The Central Division is arguably the toughest division in sports. With six of seven teams in playoff contention for most of the season, there has been multiple players making a case for serving as the 2018-19 league MVP. However, a few stand out from the rest.
[See related: Why Every Team Deserves a Hart Trophy Candidate]
In order of where teams sit in the standings, here is each team’s candidate for league MVP.
Nashville Predators – Pekka Rinne
The Predators are having a storybook season, winning important divisional matchups and scoring in bunches. However, even with a prolific offense, the team lives and dies by its goaltenders. Seemingly a factory for outstanding goaltender, Nashville is close to posting its best season since inception thanks in large part to Rinne’s performance. The netminder ranks fifth in the NHL in save percentage (.927), fifth in goals-against average (2.28) and first in shutouts (8). Most importantly, Rinne’s GSAA (goals saved above average) is tops in the league at 25.09. With 41 wins under his belt, the 35-year-old netminder is close to eclipsing his career-best seasons, including wins (43; 2011-12), and has already reached a career high in shutouts.
Winnipeg Jets – Patrik Laine
About two weeks ago, it seemed that the second-year forward would see his season, and his first shot at the Rocket Richard Trophy, come to an end with a bruise on his leg. However, the Finnish winger powered through the pain and returned to the lineup quickly, displaying perseverance and leadership to a team that thrives off his scoring touch. With 43 tallies, just two behind the league-leading Ovechkin, Laine has been a revelation in his sophomore campaign. He’s a major reason his club has become a Stanley Cup hopeful, powering pucks into the net with quick hands and a keen eye for the net. Laine has been most impressive with the extra man, netting 19 power-play goals and 10 power-play assists. His proficiency with the man advantage has led to the Jets sitting in fourth in power-play proficiency (23.4 percent) and his 29 power-play points have contributed to 48 percent of the team’s power-play goals (29 of 61).
Minnesota Wild – Eric Staal
If you’re looking for evidence that a change of scenery can do wonders for a player, look no further than Staal. Cast off from both Carolina and the New York Rangers, Staal has rediscovered his game with the Wild and it is paying dividends. After recording a measly 13 goals and 39 points in 2015-16, Staal has become a powerhouse yet again, recording the sixth highest goal totals in the league (40) in just his second season with Minnesota. His elusive shot and skill with the puck has been a revelation for the Wild, who are 20-5-5 when Staal finds the back of the net.
Colorado Avalanche – Nathan MacKinnon
If Laine and Staal are on top of the world this season, MacKinnon is from a different planet. This season, MacKinnon has thrust himself from star into perennial superstar, finding himself in the Art Ross race with just a few games left in the season. Playing in his fifth campaign, MacKinnon has posted career highs in goals (38), assists (56) and points (94). Forget being his team’s candidate for the Hart, he may actually take the hardware home as one of the top three candidates in the league. The 22-year-old center has amassed at least a point in 53 of his 71 games, which is also the lowest amount of games played by anyone in the top 10 scorers of the NHL.
St. Louis Blues – Brayden Schenn
The only reason the Blues are still in playoff contention is because of their tremendous start. As the team battled for first place in the league with Vegas and Tampa Bay until early December, Schenn was one of the most productive players in the league. Acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers over the summer, Schenn stepped into the first line role in dominating fashion. From the start of the season to Dec. 1, Schenn was in the top 10 in assists (20) and points (30). Even during the Blues’ recent skid, Schenn has remained a vital cog in the team’s machine, currently leading the roster in points (65). One specific instance of Schenn’s leadership occurred against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 8. With his team amassing just one win out of their previous three games, Schenn dropped the mitts off the opening faceoff with Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. The Blues rolled the Avalanche 6-1, with the All-Star participant accumulating two goals.
Dallas Stars – Tyler Seguin
A season of change with a new head coach (Ken Hitchcock) and a starting goalie (Ben Bishop) has not been as fruitful as Stars management had hoped. However, the Stars remained in the playoff race until recently thanks in large part to the goal-scoring prowess of Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. The superstars are anchored by Seguin, who leads the team in goals (40) and points (76). Always a threat from anywhere on the ice, the former Bruins pivot has led his team to a 31-16-4 record when he records at least one point.
Chicago Blackhawks – Patrick Kane
It seemed like the dynasty would never show signs of crumbling, but the effects of time have found its way to Chicago in the form of losses and poor play in the defensive zone. Despite the struggles in the Windy City, one player continues to prove that he is an elite NHL talent. Kane, a 2016 Hart Trophy winner, has tallied 27 goals and 74 points on the season. The 29-year-old is still competing at a high level, registering 278 shots, which ranks as sixth in the league. He’s still finding the scoresheet in impressive ways, including a four-assist, five-point performance in a 8-2 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 9. If there’s hope for the Blackhawks to return to prosperity, it sits with Kane, who is constantly making young teammates, including Nick Schmaltz, much better when paired on the ice with him.
The Central Division: Consensus Pick
Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche)
MacKinnon is a favorite for the Hart largely because of the Avalanche’s massive climb from the NHL cellar in just one season—they already surpassed their 2016-17 point total (48 points) by Jan. 13. Their leading scorer has led the team back into prominence as they have quickly become a playoff contender.
MacKinnon’s ability to generate scoring chances contributes to his candidacy, as well. His SAT (50.28) and USAT (50.06) percentages are off the charts as his team is far more productive in the offensive zone when he is on the ice versus when he is not (non-advanced stats geeks visit here). What’s more, the Avalanche barely stayed above water when he was out earlier this season (4-4-0, outscored 26-16 in that span) with a shoulder injury. Needless to say, he is vital to Colorado’s success.
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