We are three months into the NHL's 100th season so far, every team, except for Minnesota, has led the Central Division for at least a night. Even Colorado, who is objectively awful, continue to have moments of inspired play. This wide-open division might be the cream of the crop in the NHL, & justly has millions of eyes on its teams week in & week out. Obviously, one pair of those eyes belong to Santa himself. The jolly bringer of gifts from the frozen north is an avid hockey fan & he has been tweaking his naughty & nice list since the offseason. So here it is folks, a Central Divided exclusive from St. Nick himself, directly from the North Pole:
The Naughty List:
I've been writing this list for centuries now, and every year it always makes me sad that I have to send the elves out to our local coal mine. I never worry about the elves, no, their size and fear of open spaces make them perfect for the work. What bothers me most is watching people fail to live up to their potential. How many times do I have to bring somebody coal before they realize they might need to think about changing some things. (Yes, I'm talking about Gary Bettman.)
There are so many wonderful things about each team in the Central Division, but each team has something or someone which needs a little work. I want to start with the team that plays in my workshop's backyard.
Winnipeg Jets: Dustin Byfuglien
Poor Dustin, he's been on my naughty list before. Usually, it's for having a little too much fun on his boat, but this year I'm most disappointed in his play for the Jets. I'm writing to you 9 days before Christmas (or Zero-Hour as we call it in the shop) & Mr. Byfuglien has not yet scored a goal this season. I understand that he's been hurt for a good part of the season, but his teammates deserve a little more help, especially since they have been working together so well this year.
I thought about adding Steve Mason to my naughty list, but Ms. Claus talked me out of it. She said it would just be too cruel.
Minnesota Wild: The Forwards (Extra Coal For The First Line)
The good people of Minnesota might have been a bit optimistic about their team going into this season, but even the most stone-hearted of them couldn't have expected the season to start off like this. The leading scorer for the Wild's first line is Mikael Granlund, who's 20 points come mostly from his 13 assists. Mikko Koivu, a perennial "Nice List" maker, only has 4 goals so far this season! That's only 4 more than Dustin Byfuglien! Again, injuries have not helped the Wild, it seems like this will be a wasted season for Minnesota. That's a type of coal I don't dare wish on anyone, the inky black darkness of wasted opportunities. Not everything is snowmen & eggnog in Minnesota.
Chicago Blackhawks: The "Leaders"
I've been so happy for my good friend Clark Griswald. After waiting almost 50 years, he received his favorite gift, the Stanley Cup. The young kids that brought that first cup home (& then 2 more after it) for generations of long-suffering hockey fans were automatic for the "Nice List." Then this year happened. A slight step back was to be expected since the team had lost the likes of Hossa, Hjalmarsson & Panerin, but good leadership from the likes of Kane, Toews & Keith should have kept this team on track. Instead, Kane is -1 on the season, Toews has only 1 power play goal this year & Keith seems to have lost both the spring in his step & the wisdom of his years of stardom. The talented kids on this team deserve better.
Colorado Avalanche: Semyon Varlamov
Semyon Varlamov seemed to be destined for hockey greatness when he took over the net minding duties for first-year coach Patrick Roy. Then the rest of his career happened. He's been on the naughty list before for his some of his off-ice issues. This year, however, he's extra making the list due to his play & what it means to the future of the team. Semyon is sporting a .906 GAA this year. I know, the Avs aren't incredible, but if he wants to be a part of this team with Sakic's prospects come of age, he needs to rework his entire game, & I haven't seen that work from him. He only has one more year on his contract. After 2019, he could have bigger problems than making my Naughty List.
St. Louis Blues: The Medical Team
Seriously, is the entire team made of gingerbread? are they held together by frosting? Jay Bouwmeester, Robbie Fabbri, Alex Pietrangelo & Jaden Schwartz are all on the shelf. Conner Hutton, who's great work so far has found himself on my Nice List just came back from injury. These guys need to be eating more milk & cookies. That's how you avoid the DL for 700 years!
Nashville Predators: Everyone Who Has Taken A Penalty
Nothing will make someone make my Naughty List faster than doing something they aren't supposed to do. The Nashville Predators have done that more than every other team in the NHL. The Preds are averaging more than 13 penalty minutes per game! Spending half a period on the penalty kill seems to be having an effect on the team late in games. The final frame seems to the when the Predators are most vulnerable. Stay out of the box, boys, if you don't want long-dead plants in your stockings.
Dallas Stars: Ben Bishop
Last year, a lot a Dallas fans wrote me letters asking for a Goalie for Christmas. While I am known to work a miracle every now & then, this was a tall order for even me. I was pleased when all-around nice guy Ben Bishop found his way to the heart of Texas. Then Dallas started playing games. While better than the ballad of Kari Lehtonen, Bishop hasn't fully taken his opportunity to lead the Dallas Stars to their promised land. Only sporting a .910 save percentage (Lehtonen's is .907) Ben has let too many soft goals squeak by in giant frame this season. Fans want Dallas to be the West's Tampa Bay? There's a reason Bennie isn't in Tampa anymore.
The Nice List:
Now that the bad news is out of the way, I can bring all of you some real Chrismas cheer, although these entries on my Nice List have given you enough to cheer about already! Sorry, Santa Joke.
Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck
I've been rooting for young Connor ever since he sent me his first Christmas letter (He asked for socks...pragmatic child.) He's long dreamed of being a starting NHL goalie. As Josh Groban says, You have everything you need, if you just believe. Well, the Jets faithful have a lot to believe in after this kid's impressive start. Conner is 16-4 in regulation and is sporting a 2.55 GAA at Christmas time. A lot of other people on the Jets also made the Nice List, but Mr. Hellebuyck gets extra socks this Christmas.
Minnesota Wild: Jason Zucker
Two seasons ago, young Jason played in 71 games, tallying 23 points. Through 32 games this season, he has 25. His shooting percentage is an astonishing 19.7%. That number is sure to plummet, but Holly Jolly, this kid fun to watch. Mr. Zucker has 4 game-winning goals so far this year. Let's not forget that he also single-handedly won 2 games in a row by himself (4G- 3-0 @MTL, 1-0 @ PHI.) Minnesota might be toothless, but Jason Zucker is as fearsome as a Bumble so far this season.
Chicago Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat
Much like their friends in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Blackhawks faithful don't have a lot to keep them in the holiday spirit. Then a 5'7", 160 lbs kid from Farmington Hills, Michigan came to town. The rook is 2nd behind Patrick Kane (NAUGHTY LIST) in points (23) & he's shooting at 20% as I send this to you. What's made sure that he'll get that Red Ryder BB gun he asked for though is how he plays the game. Alex doesn't care that he's new. He'll still try to score from behind the net because that's what makes him happy. That should make all of us happy too.
Colorado Avalanche: Joe Sakic
When I first drafted up my Nice List this summer, Joe was certainly not on it. The Matt Duchene situation had gotten completely out of hand, & it seemed like the Avalanche were going be buried in subpar seasons for years to come. Then, with the help of another GM on my Nice List, Joe potentially turned the tides of his franchise in a single night. Colorado's prospect pool is once again deep and the team on the ice this year shows flashes of future greatness. Well done, Mr. Sakic, now don't screw it all up & make me put you on a different list next year.
St. Louis Blues: Mike Yeo
I know, I'm surprised too! When he took over the Blues, it seems Mr. Yeo's hockey brain grew 3 sizes that day. He now has a surprisingly talented (if top heavy) team using a variety of playing styles to confuse & overpower almost every team in the league. Ever since 1967, the city of St. Louis has showered my workshop with letters, all of them asking for a Stanley Cup. Thanks in large part to Mike Yeo, those hopes are close to being fulfilled than any other time this century.
Nashville Predators: David Poile
The city of Nashville went into deep mourning after their Finals loss. Then they lost James Neal to the draft. There was a murmur of mutiny in the streets over the lack of protection of Neal in the expansion draft. Then the season started & it was a bit rocky for the Preds. Had last year been their moment? Had they squandered their one chance at glory? No. You're never out of the hunt with David Poile pulling the strings. Since the Blockbuster Duchene-Turris-All-of-Ottawa's-Firstborns trade, Nashville has gone 13-2-2. This team isn't even fully healthy yet. David Poile is getting another GM of the Year award for Christmas.
Dallas Stars: Jamie Benn
Jamie Benn is tied for most points on his team, he has a 57% win rate at the dot & he hasn't missed a single game due to injury. But what has been the best part of Jamie's season for me is watching him fully flourish in his captaincy. Benn is the defacto leader of a team full of strong personalities. He's been able to walk the tightrope that is wearing a C under Ken Hitchcock. Heavens, he even got in a scrap with Dustin Byfuglien earlier in the year. If Dallas is destined for fond memories this year, Jamie Benn will play a role in them. Maybe he'll bring Dallas the greatest gift of all, another Cup.
So there you have it, boys & girls! Now I've got to get back to finishing up the final pieces of the wonderful Christmas days you're about to have. Remember to be kind, and spread cheer to all, even after Dec. 25th. Also, stop leaving me vegetables. It's milk, cookies, or nothing.