With the NHL’s second half of the 2021-22 regular season set to kick off Monday, it's a good time to examine what has unfolded in the league to this point in the year. We started Sunday by looking at the Atlantic Division; today, we’re turning our attention to the Central; and later this week, we move on to the Metropolitan and Pacific Divisions.
Colorado Avalanche: It took them a little while to hit their stride, but when they did, the Avs proved to be arguably the best team in the entire NHL. Indeed, their current .773 win percentage is tops in the league, and they currently have an eight-point lead on second-place Nashville, and a nine-point lead on third-place Minnesota (though the Wild have three games in hand on Colorado). The Avalanche’s offense is truly fearsome: five of their players are averaging at least 1.10 points-per-game, and they’re tied with the Florida Panthers for the best goals-for-per-game average (4.09) in the game. GM Joe Sakic has assembled a frighteningly-potent lineup, and he may not be done adding to his roster, with Flyers star Claude Giroux being a prominent name linked to them in trade rumors. But even if Sakic stands pat, the Avs have more than enough talent to go on a deep Cup playoff run. If you’re looking for the gold standard for NHL teams these days, look no further than Denver.
Nashville Predators: Offense remains an issue for the Predators, but they’re high up in the Central standings because their defense is elite. They have the league’s seventh-best goals-allowed-per-game average (2.67), and goaltender Juuse Saros is having a Vezina Trophy-caliber year (2.35 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, and 24-11-3 record). Their place in the standings is a little bit misleading, as they’re only one point ahead of Minnesota (and the Wild have five games in hand on the Preds), and they’re just three points ahead of fourth-place St. Louis (and the Blues have two games in hand on Nashville). In short, they’re a bad week or two (or a very good week or two by the Wild and Blues) out of the fourth and final playoff berth in the Central, and a first-round playoff date with Colorado. CapFriendly.com projects Preds GM David Poile has $10.7 million in cap space to bolster his team, and he hasn’t been afraid to make big moves. Star and captain Roman Josi will be 32 years old this year, and Nashville needs to make perhaps one last playoff push with him leading the way. They’re looking more and more like a sleeper pick to do playoff damage.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild are a dynamic offensive-minded team who are also getting great showings from their goalie tandem of Cam Talbot (18-8-1 record, 2.81 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) and backup Kaapo Kahkonen (10-2-2, 2.53 G.A.A., .922 SP). Their special teams are mediocre, but they’re projected to have more than $11.325 million in cap space by the March 21 trade deadline – more than enough to be a bidder for Giroux, Kraken veteran Mark Giordano and a few others before the deadline passes. The Wild’s looming cap crunch in the next few seasons lends a sense of great urgency for them to take big step forward as a legit Cup contender, and maybe that’s something Wild GM Bill Guerin sees as a motivator for the current campaign. But it’s going to be difficult for Minnesota to get out of the first round of the playoffs, especially if their opponent is the Avs.
St. Louis Blues: The Blues occupy the fourth spot in the Central, and although it’s unlikely teams fifth-through-eighth in the Central are going to win extremely consistently enough to unseat St. Louis for the final playoff berth, the Blues should be aiming to take on the Preds or Wild – in other words, stay away from a first-round showdown with Colorado. The Blues are now benefitting from the development of No. 2 goalie Ville Husso – who has better individual numbers (9-3-1 record, 1.90 G.A.A., .941 SP) presumptive No. 1 Jordan Binnington (11-9-3 record, 3.27 G.A.A., .901 SP) – and relying on offense coming from all points of the lineup to win games. That said, they’re essentially capped out, but they have big decisions ahead on pending UFAs Husso and sniper David Perron, and they only have $10.3 million in cap space to sign nine players for next season. Like many teams, the Blues have committed to their core, all but gutted their middle class, and created cap space for their core by choosing as many NHL-league-minimum rookies and rookie contract deals as possible. We’ll see if that works out for them in the long-term, but right now, they’re still a playoff-worthy squad that, when they’re peaking, can beat anyone.
Dallas Stars: For this writer’s money, the Stars have been the biggest letdown in the league this season. They’re great at home (15-6-1), but lousy on the road (8-12-1). Jason Robertson is an emerging star, but the trajectory for veteran stars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is not what it used to be. Defenseman Miro Heiskanen is one of the great young blueliners in the sport. Soon-to-be UFA D-man John Klingberg appears on his way out, and may be dealt by the March 21 trade deadline. Its’ starting to become clear the Stars aren’t going to make the playoffs, and that should give GM Jim Nill a number of trades to build for their future. Right now, Dallas’ biggest earners are not at the same cream-of-the-crop level their fellow stars are on other teams. Having a deep defense corps will help them, but trailing the Blues by nine points, this late in the year, there’s not enough time or schedule left for the Stars to climb out of their competitive crater in the first half of the season.
Winnipeg Jets: As we said recently, former Jets head coach Paul Maurice looks like he knew exactly what he was doing in stepping down as Winnipeg’s head coach late last year, as the Jets have underwhelmed to the point they started the year as a potential top four team in the Central, and now are a potential bottom-three team. Offense has been a struggle for them, and injuries have also hurt them in a notable way. But the more I see the whole of the Jets together, the more I think they are less than the sum of their parts. Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a lot of bullets left in his gun before his job security really comes into question, but questions – and many of them – undoubtedly will come in the off-season for Winnipeg regardless of how the Jets play in the next 10 weeks or so. The intense disappointment of their current season is going to have significant consequences.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks’ abysmal public relations performance in the wake of abuse scandals is not related to their poor play on the ice. They fired former head coach Jeremy Colliton after going winless for their first 10 games, and the only reason they’ve remained close to Winnipeg for sixth spot only because they’ve gone 3-1 in shootouts. Having captain Jonathan Toews back in the lineup is a sentimental boost, but Toews is not about to put the team on his back and, with Patrick Kane, deliver the Blackhawks back to their recent glory days. They have depth problems at forward and on ‘D’, and they need to make big contractual decisions on Kane and Toews two summers from now. The transition phase seems to be dragging on in Chicago, and the Hawks are one of a few teams facing the horror of likely being a non-playoff team again next year. Is that how Toews and Kane want to spend their final seasons as impact players? Are they a package duo if they choose to play elsewhere? Lots of crossroads-type moments ahead for the Hawks, but not many that involve post-season hockey.
Arizona Coyotes: As an all-time most abysmal start to the season candidate, this year’s Coyotes made it abundantly clear their tank job would be relentlessly agonizing – and that’s to say nothing of the ongoing embarrassment that is the Coyotes’ search for a new home arena to play in next season – and only the sad-sack, injury-ravaged Montreal Canadiens have a worse win percentage (.261) than Arizona’s (.289). There’s very little reason for ‘Yotes fans to want to stay engaged this year, when Arizona has all but locked up last place in the Central. No meaningful hockey is going to be played there for at least the rest of this season, and that will be reflected in their ticket sales. Long-term Coyotes fans have heard enough lip service about this team’s future. Only positive results will bring them back to the arena, and the Coyotes are roughly two years away from being two years away from being a genuine playoff threat.