Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Your 2009 Mid-Season Hockey Report: Western Conference, Central Division

Hockey's a fickle business when you're in the coaching end of it, evidenced by the yearly knee-jerk firings such as the one Pittsburgh Penguin General Manager Ray Shero handed Head Coach Michel Therrien on Sunday, less than a year after Therrien's club was a groin hair away from tying eventual Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings in game seven of last year's finals. But we are, nevertheless, interested in examining the Central today, depressing as that is for a Blues fan like myself. Before we get to those five teams, though, you might want to brush up on the east, and see how things look in the Atlantic, Northeast, and Southeast divisions. Just sayin'...

So the Blues are, with 55 points, in last, as I mentioned. Center Brad Boves has 50 points, and a handful of his teammates have cracked the 30-point mark, but pickins are pretty slim after that. St. Louis is seeing molasses-slow results from the youth it has obtained via several high picks in the last few drafts and free-agent acquisitions made possible by unloading high-end salary veterans like Bill Guerin and Dough Weight. In addition to not producing, however, the Blues D is pretty weak at best. Their +/- ratio is atrocious across the board, and they're certainly not helping their netminders. Main man Manny Legace has to date posted a 13-9 record with an .885 save percentage, while youngster Chris Mason has shown flashes with a 10-15, .916.

In fourth, surprisingly, are the Nashville Predators. Nashville had managed to put together a pair of pretty strong seasons, and have perhaps faltered a bit this season. They currently sit a mere two points ahead of St. Louis, and aside from winger J.P. Dumont and center Jason Arnott, they aren't lighting the lamp often enough to get much accomplished and their defense isn't doing much more. Ultimately, the Predz are under-performing and not giving either of their two goalies much help in protecting the zone. Dan Ellis has notched 11 wins while backup Pekka Rinne has actually played better, giving up 20 fewer goals and winning six more contests.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, of all clubs, are in the middle of the pack. Rick Nash has had another fantastic start, finding the twine 23 times, and assisting on 28 more, while the contributions of left-winger Kristian Huselius and former Philadelphia Flyer R.J. Umberger have also been noteworthy. Their defense has played remarkably well for a club that typically does not, and it's evidenced in their goalie platoon as number-one guy Steve Mason has posted a 21-12 record, only been scored on 75 times, and posted a .925 save percentage. The Blue Jackets currently cling to the eight spot, their 62 points not separating them from much competition.

Eight points up the central ladder are the Chicago Blackhawks, who, in my eyes, are the real surprise of the division thus far. When they fired Denis Savard four games into the season, I was certain that they were doomed for another craptacular campaign, but then they announced that Joel Quenneville would replace him, and my mind quickly changed. For my money, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche are still the NHL's fools for buying into the quick-coach-firing trend, and cutting ties with one of the league's best. The 'Hawks have four players in the 40-point ranks, four in the 30s, and still three more in the 20s, which is more than we can say for pretty much every team we've examined thus far. As is the case with most any Quenneville-coached club, the D on this unit is tough and consistent, which only helps your crease maintenance, especially when you've got Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes, who, by the way, is 17-5 with a .924. Backing him up is Cristobal Huet, who boasts a 14-10, .914 in backup duty.

While Chicago has covered some impressive ground, there's always the Detroit Red Wings to deal with, and this year is no exception. Though not the current number-one seed in the west, they've got a 12-point edge over the 'Hawks, and have gotten there with considerable help. First-line mates Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have 97 and 92 points, respectively, which is stunning. Behind them are four wingers with 40+ points, but in between the two groups are a couple of defensemen: Brian Rafalski has 55 points, which looks impressive. That is, it looks impressive until you compare him to future Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who never seems to lose a step, and with 10 goals and 60 assists so far in 2008-09, doesn't plan on doing so soon. Detroit is getting production from all four lines, and when you tandem two guys named Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek in net, your chances of repeating as champs are pretty darn good. This could be the year we see an original-six finals, with Boston and Detroit as solid frontrunners.

That's our look at the Central. We'll be back with more hockey tomorrow.