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NHL Central Division roundup: Wild gain ground in December

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NHL Central Division roundup: Wild gain ground in December

The standings in the Central Division haven't changed much over the last month, but a lot could change going forward because of what happened in December. Let's recap it.

Chicago: The Blackhawks entered December sitting in third place of the Central Division and exited in the same spot, despite going 9-5-1 in 15 games during the month. Patrick Kane's historic point streak was snapped at 26 games, which set a franchise record and was the longest point streak in the NHL since 1992-93. Corey Crawford also registered three shutouts in one week, increasing his total to a league-leading five, good enough to be named the NHL's No. 1 star for the week ending Dec. 13.

Colorado: The Avalanche lost ground from the get-go after struggling mightily out of the gates, which is why their 9-3-2 record in December still wasn't good enough to vault into a playoff position by the end of the calendar year. Entering Friday, the Avs sit four points out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Nearly half (six of their 14) of their games in January will be against division opponents, a chance to pull themselves closer to the playoff pack.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Dallas: The Stars are showing no signs of slowing down, and don't expect them to any time soon. Lindy Ruff has his club playing aggressive, two-way hockey, and they proved they can consistently hang with the toughest competition when they beat Montreal and Minnesota by a combined seven goals, then followed that up with shutout wins over Chicago (4-0) and St. Louis (3-0), and a 5-1 victory over Nashville in a span of 13 days. The only team that can prevent the Stars from not winning the Central is themselves.

Minnesota: Like Colorado, the Wild finished with an identical 9-3-2 record in December and leapfrogged Nashville for fourth in the division. But unlike Colorado, the Wild gained significant ground. They're two points behind Chicago for third, but have three games in hand and are also four points away from St. Louis for second with four games in hand. Realistically, they could easily be second once the games catch up. Credit that to Minnesota's vastly improved defense statistically, which ranks sixth in goals against average (2.36) after entering December ranked in the bottom 10 at 2.77.

Nashville: The Predators went 6-6-3 in December, and keep sliding in a division that's difficult to climb back up in (see Colorado). Despite their position in the standings, the Predators own strong possession numbers, controlling 54.0 percent of shot attempts at even strength, which ranks No. 2 in the league. On top of that, seven of their nine losses were decided by one goal, indicating they've hung in till the end. A couple bounces their way and it could be a different story. Eight of Nashville's next 13 games are against division opponents, which could have a big impact which direction they go in.

[MORE: Look back fast then move on: Five thoughts on the Blackhawks]

St. Louis: The Blues pumped the brakes a bit, finishing December with a mediocre 8-7-1 record and a minus-2 goal differential, yet still find themselves in second place in the division. But not comfortably. The Blackhawks and Wild are right on their tails, and they likely will be all season. St. Louis did, however, close out the calendar year strong, winning six of their last nine games after have just two wins in their first seven games of the month. Every team faces adversity throughout an 82-game grinding season, and to the Blues' credit, they didn't let a slow beginning to the month affect them mentally.

Winnipeg: In our November roundup (see below), we believed December would be an important month for the Jets, whose start to the season raised eyebrows and had general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff weighing his early options on whether to become buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. Entering the new year, Winnipeg is 12 points out of third place in the Central and seven points back from the final wild card spot in the West after going 6-6-0 in December. At this point, signs are pointing towards the Jets selling at the deadline. Now the bigger question is, will that include Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, both of whom are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year?

Previous roundups: October | November

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Seth Gruen (Big Ten Unfiltered) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel. 

The Blackhawks drop their 8th straight. So should their “One Goal” be to tank?

Plus, Jon Lester isn’t a fan of the new pace of play proposals. Is he right?

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

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USA TODAY

With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

After losing their eighth straight game and falling 12 points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks' playoff chances have dipped to a season-low 0.2 percent. It would take a miracle for them to extend their postseason streak to 10 at this point, where getting just one win seems like a monumental task.

The Blackhawks were probably never really going to be buyers before the Feb. 26 trade deadline even if they were still in the hunt, but it's hard to imagine they had plans to be sellers. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has reiterated over and over again that he's confident in this group, one that's getting younger and faster.

But now they've reached a territory where they have to consider selling off spare parts simply to coup some draft picks or prospects that they could perhaps retain or use as sweeteners in the offseason.

So which players could the Blackhawks realistically sell?

Let's start with the two players getting rewarded with top-six ice time as of late: Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels.

These are two players that play with high energy and go to the greasy areas, something that's important in the playoffs when scoring goals becomes more difficult. They can clean up rebounds. Wingels, particularly, likely has more value and it's showing given his recent success on the power play as a net-front presence guy. He also isn't a stranger to the playoffs with 54 games under his belt compared to Bouma's five.

Both of them are pending unrestricted free agents and are making $1 million or fewer, which certainly works in the Blackhawks' favor considering they won't cost much and their cap hits are easy to fit in on any interested team.

Maybe a team would like to take a flyer on Tomas Jurco, who's a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but that would be a move somebody makes as more of a longer term project than strengthening your depth for a playoff run this spring.

On the back end, Michal Kempny and Jan Rutta could be in play for a contender looking to ensure some depth as a sixth or seventh defenseman. Again, each of them are making less than $1 million so it's a low-risk situation for clubs whose Plan A or B fall through and may be interested in at least getting something.

While they don't have much NHL experience, they're both 27 years old and have played the sport long enough to know what they can bring to the table.

Once Feb. 26 passes and potential roster spots open up, expect the Blackhawks to start calling up the kids. 

Matthew Highmore deserves a look after leading the Rockford IceHogs with 20 goals and 32 points. John Hayden has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 15 games since joining Rockford, and belongs in the NHL. Even Anthony Louis, who's taken a step forward, should get a taste of the action as he continues his development.

Carl Dahlstrom is getting his shot now. Erik Gustafsson is in that process as well. Gustav Forsling had another extended look during the first half of the season before the team decided it would be wise to continue his development in Rockford, where he can play top-pairing minutes.

All of this would give the Blackhawks a better indicator of how they can approach the upcoming offseason, and which young guys they can possibly add into the mix for 2018-19. But first, we have to see how the end of February plays out before making those calls.