Central Division Better at Winning Games Than Wasting Money

While my summer declaration that the NHL’s Central Division was the strongest from top to bottom has been decimated by Columbus’ awful season, the other eighty percent of the division have far outperformed even my biased expectations.
As far as point percentage goes, which paint a clearer picture of the true “standings,” the top four in the Central are all in the top six of the Western Conference.

Team
GP
Pts
P%
Detroit
53
72
0.679
Vancouver
52
69
0.663
St. Louis
51
67
0.657
Nashville
53
68
0.642
San Jose
50
64
0.640
Chicago
53
65
0.613
Los Angeles
53
60
0.566
What does this Central Division 50+ game dominance mean? Well, very little, if we’re honest. There still will be an 8-team playoff for the right to not touch the Campbell Bowl and play the champion of the other conference for the Stanley Cup. But one thing to at least acknowledge is that if this lopsidedness continues through the 82nd game, the way the playoffs are seeded will force at least one mistimed intra-divisional quarterfinal series.
If the playoffs started today, Nashville would have to travel to St. Louis in the first round, despite the fact that the two teams place third and fourth in the conference, respectively. This is of course because Vancouver and San Jose, as division winners, are guaranteed top three seeds. I have no beef with this, and I’m not unaware that it may be the Central champ that ends up as the 3 seed. Just pointing out that the 4th place team would be on the road, and the 3rd place team would have to face a team they may have some argument for avoiding.

Defense Wins Championships?

One surprising thing to me about the order of these teams is that Chicago is bringing it up the rear, largely thanks to the fact that they’ve been taking it there every time they score less than three goals in a game. Jesse Rogers pointed this out some time ago, but as of today the Blackhawks have won only one game in regulation when scoring less than three goals. And that one game was against the Kings, where a 2-1 score is sort of like a 3-2 or 4-3 game given L.A.’s penchant for keeping the flow nonexistent.
A response to the above stat is that Chicago has the 4th best offense in the league, and therefore don’t need to win a lot of 1-0 or 2-1 games. But the fact is the Hawks are 4th in the league with 3.1 goals per game, which makes failing to tally thrice just a below average game. In the playoffs, prolific offenses tend to have to find other ways to win games that are shrunk by the better opponents and heightened intensity. I’m not saying Chicago can’t win the Cup, but they almost certainly will have to win more than one game by a score of 2-1 or even 1-0. Haven’t been able to do that so far through 53 games against the entire league. We’ll see if they can do it in less than 30 against only the best.
In an All-Star Game of Front Offices, the Central Division Would Mercy Rule Everyone Else

The stat that impresses me the most about these four teams is the one in which they’re not that prolific: player salaries.
Despite placing first, third, fourth and sixth in the west in points taken per game, if the standings were determined by blowing through cap space, only one of these central giants would even make the playoffs.
Amongst on Western Conference teams, Chicago’s payroll ranks eighth; Detroit comes in ninth; St. Louis eleventh; Nashville thirteenth. Their on-ice success may not be in total contrast with their thriftiness — as information has moved us all closer to being general managers (in our daydreams), we may have overvalued the correlation between dollars spent on players and wins.
To both comment further on the distinction that we should all make between the two paper figures and pile on Columbus, it is actually the Blue Jackets who lead the Central Division in salary cap hit this year. The Jackets have spent the fourth most on player personnel in the Western Conference, ahead of such Stanley Cup contenders as San Jose, Boston, the New York Rangers and of course, the rest of their divisional brethren.
The reward for the conservatism of Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago? The freedom to buy this month in the trade market, for one. The ability to sign the cream of the free agent crop this summer, for two. In Nashville’s case, the latter seems more urgent, as it is their players who count for two of the premier names in the upcoming FA pool (Shea Weber & Ryan Suter). Detroit and Chicago figure to be immediately much more concerned with the former effect, as there can be only one Stanley Cup champion each year, and after all, there is only one Ales Hemsky (or Travis Moen, or…).
St. Louis is a little harder to figure out, as they are in that awkward position of being better than their name. Call it punching above their weight, quote Shakespeare or The Departed, the point is: the Blues are a contender right now, but may not be in the financial condition yet to go out and make splashes. Time will tell, but I expect the Blues to go forward with mostly the same players that have been the best team in the NHL since the hiring of head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Before the other three teams get involved in a loaded NHL Tuesday, the Red Wings travel to Glendale for a game against the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at 8 p.m. EST on NBC Sports Network. Detroit has eliminated Phoenix in the first round of the last two playoffs, and will try to improve upon their 15-14-1 road record this season.
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