Central Division is once again best in the NHL

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Last season, it was pretty clear that the Metropolitan Division was the class of the NHL.

Such a notion was expressed for reasons beyond the Metro being home to the repeat champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and really going farther than the Washington Capitals repeating as the Presidents’ Trophy winners. This was a deep division, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers each over 100 standings points and the New York Islanders nearly making a wild card run of their own.

The 2016-17 season wasn’t as impressive for the Central Division as a whole, but with the first quarter of 2017-18 out of the way, it looks like this is once again the premier group in the league. At least so far.

Let’s consider a few factors, and then also note that a few of the teams might continue down their impressive paths.

  • The Central Division is the only one with three teams at or above 30 standings points.
  • Every team is fairly to quite competitive. At 23 points in 21 games, the Blackhawks are at the bottom of the Central, yet they’re ahead of nine other NHL teams and three other West teams.
  • Expanding upon that previous point, only one Central Division team has a negative goal differential: the Dallas Stars at -2. By comparison: only two teams are in the plus column in the top-heavy Atlantic, four are in the negative in the Metro (the Penguins somehow are at -20), and the Pacific boasts five teams in the minus.
  • Every Central team has at least 10 regulation/overtime wins. There are 11 teams that haven’t reached double digits between the NHL’s remaining three divisions.

Yep, the Central can brag about a lot of quantity-type accomplishments, but there’s also high-end potential.

The Blues lead the Central and the West, and they’re not that far behind the league-leading Lightning. For the most part, whatever holes you’d try to poke in Tampa Bay’s game, you’d do the same for St. Louis (if you want to rain on  the parade of that majestic Brayden SchennJaden SchwartzVladimir Tarasenko line). Even if they slow down, they seem like a contender in the West.

The Predators blanked the Blues last night, and they’re not waiting until late in the year to heat up this time around. They’ve won four in a row and nine of 10, looking deadly with Kyle Turris helping to balance out their scoring. Pekka Rinne‘s been great, and Nashville might end up being the best in the division if Ryan Ellis can come back reasonably healthy at some point this season.

The Jets are a chic pick for a breakthrough, and with good reason, particularly considering the lethal one-two punch of Mark Scheifele + Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine + Nikolaj Ehlers. They might have some work to do, but their array of young talent is the envy of much of the NHL.

Also: The Avalanche no longer stand as a layup, in part because of the ascension of Nathan MacKinnonThe Blackhawks may be flawed, but deep down, plenty of teams would at least be a little queasy to see them as a first-round opponent. And while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Wild are sneakily heating up; Bruce Boudreau keeps pumping out winners like hockey’s answer to Andy Reid. The Stars remain a work in progress at least considering the hype they generated from another splashy off-season, but they’re another team that could easily go on a big run.

Now, look, the Metro still deserves consideration in this discussion, especially with the Penguins generally having a tendency to hibernate until the games really matter and considering that the Capitals seem like they’re getting things together. When you go beyond current results, the best division argument might come down to personal taste.

At the moment, it’s pretty tough to argue with the Central Division. Maybe the most comforting thought for the rest of the league is that the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be structured in a way that they might just wear each other out.

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.