The true season of hope for NHL teams is opening night, when the records are all the same and everyone has a shot, at least theoretically. That hope wanes at different points for every team but one. The holiday season is the season of hope for everyone else, so let’s have a little fun and see what each team would like to wake up under their Christmas trees. Some teams have multiple wishes, but asking the Panthers to pick between better goaltending and more even-strength scoring would be like asking teenage me to pick between an Xbox or a PS3; I’d happily take either.
Saturday we took a look at the Pacific division, now on to the Central.
Chicago Blackhawks: A direction
Chicago is a harsh reminder of reality under the salary-cap: you can’t stay great forever. With an aging roster and some inflated contracts, the ‘Hawks are at a bit of a crossroads. They’re not really bad enough to warrant a full tear-down. They’re also not really good enough to make you think they’re just a piece or two away from truly contending again. That’s why they must make the difficult decision to pick a direction and stick to it. Do they go the Rangers route and announce a full rebuild? Do they continue to tread water in the hopes that some magic and a gamble on a guy like Dylan Strome can get them back to the playoffs? Do they push their chips to the middle and make a big move with what they have now? Regardless of which path they choose Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks brain trust venture down it steadfastly, because if you continue to tread water you’ll finish in the middle, draft in the middle, and stay in the middle. The middle is not where anyone wants to be.
Colorado Avalanche: A better PK
You can put me firmly in the camp that thought the Avs severely over-achieved last year and would regress. Coincidentally, you can firmly put me in the camp that was wrong. Colorado’s first line has been unstoppable, and the rest of the team has pulled enough of their weight to put the Avalanche within striking distance of the division lead halfway through the year. With all the talent up front, it’s no surprise they have one of the league’s best power-plays. With all the offense, though, the defense has been questionable, especially on the penalty-kill; their PK% sits tied for 22nd in the league. They currently reside near the middle of the pack in terms of goals against, so an upgrade on the PK – whether it be an internal one or not – would be huge for a team looking to sustain this pace and push for a top spot in a tough division.
Dallas Stars: Good health
The fact that the Stars sit just 2 points out of a wild card spot is pretty astonishing given the rash of injuries they’ve dealt with. There have been games where more regular members of the Texas Stars suited up on defense than members of the Dallas Stars. They’ve lost an inordinate 96 man-games to injury on defense (to be fair, the Bruins lead the league in that category, but their forwards have been far healthier than Dallas’). Over the course of their 35 games so far, that’s almost half of their D-corps sitting out due to injury, per game. Imagine your team playing with half of their defensemen. Other important pieces have missed extended periods as well, like forward Jason Spezza and goalie Ben Bishop. The Stars have talent and seem to be responding well to first-year coach Jim Montgomery’s message. Whether or not they get – and stay – healthy will be a determining factor in how far they go.
Minnesota Wild: A Move
Much like your parents are obliged to get you socks for Christmas, Paul Fenton is pretty much obliged to make a move at this point. Many expected him to do so in the offseason; while he listened to offers he eventually stood pat, saying he wanted to assess his new team. That’s fair. Not making a move when his team started the season 14-9-2 was fair as well. Since the beginning of December, however, the Wild have lost 7 of 10 and are quickly spiraling downward. I’m not suggesting he raze the earth and blow up the team – it takes some sort of talent and consistency to make as many consecutive postseason trips as they have – but it seems more and more like they need a shakeup, some new blood. The good thing is that they have assets all over the board, many of which I’m sure opposing GMs have on their Christmas lists.
Nashville Predators: Take fewer penalties
Nashville plays a rough brand of hockey, but coincidentally takes a lot of penalties because of it. They lead the league in penalty minutes, are 9th in penalties taken and have the worst PIM differential of any team. Their opponents have had over 400 penalties minutes, almost 30 more than the next-worst team - Calgary, if you were curious. For a team with Cup expectations, that won’t cut it, especially in the playoffs against potent power plays like Winnipeg and Colorado where those power play goals can be such momentum shifters. Nashville’s 14% power play percentage is cause for concern, but with their defense-first style – they allow the fewest shots and goals per game of any team in the league – they still have time to work out those issues, as long as they give their guys a fair shot and stay out of the box.
St. Louis Blues: Consistency
The Blues have a ton of talent and it shows, just at different times. Everything but their penalty kill and faceoff percentage (thanks ROR!) ranks outside the top-10 of the league. They started the season playing well defensively, but couldn’t score. Then they finally started scoring and giving up a plethora of goals. All the while, the power play and goaltending have been maddeningly inconsistent. On the nights where O’Reilly is tearing it up, Vlad is invisible. When Petro is playing well, Parayko and Bouwmeester are making mistakes. When Jake Allen has a good game (yes that still happens) the structure collapses arounds him. The Blues were labeled by many as cup contenders after what looked to be a fantastic offseason and have shown they have the talent in bursts, but haven’t pieced together a solid stretch of games to gain any positive traction. They’ll need to find a way to put it all together at the same time or else the season is lost, if it isn’t already. Perhaps that, coupled with the fact that everyone from the GM down to the players is fighting for their job, will provide them the necessary jolt.
Winnipeg Jets: Take Fewer Penalties
Like a few others, the Jets, with their vicious power play, bruising style, and finishing ability are really tough to nitpick. They’re a bona fide cup favorite and back it up with their play every night. They get contributions from everywhere and everyone. Essentially, they’re in much the same boat as Nashville: just be more disciplined. They’ve taken the third most penalties in the league, but offset it a little better than the Predators with the league’s best power play. Even then, staying out of the box helps everyone. The Jets also surrender a lot of shots, and staying off the PK will obviously help in that category as well. It may seem like the easy answer, but the easier answer is that Winnipeg is just really freakin’ good and doesn’t much more need to make their Christmas (or their season) any better.
NHL.com, Fox Sports, Natural Stat Trick, NHL Injury Viz, and Sean Tierny’s Tableau – which is an amazing resource for NHL sabermetrics – were used for research for this article.