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Handicapping the Central Division title race between Wild, Blackhawks

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The Minnesota Wild have a chance to increase an already solid lead for the Central Division crown if they can beat the Chicago Blackhawks in a game being televised on NBCSN tonight. (They couldn’t, as the Blackhawks won 4-3 in overtime.)

Really, though, the next month presents quite the opportunity to fatten that edge.

With that being the only game on Wednesday, this seems like a worthwhile time to take a look at the bigger pictures facing each team. Here are the full Central Division standings heading into tonight’s game to add some context:

Central Division standings, now updated with Chicago’s OT win

1. Wild – 76 points in 53 games
2. Blackhawks – 71 points in 55 GP
3. Predators – 60 in 53 GP

Blues – 59 in 54 GP
Jets – 54 in 56 GP
Stars – 52 in 54 GP
Avalanche – 32 in 50 GP

Yes, there’s a chance a team like the Predators or Blues could figure into the conversation, but honestly even the Blackhawks have quite a bit of ground to make up to catch Minnesota.

Looking at their schedules really cements the notion that Bruce Boudreau’s crew could essentially silence the discussion with a strong month.

Opportunities ahead for the Wild

  • Tonight’s game against the Blackhawks begins an eight-game homestand for Minnesota. The Wild are less dependent upon winning at home (17-6-1 in Minnesota, 18-6-5 on the road), but it’s still a great chance to stock up points.

Minnesota will host the Blackhawks twice during this eight-game homestand and could also distance themselves from other Central opponents with a home contest against each of the Predators and Stars.

  • While February presents opportunities, the Wild start off March with more road games. From Feb. 28 – March 19, the Wild play eight of 11 contests away from Minny.
  • The Wild end the season with some solid chances to end the debate. They play five of six in Minnesota from March 21-30 and seven of nine at home from March 21 through April 4.
  • Finally, they end the season with two road games. Those games are against the Avalanche (April 6) and Coyotes (April 8), two teams that will likely have very little to play for.

Overall, it seems like a pretty beneficial schedule for the Wild’s aims. Let’s see how things look for Chicago.

Blackhawks are resilient so far on the road

  • The Blackhawks began this current six-game road trip with a 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Jan. 31. They’ve won the next three contests of that tour, so they’ve been carving out those difficult points.
  • This six-game trip ends with a back-to-back set on the weekend. Counting Wednesday’s game, Chicago faces five of their next six games away from the United Center.
  • As things get tougher for the Wild at the end of February/beginning of March, the Blackhawks enjoy a friendlier stretch. The Blackhawks play four in a row, five of six and six of eight at home from Feb. 23 through March 12.
  • After that, it’s back-and-forth. They play three games on the road (March 14-18), three at home (March 19-23), three on the road (March 25-29), two home games (March 31 and April 2) and then close things out with three away games. They face the Avalanche in that closing set, but also the Ducks and Kings.

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So, you can see that things go both ways, but the Wild generally seem to have a more favorable schedule. At least on paper.

With the additional benefit of two games in hand, one would say that the Wild have the edge … but it would be foolish to count out the Blackhawks.

These 2017 NHL Draft picks lacked hype … but not swagger

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The interview process for draft prospects must be a real beating. Then again, it’s also an opportunity for hopefuls to push back.

In the case of two smaller prospects, it meant providing some swagger in their answers, possibly impressing their new teams. If nothing else, Kailer Yamamoto and Michael DiPietro generated some refreshingly confident quotes.

One would assume that the Edmonton Oilers picked Yamamoto with the 22nd choice for more than just a great answer alone … but still.

Nice, right?

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek related a similar story about DiPietro, who the Vancouver Canucks nabbed with the 64th pick.

Funny story: When one team at the NHL told him “We don’t think you can play in the NHL with our team, you’re too small” at the combine, he fired back with “well, I guess you have a problem with winning, then.” How do you not like that?

If nothing else, those two aren’t shy.

As a bonus story, check out the bumpy path Will Reilly – aka the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2017 NHL Draft – took to being chosen last overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, via Puck Daddy’s Sean Leahy. From the sound of things, there are worse feelings than going 217th.

The 2017 NHL Draft may have been “pumped down” from a hype perspective, yet it sounds like many of these prospects at least bring some moxie to the table.

Kings, Golden Knights labeled 2017 NHL Draft winners; Bruins, not so much

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It’s nearly certain that we won’t be able to determine the “winners and losers” of the 2017 NHL Draft until, say, 2022. If not later.

Still, what fun is that?

Quite a few outlets pegged some winners and losers, though sometimes the choices were more about themes like nations or player types than specific teams.

For example: Puck Daddy gives a thumbs down to the “green room” experiment.

Let’s take a look at some of the consensus picks.

Winners

Vegas Golden Knights

GM George McPhee was dealt a bad hand when it comes to the lottery draft, so he instead made his own luck. And then he selected three players who could improve this team going forward.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek especially liked the last two of their three first-rounders (Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom), viewing Cody Glass as more of a no-brainer. Plenty of others were on board.

Los Angeles Kings

Gabe Vilardi fell to Los Angeles, whether it was because of shaky skating or some other reason. That potential steal (and some other shrewd moves) impressed the Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy, who assembled draft profiles for PHT.

Again, Vilardi’s loss was considered the Kings’ gain, as slower skaters were considered losers by the likes of Post Media’s Michael Traikos.

Philadelphia Flyers

Boy, Ron Hextall is good at this thing, isn’t he? Philly drew high marks even beyond the layup of landing Nolan Patrick. The main area of disagreement revolved around the Brayden Schenn trade, though plenty came out on Hextall’s side there, too.

Arizona Coyotes

Boy, that negative press didn’t last long, did it? Between landing Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta in trades and savvy picks, they were a popular choice.

Themes

Smaller players, Sweden, and Finland drew semi-serious mentions as “winners.”

Losers

Boston Bruins

The perception is that they played it too safe.

Colorado Avalanche, for now?

OK, this was more about draft weekend than picks, but people are criticizing Joe Sakic for standing pat. That could change, but the negative sentiment is there.

Detroit Red Wings

Another common choice. Some believe that their draft was the worst of them all, which isn’t great considering the declining opinion of GM Ken Holland overall.

New York Rangers

Lias Andersson was viewed as a reach by plenty, and his connection to the trade to Arizona might intensify the scrutiny.

Themes

Not a great draft for Russian-born players and/or guys who don’t skate quite swiftly.

***

So, those are some of the near-consensus choices for winners and losers, via the brave souls who made rapid reactions to the 2017 NHL Draft.

Ducks ink D Holzer to two-year deal reportedly worth $1.8M

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As the dust settled on the expansion draft, the Anaheim Ducks’ defense is coming into focus.

Sunday continued that pattern; the Ducks signed Korbinian Holzer to a two-year contract worth $1.8 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie.

You can break down the Ducks defense as more expensive players (Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, and Kevin Bieksa) and cheaper ones (Holzer, Brandon Montour, and Josh Manson).

Only Vatanen, Lindholm and Holzer see contracts that go beyond 2017-18 – at least without an extension yet for the likes of Fowler and Manson – so Holzer provides a little bit of certainty.

Is the $900K a minor overpay, though? Holzer played in 32 games for the Ducks this season after appearing in 29 in 2015-16. His impact has been pretty minimal, generating seven points while averaging 13:31 in ice time per contest (down from 14:45 the previous season).

Granted he may get more opportunities to show what he’s capable of if the Ducks lose another piece. Then again, at 29, the Ducks likely know what they have.

2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class to be named Monday; Selanne + who?

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The 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class is expected to be announced on Monday, and every indication is that Teemu Selanne will be on the list. Beyond that, well, there are a lot of question marks.

NHL.com notes that there’s at least a possibility that Selanne will be the only NHL name to be part of this class, which would mark a first since 2010 (when Dino Ciccarelli was the lone addition).

It’s a nice way to continue what’s been a buffet for hockey fans: the 2017 Stanley Cup Final’s conclusion, the expansion draft and then the 2017 NHL Draft. The HHOF announcements are a nice appetizer before free agency gets, well, frenzied?

“The Finnish Flash” was also an obvious top choice in last year’s poll to see who should be in the class.

Now, that doesn’t mean he is the only interesting name.

For one thing, Daniel Alfredsson will be eligible for the first time, much like Selanne. “Alf” falls in the “Maybe” category with some interesting, debatable other options: Mark Recchi, Dave Andreychuk, Alex Mogilny, Jeremy Roenick, Paul Kariya, Chris Osgood, and more.

The 2016 Hockey Hall of Fame class included Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon, Sergei Makarov, and Pat Quinn.