Colorado Avalanche v Nashville Predators

Central Division Watch (March 15)

Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Central Division outlook (March 15 -March 21st)

1. Detroit Red Wings (41-20-8 for 90 pts; 69 Games Played)

Current streak: Two wins in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Washington (Wednesday), @ Columbus (Thursday), @ Nashville (Saturday) and home vs. Pittsburgh (Monday).

Thoughts: There isn’t much for the Red Wings to play for, being that the Vancouver Canucks are way ahead of them for the top seed while Detroit holds a comfortable six-point lead over Chicago. At this point, it’s all about finishing strong and healthy.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (38-24-8 for 84 pts; 70 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Away vs. Dallas (Thurs) and away vs. Phoenix (Sun).

Thoughts: Is there a single team in the West that wants to deal with the Blackhawks? They’re looking like a serious threat to the other contenders, as they showed by beating the San Jose Sharks handily last night. To contrast my previous point about Detroit, Chicago could actually make up some ground against the Red Wings being that they have three games left in the season.

3. Nashville Predators (35-24-10 for 80 pts; 69 GP)

Current streak: Two wins in a row.

Week ahead: Three home games – vs. Los Angeles (Tues), vs. Boston (Thurs) and vs. Detroit (Sat) and one road game against Buffalo (Sun).

Thoughts: The Predators have 10 of their next 13 games at home, so they have a fantastic chance of making it into the top eight in the West by the end of the season. As you can see, those games won’t all be cakewalks, though. All four of the teams they play could very well make the playoffs too in 2010-11.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (32-27-9 for 73 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Home vs. Boston (Tues), home vs. Detroit (Thurs), @ Minnesota (Sat) and home vs. New Jersey (Sun).

Thoughts: The Blue Jackets seem like they’re on the borderline between still being in the playoff picture and being out of it. Much like Nashville’s week, Columbus will face four potential playoff teams going forward. It’ll be interesting to see if they have a real chance by next week.

5. St. Louis Blues (31-29-9 for 71 pts; 69 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Three road games – vs. Anaheim (Wed), Los Angeles (Thurs) and San Jose (Sat).

Thoughts: The Blues won three of their last four games, but any final glimmer of hope should probably be gone after this week. The Ducks, Kings and Sharks are all likely to beat St. Louis – and they need to – so it’s likely they won’t end up with much more than 71 pts next week.

San Jose Sharks’ defense looks very promising

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 03:  Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues and Brent Burns #88 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic #44 of the San Jose Sharks go for the puck at SAP Center on January 3, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In the long term, there are some questions about the San Jose Sharks’ defense.

For one thing, Brent Burns is due what could be a raise almost as big as his Burt’s Bees beard.

What’s even more troubling is, like the Sharks’ forwards, the defense’s upper ranks might see Father Time nipping at their heels. Burns is 31, Paul Martin is 35 and three defensemen are 29 in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and newly signed blueliner David Schlemko.

This isn’t to say that the Sharks will age as rapidly as Melisandre, but that group prompts more questions about how long San Jose’s window might be hope.

Quite a promising present

So, maybe it won’t be a strength forever … but wow, this group sure looks promising on paper heading into next season.

Burns gets the most attention thanks to his booming shot, strong all-around skills and bizarre presence, yet Team Canada isn’t oblivious to Vlasic’s subtler brilliance. Paul Martin might be slipping a bit, but he’s still a useful player.

The signing of Schlemko really ties the room together, though.

The point isn’t that Schlemko is a star or better than the likes of Jay Bouwmeester. The very different nature of their roles makes a comparison a little risky.

Instead, it argues that Schlemko is the sort of supporting cast player who can push the Sharks closer to having a quality defenseman on the ice during every shift.

Beyond those four blueliners, the Sharks have some interesting options. Braun enjoyed some nice playoff moments. Brenden Dillon has his flaws, but perhaps he’d flourish if used in more protected situations.

With Mirco Mueller and Dylan DeMelo among those waiting in the wings, it’s not as though the Sharks are totally devoid of young talent on defense.

In an age where it almost feels like teams would give up vital organs for difference-makers on defense, San Jose’s group looks primed to rank among the elite. After struggling when the likes of Roman Polak were caught in bad situations, the Sharks have a great chance to trot out a remarkably balanced group in 2016-17.

Let’s argue about EA Sports’ NHL 17 player ratings

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via EA Sports
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EA Sports released top player rankings for NHL 17 about a week ago, but it isn’t too late to needlessly argue about them.

The top 50 overall ratings is probably the best place to start, but EA also shared top 10 lists for centers, defensemen, goalies, left wings and right wings.

Now, it’s important not to take this stuff too seriously. There are plenty of things to cool down any diehards who feel like Their Guy was disrespected, but do note that ratings sometimes get tweaked.

Still, there are some fun observations and debates that can come from pouring through these rankings, especially if you’re … well, bored.

Shea Weber vs. P.K. Subban

Did Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin chime in on the debate? /Scratches chin

Weber came in with a blazing 94 rating:

 

Weber wins the digital battle with Subban, who lags behind as a 91. To the naked eye, EA seems to disagree with the analytics-based argument that Subban is the better all-around player than Weber at this juncture:

Here’s the thing, though: if you break both down rating by rating, each guy looks pretty great in NHL 17. Perhaps the real debate comes down to whether Weber really is that great defensively or not.

Then again, maybe EA just has a blind spot for Nashville Predators past and/or present? Pekka Rinne‘s high rating is sure to ruffle some feathers:

91rinneea

To give you some context, that 91 rating ties Rinne with Cory Schneider and places him ahead of the likes of Ben Bishop, Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask.

Some other debate-starters

Need some other fun ones to bicker about? Sure you do:

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Again, take it easy with this stuff. None of these choices are “Mike Richards being higher-rated than Anze Kopitar” bad.

You can have a lot of fun batting around different observations, as these player rankings often provide an interesting window into the way the hockey world sees things.

And, hey, at least Dustin Byfuglien‘s getting some much-deserved recognition.

NHL says it isn’t bothered by Coyotes’ salary cap methods

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 02:  Dave Bolland #36 of the Chicago Blackhawks and Chris Pronger #20 of the Philadelphia Flyers skate after the loose puck in Game Three of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Wachovia Center on June 2, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka is deftly playing the system when it comes to the salary cap to the point that some might accuse him of exploiting loopholes.

If the NHL bristles as such tactics, they’re at least not showing it in public.

In taking on the absolutely dead money of Chris Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk along with the possibly dead money of Dave Bolland, the Coyotes are getting to the cap floor while saving money in the actual cash they’re dishing out.

The Score’s Ian MacLaren succinctly explains the savings they’re enjoying thanks to these clever trades:

That’s how the league is viewing Arizona taking on the salaries of Chris Pronger, Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland. The cap hits amount to almost $18 million but result in less than $2 million in actual salary paid out by the club, while simultaneously allowing it to reach the cap floor.

Honestly, it’s difficult to shake the image of Gary Bettman & Co. bristling at the tactics of a franchise they’ve defended year after year amid myriad arena issues.

Today’s Slapshot’s Craig Morgan caught up with Bill Daly, whose overall message is that the league is OK with what Arizona is doing.

“I would say that it’s a matter that we monitor, like all other areas of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement), and if we believe it starts to be abused in a way that is inconsistent with how the system is designed to work, at that point, we would try to correct it in collective bargaining with the union,” Daly said. “I would say we aren’t at that point on this issue — we do not view it as the loophole that‎ some describe it as.”

One key point from Daly is that he doesn’t view Bolland’s case as the same as that of Pronger or Datsyuk. The critical distinction is that Bolland at least hopes to become healthy enough to play again.

(Chakya’s update wasn’t particularly optimistic in that regard, but a return isn’t totally inconceivable since Bolland is just 30.)

Best of both worlds for Coyotes

Again, the Coyotes are really reaping the benefits of this gameplan. Not only are they saving real dollars by absorbing other teams’ dead money, they’re using those trades to acquire promising assets like Jakob Chychrun and Lawson Crouse.

These are the sort of moves that make the team look bright today and possibly terrifying for opponents in the future, even if the 2016-17 product may be a little hit-or-miss.

Time may tell how the NHL truly feels

To some extent, we probably won’t know how the NHL truly feels about this situation until the next CBA eventually gets hashed out.

Then again, the league did make a big stink about cap circumvention during the memorable days of Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract negotiations, so perhaps such maneuvering really doesn’t bother the NHL?

Maybe, but you’re free to picture Bettman grumbling about Chayka’s moves either way.

(H/T to the Score.)

Alex Ovechkin tweets about tying the knot with Nastya Shubskaya

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Alex Ovechkin shared the news via his official Twitter feed that he married Nastya Shubskaya.

His message includes a caption that translates to “This is happiness,” according to NHL.com.

Washington Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks indicated that the two got married during a small, private ceremony, so it might have actually happened a week or so ago.

Here’s the Ovechkin tweet from Sunday:

This continues a run of big news for Capitals players, with a life-changing event for Ovechkin’s partner-in-crime Nicklas Backstrom as well:

There were some fun jokes on Twitter about the happy news, with this one possibly taking the cake:

This summer figures to be a busy one from a hockey standpoint for Ovie, as he’s been part of various activities and will represent Russia at the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

In case you’re wondering, Ovechkin will soon turn 31.