise people is that the team defence is what makes them dangerous. Valeri Nichuskin, Donskoi, Ryan Graves and the continued development of Samuel Girard have brought the teams defensive play to a new level.

Why They Couldn’t Win

Their goaltending was decent but unspectacular as Pavel Francouz was an above-average goalie with an expected-goals-saved-above-average of 2.68, whereas Philipp Grubauer was a bit below average with an expected-goals-saved-above-average of -1.71. The offensive depth is the teams largest concern. Behind that top line, a lot of the teams depth scorers shot very high percentages. Andre Burakovsky is the most notable. He shot over 19 percent this season, which is a lot compared to his career average 13.6 percent. While the overall offensive depth is still a question mark, the improved defense along with the high-end talent gives Colorado a chance at making a very deep run.

St. Louis Blues

Why They Could Win

The 2019 Stanley Cup champions have not missed a beat. At the NHL’s pause they were first in the West and looked poised for another run. The underlying numbers indicate the team did overperform, ranking 14th in expected goals for percentage (50.87), eighth in expected goals against per 60 (2.2), but just 24th in expected goals for per 60 (2.28). Fortunately, the Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen tandem was fantastic with 4.56 and 7.03 expected goals saved above average respectively. Couple that with four of the top five forwards in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 (with at least a 1000 minutes played), including Selke nominee Ryan O’Reilly and this team is tough to score on.

Why They Couldn’t Win

The problem lies on the offensive side of things. The NHL’s third best power play (24.3) carried lacklustre five on five offence all season. Star scorer Vladimir Tarasenko only playing 10 games definitely hurt, but one player shouldn’t be all the team relies on for its five-on-five offence. The roster no doubt has the depth and talent. The aforementioned O’Reilly and Tarasenko headline a group featuring Norris caliber defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, defensive stud Colton Parayko, severely overlooked Vince Dunn, veterans Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and David Perron and rising star Robert Thomas. If the offence gets going, this team has shown it can and will destroy everything in its path.

Overview

The Central is loaded and as usual, very competitive. It will take all these teams can offer to lift lord Stanley’s cup, especially for the teams that are playing in an extra round of hockey. It isn’t easy to pick one team to take it all, directly after an 82 game season, it is especially harder after a multi-month layoff. But each of these teams has a chance, and as they say, once you’re in, anything can happen.

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