NHL Central Division roundup: Wild gain ground in December


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

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens


All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this, I want to prove to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.