Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's going on in the Central?

We’re a month into the season, and for the most part, the standings look about right. There are surprises here and there, to be sure, but things are starting to settle in, and a look around the league’s divisions shows that things are unfolding pretty much according to plan.

We all figured the Atlantic would be some combination of the Bruins, Habs, and Lightning at the top, with the Sabres and Panthers at the bottom, and that’s exactly what it is. We all had the Penguins on top of a logjam in the Metro, and there they are. We figured the California teams would own the Pacific, and while the Canucks and Flames appear to have missed that memo, the division is otherwise about right.

But there’s always one troublemaker, and this year it’s the Central. It’s by far the league’s tightest division, with all seven teams separated by just six points. Nobody’s managed more than six regulation/OT wins. And while it was supposed to be the league’s best division, if the postseason started today, it would send just three teams.

What’s going on? And more importantly, can it last? Let’s see if we can figure any of this out.

What was the Central Division supposed to look like?

Preseason predictions are often all over the map. But as the season approached, it’s fair to say that a reasonably strong consensus started to emerge around the Central. The Blackhawks were the heavy favorite to be the division’s best team, although you could have talked yourself into the Blues if you were sold on their offseason shake-up. The Stars were going to be the division’s most exciting team, and the Wild would be in the same range, but less interesting. The Jets and Predators would be terrible. And the Avalanche were the wild card — some people thought they’d be good, while others thought they’d struggle.

And what does it really look like?

The Blackhawks haven’t looked like themselves, limping out of the gate with a start just north of .500. The Blues weren’t much better early on, but have since strung together a six-game win streak to start resembling the team we expected them to be.

The Wild and Stars switched roles, with Minnesota being the division’s must-watch team while Dallas has been (barely) mediocre. The Jets and Predators have both been surprisingly good, and right now they’re holding down two of those three playoff spots.

And the Avalanche are still the wild card some people think they’ve been terrible, while others think they’ve been really terrible.

So we were wrong about everything?

Sort of, but with a few caveats. The most important, and most obvious, is that it’s still early. We’re only about a dozen games in, which is too soon to start carving any conclusions into stone. Remember, this time last year the Maple Leafs were in first place in the Eastern Conference, and we all remember how that turned out. There’s still plenty of time for things to get back to normal.

But since my editors rejected my proposal of exclusively breaking down old hockey team lip-sync videos until February, when everything settles down, we’ll work with what we have. And what we have are a dozen games from each of these teams, give or take. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to start putting some pieces together.

Also, we weren’t wrong about everything. The Blues are about where we expected.

Good. Let’s talk about them first.

Gladly. There may not be a team in the division facing more pressure than the Blues, who haven’t been out of the second round in 14 years and could be forced into a “blow it up and start over” scenario if they can’t show that they can hang with the contenders.

So far, so good. The big question for St. Louis was always going to be goaltending. After last year’s Ryan Miller experiment turned out to be a disaster, they went into this season with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott is a veteran who’s been very good for long stretches of his career, and Allen is one of the better prospects at the position, so they were in reasonably good shape, but they didn’t have a sure-thing established starter that most contenders like to have.

A dozen games in, both guys have been fantastic. They’ve had to be, since the offense has been a disappointment — Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Devils being a perfect example but the team’s lowly even-strength shooting percentage suggests that should pick up. Big free-agent acquisition Paul Stastny has played just four games because of injury, but should be back soon, and young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko haven’t hit their ceilings yet.

The Blues are sitting in first place, albeit by just a point or two over half the division. And they’ve still got lots of room to improve. But right now, they’re the division’s best team.

What about the Blackhawks? Weren’t they also supposed to be unstoppable?

I picked them to win the Cup this year, so obviously I’m scratching my head a bit over an uninspiring start that’s seen them win just five of 13 in regulation/overtime. They were one of the league’s best teams last year and returned largely the same lineup. And their one major offseason move, adding Brad Richards on a $2 million deal, was the sort of low-risk/high-reward move that seemed like it couldn’t fail.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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