NHL Central Division misery index: What if the Big Ten and SEC had a hockey-playing baby?

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
| Detroit Free Press

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The NHL is finally back! (What a boon for Detroit, where hockey went away approximately five years ago — not March 10, 2020, like some folks would have you believe. Yep, Detroit Red Wings ready to keep that ol’ 25-year playoff streak alive, uh huh …)

In reality, though, the rest of the new Central Division really did make the Stanley Cup playoffs last season — even if some of the teams needed an extra round to do so — no judgment here, Chicago, Columbus and Nashville. That’s not going to happen this year, with the NHL’s pesky “four playoff teams per division” rule back in place. But that’s May’s problem; we’re locked in on the here-and-now. (Even if, in Detroit, again, the here-and-now on ice isn’t all that great.)

So about that “Central” Division. … Look, the NHL got forced into this — as it has on so many other topics (two assists per goal, the Lady Byng Trophy, how to pronounce “organization”) — by Canada and, specifically, the need for an all-Canadian division. And, honestly, the East and West divisions mostly feel geographically based (as long as your concept of the Western U.S. dates back to Oregon Trail days). Their (mostly) tight geographic footprints, and the 56 games of intradivisional play, give the 2021 season a college football-like feeling right down to the lack of non-conference opponents and an NBC deal that puts a Midwestern team on-air a ridiculous number of times.

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But other than moving us one step closer to NBC’s eventual goal of every national broadcast featuring either the Blackhawks or Red Wings (or both! Three times in eight games this season!), it leaves us with the Central Division as sort of a smashing together of the Midwest and the Southeast. Really, any division that encompasses the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and a fair portion of the Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina to South Florida — we think new divisional sponsor Discover nixed the original name, “Big Honkin’ Bodies of Water Division” — can’t be considered “geographic.”

But aspirational? Sure. In a season format that seems to borrow heavily from college football, why not pair up Big Ten Country with SEC Nation? (With a dash of the ACC, too — we A-C-See you, Hurricanes.) It’s a fit that holds up better than you’d think.

Filling the Alabama/Ohio State role, you’ve got the ridiculously talented Tampa Bay Lightning, who brought back nearly everyone important from their summer Stanley Cup run. (Winning the Cup without Steven Stamkos, and then trying to do it again this year without Nikita Kucherov has serious “Bama-losing-Jaylen-Waddle-and-still-having-DeVonta-Smith-winning-the-Heisman” energy.)

Playing the Michigan/Tennessee part of “team relying a bit too much on tradition over talent,” you’ve got the Red Wings and Blackhawks. And, of course, you have a random Texas team that nobody else seemed to want — hi, Dallas! Continuing down the line, we arrive at the Blue Jackets as stand-in for Georgia/Iowa, both because they’re forever destined to be flattened by a much better team at the end of the season, and because we’re more than a little scared of both John Tortorella and Kirk Ferentz.

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All we need now is an outdoor game in Tampa with free coconut shrimp and “Bloomin’ Onions” on the line and it’ll be perfect.

But until then, let’s see how the division fared in Week 1, from the least miserable to the most:

8. Predators

This week’s record, goal differential: 2-0-0, +5.

Catfish on the ice in an empty arena … excuse us … Catfish on the ice in an empty arena WEARING A MASK beats half-hearted banner “reveal” in an empty arena. (Speaking of wearing masks, the fella donning one in net, Juuse Saros, started both games against Columbus and made coach John Hynes look smart, with 71 saves on 74 shots — a .959 SV% — and two wins.)

7. Lightning

This week’s record, goal differential: 2-0-0, +10.

Look, we know the Bolts were thinking of their fans when they chose not to raise the banner for September’s Cup victory (yes, that’s still weird to type) at Amalie Arena — Florida Man Steven Stamkos gave a very nice speech — but showing off the banner without raising it? That’s like pulling your ace starter in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series while he’s got a shutout going. (Too soon? At least the Lightning haven’t traded the banner away for prospects.)

6. Panthers

This week’s record, goal differential: 1-0-0, +3.

You see teams playing in front of thousands of empty seats as a discomforting experience; the Panthers see it as bringing a taste of the BB&T Center to all their road trips. (But seriously, the Panthers’ home arena in Sunrise is enforcing a 25% capacity limit, the second highest percentage in the division. Florida Panthers, your Central Division attendance kings — welcome to 2021.)

5. Red Wings

This week’s record, goal differential: 1-1-0, -1.

Look at new captain Dylan Larkin with two goals since donning the “C” — and, more importantly, since pleasing the Hockey Gods by shaving the regular-season facial hair. The goals weren’t pretty — the first off two Hurricanes from behind the net and the second an empty-netter — but hey, you think Steve Yzerman got to 692 goals with nothing but double-overtime blasts from the blue line? (Want to feel old? That goal was scored two and a half months before Larkin was born.)

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4. Stars

This week’s record, goal differential: DNP.

As much as the Stars would rather be on the ice instead of dealing with COVID-19 protocols, having two games against the Lightning moved from this month to May — when star forward Tyler Seguin and star goalie Ben Bishop are likely to be healthy again — probably wasn’t the most disappointing news. They’ll officially start the season on Friday (hopefully).

3. Blue Jackets

This week’s record, goal differential: 0-2-0, -5.

Bad enough that the prize of the offseason, Max Domi, has laid two stinkers — zero points with a combined minus-3 rating — to open the season. But the guy they traded for him, Josh Anderson, lit it up in his Montreal debut, with two goals on seven shots. (No goals in Game 2, but Anderson only had one goal all of last season; that is what we call house money he’s playing with.) Why, it’s enough to get Coach Torts tinkering with Domi’s line — again, two games in: “I just don’t think (they) played that well,” Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch. “I think (that line) sputtered through camp and (Thursday). They’re trying. They just didn’t play that well. So, I wanted to try something different.” 

2. Hurricanes

This week’s record, goal differential: 1-1-0, +1.

Splitting a series against the worst team in the NHL last season, especially while outshooting said team by 39 (in two games!) and dominating every possession metric … well, that’s just not good. Coach Rod Brind’Amour blamed the … hotel plans in Detroit? “Sitting in a hotel and not getting around, I don’t want to say that’s why we started slow but I feel like I need to do a better job of figuring that out,” Brind’Amour told the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Break out the board games! But kudos to defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who “won” his first fight in well over four years, according to HockeyFights.com.

1. Blackhawks

This week’s record, goal differential: 0-3-0, -10.

A beloved Chicago institution, probably past its prime, is a shell of itself without the legend that made it great — A review of “Blues Brothers 2000,” or this year’s Blackhawks without Jonathan Toews? Then again, with 15 goals allowed in three games by two goalies with a combined 81 appearances before this season … well, expecting Toews to fix that issue is like counting on the Blues Brothers’ car to deliver John Belushi’s lines.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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