Friday, 30 October 2015

Central Division Of Death

When they start counting down the season towards the playoffs this year, the one question that should be asked is how many Central Division teams will make it? As it stands right now, five of the top-ten teams call the Central Division home, and there are a number of reasons for the rest of the league to fear the Central Division. In saying that, though, are these teams able to survive each other when it comes to the playoffs? The first two rounds may take more out of the Central Division champions than we know right now.

The defending Stanley Cup champions in the Chicago Blackhawks aren't even in the equation at this point, and they're still considered to be one of the favorites to advance to another Stanley Cup Final. Sitting sixth in the Central Division, the Blackhawks need to start winning games within their division after dropping last night's contest to Winnipeg. Chicago will still be a strong team this season, but they find themselves in a division with five other teams - Colorado not included - that look every bit as legitimate as a Stanley Cup contender right now.

The Dallas Stars are looking every bit like the team everyone expected them to be last season. There were a lot of questions as to why San Jose would give up on Antti Niemi when there were rumours of him being on the trade block, and the Dallas Stars jumped on the opportunity to bring him to have an all-Finnish netminding duo. In seeing Niemi pushing Kari Lehtonen, the Stars have received better-than-good goaltending so that players like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Spezza can do their things.

What may surprise everyone is that the deal to send Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt to Chicago has made the Stars better. They acquired Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya through trade and free agency, but it has allowed John Klingberg to step up and show a knack for scoring from the blue line. Add in some better defensive responsibility from the aforementioned Oduya, and this Dallas Stars team is built to win.

Right behind the Stars in the Central Division are the Nashville Predators who are seeing world-class goalie Pekka Rinne put up strong numbers once more. Like Dallas, they are getting contributions from all over the ice. James Neal, Filip Forsberg, and Mike Ribeiro are the usual suspects, but the blue line is led by Roman Josi who has more points than perennial all-star Shea Weber thus far. Alongside those two pillars on defence, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones are setting up goals with their contributions while youngster Colin Wilson is coming into his own up front. Nashville, like Dallas, looks like a complete team.

The St. Louis Blues can never be counted out despite the vast number of injuries with which they currently dealing. This team, when healthy, is one of the biggest, fastest teams in the NHL, and they may have the most talented top-six defencemen in the league. Add in the steady if unspectacular Brian Elliott who seems to stop everything thrown his way, and the Blues are once again set up for a solid season.

Oh, did I mention St. Louis can score? Vladimir Tarasenko, who is currently injured, is a major threat. David Backes and Alexander Steen can also score in bunches if given the opportunity. Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny have never been afraid to light the lamp either, and we haven't even mentioned players like Troy Brouwer, Patrick Berglund, and Jori Lehtera who always seem to be around the net. St. Louis has a ton of talent and should compete for the division crown once more.

The team that surprised everyone last year in making the playoffs is surprising no one this year as they steamroll a few contenders. The Winnipeg Jets have seen better-than-good goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson so far, and that can only spell good things for the Jets who often had goaltending as their Achilles heel.

The usual suspects are all back - Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, and Dustin Byfuglien - but they'll be joined by the re-signed Drew Stafford, newcomer Nikolaj Ehlers, and a healthy Mathieu Perreault for what most hope if the majority of the season. Throw in the always-improving Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry, and these Jets now have three lines that can score with regularity. Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers will contribute from the back end as well, and the steady play of Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, and the young Ben Chiarot have Winnipeg setup nicely this season.

The team that most seem to forget about despite their success in recent years outside of losses in the playoffs to the Blackhawks is the Minnesota Wild. The Wild have lots of scoring to boast - Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville - but they are getting excellent returns from players like Jason Zucker, Nino Neiderreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund this season to help carry the offensive load. The Wild, like the Jets, have excellent scoring options spread over three lines, and any or all of these options are usually on the scoresheet each game.

Balance is also the name of the game in Minnesota as Ryan Suter has become the Ryan Suter we used to know once more in leading the Wild in scoring from the blue line. However, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba have shown excellent offensive range this season while still being defensively responsible. Toss in the fact that Devyn Dubnyk is still making a lot of saves from the blue paint, and the Wild are a playoff threat, if not a division-winning threat, once again.

The key for every team in this division is balance. Five of the top-ten teams in the NHL this season are from the Central Division, and the Blackhawks are not one of them. There legitimately might be a team from the Central Division who cracks the 100-point barrier this year and misses the playoffs based on how the Central Division is shaking down right now.

While parity certainly is the goal of the NHL, there are some divisions where parity is a detriment to the success of the teams in that division. Four of the Central Division teams will make the playoffs to determine who advances to the Western Conference Final as the Central Division representative, but the question is how much that one team is willing to sacrifice to make it there? Nothing will be given in the Central Division, so the question is what will these teams do to one another in order to earn the right to call itself "Central Division Champion"?

As fans, we should be in awe of the Central Division. It is literally the best and worst division in hockey depending on your view. The one thing that both sides can agree upon is that the hockey being played in the Central Division is incredible.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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