Is the new-look Central Division the weakest division in the realigned NHL? Absolutely, says Lancione
Yes, it is. I said it. Bold, considering the division includes the defending Stanley Cup Champs? Maybe, but lets take a look at the facts.
Gone to the East (finally), are the Columbus Blue Jackets and the perennially contending Detroit Red Wings, who have been in the thick of title conversations for the better part of the past quarter century. Out of the central division and the Western Conference goes four Stanley Cups, six Presidents trophies and a still-active 22-year playoff streak, a welcome riddance for the rest of the central.
Landing in the Central are the “Not-Winnin-For-MacKinnon” Avalanche, Wild, Stars and the Jets. Consequently, only one of these division newbies participated in Lord Stanley’s playoffs last year. The latter of which (re-incarnated Jets), have still yet to win a single playoff game in the 15 year history of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise. Despite a near miss in 2013, they’ve still missed out on the past five post-seasons and will be dealing with the Alexander Burmistrov defection to boot.
Excluding the world beater Chicago Blackhawks, the cumulative goal differential from 2013 among the new Central Division members was a brutal minus-67. Even if you add into the fray the best team in the world last season, Chicago, the reformed division collectively still only registered a -14 Goal Differential.
Surprisingly, only the eventual cup champion Blackhawks emerged beyond the first round of the 2013 playoffs among the seven!
The Chicago Blackhawks became the first team to win multiple championships since 2002, when Detroit won their first of two Cups in five seasons (and four in 11), after a streak of nine different victors. The core (Hossa, Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp & Crawford) are all in the primes of their careers, keeping them a Cup contender for a while yet. Stan Bowman has done wonderfully to lock this septet up for the foreseeable future, as well as ink 2013 playoff hero, Brian Bickell and rearguard Nicklas Hjarlmalsson to long-term pacts.
Its all the more so impressive that Bowman has somehow managed to leave himself a $2 million cushion under the cap ceiling for mid-season tinkering. Only Captain Serious and Kane have as little as two years left on their deals. But they’re already making $6.3 million apiece, so their inevitable raises won’t be monstrous, when the time comes.
Everyone else in the division will have to contend with Quenneville’s top notch defensive strategy as Chicago placed third in the NHL on the penalty kill. Also, the Hawks boasted six players in the top 23 plus/minus accumulators, including Jonathan Toews in the third spot. Mind you, the famed saying, “The best defense is a good offense” may well apply here with the Hawks’ embarrassment of high end goal-scoring and playmaking talent.
After GM Chuck Fletcher made a giant splash in the 2012 Free Agency pool, netting two of the game’s bigger names, the Minnesota Wild were expected to end their playoff drought. They did. Moreover, they were pegged to capture their division crown. That didn't happen. And seemingly next to no one; analysts, pundits and fans alike, seemed to acknowledge last season as a success for the Wild. After bringing in elite sniper, Zach Parise and blue-liner dynamo, Ryan Suter, to complement one of the game’s best prospect pools, expectations have skyrocketed.
A quick first round out, with a sole victory to their name, left a bad taste in the mouths of many tied to the Wild sweater. Meanwhile, the development of such blue chippers as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Matthew Dumba, etc. are still a work in progress, but this needs to be a year for them to each take steps forward. They’ll also need some degree of a bounce back year from Dany Heatley and a show of health from Harding to spell the aging Backstrom a little more often.
For those of you in pools which count ‘shots on goal’, please do your best to stay away from this squad. Aside from the shoot-happy Parise, they only registered one other player who ranked in the top 110 shot-takers in the league. By comparison, the Hawks had six!
The St.Louis Blues finished fourth in the west last season and second the year prior, as division champions. They’ve rapidly shown clear signs that the Blues faithful are in for a treat the next few years as their team is being built to compete annually. Although, last season could be seen as a slight regression, with lesser regular season and playoff success. The injection of Russian Calder candidate, Vladimir Tarasenko, really has been an extra boon to their core offensive potential leading into 2013-14.
However, not unlike the Nashville Predators model from the past half dozen years, the Blues have succeeded under a production-by-committee balanced attack. Thus, despite good fortunes likely laying ahead for the franchise, don’t jump at a chance to draft any Blues' forwards in the first couple rounds in one-year pools.
For instance, St.Louis’ highest scorer was Chris Stewart, who placed in 45th in league scoring. He was also the only Blue in the top 107. Moreover, David Backes was the highest ranking plus/minus accumulator among St.Louis forwards, but was 132nd in the NHL!
The rest of the division (Dallas, Winnipeg and Nashville) have much in the way of upside, but just a handful of players when it comes to proven production. Don't be surprised if just three of the eight Western Conference playoff teams come from this division.
~~~ Follow Anthony Lancione on Twitter @ANTHISDAMAN ~~~
Recently, from Wild West
|Taylor Hall - Ready for Elite Status|
|San Jose Sharks: Last Hurrah?|