For a time, in the NHL, the best division in hockey was the Central. Between Jaime Benn and Tyler Seguin running Dallas, the dynasty in Chicago, the St. Louis Blues’ heart and skill, Nashville’s defense, and Minnesota’s consistency, there were five great teams from the division. It earned the Central the moniker “the Thunderdome”.
But at the halfway mark, the Central is left with only three playoff teams. That’s on par with probably the worst division in hockey, the Atlantic. It was only last year where the Central was considered the toughest division.
So what’s happened? The Blackhawks are still the Blackhawks. The Wild are a lot better than last year, and have picked up slack offensively and Devan Dubnyk continues to be impressive. St. Louis, despite losing a bit of that heart, are still a playoff team.
Which means it was Nashville and Dallas that fell off. Chicago and Minnesota both have more points than any team in the Pacific, which has five teams currently in the playoffs. To be fair, that might be why the Pacific has five teams in the playoffs.
Nashville traded their captain to Montreal in the offseason, and received a top defenseman, PK Subban, in return. Thing is, PK’s been hurt since December. James Neal, the lead goal scorer for the Predators, has also been hurt.
Even with those two players, the Predators had a very cold start to the year. This was considered odd, as many experts had labeled the Predators as a Cup favorite.
Part of the reason Nashville hasn’t succeeded this season is their offense. Their goal differential is just 2, and that’s with a competent defense and goaltending tandem. Besides James Neal, there are only two other double digit goal scorers so far on the Predators – Viktor Arvidsson and Mike Fisher. That means that Nashville’s once best forward, Filip Forsberg, is yet to hit that mark.
But Nashville’s been surprisingly able with a man advantage, hitting 19.1% of their chances. That’s better than 17 other teams. They’re also 14th on the penalty kill.
I fully expect the Predators to make a turnaround once PK Subban returns from injury, because he boosts both the offense and the defense for Nashville. They’re also only three points out of a wildcard spot, so stringing together a series of wins as is possible for the Predators could earn them ground. This is a better team than the Los Angeles Kings, so we should see Nashville back in it by the end of the season.
Dallas is a different story. When Dallas didn’t do anything to address their goaltender situation in the offseason, there was bound to be trouble. Jim Nill, last year nominated for the GM award, is to blame for this years iteration of the Stars.
Simply by addressing the overall miserable defense of the Stars last year, Nill thought that would fix the goaltenders. That’s not how that works, and Lehtonen (2.82/.900) and Niemi (2.97/.907) have been a problem all season.
The Stars have also had problems with defense, as Klingberg, Nemeth, and Johns have all been in the negative this year, and Hamhuis, Oduya, and Oleksiak haven’t had full seasons. Jordie Benn has been one of the better defensemen statistically for the Stars, and that’s ridiculous.
The Stars are entirely out of the race, and Benn is now injured, meaning they shouldn’t make up ground any time soon. That means that for the first time since re-alignment, the Pacific will have at least one wildcard.
It also means that the Central will have to shape up if they want to be the best division in hockey once more. There’s a lot of room to be made up between the Central and hockey’s new best division: the Metropolitan.