Central Division roundup: Stars shine bright in October


Central Division roundup: Stars shine bright in October

The first month of the season is in the books, and it already looks like there will be no breathing room in the Central Division. Let's review how October went for each of the seven teams in the NHL's toughest division.

Chicago: The Blackhawks talked about the importance of getting off to a hot start, especially coming of a short offseason, and a 6-5-0 record isn't a bad one. But in the Central, it's not good enough as they close out October in second-to-last place. The good news is, the Blackhawks started off 6-4-1 in their first 11 games last season and they obviously turned out just fine. The bad news is, 11 of their 13 opponents in November are Western Conference teams and they'll likely have to play all of them without Duncan Keith.

[MORE: Revamped Blackhawks definitely have work to do]

Colorado: The Avalanche picked up right where they left off last season, which is the last thing they wanted to do. Their poor possession numbers haven't changed, even with the addition of puck-moving defenseman Francois Beauchemin. If something doesn't change soon, Patrick Roy's seat could be getting hot. Losing ground may be worse than gaining it in this division.

Dallas: There isn't a hotter team than the Stars, who wrapped up October by winning eight of their last nine games. Ex-Blackhawks Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya are fitting in nicely on their new teams, and even Antti Niemi, who's provided stability in goal. But it's the "stars" Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin leading the way, both of whom hold the top two spots in the NHL's scoring race.

Minnesota: The Wild are getting average goaltending from Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper, but it's not holding them back the way it did last season. At least not yet. That's because they're averaging 3.18 goals per game, a significant leap from the 2.77 they averaged last season. Can they keep up that pace?

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Nashville: If you're looking for a better defensive team than the Predators through the first month, you won't find it. They've picked up at least a point in nine of their first 10 games, and are allowing just 28.1 shots per game, which is a notch better than last year's average. The problem has never been on defense, though; it's getting consistent secondary scoring. So far, so good.

St. Louis: The Blues have been decimated with injuries early on: Paul Stastny is recovering from a broken foot, Kevin Shattenkirk continues to be nagged by a groin injury, Jaden Schwartz will miss the next three months with a fractured ankle and Patrik Berglund has yet to appear in a game after undergoing shoulder surgery in August. But the Blues have done a fantastic job at trying to overcome them, and find themselves battling for the top seed in the West, due in large part to the emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko as an elite player.

Winnipeg: Are the Jets contenders or pretenders? It may take a while before we know the real answer, but wins over the Rangers, Wild and Blackhawks in October is a great start. Blake Wheeler is on fire, and has helped the Jets raise their goals per game average from 2.72 last season to 3.18 through the first month of this season. They're right in the thick of things in the Central. The real question is, can they stay there?

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers


Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the East Coast Hockey League to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen


Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."