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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

Which teams need to add a goalie this summer?

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Free agency is just days away and teams have already begun talking to potential unrestricted free agents about joining their club. Franchise players don’t often hit the open market, but it looks like a superstar netminder could make it to July 1st.

Sergei Bobrovsky will likely test free agency and unless something unexpected happens, it appears as though he’ll be leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard that the Florida Panthers are the front-runners for his services.

Whether Bobrovsky goes to Florida or not, there will only be one franchise goaltender available in free agency but there are several teams that need to add a goaltender before the start of next season. Some teams need to upgrade their starting netminder, but most simply need to add a backup that can help win them games.

Let’s take a look at which teams could stand to add a body between the pipes this summer.

Buffalo Sabres: Carter Hutton got off to a great start last year, but he fall apart in a hurry. The Sabres have to find a proven starting netminder if they’re going to turn this thing around. Will they be able to attract a quality free agent or will they need to pull the trigger on a trade?

Calgary Flames: Veteran Mike Smith will be a free agent on July 1st and David Rittich needs a new contract too (he’s a restricted free agent). Rittich will probably be back, but they could use another proven commodity between the pipes if they’re going to be serious about winning the Western Conference.

•  Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, which was very surprising. But both goalies are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st and the ‘Canes need a capable starter to replace them should they go elsewhere. Carolina acquired Anton Forsberg from Chicago on Monday, but he’s nothing more than a backup goalie at this point.

• Colorado Avalanche: Getting Philipp Grubauer from Washington last year proved to be a great move by general manager Joe Sakic. Now, he has to make sure he gets a capable backup goalie to add to this group assuming Semyon Varlamov doesn’t come back.

Columbus Blue Jackets: If Bobrovsky walks, they need to make sure they land a goalie that can help get them back into the playoff picture. Losing him isn’t going to be an easy pill to swallow.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers gave Miro Koskinen a three-year extension during the last season so whether Oilers fans like him or not, he’s probably going to be the starter heading into 2019-20. If that’s in fact the case, they need a capable backup goalie to play roughly 30 contests.

Florida Panthers: We already mentioned the Panthers earlier on in this post, so it’s obvious that they have a need. Roberto Luongo can’t stay healthy and James Reimer isn’t a starting goaltender. They need to do everything they can to make sure they can close a deal with Bobrovsky as soon as possible. This is a huge need for them.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price is the clear-cut starter in Montreal. Will they roll with Charlie Lindgren as his backup or will they opt for a more experienced netminder. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them bring in a free agent, especially given Price’s injury history.

New York Islanders: Robin Lehner was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2018-19 season. The Isles netminder was a Vezina Trophy finalist, but his contract expires on July 1st. Thomas Greiss has one year remaining on his deal. Greiss can be a 1B goalie, so the Isles would need to add 40 to 50 starts if Lehner decides to go elsewhere next week.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart was impressive during a 31-game stint during his rookie season, but Brian Elliott, Cam Talbot and Michal Neuvirth are all scheduled to become free agents on July 1st. The Flyers need to make sure they find a veteran to play behind Hart.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs didn’t trust Garret Sparks to get the job done as Frederik Andersen‘s backup down the stretch last season, so what makes them think he could give them 20-25 good starts next year? They probably won’t have the cap space to add a quality backup goalie though.

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.

Brooks Orpik retires after 15 seasons, two Stanley Cups

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Forwards around the NHL will have one less bruising defenseman to worry about heading into next season.

On Tuesday morning, Washington Capitals blueliner Brooks Orpik announced his retirement from the NHL. After being drafted in the first round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik went on to play 15 seasons with the Pens and Caps.

The 38-year-old scored 18 goals and 194 points in 1035 games. He also added 972 penalty minutes during that time. Orpik skated in 156 more games in the postseason and he won two Stanley Cup titles (one with the Pens and one with the Caps).

After missing just four games in two seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the veteran managed to skate in just 53 contests last season because of a lower-body injury.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have the best job in the world for many years, but my body is telling me it is time to move on to something new,” Orpik said in a team release. “I’m excited for more family time and to experience a lot of the things that being a professional athlete forces you to miss out on. Thank you to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for giving me the opportunity to play against the best athletes in the world. I’ll be forever grateful for the memories and relationships that hockey has given me.”

On the international stage, he also represented Team USA on several occasions. He played for his country 2000 World Junior Hockey Championship, the 2006 World Hockey Championship and at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic Games (he won a silver medal with that 2010 team).

“I had the great opportunity to see up close how impactful Brooks was for our team. Spending time as his defensive partner and playing alongside Brooks was something that I will always cherish,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson. “He showed his teammates the importance of hard work, accountability and always being there for your team every time he stepped on the ice. We all learned from Brooks; he was our role model and he made us better. I wish him and his family all the best!”

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: Waiting on Marner; Marleau wants to play past 40

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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.

• With Marner unknown, Maple Leafs won’t be in ‘big-game market’ come July 1, GM Dubas says. (NHL.com)

Patrick Marleau, 39, believes he can play past the 2019-20 season. (NHL.com)

• For the Rangers, it may come down to Chris Kreider or Artemi Panarin, and not both. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Trying to decipher Jim Rutherford’s offseason messages. (Pensburgh)

J.T. Miller trade the result of Vancouver’s past draft failures. (TSN.ca)

• It’s time for the NHL to expand it’s 3-on-3 overtime rules. (Oilers Nation)

• Evaluating where things stand for Blackhawks as negotiating window opens for NHL free agents. (NBC Chicago Sports)

• The trade market and Subban: the Flyers’ impatience may have cost them this offseason. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Seattle’s coming NHL has its first sponsor. (Seattle Times)

• Re-imagining the 1994 NHL Draft 25 years on. (Puck Junk)

• In Lou Lamoriello. you should trust, Islanders fans. (Eyes on Isles)

• Growing the game… in Montana. (Daily Inter Lake)

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: Blackhawks continue defense overhaul, get de Haan from Hurricanes

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Defense was a huge issue for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2018-19 season and they are already making some moves this summer to try and address it.

That continued on Monday evening when the team announced it has acquired Calvin de Haan and forward Aleksei Saarela from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Gustav Forsling and goalie Anton Forsberg.

The Hurricanes signed de Haan to a four-year, $18.2 million contract in free agency a year ago. Known more for his defensive play than anything offensively, he played in 74 games for the Hurricanes this past season, scoring one goal to go with 13 assists. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season and is facing a four-to-six month recovery time, so he may not be ready at the start of the season.

His addition to the Blackhawks’ blue line comes a little more than one week after the team traded forward Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Olli Maatta.

de Haan and Maatta join a Blackhawks team that was one of the league’s worst defensive teams at 5-on-5, finishing in the bottom-10 in goals against, shots against, shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, via Natural Stat Trick.

In several of those categories they were among the bottom-three teams in the league. It is obviously an area that needed to be addressed as longtime staples Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook continue to age and their younger prospects continue to get their feet wet in the NHL.

Maatta and de Haan are not superstars, and neither one is going to provide much in the way of point production, but they can definitely help in their own end of the ice.

As for the Hurricanes side of this, clearing salary cap space appears to be the name of the game (perhaps the sign of another move coming?) as moving de Haan sheds more than $4 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons.

Forsberg and Forsling are both restricted free agents this summer.

Forsling, 23, has spent three years in the NHL with the Blackhawks and recorded 27 points in 122 career games. Given the state of Carolina’s blue line even after trading de Haan he still probably only figures to be, at best, a third-pairing defender.

Forsberg is the player that could get the biggest opportunity. The Hurricanes could buy out the remainder of Scott Darling’s contract at any time, while the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney from this past season are both eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

The 26-year-old Forsberg has appeared in 45 NHL games with the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, recording a .901 save percentage.

Related
Penguins trade Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun, draft pick

Hurricanes get Marleau from Maple Leafs, could buy him out

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.