The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

In most sports relative skill levels are the magic smoke in the ox that determines the outcome of games, specifically playoff games. In the NHL more than other major league sports there are other factors that obliterate the relevance of the skill level of the two or three best players. Health is often a big factor, and coaching is perhaps more important than in any sport but football.

But for the most part, what determines early playoff series is the matchup. The interplay between the tendencies and abilities of the 36 skaters and two (or more) goales on the ice each game are what decides a game. Factors like home ice and the officiating are influential, but not (usually) paramount. If we look at each of four series briefly who does what better becomes apparent.

Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning:

This is the one series that is already over. That Tampa Bay didn’t get good goaltending from Lindback is evident, but a more interesting stat tells the story. In three of the four game, including both of the games in Tampa Bay where Lightning coach Jon Cooper had last change, the Montreal Canadiens were able to get more players free of coverage for two or more shots on goal in the game. Essentially, the goaltending wasn’t the only issue for Tampa Bay, their defense wasn’t as good as Montreal’s at addressing the other teams depth.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

This series is so even on the ice it would be impossible for any casual sports fan to look at the four games and tell which of the two finished the season on top of a division and which was a wild card. If you were going to pin this series being even on one thing, it would have to be complacency. Both teams have given up two goal leads twice. In three of the four games the team that won had more shots and more than forty shots on goal.

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

Multiple shot diversity is again playing a a factor. San Jose has been even in one game (game 1) and ahead of Los Angeles in what I’ve decided to call the “Shooting Depth Quotient” in the other three games. Simply put they’ve again had more players get loose to get multiple shots. In other terms the almost no name defense of the Sharks has been superior to the Doughty led defense of the Kings. The Sharks lead their series 3-1.

Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings

Yup, the SDQ is in play again. The Bruins had a greater SDQ in all four games, and while it was fairly close in three, the game with arguably the most lopsided outcome, game three, the Detroit Red Wings got half as many players loose for multiple shots as did the game winner. In game three where the Bruins out scored the Wings 3-0 the visitors had 12 players get loose for multiple shots. The Bruins lead this series 3-1.

Last season was not the best year in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was also not the worst. This year for the first time since the 1998-99 season the Lightning will be without Vincent Lecavalier. The former 100 point man, part of the team’s only Cup win, was bought out. Regardless of who is named captain in his void, the player that will be matched in most minds with the is Steven Stamkos. To be successful this year, the team needs more from everyone who isn’t named Martin Saint Louis. Matt Taormina will have to contribute more than he did for the New Jersey Devils, Victor Hedman will again have to justify his 2nd overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft. Sami Salo, and Mattias Ohlund will have to not just roll the clock back but impart what they know about the NHL game to younger players.

While Jonathan Drouin is the crown jewel of their off season, what success the team has this year will come from other sources. Two of those are Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. Without at least one of these goalies stepping up and delivering 45 or so games of .920 sv% goaltending this team has little chance of making the playoffs. Ryan Malone, Eric Brewer and Valterri Filppula are all valuable veterans, and they need to take the game to their opponents end this season and keep it there.

The Lightning will open the season with a three game trip. First up are the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup finals opponents the Chicago BlackHawks. The final stop on the road is a 7:30 date with the Buffalo Sabres. When they get home their cross state rivals the Florida Panthers will greet them. Finishing up the opening gamut are the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is by no means an easy way to open the year, but there are winnable games.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities:  4

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks or Boston Bruins

Weakest Opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4

If head coach John Cooper can get everyone playing well, the team will no doubt improve over last years 14th placing in the east.  The turnover in forwards and the introduction of Cooper’s style last year will no doubt help the transition, but the roster isn’t isn’t overwheming, but it isn’t among the NHL’s very best, but they won’t be a bottom five team if things go well. Developing the young players like Drouin and any other prospects who make the team should be priority one this year.

Realignment has stirred the pot and the results in this division are curious at best. The big idea is clearly to draw fans into the arenas of all of the NHL’s second and third tier teams. In this case however, six of the teams are sorta close to each other, and the other two are at the other end of the continent. The shattering of the leagues second worst division brings the Florida Panthers and their Sunshine State companions the Tampa Bay Lightning into a division with all five members of the old Northeast division and a escapee of the former central division the Detroit Red Wings.

Boston: We know the Bruins would not have moved on from Tyler Seguin if they’d won the Cup this season, or if he’d actually shown up in games on a consistent basis. We know Iginla and Chiarelli are going to feel the heat if former Flames captain starts off with his usual October anemic start. We know who plays on the teams third line, and for that matter where Daniel Paille plays are questions that will be asked again and again all season long.

Buffalo: We know the first post Lindy Ruff season will not be same old same old. We know the team still hasn’t named a captain. We know that at least on paper it is hard to call this a better roster than last years. We know the hope that Tallinder will help turn Myers around might just be all that has kept Darcy Regier employed. We know that any 23 man roster that can find room for John Scott isn’t likely to be playing in May.

Detroit: We know that with their move east and the alleviated travel burden some of the older players might have better than expected seasons. We know that its likely Daniel Alfredsson will not get warm second, third and fourth visits to his old team. We know this team isn’t significantly better than it was last season, and that it is playing in a tougher division and conference than last year. We know that Lidstrom’s jersey retirement is likely to be nearly as lengthy and mind numbing as if the Habs were retiring a number.

Florida: We know that adding Steven Pinizzotto, Jesse Winchester, Scott Gomez, Bobby Butler, and Joey Crabb to a team does not constitute a significant upgrade of NHL talent regardless of where you finished in the NHL standings the previous year. We know they are hoping one or two prospects surprise the this year by earning a roster spot in camp. We know that with this roster we’re as likely to hear loud, boisterous fans of the visiting team in Sunrise as we are fans of the Panthers.

Montreal: We know the core of this roster should be better than it was last year in the playoffs, even allowing for injuries. We know that whatever tension there is in the locker room, most notably between a certain pair of long time forwards and an unnamed defenseman carries over to the ice and hurts the team. We know this team would be much better with a backup goalie who can be expected to play well in twenty or even twenty five games a year. We know Briere as a part of the package is probably the best improvement for the teams playoff chances they could have added. We know Emelin should go back to hitting and playing physically in exactly the manner he made a name for himself in, perhaps with one or two exceptions.

Ottawa: We know that Daniel Alfredsson will likely be cheered when he first takes the ice as a member of the Red Wings, and soundly booed after that. We know that if Jason Spezza ever wants to build a legacy for himself in Ottawa now is the time. We know that the team is better than it was last year by adding Ryan’s health, allowing for maturation of Zibanejad, Cowen, and Weircioch, even if they did bring back Joe Corvo. We know that Anderson is likely off to the Olympics in Sochi.

Tampa Bay: We know someone other than Steve Yzerman knows what he is doing, what we don’t is if anyone understands what he is doing. We know the best way to describe the teams defense would be Hedman, aging, aged, fragile and unknown. We know there are 157 inches of question mark in net, those inches answer to the names of Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. We know that even with 5 NHL seasons to his name, including a run to the eastern conference finals, there are only four younger forwards on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster than Steven Stamkos.

Toronto: We know the off season deck chair shuffling didn’t address the teams major issues; resiliency, defensive coherence. We know Joe Colborne is unlikely to contribute as much in any zone as Grabovski, and certainly won’t be as much of an impact player overall. We know Phil Kessel will probably continue to light up Tuukka Rask as he couldn’t Tim Thomas. We that someday Leafs fans will get a general manager who can build a winner, won’t they?

The Bolts brought in a couple new faces this off season. After going from game seven of the Eastern Conference finals to finishing two spots and eight points out of the playoffs, it was needed. One of those additions has the potential for big impact, the rest are essentially maintaining the status quo.

Good News

  • Anders Lindback looks to be a damned impressive goaltender.
  • A healthy BJ Crombeen almost certainly moves their penalty kill up two or three spots minimum.
  • Just about all the additions to the roster have something to prove and that will make them hungry.

Bad News

  • The defense is still mediocre at the top of its performance curve.
  • Anders Lindback for all his skill and size is going to be in his first year in a new place, in a very different system, and he’s got less than 40 NHL games to his name.
  • They are still not a top three team in their own division.

Forecast

High:  Bubble team, if there are disasters in other cities they get to about where they were last year, maybe as high as the eight spot.

Low: Afterthought. Lindback needs to be Vezina quality in order to drive this team to the playoffs, if he can’t  do that while playing 55+ games the off season will be long.

X-Factor

A simple look at the roster says the team has players that it can move around. If the brain trust decides to load up and increase the quality of the defense, or the offense goes from good to world beating the team suddenly takes on a completely different quality.

The Predators and Lightning combined to throw a spanner into the works of many a pending free agent goalie. Anders Lindback the six and a half foot former understudy to Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne is the centerpiece of a deal that will likely see him getting the lions share of crease time behind his equally tall countryman Victor Hedman. Some other pieces moved, but Lindback was essentially swapped for two second round picks in this years draft.

I’m not sure this trade answers any questions for anyone. Lindback has a total of 28 NHL start on his resume. On top of that he has four AHL games played. Yes, his numbers are quite good in his limited time in an NHL crease. Both seasons he appeared had a sv% in the nine and teens. But that’s still not saying much. Further he’s got an RFA contract that expires on July 15. While the offer sheet is essentially a dead letter in the NHL, we have seen it used and he could generate one as easily as any other RFA on the table. I’m curious as to if this is the last deal we will see from Yzerman on the crease crusader front.

For the Nashville Predators this doesn’t solve any problems, except maybe getting out of acrimonious contract negotiations. It also leaves them without a backup with any NHL experience. Chet Pickard and Jeremy Smith are both young prospects with limited AHL experience. Sebastian Caron is a complete enigma. He’s been back and forth across the pond his entire career. Worse still, his NHL experience isn’t going to fill anyone with confidence even behind the Predators defense. As for the draft picks, they are not much help. The Predators need a better class of two way forwards who can play 200 feet of ice and get to 20 goals or more a season. This years draft class doesn’t look to have many twenty goal scorers even in the first round. In the second the chances are going to be slimmer. It’s been since 2008-9 that the Predators had even three players cross the twenty goal mark.

On balance, both teams bought so faith but no facts. Draft picks are nice in theory, but don’t always pan out. A goaltender with limited NHL experience who’s gonna have to adjust to a new system especially one as different from Nashville’s as Tampa Bay’s is, will go through some growing pains. Those growing pains could last a year or more. That year could see the Lightning finish even lower than they did this year.

 

Most years in order to win a championship in the NHL you need to have a goalie play above average and contribute to the win. That isn’t the same as giving a team the chance to win, or simply not costing the team a win. There have been exceptions to this, namely belonging to the Red Wings teams of the last two or three cups.

16: Brayden Holtby. With only 21 NHL games to his credit, he’s got to be the best defense on a team who’s effort has been highly uneven all year. Realistically he’s got almost no pressure on him considering he’s third on the teams depth chart. (Alternates for the Capitals would be Neuvirth or possibly Vokoun)

15: Corey Crawford: He’s not had an impressive season, no goalie likely to start this post season had a worse save percentage this off season. Keeping that in mind, last year as a rookie he stepped up and improved both his save percentage and goals against average in the playoffs.(BlackHawks alternate Emery)

14: Scott Clemmensen: His next NHL playoff game will be his second. He does have the advantage of familiarity with his first round opponent. (Alternates for the Panthers Theodore or maybe Markstrom)

13: Marc-Andre Fleury: The flower has wilted in his last two playoff appearances with sub .900 save percentages. If he hadn’t been to the promised land he’d be lower. Even the year he was part of the Cup win, he gave up more goals than any other goalie. (Alternate for the Penguins is Johnson)

12: Ilya Bryzgalov: Not a playoff goalie thus far in his career. His last two post season have had worse numbers than the regular season. (Alternate for the Flyers Bobrovsky)

11: Anti Niemi: Yes he’s been there and done that, but not with this team. Further his post season numbers have dipped in comparison to the regular season in each post season appearance. (Alternate for the Sharks Greiss)

10: Jimmy Howard: Gamer. One of those guys who’s numbers improve in the post season. (Alternates for Red Wings Conklin, Macdonald)

9: Roberto Luongo: Despite the loss in the finals last year, he still had a better save percentage than the previous two winning goaltenders. (Alternate for the Canucks Schnieder)

8: Martin Brodeur: Been there, done that three times but the last trip to the post season was double plus ungood.  (Alternate for the Devils Hedberg)

7: Craig Anderson: One playoff series one save percentage of .933 on a team that only got into the playoffs because he could scramble. (Alternate for the Senators Bishop)

6: Pekka Rinne: Not great playoff numbers, and an off season but one of the best pure talents in the league. (Alternate for the Predators Lindback)

5: Henrik Lundquist: Whatever he’s done in the regular season over his career has been nearly undone by an aggressively mediocre playoff performance, but that’s bound to change right? (Alternate for the Rangers Biron)

4: Mike Smith: With a little more experience he might break the top three, on the other hand holding the eventual Stanley Cup champions to two goals in your first 120 minutes of NHL playoff experience isn’t a bad baptism by fire. Not a bad regular season this year either. (Alternate for the Coyotes Labarbera)

3: Jonathan Quick: Career year behind a team playing confidently, and ready to go far. (Alternate for the Kings Bernier.)

2: Brian Elliott & Jaroslav Halak: Either one is having a high end year, Halak has ripped the heart out of opponents as a duo, there’s not a better pairing this year in the NHL. (Alternate for the Blues would be whoever doesn’t start.)

1: Tim Thomas: Reigning Conn-Smyth winner, reigning Vezina trophy winner, defending Stanley Cup champion, he’s been there and done that recently. Looked sharp of late and has elevated his numbers every post season in the last three seasons. (Alternates fort he Bruins possibly Khudobin, Rask, Hutchinson….)

Back on the 30th of November was the first look at where the NHL rookies stood. We also looked at how they compared to the one hundred million dollar man.

Leading the pack for forwards were Logan Coture of the San Jose Sharks, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers. Tops in the crease were a pair of young Europeans, Sergei Bobrovsky of the Philadelphia Flyers, and backstopping the Washington Capitals Michael Neuvirth. Rounding out the conversation were blueliners John Carlson, another young gun for Washington, the mouth of Montreal PK Subban, and flying high enough to earn lots of minutes for the Avalanche, Kevin Shattenkirk.

Ilya Kovalchuk’s current stats are 8-10-18 -21.

Just moving up to the pack are Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle of Edmonton, and Brian Bickell, of the injury plagued BlackHawks. Eberle and Hall sit in third and fourth behind Coture and Skinner. Right now,  of the four only Coture has a positive +/- rating.  While Hall was the clear cut favorite before the season started, learning the game at the NHL level is not quite as easy as it sounds, even if you’re lucky enough to have an elite vetern player or two on your squad as Coture and Skinner do, and Hall and Eberle do not.

On the blueline, John Carlson continues to make a name for himself on the recently woeful Washington Capitals.  Racking up seventy blocked shots and thirty-two hits, would earn him a spot on just about any blueline, add in his TOI which hovers just under 22 minutes a game, and you’re making waves. He’s also tenth in rookie scoring. Cam Fowler was another of the last drafts crop of potential Calder winners, currently he leads all rookies in TOI, and is number eight for rookie scoring. With a -6 to Carlson’s +6, you might be tempted to simply focus in on a quick look at the quality of the two teams might say more. Kevin Shattenkirk has only played 22 games this season for the high flying Avalanche, and is still tied for fourth in points, everyone ahead of him has played at least 31.

Blissfully, the picture in goal has gotten murkier. Bobrovsky has gotten shuffled to the bench as Boucher has his yearly hot streak, but remains high in the rankings for goalies in major stats. New to the dance is Anders Lindback Nashvilles other goalie. Pekka Rinne is due back soon, but I can’t help but wonder if it might the coaches might want to let Rinne take his time coming back, like a month or two more. Today, Lindback leads all rookie goaltenders in GAA, Sv%, and shutouts. Lindback is also comfortably ahead of Rinne in those stats, with a similar number of games.

Once darkhorse worth mentioning is Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand. While some will only remember him for getting smoked on a clean PK Subban hit, he has been a big part of a very effective penalty kill. Marchand is also first in rookie shorthanded goals and tied for the NHL lead among all players in the least games in the same category. He’s second among forwards in SHTOI, and sits 15th in among rookies in scoring, and seventh in hits for rookies.