Frank Orris/Icon SMI)
For established, veteran-laden teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, players who are having “breakout” seasons can be few and far between. On the other hand, a young, up-and-coming team like the St. Louis Blues is bound to have several players who are coming into their own and becoming star players.
Here are four players from the Central Division who are enjoying breakthrough campaigns:
Valtteri Filppula, C, Detroit Red Wings: Filppula had already established himself as an excellent two-way player with great speed, but this year the 27-year-old has added an offensive punch to his game. Already surpassing his previous career-high of 40 points set back in 2009, Filppula has registered 21 goals and 54 points in 66 games for Detroit this year.
The team’s third leading scorer behind Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Filppula has reached the offensive potential that he has long been considered to have but often failed to realize.
The smooth-skating Finn continues to be a very intelligent player in all areas of the game, and with the added production, he has forced opposing teams to pay closer attention to him while at the same time taking some of the scoring load off the likes of Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
T.J Oshie, RW, St. Louis Blues: Oshie was well on his way to having his breakout season a year ago until he broke his ankle causing him to miss three months of action. This year the dynamic winger has stayed clear of the injury bug and is becoming the game-breaking type player the Blues hoped he would be when they drafted him in the first-round of the 2005 draft.
On a team that features a number of imposing forwards, Oshie’s speed and puck skills off the rush are the perfect complement to head coach Ken Hitchcock’s system. The 25-year-old is well on his way to establishing career highs in every offensive category, while his 47 points currently has Oshie as the leading-scorer on the first-place Blues. He has also been giving opponents fits of late, recording eight points in his last six games.
Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, D, St. Louis Blues: It makes sense to list Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk together given that the two players are almost a mirror image in terms of the stage in their development and their performance this season. Both players were first-round draft picks, they are both in their second NHL seasons, and both are instinctively gifted in all facets of the game.
The 22-year-old Pietrangelo has quickly developed into one of the top young defenseman in the NHL and has been the anchor of the Blues’ blueline all season. Averaging a team-high 24:24 minutes of ice-time per game, Pietrangelo is the Blues third highest scorer with 40 points, a total that ranks him seventh among all NHL rearguards.
The 23-year-old Shattenkirk has put his tremendous offensive skills on display all year long and is one spot behind Pietrangelo on the Blues scoring list with 35 points of his own. Considered to be more of an offensive defenseman, Shattenkirk has also been stellar in his own zone, carrying a +26 rating which is the fourth-best total in the league.
Central Division Notes
Chicago Blackhawks – Prior to Tuesday’s game against St. Louis, head coach Joel Quenneville updated the status of Jonathan Toews saying the star center has made some encouraging progress but is still unsure as to when he will return. Toews has been out since Feb. 19 with suspected concussion-like symptoms.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Columbus will look to play spoilers once again when they host the Los Angeles Kings tonight. The club will hope to extend their current three-game winning streak which includes wins over playoff-hungry teams in Colorado and Phoenix.
Detroit Red Wings – With injuries decimating their blueline, the Red Wings did get some good news on Wednesday. Defenseman Niklas Kronwall learned that he would face no further discipline for his crushing hit on Flyers forward Jakub Voracek during Tuesday’s loss in Philadelphia. The team also re-assigned forward Chris Conner to Grand Rapids.
Nashville Predators – After what he considered to be a lack of effort in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to Los Angeles, head coach Barry Trotz is expecting a much better effort from his players tonight when they host the Colorado Avalanche. “This team usually responds pretty well and we’ve got a good group, a good core group, so I would expect us to move forward,” Trotz told Predators.com after Wednesday’s practice.
St. Louis Blues – For the time being, the Blues find themselves in first place in the Western Conference but know they must maintain their high level of play. "It’s been very consistent, despite some injuries,” forward Andy McDonald told Jeff Gordon of STLToday. “The guys who have played here played through it. It’s a real tribute to them. It’s a good feeling, but we realize there’s some hockey left to play and we certainly want to keep on this roll."