Evaluating the NHL Central Division Using Goals Above Replacement (GAR) Metrics

Following the divisional realignment imposed by the NHL for the shortened 2020-21 regular season, the path to the playoffs and beyond will be solely based on head-to-head matchups with divisional foes. The regional realignment sees all Canadian teams moving into the new North Division, while the remaining three divisions are a bit unbalanced in terms of competition.

Each of the divisions’ top four teams will advance to the division playoffs, with the first seed playing the fourth seed, and the second seed playing the third seed. A division will have one division playoff champion that will match up against another division champions for the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals.

Some divisions have more of an even balance of quality throughout, but others are a bit more top-heavy, giving the better teams in those divisions a path of less resistance to the playoffs.

Prior to opening night, NoVa Caps will breakdown each of the new divisions and assess the strength of each divisional team through the use of the Goals Above Replacement metric. In this piece, we’ll take a look at each team in the North Division’s 2019-20 regular season goals above replacement (GAR) to project the strength of the division for the upcoming season. [Statistics courtesy of Evolving Hockey.]

The Central Division ended up as an amalgamation of the previously existing Metropolitan (Carolina and Columbus), the Central (Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville), and the Atlantic (Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Florida). Interestingly enough, this temporary realignment pits the two teams that faced off in the Stanley Cup Finals last season.

The new Central Division will be interesting, considering it has the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the Lightning, combined with the only team in the NHL that posted a negative GAR (-47.1) last season. Detroit will likely not be much improved, and the stronger teams in the division are likely going to feast on those matchups.

Here’s how the teams in the new Central Division rank in terms of GAR for the 2019-20 regular season (Click to enlarge):

With no real surprise, Tampa Bay led the way in terms of GAR, in what would be the new Central Division.

Due to salary cap limitations, the Lightning did not do much in terms of additions. They were able to re-sign restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev to new contracts, as well as bring back Jan Rutta, Patrick Maroon, and Luke Schenn.

In order to sign Cirelli to his new contract, the Lightning did need to move some contracts to the Ottawa Senators in order to free up cap space. In return for Braydon Coburn (1.5 GAR), Cedric Paquette (-1.0 GAR), and a 2022 second round pick, the Lightning received the contracts of Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson, both of which will be on long term injury reserve.

The biggest piece that may change the course of the Lightning’s 2021 regular season is the loss of superstar right wing Nikita Kucherov (14.1 GAR) due to hip surgery. The Lightning are still stacked with talent across the lineup, but missing Kucherov for the entire regular season could have substantial impact.

Nashville placed second in total overall GAR in the new Central Division, posting solid GAR numbers across the board. The Predators brought-in Luke Kunin (-3.5 GAR) and a 2020 fourth round pick from the Minnesota Wild in return for Nick Bonino (12.5 GAR), a 2020 second round pick, and a 2020 third round pick. This was largely the Predators shedding Bonino’s $4.1 million cap hit.

The Predators added Mark Borowiecki (-1.6 GAR), Brad Richardson (-2.7 GAR), Erik Haula (-.05 GAR), and re-signed Mikael Granlund (3.1 GAR). Overall, Nashville will be banking on new acquisitions to fit their system better than their previous teams, as well as better showings from talented forwards Filip Forsberg (6.6 GAR), Viktor Arvidsson (3.2 GAR), and Ryan Johansen (-2.2 GAR). Without better performances from their top six forward group, Nashville may have more regression coming.

Dallas comes in third regarding total overall GAR. Interestingly enough, young defenseman Miro Heiskanen led the way for total GAR with 11.3 in the 2019-20 regular season for the Stars, ahead of star players like Tyler Seguin (5.6 GAR) and Jamie Benn (7.8 GAR).

The Stars weren’t very busy acquiring new players in free agency, but were able to re-sign Roope Hintz (7 GAR), Julius Honka (DNP), Denis Gurianov (6.3 GAR), Radek Faksa (1.1 GAR), Andrej Sekera (-0.3 GAR), and Anton Khudobin (17.9 GAR). The Stars also made no off-season trades that would affect the NHL roster. Mattias Janmark (5.6 GAR) and Corey Perry (0.1 GAR) signed elsewhere.

Fourth in overall GAR are the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets moved out two defensemen in Markus Nutivaara (-0.9 GAR) and Ryan Murray (2.7 GAR) for draft picks and prospects. On top of that, they shipped out Josh Anderson (-1 GAR) to Montreal in return for Max Domi (12 GAR) and a 2020 third round pick. Domi should help add some offense to the Blue Jackets’ top six forward group. Columbus also brought in unrestricted free agents Mikhail Grigorenko (KHL last season) and Mikko Koivu (1.5 GAR).

Overall, the Blue Jackets’ defensive group is still strong after trading out Murray and Nutivaara, with Seth Jones, Alex Werenski, David Savard, and Vladislav Gavrikov rounding out their top four defensive corps.

Fifth is the Carolina Hurricanes. They added a couple of role players in free agency, signing Jesper Fast (2.7 GAR) and Joakim Ryan (-3.2 GAR). The Hurricanes weren’t very busy on the trade market either, only shipping out depth defenseman Joel Edmundson.

The biggest miss for the Hurricanes in free agency was missing out on a starting quality goaltender, mainly due to the fact they were unable to move the contracts of James Reimer or Petr Mrazek.

Overall, the Hurricanes are extremely deep defensively with Jaccob Slavin (16.5 GAR), Dougie Hamilton (13.2 GAR), Brady Skjei (-5.7 GAR), Brett Pesce (-1.2 GAR), Jake Gardiner (-7.3 GAR), and Haydn Fleury (2 GAR). As long as the goaltending tandem of Mrazek and Reimer perform strongly, they should be a playoff contending team.

Sixth in GAR are the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks will be without Jonathan Toews (11.2 GAR) indefinitely due to an undisclosed illness and Kirby Dach (4.6 GAR) for 4-5 months following wrist surgery. This severely impacts the Blackhawks’ forward group, especially at center.

The Blackhawks also traded Brandon Saad (1.4 GAR) for Nikita Zadorov (-3.5 GAR) and Olli Maatta. In free agency, the Blackhawks added Mattias Janmark (5.6 GAR), Lucas Wallmark (3.4 GAR), and Carl Soderberg (3.8 GAR). On top of that, they lost longtime starting goaltender Corey Crawford, and are now relying on two younger goaltenders in Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. The Blackhawks, as it stands currently, are bound for regression.

Seventh is the Florida Panthers. Their offense is likely to take a hit, losing Mike Hoffman (-0.3 GAR) and Evgeny Dadonov (5.1 GAR) through free agency. They also traded Mike Matheson (5 GAR) and Colton Sceviour (1.6 GAR) to Pittsburgh for Patric Hornqvist (7.8 GAR).

The biggest wild card for the Panthers will be whether or not goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky returns to form and earns his $10 million cap hit. Last year, he posted a GAR of -1.1. In 2018-19, he posted 13.5 GAR, and in 2017-18, he posted a 37.5 GAR. Even if he returns more to the 13.5 GAR mark, the Panthers will be in a much better place.

Eighth, and rounding out the Central Division are the Detroit Red Wings. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the Red Wings were the only team in the NHL to post a negative GAR figure last season, and they were far below zero there. The Red Wings will still be the worst team in this division, but they have improved marginally this off-season. They were able to bring in Vladislav Namestnikov (0 GAR), Jon Merrill (3.7 GAR), Bobby Ryan (-0.6 GAR), and Thomas Greiss (5 GAR).

Detroit also received Marc Staal (-6 GAR) and a 2021 second round pick from the New York Rangers for future considerations. Staal will likely be more in a depth role on the Red Wings, who needed a large contract to get to the salary cap floor. Overall, expectations will be low for the Red Wings. They’ll likely finish last in this division still.

Here are potential standings results for the 2021 regular season, taking into account 2019-20 performance, as well as off-season additions and departures:

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Nashville Predators
  5. Columbus Blue Jackets
  6. Florida Panthers
  7. Chicago Blackhawks
  8. Detroit Red Wings

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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