Central no longer a doormat division

April, 7, 2009

On Tuesday morning, the last-place team in the Central Division was four points shy of a 90-point campaign. You've come a long way, Central.

"There's been a renaissance in our division," Predators coach Barry Trotz told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Our division is a tough division."

The Anaheim Ducks seem intent on ruining what would have been a neat little achievement by the Central Division this season.

Minnesota and Edmonton could still have a say as well, but unless the red-hot Ducks stumble this week, they will prevent the Central gang from being the first entire division to make the NHL playoffs since 1980-81. That season, the old Adams Division saw Buffalo, Boston, Minnesota, Quebec and Toronto all qualify for the postseason. That was when the top 16 teams in the entire league made it and it was 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc. The Leafs weren't exactly gangbangers that season, but squeezed in at No. 16 despite a 28-37-15 record.

There won't be any sub-.500 records in the Central this season. Detroit is first as always, but Chicago, Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis have all had playoff-worthy seasons.

"The big difference I think has been the goaltending," the legendary Scotty Bowman, an executive with the Blackhawks, told ESPN.com. "You look at [Steve] Mason and what he's done in Columbus, [Pekka] Rinne in Nashville, the other Mason [Chris] in St. Louis has been a big story, and [Nikolai] Khabibulin has had a bounce-back season with Chicago.

"And those teams can all play pretty good defense now."

When Detroit reeled off three consecutive 50-win seasons after the lockout, some critics charged it was an inflated total thanks to the also-rans in St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus during those campaigns. Well, we wonder what they have to say this season when the Wings still put up 50 wins despite playing in a division in which all five teams might end up with 90 or more points.

"This is as tough of a division as there is in the West," Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com.

Before Tuesday night's games, the Central totaled 470 points in the standings, tops in the NHL, followed by the Northeast at 446, Atlantic at 440, Pacific at 433, Southeast at 428 and Northwest at 422.

We didn't bother looking at pre-lockout points totals since the shootout added extra points in the standings starting in 2005-06. According to ESPN stats wizard Keith Hawkins, the record for total points by a division since the lockout is 480 by the Northeast in 2005-06, followed by the 2005-06 Pacific with 479, the '06-07 Northeast at 475, the '07-08 Atlantic at 472 and the '06-07 Northwest at 471.

This season's Central Division still has a chance to pass all those totals with less than a week to go.

Either way, it is no longer a doormat division.

"You look at the division and boy, there sure is some good coaching here," Blues president John Davidson told ESPN.com. "You look at [Joel] Quenneville, you look at [Mike] Babcock, you look at Trotz, you look at Andy Murray and you look at Hitch [Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock] -- I'm not so sure there's another division that's got a set of coaches like that."

Anyone want to argue that? Not us. You could make a Jack Adams case for all five this year.

"The coaching strategy, the preparation, the standard of how the players play the game, the games within the game, the matchups, etc., they're pretty darn good in this division," added Davidson.

And it's not a one-season thing, either.

"There's some good young teams in this division," Bowman said.

The Hawks, Blues and Jackets are young teams on the rise, and the Predators, stacked on the blue line, seem to survive despite ownership challenges and payroll cuts.

"I think it's a remarkable story in Nashville for them to be there every year. That's pretty good," said Davidson.

With Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk locked up, as well as other top players, the Wings aren't going anywhere anytime soon. And the rest of the division will just keep closing the gap on them.

"You look at what St. Louis has done this year, they haven't had Paul Kariya most of the season nor Erik Johnson, who is one of the top defensemen in the game," said Holland. "You look at the development of their young forwards, they have a foundation in place where they're going to be a top team in the Western Conference.

"You've seen the work of Ken Hitchcock in Columbus, one of the best coaches in the league," Holland added. "They're well-organized, tough defensively and you get the goalie in there, a guy who's on our radar screen for the [Canadian] Olympic team. They look like they're built for the long haul.

Holland continued: "You look to Chicago with [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane, the building is full, they've got a lot of other great young kids, they can be a team that goes to the cap. They're positioned to be a real good team.

"And Nashville, they lose [Alexander] Radulov and had [Steve] Sullivan out for half of the year, and they're still on the bubble to make the playoffs," Holland said. "They've got as good a young defense as there is in the National Hockey League and a top young goalie.

"The Central is going to be as good a division as there is in the league for a lot of years."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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