The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings picked up where they left off last season with a battle for supremacy in the Central Division. Sitting at the bottom of the division, St. Louis and Nashville have disappointed many, though their VUKOTA projections were rather bearish to begin with.
Central Division - VUKOTA vs. Actual
Team Rank (VUKOTA) Pts (VUKOTA) Pts (Actual)*
Chicago Blackhawks 1 106 112
Detroit Red Wings 4 104 99
St. Louis Blues 16 90 73
Columbus Blue Jackets 19 89 104
Nashville Predators 23 86 91
* Actual points per game, projected over 82 games
On pace to win the Central Division with 112 points, six points more than their VUKOTA projection, Chicago is looking solid. While many were skeptical of Cristobal Huet after Nikolai Khabibulin's departure to Edmonton, the Blackhawks have allowed only 46 goals, second fewest in the West. Has Huet really lived up to expectations? Not exactly, since he's posted a minus-0.9 GVT in the net, including an NHL-worst minus-1.3 GVT in the shootout. The Hawks' defense has picked up the slack, posting a league-best 10.9 GVT. Brent Seabrook (2.4 defensive GVT, second in NHL) and Duncan Keith (2.2 DGVT, fifth) have starred early, with Keith also putting up a 2.1 GVT on offense. As he enters restricted free agency next year, the Winnipeg, Canada, native is on pace for a 20.7 GVT, which is nine better than his VUKOTA projection of 11.7. In the here and now, that performance should help the Hawks easily clinch a playoff berth.
Detroit Red Wings
Many didnít know what to expect of Detroit after they lost Samuelsson, Conklin, Hudler and Kopecky, though VUKOTA still viewed them as the 4th best team in the league. The Detroit offense (6.4 GVT) has lived up to expectations so far, while the defense (1.6 GVT) has been acceptable. The main problem has been in the net. Chris Osgood, who had a VUKOTA projected 2.7 GVT, is struggling with a team worst -1.0 GVT. Jimmy Howard, who had a 1.0 VUKOTA projected GVT and is slated to become the future goaltender of the franchise, has been at least replacement level with a 0.2 GVT. Itís still early in the season, but if Osgood doesnít improve in the net soon, then expect a change to be made in goal. Even though the defense has been good, it has not lived up to VUKOTA's expectations, which viewed Detroit's defense as the 3rd best in the league. Brian Rafalski is on pace for a 4.6 DGVT, which is below his VUKOTA projected 6.0 DGVT for the year. Niklas Kronwall is also off the pace of his VUKOTA projected 5.4 DGVT and is on pace to post a 4.8 DGVT instead.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Only the Toronto Maple Leafs (68) and the Carolina Hurricanes (72) have scored more goals this year than the Columbus Blue Jackets (65). One of the biggest discrepancies between VUKOTA and the results thus far on the season when including all players has been goaltender Steve Mason, who was projected to post a very good 11.1 GVT and has yet accumulated a horrific -8.1 GVT. Of the 777 players in the NHL, Mason ranks 776 in GVT. Thatís how bad heís been this year. Only Vesa Toskala, who has barely edged out Mason for the basement with a -8.2 GVT, has played worse than last yearís Calder Trophy winner. On his play alone, Mason is on pace to take off 12 points from his teamís VUKOTA projection of 89 points. VUKOTA saw the Blue Jackets as a fringe playoff team to begin with, but if the reigning rookie of the year canít shape up in the net, than their season is likely over. R.J. Umberger, who was projected by VUKOTA for a breakout year with an 8.1 GVT has been the most disappointing offensive player, and is on pace for only a 3.9 GVT in the 2009-10 season.
The Nashville Predators could have all of the defensive and goaltending talent in the world, but if you canít score, you canít win games. Nashville currently sits last in goals scored with 39, are on pace to net 178 through seasonís end and have a league second worst -11.6 Team Offensive GVT. While VUKOTA projected the Predators to finish 24th in goals scored on the year, the projection system still saw them scoring 225 goals, which is 47 more than they're on pace to score. That doesnít mean that everyone is underachieving. J.P. Dumont is on pace to post a 16.4 Offensive GVT, which is almost triple his VUKOTA projection of a 6.1 GVT on offense. The big problem for Nashville has been their lack of offensive depth. David Legwand, who VUKOTA pegged for a 3.8 Offensive GVT, is on pace for a -4.8 Offensive GVT; Martin Erat, who was projected by VUKOTA to post a 5.3 Offensive GVT, is on pace for a -3.5 Offensive GVT for the rest of the year; and Joel Ward, projected by VUKOTA for a 2.6 Offensive GVT, is on pace for a -0.5 Offensive GVT. The Predators could trade for a second line forward, but realistically with only an option or two on offense, Nashville might as well build up their goal scoring through the draft.
St. Louis Blues
While the struggles of the St. Louis Blues might come as a surprise to some, it does not surprise VUKOTA in the least. VUKOTA projected the Blues to finish 16th overall with a -2 Team GVT, and so far this year, the Blues are on pace to finish with a -4 Team GVT. So, though many view this club as the team furthest off of their individual and team projections, St. Louis is actually one of the teams that has most accurately followed their VUKOTA projections. Chris Mason has been one of elite goaltenders this year with a 4.9 GVT in 11.8 Games Played, which is nearly what his projection called for (7.4 GVT in only 43.4 Games Played). Despite playing as projected on offense this season, Patrik Burglund and David Backes have both underachieved according to their VUKOTA projections. Burglandís VUKOTA projection of a 10.3 GVT is unlikely to be met, heís on pace for a -1.5 GVT, and the same can be said for Backeís, who has a VUKOTA projection of 8.8 GVT and is on pace for a -5.8 GVT.
The division is playing out the way VUKOTA suspected it would, with Chicago and Detroit at the top, and Nashville, St. Louis and Columbus at the bottom. Chicago is seen as the best team in the league by VUKOTA, and the Blackhawks should be expected to win the division. Detroit should win a top four playoff seed and, if they get their goaltending in order, Columbus could secure a bottom four playoff seed in the Western Conference.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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