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Central Division Weekly: Wild lead under-performing division

The Central Division has become a unique environment where the surprising favorite isn’t the cup-hungry Colorado Avalanche — it’s the Minnesota Wild.

Rem Pitlick #16, Kirill Kaprizov #97, Jonas Brodin #25 and Matt Dumba #24 of the Minnesota Wild celebrate a goal against the Arizona Coyotes during the game at the Xcel Energy Center on November 30, 2021 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Out of all the divisions in the NHL, the Central Division is the most rife with under-performers. Some were expected, like the deliberately rebuilding Arizona Coyotes, and others seem to be a result of karmic energy (Chicago Blackhawks). Others like the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars are plagued by mediocrity in their depth and slow-to-start veterans.

Whatever the reason, the Central Division has become a unique environment where the surprising favorite isn’t the cup-hungry Colorado Avalanche — it’s the Minnesota Wild.

Arizona Coyotes (5-16-2)

A rumor has been circulating about Coyotes ownership possibly being interested in a deal that would sell the team and move it to Houston, Texas. The Coyotes have released a statement negating the claim that the team might sell, and expressed their interest to remain in Arizona. Whether or not it’s true, the Coyotes have been struggling financially, and have put in a bid on a new arena in Tempe, Arizona.

On the ice, things are looking up for the team, with a smattering of wins throughout the season. On Saturday, the Coyotes lost 3-2 to the Stars at home. Hitting the road for the Winnipeg/Minnesota back-to-back, Arizona shut out the Jets for a 1-0 win on Monday. Rookie goaltender Karel Vejmellka earned his first career NHL shutout on a whopping 43 saves. The Coyotes lost the next night, 5-2 to the Wild.

Chicago Blackhawks (8-12-2)

The Blackhawks pretended at the beginning of the season that their off-season roster moves (i.e., acquiring players like Marc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones) would be enough to compete for a cup. Thus far, the struggling on and off the ice organization looks no closer to the Stanley Cup than a peewee team. Chicago eked a 3-2 overtime win over the Blues, kicking off a short homestand on Friday. The team was shut out by James Reimer and the San Jose Sharks 2-0 on Sunday.

In an effort to recoup some wins, the Blackhawks are trying to shake up their roster in order to build for success later in the season. Winger Adam Gaudette was waived on Nov. 26 (and later picked up by the Ottawa Senators), and goaltender Malcolm Subban was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for future considerations on Dec. 2. They hit the road again that same night, putting up a hard-won win — 4-3 in a shootout — against the Washington Capitals.

Colorado Avalanche (12-7-1)

The Avalanche were plagued by a slow start, but now that the season is a quarter of the way through, the team is starting to hit its stride, especially as players begin to come off injured reserve. The week began on the road, with a 3-1 loss to the Stars on Friday, but turned around the next night to win 6-2 over the Nashville Predators back in Denver.

On Monday, defender Cale Makar was named the NHL’s third star of the week for the second time this season, and forward Nazem Kadri was named the NHL’s first star of the month on Wednesday, Dec. 1. It’s no wonder that Kadri was given that honor; he’s had an incredible start to the season as the Avalanche’s point leader, tallying 29 points (9 goals, 20 assists) in 19 games.

The team signed goaltender Jett Alexander to a professional try-out agreement, Nate MacKinnon and Pavel Francouz were activated off injured reserve and Francouz was sent to the Avalanche’s AHL team for a conditioning stint on what was a busy Wednesday. They went on to beat the Montreal Canadiens, 4-1, on Thursday.

Dallas Stars (11-7-2)

The Stars began the season bobbing around the bottom half of the standings, but the team is on a six-game win streak, quietly winning all four of their games this week. They hosted the Avalanche on Friday, a 3-1 win, before hopping over to Arizona the next night to best the Coyotes, 3-2. Former Sharks captain Joe Pavelski earned his 400th career goal, making him only the 10th US-born player to do so. Pavelski has been unstoppable this season for the Stars, currently leading the team with 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists) in 20 games.

Back at American Airlines Center, Tuesday was a momentous day for the Stars: head coach Rick Bowness (who famously scratched Riley Tuftes in front of his family just the other week) celebrated his 2,500th game coaching in the NHL. It was also Braden Holtby’s 500th NHL game, and the goaltender’s 39 saves earned a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, as well as the most wins by a goaltender in 500 games. The Stars beat the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, 3-2.

Minnesota Wild (16-6-1)

After years of being called the most boring team in the league, Minnesota has exploded onto the scene this year, which just goes to show what a standout young player like Kirill Kaprizov can do to jumpstart a team. The Wild blew past their competition this week, going on a five-game win streak, with the four games this week at home. In what was Nick Bjugstad’s 500th NHL game on Friday, the Wild trounced the Jets, 7-1. The Tampa Bay Lightning came to visit on Sunday and were handed a 4-2 loss, followed by the Coyotes on Tuesday, who lost 5-2.

Unsurprisingly, Kaprizov is the Wild’s point leader, with 25 points (7 goals, 18 assists) in 22 games. It might be a slow start to some, but the 24-year-old is just getting started. I don’t want to speak too soon about playoff brackets, but … you might want to consider the Wild a strong contender for the Cup this year. The team continued their win streak with a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils last night.

Nashville Predators (12-10-1)

The Predators have been a middle of the road team thus far in the season. Nashville ended a three-game homestand on Friday by beating the under-performing Devils, 4-2. The next night, the team went to Denver where they fell to the Avalanche, 6-2.

The big loss must have sparked something in the locker room, because the Predators stomped the Blue Jackets in a 6-0 shutout at home on Tuesday. Filip Forsberg scored four goals against Columbus, making him the fastest Nashville Predator to reach 400 points (the fifth franchise player to do so) and our new favorite Preds player, for netting an ever elusive rooster trick.

The Predators acquired winger Kole Sherwood from the Senators in exchange for future considerations on Tuesday. The Boston Bruins came to town on Thursday and shutout Nashville 2-0.

St. Louis Blues (12-8-3)

The Blues have flashes of excellence, but the team has been struggling to maintain forward momentum through the start of the season. Like many teams coming back from the Thanksgiving break, the Blues began the week on Friday with a back-to-back, falling 3-2 in overtime to the Blackhawks. Winger Klim Kostin did not play and was placed on IR for an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Back at home on Saturday, the Blues beat the Blue Jackets, 6-3, thanks to a 3-point effort from forward Pavel Buchnevich. Tuesday was a night to remember for center Logan Brown, who scored his first goal since being acquired from the Senators in September, in front of his family in a 4-3 shootout win over the Lightning. On Thursday, the Blues signed goaltender Kyle Konin to a professional try-out agreement. Closing out the home-and-home series against the Lightning, the Blues lost 4-2 in Tampa Bay that night.

Winnipeg Jets (10-8-4)

Whether or not Winnipeg is a Stanley Cup contender seems to depend on the day, moon phase and weather. A yo-yo week started on Friday with a 7-1 slaughter by the Wild in St. Paul. The Jets got their act together the next night in Alberta, with a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames thanks to 2 goals from Kyle Connor, both with a primary assists from Blake Wheeler. Connor has fallen in the league’s points race with 25, but his 14 goals rank seventh.

Back in Winnipeg on Monday, the Coyotes held the Jets off the scoreboard, squeaking out a 1-0 win. The Jets had three days off and will need more consistency if they want to pull ahead of the middle of the pack in the standings.