What’s Going On in the NHL Central?

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We’re a month into the season, and for the most part, the standings look about right. There are surprises here and there, to be sure, but things are starting to settle in, and a look around the league’s divisions shows that things are unfolding pretty much according to plan.

We all figured the Atlantic would be some combination of the Bruins, Habs, and Lightning at the top, with the Sabres and Panthers at the bottom, and that’s exactly what it is. We all had the Penguins on top of a logjam in the Metro, and there they are. We figured the California teams would own the Pacific, and while the Canucks and Flames appear to have missed that memo, the division is otherwise about right.

But there’s always one troublemaker, and this year it’s the Central. It’s by far the league’s tightest division, with all seven teams separated by just six points. Nobody’s managed more than six regulation/OT wins. And while it was supposed to be the league’s best division, if the postseason started today, it would send just three teams.

What’s going on? And more importantly, can it last? Let’s see if we can figure any of this out.

What was the Central Division supposed to look like?

Preseason predictions are often all over the map. But as the season approached, it’s fair to say that a reasonably strong consensus started to emerge around the Central. The Blackhawks were the heavy favorite to be the division’s best team, although you could have talked yourself into the Blues if you were sold on their offseason shake-up. The Stars were going to be the division’s most exciting team, and the Wild would be in the same range, but less interesting. The Jets and Predators would be terrible. And the Avalanche were the wild card — some people thought they’d be good, while others thought they’d struggle.

And what does it really look like?

The Blackhawks haven’t looked like themselves, limping out of the gate with a start just north of .500. The Blues weren’t much better early on, but have since strung together a six-game win streak to start resembling the team we expected them to be.

The Wild and Stars switched roles, with Minnesota being the division’s must-watch team while Dallas has been (barely) mediocre. The Jets and Predators have both been surprisingly good, and right now they’re holding down two of those three playoff spots.

And the Avalanche are still the wild card  some people think they’ve been terrible, while others think they’ve been really terrible.

So we were wrong about everything?

Sort of, but with a few caveats. The most important, and most obvious, is that it’s still early. We’re only about a dozen games in, which is too soon to start carving any conclusions into stone. Remember, this time last year the Maple Leafs were in first place in the Eastern Conference, and we all remember how that turned out. There’s still plenty of time for things to get back to normal.

But since my editors rejected my proposal of exclusively breaking down old hockey team lip-sync videos until February, when everything settles down, we’ll work with what we have. And what we have are a dozen games from each of these teams, give or take. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to start putting some pieces together.

Also, we weren’t wrong about everything. The Blues are about where we expected.

Good. Let’s talk about them first.

Gladly. There may not be a team in the division facing more pressure than the Blues, who haven’t been out of the second round in 14 years and could be forced into a “blow it up and start over” scenario if they can’t show that they can hang with the contenders.

So far, so good. The big question for St. Louis was always going to be goaltending. After last year’s Ryan Miller experiment turned out to be a disaster, they went into this season with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott is a veteran who’s been very good for long stretches of his career, and Allen is one of the better prospects at the position, so they were in reasonably good shape, but they didn’t have a sure-thing established starter that most contenders like to have.

A dozen games in, both guys have been fantastic. They’ve had to be, since the offense has been a disappointment — Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Devils being a perfect example  but the team’s lowly even-strength shooting percentage suggests that should pick up. Big free-agent acquisition Paul Stastny has played just four games because of injury, but should be back soon, and young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko haven’t hit their ceilings yet.

The Blues are sitting in first place, albeit by just a point or two over half the division. And they’ve still got lots of room to improve. But right now, they’re the division’s best team.1

What about the Blackhawks? Weren’t they also supposed to be unstoppable?

I picked them to win the Cup this year, so obviously I’m scratching my head a bit over an uninspiring start that’s seen them win just five of 13 in regulation/overtime.2 They were one of the league’s best teams last year and returned largely the same lineup. And their one major offseason move, adding Brad Richards on a $2 million deal, was the sort of low-risk/high-reward move that seemed like it couldn’t fail.

So what’s gone wrong? For one, Richards has been a disappointment. He’s got two goals and six points, and he often looks every bit like a guy who’ll be 35 by the time the playoffs really get going. But the bigger problem is that the Blackhawks are shooting just 4.4 percent in 5-on-5 close situations, the second-worst mark in the league. That’s awful, but there’s no way it continues, especially for a team with as much talent as Chicago.

To put it simply: They’re just stuck in a cold streak, and it can’t possibly continue. With lots of time left to snap out of it, they’ll almost certainly be fine.3

Speaking of crazy shooting percentages, what’s up with the Wild?

Offense. Their 3.18 goals per game leads the division and puts them fourth in the league. And yes, it’s been driven by an unsustainably high 10.1 percent shooting in 5-on-5 situations that’s bound to come down. After all, regression works both ways.

But the bigger story in Minnesota is the goaltending. After a rocky year that featured so many health problems that Ilya Bryzgalov eventually ended up starting, the Wild were just hoping for some stability this season. When Josh Harding was suspended during training camp, it looked like they wouldn’t get it. But first0year starter Darcy Kuemper has had the position on lockdown. He’s already posted three shutouts, and he has looked great when needed. That hasn’t been all that often, as the Wild are leading the league in shots allowed by a mile, and have been the league’s best possession team.

If anything, the Wild should probably be sporting a better record. Their plus-14 goals differential is second in the league, and Tuesday’s loss to Pittsburgh was their first by more than one goal. They’re only sitting in fifth place, but watch out for these guys.

As good as Kuemper has been, is Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec the division’s MVP?

He’d be right up there. The much-maligned starter has been fantastic, posting numbers well above his career average. That’s kept the Jets in the thick of the race, even though the team isn’t scoring much. And while some critics would argue that Pavelec’s play is unsustainable, coach Paul Maurice points to shot quality to make a pretty convincing case that it’s not.

The problem for Winnipeg is that Maurice is wrong. He almost certainly knows it, too — he’s a pretty smart guy  but his goalie is playing well, and it’s not a coach’s job to undermine his starter with a dose of reality. It is our job, though, so we have to do it here: Pavelec’s early-season success is almost certainly a hot streak, nothing more.

We can say that with some confidence because we have almost 300 career games’ worth of performance with which to judge him, and they tell us he’s barely a league-average starter. And while it’s not unheard of for forwards or defensemen to suddenly make the leap after several years in the league, it almost never happens for goaltenders. As counterintuitive as it may be, with very rare exceptions, goalies don’t improve.

So either Pavelec is one of those very rare exceptions, or he’ll eventually start playing the way we’re used to. That doesn’t have to happen immediately — lots of goalies stay uncharacteristically hot for a full season. And even if he falters a bit, it doesn’t mean the Jets are screwed, because there’s more talent on this team than you might think. But it’s hard to imagine a Central team making the playoffs without good goaltending, and the Jets still aren’t all that likely to get it.

So if the Jets will fade and the Hawks will be fine and everything is going to go back to how it was supposed to be in the first place, then the next topic must be about how the Predators will come crashing back to earth, right?

Well, hold on. Of all the Central surprises we’ve seen, the rise of the Nashville Predators may be the one that could have legs.

Despite a busy offseason that saw them fire their coach for the first time in franchise history and focus on boosting a weak forward group, few saw the Predators as anything more than cannon fodder for the division’s heavyweights — if you were the betting type, you could have found oddsmakers setting the over/under for Nashville’s point total in the mid-70s. Instead, the Predators have spent much of the season leading the division.

Oddly enough, it’s not like the influx of offense is driving their success. While newcomers James Neal and Mike Ribeiro have played well, the team is scoring just under 2.5 goals per game, basically the same as last year. Instead, we’re back to goaltenders. In the Predators’ case, that meant going from one of the league’s worst to one of the best. And maybe we all should have seen that coming once Pekka Rinne got healthy.

At his best, Rinne had been among the best goaltenders in the league. But he hadn’t been at his best since 2011-12, and when a bad hip cost him most of last year, the Predators’ rotating cast of replacements were underwhelming. Even back at full health, Rinne’s return to the top of his game was far from a sure thing — he just turned 32, after all, and even when he was healthy enough to play last year he wasn’t very good. But he’s looked fantastic, and it’s made all the difference. Last year, the Predators’ goaltending was so bad that it seemed like a good idea to go out and get Devan Dubnyk. This year, it’s among the best in the league. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Can they win the division? No, not unless Rinne goes full Hasek on us.4 And PDO disciples will point to Nashville’s conference-leading 104.1 as evidence that a steep drop is coming. But with Rinne healthy, Peter Laviolette working his magic, and a nice chunk of points already in the bank, the Predators really do feel like a possible wild-card team. That’s still a downgrade from where they are now, but it’s more than most of us thought they’d be.

And then there are the division’s worst two teams. Is there any hope for the Stars or Avalanche?

Both teams are young and stacked with offensive talent. Both can be all sorts of fun to watch. And both have been disappointments after making the playoffs last season.

The Stars are a strange case, since their biggest problem has been goaltender Kari Lehtonen. He’s basically the anti-Pavelec, a guy with a solid track record that tells us he’s probably just going through a slump. If he gets back on track, and the Stars can figure out a way to wake up free-agent bust Ales Hemsky, they could climb back into the race. But it needs to start happening soon.

And that leaves us with the Avalanche, the league’s most divisive team. Last year, they were a terrible possession team that got by on great goaltending and shooting percentage. This year, they’re still terrible possession-wise, but the shooting has been merely average and Semyon Varlamov has missed time with an injury. That’s added up to an ugly start, with just three wins in their first 14 games, and last place in the division.

It certainly wasn’t hard to see this coming, but it’s still been strange to see it all play out just the way the doomsayers predicted. The Avs’ roster is still stacked with offensive talent, most of it young, so you hate to write them off quite yet, especially when they’re just five points out of a playoff spot. They’re also 0-5 in overtime and shootouts, which is at least partly bad luck, so we could argue they’re better than their record shows.

But it all comes back to possession; you just can’t get outshot 60/40 every night and expect to win over the long term. At this point it seems like anything short of a radical change in the team’s playing style isn’t going to be enough to get them back into contention for anything other than a wild card and meek first-round exit.

So how does it all shake out in the end?

I still have the Blues and Hawks at the top of the division, although the Wild are very close to making it a three-team race. I think the Jets drop out of the running fairly quickly, probably all the way out of the playoff race. The Avalanche seem more like a team headed to a meltdown than to some sort of midseason turnaround. And that leaves the Stars and Predators fighting for whatever wild-card spots will be available. My heart says the Predators, my head says the Stars.

Are you sure about all of that?

Not remotely. But if I turn out to be wrong, we’ll just try again once everyone gets to two dozen games.

Filed Under: NHL, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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