Central Division Watch (February 8)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Central Division outlook (February 8-14)

1. Detroit Red Wings (32-15-6 for 70 pts; 53 Games Played)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Home vs. Nashville (Wednesday), road vs. Boston (Friday) and home vs. Boston (Sunday).

Thoughts: Pavel Dastyuk returned to the Red Wings lineup just in the nick of time, as Detroit had been shut out of two straight games. It’ll be interesting to see how they do in a back-to-back with the Northeast Division-leading Boston Bruins, the tail end of which will be NBC’s Game of the Week.

2. Nashville Predators (28-19-7 for 63 pts; 54 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: @ Detroit (Wed), home vs. Colorado (Sat).

Thoughts: After winning three in a row, the Predators have gone 1-4-1 in their last six games. As great of a coach as Barry Trotz is, he can’t seem to get this group to avoid these hot and cold runs.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (27-22-4 for 58 pts; 53 GP)

Current streak: Two losses in a row.

Week ahead: Three road games: vs. Edmonton (Wed), vs. Dallas (Fri) and Phoenix (Sat).

Thoughts: The ‘Hawks seem like they are cracking a bit, but the good news is that this week will complete this challenging six-game road trip. They don’t have any other road runs longer than this one remaining. If Chicago can pull out two out of three this week, they should be pretty pleased.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (25-22-5 for 55 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: Two wins.

Week ahead: @ Pittsburgh (Tues), home vs. San Jose (Wed), home vs. Colorado (Fri), @ Dallas (Sun).

Thoughts: Even with a banged up Pittsburgh’s team, that’s still a tough back-to-back for the Jackets. This week could give a glimpse what this team is (or isn’t) capable of.

5. St. Louis Blues (23-20-8 for 54 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: @ Florida (Tues), home vs. Minnesota (Fri), @ Minnesota (Sat), home vs. Vancouver (Mon).

Thoughts: It’s going to be a trying rest-of-February for the Blues. The good news is that the Wild will deal with the same back-and-back games as St. Louis, so that home-and-home series could be very big for both teams. The Blues should try to shoot for 5-6 out of 8 points this week.

Report: Blue Jackets RFA Anderson in contact with Hockey Canada about 2018 Olympics

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The preseason is well underway and Josh Anderson is still without a contract.

Anderson, who scored 17 goals and 29 points last season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, is one of two remaining restricted free agents without a new deal. The other is Andreas Athanasiou of the Detroit Red Wings.

While there were reports this summer about Athanasiou potentially going to the KHL for this season, John Shannon of Sportsnet reported on Thursday that Anderson’s representatives have reached out to Hockey Canada’s staff about the 2018 Olympics. 

Anderson’s entry-level contract, with an AAV of just over $894,000, expired at the end of last season.

Meanwhile, here is the latest on this ongoing contract situation.

Making an impression: Sergachev has ‘NHL written all over him’

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Mikhail Sergachev has, over the summer, stated his belief he can play in the NHL this season.

He had a small taste of NHL action last season, appearing in four games for Montreal — the team that selected him ninth overall in 2016 — before getting sent back to junior and then being traded in June to Tampa Bay, as part of a blockbuster involving Jonathan Drouin to the Habs.

Well, Sergachev made a statement Wednesday in his preseason debut for the Lightning.

He scored once. He also played more than 22 minutes, which led all Lightning players on the night. That included time on the power play and penalty kill. If he was looking to make a favorable impression, to show that he belongs at the NHL level when the regular season begins, this seems to be another step in that direction.

“You watch this kid skate, shoot, stickhandle, he’s got NHL written all over him,” Tampa Bay’s associate coach Rick Bowness told the Tampa Bay Times. “Now we’ve got to give him experience. How much can he handle?”

There is competition on the blue line, with eight defensemen under contract in Tampa Bay for this season. That includes Sergachev, who is still only 19 years old. After getting sent back to junior last season, he recorded 43 points in 50 games with Windsor and then won the Memorial Cup that spring. That said, he’s made it a point of saying going back to junior “is not an option” for him.

Related:

Looking to make the leap: Mikhail Sergachev

Report: Lupul will have ‘independent medical exam’

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Joffrey Lupul issued a statement Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t seek a second medical opinion after the Maple Leafs announced he didn’t pass his training camp physical.

A day later, reports have surfaced that the 33-year-old forward will, in fact, undergo another, independent medical test.

That is according to James Mirtle of The Athletic:

Earlier this week, Lupul made accusations against the Maple Leafs on Instagram.

“I’m ready … just awaiting the call,” Lupul wrote in the comments section of the Instagram post, per a screen grab. “haha failed physical? They cheat. Everyone lets them.”

Lupul, who didn’t pass his physical for a second year in a row, issued an apology yesterday. But those comments — which have since been deleted — seem to have grabbed the attention of the league.

Darren Dreger of TSN added to that, saying it’s the NHL pursuing a second medical opinion on this matter.

“The National Hockey League has that right to pursue the second opinion. That’s exactly what they’re engaging in right now,” Dreger reported Thursday.

“The reasoning behind it is because of the comment that Lupul made on social media. I’ll go back a year ago. The league didn’t step in a year ago but Lupul stayed quiet at that point. So they want to make sure — ‘They’ being the National Hockey League — that the medical evaluation from the Toronto Maple Leafs is 100 per cent above the board.”

Team USA won’t include NHL draft-eligible prospects at 2018 Olympics

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) General manager Jim Johannson has ruled out the possibility of the U.S. men’s hockey team having NHL draft-eligible prospects competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

Johannson tells The Associated Press he doesn’t view anyone from the 18-and-younger pool of prospects capable of cracking the projected lineup of non-NHL players, many of whom are opening this season playing in Europe.

USA Hockey’s assistant executive director says he’s also targeting a number of established college players, and would not rule out keeping a spot or two open for members of the U.S. team competing at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Johansson spoke in Buffalo, New York, on Thursday, where he is attending USA Hockey’s sixth annual All-American Prospects game. The game features the top 42 U.S.-born players eligible to be selected in the NHL draft in June.