The Central division is a hotly contested one again this season while it should remain that way for the vast majority of the campaign.
Last year, the top two regular season teams from the NHL came out of the Central in the form of the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. There’s reason to believe the best team(s) in the league could come out this division again as the Predators, Avalanche, Jets and even the Wild could put their name into the hat to win the Central.
It’s going to be a dogfight. I’m sure Stars fans would read this and say “don’t sleep on us”, and I wouldn’t disagree with the top-end talent they have. They could probably use some more depth, but they also just got their number one goaltender back from injured reserve, which will help.
No matter how you cut it, there’s a handful of teams involved in this race which makes for great entertainment. This division could go toe-to-toe with the Atlantic for the best division in hockey, and there’s a good chance this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner will come from one of these divisions.
Competitiveness and parity is what makes this exercise so fun. We are going to predict a favorite to win the division, a value pick to win the division and identify a team whose odds are overpriced at this stage.
First, let’s take a look at the odds to win the NHL’s Central Division, as per Bovada.
Now, let’s go ahead and identify the favorite, a value play, and an overpriced team to win the Central.
*Stats as of before play on 11/30/18
Nashville Predators (+115)
The Predators are certainly going to be in the mix for the Central Division crown again this season. Looking up and down the roster, it’s hard to see a deeper and more balanced team within this division than the team playing in Nashville.
Of course, this team’s defense has been their calling card for many years and that is once again the case this time around. Nashville currently ranks second in the league with just 2.42 goals against per game on the season and their goaltender is going to be in the Vezina Trophy picture once again after winning it last year.
Pekka Rinne took home his long-awaited Vezina Trophy last season when he posted a 2.31 GAA and .927 Sv% and posted 42 wins. This season, Rinne has so far outdueled himself with a 1.85 GAA and .935 Sv% across 16 starts, 10 of which have resulted in wins, although his season-long win total is going to be hurt by the fact he missed almost the last two weeks of October with an injury.
Rinne is one piece of that stout defense, however a lot of the credit has to go to the six-man defensive corps GM David Poile has put together. There arguably isn’t a better top four group in the league than Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm, although Subban is sidelined with an injury right now. Together, this group is allowing just 29.2 shots per game this season, the fifth-fewest per game in the league.
While they don’t have a ton of star talent up front, the Predators manage to get the job done on offense. Their 3.19 goals per game rank 12th this season and they finished seventh with a similar 3.18 figure a season ago.
The team is currently without a couple of key top-six pieces in Kyle Turris and Viktor Arvidsson, however, Nashville tends to get notable contributions from unheralded players such as Calle Jarnkrok, Craig Smith and Colston Sissons, among others. They have three lines that can score, although you wouldn’t see it on paper.
Another thing this team has in its back pocket over some of the competition is the experience. The Jets do as well, but the Predators know how to navigate an 82-game season better than almost any other team in the league. They simply allow everyone to do their job while creating a role for every player on the club.
The chemistry always appears to be here as a result. Of course, having one of the league’s best goaltenders and best groups of defenders helps. The Preds aren’t surprising anyone anymore, but they consistently keep the puck out of their net, which is going to have them cruising into the playoffs again this season.
They are still the best bet to win the Central Division for the second straight season.
Winnipeg Jets (+430)
Compared to last year, we haven’t heard much of the Jets this season. The hype just doesn’t seem to be there to the extent we saw last season, which is odd because this team is right in the thick of the Central Division race.
At the time of this writing, the Jets sit five points back of the Predators, but they also have two games in hand on their division rival. That said, there are some areas where this team has fallen off from a season ago.
One area is goaltending, as per below.
Connor Hellebuyck Last 2 Seasons
|Goals Against Average||Save Percentage|
Hellebuyck just hasn’t been nearly as good as he was a season ago when he finished as a runner-up to Rinne for the Vezina Trophy while leading the league with 44 wins. Hellebuyck is going to rack up the wins again this season, but his offense has bailed him out to this point.
A nice example was in Thursday night’s game against the Blackhawks where Hellebuyck surrendered five goals on 31 shots, but the Jets scored six of their own to win 6-5. He’s been even worse over this last four games where he has put together a .861 Sv%. He’s also lost three of his last four starts and was bailed out on Thursday for his lone win in that stretch.
Hellebuyck’s home/road splits are fairly even, but the Jets have not been very good on the road where they are 5-5-0 on the season. They’re scoring 3.30 goals per game on the road, but they’re also allowing 3.20 goals per game away from home.
Despite Hellebuyck’s pedestrian .901 Sv% at home, the Jets are allowing just 2.71 goals per game on home ice.
Of course, the offense is going to take this team places. They are tied for sixth with 3.46 goals per game on the season, and their 29.7% clip on the power play ranks third league-wide.
They also have a trio of players who are doing some serious damage this season.
There are some seriously interesting numbers there, especially with Wheeler and Laine who are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of goals and assists. A lot of that can be explained by the fact that Laine has 10 power play goals while Wheeler has notched 14 power play assists.
Look, the Jets are going to be there. They have one of the best offenses in hockey once again this season, and the fact is they are sporting an extremely similar roster as they one they used to go to the Western Conference final last year. The lone notable difference this time around has been the subpar play of Hellebuyck to this point, but there’s plenty of time for time to turn it around.
For a team that is going to be right there when the regular season ends, I think there’s plenty of value to be had in the Jets at these +430 odds.
Minnesota Wild (+480)
The Minnesota Wild have fallen out of the top three in the Central division for now, and they haven’t exactly been a great team outside of the 10-2-0 streak that propelled them near the top of the Central Division.
Outside of that streak, the Wild have gone just 4-7-2 on the season. Yes, the streak counts, but good teams stay consistent and the Wild just haven’t been able to do that outside of that 12-game stretch.
The team still sports some healthy numbers. Their 3.20 goals per game rank 11th in the league and their 2.80 goals per game ranks 10th.
Another factor is their play on the road where Minnesota is just 6-6-0 on the season, following a similar trend from last season where they went just 18-20-3 on the road.
If these issues seem familiar, it’s because the Jets are facing the same issues with the play of Hellebuyck and their results on the road.
However, the Jets showed in last year’s Western Conference semi-final that they are the far superior club to Minnesota and both teams are looking awfully similar this season personnel-wise, although the Jets had Paul Stastny as their second line center for that run.
The Jets also have the far superior offense and power play. The numbers will move around some at the end of the day, but the eye test and the history between these two clubs show that the Jets are the better team, and I don’t think it’s too close.
What I don’t see is the Wild overtaking all three clubs and marching their way to a Central Division crown. They have similar odds to the Jets, and between these two clubs, I’m taking Winnipeg all day.
I would want better odds if I were to take Minnesota to shock the hockey world, but at these current odds, the Wild are the most overpriced team in the division.