Central Division

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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

Predators hop over Jets, Blues to win Central Division

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(UPDATE: Here’s the full Round 1 schedule with dates and TV info.)

They won’t need a banner for the Presidents’ Trophy this time around, but the Nashville Predators did manage to win the Central Division for the second season in a row — this time on the final night of the season.

Saturday set a fitting scene, then, as the Predators fought back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2. An empty-net goal and Nick Bonino‘s late 5-2 tally made the game look a lot more lopsided that it often was.

(In fact, Ryan Ellis kept what could have been a 3-3 tying goal out of the Predators’ net with a head’s up play.)

It’s fitting in at least a few ways. For one thing, the Predators symbolically took the divisional torch from the Blackhawks during their run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Chicago won the 2016-17 Central Division title, then the Predators emphatically swept them. From there, Nashville’s won the last two Central crowns. Maybe that history explains why the Blackhawks gave Nashville such a battle?

The benefits seem pretty clear. Nashville avoids either the St. Louis Blues or the Winnipeg Jets in the first round. That doesn’t mean they’ll open the first round in a leisurely way against the Dallas Stars, but avoiding the Jets and Blues is a plus. Nashville also gets home ice for at least two rounds of the postseason, depending upon how things shake out.

It’s enough to leave you hopping with joy.

Again, it will be Nashville vs. Dallas, which figures to be a very tight-checking matchup.

Meanwhile, we’ll get what is sure to be a slobberknocker (c/o Jim Ross) of a two vs. three seed series in the Central, as the Blues will face the Jets. It’s not yet clear which team will hold home-ice advantage in that series, as the Blues currently sit in second, but Winnipeg can pass them (hop by them?) if they beat the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.

That series is, frankly, about as tough to call as the Central Division race has been down the wire.

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Saturday’s are for deciding the playoff matchups

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

We’ve made it to the final day of the regular season.

All 16 teams chasing Lord Stanley’s mug are set, but who will face who is yet to be determined for 12 of those clubs. We know the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs will lock horns, as well as the Vegas Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks. The rest, however, is up in the air.

Perhaps the most interesting race of the day will come in the Central Division.

There, the Nashville Predators hold a narrow one-point lead on the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues. Winnipeg has held the top spot for most of the year, but a few late-season duds have allowed both the Predators and surging Blues a chance at the division crown.

The Predators will see another division-winning banner raised to the roof of Bridgestone Arena with a win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. That’s the easy math. A loss, even if it comes in overtime or a shootout where they’d pick up a point, adds a lot of uncertainty.

The Blues face the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday afternoon. A win, at least temporarily, will move them to the summit. Likewise, a point would move them ahead of the Jets for the time being.

If Nashville is to lose earlier in the night in regulation, then the division will be Winnipeg’s providing the Jets can secure a point. If Nashville picks up a loser point, then the Jets would have to take maximum points to secure their first divisional crown

Basically, any combination of a Jets win and a loss by Nashville will earn them first place. St. Louis, meanwhile, will have to take care of their own business and then cross their fingers.

It’s a wild race few imagined would be the case at the midway point of the season. But here we are, and it’s coming right down to the wire.

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Canucks at Blues (4 p.m. ET)
Blue Jackets at Senators (7 p.m. ET)
Hurricanes at Flyers (7 p.m. ET)
Rangers at Penguins (7 p.m. ET)
Islanders at Capitals (7 p.m. ET)
Wild at Stars (8 p.m. ET)
Blackhawks at Predators (8 p.m. ET)
Jets at Coyotes (10 p.m. ET)
Avalanche at Sharks (10:30 p.m. ET)

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Capitals — Clinched
Islanders —  Clinched
Maple Leafs — Clinched
Penguins — Clinched
Hurricanes — Clinched
Blue Jackets — Clinched
Canadiens — Eliminated
Flyers — Eliminated
Panthers — Eliminated
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Predators — Clinched
Blues — Clinched
Golden Knights — Clinched
Stars — Clinched
Avalanche — Clinched
Coyotes — Eliminated
Wild — Eliminated
Blackhawks — Eliminated
Oilers — Eliminated
Canucks — Eliminated
Ducks — Eliminated
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Devils — 11.5 percent
Sabres — 9.5 percent
Red Wings — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Oilers — 6.5 percent
Ducks– 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Flyers — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Blackhawks — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Coyotes — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 126 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 116 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 109 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 104 points
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — 100 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 51 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 49 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 47 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 44 goals
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — 44 goals


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

Blackhawks’ Crawford exits game with groin injury

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Corey Crawford‘s season appears as if it will end the same way it started: on the shelf.

The Blackhawks’ No. 1 stopped all nine shots he faced in 25:46 before giving way to Cam Ward in the second period. The injury itself seemed to happen with just over four minutes left in the first period.

Crawford slid across his crease to stop a shot before appearing to be in some discomfort. He was able to get back to his feet, although he didn’t look right. He finished the period and played a further 5:46 before he had to leave.

Here’s that play:

Crawford’s season has been one to forget.

He missed the first five games of the current campaign, a carry-over after he missed the entire second half of the 2017-18 season with a concussion. A second concussion in December forced Crawford to miss over two months of action before he returned at the end of February, where he went on the play 16 of the past 17 games for the Blackhawks.

In all, he made 39 appearances this season.

The Blackhawks finished up their season against the Nashville Predators on Saturday. They were eliminated from playoff contention earlier this week after a remarkable turnaround.


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

Blackhawks outlast Blues in shootout win

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The chances of the St. Louis Blues going from last place in the National Hockey League just after the New Year began to finish first in the Central Division at regular season’s end took a bit of a hit on Wednesday Night Hockey.

The Blues dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Chicago Blackhawks, who were punted from playoff contention a night earlier.

Wednesday’s game on NBCSN was St. Louis’ game-in-hand on the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets. A win would have put them level on 96 points with their two of Central rivals, but they only managed one point to put them on 95 with two games remaining. Essentially, they will need Winnipeg and Nashville to each drop their two remaining games and find wins in their own two remaining to steal the division crown.

Both Nashville and Winnipeg are in action on Thursday.

Jonathan Toews was the start of the show, opening the scoring in the first period off a slick feed from Patrick Kane for his 35th. The goal gave Toews a new career high, surpassing the total of 34 he set 10 years ago.

Toews then scored the only goal of the shootout to give Chicago the win.

Some figured Toews fell off last year after his worst statistical season outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Instead, the 30-year-old has set a new career high in goals and points and has matched a career mark in assists, needing just one more for the career-high hat trick.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

St. Louis was a stubborn bunch in this game. They trailed 3-1 in the third period thanks to Kane’s 42nd but watched as David Perron brought the game to 3-2 and then Tyler Bozak scored with 38.9 seconds showing on the game clock to force overtime.

Cam Ward got the start for the Blackhawks in what could be his final in the NHL. There’s a thought out there that the 35-year-old could hang ’em up after his 699th NHL appearance.

The start was Ward’s first in a month, with an injury keeping him out of action for a good chunk of that. Still, the veteran backstop turned aside 37 shots in win No. 333 in his 14-year NHL career.

The Blues went with Jake Allen, who made 35 saves. St. Louis plays the second half of a back to back against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, and it’s expected that rookie wonder Jordan Binnington will get the call there.

St. Louis still needs to make sure they get another point, regardless of where they finish, just in case the Dallas Stars win out. Dallas (91 points) could move into third place in the division if everything went right for them and everything went wrong for the Blues.

A final note: Kane set a new career-high in points with 107, eclipsing the 106 that won him the Art Ross in 2015-16.


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