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Central Division teams lining up behind Blues

Avalanche, Stars could push defending Stanley Cup champions

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

With the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game over and the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24 four weeks away, is taking a look at where all 31 teams stand heading into the stretch drive of the regular season. Here is the Central Division.


St. Louis Blues

Record: 30-11-8, 68 points, first place in Central

MVP: Alex Pietrangelo -- The defenseman, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, plays major minutes in all situations and should surpass his NHL career-high 54 points (15 goals, 39 assists) set in 2017-18. He has finished no better than fourth in Norris Trophy voting (2011-12); that could change at the end of this season.

Unsung hero: David Perron -- The forward has embraced a marquee role in the absence of injured forward Vladimir Tarasenko, and this could be the first time he scores 30 goals in his 13 NHL seasons. He played in the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game after he was one of four players selected in the 2020 NHL All-Star Last Men In presented by adidas fan vote.

Player to watch: Robert Thomas -- He entered the break with six points (one goal, five assists) in five games and is comfortable playing his natural center position. The Blues' chances at repeating as Stanley Cup champions will increase when Tarasenko returns and if Thomas' game reaches the next level.

Biggest need -- A top-six forward with speed and who can add scoring depth to complement St. Louis' size and physicality.

Second-half prognosis -- Even if the Blues stand pat at the NHL Trade Deadline, they're loaded enough for another run at the Cup. They've overcome the loss of Tarasenko and are 17-4-4 at Enterprise Center, which could be a big asset if they earn home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: STL@COL: Pietrangelo buries backdoor feed from Perron


Colorado Avalanche

Record: 28-15-6, 62 points, second place in Central

MVP: Nathan MacKinnon -- The center defined the term "most valuable" with 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in the 15 games linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog missed with injuries to help Colorado go 8-6-1 in that stretch. MacKinnon is the second player since the Avalanche relocated to Colorado in 1995 to score at least 30 goals in three straight seasons (Joe Sakic, 2003-04 to 2006-07) and might pass his NHL career high of 41 (2018-19).

Unsung hero: Samuel Girard -- The defenseman was an unheralded part of the three-team trade between the Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Ottawa Senators that sent center Matt Duchene to Ottawa on Nov. 5, 2017. Girard is no longer an unknown with 26 points (one goal, 25 assists) this season, one shy of his NHL career high of last season. His 10 points (10 assists) are tied with John Carlson of the Washington Capitals for most at the position since Jan. 1.

Player to watch: Cale Makar -- His 37 points (11 goals, 26 assists) lead NHL rookie defensemen. The key is how he responds when games become more important; he passed his first test by making his NHL debut in the 2019 playoffs with six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 games.

Biggest need -- Colorado is loaded offensively, but more depth and grit could help it become a serious Stanley Cup contender. Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz also must seize the job of No. 1 goalie.

Second-half prognosis -- The Avalanche trail the Blues by six points and must fend off the rest of the conference that's bunched together competing for eight playoff berths.

Video: Best highlights of Nathan MacKinnon's season thus far


Dallas Stars

Record: 27-17-4, 58 points, third place in Central

MVP: Ben Bishop -- Among the NHL leaders in GAA (2.28) and save percentage (.927), the goalie was denied playing the All-Star Game in his hometown of St. Louis but has a good chance to be a Vezina Trophy finalist for the fourth time.

Unsung hero: Andrew Cogliano -- Goal scoring isn't there, but the forward has killed penalties and provided leadership playing on the checking line with Radek Faksa and Blake Comeau. He was acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for forward Devin Shore on Jan. 14, 2019.

Player to watch: Jamie Benn -- The forward's production has declined since his signature season of 2015-16, when he had 89 points (41 goals, 48 assists) and was third in Hart Trophy voting for NHL MVP. Benn may no longer be a top-flight scorer but could help the Stars create separation in the division.

Biggest need -- A second-line scorer to boost an offense that's 27th in the NHL (2.56 goals per game). Stephen Johns' return after he was sidelined since March 29, 2018 with post-traumatic headaches provides depth at defenseman, especially if Miro Heiskanen (NHL concussion protocol) is slow to recover.

Second-half prognosis -- The Stars are 26-10-3 after a 1-7-1 start and weathered the storm of coach Jim Montgomery's firing on Dec. 10. They also entered their break with two straight losses by a combined 11-1 and three losses in four games. Dallas plays seven of 11 games on the road following the break but has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (118) and will be a tough team to handle down the stretch.

Video: DAL@LAK: Benn goes upstairs for a power-play goal


Winnipeg Jets

Record: 25-22-4, 54 points, fourth place in Central

MVP: Connor Hellebuyck -- The goalie has 21 wins, fourth in the NHL, and a .917 save percentage to go with a League-high four shutouts, playing more games (42) and facing more shots against (1,281) than anyone.

Unsung hero: Blake Wheeler -- He's a stabilizer as Jets captain with 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) since shifting to center after 16 games and is fourth on Winnipeg in scoring with 43 points (15 goals, 28 assists) in 51 games. He is playing less than 20 minutes per game (19:13) for the first time in three seasons.

Player to watch: Patrik Laine -- The forward is handling top-line minutes in his fourth NHL season and is among the streakiest players in the game. The Jets would love to see him get on one of his rolls to make a big move in the playoff race; he has 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 49 games.

Biggest need -- A reliable backup for Hellebuyck with potential unrestricted free agent Laurent Brossoit struggling. Issues on the penalty kill (74.4 percent, 28th) also must be corrected.

Second-half prognosis -- Winnipeg missed an opportunity to gain ground on Dallas when it was outscored 20-7 in four straight losses with the Stars on their break. The Jets' 1-6-1 record in their past eight games at Bell MTS Place could prove costly; a turnaround is needed with nine of 15 February games at home.

Video: VAN@WPG: Hellebuyck becomes franchise shutout leader


Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 24-21-6, 54 points, fifth place in Central

MVP: Patrick Kane -- The forward is a contender to win the Hart Trophy for a second time (2015-16) with 63 points (25 goals, 38 assists) in 51 games. Kane is riding an 11-game point streak (16 points; five goals, 11 assists) that started Dec. 31 after he had 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in a 15-game run from Nov. 2-30. He could score at least 100 points for the third time in his NHL career and second time in three seasons.

Unsung hero: Dominik Kubalik -- The seventh-round pick (No. 191) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2013 NHL Draft arrived in a Jan. 24, 2019 trade for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The forward developed instant chemistry with center Jonathan Toews after starting the season skating with Brandon Saad and David Kampf. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar is getting the most attention for the Calder Trophy given to the top rookie in the NHL, yet it's Kubalik's 21 goals that lead first-year players and a big reason the Blackhawks have climbed into playoff contention.

Player to watch: Alex DeBrincat -- Chicago would love to get the forward going after he entered the break with 12 goals in 51 games. He scored 14 midway through his rookie season and finished with 28, and 25 after 51 games in 2018-19 en route to 41. Another post-break scoring surge would give the Blackhawks another weapon down the stretch.

Biggest need -- A depth defenseman with Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook each out for the season. The 27th-ranked power play (15.6 percent) could use some help.

Second-half prognosis -- Chicago's rebuild is coming along faster than anticipated. It entered the break with five wins in six games and the next step could be winning a playoff round for the first time since its Stanley Cup title in 2015.

Video: PAC@CEN: Kane wrists one past Markstrom


Minnesota Wild

Record: 23-21-6, 52 points, sixth place in Central

MVP: Eric Staal -- The veteran center has been the best player for the Wild, who have not decided whether to make a playoff run or hit the reset button. Staal became the 89th player in NHL history with 1,000 points on Dec. 15 and likely will score at least 20 goals for the 13th time.

Unsung hero: Ryan Suter -- The 34-year-old defenseman continues to go about his business in his eighth season in Minnesota. He quietly averages 24:56 per game, seventh in the NHL, and his 21 assists are tied with Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators for most at the position since Nov. 19.

Player to watch: Carson Soucy -- The 25-year-old rookie defenseman and fifth-round pick (No. 137) of the 2013 NHL Draft is plus-13 since Dec. 3 and has picked up the slack for struggling Matt Dumba. 

Biggest need -- The Wild could use some speed and skill to complement their aging veteran core. Decisions await the front office on how to achieve that and remain competitive.

Second-half prognosis -- Minnesota has tailed off following a six-week stretch when they led the NHL with 30 points (13-4-4) from Nov. 14 to Dec. 27. The Wild are 4-6-1 since, but one of those wins was 7-0 against the Stars on Jan. 18. They open February with seven of eight games at home that could decide their direction for the present and future.

Video: DET@MIN: Staal cleans up rebound in front


Nashville Predators

Record: 22-18-7, 51 points, seventh place in Central

MVP: Roman Josi -- He's the first defenseman in Predators history to reach 40 points in fewer than 40 games and had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in an NHL career-high 13-game point streak from Dec. 16 to Jan. 9. The captain has kept Nashville within striking distance of a playoff berth during a difficult regular season.

Unsung hero: Ryan Ellis -- The defenseman remains sidelined with an upper-body injury sustained by a hit from Stars forward Corey Perry in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Ellis quietly did the dirty work alongside Josi and was on track for NHL career highs in goals, assists and points.

Player to watch: Matt Duchene -- More was expected from the center after he signed a seven-year, $56 million contract July 1, 2019. Duchene began the season with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in nine games to help the Predators get off to a 5-3-1 start. He entered the break with 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in 44 games. If Nashville is to make a late playoff push, Duchene will have to improve his production.

Biggest need -- Special teams. The Predators are in the lower portion of the NHL on the power play (16.9 percent, 24th) and penalty kill (73.7 percent, 29th) and have allowed an NHL-high 0.83 power-play goals against per game. Defense and goaltending have historically been strengths for Nashville, but not this season.

Second-half prognosis -- The Predators are 3-3-0 since John Hynes replaced Peter Laviolette as coach Jan. 7. The conference race is tight, and Nashville must jump over a handful of teams to climb back into playoff position. A four-game trip through Western Canada from Feb. 4-10 could decide its fate and whether it will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14, Barry Trotz's final season as coach.

Video: ARI@NSH: Josi fires home wrister from the point

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