Hutch's Hockey: Divisional December, Central Division

Hutch's Hockey: Divisional December, Central Division

It's time for the second of my four deep dives into the NHL's divisions. This time, the Central Division goes under the microscope. I thought this would be the most competitive division in the league at the start of the season, and while that's still up for debate, there's been plenty of fantasy value to glean from its eight teams. All stats are through Sunday, Dec. 12. 


The Wild have been perhaps one of the most unexpectedly good teams in the league. Credit here goes to Dean Evason, who only has one true superstar on the roster. Instead, it's a balanced approach to offense up front, a deep blue line and strong goaltending that have made this team into a contender in the post-Zach Parise and Ryan Suter era. 

MVP: Kirill Kaprizov (10 goals, 22 assists in 28 games). Consider any fears of a sophomore slump vanquished, as Kaprizov has emerged in a top-10 talent league-wide. Impressively, he's put more of a focus on playmaking -- he shot 17.2 percent last year, but only 10.9 percent so far in 2021-22. He is the aforementioned one superstar on the team, and he's likely to be a big part of their offense for many years. 

Breakout player: Ryan Hartman (13 goals, 10 assists in 28 games). Hartman has long been a steady middle-six forward versatile enough to play center or wing anywhere in the lineup. This year, he's upped his shot volume (3.5 per game) and success rate (13.8 percent) to match his output from last year in 24 fewer contests. The American has crested the 30-point mark just twice in his career, but barring a total collapse, he could push for 50-plus this season while maintaining all the grit he's always displayed. 

Letdown: Jordan Greenway (four goals, five assists in 24 games). Greenway emerged as a top-six player last year with a career-best 32 points in 56 games despite shooting only 7.5 percent. This season, he's shooting 13.3 percent, but he's nowhere near last year's scoring pace. The 24-year-old has plenty of time to turn this around -- to an extent, he has, with four goals and two helpers in the last six games. The Wild won't wait for him to put it together, and the flexibility of the Wild's offense could see him get lost in the shuffle. 


This is a tough time for the Blues, as they have 10 injured players as of this writing, but they've put their heads down to win their last three contests amid the adversity. Early in the season, they looked like one of the deepest teams in the league. That's being tested now, but plenty of players have also had good years. 

MVP: Pavel Buchnevich (11 goals, 12 assists in 26 games). The Rangers' loss has been the Blues' gain, as Buchnevich has settled in wonderfully to a top-six job with his new team. Most importantly, his only absence of the year has been a two-game suspensions, rather than the injuries many of his teammates have gone through. He's challenging for a point-per-game pace after racking up 20 goals and 48 points in 54 contests last season. A case could be made for fellow forwards Vladimir Tarasenko (23 points in 27 games) or Jordan Kyrou (25 points in 27 games), but Buchnevich has kept things together and boasts a team-leading plus-12 rating. 

Breakout player: Robert Thomas (two goals, 20 assists in 24 games). Thomas has flirted with a breakout campaign before in 2019-20 when he had 42 points in 66 outings. The playmaking center has stepped it up again this season. Still just 22 years old, there's some flaws in his game. He could shoot more, he's not physical and he might be overmatched in a top-six role. When it comes to fantasy, Thomas will need to keep producing points once he returns from a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the last four games. 

Letdown: Brayden Schenn (four goals, six assists in 19 games). A nine-game absence with an upper-body injury interrupted Schenn's campaign, but he hasn't been all that good on the ice either. The 30-year-old is usually good for a 50-point season with lofty hit totals, but he's taken a step back in both regards this year. He's not shooting enough either -- the question now is if this is one bad year or the beginning of a long decline for a player who's put a lot of miles on the odometer over the years. 


Fueled by bounce-back players, the Predators have been able to gloss over some of the problems in their performance. The top six is clicking, but there's not a lot of offense down the lineup, and contributions from the blue line have been altogether limited. They hold a playoff spot as of this writing, but there's talented and surging teams behind them. 

MVP: Roman Josi (nine goals, 18 assists in 28 games). One of the best blueliners in the league, Josi has routinely been near the top of the Predators' scoring list in recent years. This year, he's stepped up early with a 9.6 shooting percentage and 12 power-play points to his name. He's a legitimate 20-goal, 70-point candidate here, but it's tough to believe he'll keep up at a point-per-game pace all season. That said, he's definitely a top-5 defenseman in the league. 

Breakout player: Juuse Saros (13-8-1 record, 2.24 GAA, .925 save percentage in 22 games). The transition from Pekka Rinne to Saros as the Predators' No. 1 goalie was completed when the former retired in the offseason. Saros actually has worse ratios compared to last season (2.28 GAA, .927 save percentage), but he's now facing the toughest matchups and handling a larger workload. If the Predators make the playoffs, Saros' contributions will be a huge reason why. 

Letdown: Eeli Tolvanen (five goals, five assists in 28 games). Now in his second full season at the NHL level, Tolvanen hasn't made it click. He racked up 22 points (12 on the power play) last year in just 40 games, but his shooting percentage has dropped from 16.9 to 6.9 year-to-year. He owns a fantastic shot and the power-play usage remains encouraging, but there's been almost no consistency in his game this year outside of his four-game goal streak in December. Whether that's a building block or just a blip on the radar remains to be seen. 


The league's most dangerous offense has achieved that title despite a rash of injuries to nearly every top-six forward and a fair amount of the role players deeper in the lineup. The defense hasn't gone unscathed either, and despite steps to replace Philipp Grubauer, there's still some questions to be answered in goal. The Avalanche will outscore a lot of their problems, but they'll need to tighten things up to stabilize what's so far been a shaky foundation. 

MVP: Nazem Kadri (11 goals, 23 assists in 22 games). Kadri started the year with three goals and three helpers in eight October games. Since then, he's racked up a dizzying 28 points in his last 14 contests. Currently hampered by a lower-body injury, the Avalanche will no doubt hope for a speedy recovering from one of the most surprisingly successful forwards in the league this season as he eyes a return to the 60-point threshold he's reached just once in 2016-17. 

Breakout player: Devon Toews (four goals, 16 assists in 16 games). Despite missing the first nine games of the year, Toews has put together an impressive stat line. The 27-year-old has always been a steady defenseman since he broke into the league with the Islanders in 2018-19, but now he's showing offensive potential as well. The 12.1 shooting percentage will drop, and he's unlikely to finish north of a point-per-game pace, but playing on a pairing with budding superstar Cale Makar will likely give Toews plenty of chances to sustain a career-best pace. 

Letdown: Darcy Kuemper (12-5-0 record, 2.82 GAA, .906 save percentage in 17 games). Kuemper was supposed to be the answer in goal this season, but so far, he's been more of a hurdle for the team to overcome. The 31-year-old hasn't had ratios this bad since 2016-17 with the Wild. With Pavel Francouz (finally) recovered from an ankle injury that's cost him nearly a full season's worth of games, Kuemper will face a real challenge to the No. 1 job if he doesn't get his season on track soon. 


Like many of the better teams in the Central, the Jets boast a strong and fairly deep forward group coupled with a sturdy defense. So far, they've struggled to keep pace and overcome some injuries, leaving them right on the fringe of the playoffs. This core has been together for a while -- big changes could come if they end up on the outside looking in by the end of April. 

MVP: Kyle Connor (18 goals, 14 assists in 27 games). Full disclosure: Connor is one of my favorite players in the league, both for his talent and his fantasy value. This season, he's found another level for the Jets. The winger's shooting nearly 4.4 shots per game, maintaining a 15.3 percent conversion rate. He's made many goalies look helpless, and none of this is out of the ordinary for the 25-year-old. Playing in a small market like Winnipeg keeps him more under the radar than he should be -- he's a superstar with a chance to put up his first 40-goal season. 

Breakout player: Pierre-Luc Dubois (13 goals, 10 assists in 27 games). Let's just collectively write off last season for Dubois as an anomaly. Between the drama with John Tortorella in Columbus and trouble adjusting to the Jets, he didn't have a good time. Now, he's back to being the player we all knew he could be. He's still physical and pesky, but Paul Maurice knows better than to shuffle the talented center down the lineup for a lack of hustle. Dubois is shooting 17.8 percent and averaging 18:29 of ice time per game, both career highs. The Blue Jackets took him third overall in 2016 for a reason -- it took a change of scenery for him to show us why. 

Letdown: Adam Lowry (three goals, two assists in 27 games). Lowry teased everyone with a 24-point effort in 52 games last season, but the 28-year-old has crashed back to earth now. While former linemate Andrew Copp thrives in the top six, Lowry is left to ply his trade as the third-line center. He's racked up 80 hits this year, but toughness only gets you so far in fantasy. 


Ups and downs -- that's been the theme with the Stars so far this season. A run of injuries left them stuck on the launch pad early on, but they seemed to turn things around on a seven-game winning streak before losing three in a row. Ben Bishop (knee) is done, but goaltending isn't the problem. The Stars will need to spread the wealth on offense to surge back up the standings. 

MVP: Jason Robertson (eight goals, 12 assists in 19 games). In this case, value is quite a literal concept -- without Robertson, the Stars scored 12 times in their first six contests of the season. Since he's been in the lineup, they've racked up 57 goals in 19 games. It might be a bit much to attribute an entire goal-per-game jump to the return of one player, but Robertson is the real deal. He should deservedly get a big raise if he can keep this up in the final year of his entry-level contract. 

Breakout player: Miro Heiskanen (three goals, 13 assists in 25 games). Heiskanen is in the midst of a five-game point drought, but he's been arguably the Stars' best blueliner this season, and he trails only the top line in points. From a fantasy perspective, the only drag on Heiskanen is that he's arguably better on defense than offense. He's on pace for roughly 50 points this season, his fourth NHL campaign. 

Letdown: Tyler Seguin (seven goals, four assists in 25 games). Seguin was supposed to be back to his usual self this season after missing all of last year due to hip surgery. With the Stars' forward groupings fairly fluid, outside of the top line, Seguin has taken on a third-line role at times this season. The good news is he's healthy, and at 29 years old, he could still rediscover his old scoring form at any time, but he's probably not going to be leading the team on offense again. 


The start of the season was awful, but the Blackhawks have bounced back a bit under interim head coach Derek King. It may be too little, too late, but they can't be counted out so easily given the veterans on the roster, though depth remains a concern. 

MVP: Patrick Kane (seven goals, 15 assists in 23 games). Kane hasn't exactly been at his usual level, but he still leads all forwards in points and only trails defenseman Seth Jones by one point (in four fewer games). The 33-year-old Kane is an elite talent and remains the centerpiece of the Blackhawks. He can retain those honors even if he slows down from his 100-point potential from previous seasons. 

Breakout player: Seth Jones (three goals, 20 assists in 27 games). As mentioned above, Jones leads the Blackhawks in points. He also logs 25:57 of ice time per game, drawing the toughest defensive assignments. The Texas native's defensive chops haven't been in question, but it's the step forward he's taken on offense that has lifted him to another level. His best year so far was 2017-18 when he had 16 goals and 57 points in 78 games with the Blue Jackets. 

Letdown: Kirby Dach (four goals, six assists in 27 games). The Blackhawks' constant shuffling of lines in search of combinations that will work has eliminated any chance of Dach finding some consistency this year. He had 10 points in just 18 appearances last season, so he's taken a step backward this year. Still just 20 years old, it's far too soon to write him off, but he needs to pick up some of the slack left from Jonathan Toews' struggles, as the captain has just 11 points in 27 contests. 


This team is bad, and they were designed to be that way this year and possible a few more seasons into the future. Their arena situation remains unsettled, which could be a blessing in disguise -- the off-ice drama clouds over the poor performance on the ice. That said, they haven't been completely void of talent despite an offseason fire sale. 

MVP: Clayton Keller (six goals, 11 assists in 27 games). Keller's numbers don't pop off the page, but he's tied for the team lead in points. He's not shooting any more than he did last year, and a minus-8 rating with no physicality isn't great in fantasy, but he's the best the Coyotes have. The 23-year-old is committed to the team long-term at over $7 million a year -- he's not going to end up in a better situation until the Coyotes improve. 

Breakout player: Shayne Gostisbehere (four goals, 13 assists in 27 games). The other player co-leading the Coyotes in points is Gostisbehere, who has revitalized his career in Arizona. The 28-year-old blueliner has had an unconventional career arc, but he's looking more like he did in his early years than the defenseman who managed just 32 points over his previous 83 games across two seasons. He's made the most of the opportunity he was given to go unchallenged for a top-four role. 

Letdown: Jakob Chychrun (two goals, five assists in 26 games). Chychrun has had the exact opposite year of Gostisbehere. Last season, Chychrun's 18 goals and 41 points in 56 games earned him some Norris Trophy buzz -- this season, he's a minus-29 with virtually no offense to speak of. He did a lot of work on the power play a year ago, but nobody could have seen this drop-off coming. He's only 23 years old, but regression suggests he'll land more in the 30-to-35-point range once he evens out from the extremes. 

That's how I see the Central Division roughly one-third of the way through the season. Now, here's some players around the league that made an impact recently. 

Logan O'Connor has gone from an injury replacement last year to a true top-six option in 2021-22. With the Avalanche's revolving door of injuries, he's gotten looks on both the first and second lines. Head coach Jared Bednar loves the 25-year-old's forechecking and effort level, and it helps that the forward has chipped in 12 points in 25 games this season, with four of those points coming while shorthanded. Given his role in the league's best offense, fantasy managers should take O'Connor seriously. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Oliver Wahlstrom, who has found success despite playing limited minutes under head coach Barry Trotz. For the season, Wahlstrom has 13 points (six on the power play) in 23 games. He's turned up the offense with eight points in his last six outings, a surge that could see him soon move into a top-six role. That's likely where he should have been all along, given the Islanders' struggles on offense. Whether he's just a power-play specialist or bordering on breaking out, there's reason to believe in the 21-year-old. 

Nino Niederreiter has recently moved into the Hurricanes' top six, and for good reason -- he has three goals and six assists in his last nine games. The 29-year-old winger can be streaky, but get on board now. With Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen on his line, there's points to be had for Niederreiter. 

In goal, there have been few better options available than Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. The Bruins' twine-tenders have collectively gone seven straight games without giving up more than three goals. Ullmark (2.56 GAA, .921 save percentage) and Swayman (2.15 GAA, .922 save percentage) have helped cover up some of the Bruins' problems as a team so far. For my teams, I prefer Swayman, but getting both in a tandem could be enough to rescue a fantasy squad that's flailing in net. 

That's all for this week. The Metropolitan Division will get the spotlight in next week's third Divisional December analysis. 

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Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. He serves as a beat writer for the Calgary Flames and contributes in hockey and baseball. Shawn also enjoys soccer, rooting on his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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