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Surprises in the Central Division

by Pete Weber / Nashville Predators

I really hope you didn’t base your predictions for the 2014-15 NHL Central Division race on last year’s final standing of the clubs.

2013-2014 Central Division

Team: Wins: Losses OTL/SOL Points
Colorado 55 22 8 112
St. Louis 52 23 7 111
Chicago 46 21 15 107
Minnesota 43 27 12 98
Dallas 40 31 11 91
Nashville 38 32 12 88
Winnipeg 37 35 10 84

Space
The above standings included the top five in the division making the playoffs in the Western Conference. This year has proven to be quite different. Three of last year’s surprise teams have proven to be disappointments thus far.

Colorado Avalanche:

The Colorado Avalanche have fallen on hard times. They are still above break-even, but barely so. Last season, Patrick Roy’s first as head coach in the NHL, the Avs seemed to get every break: They won the majority of their one-goal games and goaltender Semyon Varlamov was spectacular, leading the league with 41 victories in 63 starts. That hid a suspect defense.

Because of injuries, Varlamov will not be playing that many games this season. The Avs have had to adjust to a team that isn’t able to simply outscore opponents. Last season, with Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, (2013-14 Calder Trophy winner) Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny all scoring more than 20 goals, they were the premiere run-and-gun team in the League.

Colorado lost Stastny as a free agent to St. Louis, but signed Jarome Iginla from Boston, and brought back Alex Tanguay up front. But this time around, it is likely they will have just three 20-goal men (Iginla, Duchene and Tanguay). Last week, they lost their top defenseman, Erik Johnson, to knee surgery. Even though the Avs took three of four points from the Predators this past week, they still have a double-digit points deficit to make it to the top three in the division, which carries an automatic playoff berth.

Dallas Stars:

The Dallas Stars offseason moves centered on fleshing out of their top six forwards. They brought in Jason Spezza from Ottawa in a trade, along with another Senator - Ales Hemsky - as a free agent. Both of them have had their problems producing as expected. Aside from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, the Stars most reliable forward combination has been Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt. They have been struggling on defense, the blue line specifically. Kari Lehtonen has done his job in net, but the Stars are essentially treading water, slightly behind Colorado and slightly ahead of Minnesota.

Minnesota Wild:

Minnesota’s (three points behind the Avs at this writing) major problem this season has been looking at their goaltending. They used five at that position last season and four so far this time around. In 2013-14, Josh Harding - even though he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis early on - was their best, but he hasn’t played for them this season. Devan Dubnyk has become the man in net for the Wild the past few weeks and has accumulated eye-popping numbers. He will need to maintain those for the Wild to have a chance, and the Wild need more scoring to help Zach Parise.

Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators:

On the plus side in the Central this season: the emergence of the Predators and the Winnipeg Jets.

Let’s go to Winnipeg first of all. A big part of the story in Manitoba has been the emergence of rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson. He has pushed the previously unchallenged Ondrej Pavelec in net and has produced a Top 10 defensive rating. That is remarkable in that only Dustin Byfuglien has been regularly available on the blue line. Jacob Trouba, Zach Bogosian, Toby Enstrom and Mark Stuart have all missed significant time.

The Jets score by committee - much like the Predators. The committee is getting contributions from seven players with double-digit goal totals. It looks like the Jets are solidly in as a Wild Card team in the West now, and they are closing in on the top three.

We all know the Predators’ story: excellent goaltending from Pekka Rinne right from the start. At the 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend in Columbus, there were more than a few players who indicated that Rinne would be their choice to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, not to mention the Vezina as top goaltender. He was in the process of putting his career-best together when he was injured against Vancouver.

Nashville’s scoring committee also features seven players with 10 or more goals and a defense that has been doing an outstanding job both ways.

Bottom line: No one could have expected the seasons the Predators and Jets have put together so far based on last season’s play.

St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks:

As for St. Louis and Chicago – they are simply maintaining what they have done the last several seasons. The Blues hope this is the season they advance further in the playoffs, while the Blackhawks have their eye on another trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

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