Continuing with our Central Division preview, we will take a look at the remaining positions. Make sure you check out the preview of the top five forwards and top five defenseman in the central. Here are the top three goalies, powerplay men, and face-off men:
#3. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings-
The six year NHL veteran and three year starter for the Red Wings had another solid season between the pipes, registering a career-best 2.12 goals against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage for fifth seeded Detroit. Howard was somewhat limited due to injury, but still started 57 games, with a record of 35-17-4. Along with 20 year vet Niklas Lidstrom, Howard helped anchor a defensive unit that ranked seventh in the NHL in goals per game. Although he struggled in the playoffs, posting a 1-4-0 record with a .888 save percentage, the fact was that the Red Wings were simply outgunned by the much younger and faster Predators. I expect Howard to continue to improve, especially if he remains healthy, and at only 28 years old, should be a servicable goaltender for years to come – even if he is never an all-star.
#2. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues-
If one person could obtain the stats and consistency that these two put up in 2011, then they would be at the top of the Vezina conversation. But, as it stands, Halak and Elliott are the most solid goaltending tandem in the NHL, posting a 1.97 and 1.56 GAA, and had save percentages of .926 and .940, respectively. They combined to let up the fewest goals per game averge in the league, allowing only 1.9 per game. Although Elliott had the slightly more impressive stats, he had a smaller pool, playing in only 38 games compared to Jaro’s 46. Plus, when Halak was injured in the playoffs, Elliott’s numbers dipped significantly, putting up a .904 save percentage and allowing 2.38 goals per game. To be sure, both of these goalies work far better in tandem, and benefit greatly from the significant rest that comes with it. Althought they are a formidable combination, they are not consistent enough to be ranked number one in the central division.
#1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators-
That particular distinction belongs to Vezina trophy finalist Pekka Rinne, who went 43-18-8 in this past season, helping the Preds secure the fourth seed in the west. Although his GAA numbers are not dazzling (2.39), his save percentage was in the top-10 in the NHL at .923. Rinne also led a defensive unit that was eight in the league in goals against, and 10th in penalty kill percentage. Even further, he started 72 games for the Preds last season, so his effort and commitment to the team is well documented. In the playoffs, Rinne was even stingier, posting a .926 save percentage and allowing 2.07 goals per game, and led Nashville to only their second playoff series victory in their history. At 29, Rinne is just entering his prime, and along with Shea Weber, should allow the Predators to continue to contend in a tough Western Conference.
Power Play Skaters
#3. Marian Hossa, RW Chicago Blackhawks-
After joining the Blackhawks in 2009-2010 and helping lead the franchise to its first cup since 1960-’61
, Marian Hossa has been a huge contributor on the offensive end, specifically on the power play. In the past two regular seasons with Chicago, Hossa has racked up 39 power play points while playing both on the wing and occasionally manning the point. Since he entered the league in 1997, he has put up a whopping 318 PP points, averaging more than 22 per season. His future, however, is uncertain at this point, after he took a massive cheap shot from Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. If he can recover from his concussion, I still expect him to be an effective, though not elite, NHL winger and a big contributor on special teams.
#2. Shea Weber, D Nashville Predators-
Largely considered the best defenseman in the NHL, Shea Weber is a consistent threat on the offensive end. Putting up the fourth most points on the Predators last season, Weber is dangerous from all areas of the ice, but most dangerous on the man advantage. In 2011-2012, he racked up 22 power play points (12 goals, 10 assists), while manning the wing. With the benefit of receiving dead-on accurate passes from Ryan Suter and Mike Fisher, Weber was able to take advantage of open looks on the backside, and scored the most PP goals of any defenseman in the NHL. Look for his goal numbers to dip a bit but assists to increase, as he will likely have to take over some point-man responsibilities with the loss of Suter.
#1. Alex Pietrangelo, D St. Louis Blues-
As the maturity and defensive ability of Alex Pietrangelo grew in St. Louis, so did his ability to man the
point on the power play. Not a very potent offensive squad overall, much of the scoring was put on the shoulders of the man advantage unit. Alex Pietrangelo is the prototypical playmaker on the power play, putting up 18 assists on the PP, along with six goals. Those 18 assists were good for fifth in the NHL, and his 24 points were fourth among defensemen. He was aided by the presence of Kevin Shattenkirk, TJ Oshie, and David Backes, who were all solid finishers on the man-up. At only 22 years old, Pietrangelo’s offensive skills are still developing, so the sky’s the limit for the Blues’ top defenseman, as he becomes even more comfortable and develops more chemistry on the power play.