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.

The Washington Capitals welcomed the sixth coach of the George McPhee era. This one is hall of fame inductee Adam Oates. With no real training camp or exhibition period, the Capitals were trying to absorb their new system for at leas the first month of the season. Among his other innovations was moving Left and Right Wing All-Star Alex Ovechkin from the former to the latter. The first half of the season was not pretty.

With guile, wisdom and no doubt some threats Oates got the team to the playoffs. Since last season, the Capitals have waived good-bye to Roman Hamerlik, Tom Poti, Mike Ribeiro and a few other well known faces. Perhaps the best signing this off season was the Capitals picking up Mikhail Grabovski. As compelling in terms of addition is having Brooks Laich and Mike Green both entering the season healthy.

Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and the crew will open the season with a roadtrip to the windy city where they’ll get to watch the Chicago Blackhawks raise their newest banner. After returning home for a game they will hows the Calgary Flames who start the season without Jarome Iginla for the first time in well over a decade. The Dallas Stars will be their next port of call and they’ll face Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the revamped forward group in the Lonestar state. Back home they will have showdowns with Eric Staal and his Carolina Hurricanes and Gabriel Landeskog’s Colorado Avalanche.

Number of days 1-5: 11

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Chicago Blackhawks

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7

The Metropolitan division will be brutally tough.  I have no doubt Adam Oates will do everything he can to motivate the team and let them jump on the division lead early. They don’t have any really stiff competition other than the Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Dallas Stars are no longer pushovers, and even the Avalanche aren’t a gimmie, this is a better team than four of their first five opponents on paper. They need to prove it on the ice.

Last season was one for the record books. They ran through the regular season with an absolute vengeance. The took home the Presidents trophy. The beat second place by five points in a shortened season, and packed up 30% more wins than several teams to make the playoffs. Their forward momentum carried them through the first round against the overmatched and deeply inexperienced Minnesota Wild. The Red Wings fought out of their weight class and overachieved to take the Blackhawks to seven games helped along by the uncharacteristic slump of team camptain Jonathan Toews. Round three and four were shorter, and the parades and parties came after the cup went up. Since then they’ve lost Bolland, Frolik, and Stalberg upfront, Emery in net. Also gone is Daniel “@CarBomb13” Carcillo.

The BlackHawks will start their Stanley Cup defense with three of their first five against teams who were in the playoffs last season. They square off with the surprisingly plucky New York Islanders, a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that for the first time since the 97-98 season will not include Vincent Lecavalier. They also cross swards with the St Louis Blues and the Buffalo Sabres after opening up against the Washington Capitals.

Number of Days 1-5: 12

Number of cities: 2

Best Opponent: Saint Louis Blues

Weakest Opponent: Buffalo Sabres

Home Games: 4

Projected Points: 6

The two biggest challenges for the reigning champs will be recovering from a long playoff run with a compressed regular season, and of course trying to have overcome getting everything they wanted from their NHL careers. Just months ago all of the players not on the team 4 years ago put themselves in elite company, the returning putt themselves in the rarefied company of multiple winners. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the others all made major contributions to both wins, and none of them are as young as they were. Overall the team is certainly a playoff team and probably the best team on the paper in the Western conference, but we don’t yet know what the physical and emotional toll on the winners will be.

 

Every season, every series we get unexpected things. The NHL wth its grueling schedule, physical play, and hard working players you simply can’t escape the drama.

6: The New York Islanders; Throwing Blows

The Islanders may have gone down int he first round, but they didn’t go out alone. The Islanders in fact put Marc-Andre Fleury on the shelf and possibly set him up for a buyout. Another element of the surprises was which defenseman was tasked with defending Sidney Crosby. It wasn’t Lubomir Vishnovsky who probably owns the best league wide reputation in his own zone among the Islanders. It wasn’t Mark Streit, captain and slick skater. It was the 22 year old veteran of a slim 186 regular season games, Travis Hamonic. The St. Malo native performed admirably, and much to the surprise of many NHL observers, and Pittsburgh Penguins fans the series went six games.

5: Vancouver Canucks: Silence of the Twins, Voiding of Vigneault

The Sedin twins failure to score even one goal between them in the first round was stunning. Just two years removed from back to back MVP season for Henrik and Daniel, they were bound and gagged by the Sharks able only to contribute assists. The team was swept from the playoffs, and the coach, quite surprisingly was the one to bear the brunt of the organizational wrath. Alain Vigneault was fired quickly after the defeat opening the way for a new voice, and new system.The firing of a seemingly bullet proof coach, is always something that while frequently deserved, is almost always a surprise by the time it happens. Vigneault, seemed to lead a charmed life in Vancouver escaping blame for an underdisciplined team

4: Bryan Bickell: Post Season Superstar

To say this playoff run was a surprise would be a charming understatement. In this his fourth playoff run, Bryan  Bickell racked up what is north of 69% of his post season points total. The 41st pick of the 2004 draft racked up 85 hits, went a plus 11, and put up 17 points on his way to helping the Chicago BlackHawks hoist the cup for the second time in four years.

3: Pittsburgh Penguins: Swimming Like A Stone

The first round saw the Pittsburgh Penguins go blow for blow with division rivals the New York Islanders, and win. In the second round they had an opponent in their sights they had won handily against in several consecutive games. Unfortunately three things doomed them. The first was an offense that wilted under a punishing Bruins defense. The second was a lack of composure that saw Malkin get into his third NHL fight, Crosby not merely get in the face of the NHL’s apex predator, but start the confrontation, and the team as a whole fail to accomplish anything, and third was a lack of accountability that saw them make few adjustments, none effective. The team scored two goals in four games. They were shutout not once buy twice, and never managed to get into the series, much less take control of it. Hardly what one would expect from the team that won the eastern conference.

2: Patrick Kane: American Hero

Jokes about Kane’s life off the ice are as easy to make as hailing a cab, but no one can deny his on ice prowess. The speedy sniper put up g0als against every netminder he faced, scored timely goals and looked entirely relaxed doing it. The big stage isn’t something that makes Kane shrink and hide. What was surprising was to see him win the Conn-Smythe. Not just because he’s neither a goalie nor a center, but because he’s an American. You could make legitimate cases for Corey Crawford, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith all of whom had enviable second seasons, and who had the good grace to be born Canadian. Kane is just the fourth American to win the Conn-Smythe and the third in a row, his former USA Olympic teammate Tim Thomas started the streak.

1: Anaheim Ducks: No Migration

The Ducks cruised through the regular season racking up wins with very nearly the easy and regularity of the Chicago squad, fans and NHL observers hoped for a Western Conference Finals for the ages between the Ducks and Blackhawks, but it was not meant to be. Despite scoring from depth players, solid goaltending from Hiller, and Getzlaf and Beauchemin providing leadership the Ducks lacked one thing that would keep them from taking flight into the second round; killer instinct. Game five ended with them up three to two in the series. They had home ice advantage, and went on to lose to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.

Game five brings us to a best of three scenario to decide this years champion. The two best teams in the world are squaring off and to the surprise of no one who knows hockey, the series is even after four games. Even in home wins. Even in road wins. Even in frustration.

Will The Real Defense Please Stand-up?

The defense in game three was awful. Chara and Seidenberg were bad. The Blackhawks penalty kill allowed not one but two powerplay goals to a Bruins man advantage that aspires to iffy most years. All of the players both teams count on to keep the puck out of the net, including the goaltenders were just bad. Both defensive systems are capable of imposing their will on a game.

Which Boy Bounces Best

We have two goalie who are playing in their first Stanley Cup Finals. Both gave up some soft goals in the last game. Rask gave up six and never held a lead. Crawford surrendered more than one lead. No one expected a 6-5 game at all in this round, and the first three games set the benchmark for the series. Which ever goalie can bring their performance back to the level of games two or three is the one whose team will win tonight and likely the series.

Top Six Top Cats

Game four saw Bergeron break free for two games, Lucic add his own, and Toews, Kane and Sharp all deliver on their top tier status as well. Both coaches were displeased with the way the game was played and have to be looking for a more structured affair. Which ever teams top lines manage to break through and contribute to containing their opposite number will go a long, long way towards winning the game.

Possession and Disruption
The Boston Bruins blocked just 11 shots in game four, the Blackhawks gaveaway only six pucks in game three. Both are a wide margin lower than previous games. If the Bruins can’t keep the Blackhawks from getting high percentage shots on goal, they have a good shot. The Blackhawks need to keep moving the puck to each other instead of shooting themselves in the foot every other rush up ice.

There are four teams who have set themselves apart  from this season. They play different styles, are split in two different conferences and have accomplished their dominance in different ways. The real question is, can they keep it up, and are they legitimate contenders?

The Chicago BlackHawks:

The Chicago Blackhawks have had the most spectacular season to date, they’ve attacked the league and gotten even non-hockey fans and media to take notice.

Facts:

  • Fifth in goals for.
  • Second in goals against.
  • Sixth in penalty kill.
  • Fourteenth in powerplay.

How they can get better:

  • Powerplay is only mediocre.
  • Patrick Sharp is injured, when he returns at anything like his normal self the team is instantly deeper and instantly more dangerous.

How they can get worse:

  • Emery and Crawford are playing way outside the zone of their normal skill set. Emery’s career save percentages is .908%, and his only season over 910 with more than 30 games played was back in 2005-06. Currently He’s at .917% Crawford in his previous two seasons has had sv%’s of .917% and .903%, for a career number of .912%, this season, with most of his numbers coming prior to the injury he’s at a.925%.
  • No injuries to date on their defense.
  • They can regress to something like last years road record where they were a .500 team.

Are they contenders:

  • Yes, they’ve won with worse goaltending, the west is weaker now than it was then, and the short season means if they stay healthy they’ve got a better than 50% chance of being in the Western Conference Finals.

The Montreal Canadiens:

Many people are surprised the Canadiens are this good and that the Northeast Division is very good this season. On the first one they shouldn’t be, last season was the perfect storm of disasters for Montreal.

Facts:

  • Fourth in goals for.
  • Tenth in goals against.
  • Ninth in powerplay.
  • Fifteenth in penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Special teams are only average.
  • They are quite bad at faceoffs at 23rd.
  • Prust, Bourque, Diaz, can come back and contribute.

How they can get worse:

  • Essentially a one goalie team with no real depth in the system, as goes Price goes the Habs.
  • They are getting solid contributions from rookies, if Galchenyuk and Gallagher hit the wall, particularly i it is at the same time the team could suffer more than some expect.
  • The NHL or officials could get serious about diving/embellishment and take a long hard look a the team that has had more than twice as many powerplay opportunities as their nearest rival in the division.

Are they Contenders?

  • Maybe, not many of these players have been deep into the playoffs. More importantly, the goalie who last took them deep is no longer on the roster.

The Anaheim Ducks

Anaheim has been mighty this season. They added defense, they pulled a goalie surprise out of their back pocket, and they’ve not been shy about playing hard and fast.

Facts:

  • Third in goals for.
  • Ninth in goals against.
  • First on the powerplay.
  • Twenty-Eighth on the penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Penalty kill, penalty kill, penalty kill.
  • Hiller needs to play better, a sub .900s% isn’t gonna cut it.
  • At 25th in faceoffs, they absolutely need to get closer to 50%.

How they can get worse:

  • Their scoring depth could vanish, they only have 1 player with 10 goals or more, but have eleven with more than five.
  • The league could finally put together a book on Victor Fasth.
  • Management/Ownership could panic on the Corey Perry front and drop him for little, no, or the wrong return.

Are they Contenders:

Probably, Selanne is awesome, Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan together are more to handle than most teams have the blueline talent for. On the other hand, a lot of their team are either rookies or have no NHL playoff experience.

The Boston Bruins

New year but not much has changed in Boston, same coach, same top forward in Patrice Bergeron, same legitimate Norris contender in Zdeno Chara, and same physical, puck control style.

Facts:

  • Tenth in goals for.
  • Third in goals against.
  • Twenty-third in powerplay.
  • First in penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Milan Lucic and their third line could show up and start scoring.
  • Their powerplay could get better.
  • They need to get better when trailing.

How they can get worse:

  • They’ve been phenomenally lucky on the injury front.
  • Rask has not been the healthiest goaltender in team history.
  • Scoring could decay.

Are they Contenders:

Yes, the goaltending remains a question but there is very little difference between this team and the one that won the Cup not so long ago.

 

Joe Thornton is the name of the day. For those who someone missed it, he’s still one of the best centers in the game. He’s got a 200 foot game, plays physically, and nearly as dirty as Sidney Crosby or Danny Briere at times. He skates well, is one of the three best passers of the last 30 years, and he’s never won a cup.

Some teams and how he’d fit in:

  • Boston: a full circle story with him going back almost certainly means a trade package like Krejci,  Spooner or Khoklachev, O’Gara, a 1st and likely another prospect or pick goes back. If the roster isn’t ripped up too much he’s likely the cure for what ails the teams powerplay. He’s done the major hockey market media before so the adjustment would be slight, and he likely still knows his way around the North end.
  • Nashville: This is almost the perfect landing spot for him. Even if half the fanbase hated him yesterday, him landing their tomorrow in the wake of the defection of Suter and the Weber scare means they have not just a high end player to fill out the roster but a face for the forwards and a tutor for the young prospects in the system.
  • Chicago: while their search has been for a  second line center, this might just fill the whole. Kane, Hossa, Sharp and the other wingers probably wouldn’t complain too much about second line minutes next to him. 
  • Calgary: Jarome Iginla has never had a legit top line center to play with. Joe Thornton would be that. The Flames may not have what is needed to ship back in return, but career years for both as a duo aren’t out of the realm of possibility. 
  • Phoenix: The desert dogs are so far under the cap floor they’ve probably got mushrooms growing on their heads. Even if they added Thornton without sending back a single roster player they would still be almost two and a half million under the floor. Throwing Thornton down as an inducement to keeping Doan would probably help a tiny bit. 
  • Florida: If there’s one thing we know about Dale Tallon it is that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big trade. The Panthers need a good center, they also have one of Thornton’s buddies, Bryan Campell who stayed at Thornton’s place after being traded out of Buffalo. 
Obviously the pending CBA negotiations are going to be a big factor, especially for teams paying closer to the cap floor than the ceiling, but it should not be forgotten that Joe Thornton does have a NTC/NMC. If Jumbo Joe does get moved, it will likely be the biggest trade of the offseason. Yes, bigger than the possible Bobby Ryan or the just elapsed shuffling of Nash to the Rangers. Both are younger than Thornton, and talented, but neither has the potential to impact the game at the same level. 
Whoever is going fishing in the shark tank should be dangling, forwards, draft picks, forwards and more forwards. The Sharks one strength in terms of prospects is on the backend. Their forward pool is nothing to brag about, and years of trading for established talent and playoff finishes have left them drafting in the bottom half of each round each year for about a decade.

The All Star break is over, real hockey is ready to return. Coming over the boards in the Second City will be some familiar faces. Jonathan Toews will be back from injury just in time to face the Vancouver Canucks. Patrick Kane (@88PKane) who has been a little distanced from his usual prowess look to have gotten his swagger back at over the All Star weekend. Patrick Sharp who has missed eight games this season is standing on the horizon poised to retake the ice, and help push the Blackhawks back to being the most prolific offense in the west. Worse still for the competition, is they have added a center that will free up Kane, Hossa and Sharp to stay at wing full time and chase after the dominance they had in the run up to the Stanley Cup two springs ago.

With their first game out of the break against perhaps their most bitter rivals the Vancouver Canuck it’s doubtful any of the BlackHawks will fail to check-in for the game. Many fans will feel cheated that team is deprived of Roberto Luongo, the NHL’s premier big game goalie who some in Chicago (and elsewhere) have come to regard as their lawful prey. Brendan Morrison (@7bmo) who played with the Canucks for seven seasons will have plenty of reasons to get excited for his first game in Chicago uniform, including renewing the chase for next years contract.

A look at the standings at the start of the playoff stretch shows the Blackhawks in sixth place in the west. Three of the teams ahead of them are also in the airtight Central Division. The Detroit Red Wings sit at the top of the food chain with an equal number of games played and a staggering home win streak to their credit. Chicago needs to gain  four points on Detroit to win the division. Their remaining schedule of 32 games includes 11 games against teams not currently in playoff position. When it’s all said and done that could be the difference between first in the division, and possibly the conference and being forced to open the playoffs on the road.

I’d guess that at least half of the people writing about sports have their dissection of their sports All Star game half written or more before it pulls over the event horizon. Which is fine. They are awful. They don’t resemble anything like the real sport. They fuel the pinkhats to ever more ludicrous criticisms of the regular season and even post season game. Sponsors give tickets to people who can only (sorta) name the three or four most marketed players. Big names who are injured or have a “sick” grandmother don’t take part in the event. The list of things wrong with the All Star concept is longer than what is right with them.

But that’s probably for the best. This NHL All Star weekend features enough payroll to get about six teams over the cap floor. Either team could mow down any team in the NHL with a week of practice and without having to wear themselves out. But that is the point, these are the cream of the crop. By definition if you are at the All Star weekend, you are one of the two or three most important players (or most marketable, which are sometimes the same thing) for your team. Never heard of Jamie Benn before he was added to the roster? That’s ok, The Dallas Stars fans love him. John Tavares is on a team that sucks? Big deal, he’s still an absurdly talented player. You live in the southeast and have never even seen the Calgary Flames play? Jarome Iginla’s a future hall of fame inductee, get on the phone with your TV provider and pickup the Center Ice package, he’s a treat to watch. Logan Couture went last, he can’t be any good can he? Yes, yes he can. He was 2nd in voting for best rookie last season.

While the deepest teams in the league can get by without one or two studs that’s maybe five or six teams. There is also the not so subtle difference between “get by” and “thrive”. Not many people could make the argument that the Philadelphia Flyers would be a worse team with Chris Pronger int he lineup with a straight face. Even fewer would actually believe it. Chicago has been without Patrick Sharp for several weeks, and had been in first when he went out with an injury. Both are teams at the top of the depth and quality charts. But take Jamie Benn or Jarome Iginla off their teams for a month and there’s no joy in Mudville. Brian Campbell and the Florida Panthers have had a hell of a ride this season, but if he were to miss ten games with a groin injury suffered in this meaningless marketing event the chances of Sunrise hosting even the minimum two home games is dramatically reduced, and with it the team can wave goodbye to millions in revenue.

Another important aspect of the All Star weekend is that because it is meaningless, except for the goalies and other crazies who can’t turn off their competitive nature ever it’s fun first to last. Patrick Kane’s Superman shootout routine was superb. Carey Price goaltending backwards was absolutely hilarious. Scott Hartnell taking questions about and even promising to contribute to HartnellDown is just a great thing. For me as a dedicated fan, this has been one of the most enjoyable weekends in a longtime. Without the two stars the media has embraced most, we get to see more of the stars of the other twenty eight teams in both conferences and all six divisions. Luke Adam (@LukeJAdam) of the Sabres. Shea Weber of the Predators both got more face-time with the media and potentially sponsors who might want to do regional advertising than they would have had the guy from Pittsburgh and the guy from D.C. been on site. Hell, Craig Smith could become the first star of the historically faceless Nashville Predators forward group while Justin Faulk (@JustinFaulk27) provided looks at a guy other than the one who has been the face of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise for the last decade.

If anything should convince you of how dangerous the game could be with the pressure of some sort of standings impact or season impacting value its probably the hardest shot competition. We saw three different players shooting over 100mph , with the highest hitting 108.8 (175 kph) there are a number of guys who sport huge bruises off shots in the 80s, and Ryan Callahan, and Chuck Kobasew can both tell you that Chara’s shot will break bones if it hits you in the wrong spot. The game is meaningless, and as long as you don’t try and think of it as real hockey it can be fun, more importantly the players who don’t mind the media let loose and give a fun interview or two and go home healthy.