Out of the Blue(line): Dispatches on an NHL Season—The Central Division

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Chicago Blackhawks: Richard Panik/Nick Schmaltz

A pair of inexpensive wingers may push the Hawks to their fourth cup in seven years.

The magic of the Blackhawks’ success over the past decade has been in their ability to unearth hidden potential deep in their lineup, and the next chapter in this saga comes in the form of Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz. The two are both signed for less than a million dollars, yet have developed a chemistry with Jonathan Toews on the top line. This added depth takes pressure off the Kane-Panarin line and will undoubtedly lead to more time and space for one of the two depending on which receives the brunt of the opposing team’s shutdown unit.

Both players have found success because they’ve capitalized on the opportunity to play alongside Toews, but each has a unique story as to how they found themselves in this position. Panik is a player who discovered success after floundering in two other teams’ systems through the first four years of his professional career. Before the beginning of this season, all Panik had to his name was 47 points in 181 career NHL games, but this season, the former bubble player has nearly doubled that total with 44 points in 80 games. His points per game has rocketed from a .26 to a .55, and he has set career highs in goals, assists, points, +/-, and game-winning goals during the process.

The former Lightning and Leaf has been on the ice for 30% of all Blackhawks goals this year, while leading the team in hits with 143. He’s affirmed his talent as a goal-scorer but has asserted his willingness to grind to make space for him and his linemates—the perfect brand of player to flank the skill of Toews and Schmaltz. Toews has even compared Panik to Marian Hossa because of his ability to score from all over the ice and for the power he possesses below the goal line. While that may be a lofty comparison, the impact Panik has had on this team is clear.

Nick Schmaltz’s path to Toews’ wing took off after his call up from the Rockford IceHogs in January. He began the season with the Hawks, but after only four points in 26 games, he was demoted in early December. Since then, however, Schmaltz has produced an impressive 23 points in 33 games alongside Toews and Panik, thanks to his silky-smooth playmaking skills. If he could’ve sustained that rate for the full season, Schmaltz would likely be in the Calder conversation. But maybe most outstanding is how the rookie has handled the puck. Tied for third on the team, and in fewer games than those above him, Schmaltz has an outstanding 45 takeaways accompanied by only 18 giveaways. Such care for the puck is rarely found in first-year players.

Their names may not carry the weight of some of Chicago’s stars, but the Blackhawks’ recent clinch of the Western Conference has Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz’s fingerprints all over it. As long as they continue having success with Toews, the Blackhawks are looking at yet another deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche: Sven Andrighetto

The new kid on the block.

Not since the Atlanta Thrashers’ 39-point inaugural season in ‘99-’00 has there been a team as disappointing as the ‘16-’17 Colorado Avalanche, who are currently sitting in a 21-point hole behind the 29th place Coyotes. Luckily, the roster has some upside potential thanks to a young, skilled core—a core bolstered at the trade deadline with the addition of Sven Andrighetto.

Andrighetto was buried amidst a collection of talented forwards in Montreal, but now that he’s found a niche among the Avalanche top-6, it appears the 24-year-old winger will be an important piece of the Avalanche’s rebuild. Though he’s only played sixteen games with the club, he already has twelve points compared to the eight he amassed through 27 games in Montreal. And while the sample size is small, he impressively ranks first on the team in goals for per 60 minutes of ice time. Andrighetto has some serious skill for a player who was twice passed over at the draft, and his ability to make open ice for himself is why he’s earned a consistent roster spot in Denver.

What’s different this time around is that Andrighetto finally seems committed to improving his defensive play—historically his worst area since he first entered the draft in 2011. In his sixteen games, he is only a -2, which, on this Avalanche team, is exceptional. Not only that, he has thirteen takeaways in that span while only surrendering the puck four times.

Andrighetto’s defensive numbers line up very similarly to Gabriel Landeskog’s, while his offensive output rivals Nathan MacKinnon’s. The newcomer has much to prove before these comparisons can be validated, but at the least, it appears he has the potential to be a worthy complement to the two as the Avalanche prepare for a long uphill battle.

Dallas Stars: John Klingberg/Esa Lindell

The victory-green linings.

Any time a season goes as unexpectedly poorly as the Dallas Stars’ has, fingers are going to get pointed, and any time that team surrenders 247 goals in the process, those fingers are going to be pointing toward the back end. Much of the blame has landed on the goaltending carousel, but the losses of Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers to free agency put premature pressure on the Stars’ top defense prospects. Instead of welcoming a wave of NHL-ready defensemen, the organization had to expedite the development process, leading to a timid corps trying to keep pace. However, while there is plenty to be addressed at this position, the bump in minutes did benefit the pair of John Klingberg and Esa Lindell.

Collectively, the two hold a combined +9 rating while also leading the team in average and total time on ice—impressive when you consider that the Stars hold the sixth worst goal differential in the league. For a team that gets scored on in droves, it seems to happen much less with these two on the ice. Looking to John Klingberg to carry the brunt of the defensive responsibility certainly wasn’t a scenario Stars fans used to want to hear, but his career-high 114 blocks demonstrate real improvement. He sits third on the active roster in that category while Lindell sits second with 117.

As always, Klingberg has brought it offensively. In the process of setting a career high 13 goals, he’s climbed to 47 points in 78 games. It’s not quite the 58 points he collected last year, but it still brings him to third on the Stars in points during a season where lack of depth has impacted team scoring. Klingberg has also shone while mentoring the young Lindell, who has accumulated 17 points in 71 contests through his rookie season. Lindell lacks the finesse that defines Klingberg’s game, but he has a poise with the puck that complements Klingberg’s offensive prowess.

Of course, with any pair of young defensemen, there have been inevitable growing pains. Inconsistency has been their vice; each member has suffered through a slump at one point during the season. Until the Christmas break, Klingberg held a -8 rating and had only 16 points, but since then he has been a +9 with 31 points. Lindell produced half of his points on either side of an eleven-game slump where he went -7 with no points. Perhaps most importantly, though, both Klingberg and Lindell have been atrocious at times when protecting the puck. Lindell is third on the team with 47 giveaways while Klingberg leads the way with 97—fourth most in the NHL. They’ve shown the willingness to block shots, but haven’t yet shown the ability to maintain puck possession.

John Klingberg and Esa Lindell have had some ugly moments throughout this season, there’s no denying that. But there’s more to be excited about than worried about with these two. Klingberg is still young and puck protection will come with age, and Lindell’s all-around play will develop with experience. The Stars need depth to take pressure off of the pair, but if Klingberg and Lindell can work in these areas and find consistency, they could be staples on the Stars’ back end for years to come.

Minnesota Wild: Jason Zucker

One of the most effective two-way wingers in the NHL.

The Minnesota Wild have been on the upswing, and it appears they’re finally ready to push for a Stanley Cup championship. Of the numerous factors that have attributed to the organization’s success, one that mustn’t be forgotten is the continued development of the supporting cast of forwards—specifically Jason Zucker. In just his third full NHL season, Zucker is being relied on for his electrifying, high-speed transition game. Yet, somehow, he’s managed to stay under opposing team’s radars, making him an undercover threat on a nightly basis.

Zucker is in the midst of a career year that has seen him nearly double his previous highest points total. He’s managed 46 points through 77 games, but most impressively, he’s quietly collected 21 goals along the way. Zucker’s ability to catapult offense is the reason he holds the Wild’s best goals for per 60 minutes of ice time. But the Las Vegas native is beloved by his teammates because his impact goes beyond just his scoring contribution.

Coming into the season, Zucker possessed a career -10 rating, but his development into a two-way forward sparked the current +32 that trails only Ryan Suter for highest on the team. Zucker also has the second-most takeaways with 44. And, despite him starting in his own zone 59% of the time, the Wild have the second highest combined shooting percentage and save percentage when Zucker is on the ice.

Because of his small stature and position behind the big names like Parise, Pominville, and Koivu, Jason Zucker hasn’t become a household name outside of Minneapolis. But that hasn’t stopped him from evolving into one of the hottest young two-way forwards in the league. If the Wild are going to return to their earlier season form and bring the state of hockey its first Stanley Cup, they’re going to need to lean on Zucker to produce secondary offense from his shutdown role.

Nashville Predators: Ryan Ellis

Roman Josi’s new favorite target for one-timers.

Exchanging Shea Weber for P.K. Subban was certain to shake up the back end for the Nashville Predators, but to everyone’s surprise, it has been Ryan Ellis who’s had the hot stick for much of the season. The former eleventh-overall pick seized the opportunity when a vacancy opened alongside playmaking defenseman Roman Josi on the top pair, and he never looked back.

Ellis’s promotion resulted in three more minutes of ice time per night which he used to take leads in various team statistics. He leads all Predators defensemen in goals with 15 and is tied for most takeaways with 37. It’s been quite the breakout campaign, offensively, considering most thought Subban would cast an even bigger shadow over him than Weber did.

This, of course, would mean nothing if Ellis sacrificed the defensive side of his game. Last season, Ellis finished third on the Preds in +/- and fourth in blocks, but this season, the additional minutes have only strengthened those numbers—he leads all players in both categories with a +17 and 136 blocks. The versatility he’s demonstrated is one of the reasons why the Predators have been successful in the post-Weber era.

The Predators are by no means the favorite heading into the postseason—a potential first round date with the Blackhawks is an uphill battle to say the least. However, with an elite goaltender, explosive offense from their top two lines, and newfound depth on defense thanks to Ellis, they have the materials to surprise people come next week.

St. Louis Blues: Jake Allen

Going all-in with Allen.

From trading away pieces of their core to losing their captain to free agency, the St. Louis Blues have been a team in transition over the past several years. But instead of solving their identity crisis, they seem to have merely added uncertainty to the issue—and now they’re staring down their lowest seeded playoff entry since the ’10-’11 season. Contrarily, the question mark in goal that had clouded the team in years previous is now one of few certainties approaching the playoffs. The dealing of Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames affirmed Jake Allen as the Blues goalie of the future.

The only problem was that Allen’s initiation as a starter called for anything but celebration. His inconsistency led to a mediocre 17-13-3 record in his first 36 appearances—barely enough to tread water in a Western Conference that doesn’t go much deeper than the eight teams that have since clinched a playoff berth. The discouraging .895 SV% and 3.56 GAA Allen compiled inevitably led to speculation about who would carry the team down the stretch.

But alongside the arrival of new head coach Mike Yeo came a resurgent Jake Allen. Since the start of February, the 26-year-old has been arguably the hottest goaltender in the league. His GAA is an NHL-best 1.67 in the span, while his .943 SV% is second only to Sergei Bobrovsky—not to mention his three shutouts and 13 wins throughout the 21-game period. It’s unclear if this stellar play will last or if it’s just another in a long string of hot and cold spells, but St. Louis is hoping he can ride the momentum deep into the postseason.

Allen’s quick lateral movement and willingness to battle are the reason the Blues are in the hunt for third place in the division. Finishing in third would pit the Blues against the slumping Minnesota Wild in the first round—much more favorable than an opening matchup against the Blackhawks or Ducks. Regardless, with debatably the weakest Blues roster in five years in front of him, the club’s playoff success will ride heavily on his shoulders.

Winnipeg Jets: Mark Scheifele

The new man in Manitoba.

The Winnipeg Jets may have the most rising talent of any non-playoff team. Between red-hot rookie Patrick Laine, newly named captain Blake Wheeler, and scorching sophomore Nikolaj Ehlers, it’s surprising to see them fall short again. But despite their stumble, it’s clear there is plenty to be excited about—starting with their new frontman Mark Scheifele.

The 23-year-old will finish his fourth full NHL season atop the Jets in points, but it is his seventh-place ranking league-wide that is the real eye-opener. He trails Sidney Crosby by just six points, and his 20.1% shooting rate is fourth best in the entire NHL. His season has been a testament to what the player development process should look like. Scheifele was given time to season in the correct playing situations before being thrust into a first line role, and now he’s taking full advantage of his 20:33 average TOI a night. And, thanks to their patience, the Jets are reaping the reward of a confident Scheifele.

In the process of setting career numbers in nearly every major category, Scheifele has had a mammoth imprint on the Jets offense, being on the ice for 49% of all Jets goals. He’s been so effective at generating scoring opportunities because of his tenacity around the net and his knack for snapping the puck off his stick before goaltenders can track it. He leads the team with 49 assists and 80 points, and his +18 is more than double the next highest +/- on the team.

Scheifele’s point totals have increased steadily every season since he earned his place with the Jets. Everyone expected his play to improve again this year, but nobody was ready for the explosion that kept him in the Art Ross conversation for the majority of the campaign. If he can continue this trend, his exceptional play, accompanied by the growing youth alongside him, casts a bright light on the future in Winnipeg.

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