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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

Beyond MacKinnon: A look at rising Avalanche

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The Colorado Avalanche probably wish they could push their bye week back, or cancel it altogether.

Such logic would be understandable after last night’s jarring win: a 7-2 drubbing of the Minnesota Wild. The Avs impressed their Central Division rivals, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required):

“They’ve got some good young players,” Eric Staal said. “They’ve got quickness. They’ve got, it looks like, a better belief in the style of game they need to play. When you’re that far behind the eight-ball the way they were last year, sometimes it’s difficult to be up for games. But they’re real competitive.”

That 7-2 mark represented the Avalanche’s fifth consecutive victory, placing them – for the time being – in one of the West’s wild card spots. Remarkably, they’ve generated 47 standings points in 41 games in 2017-18 after generating just 48 in all of 2016-17.

With all of that in mind, it might be entertaining and informative to do a deep dive on the Avalanche. Let’s look at what’s been working during the winning streak and beyond.

Nate Mac, duh

The most obvious reason is one that sticks out like a frostbitten thumb: Nathan MacKinnon‘s explosion from very good player to superstar.

We won’t beat that drum too much again, as we’ve already done so here and here. Just note that MacKinnon has an absurd 12 points during this five-game winning streak (three goals, nine assists) and is ranked second in scoring with 52 points overall.

More than Mac

Don’t look now, but Samuel Girard has five points in as many games, so Avs fans shouldn’t fret about Matt Duchene starting to heat up in Ottawa. Young players are driving much of Colorado’s success, as Alex Kerfoot would probably be getting more attention as a strong rookie in a weaker Calder year, while Mikko Rantanen continues to ascend the ranks alongside MacKinnon.

At 25, Gabriel Landeskog isn’t quite old, but he’s experienced compared to some of those other names. The sturdy Swede has 32 points in 37 games this season, just one short of tying his 2016-17 total.

Bernier up the charts

Much like James Reimer in Florida, Jonathan Bernier is a backup with some starting experience who’s taking advantage of an opportunity to shine with his team’s starter (in this case, Semyon Varlamov) on the shelf.

Bernier hasn’t been lights-out overall (still just 9-7-1 with .909 save percentage), yet he’s been burning it up during this run. The former first-rounder is on a four-game winning streak, allowing five goals and nabbing one shutout.

Power play showing some power

The Avalanche have generated at least one power-play goal in four of five games during this winning streak, generating seven overall (7-for-17).

A longer run

A five-game winning streak is only so much during an 82-game regular season. The positive thing is that the Avalanche’s run really goes deeper than this surge.

When the Avs fell 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 7, their record dipped to 12-13-2. Since then, they’ve only lost four times, going 10-3-1 to improve to 22-16-3 overall.

Paying the toll

One thing to note is that the Avalanche have enjoyed some home-cooking lately. Yesterday ended a six-game homestand, and they’ve played nine of their last 11 in Colorado. They’ll pay that debt back soon enough, as they’ll face a six-game road trip and nine of 10 on the road during this stretch:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

With that in mind, the Avalanche should push that much harder to avoid sleepwalking out of this break. They play one road game next Saturday and then enjoy a three-game homestand before that stretch listed above, so they might want to build a buffer for themselves.

***

The good news is that the Avalanche are wiping away the ugly memories of last season, and doing so to a degree that surprises even those who were optimistic that they could improve. The only downside is that they’re raising expectations, and that might make a dip more disappointing.

Still, they’ll take 47 points midway through a season over 48 during a full season any day.

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.

Fantasy Adds and Drops: A Zucker for goals

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Every week, PHT will look to help its readers by providing them with some fantasy advice. This column will focus on players that should be added and dropped in fantasy leagues. Every name in the “add” section will be owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues, while each player in the “drop” section will be owned in less than half of leagues.

So, here we go!

Adds:

Jason Zucker-LW/RW-Minnesota Wild (owned in 49 percent of Yahoo leagues)

Zucker has been a popular add over the last week. It’s hard to argue with those who scooped him up on waivers, as he’s found the back of the net six times in his last three games. Obviously, he won’t have able to keep up that pace, but he seems to have found some chemistry with Eric Staal and Nino Niederreiter.

David Perron-LW/RW-Vegas Golden Knights (30 percent)

Perron comes into the week having recorded at least one point in four consecutive games. He leads the team with 14 points in 16 games. He should continue to get plenty of opportunities to produce offense. Like Zucker, Perron is eligible to play both wing positions, which makes him a little more valuable.

Josh Anderson-RW-Columbus Blue Jackets (12 percent) 

Since ending his holdout earlier this season, Anderson has been a valuable piece for the Blue Jackets. He hasn’t picked up a point in three straight games, but he’s still on pace to score 30 times in 2017-18. Anderson should be added in deeper fantasy leagues.

[More Fantasy: Check out RotoWorld’s In the Crease article]

Alex Kerfoot-C/RW-Colorado Avalanche (14 percent)

The Avalanche are a rebuilding team that has been willing to give youngsters a chance to play. Kerfoot was a college free agent signing that has paid immediate dividends for the them in 2017-18. He comes into this week with three straight multi-point efforts and he 13 points in 16 contests.

Yanni Gourde-C/RW-Tampa Bay Lightning (24 percent)

The focus in Tampa has been on Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (for good reason), but Gourde has been relatively productive too. Even though he saw his five-game point streak come to an end on Sunday, he’s still on pace to score close to 20 goals and over 50 points.

[Fantasy Podcast: RotoWorld analyzes the Matt Duchene trade]

Drops:

Sebastian Aho-LW/RW-Carolina Hurricanes (56 percent)

Aho had a terrific rookie season that saw him score 24 goals and 49 points in 82 games with the ‘Canes last season. This year, things haven’t been as smooth. He still hasn’t scored a goal in 15 games and he’s managed just eight assists during that span. Feel free to hold onto him in dynasty leagues, but he can be cut in most re-draft leagues.

Patrick Maroon-LW-Edmonton Oilers (57 percent)

Maroon had a solid season playing next to Connor McDavid last year, but his numbers have dropped off over the last little while. The Oilers forward has no points in his last five games and no goals in his last seven contests. He’s been firing more pucks on net lately, but you can find more productive players on the waiver wire.

Semyon Varlamov-G-Colorado Avalanche (54 percent)

Yes, I fully realize that Varlamov is 2-0-1 in his last three games, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s allowed three goals or more in six straight games. Of course, that isn’t all his fault. It’s still tough ignore those numbers. A short-term add of Montreal’s Charlie Lindgren could help teams that need to pile up goalie wins.

PHT Morning Skate: Do the Blues have the best first line in hockey?

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–Avalanche rookie Alex Kerfoot had an interesting Wednesday in Sweden, as he had an allergic reaction to something he ate in a small cafe. To make matters worse, he didn’t have his phone to contact anyone from the team, so he just went straight to a hospital. (NHL.com)

–The 2022 Beijing Olympics will be held in China, and the NHL is doing everything it can to grow the game in that market. There have been exhibition games there and teams have held youth and coaching seminars there, too. (NBCNews.com)

–Some Canadian filmmakers got an opportunity to take a deeper look at the North Korean National Team. Let’s just say their equipment and training methods are a little outdated though. (New York Times)

–Flames center Mikael Backlund is making just over $3.5 million in the final year of his contract. Calgary would like to keep him around, but they’re going to have to shell out a lot more money to lock him up. (The Hockey Writers)

–There have been rumblings about the availability of Oliver Ekman-Larsson via trade, but GM John Chayka made sure to set the record straight during a radio interview earlier this week. It doesn’t sound like the blue liner is going anywhere. (arizonasports.com)

Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t put up the numbers everyone expected him to over the last couple of years, but BSN Denver argues that he’s a much better player than most people think. (BSN Denver)

–Light House Hockey takes an in-depth look at a shift that got Josh Ho-Sang benched for a long time. After watching this, you’ll be able to understand why head coach Doug Weight has been frustrated with him. (Light House Hockey)

–A lot of people expected Mikhail Sergachev to stick with the Lightning this year, but there weren’t many who believed he’d have this kind of impact on the team in 2017-18. (Tampa Bay Times)

–There are a number of quality first lines in the NHL. When you break them all down, the Blues top trio of Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko might just be the best one in the league right now. (St. Louis Game Time)

–You may or may not have seen a photo of Islanders goalie Billy Smith sitting next to a pond (with all his equipment on) in the early 80’s. Well, many years later, The Score got the story behind this incredibly weird shoot. (The Score)

–Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will be honoring fallen K-9 officer Craig Lehner prior to Friday’s game. The netminder will wear a jersey with a C. Lehner nameplate during the warmup. Instead of wearing his usual number 40, Lehner will have number 43 on the back (the officer’s radio call sign). (Buffalo News)

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.

Sakic’s patience pays off for Avs in Duchene trade

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All of a sudden, things look a lot more positive for the Colorado Avalanche, not to mention how people view Joe Sakic as a GM.

Now, that’s not to say it was easy. The Avalanche took a lot of heat before finally pulling the trigger in trading Matt Duchene, but with the monster deal involving three teams, Colorado was able to land a pretty staggering package of picks, prospects, and Hamburglar.

Prospects: Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, and Shane Bowers.

Picks: First-rounder from Senators (see details below for how it is briefly lottery-protected), second-rounder in 2018 from Predators, third-rounder in 2019 from Ottawa.

Hamburglar: Andrew Hammond

Phew, that’s quite the haul for the Avalanche. Here’s the thing: I don’t think any single player in this deal will end up better than Duchene (or Kyle Turris). If that’s the only way you’ll judge a trade, then after all this time, Sakic may still lose.

On the other hand, it was clear that Duchene needed to go. With two years left at $6M per pop, it’s plausible that he would have left eventually, and for nothing but cap space. Even if the Avalanche re-signed Duchene in an alternate scenario, are they truly primed to contend during his peak years?

[Breaking down blockbuster Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris trade]

This deal seems close to optimal for the Avalanche as far as realistic “gets” are concerned; such a choice only seems wiser when you consider that Travis Hamonic is struggling and injured with Calgary, as just one example.

The cooler element is that, for the first time in a long time, it feels like things are trending up for the Avalanche.

Consider the players who are leading the charge for the refreshingly respectable 8-6-0 Avs. Nathan MacKinnon has been on a tear lately, reminding us that it’s a little weird to be disappointed in a guy who’s still just 22. Tyson Barrie ties MacKinnon with a team-leading 14 points, and he’s old by Avs standards at 27. Mikko Rantanen is already looking great at 21. Alex Kerfoot could be a keeper at 23. J.T. Compher (22) and Tyson Jost (19) are showing intrigue. It’s hard to believe that Gabriel Landeskog is only 25.

Heck, the Avalanche may just revive Nail Yakupov, who’s been given up on a lot for a player who is just 24.

Add intriguing first-rounder Calle Makar to that group and the Avalanche were already enjoying some reasons for optimism. This mixture of picks and prospects just gives them more ammunition.

Girard, 19, is the gem of this group. To my eyes, he was already showing some real promise with the Predators, and he’ll almost certainly get more of a chance to show what he can do (and, yes, maybe also get exposed a bit more) on an Avalanche team that sorely needs defense.

Kamenev, 21, is one of those prospects who could go either way. The good news, though, is that he’s been putting up solid AHL numbers. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman broke down the trio (subscription required) in greater detail, arguing that Kamenev and Shane Bowers, 18, may ultimately be depth or mid-range guys.

In case you’re wondering, Girard (47th in 2016) and Kamenev (42nd in 2014) were second-round picks while Bowers went 28th overall in this past draft.

TSN’s Scott Cullen did a nice job breaking down how those draft picks might work out for the Avalanche:

The haul of draft picks increases the overall value of the deal for Colorado. Ottawa’s first-round pick could be in the middle of the round, give or take a few spots, and that should generally yield an NHL-calibre player. Second and third-round picks bring about a one-in-three and one-in-four chance, respectively of yielding an NHL player. For a team like Colorado, coming off a historically terrible season, obtaining five young assets (plus Hammond) for Duchene is the smart long-term play.

Ultimately, this deal could go in a lot of ways for the Avalanche. It’s important to remember that a significant element of all of this could very well be player development.

Possible value for the Hamburglar?

It’s fair to say that, from Ottawa’s perspective, trading Andrew Hammond came down to a pure “salary dump.”

I wonder if Sakic might be able to do something interesting here, though. At the moment, Semyon Varlamov is on a two-year deal at $5.9M per season, while backup Jonathan Bernier has a one-year, $2.75M contract.

If you’re a team hurting for a backup goalie, call Colorado. Sakic could conceivably make something work in a variety of ways, whether it be moving Hammond or maybe retaining some salary in a trade involving Bernier.

***

Yes, that’s a lot to digest for the Avalanche, but in the spirit of the Hamburglar, at least Sakic provided Avalanche fans with a rare trade that feels like a Happy Meal.

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.