A decent amount of ink has been spilled this year over the strength of the Central Division. It's hard to argue. Every team finished with at least 90 points, and more than half the division entered triple digits. It's the only group to send 5 teams into the playoffs since the wildcard format was introduced last year, and with Winnipeg's admittance this season, it's the only one to have done it twice. On top of that, it's not the same five making the show each season - each and every team in the Central has represented their cities in the playoffs at least once over the past calendar year.
With all this in mind, it makes you wonder - just how strong is the Central? How do the teams match up within it, where do they rank historically, and what does this mean for the 7 clubs moving forward?
One thing to consider is that over 1/3 of the NHL schedule is played in-division. This practice, meant to create regional rivalries, also allows the Central to beat itself up around 30 times per team per year. With so many tough match-ups, no clear bottom feeders, and a guaranteed loser every time, it's actually acted to decrease the team's final points totals.
Once outside of the Central bloodbath, the 7 teams all do fairly well. Of particular note is Dallas 106 pts pace, so if any club has a bone to pick with this Division, it's the Stars. Their struggles against the other Central teams is a huge part of why they failed to make the post-season this year.
Conversely, Minnesota and Winnipeg did exceptionally well against their divisional rivals. St. Louis and Nashville suffered some setbacks, but surprisingly, Chicago really struggled. If you look at their 82-game pace, the Hawks suffered a 26 point gap between their non-division and in-division records. Luckily for them, the majority of games are away from the Central, but their record against familiar teams leaves a lot to be desired.
Something else to note is that the Avs were fairly consistent throughout. Their 91 pt non-division pace, 87 pt in-division pace, and 90 pt actual pace means that their totals weren't a result of the other Central teams. Improvements are necessary across the board if they hope to regain a competitive standing next year.
And Dallas? Well, let's just say that if all games were played in-division, they'd finish with around the same number of points as Toronto this year. Even though Colorado placed last in the final tallies, they weren't the runt of the Central. That distinction undoubtedly belongs to the Stars.
This begs the question - where does the current Central division stack up all time? To get closer to an answer, standing adjustments were needed. Historically, records were comprised of wins, losses, and ties. 1 point overtime losses were added during the '99-00 season, and ties were abolished after the '04-05 lockout. In order to get a modern-day approximation of these standings, I equated all shootouts - won or lost - to ties. This isn't a 100% accurate method because game strategies, roster composition, scoring, and the overall gameplay have altered in response to these systems over the years, but it should provide at least a more accurate ballpark for comparison.
|Historic Central Standings||GP||W||L||T||Hist. Pts||OTL||'99-00 Pts|
By my reckoning, there are two ways to compare standings. The first is by looking at the point total of the lowest place team to judge overall strength. In all the years since divisions were instituted in 1968, only 19 (of 201) have kept pace with the bottom of this year's Central. However, none of those divisions included 7 clubs. If judged against a similar number of teams, only two have kept pace: the 4-team 1979 and 6-team 1988 Patrick Division.
The other sign of a competitive division is how tightly the members are grouped. In this case, only 21 divisions had a comparable point gap between their top and bottom ranked teams. If the size of the division is factored in, only 7 were as tight as this season's Central: the 5-team 1987 Norris, 1986 Adams, 2008 Northwest, and 2011 Pacific; the 6-team 1988 and 1990 Patrick; and the 7-team 1995 Atlantic.
The only entry to appear on both lists is the 1988 Patrick Division. Amazingly, each of the six clubs finished above a .500 record that year (without the help of the loser point, no less), and the gap between the first place New York Islanders and the last Pittsburgh Penguins was a mere 7 points. No team hit the 90pt mark, but each finished with at least 36 wins. As strong and tight as the Central was this year, I think the '88 Patrick still takes the cake as the toughest division in NHL history. With that said, I'd rank the 2015 Central as a runaway second.
If the jump from last year's Central to this year's Central has shown anything, it's that tough division can continue getting tougher. This trend seems poised to continue, especially as each club looks to out-improve their neighbors this off-season. Could the 2016 Central give the 1988 Patrick a run for its money?
The Avs record next year depends mostly on what happens with their defense. Due to a slow start, a host of depth-depriving injuries, and a malfunctioning power play, on paper, they look poised to capture at least a few more points out of pure regression; however, the current roster's inability to transition the puck and suppress shots against will keep it from being competitive. If Sakic can find a top pairing player on the free market or a trade this summer, the Avs could storm back into the Central standings. If not, help is still on the way in the form of promising prospects, although it could mean another 1-2 years of mediocre finishes until they're ready to make the jump.
Dallas may have been the runt of the division this year, but with a 13-11-5 record in '13-14, that seems unlikely to continue. They have outstanding top line of Tyler Seguin, Art Ross winning Jamie Benn, and a returning Valeri Nichushkin, plus an up-and-coming defense based around John Klingberg and a host of other graduating prospects. Their biggest question heading into this off-season is goaltending. Kari Lehtonen posted a subpar .903 save percentage, and the team managed to get only 7 wins from backups this year. While this is likely to regress up, personnel upgrades are still probably needed for them to re-enter the Central Division race.
Just like Dallas, Winnipeg faces some goaltending questions as well, even if they are in a better position than the Stars. Ondrej Pavelec posted a .920 sv% on the year, which is leaps and bounds above his career average. Their backup, 25-year-old Michael Hutchinson, managed a respectable .914 in 38 contests as well. The team lacks a glut of high-end scorers with only Ladd, Wheeler, and Little breaking the 20 goal mark this season, but their depth is solid, their Corsi respectable, and their defense - lead by Byfuglien, Myers, Enstrom and Trouba - is deep and strong. They could take a big step back next year if Ondrej Pavelec remembers he's Ondrej Pavelec, but if their goaltending remains around league average, they're likely to remain in the playoff conversation.
Minnesota is a difficult team to predict. They have a large number of young players with potential, but the best of those - Mikael Granlund - finished the year on a 47 point pace. With Parise, Pominville, Vanek, Suter, and Koivu all headed a year deeper into their 30's next season, it will be interesting to see if the young players can establish themselves as anything more than helpful scoring depth. Devin Dubnyk represents another variable, especially since his .936 sv% with the Wild is unlikely to continue. If Minnesota gets at least league-average goaltending, their youth steps up, and none of their older core players start slowing, they'll likely return to the playoffs next year. How long that streak will last remains to be seen.
Chicago heads into the summer facing some very tough Cap-related questions. With Toews' and Kane's matching $10.5 million contracts kicking in, they have over $64 million already committed to only 15 players, including two cheap college signees that may or may not make opening night roster. RFA Brandon Saad is going to take up a significant portion of whatever cap space is left, and Patrick Sharp may need to be traded just so the club can field a complete roster. However, with their Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad, Seabrook, Keith, and Hjalmarsson core still in place and newcomer Teuvo Teravainen on the up-and-up, Chicago could still be very dangerous next year. This wouldn't be the first time they've reloaded after a cap-induced roster pruning, but their fate in the Central largely depends on how Stan Bowman recreates his lineup over the next few months.
The Predators remain a near-perfect example of a team built from the net out. Pekka Rinne is without question one of the best goalies in the world; Weber, Josi, Ekholm, Ellis, Jones, and Franson represent arguably the deepest and most well-rounded blueline in the league; and rookie Filip Forsberg headlines a now somewhat respectable forward corps. However, Laviolette-coached teams have a tendency to be very strong during his first year before dropping off rapidly in subsequent seasons. Nashville will need to avoid that pitfall while continuing to upgrade their forwards if they wish to remain near the top of this division.
Like many of the other teams, St. Louis' goaltending is the biggest question mark headed into next season. Neither Elliott nor Allen are much to write home about, especially since they posted a very pedestrian .917 and .913 sv%, respectively. However, the Blues possess a very deep forward corps lead by the young and talented Valdimir Tarasenko, not to mention a blueline that features both Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. If they continue to receive at least league-average netminding, they'll likely stay within the top 3 in the division. However, a goalie upgrade could make them an even more formidable team.
In short, any of the seven clubs could realistically win the division next year. All still have room to grow, so an upgrade here, a little luck there, and anything could happen due to how close they are in talent. As impressive as this season was, next year could prove to be even tougher.
But I guess that's just life in one of the all-time strongest divisions in hockey.