The new Central Division bears only a passing resemblance to the Central of old, with two of the previous group of five having migrated to the Eastern Conference. What we have left are the reigning Stanley Cup champions from Chicago, plus their toughest rival of the last few years in the Blues of St. Louis, as well as the former first round exit staple from Nashville. Joining them in the new look Central are the surprising Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Dallas Stars.
Had I started this series earlier, this space definitely would have featured Joakim Nordstrom, a 2010 third round pick who had spent only 11 late season games in North America since coming over from AIK Solna in the SHL, yet earned a spot on the opening game roster through a very strong preseason. Nordstrom played very defensive shifts in his first NHL audition, although he was protected insofar as his competition was concerned, as he generally faced the opposition’s fourth liners. Future opportunities will come for the 21-year-old from Stockholm, so our attention will turn instead to Ben Smith, a stocky right winger who has thus far spent more time in the press box than in uniform, although he has two points in limited minutes over his first six games. A sixth round pick in 2008 out of Boston College, Smith first gained a modicum of notoriety in the 2010-11 playoffs. After appearing in six games in the regular season, injuries forced him into the lineup for the first round of the playoffs, which the Hawks ultimately lost in seven games to the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks. Making the playoff roster was one thing, but taking the time to score three goals, including one overtime winner, was another thing altogether for the previously anonymous rookie. Three years later, playing against soft competition, the Hawks have nonetheless been scored upon at a rate unbecoming to the circumstances while Smith has been on the ice, a fact which may be partially to blame for his copious press box time. Already 25 years old, the North Carolina native may never have a better chance to become a steady NHLer.
At some point in the near future, starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov will have his day in court, as he faces charges of second degree kidnapping and third degree assault. If convicted, it would not be a shock to see the Avalanche organization cut ties with the 25-year-old Russian, hot play be damned. Performance analysis aside, if the charges hold up, I would very much support a release of the player. Such a sequence of events would introduce a new stopper to reckon with, but until then (if), we still have two players in need of introduction. Both are guys who have paid their dues and more in the AHL. The forward is Marc-Andre Cliché, a New York Rangers second rounder from 2005. Once traded to the Kings as part of the package that landed Sean Avery on Broadway, Cliché received only a one-game cameo in Hollywood back in 2009-10, breaking up an otherwise nondescript six-year run in the AHL. Known as a defensive specialist, Patrick Roy has used him extensively on the PK when he deigns to put him in the lineup. At even strength, the 26-year-old has not been trusted with anything more challenging than filler minutes in the offensive end against other fourth liners. After spending six of the first seven games in the press box, Cliché has played in each of the Avalanche’s last four, and has yet to embarrass himself.
On the blueline, a surprise early contributor to the successful start of the club has been 30-year-old journeyman Nate Guenin, looking to build on the 32 NHL games on his resume entering the season. The onetime Ohio State Buckeye spent time kicking through the systems of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Anaheim Ducks before receiving this opportunity to make a blueline corps that was thought by many to be a critical weakness entering the season. Although he has been receiving only heavily-sheltered third pairing minutes alongside Ryan Wilson at even strength, the Pennsylvanian has been one half of the main penalty killing duo, along with veteran Jan Hejda. Considering that the Avs currently have the best PK in the league, Guenin seems certain to hold on to that role for the time being.
The Stars do not have a single player on the team who either did not feature last year, or was not considered a blue chip prospect coming into the season. Nevertheless, there are a few players, including Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt, who were relatively marginal contributors under the tutelage of Glen Gulutzan last year, and who were by no means locks to keep their roles in 2013-14. So far, so good on both counts. Of more interest though, is winger Lane MacDermid, part of the return package sent to Dallas in the deadline deal that sent future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to Boston. Drafted by the Bruins out of the powerhouse Windsor squad in the OHL as an overager, his father, Paul, was a longtime NHLer who played 690 regular season games over 14 seasons, the final ones occurring in 1995. Known as a rough customer, just like his old man, the younger MacDermid has yet to show the scoring touch at any level that made his father such a useful player. Lane has yet to score more than seven goals in any professional season, while his high as a junior was only 15. In very minimal ice time thus far, MacDermid has yet to garner any special teams duties, and has only played against subpar opposition. The two assists to his name are very nice, but the single shot on net to his credit in just under 30 minutes of play is more telling of his ability to drive play forward. There is very little that separates him from Garbutt, and it would not surprise to see the Stars choose between the two at some point soon.
Unlike most of the other players featured in this series, little right winger Justin Fontaine is in the NHL to help generate offense. A big producer for four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he earned his way onto the WCHA second All Star team three times, he was consistently overlooked at the draft due to his size, coming in at only 5’10”, 160 pounds. The Wild gave the local collegian a chance, and he has continued to score at the AHL level, with 111 points in his first two seasons. Playing mostly third line minutes at even strength, coach Mike Yeo has yet to find steady linemates for Fontaine, although the rookie has even seen some ice time on the first line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. Despite playing some of the toughest minutes among Wild forwards, both in terms of zone starts and strength of competition, Fontaine has been one of the better ones at pushing the play into the opposing end. His hockey card numbers would likely be even better if he had not had so many of his shots either be blocked or otherwise miss the target. Should Yeo see fit to award Fontaine with some time on the man advantage, we may yet see his numbers reach a new level. Who knows? He might even garner an assist or two to go along with his three lamplighters.
After an undistinguished career in the WHL failed to land him much NHL attention, offensive defenseman Victor Bartley wet his feet and whet his appetite with 39 combined games between Providence and Bridgeport of the AHL and Utah of the ECHL after finally losing junior eligibility in the spring of 2009. Not quite upwardly mobile yet, Bartley moved on to Sweden (on a one-year deal with Rogle of the Allsvenskan), where his numbers exploded, and he was one of the top scorers among defensemen in the league. Finally gaining traction on his career, the Ottawa native garnered interest from top-tier Swedish clubs before coming to terms on a two-way deal with Nashville. One more year of good numbers in the AHL with Milwaukee, and Bartley made his NHL breakthrough last season, notching 24 games with the Preds. He did enough to earn a three-year contract to stick around. Unfortunately, in the early goings, Bartley has seen his role decline, as he has lopped off nearly five minutes of even strength ice time per game from his rookie season averages, with scarcely any special team duties to buttress his overall numbers. With Roman Josi now returning from an early season concussion, Bartley will have to prove that he belongs once again, although with the play of fellow youngsters Ryan Ellis, Seth Jones, and Mattias Ekholm, he may now be no more than a seventh defenseman.
St. Louis Blues
Although this is now the fourth straight season in which he has spent at least some time with the Blues, you may be excused for not knowing who Adam Cracknell is. An AHL veteran who has seen his minor league scoring rates jump upwards in the last two years, the former ninth round pick picked up six points in 20 games in the NHL last year in marginally protected play, and without any special teams responsibilities to speak of. While you were watching other players, he even appeared in five of the Blues’ ill-fated six playoff games in the first round against Los Angeles. The Prince Albert native may have been in line for a more regular role this season until Blues GM Doug Armstrong made a late offseason run at an upgrade on the wings, bringing in Brenden Morrow on a one-year discounted deal. That decision, and the strong start by the remainder of the forward corps, has seen the 28-year-old Cracknell spend most of the early season in the press box. As a safe substitute with little upside wasted due to not playing, expect to see Cracknell remain a reserve. That said, the Blues will eventually suffer a few nicks and bruises along the long NHL season, and he should see the ice in more than one fifth of the games going forward.
Although not related to either of the Pelusos (Mike and Mike) who preceded him into the NHL, Anthony Peluso does share one trait with the Mike who made his mark with the Blackhawks and Senators in the 1990s: Anthony will fight you if are also of the goon persuasion. That is not to say he is in any danger of topping 300 penalty minutes in a season, like that Mike did three times in a row from 1990-91 to 1992-93 (including a league-high 408 minutes in the middle season) but it is to say that young Anthony will have little to contribute with the gloves on for the Jets. A sixth round pick by the St. Louis Blues back in 2007, he was never able to rise past the level of minor league enforcer in his time with his original organization. The Jets claimed him off of waivers prior to the start of the truncated 2013 season, although he was limited to five NHL games due to a hand injury. Can you guess how he hurt his hand? No? Are you sure? He hurt it in a fight. In fairness, the Toronto area native is not completely useless when wearing all of his equipment, although his three points in 11 career NHL games are approximately 50% higher than his scoring rate across 208 games at the minor pro level. His physical play includes a willingness to use his big body to check others into the boards. Nevertheless, Peluso will continue to be sheltered extensively on the fourth line whenever he is given the chance to play.
Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.