Did Wild owner Craig Leipold spill the beans on new division alignment?

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The NHL’s plans to realign the divisions next year and go to a new layout for the way the league is set up is an issue that’s got a lot of fans imaginations captured. After all, with the wants of three teams to move east in Columbus, Detroit, and Nashville as well as the need to get Winnipeg out of the Southeast Division, sprucing things up makes a world of sense.Of course, it’ll be tricky for the NHL to get things together in a way that will make everyone happy and while the talk of doing a balanced schedule will help make things a bit more even, laying teams out geographically helps the divisional layout.

While no one at the NHL is tipping their hand as to how things will go, luckily Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold took to the airwaves today on KFAN in Minneapolis on the Paul Allen Show with Kevin Gorg and very well may have tipped off for how the new Central Division will be laid out and how some of these new things will play out. (audio here, skip to 21 minute mark)

“Our division would include the Winnipeg Jets, us, the Blues, the Nashville Predators, the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets… maybe not depending on if they go east or west. I am all in favor of that. I think that is a grand slam, home run, hat trick for our team.”

With that kind of divisional lay out that means we’ll see the Detroit Red Wings somewhere else. We’ll also see them separated from the Blackhawks. The decision over whether or not to send Columbus to the East is also up in the air with this layout. Nashville too seems to be getting worked over as well. The one difference here being that, without Columbus, the entire division exists in the Central time zone.

“We’re all Central Division now. All of our teams, except for Columbus, all of our teams will be Central Division. We’ll play less teams in Canada. We will play every team home and away at least one time.”

There’s the confirmation on the balanced schedule. No longer will it be up to a few years between visits from some teams in other conferences. That set up makes a lot more sense because it means getting the guaranteed one visit a year for Western teams from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Steve Stamkos among others. Bringing the big stars to all the fans only makes good business sense.

As for how Leipold feels about being aligned with Winnipeg, he couldn’t be more excited. Oh yeah, he’s pretty fired up about the old Norris Division tie-ins too. There’s also a bittersweet slip of the tongue too.

“Everybody’s talking about it. We’d love to have Winnipeg. It’s a natural rivalry for us. The closest team in the NHL [for us] is Winnipeg. We’d love to have them in that division. I think with Chicago and St. Louis the old North Star divi… I mean Norris Division. Come on… How much fun is that?”

Hey, North Star Division would sound great to us just so long as the other divisions were named after defunct teams. Let’s just make sure they’re named after teams that have no chance of being resurrected in the future. Sorry Nordiques Division.

Of course with the Central Division mostly figured out, where do the rest of the teams go? Well, the Pacific Division and Western Conference seems to have itself figured out already.

Potential Central Division
Chicago
Columbus*
Dallas
Minnesota
Nashville
St. Louis
Winnipeg

Potential Pacific Division
Anaheim
Calgary
Colorado
Edmonton
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose
Vancouver

That’s 15 teams in the conference with one division having seven teams and the other with eight, fitting what we’d learned before. Columbus being the “maybe” team there means that perhaps there’s discussion on whether or not it’ll be Columbus or Detroit that stays in the Central. No disrespect to either Columbus or Detroit, but that Central Division has a lot more “oomph” to it with Detroit there.

If that layout stays that way, however, that leaves the Eastern Conference with Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Washington. Figuring out a way to lay that out in a geographically sound way will be tricky with Carolina and the Florida teams being outliers. Perhaps something that’s more map-friendly would work out. Here’s our silly suggestion that borrows a bit from the ACC:

Possible Atlantic Division
Boston
Florida
New Jersey
NY Islanders
NY Rangers
Philadelphia
Tampa Bay
Washington

Possible Mid-Atlantic Division
Buffalo
Carolina
Detroit
Montreal
Ottawa
Pittsburgh
Toronto

Our thinking here being that all the teams along the extreme east coast will all stick together and all the teams that find themselves a bit further out from the ocean can be piled up together. Mind you, this is a totally silly idea, but given the disproportionate difference between teams in the north and south the proposed idea to do a Northeast and South division might not work out.

All we know is that the Mid-Atlantic Division would be a bloodbath with the three Canadian teams, renewed Original Six wars with Detroit against Toronto and Montreal, and the Wings getting to play Pittsburgh more than a few times per year. Let that hate flow anew. Of course, if Detroit and Columbus swapped spots there, it’s still intriguing but potentially brutal for the Jackets.

We don’t know for sure that Leipold’s take on the Central Division is true and we won’t know until something is announced later on, but he sounded awfully convinced that this was how things would shake out and being that he’s an owner, he’s privy to that kind of information. Speculate away and see if you can come up with better ideas than these.

(Major thanks to PHT reader and commenter “whatagreatfootballmind” for the tip)

St. Louis Blues getting healthier at crucial time

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At one point during this season, it looked like the St. Louis Blues might run away with the Central Division. Failing that, it seemed like they would at least silence doubts about injuries submarining their campaign.

Then Jaden Schwartz got hurt.

OK, that’s a mild exaggeration. The accumulation of injuries was about more than Schwartz, and to some extent, the Blues’ stumbles come down to depth issues and Jake Allen‘s struggles.

To the credit of Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, they’ve both been quite productive even with Schwartz out since Dec. 9. Either way, St. Louis has been losing ground, and you get the impression that attrition is at least part of the problem.

Monday brings some fantastic news, then, even if the gratification is delayed: Schwartz has been medically cleared to return. Early indications are that Schwartz will come back on Thursday instead of Tuesday, according to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford and others, but either way that’s great news for a Blues team that could use a boost.

It will be intriguing to see how Mike Yeo handles the infusion of high-end talent.

On one hand, he may be tempted to put Schwartz right back with Schenn and Tarasenko to reunite one of the deadliest lines of 2017-18. On the other, the Blues have been quite top-heavy at times lately. Yeo’s actually already been experimenting with Schenn and Tarasenko on different lines (see this Left Wing Lock study of their last 10 games), so it’s a puzzle he’s already trying to solve.

Getting Schwartz back means players who were maybe straining while being “promoted to a level of incompetence” could then go back to more appropriate spots. Ivan Barbashev and Kyle Brodziak are two players more suited for depth roles, as just two examples.

With Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester healing up as well, the Blues might get back on track after some mild stumbling.

Not a moment too soon

As of this writing, the Blues are ranked third in the Central Division, but their standing (59 points) is inflated by the number of games they’ve played (49 games). Consider some of the most pressing threats to the Blues, and you’ll realize that a playoff spot is by no means guaranteed.

First, consider how close their Central Division rivals are to pushing the Blues into the wild card fray:

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Stars: 27-17-4, 58 points, 48 GP
Avalanche: 26-16-3, 55 points, 45 GP
Wild: 25-17-5, 55 points, 47 GP
Blackhawks: 22-18-6, 50 points, 46 GP

Chicago doesn’t pose the largest threat, yet the Blackhawks could make things a lot more interesting if they win those three games in hand. And that’s the team that’s probably the least of the Blues worries, Central-wise.

You’d think that the Central Division has a strong chance to land five of the eight West playoff spots, but St. Louis can’t disregard some Pacific hopefuls.

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Kings: 25-17-5, 55 points in 47 GP
Ducks: 22-17-9, 53 points in 48 GP

As you can see, Los Angeles could tie the Blues in points by winning those two games in hand. St. Louis would still have more wins in that scenario (28 to 27, Kings currently at 25), but the point is that the temperature could rise quickly.

***

The Blues began a four-game homestand on Saturday, and they play five of their next seven in St. Louis. While there’s a tough stretch here and there (late February to early March stands out), nothing on the schedule screams “meltdown.”

We may look back at this week as a turning point for the Blues, as Schwartz’s important return spotlights a larger trend of improved health.

They must hope that rust isn’t too much of a factor, as their margin of error is a lot slimmer than it was when the underrated winger got injured.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: It’s Miller Time

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This weekly column will aim to help fantasy hockey general managers navigate through the rough waters of their league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players for you to pick up that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo Leagues and we’ll also suggest players for you to drop, too.

Here we go:

Adds:

Colin Miller– D- Vegas Golden Knights (36 percent)

Miller has been one of the more pleasant surprises on the Golden Knights roster. He went eight games without getting on the scoresheet, but he managed to collect three points against the Hurricanes last night. Miller has six goals and 24 points in 46 games this season.

Bo Horvat– C- Vancouver Canucks (33 percent)

Horvat made his return to the Canucks lineup on Sunday after he missed 18 games with an ankle injury. Prior to getting hurt, he picked up four points in his six games. It might take him time to get back into the flow of things, but he could be an intriguing option between now and the end of the season.

Nick Schmaltz– C/LW- Chicago Blackhawks (33 percent)

The ‘Hawks are struggling, but Schmaltz hasn’t had any issues producing offensively of late. He’s racked up 13 points in his last 11 games. Schmaltz has played at least 17 minutes in his last 14 games. The fact that he can play multiple positions in Yahoo Leagues make him a solid addition in standard fantasy leagues.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s Week Ahead column]

Sami Vatanen– D- New Jersey Devils (27 percent)

Vatanen seems to be adjusting quite well to his new surroundings in New Jersey. The blue liner didn’t pick up a point in Saturday’s game against the Flyers, but he’s accumulated nine points in his last 10 games. He’s also played at least 20 minutes in all but one of his games since joining the Devils from Anaheim.

David Krejci– C- Boston Bruins (26 percent)

Krejci’s had some injury trouble this season, but he and the Bruins have been rolling lately. The Bruins center is riding a five-game point streak. Since returning from an upper-body injury on Dec. 30, he’s racked up 10 points in nine contests. Krejci’s on pace to score 57 points in just 64 games this season. If he can stay off the injured list, he’ll be a solid addition to any fantasy lineup.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (68 percent)

Lucic has now gone 11 games without finding the back of the net. He’s also registered just four assists during that stretch. The Oilers forward has also received under 16 minutes of ice time in each of his last six outings. It’s time for Lucic’s fantasy owners to cut bait with the veteran winger.

[Listen to Rotoworld’s Fantasy Hockey Podcast]

Patrick Marleau– C/LW- Toronto Maple Leafs (57 percent)

Marleau has brought some strong veteran presence to the Leafs lineup, but he hasn’t been very productive of late. He’s now gone eight games without accumulating a point. Toronto’s offense will find it’s groove again at some point, but fantasy owners can’t sit and do nothing. Marleau is on pace to pick up 41 points, which doesn’t make him relevant in most standard fantasy leagues. He can be dropped immediately.

Brendan Gallagher– RW- Montreal Canadiens (48 percent)

Gallagher is now owned in under 50 percent of leagues, but he could be dropped in even more leagues over the next few days. The winger has one goal in his last nine contests. Gallagher had a strong first half of the year, but he’s predictably come back down to earth.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Monday, as the Chicago Blackhawks will host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

As of last night, the Tampa Bay Lightning were no longer in first place in the NHL. That honor now belongs to the Vegas Golden Knights. But the Bolts can jump back into first place with a win over the ‘Hawks tonight.

Things have been tough for the Lightning lately. They’ve been without top defenseman Victor Hedman, they’ve lost three games in a row and this is the second game of an eight-game road trip (thankfully for Tampa, the trip will be broken up by next weekend’s All-Star break).

“We’re out of sync,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half.

“We didn’t get where we are today by fluke, but we’ve got better in us, we know that.”

As if they didn’t have enough problems, they also found out that Ondrej Palat is going to miss an indefinite period of time because of a lower-body injury.

The Blackhawks have been going through a similar difficult stretch of late. They’ve been without starting netminder Corey Crawford and it doesn’t sound like he’ll be back anytime soon. Chicago has dropped each of their last two games against the Red Wings (4-0) and Islanders (7-3).

“Time’s ticking,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, per The Chicago Tribune. “We know that the urgency has to be there. … We can talk all we want, but it’s got to come down to us doing it in the game. I’m responsible in that too.”

The alarming part for the Blackhawks, is that they’re falling out of the playoff picture in a hurry. They’re now five points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West and they’re nine points behind the St. Louis Blues for third spot in the Central Division.

The ‘Hawks will play their next two games at home before they play four straight games on the road in Detroit, Nashville, Vancouver and Calgary.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Karlsson on trade speculation; Do Blues need to make a move?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, check out the highlights from yesterday afternoon’s game between the Flyers and Capitals.

Erik Karlsson isn’t worried about a potential trade out of Ottawa. (Sportsnet)

• Paul Coffey has joined the Edmonton Oilers organization as a skills coach. (Edmonton Journal)

Aaron Dell looks like he’s ready to take on a bigger role with the San Jose Sharks. (Mercury News)

• Should the Blues make a trade to bolster their roster or should they just stick with what they have? (St. Louis Game Time)

• Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang still has a lot to prove if he wants to become a regular in the NHL. (Newsday)

• Jim Benning’s contract expires after this season. If the Canucks decide not to bring him back, there are a number of quality candidates that could step in. (Daily Hive)

• Chris Chelios discusses his favorite Olympic moments, NHLers not going to the Olympics and much more in this Q&A with The Detroit Free Press.

• Short stints in the minors have helped young goalies stay sharp for their NHL teams this season. (NHL.com)

• Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is still trying to move on from his team with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Chicago Tribune)

• The Rangers need Tony DeAngelo to develop into an impact player. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• South Koreans have no issue with North Korea being in the Olympics, but they aren’t thrilled about sharing a hockey team. (ABC News)

• John McCarthy isn’t a household name, but the minor-leaguer is going to be representing Team USA at the Winter Olympics. (Sporting News)

• Here’s a list of young players that could join the U.S. Women’s National Team in the near future. (The Ice Garden)

• Team Canada GM Sean Burke went to some strange places to find the right players for his squad. (Fan Rag Sports)

• Air Force had to postpone hockey games because of the government shutdown. (College Hockey News)

• College hockey players are now allowed to be represented by an agent, but there are some strict conditions. (USCHO.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.