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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

NHL All-Star Skills 2020: Barzal tops McDavid to win Fastest Skater

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ST. LOUIS — Mathew Barzal won the 2020 Fastest Skater competition with a time of 13.715 during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition Friday night. The Islanders forward ends Connor McDavid‘s three-year reign as champion.

Of the eight competitors, Barzal and McDavid were the last to go and each beat McDavid’s best time — 13.310 seconds — of the last three years.

Barzal finished third last year in San Jose with a time of 13.780. If he’s named to an All-Star roster next season he’ll be able to defend his crown at the BB&T Center when the Florida Panthers play host.

FINAL RESULTS
Mathew Barzal 13.175 (winner)

Connor McDavid 13.215
Chris Kreider 13.509
Jack Eichel 13.540
Nathan MacKinnon 13.895
Anthony Duclair 14.005
Travis Konecny 14.113
Quinn Hughes 14.263

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bettman responds to IIHF president’s Olympic decision deadline

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The 2022 Beijing Olympics remains a hot topic between the NHL and NHLPA with the league seeing participation as disruptive and the players eager to represent their countries.

During his All-Star Weekend press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that while the league was comfortable with not going to Pyeongchang in 2018 he wouldn’t definitively shut the door on 2022.

“I can’t say that with certainty, not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. “I know the Players’ Association still maintains a strong preference for going. I know the IIHF still is focused on engaging with us and I think even wants to have a meeting at some point in the not too distant future. From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season. I won’t take you through the litany of reasons why, you’ve all heard me say it. I know it maintains itself as a priority for the Players’ Association, but having said that we were very comfortable with not going Korea.”

IIHF president Rene Fasel said earlier this month that he’d like an answer from the NHL by August. Bettman isn’t ready to give him one any time soon.

“[Fasel] also said last summer he wanted an answer by December and he didn’t get one,” Bettman said. “We’re going to have to see. I actually think the deadline is really more one that we would have to impose, in terms of logistics. My guess is at a point in time we said we wanted to go and we could handle the timing of it, my guess is the IIHF could as well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take Rene seriously, but as I said he already gave us one deadline and it came and went.”

Among the many logistics that need to be worked out if the NHL were to go includes the schedule, which is created well in advance of the season. When would Bettman see a potential deadline set by the league laid down? He isn’t sure.

“I don’t know. I’ll know it when I see it, when we get there,” he said. “Obviously, first and foremost, it has to do with releasing a schedule. That’s the game-changer one way or the other.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Florida Panthers to host 2021 NHL All-Star Game

2021 NHL All-Star Game
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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Friday that the NHL All-Star Game will be making its return to Florida next season when the Panthers play host to the 2021 game.

All-Star Weekend 2021 will take place at BB&T Arena on Jan. 29-30. Bettman hinted during his Friday press conference that the event may have an “international flavor” to it. Talks with the NHLPA are still on-going.

It will be Florida’s second time hosting the All-Star weekend after previously hosting it during the 2002-03 season.

That game was notable for a couple of reasons.

For one, it was the first time an NHL All-Star Game (or any NHL game for that matter) was decided by a shootout with the Western Conference winning by a 6-5 score. It was a sign of things to come as the league would eventually transition to that tie-breaking procedure for the start of the 2005-06 season.

Atlanta Thrashers forward Dany Heatley scored four times and was named MVP.

It was also the year that Panthers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, voted into the game as a starter, was traded by the host team just two days before the All-Star Game. While he played in the game, he did not participate in the Skills Competition because he did not want to wear the jersey of a team (the Panthers) he no longer played for. You can read all about that entire series of events in this previous PHT Time Machine. Ozolinsh was one of two Panthers in that game, joining Olli Jokinen.

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.

Crosby, Kane, Ovechkin highlight NHL’s All-Decade Team

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As part of All-Star weekend festivities, the NHL has announced its All-Decade Team, featuring many names you’d expect to see on such a list. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane lead the forward group on the First Team, with Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty on the blue line and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.

The Second Team features Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, and Steven Stamkos up front, Erik Karlsson and Zdeno Chara on defense, and Henrik Lundqvist in net.

Per the NHL, the two teams were selected by a panel of NHL general managers, NHL hockey operations staff, NHL.com writers and on-air talent from NBC, Sportsnet and TVAS.

FIRST TEAM

F Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 299 goals, 796 points, 635 games played, two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies, one Hart Trophy, five-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, two Rocket Richard Trophy, two Ted Lindsay Awards, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold medal.

F Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 447 goals, 791 points, 777 games played, one Stanley Cup, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Hart Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, three Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award, six Rocket Richard Trophies, eight-time NHL All-Star, four-time First Team NHL All-Star, two World Championship gold medals.

F Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 318 goals, 814 points, 752 games played, three Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, eight-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, one Ted Lindsay Award, one Hart Trophy.

D Duncan Keith, Blackhawks – 62 goals, 434 points, 757 games played, three-time NHL All-Star, one First Team NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals.

D Drew Doughty, Kings – 101 goals, 440 points, 780 games played, two Stanley Cups, one Norris Trophy, two-time First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

G Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins/Golden Knights – 325 wins, .9167 save percentage, 2.45 goals against average, 43 shutouts, three Stanley Cups, five-time NHL All-Star, one Olympic gold medal.

SECOND TEAM

F Evgeni Malkin, Penguins – 278 goals, 710 points, 613 points, two Stanley Cups, one Art Ross Trophy, one Hart Trophy, one Ted Lindsay, one First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

F Steven Stamkos, Lightning – 367 goals, 731 points, 672 games played, two Rocket Richard Trophies, six-time All-Star.

F Patrice Bergeron, Bruins – 251 goals, 596 points, 728 games played, one Stanley Cup, four Selke Trophies, one King Clancy Trophy, two-time NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Cup of Hockey gold medal.

D Erik Karlsson, Senators/Sharks – 133 goals, 593 points, 705 games played, six-time NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, four-time First Team NHL All-Star.

D Zdeno Chara, Bruins – 98 goals, 312 points, 728 games played, two-time NHL All-Star, one Stanley Cup, one First Team NHL All-Star, three Norris Trophies.

G Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – 299 wins, .919 save percentage, 2.49 goals against average, 42 shutouts, one Vezina Trophy, one First Team NHL All-Star, four-time NHL All-Star.

The NHL already announced winners of eight others All-Decade categories in the build up to the reveal of the All-Decade team.

Save of the Decade: Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final
Coach of the Decade: Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks
Franchise of the Decade: Blackhawks
Playoff Series of the Decade: Kings-Blackhawks, 2014 Western Conference Final
Game of the Decade: Bruins-Maple Leafs, 2013 Round 1, Game 7
Event of the Decade: 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium
Moment of the Decade: 100 Greatest Players Gala, 2017
Goal of the Decade: Patrick Kane’s Stanley Cup winner in Game 6 of the 2010 Final

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.