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Central division is so good, so close one great team could miss out on playoffs

Dom Luszczyszyn
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Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. (Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Central division is so good, so close one great team could miss out on playoffs

Dom Luszczyszyn
By:

There are six very good teams in the Central and that makes it hard to choose who’ll come out on top, but also who’ll miss the playoffs.

Just as everyone expected during the off-season, the Central division is the best division in hockey and frankly, it’s not even close. From St. Louis to Winnipeg, the Central is a murderer’s row of six very talented teams (and Colorado, who we’ll just ignore for the remainder of this piece) that will likely beat you and beat you often. That’s exactly what’s happened so far as the other 23 teams are collectively 14-28-4 against non-Colorado Central division teams and have been outscored 129 to 97. They’re also getting under 48 percent of the score-adjusted shot attempts in those games. Any way you slice it, expect pain when you face the Central. There are six very good teams in the Central and that makes it hard to choose who’ll come out on top, but also who’ll miss the playoffs. Not every team can make it, even if they deserve to, and that poses a potentially big problem for the league. A maximum of five teams from a single division can make the playoffs which means one of those dominant Central teams is going to be left behind, with a very real possibility that it’s to accommodate an inferior Pacific team instead. Based on every team’s current record and 20,000 simulations of the remainder of the season using the same model from the pre-season projections, the odds are about 1-in-4 that the sixth best team in the Central will finish with more points than the third best team in the Pacific. Having a top eight team in the conference sit out of the playoffs because of silly divisional rules is not a good look for a league that stresses parity. The driving factor for all this has been Anaheim’s wretched start combined with a very weak crop of teams in the Pacific outside of Los Angeles and San Jose. The Ducks are still projected to finish third, but have dropped from 95.5 projected points to 89. That’s seven less than the Winnipeg Jets who are projected to finish sixth in the Central with 96.1 points. The playoffs should be reserved for the best teams regardless of what arbitrary division (or conference for that matter) they’re assigned to. Because that’s not the case though, one Central team might get screwed over come April. With that said, here’s a look at each team in the Central and why they might win the division… or miss the playoffs entirely.
DALLAS STARS
Current Record: 7-2-0
Projected Record: 47-26-9
Playoff Probability: 92.0%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 32.8% The Stars were the best team in the Central according to their projected WAR during the pre-season and they remain the early favourite thanks to a strong 7-2-0 start. They have the league’s best duo in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin who currently sit first and third in points this season. They’re an offensive powerhouse with elite possession ability. That’s tough to match.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 8.0% (2.1% as better than 3rd in Pacific) Last season’s main issue was goaltending and that’s probably the only reason Dallas can miss this year too. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have been okay as a tandem so far with the early lean to Niemi, but their past few years haven’t been great. Dallas’ uptempo style can leave the two vulnerable at times and if they’re not sharp there could be trouble.
MINNESOTA WILD
Current Record: 6-2-1
Projected Record: 45-27-10
Playoff Probability: 86.9%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 21.5% Team defense is one of the team’s biggest strengths and could be the driving force behind a Central division crown. That and the ability to roll four lines without hesitation. The Wild are a very deep team with a smart coach that could excel even further with breakouts from their younger players.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 13.1% (3.0% as better than 3rd in Pacific) Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been sharp so far and we saw how poorly the Wild started last year without capable goaltending. No one’s expecting him to repeat last season’s campaign, but he needs to be at least average. The Wild are also on the lower end of the possession spectrum in the Central.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Current Record: 6-1-1
Projected Record: 45-27-10
Playoff Probability: 84.5%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 18.7% A great start helps a lot for the Predators who were the pre-season odd man out in the Central. They’re a strong possession-wise again – a theme in this division, really – and have arguably the league’s best defense core.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 15.5% (3.4% as better than 3rd in Pacific) Their top two centers are Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro and that doesn’t exactly stack up well with the rest of the division. The forward group is effective, but not as deep as some of the other Central teams and an injury to a top player could be especially costly. The team depended a lot on Rinne’s success last season, but his track record isn’t as great as his reputation.
Kane & Toews (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Current Record: 6-3-0
Projected Record: 44-29-9
Playoff Probability: 73.0%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 10.2% Joel Quenneville runs a tight ship and Chicago has one of the best systems year after year leading to excellent puck possession even with ever-changing personnel. The team keeps changing, but the 'Hawks remain great every year. As long as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are playing well, the 'Hawks will always have a chance at winning the division.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 27.0% (5.4% as better than 3rd in Pacific) An early injury to Duncan Keith is a big concern that might be enough to derail their season. Keith logs huge minutes and is undoubtedly the team’s best defensemen making his value hard to replace during his absence. Aside from that, the off-season jettison of talent has the Blackhawks lacking in depth. Any more significant injuries could prove costly.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Current Record: 6-2-1
Projected Record: 43-29-10
Playoff Probability: 71.2%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 9.3% WAR wasn’t as high on the Blues to start the season after the Brouwer-Oshie trade along with a few other moves, but they’ve looked great to start the season. The Blues are currently the league’s best possession team on the strength of elite team defense which is a Ken Hitchcock staple.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 28.8% (5.4% as better than 3rd in Pacific) This one is obvious: injuries. No Jaden Schwartz for three months is a huge hit. Add No. 1 center Paul Stastny to that and it leaves the Blues lacking up front. Very few teams can survive losing forwards of their calibre and with the relative strength of the division, the injuries might be their demise. Aside from that, one of the weakest fourth lines in the league and shaky goaltending are an area of concern.
WINNIPEG JETS
Current Record: 5-3-1
Projected Record: 43-29-10
Playoff Probability: 70.4%
Why They Could Win The Division
Probability: 9.1% Three very capable forward lines that can score and defend on any shift. The Jets have a tremendous top nine that can match-up with practically any team in the West. The emergence of rookie Nikolaj Ehlers has been a revelation so far for the team.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs
Probability: 29.6% (5.8% as better than 3rd in Pacific) Winnipeg looks to be the early favorite for odd man out for a few reasons. The team lacks discipline and is pretty ineffective on the penalty kill (a very bad mix), goaltending is always a concern with Ondrej Pavelec between the pipes, and they’re the weakest possession team in the division so far (although they were one of the best last season). All three are fixable, but if anyone has to miss right now, it’s likely Winnipeg.

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Central division is so good, so close one great team could miss out on playoffs