The State of Every NHL Central Division Team at the Olympic Break

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014

The State of Every NHL Central Division Team at the Olympic Break

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    It houses the division of the defending Stanley Cup champions, not to mention two others that went into the NHL's Olympic break with 79 or more points. The Central Division is a beast, in other words, one in which five of its seven teams could easily make the playoffs.

    The champion Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues enter the break tied in points with 84, though the Blues still have three games in hand. The surprising Colorado Avalanche aren't far behind with 79, and the Minnesota Wild are looking good for at least a wild-card spot. All seven teams have more regulation wins than regulation losses, the only division in the NHL that can say that.

    What follows is a more detailed breakdown of where teams stand and the outlook for the road ahead to the season's finish line.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    Current status: 35-11-14, 84 points, tied for first.


    Greatest strength: Offense. 

    Those top two lines of the Blackhawks remain the class of the league, exceeding even that of Pittsburgh. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp lead an attack that has produced 207 goals—the most in the NHL. Chicago also gets a lot of offense from the defense, led by Duncan Keith (48 points) and Brent Seabrook (34). Chicago's power play is ranked third in the league (22.1 percent).

    You just can't keep these guys off the scoreboard.


    Biggest problem: Penalty-killing.

    At 79.7 percent, the Blackhawks have just the 26th-ranked PK unit in the league. The team has missed Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik on the PK. It's just been too easy to score against and must improve if the 'Hawks are to repeat.


St. Louis Blues

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    Current status: 39-12-6, 84 points, tied for first.


    Greatest strength: Size, speed and team depth.

    The relentless Blues come at you with four fast lines that are always hungry for the puck. When they get it, their size and speed keeps it in opposing zones for long stretches, tiring opponents out. The Blues' plus-61 goal differential (196-135) is the most in the league. They have a fast, mobile defense that jumps into the offense nicely, too, with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo leading the way. 

    Five-on-five, St. Louis has allowed only 89 goals, third fewest in the league behind Boston and Los Angeles.


    Biggest problem: Is there enough offense?

    The Blues are deeper probably than last season, but many still worry they don't have enough big guns up front for a deep playoff run. In the previous 13 games entering Saturday, St. Louis averaged only 2.31 goals per game, 25th in the league in that span. 

    There is a long-term injury to valuable forward Vladimir Sobotka to worry about, too. General manager Doug Armstrong, many believe, needs to go out and get a good forward at the trade deadline. 

Colorado Avalanche

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    Current status: 37-16-5, 79 points, third place.


    Greatest strength: Team speed, overall forward depth.

    The speedy Avs have five forwards with 17 or more goals, including two (Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O'Reilly) with 20 or more. Colorado has so much depth up the middle that the dynamic rookie MacKinnon often centers the third line. That's understandable, with Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny ahead of him.

    The team has a strong young goalie, too, in Semyon Varlamov, who just signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension.


    Biggest problem: Depth on defense.

    You can get chances with the Avs, as their 32.3 shots allowed per game ranks 25th in the league. Once you get past Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson, the defense is staffed mostly by youngsters and castoffs from elsewhere. 


Minnesota Wild

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    Current status: 31-21-7, 69 points, fourth place.


    Greatest strength: Team defense.

    At 147 goals against, only St. Louis (135) has allowed fewer in the division. Ryan Suter, last year's Norris Trophy runner-up, is having another solid year. Not a spectacular one, no, but like many on the Wild defense, he just plays a strong, smart game.

    The goaltending also has been strong. Most expected the Wild to wilt once starter Josh Harding went down again to illness, but Darcy Kuemper has been excellent, posting an 8-3-2 record and .917 saves percentage


    Biggest problem: Inconsistent offense and special teams.

    Injuries to top forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu have hurt the overall goal numbers of the team, but even when they've been healthy, the Wild still have struggled to score consistently. The power play ranks 16th in the league and the penalty kill 22nd. Both must get better if Minnesota is to be any more than a one-round playoff team again.


Dallas Stars

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    Current status: 27-21-10, 64 points, fifth place.


    Greatest strength: Dynamic top line.

    The trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin is a real handful, with Benn and Seguin both entering the Olympic break with more than 50 points. The Stars also have others who can score, such as veterans Erik Cole and Rich Peverley, and the team's 31.6 shots per game ranks seventh in the NHL.


    Biggest problem: Age, depth on defense.

    Free-agent signees such as Sergei Gonchar and Ray Whitney haven't played very well so far. They probably just have too many miles on them finally. The defense is spotty overall, allowing 30.7 shots per game (22nd in the league).

    The Stars have to get big-scoring nights from the top line most nights if they hope to win, and that takes a mental toll after a while.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Current status: 28-26-6, 62 points, sixth place.


    Greatest strength: Size, overall offensive depth.

    The Jets seemed dead and buried not long ago. But new coach Paul Maurice has his team playing very well going into the break, and he's getting offense up and down the lineup right now.

    Winnipeg has seven players with 30 points or more and another four with 20 or more. The Avalanche have 17 more points than Winnipeg but only six more goals scored (174-168). Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little quietly have had strong seasons, and the move of Dustin Byfuglien back to forward was a smart decision by Maurice.


    Biggest problem: Goaltending concerns, mediocre power play.

    Al Montoya has played well of late, but he's a journeyman goalie. Can he really stand up to the pressure of a playoff run? If not, Ondrej Pavelec has been subpar all season and doesn't inspire confidence. Winnipeg's power play, at 14.4 percent, ranks 24th. Not good enough to compete in this division.



Nashville Predators

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    Current status: 25-24-10, 60 points, seventh place.


    Greatest strength: Power play.

    At 20.4 percent, the Predators rank sixth in the league on the power play. Shea Weber's big bomb from the point backs defenders off, creating more time and space for others, including himself. Defenseman Roman Josi (25 points) adds further strength on the power-play point.


    Biggest problem: Lack of high-end scoring, goaltending.

    Goaltending was never supposed to be a problem with this team, but with Pekka Rinne sidelined most of the season, it has struggled. Nashville's 180 goals allowed is the second most in the Western Conference. Up front, the Preds are led in scoring by 33-year-old David Legwand (40 points). Viktor Stalberg has been a bust as a free-agent signee from Chicago, and normally reliable forward Patric Hornqvist has had a mediocre year.