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Central Division reset

Wild in driver's seat, look to repel challenges from Blackhawks, Predators

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

NHL.com looks at how each team shapes up entering the stretch run in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The NHL All-Star break has come and gone, and the 10-week sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Tuesday.

Few of the League's 30 teams have pulled far enough away from the pack to be looking ahead to the postseason or dropped far enough below it that they're out of contention. There are 18 teams within nine points of one another; it's likely that no more than six of them will make the playoffs.

Here's a look at how the seven teams in the Central Division shape up entering the race for the postseason:

 
MINNESOTA WILD

(32-11-5, 69 points, 1st in division, 1st in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 34 (18 home, 16 away)

Special teams: power play: 21.5 percent (T-9th); penalty kill: 84.2 percent (5th)

What's gone right: The Wild have the most balanced offense in the NHL. They have seven players with at least 30 points and eight with at least 10 goals, each the most in the League. Center Eric Staal has been reborn; he has 41 points and leads Minnesota with 16 goals in 48 games, better than his production in 83 games last season with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers (13 goals, 39 points). The Wild also are doing well preventing goals, allowing 2.23 per game, second-fewest in the League behind the Washington Capitals (2.08), despite allowing an average of 30.3 shots per game. Devan Dubnyk has returned to Vezina Trophy-caliber form, with a 1.88 goals-against average and .936 save percentage that are the best in the League among goalies with at least 20 games.

What's gone wrong: They need more consistent play from backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who has a 3.28 GAA in 10 games. Playing better in the chances he gets would allow the Wild to rest Dubnyk a bit more to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Needs: They could look to upgrade behind Dubnyk. Another option would be a veteran center to play on one of the bottom two lines.

Trophy hopefuls: Dubnyk (Vezina), Ryan Suter (Norris), Mikko Koivu (Selke), Bruce Boudreau (Adams)

Schedule: The Wild come out of the All-Star break with a four-game road trip through Western Canada and Winnipeg, but then have an eight-game homestand. They finish March with seven of 11 games at home. They have seven sets of back-to-back games remaining. 

Outlook: The Wild have found another gear since the start of December, going an NHL-best 21-3-2. Minnesota is deep, talented and well-coached, and likely will be in contention for the top spot in the division, and the Western Conference, through the end of the season.

Video: Central Division review at halfway point of season

 
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

(30-16-5, 65 points, 2nd in division, 2nd in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 31 (12 home, 19 away)

Special teams: power play: 17.6 percent (17th); penalty kill: 75.9 percent (28th)

What's gone right: The line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane has been among the most dangerous in the League. Rookie forwards Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza have fit well in key roles.

What's gone wrong: The Blackhawks have struggled on special teams. They're 4-for-32 on the power play in the past 12 games. The penalty kill has been an issue all season, starting from when it allowed 15 power-play goals in the first eight games. For long stretches, they've been a one-line team, with forwards Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews dealing with injuries and inconsistent play.

Needs: Center Marcus Kruger's return from a hand injury sustained Dec. 30 will help the penalty kill, but they need a lot more consistency. That's an area general manager Stan Bowman could look to upgrade through a trade. A left wing to play with Toews and energize the power play is needed, but the cost in salary-cap space, as well as prospects and draft picks, could make that difficult. They also could try to add veteran defensive depth to support the top three of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Trophy hopefuls: Keith (Norris), Corey Crawford (Vezina), Kane (Art Ross)

Schedule: They play six straight on the road after the break before getting five days off. After that, they'll have 12 home games and 13 on the road remaining, with no trip longer than three games. They have five sets of back-to-back games left.

Outlook: Considering their major inconsistencies and special-teams struggles, the Blackhawks should be happy to be near the top of the division and conference standings. The veteran experience that comes with three Stanley Cup championships in six seasons has battle-hardened the core of the roster. Toews appears past the back problems that slowed him in the first half of the season, and with solid goaltending from Crawford and Scott Darling, the Blackhawks remain in contention to add another Stanley Cup banner to the United Center rafters.

Video: VAN@CHI: Kane picks the corner with nice wrister

 
NASHVILLE PREDATORS

(24-17-8, 56 points, 3rd in division, 6th in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 33 (17 home, 16 away)

Special teams: power play: 18.0 percent (15th); penalty kill: 83.1 percent (10th)

What's gone right: Recently, a lot. Since Dec. 30, the Predators are 9-3-2, and their 20 points are the most of any team in the Central. They've done it with a commitment to better defense, allowing two goals or fewer in 10 of their past 14 games, and goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have combined for a .936 save percentage. The offense also is starting to pick up. Filip Forsberg, their leading scorer last season, has eight goals in 14 games. Viktor Arvidsson has been a revelation, with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 47 games.

What's gone wrong: Defensive struggles sunk the early part of their season, with Rinne allowing three or more goals 15 times in his first 28 games. Forsberg, who had 33 goals last season, didn't score until his 14th game and had two goals in his first 27 games. Defenseman P.K. Subban missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, and defenseman Roman Josi has not played since Jan. 12 because of a concussion.

Needs: The Predators need to be stronger physically in the defensive zone. Another top-six forward could help energize an offense that can be streaky.

Trophy hopefuls: Rinne (Vezina)

Schedule: The Predators are home for nine of 13 games coming out of the All-Star break. They play six of eight on the road to start March but have no back-to-backs and twice have two days between games. They have five sets of back-to-backs remaining.

Outlook: The Predators are getting hot at the right time. Subban is healthy, and if Josi returns that will help in all areas. Rinne has rediscovered his form, and Saros has proven to be more than capable as a backup. If the offense stays consistent and there are no letdowns in goal, a top-three finish in the division is a strong possibility.

Video: CBJ@NSH: Rinne denies multiple scoring opportunities

 
ST. LOUIS BLUES

(24-20-5, 53 points, 4th in division, 7th in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 33 (14 home, 19 away)

Special teams: power play: 22.2 percent (7th); penalty kill: 83.2 percent (8th)

What's gone right: The Blues are 11th in the League in scoring (2.80 goals per game), and they have seven players with at least 11 goals. Forward Vladimir Tarasenko, whose 21 goals lead St. Louis, is a threat anytime he's on the ice.

What's gone wrong: Goaltending has emerged as a major issue. Jake Allen is 3-7-0 with an .869 save percentage in his past 12 games. During that span, he allowed three or more goals eight times and was pulled from three straight starts and four of his past six. He was told to stay home for a mental break rather than travel for a game at the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 21. The Blues are allowing 27.7 shots per game, fourth-fewest in the League, and need more from their No. 1 goaltender.

Needs: The Blues must have better play from Allen or GM Doug Armstrong could look to bring in a more experienced partner than Carter Hutton to split starts. More offensive firepower also could be an option. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, could be a trade chip.

Trophy hopefuls: Tarasenko (Richard), Shattenkirk (Norris)

Schedule: The Blues have two five-game road trips after the break, one through the Eastern Conference in February and another in March that includes games against the three California teams. They have five sets of back-to-back games left, including one to close the regular season at the Carolina Hurricanes on April 8 and home against the Colorado Avalanche on April 9.

Outlook: The Blues were one of the top three teams in the division until their run of poor goaltending. If Allen can rediscover his form, they have the talent to compete for one of the top three spots in the division.

Video: STL@MIN: Tarasenko goes five-hole to finish breakway

 
DALLAS STARS

(20-20-10, 50 points, 5th in division, 11th in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 32 (15 home, 17 away)

Special teams: power play: 17.2 percent (20th); penalty kill: 74.0 percent (30th)

What's gone right: Forward Patrick Eaves has stayed healthy and emerged as an offensive force with 18 goals, tied for the Stars lead. Tyler Seguin is recovered from the Achilles and calf injuries that short-circuited his 2015-16 season, leads Dallas with 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists), and played in the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game.

What's gone wrong: Goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have combined for a .901 save percentage, below the League average of .913. Captain Jamie Benn has missed four games because of injuries and has played at less than 100 percent in others, stunting his offensive production. Not having forward Patrick Sharp for most of the first half of the season because of a concussion affected their offensive depth.

Needs: A defined No. 1 goaltender is essential, but that likely will be an area GM Jim Nill will address during the offseason. They have a few prospects close to being NHL-ready, so an option could be hoping to get a spark from defenseman Julius Honka and forwards Jason Dickinson, Gemel Smith, and Denis Gurianov rather than making a major trade to push for a playoff spot.

Trophy hopefuls: Seguin (Art Ross)

Schedule: The Stars have three straight home games after the break, including two against Central Division foes (the Jets and Blackhawks). They play 12 games in February, seven at home. They play eight of 10 on the road to close March but finish the season with three straight at home. They have four sets of back-to-back games left.

Outlook: The Stars have most of the same players back from the team that won the Central Division last season. Despite their poor first half, they are one hot streak away from climbing into contention for a wild card into the playoffs. Improved goaltending and good health will go a long way toward making that a reality.

Video: MIN@DAL: Seguin puts home Roussel's nifty pass in 2nd

 
WINNIPEG JETS

(23-25-4, 50 points, 6th in division, 12th in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 30 (16 home, 14 away)

Special teams: power play: 17.8 percent (16th); penalty kill: 76.9 percent (27th)

What's gone right: At 18, forward Patrik Laine stepped onto the top line and is tied for the Jets lead with 22 goals. Mark Scheifele has emerged as a No. 1 center and is seventh in the League with 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists). Forward Nikolaj Ehlers has made a big jump offensively in his second season, with 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists) in 52 games after he had 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 72 games last season.

What's gone wrong: The goaltending tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson has been inconsistent, forcing the recall of Ondrej Pavelec from Manitoba of the American Hockey League. The offense hasn't produced much beyond the top line of Scheifele, Laine and Ehlers. Only Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little have more than 10 goals from the bottom three lines, and Wheeler is the only other forward with more than 26 points.

Needs: A veteran forward to supply secondary offense is a priority. Defenseman Jacob Trouba, who asked for a trade and missed the first 15 games of the season before signing a two-year contract, could be used as a trade chip. They also could look to add veteran depth on defense.

Trophy hopefuls: Laine (Calder), Scheifele (Art Ross)

Schedule: The Jets come out of the break with five straight games against Central Division opponents. They have a four-game Eastern Conference road trip in February but play six of their final 10 at home. They have five sets of back-to-back games remaining.

Outlook: Winnipeg has the offensive firepower to win games, but its playoff hopes are tied to its goaltending. If Pavelec, Hellebuyck or Hutchinson can provide consistent play, they could push for a wild card.

Video: WPG@CHI: Laine buries one-timer on the power play

 
COLORADO AVALANCHE

(13-31-2, 28 points, 7th in division, 14th in Western Conference)

Remaining games: 36 (17 home, 19 away)

Special teams: power play: 14.4 percent (27th); penalty kill: 78.6 percent (25th)

What's gone right: Center Nathan MacKinnon's continued development was rewarded with a trip to the All-Star Game. Center Matt Duchene is on pace to nearly match the 30 goals he had last season. Goaltender Calvin Pickard has a .917 even-strength save percentage in 23 games, better than Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins (.916 in 27 games) and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers (.913 in 36 games).

What's gone wrong: A lot, starting Aug. 11 when coach Patrick Roy resigned. Jared Bednar was hired two weeks later and has had a rough adjustment in his first NHL coaching job. The Avalanche average the fewest goals per game in the League (2.02) and allow the most (3.37). Starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov struggled with hip and groin injuries, and the Avalanche announced Thursday he would have season-ending hip surgery. Captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has scored 20 goals each of the past three seasons, has nine in 36 games. Jarome Iginla has six goals in 46 games and an NHL career-low 6.5 shooting percentage.

Needs: GM Joe Sakic told the Denver Post the only three players he won't consider trading are MacKinnon, rookie forward Mikko Rantanen and forward Tyson Jost, who the Avalanche selected in the first round (No. 10) of the 2016 NHL Draft. The most speculated trade candidates have been Iginla, Landeskog and Duchene. At 39, Iginla likely won't bring much in return. If Sakic opts to trade Duchene and/or Landeskog, the biggest organizational need is young, puck-moving defensemen.

Video: COL@SJS: MacKinnon dangles to set up Grigorenko

Trophy hopefuls: None

Schedule: The Avalanche have a five-game Eastern Conference road trip in February but play 11 of their final 19 at home. They have six sets of back-to-back games remaining; in five of them, both games are on the road.

Outlook: The Avalanche are on pace to have the first pick in the 2017 draft, which they could use to select Brandon center Nolan Patrick, NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater in its midterm rankings. With MacKinnon, Rantanen and Jost, who has 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 22 games as a freshman at the University of North Dakota, they have the chance to be strong through the middle in the near future. If they come out of the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1 with more prospects and high draft picks, there's a chance the Avalanche could be better in a hurry.

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