The rise of Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks in only one part of the Central Division's rise to prominence. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Take a look at the NHL standings today and you’ll notice they reveal tangible evidence of something people in hockey have known for quite some time – that after years of being a running joke, the Central Division is now the best in the league.
In fact, if the playoffs were to start today, all five teams from the Central would be in the post-season dance while the once-powerful Pacific Division would have four wallflowers. If that keeps up for another couple of weeks, the Central will be the first division ever to have all its members qualify for the playoffs in the 30-team NHL.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Central was being scoffed at around the league – and for pretty good reason. After all, it had the Detroit Red Wings and a bunch of bad teams. And there were many who suggested the Red Wings have padded their record over the past couple of years by playing roughly half their season against a bunch of patsies.
But that certainly isn’t the case now. First off, intra-divisional play has been reduced this season, which is probably a good thing for the Red Wings because the rest of the division has brought up its level of play dramatically.
Need proof? Well, going into Monday’s games, the Central has a 155-99-27 record in inter-divisional play for a winning percentage of .600, which is by far the best in the league. Against all other divisions, the Atlantic is 139-103-91 (.567), the Northeast is 135-99-37 (.566), the Pacific is 132-112-32 (.536), the Southeast is 128-110-40 (.532) and the Northwest is 133-118-21 (.528).
The Central is home to the current Stanley Cup champion and the league’s most successful franchise, will almost certainly produce the Calder Trophy winner for the second straight season, has some of the best coaches and brightest executive minds in the game and has a bevy of young, promising players who should make the division a force for years to come.
The Red Wings are showing absolutely no signs of slowing down despite years of bad draft positions and a veteran group of core players. The Wings have a farm team chock full of NHL prospects and have the managerial acumen to stay a legitimate contender for the foreseeable future. They’re a lock to once again lead the NHL in scoring and, if they get even decent goaltending, they stand a great chance to win their second straight Stanley Cup.
After years of bumbling mismanagement and incompetent ownership, the Chicago Blackhawks have two of the best young players in the game and have re-energized one of the most important markets in the league. They’ll likely run into some trouble if the salary cap takes a precipitous dive, but for now the Hawks are young, hungry and exciting to watch.
Barring a collapse of biblical proportions, the Columbus Blue Jackets will make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Scott Howson has provided a steady hand as the GM and Ken Hitchcock is exactly the kind of coach the organization’s young players needed to take them to the next level. They are full of terrific young players and prospects, including Nikita Filatov, who was declared the No. 1 prospect outside the NHL in this year’s Future Watch edition of The Hockey News.
Despite an ownership mess and a very shaky market, the Nashville Predators have been the picture of stability since the first days of their franchise. Both GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have been with the team since its birth and together have slowly and painstakingly built a formidable group. With Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis already there and Cody Franson and Jonathon Blum on the way, the Predators have the makings of one of the top defense corps in the league.
The St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, look like they’re on the verge of returning to contender status under new ownership and president John Davidson. T.J. Oshie is beginning to show signs of being a star in this league and Patrik Berglund is looking like a big-time future scorer in the NHL. David Perron has blossomed and if Erik Johnson can ever learn to drive a golf cart, he’ll bolster an already solid blueline.
In the Future Watch team rankings, Columbus ranked fourth, St. Louis fifth, Chicago seventh, Nashville 12th and Detroit 13th.
But the great thing is that for once, the present and the future both look promising for the five teams in the Central. The better thing is that nobody is laughing at them anymore. Instead, other teams are now fearing them.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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