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Following True North: Keeping an Eye on the Central Division

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While the Central is once again looking to be ultra-competitive, it’s good to glance at how the teams are trending.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the Dallas Stars starting to heat up in the Central Division race, it’s time to take a look at where the rest of the division is headed, statistically speaking. With divisional games often being the difference-maker for playoff battles, it will be good to check in on the other six franchises every so often.

Standings-wise, both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues have gotten off to hot starts. Colorado sits in third thanks to their win over Dallas on Tuesday night. As you can expect with the season still being so young, it’s tightly packed. Dallas and Nashville both have 10 points, same as Colorado. Winnipeg follows closely behind with 8 while Minnesota sits at the bottom with just 6 points on the season so far.

Statistically, it’s surprising that Dallas hasn’t accumulated more standings points so far this season.

What you’re looking at above is a chart showing the rolling total of expected goal differentials for each team in the Central division. For those unfamiliar with expected goals, here is a great write-up of it. It is a shot-metric like Corsi (shot attempts) or Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) that also factors in shot quality.

Chicago has taken a nose-dive in this 5v5 category since the beginning of the season and as you can see, Dallas is currently looking way down at the rest of the division.

This is a big reason why so many around the team were urging Stars’ fans not to panic at the slow start in the standings. While they have started scoring more goals and winning more games, their actual 5v5 goal total still hasn’t caught up to their expected goal total.

There’s certainly no law that they have to match up by the end of the season but I would be quite surprised to see the Stars continue to experience offensive issues.

The Nashville Predators are surprising to me and I wouldn’t necessarily expect that to continue from the reigning Western Conference champions. Winnipeg, for me, is particularly shocking. They have some depth issues and don’t have the deepest blue-line in the division, but I’d put that top-six forward group up against any other team’s top-six in the NHL.

While shot quality is critical, shot quantity is still an important aspect of the game to keep an eye on moving forward. Let’s take a look at the same chart, this time using 5v5 shot attempts instead of expected goals.

With this view it becomes even harder for the Stars to see the rest of the division as nobody is relatively close to catching Dallas in 5v5 shot attempt differential. While it’s still early, this should give the Stars plenty of optimism about their chances in the division as the season goes on.

Nashville looks a lot better in this view while Winnipeg and the Colorado Avalanche look roughly the same as the expected goal view. Chicago has still taken an early nose-dive, while Minnesota and St. Louis don’t look nearly as good in the quantity view of shots as they did in the quality view.

Let’s examine how these Central rivals are reaching these differentials.

Again, Dallas is rolling at both ends in the shot attempts category during even-strength play. They are best in the division at limiting shot attempts while also being the best and generating them. That’s a recipe for what we saw earlier, the Stars towering over the rest of the Central.

Once again, the Winnipeg Jets is the most interesting team to me using this view. A team with Ehlers, Wheeler, Laine, Little, Byfuglien, Trouba, and more should be generating chances and quality chances at a much higher rate. They finished 22nd in this category last season (per corsica.hockey), so maybe it shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems.

We’ll continue to do similar check-ins throughout the season, especially as these statistics start to even out more with goals and standings points. The Stars are in good shape so far, but will need to starting adding more wins against the rest of this group as the year moves along.