A Sluggish Division
Image courtesy of Ron Chenoy-USA Today SportsGoing into play tonight, Minnesota sits third in the Central Division with 34 points. They're two points behind second place St. Louis (with two games in hand) and six behind the first place Blackhawks (with three games in hand), while holding a five point lead over Winnipeg (who have played five more games than Minnesota). Considering Minnesota's play during the first third of the season, that's a pretty significant achievement to be in third with a five point cushion on the next team.
So what exactly has plagued the Central Division, a division that has been previously regarded as the best in hockey, this season? Let's take a look at each team and see what has held them down so far this season.
18-8-4, 40 points, 1st place in Central Division
For just about most of the season, Chicago has been sitting in first place. They have done so in the last three weeks without captain Jonathan Toews, who has been sidelined by injury. Chicago has also been able to stay atop the Central despite the fact they have received little production from their bottom six forwards. In essence, their top six has shouldered the load so far. The Blackhawks also have gotten incredible play from Corey Crawford (before he went down with injury on December 1), who will most likely be one of the two goalies to represent the division in the upcoming All-Star Game (12-6-2, 2.27 GAA, .927 SV%, 2 SO).
11-15-1, 23 points, 7th place in Central Division
Semyon Varlamov has been absolutely atrocious for the Avs this season (6-12-0, 3.21 GAA, .904 SV%), and to be honest, Calvin Pickard has not fared well against teams not named 'Minnesota' either (3-3-1, 3.07 GAA, .890 SV% if you takeaway starts against MIN). Their defense is still a hot mess, and age seemingly has finally caught up with Jarome Iginla (7 points in 27 games). Also, why is Nathan MacKinnon centering Rene Bourque and Blake Comeau? Woof.
11-13-6, 28 points, 6th place in Central Division
Injuries to just about everyone not named Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin have decimated the Stars early on this season. Dallas has also received poor goaltending (shocking!), as the 96 goals against is tied for most in the NHL (Winnipeg). Both Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen (who both carry higher cap hits than Devan Dubnyk), have become a huge liability for the Stars, despite having one of the league's best offenses. It's as if Jim Nill did nothing to improve his defense or goaltending during the summer. Oh wait, that's true. The memory of Dallas winning this division last season seems very distant right now.
12-11-4, 28 points, 5th in Central Division
The preseason darling of the league has been absolutely disappointing out of the gate. Pekka Rinne had a nice start (2.45 GAA, .920 SV%), but his play in recent weeks resembles that of last year (4.57 GAA, .843 SV% in December). With Marek Mazanec only getting two previous starts (and not faring well in either), work load might begin to catch up with Rinne as the year goes on. Another problem for the Preds has been their inability to come from behind and win a game or two when trailing. Nashville is just one of five teams remaining to not register a single win when trailing after two periods (0-8-0).
St. Louis Blues
16-9-4, 36 points, 2nd in Central Division
That Nail Yakupov trade didn't exactly work out (Yak is now getting healthy scratched) as one hoped. Jake Allen (2.39 GAA, .910 SV%) has been inconsistent since taking over the net full time after the offseason departure of Brian Elliott. There's also no skater on the team with more than 20 points, with the exception of Vladimir Tarasenko (32 points). The Blues have done just enough to stay in second most of the season, but can they avoid the dreaded Mike Yeo mid-season swoon?
13-16-3, 29 points, 4th in Central Division
Don't let their place in the standings fool you. Once teams start catching up in games played, Winnipeg will settle in to 6th place where they'll stay for the remainder of the season. As mentioned above, the Jets have received horrid goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck (2.74 GAA, .907 SV%) and Michael Hutchinson (3.14 GAA, .896 SV%) and are tied with Dallas for most goals against allowed in the game. Depth is a huge liability for the Jets, as they continue to trot out fourth line staple Chris Thorburn on a nightly basis. And just when you think things couldn't go any worse, their prized rookie Patrik Laine forgot what net he is supposed to score on.
There you have it. The Central Division as a whole, not just the Wild, have been a mess to start the season. It will be interesting to see if a few of these teams chasing the Wild (looking at you Nashville and Dallas) can turn it around and become the contenders everyone thought they would be. But for now, its certainly a bright spot for the Wild to be sitting in third place as we approach the holidays.
Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesferrell
Follow Wild Xtra on Twitter @wildxtra