With only a few days left before the playoffs begin, observations of how each NHL team season faired out are in full swing. The one thing that many critics and fans sometimes forget about the season beside individual team results, is how an entire division performed as a whole. A lot of people qualified the Metropolitan Division to be the best group of teams this year after five teams in the division made the playoffs a year ago. But now with the season ending, the Central Division has proven all year-long that they are the top dog in the league, not just with how dominant several of their teams were, but just overall talent and depth combined of the seven teams.
For most of this decade, the Central Division has been owned by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks — winners of three cups from 2010 to 2015 — have been the gold standard in the Central, while the other six teams in the division watched and groveled at their feet. But over the past two seasons, the dynamic has shifted in the Central and the competition is at an all-time high.
Where the Central has become the best starts with the Nashville Predators.
Last June, the Predators came within one game of forcing a game seven against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. Following that disappointment, the Preds have used that defeat as motivation this year for what has turned out to be a brilliant season. Nashville’s dominance and success as one of the NHL’s best are due in part to Vezina favorite Pekka Rinne. Rinne has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his 12-year career, while the defense in front of him has shown once again why they are the best in the game being the second-best in goals-against average only allowing 2.49 goals a game. Their top-four (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm) have been a driving force all year-long and continued to make them one of the most feared in the NHL.
Nashville will not have any forward over 70 points for the season, but their balance and depth have blended so well that their offense was top-ten in the league. The contributions of Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, and several others have led the Preds to their best season in franchise history. Peter Laviolette’s troops have eclipsed the 110-point plateau for the first time in team history and are ready to make a run at a second straight Stanley Cup appearance.
The Predators are on the verge of their first Central Division title, President’s Trophy and if all goes according to plan in the playoffs, a Stanley Cup.
As I said earlier, the dynamic has shifted at throughout the Central, and one team, in particular, the Winnipeg Jets fall right into that category.
Question marks were raised all over Winnipeg about what to expect from the Jets coming into this season. And after the first few games, it looked like the team GM Kevin Cheveldayoff assembled might not have been ready to take the next step. But in November, pardon the pun, Winnipeg turned on the Jets and landed themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014-15. Much of the credit to Winnipeg’s astounding season has to go to goalie Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets have been searching for a number one puck stopper for several years, and finally this year Hellebuyck answered the bell and his bust-out campaign has him as a possible contender for the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goaltender.
But it’s not just the 24-year old Hellebuyck that has given the Jets their best season since moving from Atlanta to Winnipeg back in 2012-13. Their top-six (Nikolaj Ehlers, Paul Stastny, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele) have formed one of the league’s best sextets. The rest of their forward group and the mix of old and young on the blueline have all been formidable, but it’s Laine that has reached superstardom.
Laine, a sophomore this season, expanded his case as to why he’s going to become the NHL’s next elite goalscorer. He reached the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his brief career and will finish in the top-three in goals when the season is finished.
While the Jets are poised to finally make some noise in the postseason, another club, the Minnesota Wild have been excellent all season long and finally look like they have the pieces in place to finally get to the Stanley Cup.
The State of Hockey once again was treated to another fantastic campaign from the Wild. Minnesota kept up with the Preds and Jets for most of the season, and even though they won’t win the division, they proved that they’re just as good. Despite missing forward Zach Parise for most of the year, the Wild’s potent offense has really led the charge. Eric Staal’s renaissance, the evolution of Mikhail Granlund and Jason Zucker, and a breakout year from Matt Dumba have all contributed to Minnesota’s exceptional year.
Defensemen Ryan Suter before he recently got hurt went on to have a career year, tying his career-best 51 points, which he sported in the 2015-16 season. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s performance has not gone unnoticed either. The 31-year old recorded his second 30-plus win season and has been the anchor for Minnesota in between the pipes.
The Wild have made the playoffs now in six straight seasons, turning them into one of the best the Central has to offer.
There are a few more qualities as to why the Central Division can be deemed the best in hockey.
The rebound of the Colorado Avalanche from the worst team in the league a season ago to a 90-plus point team and a possible wild card birth definitely adds some gumption to how much stronger the Central became. Forward Nathan MacKinnon put himself in the Hart Trophy conversation, while coach Jared Bednar has done a tremendous job molding a group of young studs and veterans into a competitive bunch. Rookie center Alex Kerfoot has flown under the radar all season and is poised for a bright future.
Both the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars both hit the 90-point plateau driven by their superstar forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin.
As for the Blackhawks, they will miss the playoffs for the first time in ten years. But their run of excellence can’t be denied, and they are still widely respected as a threat, especially from their other six Central Division foes. Having elite scorer Patrick Kane and elusive captain Jonathan Toews still provides muscle. The club’s youth movement of Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz, Vinnie Hinostroza and Anthony Duclair has the Hawks still on the right track and never to be taken for granted.
Here are just a few bullet points to show the Central Division’s dominance:
-Three teams in the top-ten in points in the NHL
-Two teams over 110 points
-Six teams with 90 or more points
-Four teams in the top 15 with best home records
-13 players in the top-50 players in points
-Six players in the top-25 scorers in the league
-Three top-ten goalies in wins and save percentage
-Four teams in the top 15 in goals for per game