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PHT Midseason Report Card: Central Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Chicago Blackhawks

Season Review: They’ve dealt with Corey Crawford being injured twice and Jeff Glass has been one of the heartwarming stories this season. But sitting last in a notoriously tough Central Division is unfamiliar territory for the Blackhawks. They’ve simply underperformed given the talent they possess. Grade: D-

Biggest Surprise: Alex DeBrincat. The second-round pick in 2016 has been sensational in his rookie season with 17 goals and 32 points in 49 games played. His 17.2 percent shooting percentage is stellar, and he’s defying the (perceived) odds at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.

Biggest Disappointment: Brent Seabrook has been a healthy scratch and Jonathan Toews is well off point-per-game production and Duncan Keith hasn’t scored a goal since last March. But Chicago’s biggest disappointment is a team effort. They’re simply too inconsistent. Scoring droughts have plagued this team this season and their power play is fourth-worst in the league.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Blackhawks won’t have to worry about a disappointing first-round exit this year as they’re unlikely to get into the playoffs as it stands. It might be time to give that roster a small detonation. Stan Bowman has worked his genius to keep his team’s competitive in the past. Now he may have to work that genius to get his team back to that.

Second half outlook: The Blackhawks have all the talent to work their way out of the basement in the Central. They’re only four points adrift of a playoff spot, but that can seem like 10 in a division that is as stacked as it is. That success hinges on the health of Corey Crawford, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Until he’s able to return, things don’t look great.

  • Colorado Avalanche

Season Review: Early on, the Avs season seemed to go as expected. They hit the lowest of lows last season, so some improvement was expected, but to be in a playoff spot at the All-Star break was something anyone would have thought. Of course, 10-game winning streaks are helpful, as is the ridiculous play of Nathan MacKinnon. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Mikko Rantanen is a point-per-game player. Nathan MacKinnon is having that breakout season many had been waiting for (and should be up for the Hart Trophy). Alex Kerfoot has had a great rookie campaign. Sam Girard is turning bona fide NHL defenseman. But Jonathan Bernier has been integral to the team’s recent success, highlighted during their 10-game winning streak where Bernier collected nine straight wins. He’s sitting with a .919 save percentage and is looking like the Bernier that played for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Biggest Disappointment: Matt Duchene is gone, and thus, so is the easy pick here. Some might point to Tyson Jost, but he’s been injured and thus is a little behind where some might have pegged him at the mid-way point. Nail Yakupov’s name could work here, but his career has been a disappointment.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Colorado is a young team that’s still rebuilding. They got a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene. If the Avs keep climbing up in the Division, it’s conceivable that Joe Sakic looks for some depth, but staying the course with a team that’s showing some positive signs should be the focus. The Avs aren’t winning the Cup this year.

Second Half Outlook: This team has found some much-needed chemistry and is gelling as a young squad. That bodes well for a good second half of the season if they can continue. But young teams can have young-team problems. Consistency down the stretch could be an issue and the Avs are by no means a lock for a playoff spot. A 10-game winning streak only got them to the second wildcard spot. The tough part now will be keeping it.

  • Dallas Stars

Season Review: The Stars have been a great home team this season, but have only begun to get things in order on the road, where they stumbled during the first two months of the season. Still, the Stars have worked their way into the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference thanks to improvements in team defense and goaltending.  Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: John Klingberg is a good defenseman. We knew this coming into the season. But to be in the running for the Norris might have been a stretch back in September. But that’s where Klingberg is at the moment, leading NHL defenseman in points (and sitting second on the Stars, behind Alexander Radulov and ahead of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin).

Biggest Disappointment: This one is easy: Jason Spezza. Spezza is forging a path to a career-worst year in terms of production. Early this month, he was made a healthy scratch, a coach’s decision by Ken Hitchcock stemming then from a five-game spell with no points and low ice time. Factor in that he’s counting $7.5 million toward the cap and the picture becomes even more clear.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy if it makes sense, but don’t sell assets. The Stars have a goalie in Ben Bishop and other talents they can build around going forward.

Second half outlook: The Stars play 11 games (including a six-game road trip) away from American Airlines arena in March and April. Given their position at the moment and coupled with their away record, it would appear that will be their biggest test in the second half if they can maintain where they are at the moment.

  • Minnesota Wild

Season Review: Spinning the tires. The Wild could be given a pass after some of the injuries they’ve dealt with – Devan Dubnyk and Zach Parise come to mind. It is a team that finished second in the division with, largely, the same roster, so the talent is there. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Matt Dumba makes some bone-headed plays. And then he makes some plays that leave you scratching your head, in a good way. He sits only behind Ryan Suter in terms of points and he’s averaging nearly 23 minutes per night. If he keeps it up, he’ll record a career-year in goals and assists.

Biggest disappointment: Marcus Foligno. He’s played better as of late, but that doesn’t excuse a rocky first half that saw him in the press box in December. The 26-year-old was supposed to bring depth to the lineup when the Wild acquired him in a four-player deal on the eve of free agency last year.

Trade Deadline Strategy: So many teams on the cusp of a playoff spot in this division that it’s hard to sort out which teams should buy and which should sell. The Wild have the talent to be much better than they are. We saw that last season. Perhaps a depth player or two on the cheap would help.

Second half outlook: Getting better away would certainly help. The Wild are one of four teams tied on 57 points and tied for the second wildcard spot, with Colorado holding the tiebreaker at the moment). The Wild have eight home games in February, which bodes well given their 17-4-4 record at Xcel Energy Center. But they have two big road games to start the month in Dallas and St. Louis and play Colorado twice in March. Those will be pivotal. The Wild are getting healthy and that could spell trouble for other teams around them on the bubble.

  • Nashville Predators

Season Review: The Stanley Cup finalists from last year have picked up where they left off, currently trailing the Winnipeg Jets by one point for tops in the division. They’re playing great at home (16-4-3) and have picked up points in 17 of 24 road games (13-7-4), a drastic change from this team a year ago. They have Pekka Rinne playing great along with the litany of talent in front of him, which is scoring at a better pace than last season. Grade: A-

Biggest Surprise: Kevin Fiala had 16 points in his rookie season last year. This year, he’s nearly doubled that in eight fewer games. The addition of Kyle Turris has certainly helped, making that line (with Craig Smith) a potent option that’s providing a secondary scoring threat. Fiala’s season including a nine-game point streak in December.

Biggest Disappointment: Perhaps the only disappointment on this Preds team is that Ryan Ellis has only been limited to nine games after offseason knee surgery. He returned earlier this month.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Bolster. The Preds Stanley Cup window is still wide open. Perhaps another player for bottom six depth. Not much needed on a team this good.

Second half outlook: More of the same. The Preds have been solid against their own division with a 10-3-2 record and just need to stay the course.

  • St. Louis Blues

Season Review: Man, did this team every navigate some tough injury problems to start the season, something that speaks to the depth in St. Louis.  Grade: B-.

Biggest Surprise: Brayden Schenn has been nothing short of spectacular since getting traded last year. Schenn, currently at the NHL All-Star Game, leads the Blues with 50 points and is tied for the team lead with 21 goals. Schenn hit 59 points in 80 games a couple years back. He looks set to smash that career-high.

Biggest Disappointment: The team waived Magnus Paajarvi this week, so scratch that idea. Jake Allen deserves a mention. Carter Hutton is sitting on a .943 save percentage this season while Allen is only sporting a .909. Hutton is the backup and producing numbers that Blues’ fans hoped Allen would. Also, where is Alexander Steen?

Trade Deadline Strategy: With all their injury problems, a couple of depth players wouldn’t hurt just in case.

Second half outlook: Jaden Schwartz’s return after missing two months is a huge boon for the Blues. Schwartz had 35 points in 30 games before busting his ankle. Now, with the line of Schenn, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko back together, domination could ensue once again.

  • Winnipeg Jets

Season Review: The best team heading in the to All-Star break. Yes, the Winnipeg Jets. What’s got them there? Great goaltending, for starters. A season worthy of a Hart Trophy nod for Blake Wheeler as well. And they’re just finding ways to win games, especially ones that, in the past, they would find ways to lose. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Undoubtedly Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets went out and got what they thought would be their No. 1 netminder in Steve Mason during free agency. Yeah. Not in Hellebuyck’s house. The second-year starter is in the Vezina conversation and is at the NHL All-Star Game along with Pekka Rinne. Who in Winnipeg thought the former would be the same conversation as the latter at the end of last season?

Biggest Disappointment: Dustin Byfuglien. It took him nearly half the season to score his first goal and has just two at the All-Star break. Couple that with some interesting defensive decisions and you have the makings of one of his worst seasons of his career, statistically speaking and otherwise.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy. The Jets have a legitimate shot at making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They seemingly have all the tools: a rededication to team defense, a high-scoring offense, great netminding and one of the best power plays in the league. They could probably use some depth on their fourth line and perhaps a seventh defenseman with playoff experience.

Second half outlook: Keep on keeping on. The Jets haven’t strung together a big losing streak this season, something that’s derailed them in the past. They basically play all of February at home at Bell MTS Place, which has become a fortress for them this season. The Jets just need to keep doing what got them to the summit of the division in the second half. Oh, and they’ll get Mark Scheifele back sometime next month. 

Previous: Atlantic Division / Metropolitan Division

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Slumping Blue Jackets lose Nick Foligno for 1-2 weeks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Times are tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening the Blue Jackets are now just 4-9-2 in their past 15 games and have fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point back of the New York Islanders entering play on Monday.

Now the team has announced that captain Nick Foligno will be sidelined for the next one-two weeks due to a lower body injury that he suffered in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins.

Foligno, 30, is having a down year with just 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games but he is still one of the Blue Jackets’ top forwards, and for a team that is struggling to score goals they really can not afford to lose anybody. Especially given the schedule they have coming up.

Over the next two weeks the Blue Jackets have games against the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

That is a tough stretch that could end up making or breaking their season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: Time to lose Lucic

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This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players you should think of adding that are owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues and we’ll also make recommendations on players you should think of dropping. 

Here we go:

Adds:

Clayton Keller– C/LW/RW- Arizona Coyotes (44 percent)

After a terrific start to his rookie season, Keller’s play dropped off. He wasn’t putting up as many points and he wasn’t making as many headlines as he was in October and November. But it looks like now might be the right time to pick up in your fantasy leagues. He has eight points in his last six games, including a four-point night against Montreal last week.

Anthony Mantha– LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (39 percent)

Mantha was owned in a lot more leagues earlier this season, but his production dropped off quite a bit. He appears to be back on now, as he’s picked up six points in his last six games. He’s versatile enough because he’s eligible to play both wing positions in Yahoo leagues. The Red Wings forward should be added in deeper leagues.

Nico Hischier– C- New Jersey Devils (30 percent)

Hischier and Taylor Hall have formed a remarkable duo over the last little while. After hitting a bit of a wall near the midway point of the season, the first overall pick from last June’s draft has managed to pick up the offensive part of his game. He’s now found the back of the net in four straight games and he’s riding a five-game point streak.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Derick Brassard– C- Ottawa Senators (25 percent)

It sure seems like trade winds have given Brassard an added boost of motivation. The Sens forward has racked up six points in his last four games and he’s coming off a three-point performance against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Ondrej Kase– LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (11 percent)

Kase isn’t a big name, but he’s been lighting it up for Anaheim lately. The 22-year-old has nine points in his last seven games. He’s on pace to hit the 25-goal mark in 2017-18. He could be an intriguing add in deeper fantasy leagues.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (59 percent)

If your league doesn’t award points for penalty minutes, there’s absolutely no reason for Lucic to be on your roster. He hasn’t picked up a point in any of his last 11 games and he hasn’t scored in 22. And in his last 12 contests, he’s also managed to accumulate just four penalty minutes. Lucic needs to be dropped ASAP.

[More Fantasy: Check out the Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (47 percent)

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to Kesler. He missed over two months of action because of a hip injury and he just hasn’t looked like himself since returning. The Ducks forward missed the last game because of a lower-body issue. It’s time to cut ties with him and add one of the other players mentioned above.

Robin Lehner– G- Buffalo Sabres (51 percent)

Not only are the Sabres struggling, but Lehner is now day-to-day with an injury. Don’t expect Buffalo to win many games down the stretch, so picking up someone like Petr Mrazek, who might get traded before the deadline, could be a worthwhile gamble.

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.

Canada women beat Russia 5-0, will meet U.S. in hockey final

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — It’s part of the routine now, as much a staple of the Winter Games as the medal ceremonies, the doping scandals or the sequins on the figure skating costumes.

The United States playing Canada for the Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.

Jennifer Wakefield scored twice and Shannon Szabados stopped 14 shots on Monday night to lead the Canadians to a 5-0 victory over Russia and earn the four-time defending Olympic champions a spot in another gold medal game.

It will be the fifth time in six Winter Games since women’s hockey was added to the program that the North American neighbors have met in the final. No one else has ever skated away with an Olympic gold medal.

Canada outshot Russia 47-14 but struggled to pull away, scoring just once in each of the first two periods before Wakefield bounced one in off goalie Valeria Tarakanova’s right arm just two minutes into the third and then Emily Clark made it 4-0 just 31 seconds later.

Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov swapped his goalies, but it was too late. The Russians still have a chance for their first Olympic women’s hockey medal ever when they play Finland in the bronze medal match on Wednesday.

Marie Philip-Poulin and Rebecca Johnston also scored for Canada, which has won 24 in a row at the Olympics since losing the gold medal game in Nagano in 1998.

The United States advanced to the gold medal game with a 5-0 victory over Finland earlier Monday.

The Americans won the Four Nations Cup, third only to the Olympics and world championships in importance, beating Canada in three of the first four games in a Pyeongchang tuneup tour. But Canada has won the last four, with a 2-1 victory in the pool play finale on Thursday.

None of it matters, really.

The gold medal match is the game these two have been looking forward to since Canada rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Americans in overtime in Sochi four years ago.

And it’s the only thing right now that can help the 10 American holdovers from that team ease the pain of their 2014 collapse.

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org