In my first division preview, I will be looking at the Central Division and how it might play out this year.  The Central Division will be an incredibly tough division to play in once again this season.  At least 5 or 6 of the 7 teams in the Central are good enough to make the playoffs.  To me, there are two teams that have separated themselves and a group of teams that will be fighting for third in the division.  Let’s look at each team and what they might look like this season.

 

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

 

The Chicago Blackhawks had their 9-season playoff streak snapped last year missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  They were 21st in GF and 23rd in GA last season, while also finishing 28th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill.  The Blackhawks enjoyed a lot of success with three Stanley Cups over a six-season span.  However, having to pay players huge money for that success and having to move out good players every season, those days are most likely gone.

Patrick Kane is still a premier player in the NHL and will continue to be heavily counted on in the coming years.  Alex Debrincat had a very good rookie season with 28 goals and 52 points and he looks like he has a very bright future.  23-year-old 2014 6th rounder Dylan Sikura has torn it up in the NCAA for Northeastern University the last 2 years and he will probably play a top 9 role in Chicago this coming season.  Toews is still a good player but he’s not the player he used to be, and his contract is very steep for what he produces.

On the backend is where there are a lot of concerns, Duncan Keith just turned 35 this July and won’t be able to drive the backend by himself.  Brent Seabrook is not the defenseman he was anymore and is making $6.875M for the next 6 seasons, which puts Chicago in a really tough spot.  Outside of Keith, there is not a whole lot of mobility on their blueline.  The good news is for Chicago is that they have very good defense prospects coming.  Gustav Forsling at 22 still has good potential, 2017 1st rounder Henri Jokiharju and 2018 8th overall pick Adam Boqvist will bring a lot of mobility and puck moving to the hawks D core in the future, but right now it’s pretty rough.

IN: Marcus Kruger, Andrew Campbell, Jordan Schroeder, Michael Chaput, Brandon Manning, Chris Kunitz, Cam Ward

OUT: Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, J.F Berube, Tanner Kero, Tomas Jurco, Lance Bouma, Anthony Duclair, Cody Franson

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Alex Debrincat – Nick Schmaltz – Patrick Kane

Brandon Saad – Jonathan Toews – Dylan Sikura

Tyler Sikura – Artem Anisimov – John Hayden

Chris Kunitz – Marcus Kruger – David Kampf

 

Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook

Brandon Manning – Connor Murphy

Gustav Forsling – Jan Rutta

 

Cam Ward

Anton Forsberg

PLAYOFFS?

Chicago has bad contracts that have forced them to move out a lot of their depth over the years.  Everyone around them has gotten better over the last couple seasons and Chicago is headed in the opposite direction.  When Crawford was healthy last year he was phenomenal, but reports are saying he doesn’t even feel 100% yet.  If Crawford is healthy I don’t think Chicago will be a terrible team, however I don’t think they will be a playoff team this upcoming season.

 

COLORADO AVALANCHE

 

After coming off the worst season in the expansion era, the Colorado Avalanche had a 47-point improvement in 2017-18 while returning to the playoffs, getting knocked out by Nashville in 6 games in round 1.  They went from dead last in both GF and GA to 10th in GF and 15th in GA this season.

One thing that could be a little bit concerning for the Avalanche is that their 5v5 shot share and scoring chance numbers from this season and last season are almost the same, the only thing that’s different was GF% and PDO.  Several players showed great improvement last season and that was a big reason for their success.  However, they were a lot more fortunate this season then they were the previous one. It’s very rare that you just go from the worst team in the expansion era to a playoff team in one offseason, a lot of things must go right.

Nathan MacKinnon is a superstar in this league on one of the best contracts in the entire NHL at $6.3M, him, Rantanen and Landeskog form one of the best lines in the entire league.  They have several good young rookies in Tyson Jost, JT Compher and Samuel Girard who could take a step forward and play even bigger roles on the team next season.

With Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson also on the backend and Varlomov and Grubauer as a goaltending tandem, Colorado has a solid foundation in place.  For Colorado to make it back in next season they will need more scoring outside of their top line.  They need guys like Jost, Compher, Kerfoot and Andrighetto to step up and have even better seasons.

IN: Philip Grubauer, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole

OUT: Blake Comeau, Nail Yakupov, Jonathan Bernier

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen

Tyson Jost – JT Compher – Sven Andrighetto

Colin Wilson – Alex Kerfoot – Matt Calvert

Matt Nieto – Carl Soderberg – Vladislav Kamenev

 

Samuel Girard – Tyson Barrie

Ian Cole – Erik Johnson

Mark Barberio – Anton Lindholm

 

Semyon Varlomov

Philip Grubauer

PLAYOFFS?

There are multiple teams that missed the playoffs who have gotten better this offseason.  Colorado made minor upgrades bringing in Ian Cole and Philip Grubauer, as well as their young players are going to be another year older and better next season.  I expect them to be right in the playoff race all season and potentially even making it back in this year.  It’s going to be very difficult considering they play in one of if not the toughest division in the NHL, and there will be good teams that are going to miss.  With St Louis being much improved and teams that missed last year who will probably be better, I think that just pushes Colorado out.

 

DALLAS STARS

 

The Dallas Stars missed the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasonsUnder Ken Hitchcock, the Stars went from 29th all the way to 7th in GA last season but dropped from 16th to 19th in GF.  Dallas has always been a team that can score but it was goaltending and defense that were there primary weaknesses.  The goaltending was addressed by bringing in Ben Bishop on a six-year contract last summer and under new coaching staff, the way the team plays defensively has greatly improved.

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn continue to be one of the best pairs in the league.  Radulov coming in last summer gave them another weapon up front and was one of the NHL’s best lines last season.  John Klingberg finished tied for second among defensemen in scoring and set career highs in assists (59) and points (67).  He has really rounded out his game over the last couple of seasons and has really put himself in the category with the best defensemen in the game.  2017 third overall pick Miro Heiskanen was the best defenseman in the Finnish Elite League last season and has all the potential in the world.  He has a very good shot at making the team this season and potentially having a McAvoy or Werenski type rookie impact.

If Dallas wants to get back into the playoffs, one of the things they need to do that is get more production from players not named Benn, Seguin, Radulov and Klingberg.  After those four players no one even cracked the 40-point mark, guys like Devin Shore and Fadek Faksa who took steps forward last season need to take another step forward this coming season.  Valeri Nichushkin is coming back from the KHL, he’s still young and could potentially bring some scoring punch in the top 6.

IN: Roman Polak, Blake Comeau, Anton Khudobin

OUT: Dan Hamhuis, Antoine Roussel, Greg Pateryn, Adam Cracknell

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alex Radulov

Mattias Janmark – Radek Faksa – Valeri Nichushkin

Devin Shore – Jason Spezza – Blake Comeau

Remi Elie – Tyler Pitlick – Brett Ritchie

 

Esa Lindell – John Klingberg

Marc Methot – Stephan Johns

Miro Heiskanen – Julius Honka

 

Ben Bishop

Anton Khudobin

PLAYOFFS?

Dallas missed the playoffs by just 3 points last season.  They have lots of star power up front and were top 10 in GA last season.  Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are capable of even better seasons, their goaltending is solidified.  A season under Hitchcock could prove valuable for this team and new head coach Jim Montgomery could give them a little more offensive freedom with that structure.  If Nichushkin can come in and be a top 6 forward and if they can get more depth scoring from their second and third lines, then I do believe the Dallas Stars will be in the playoffs this upcoming season.

 

MINNESOTA WILD

 

Since signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to the sun and the moon, the Minnesota Wild have had years of regular season success.  The problem is that it hasn’t translated to the playoffs yet as they haven’t made it past the second round during that time.  They were 11th in both GF with 250 and GA with 229, they were 13th on the penalty kill and 18th on the powerplay last season.

They have a lot of depth up front, Niederreiter is incredibly underrated, Zucker had 33 goals last season.  Granlund and Coyle give the Wild very strong depth down the middle.  Koivu is one of the best defensive forwards in the game.  They have young players like Kunin and Greenway who could fill roles on the team.

Their blueline is strong with Suter, Spurgeon, Brodin and Dumba as their top 4.  Ryan Suter is coming off ankle surgery this offseason and is questionable for opening night, they need him back as soon as possible.  Their goaltending is very good as well with Devin Dubnyk who has been solid over the last few seasons.

IN: Matt Read, Andrew Hammond, Eric Fehr, Matt Bartkowski, JT Brown, Greg Pateryn, Matt Hendricks

OUT: Daniel Winnik, Matt Cullen, Tyler Ennis, Kyle Quincey

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Jason Zucker – Mikko Koivu – Nino Niederreiter

Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Mikael Granlund

Joel Eriksson Ek – Charlie Coyle – JT Brown

Marcus Foligno – Eric Fehr – Jordan Greenway

 

Jonas Brodin – Jared Spurgeon

Nick Seeler – Matthew Dumba

Gustav Olofsson – Greg Pateryn

 

Devan Dubnyk

Alex Stalock

PLAYOFFS?

The Minnesota Wild are still a very good team in a very good division.  Their powerplay was only middle of the pack and if they can improve that, it improves the team as a whole.  There are a lot of teams that will be fighting for those two wild card spots and they should be right up there at the top of those teams if they are healthy.  I wouldn’t classify them in the Stanley Cup favourite territory, however I do believe that they are deep enough and will be a playoff team once again.

 

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

 

Coming off a Presidents Trophy and losing in the second round to the Winnipeg Jets, the Nashville Predators are still looking to get back to the Stanley Cup Final after coming two wins shy of the cup the season prior.  The Predators have always been a very strong defensive team, finishing 2nd in GF and 6th on the penalty kill.  On top of being terrific defensively they were also 8th in GF and 12th on the powerplay.

This is an incredibly deep team, Filip Forsberg is coming off a breakout season, they’re strong down the middle with Johansen, Turris and Bonino.  They have one of if not the best top 4 defense groups in the league with Subban, Josi, Ellis and Ekholm.  Pekka Rinne has been known to be inconsistent in his career but when he’s at the top of his game he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league.

IN: Dan Hamhuis, Zac Rinaldo

OUT: Scott Hartnell, Alexi Emelin, Mike Fisher

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Victor Arvidsson

Kevin Fiala – Kyle Turris – Craig Smith

Eeli Tolvanen – Nick Bonino – Calle Jarnkrok

Miikka Salomaki – Colten Sissons – Ryan Hartman

 

Matthias Ekholm – PK Subban

Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis

Matt Irwin – Yannik Weber

 

Pekka Rinne

Juuse Saros

PLAYOFFS?

Barring something crazy the Nashville Predators will be in the playoffs this season, I don’t think that’s much of a debate.  I expect them to be competing for the top of the conference once again and they are poised for potentially another playoff run, they will be battling with Winnipeg and St Louis to get out of the Central and if they can, I expect them to be my favourite to win it all come the final four.

 

ST LOUIS BLUES

 

After a disappointing season that saw them miss the playoffs by just one point, there are not many teams that had a better offseason then the St Louis Blues did this summer.  They were a very good team defensively last season finishing 6th in GA.  However, there ability to score was a huge detriment as they finished 24th in GF and 30th on the powerplay, their penalty kill at 18th was mediocre as well.

They went out this summer and traded for one of the best centres in the NHL in Ryan O’Reilly. Tarasenko is a superstar, Jaden Schwartz is tremendously underrated, Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas are two high end prospects that could take a run at making the team this season.  Robbi Fabbri hasn’t played a game since February 4th, 2017.  Will he be healthy this season and will he be the same player he was before?  If he is then that will also help St Louis’s offense.  David Perron was also brought back in free agency after coming off a career season with Vegas.

On the backend, they have one of the stronger right sides with Alex Pietrangelo and Colten Parayko.  Vince Dunn had a solid rookie season and could take another step this year.  Jake Allen has been inconsistent in the past, but if he can be at least league average then they will be fine.

IN: Ryan O’Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Jordan Nolan, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Chad Johnson

OUT: Kyle Brodziak, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Scottie Upshall, Tage Thompson, Carter Hutton

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Jaden Schwartz – Ryan O’Reilly – Vladimir Tarasenko

Alex Steen – Brayden Schenn – David Perron

Robbi Fabbri – Tyler Bozak – Jordan Kyrou

Patrick Maroon – Ivan Barbashev – Nikita Soshnikov

 

Joel Edmundson – Alex Pietrangelo

Vince Dunn – Colten Parayko

Carl Gunnarsson – Robert Bortuzzo

 

Jake Allen

Chad Johnson

PLAYOFFS?

St Louis should be back in the playoffs this season, they missed by one-point last year and have made significant upgrades to their team.  Other teams that made it last year that I believe St Louis is better then could slide out this season.  If they stay healthy and if Jake Allen provides good enough goaltending, then St Louis will be back in the playoffs this season and will be challenging for one of the top three spots in the Central Division.

 

WINNIPEG JETS

 

The Winnipeg Jets are really coming off a breakthrough season last year with 114 points and making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.  They were 2nd in the league in GF and 5th in GA.  They were 5th in the league on the powerplay and 9th on the penalty kill.

The Jets have been looking for insurance in the net probably since they got their team back.  This season, Connor Hellebuyck was brilliant, finishing second in Vezina voting with a .924 Sv% in 67 games and recording 6 shutouts.  He was signed long term this summer and will be backstopping the Jets for a long time.

Up front, even while losing Stastny, they are very lethal up front.  Mark Scheifele is becoming a superstar in this league and he and Blake Wheeler was one of the best duos in the NHL last year.  Patrik Laine followed up his impressive rookie season by scoring 44 goals and 70 points finishing second in the league in goals behind only Ovechkin.  Kyle Connor found great chemistry with Scheifele and Wheeler on the top line last season scoring 31 goals as a rookie.

On defense, they have the best right side in the NHL, they have Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers all on three different pairings which is so dangerous.  Josh Morrissey was great with Trouba playing against the other teams’ top lines last season and both are only getting better.

IN: Nick Kerdiles, Laurent Brossoit

OUT: Paul Stastny, Joel Armia, Steve Mason, Matt Hendricks, Toby Enstrom, Shawn Matthias, Michael Hutchinson

POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINEUP

Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler

Nikolaj Ehlers – Bryan Little – Patrik Laine

Mathieu Perreault – Adam Lowry – Jack Roslovic

Brendan Lemieux – Andrew Copp – Brandon Tanev

 

Josh Morrissey – Jacob Trouba

Joe Morrow – Dustin Byfuglien

Dmitry Kulikov – Tyler Myers

 

Connor Hellebuyck

Eric Comrie

PLAYOFFS?

The Winnipeg Jets will be in the playoffs this upcoming season.  They are big, strong, fast, skilled and they are very deep up and down their roster.  Their young core players will be even better this year and their older core players like Wheeler and Byfuglien are still young enough and playing at an extremely high level.  I fully expect them to challenge Nashville for the top of their division and as of right now they are my favourite to come out of the Western Conference.