NHL Central Division Background

NHL training camps are underway across the league, so let’s keep rolling with our tour around the league.

We’ve tackled the East Conference with the Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions so far, and now it’s time to begin our two-division tour through the west with the Central Division.

It’s a division with a heavy favorite, some intriguing longshots and even a new entry into the division, so let’s do a team-by-team breakdown before suggesting the best team to fade and the top value bet among the group!

*Odds courtesy of BetUs
**Salary cap data courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

Colorado Avalanche (-250)

The Avs are heavy favorites to take down the Central Division, and for darn good reasons.

After all, they were the best two-way team in hockey last season, ranking first in the league with 3.52 goals per game and third with 2.36 goals against per game at the other end. Both their power play and penalty kill ranked eighth in the league and they largely got excellent goaltending, which just so happens to be perhaps the most intriguing department to keep an eye on this season.

Somewhat surprisingly, the expansion Seattle Kraken swooped in and signed Philipp Grubauer to a lucrative free-agent contract after selecting Chris Driedger from the Panthers in the expansion draft. Grubauer turned in tidy 1.95 GAA and .922 Sv% with seven shutouts in 40 outings last season, so his loss isn’t irrelevant.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
1st

Defense
3rd

PP
8th

PK
8th

Sv% (5v5)
T-15th

The Avs did go out and trade for Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes and Pavel Francouz will again back up the club’s No. 1. That said, Kuemper has missed plenty of time with injuries over the last two seasons, appearing in just 56 games in that time. He also worked to only a .907 Sv% last season — tied for 19th among the 32 goaltenders who appeared in at least 25 games — and the pressure will be on considering the haul it took to land him in the form of highly-touted young blueliner Connor Timmins, a 2022 fist-round pick and a conditional 2024 third-rounder.

Add in the fact that Francouz missed all of the 2020-21 season with a lower-body injury and it appears the Avs’ goaltending situation is a little tenuous entering the season, at least from a health standpoint as both netminders have usually been quite good when healthy.

Even with the new situation between the pipes, this is very much a Stanley Cup contender. The club retained captain Gabriel Landeskog before he tested free agency, and the depth scoring remains behind the big boys in Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Look for 20-year-old Alex Newhook to perhaps make a move into a prominent role up front, perhaps even in the club’s top-six.

What’s better than 1⃣ Nathan MacKinnon goal?

2⃣ Nathan MacKinnon goals in a minute. #NHLonSN pic.twitter.com/2G28vhJJpU

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 19, 2020

As for the blueline, they did lose a reliable top-four presence in Ryan Graves due to expansion-draft protection reasons. Despite it’s relative youth, a top-four featuring Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Bowen Bryam and Devon Toews/Erik Johnson looks rather impressive from a two-way perspective. Whether or not they miss a more stay-at-home presence such as Graves or even big man Nikita Zadorov remains to be seen, but there’s zero doubt this group is oozing with upside as Makar and Girard had their names whispered in the Norris Trophy conversation at times a season ago.

No doubt we’re looking at the team to beat in the Central here.

Minnesota Wild (+700)

Wild fans took a collective exhale once news broke that young stud Kirill Kaprizov signed off on a five-year contract to remain in the City of Hockey for the long-term after rumors of a potential return to Russia circulated earlier in the summer. There’s zero doubt Kaprizov’s return was a crucial part to any success the Wild would have this season after pacing the team with 51 points in 55 games en route to a landslide Calder Trophy win.

Despite a lack of star power up and down the lineup, the Wild received solid offensive production as a balanced four-line club, and surprised many en route to a ninth-place finish in overall offense despite a bottom-10 power play. Many of those offensive pieces will return in the form of Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and more.

What they won’t have are a pair of veterans in Zach Parise up front and Ryan Suter on the blueline, both of whom were somewhat shockingly bought out of their identical 13-year contract this summer. Parise was the more understandable of the two given his 18 points in 45 games, but perhaps general manager Bill Guerin must have seen some notable decline in Suter given his 22:11 of average ice time combined with younger, cost-controlled d-men in Jared Spurgeon, Matthew Dumba and Jonas Brodin, all three of which contribute at both ends of the ice and all earn at least $6M a year against the cap.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
9th

Defense
15th

PP
T-23rd

PK
T-11th

Sv% (5v5)
14th

Perhaps the biggest loss of the group was a young, budding d-man in Carson Soucy who was plucked by the Kraken in the expansion draft. With Suter and Soucy out of the picture, Guerin signed a quartet of veteran defensemen in Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov, Jordie Benn and Jon Merrill to round out of the remainder of what is a new-look blueline in the lower ranks.

The true strength of the 2020-21 Wild is to be seen in their elite underlying metrics. Thanks to a stout defense that led the league in high-danger chances against/60, the Wild in turn were able to spend more time at the other end of the ice where they ranked 13th in high-danger chances for/60 at 5v5. Add it up and they finished fifth with a 55.41% of high-danger chances a season ago (the Avs ranked first).

Obviously, the ability to prevent high-danger opportunities not only benefits the transition game and offense, but the goaltending as well. The Wild signed veteran Cam Talbot after an excellent second half with the Flames in 2019-20, and he rewarded them with 33 appearances of 2.63 GAA/.915 Sv% goaltending. That said, 25-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen slipped as the season went along to a 2.88 GAA/.902 Sv% despite the high-quality of defense in front of him.

It should certainly be interesting to see if this Wild defense can perform as well as it did last season. The goaltending numbers behind that elite defense didn’t exactly stand out, and you wonder what happens if they can’t live up to that lofty bar on the blueline once again this time around.

Dallas Stars (+850)

Do the Stars deserve a pass for their inability to qualify for the postseason on the heels of a Stanley Cup Final appearance in the 2019-20 postseason? Maybe they do.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
18th

Defense
T-7th

PP
5th

PK
19th

Sv% (5v5)
13th

They did get just three games out of Tyler Seguin who missed nearly the entire season after offseason hip surgery, and Ben Bishop never recovered from knee surgery in time to appear at all a season ago. Missing you top center and No. 1 goaltender for a full season is certainly starting behind the 8-ball.

Making matters worse right now is that Bishop still has not been cleared to play, as per general manager Jim Nill according to the Dallas Morning News.

“We don’t know when he’s going to play, if he plays,” Nill said of Bishop. “So, we decided we needed to make a decision. He’s still rehabbing. His plan is still to be ready sometime during the season, we don’t know when that will be.”

That’s certainly not music to Stars fans despite a solid veteran/youngster tandem of Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger who combined to post the league’s 13th-ranked 5v5 save percentage at .920 last season, so the club went out and signed veteran Braden Holtby to allow Oettinger to further develop in the minors. Holtby’s 3.28 GAA/.895 SV% over the last two seasons should of little consolation, however.

Now very much a defense-first structure, the Stars did well to rank 18th on offense last season, buoyed by a fifth-ranked 23.6% power play. Nick Robertson emerged as an out-of-nowhere Calder Trophy candidate and despite nagging injuries, Roope Hintz tallied 43 points in 41 games. A healthy Seguin certainly helps and the combination of John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen on the blueline gives the Stars two of the better offensive players in the game, so perhaps the offense indeed moves into the top-half of the league this season.

A 🚀 from the rookie!

Jason Robertson gets the @DallasStars on the board! 🚨 #NHLonSN pic.twitter.com/uRJ7KE5JGm

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 10, 2021

The club remained a top-1o overall defense without their top netminder, and their 5v5 defense was fifth-best at 2.02 goals against/60, but a 79.1% penalty kill set them back some. Incoming on that blueline is the aforementioned Suter who signed on for four season in the big D and helps fill a void left by the departure of Jamie Oleksiak who was plucked by the Kraken after emerging as a quality, top-four presence. The club also added a nice penalty-killing d-man in Jani Hakanpaa who ranked third in the league with 215 hits in just 56 games last season.

Goaltending will be an x-factor for a Stars team that would appear ready to make a bounce-back effort at a postseason berth this season.

St. Louis Blues (+1400)

They grabbed a postseason berth last season, but didn’t exactly “earn” it as the weakness of the Coyotes, Kings, Sharks and Ducks had more to do with that postseason spot than anything. With a 27-20-9 record and -1 run differential the Blues were one of  just two teams to make the playoffs last season with a negative run differential (Canadiens, -9).

Yet, here we are looking at another team out for some redemption. Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich are real nice adds to an offense that slipped towards the middle of the pack despite one of the game’s better power plays. Despite finishing 13th in overall offense, the Blues also ranked 30th — ahead of only the Red Wings — in terms of expected goals for/60 and dead last in high-danger chances for/60 at 5v5, so their power play certainly bailed them out along with a fourth-ranked high-danger shooting percentage.

It was a tumultuous offseason for disgruntled winger Vladimir Tarasenko whose exit seemed all but certain whether it by via the expansion draft or a potential trade this summer. Fast forward to the opening of camps and he remains a Blue, and it’s probably best for the team if anyone close to vintage Vladdy can show up for the 2021-22 season. After all, only Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares scored more goals than Tarasenko’s 182 from the 2014-season through the 2018-19 campaign before a shoulder injury took over.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
13th

Defense
19th

PP
6th

PK
25th

Sv% (5v5)
18th

Add in the vets in Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn and David Perron along with youngsters Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas and the Blues should boast three nice scoring lines this season.

The back end has seen significant turnover over the last couple summers as veterans Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson are no longer with the club, and not the defensive core features Colton Parayko, Torey Krug and Justin Faulk, certainly a nice start. Whether the bottom-half of the blueline is deep enough remains to be seen.

That group includes Marco Scandella, Robert Bortuzzo and a pair of inexperienced 25-year-olds in Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman, at least for now. Scandella and Bortuzzo are solid defenders, but it appears the club could be an injury or two away from some major depth issues, especially with Vince Dunn predictably headed to Seattle in the expansion draft. A lack of depth on the blueline hasn’t been seen in St. Louis in some time.

To me, the real x-factor remains between the pipes, as it does for many clubs. The Blues signed Jordan Binnington to a long-term deal at $6M annually last season, but the truth is he hasn’t been 2019 Binnington over the last two seasons.

Since that magical run en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, Binnington has posted a .911 Sv% in 92 appearances over the last two regular seasons, good for a share of 20th of the 40 goaltenders with at least 50 appearances over that time. According to Hockey Reference, Binnington’s 2.56 goals saved above average (GSAA) ranked 25th among goaltenders who played at least 10 games last season.

Has be been terrible? No. Has he been good? No. He’s been right in the middle, which is not only expensive at $6M annually, but risky for a team that has seen its back end thinned out of late and a franchise that absolutely needs to make the playoffs this season.

Winnipeg Jets (+1600)

Their ability to put the puck in the net has never been in question, it’s their ability to provide any sort of protection for their Vezina-winning goaltender.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
12th

Defense
10th

PP
7th

PK
13th

Sv% (5v5)
6th

Last season, the Jets ranked 26th in terms of scoring chances against/60 and 27th in high-danger chances against/60, yet finished 12th in terms of goals against/60 compared to a 27th-ranking in expected goals against/60. In other words, you have a team defense allowing scoring opportunities at a bottom-five rate, yet gave up goals at a near top-10 rate.

That’s called the Connor Hellebuyck effect. One of the few remaining true No. 1, workhorse goaltender in a league leaning heavily towards a tandem approach, Hellebuyck leads the league by far with 233 games played, 21 more than second-place Andrei Vasilevskiy. For good measure, his 227 starts in that time are 18 more than second-place Vasilevskiy. His 7,230 shots against in that time are 600 more than second-place Vasilevskiy.

In that same time, he’s tied with Philipp Grubauer for fourth with a .919 Sv% among goaltenders with at least 140 games played. He ranked ninth with 10.99 goals saved above average despite the plethora of high-danger chances that went his way.

Just a GREAT effort here from Connor Hellebuyck 😲#NHLonSN | #ItsOn pic.twitter.com/JL75acwK4S

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 2, 2021

So, the Jets needed to improve their blueline, and they did just that. It’s not the deepest group in the league, but adding a wildly reliably Brendan Dillon to your top-four and penalty kill helps while Nate Schmidt’s skating should at least help in terms of zone exits and less time spent in Hellebuyck’s end of the ice.

Josh Morrissey is another reliable top-four presence while Neal Pionk has quickly developed into a reliable top-pair defenseman who is a major presence at both ends of the ice. A likely bottom-pair of a hulking Logan Stanley (still just 23 and developing) and Dylan Demelo isn’t the worst in the league. Bottom line is this defensive unit is far-and-away better right now than it was this time last year.

A nice depth winger in Mason Appleton was another expansion draft casualty, but the Jets are going to score goals. That’s the expectation when Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois are anchoring the offense. You have to like the depth down the middle with Scheifele, Dubois, Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry forming that four-man group, and maybe the addition of Riley Nash affords one of those four to move into a top-six wing role.

They’ll look to score more than the 3.04 goals per game (12th) than they did last season, and they will if that back end can indeed show improvement. They finished with a 23% power play clip that sat seventh, so we know that unit will be dangerous once again.

Look out for the Jets if that blueline can begin to prevent chances and allow Hellebuyck to shine between the pipes.

Chicago Blackhawks (+2000)

One of the most active offseason clubs in the league, the Blackhawks made a bevy of win-now offseason moves in the hope of qualifying for the postseason for just the second time in the last five seasons and first in five excluding the expanded 2020 playoffs.

Make your pick as to what the biggest move the team made was, but it’s hard to argue with acquiring the reigning Vezina winner for pennies on the dollar to give you goaltending stability you largely haven’t had in some time. Sure, Kevin Lankinen was a big story seemingly out of no where last season, but on the heels of a 1.99 GAA and .928 Sv% in 38 games last season, it’s a major add for a team that started last season with a Malcolm Subban/Colin Delia tandem.

Sticking with the back end, the earliest offseason splash was a blockbuster deal that saw the club acquired former Predators and Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, who will now be united with his brother Caleb who was included in the Duncan Keith trade with the Oilers. It’s a changing of the guard on the Blackhawks blueline with Keith hone and Brent Seabrook retiring, led by Jones and another key — yet underrated — defenseman Jake McCabe and Calvin de Haan, should he stay healthy.

For a Blackhawks club that ranked dead last in high-danger chances against/60 at 5v5 last season, 30th in expected goals against/60 and tied for 24th in overall defense (thanks to Lankinen), the splashy back-end additions are welcomed in the Windy City.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
16th

Defense
T-24th

PP
11th

PK
28th

Sv% (5v5)
T-15th

The forward group also got a boost, and not just outside of the organization. Jonathan  Toews missed all of last season due to Chronic Immune Response Syndrome, and while his return isn’t guaranteed from the outset, he’s said to be in Chicago for much of the summer skating and working to get back into the lineup.

Otherwise, the Blackhawks were able to take advantage of a tight cap on behalf of the reigning two-time Cup champion Lightning and acquire Tyler Johnson to help Patrick Kane and Toews anchor a young, developing offense. A potential 40-goal scorer (again) lies within that group in Alex DeBrincat while Dominik Kubalik (26), Dylan Strome (24), Kirby Zach (20), Alex Nylander (23), and Philipp Kurashev (21) will look to do their parts in contributing.

Offense wasn’t actually the last of their problem despite missing Toews for the whole season and both Dach and Nylander for the majority of the season as they finished 16th in overall offense, thanks mostly to a power play that finished just outside the top-10 at 21.7%. They will, however, look to create more even-strength opportunities after finishing 27th in high-danger chances/60 a season ago.

With renewed hope in a hockey-crazed city, the Blackhawks will certainly be an interesting team to watch in the 2021-22 campaign.

Nashville Predators (+4000)

From renewed optimism to plenty of pessimism, there’s little doubt the Predators have taken numerous steps in the wrong direction despite a late push that saw them sneak into the postseason last season.

GM David Poile is usually known for his aggressive, win-now moves, but this summer appeared to be more of a throw-in-the-towel mindset with a couple of productive veterans being cast off. Viktor Arvidsson — coming off a down season based on major shooting rate regression — was traded to the Kings for a couple of draft picks while veteran two-way defender Ryan Ellis was traded to Philadelphia in a deal that brought a fine-looking youngster in Philippe Myers to Music City.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
22nd

Defense
T-11th

PP
T-23rd

PK
29th

Sv% (5v5)
1st

I mean, the back end is in solid shape. Captain Roman Josi remains on of the game’s better all-round defenseman and is followed by Mattias Ekholm, Dante Fabbro and Philippe Myers in the top four. Things aren’t so promising underneath, but that’s a top-four plenty of clubs around the league would accept with pleasure.

The club is also in good hands in the crease with No. 1 Juuse Saros. David Rittich was signed to a one-year free-agent deal to provide some support, but this Preds team is going to go as far as Saros and that blueline can take them.

Saros endured a poor start last season, but rebounded with authority and wound up turning in a fantastic 2.28 GAA and .927 Sv% across 36 games played, ranking among the league leaders in both categories. In fact, Saros’ .921 Sv% since entering the league in the 2016-17 season is the best in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 150 appearances in that time. Bet you didn’t know that!

Juuse Saros with a big save on Dylan Strome. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/iiHoJVDArm

— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) April 3, 2021

Whether the team in front of Saros will be able to score enough to consistently win remains to be seen. Matt Duchene’s Predators tenure so far has been disastrous and Ryan Johansen has been a shell of his former self of late. The team’s lone true elite offense weapon is Filip Forsberg who could very well turn into the trade deadline’s most attractive target given his pending UFA status at season’s end.

Otherwise, Mikael Granlund, Colton Sissons and Eeli Tolvanen will be relied on to offer some secondary scoring, but it’s an awfully thin bottom-nine group in Nashville these days, especially with Arvidsson now playing in Hollywood.

Arizona Coyotes (+12500)

Yet another rebuild in the desert is underway as the Coyotes spent much of the summer acquiring picks and prospect in exchange for relieving opposing club’s of salary-cap obligations. Several notable names were dealt away or allowed to walk in free agency such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, Alex Goligoski, Derick Brassard, Michael Bunting, Jordan Oesterle, among others, including both ends of their goaltending tandem in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

As a result, the ‘Yotes have accumulated eight draft picks in the first two rounds of next year’s draft, but it’s going to be a long year for the players that do remain, most notably Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, Jacob Chychrun and Nick Schmaltz. Unproductive veterans were brought in to offer some leadership and support, but don’t expect much in terms of a bounce-back year from many names that include Andrew Ldd, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Anton Stralman, Shayne Gostisbehere and Carter Hutton.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
23rd

Defense
22nd

PP
13th

PK
T-11th

Sv% (5v5)
23rd

Aside from the plethora of picks, the most attractive name brought aboard was 23-year-old defender Conor Timmins, the aforementioned former Avs defender who has top-pair billing in his future.

Not helping matters was the retirement of one of the game’s elite defensive defenders in Niklas Hjalmarsson, a key member of an improved ‘Yotes defense in recent years. That said, it’s nearly an entirely new blueline and goaltending unit, so I’d expect those figures to plummet this season.

I’d be shocked if this Coyotes team finished anywhere but lottery-pick territory.

Best Fade

Minnesota Wild (+700)

A year ago at this time I was all over the Wild to get into the postseason and perhaps make some noise once there. They nearly did some damage once in the postseason in losing a deciding Game 7 to the heavily favored Vegas Golden Knights, but the team certainly exceeded expectations.

This time around, I’m not sure sure.

I’m not so sure the blueline is as good and will prevent chances at the same rate they did in pacing the league in doing so last season. I’m not so sure they can once again put forth a balanced offensive attack that can get into the top 10, especially without a potent power play.

Also of some concern is the numbers the goaltending duo put forth. Talbot’s production was solid for his $3M salary, but far from fantastic and Kahkonen’s play dipped heavily after a real nice stretch earlier in the year. Can that duo post superior numbers behind what appears to be a weaker back end? It’s not entirely likely, but I suppose possible.

They’re also going to get stiff competition underneath them, odds-wise. The Stars, Blues and Jets all appear to be better than their 2020-21 versions of themselves, and the Predators just might have a better back end and certainly better goaltending.

It’s also going to be difficult for anyone to knock off the Avs, so I don’t see much value in the Wild with the second-shortest odds to win the Central.

Best Value Pick

Winnipeg Jets (+1600)

Do I think they’re going to win the division over the heavily-favored Avs? Clearly, the odds are against them. That said, if I’m laying money on anyone outside of Colorado, it’s the Jets.

Of the teams in this division, I think their offense competes best with that of Colorado, and I think they’re goaltending is better. As I noted earlier, what this truly comes down do is whether or not the low-key additions to that Jets blueline can provide enough support for Hellebuyck to once again post Vezina-type numbers.

Dylan is exactly the type of player they needed. Largely stay-at-home, physical, penalty-killing top-four presence. All 32 teams in this league need a Brendan Dylan. I’m not quite sure how Schmidt fits, but he’s an NHL-caliber rear guard who helps with pace and zone exits with his legs. He can also contribute offensively.

Neal Pionk (@NPionk95) with a cannon! pic.twitter.com/BDHNAv3IAi

— NHL (@NHL) February 22, 2021

And they’ll also a fine two-way defender duo on the top pair in Morrissey and Pionk, the latter of whom is big threat at the offensive end as well. He hits and blocks shots too boot which makes him an excellent 200-foot NHL defender about three-and-a-half years into his tenure. What a grab in the Jacob Trouba trade with the Rangers.

The offense and goaltending are already to compete for a division crown. Whether the blueline can do its part remains the biggest x-factor for a Jets team with excellent Central Division value at +1600.