The Covid division, sorry Central division is an interstring one.
Ah, The “Covid” Division *rubs chin and gazes off into the distance, deep in thought; a subtle smirk slowly grows across my face*
Man, oh, man. As a Blues fan, it is hard not to get nostalgic talking about the good ole Central. It brings back memories, not too distant, of a pre-pandemic Enterprise Center packed to the brim, ready for divisional showdowns.
It is hard to deep-dive into the Central without analyzing how the Blues measure up against divisional rivals, both new and old. It is even harder to find the rationale for the Blues’ temporary move out West. As best I can tell, it is nothing more than Doug Armstrong and Co. playing good soldier, agreeing to an unfavorable arrangement for the betterment of the sport.
With the Blues and Avalanche out West, the new-look Central does not appear at first glance to be the deepest division in hockey. But what they lack in-depth, they make up for at the top. With recent Covid developments, this division is interesting.
Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0-0
The Lightning are a legitimate powerhouse. Yes Sir. This is the type of team that can make the leap from Champion to Dynasty over the next few years.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Tampa has officially gotten off on the right foot. They have started their season notching a pair of home victories over the lowly Blackhawks, outscoring Chicago 10-3.
Steven Stamkos looks good as new, with already 5 points to his name. Victor Hedman enters the season an early favorite for the Norris, with Andrei Vasilevskiy behind him in net, an early favorite for the Vezina. It may be a Floridian pipe dream, but look out if Nikita Kucherov is healthy and back for the playoffs. The lighting will have to reschedule games lost to COVID.
The Central division is theirs for the taking. right now that is.
Florida Panthers 2-0-0
As we currently stand, the top two teams in the Central are the two teams that matched up against Chicago to start their seasons. I am not convinced Florida is a great team or even a playoff team, but kudos to Quenneville and his boys in red for taking care of business against a team they are more talented than.
It puts them in a nice spot and should give the team a bit of confidence. My enthusiasm for what could turn out to be a fairly good team has tapered off a bit with their COVID-19 related shutdown and some initial struggles in the net. My gut tells me Bobrovsky will bounce back, but he is getting older and he will need to rebound from a career-worst 2019-2020.
They have got talent up top with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, but I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon just yet.
As a quick side note, congrats to Keith Yandle on his 100th goal and continued Iron Man streak. With his contract, I would expect we will see some trade rumors throughout the year, but he has been a pretty solid D-man for a long time and is still an asset on the blue line.
Carolina Hurricanes 2-1-0
The Hurricanes had favorable matchups to start their season. You cannot ease your way into a street fight, but it helps to face off against Detroit for the first two games of the year. Although the Hurricanes only managed to split, I believe home ice will have a bigger advantage than a lot of folks are expecting.
The Red Wings taking down Carolina in game 2 in Detroit is evidence that it helps to sleep in your own bed. At the end of the day, The Hurricanes are a pretty solid team and should be a favorite to make the playoffs.
Dougie Hamilton is one of the best offensive defensemen in hockey. Jacob Slavin is no slouch. But above all else, do not be surprised to see Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov (3 goals in 3 games) make the jump from really good to elite.
Nothing covers up average goaltending better than dynamic playmakers. These dudes will need to bail their netminders out from time to time, but they are good enough to do it, and I expect they will. (Editors Note. this was written before the Covid shutdown)
Nashville Predators 2-1-0
It is hard to say nice things about the Preds. While the rivalry has not developed to the level of Blues/Blackhawks, I have always found myself actively routing against Nashville. I love what Nashville, as a market, has done for the league, adding a touch of southern charm to the northern game, but I cannot get behind Smashville.
Blame Jordin Tootoo.
The 2021 version is off to a decent start though, with back-to-back wins over Columbus prior to a 4-2 loss to a good Carolina team. On paper, the Predators look like a team that could contend for a playoff spot.
Roman Josi is as good a defenseman as you will find. He is the type of player that dramatically changes the dynamic of a game every time he steps foot on the ice. And he is on the ice a lot for Nashville, averaging over 25 minutes a game the past two seasons.
The team around him does not quite stack up but look for Jusse Sarros (.959 Save % thus far) to take a giant step forward and solidify himself as a top 10 goaltender.
Detroit Red Wings 2-2-0
How about Bobby Ryan? He is three games in with 4 goals and 17 Penalty Minutes (all from Monday night’s contest). I do not know if anybody saw that one coming, but good on him.
He is an easy guy to root for after working to overcome struggles with alcoholism. He should be a nice veteran presence around a team with some decent young talent. It feels like Dylan Larkin has been in the league forever, but he is still only 24. He will not break the highlight reel, but he is reliable and consistent.
Tyler Bertuzzi has some upside at 25. Robby Fabbri (remember?) put his name on the score sheet in the Redwing’s win over Carolina Saturday. He too is only 24 years old. Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss are not the worst tandem in hockey.
There is some hope in Motown as Steve Yzerman looks to restore the franchise to its former glory, but do not expect major dividends just yet.
Columbus Blue Jackets 1-2-1
It has been a rough start to 2021 for John Tortorella and his Columbus Blue Jackets. They managed to secure their first (and only) win of the new season on Monday vs. Detroit, but Pierre Luc Dubois’ now public trade demand seems to be wearing on the team a bit.
The Blue Jackets do have some talent beyond Dubois, most noticeably on defense with Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, but their season ultimately depends on what kind of return they can get for Dubois (assuming they do ultimately trade him).
They undoubtedly need help up front, but there is some hope for a resurgence from Cam Atkinson. He is healthy but has yet to find his name on the score sheet through four games. Joonas Korpisalo has played well thus far (.944 save %, 2.04 GAA) and should be entering his athletic prime at age 26.
Do not be surprised if he emerges as a legitimately good number one goaltender. But overall, this is a tough team to gauge until there is some finality with Dubois.
Chicago Blackhawks 0-3-1
How can you not be excited to see the Blackhawks look so bad?
I am not sure who they will want to throw in the net on any given night, but it does not appear they have a viable option at goaltender.
To their credit, they have been nothing if not consistent, giving up 5 goals in each of their first 4 games. While at some point they can expect to see the return of captain Jonathan Toews, they are currently chugging along without a notch in the win column.
Patrick Kane can still score, and Alex DeBrincat should continue to develop, but there is not much to get excited about right now in the Windy City. the will they trade Kane questions are already starting to appear. Just Wish the Blues were in the Central division this year. Easy points.
Dallas Stars 0-0-0
The defending Western Conference Champions have yet to get into game action with their season delayed due to a flurry of positive COVID-19 tests. But they look to take the ice Friday night vs. Nashville.
They have certainly got the makings of a contender with a good mix of veterans (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski) and youngsters (Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz) alike. Add in one of the league’s best goaltending tandems and a motivated group who fell just short of a Stanley Cup. Well, now you are looking at a legitimate Cup threat.
The first couple of days in this division have been tumultuous, to say the least. COVID-19 has struck this division harder than any other. There is no question, the question is how will COVID-19 affect each team going forward. Not just the teams that test positive. Games will be postponed and rescheduled. What was a tight schedule already, is now even tighter. The next couple of weeks will be interesting to watch. Like the old saying, “May you live in interesting times.”