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Canes Country’s 2017 Season Preview: Central Division

Last season seemed to portend a changing of the guard, with Nashville ascendant and Chicago seemingly in decline. Will the trend continue, or could a surprise bubble up?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

All this week, we’ll be going division by division previewing the other 30 teams in the NHL. Today: the Central has been home to a dynasty in Chicago and may be seeing another develop in Nashville.

NHL: Preseason-Vegas Golden Knights at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche put together an unbelievably poor campaign in 2016-17. Their league-low 48 points were a full 21 points fewer than the 29th best team in the NHL a season ago. Obviously, pretty much everything went wrong last year for the Avalanche, but their main off-season objective (trading center Matt Duchene) has been, to put it politely, a challenge.

General Manager Joe Sakic reportedly had/has an extremely high asking price for his young center. Thus, with no takers at his sticker price, Duchene reported to camp last week in Denver. Resolving what this team does with Duchene is likely the most interesting aspect of the entire season for the Avalanche as they work on rebuilding their roster into a contender.

None of their offseason moves, including signing Jonathan Bernier, Colin Wilson and Nail Yakupov, figure to have an out-sized impact on a team that is in need of help in every area. Perhaps the return of former Vezina finalist Semyon Varlomov from injury can provide greater goal prevention as the Avs look to stay competitive.

For the Avs, 2017-18 is likely about gaining future assets and progressing the development of young skaters such as Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Jost, Tyson Barrie, Mikko Rantanen and now veteran Gabriel Landeskog. Positive development from that core, and whatever they can acquire for other pieces, such as Duchene, are the goals ahead.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild

2016-17 provided an exciting regular season for the Wild under new head coach Bruce Boudreau who, once again, was unable to guide a quality team through the NHL playoff minefield. The first round loss in 5 games to the St. Louis Blues overshadowed what was truly a fabulous season in St. Paul, as 2017-18 provided steady play from Devan Dubnyk, the spectacular rise of Mikael Granlund as arguably the best forward on the team, and the career resurgence of former Hurricanes captain Erik Staal.

As the Wild prepare for what is expected to be another season of contending hockey, they added a slightly different, and mostly younger, mix to their already impressive concoction of young skill and veteran leadership. Landon Ferraro and Tyler Ennis add speed, while also adding size and toughness in Marcus Foligno adds size, and the ageless Matt Cullen adds penalty-kill expertise and a Cup-winning pedigree.

For Minnesota, the season should be about positioning themselves for the postseason tournament. With stiff competition within the Central Division, a repeat 106-point performance would be welcomed, but may be tough to expect with the always dangerous Blackhawks, defending conference champion Predators, steady Blues, and overhauled Stars all expecting to be in the mix.

NHL: Preseason-Columbus Blue Jackets at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Blues

When looking back at the 2016-17 season for the St. Louis Blues, it may seem like another in a string of zombie-like, auto pilot, good-but-not-great seasons from the team at the Gateway to the West.

But the 16-17 second-round exit was more than that. Last season brought in a new era behind the net, as Ken Hitchcock stepped away mid-season, turning the reins over to Mike Yeo, who guided the Blues to a 22-8-2 finish to qualify for the playoffs in the 3rd spot in the Central Division.

In the offseason, the biggest move was certainly the acquisition of Brayden Schenn from the Flyers for Jori Lehtera and a conditional first round pick. Schenn should provide a reasonable replacement for the departed Kevin Shattenkirk on the blue line, while much of the offensive talent that led the Blues returns. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz are the young leaders, who are accompanied by veterans such as Alex Steen and Paul Stastny as secondary scorers.

Jake Allen will again lead the way in net, coming off his first full starting season, in which he provided a .915 save percentage in 61 starts. The Blues expect to again be a solid, if unspectacular (outside of the tremendously talented and exciting Tarasenko), contender in the Central Division.

NHL: Preseason-Edmonton Oilers at Winnipeg Jets Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Winnipeg Jets

For the Winnipeg Jets, 2016-17 will be remembered almost exclusively for the debut of goal-scoring wunderkind Patrik Laine. The 18-year-old scored a team high 36 goals, along with 28 assists, and provided the offensive spark and promise commensurate with his hype. Along with Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele, Laine forms a triumvirate of talented young scoring that is clearly the future of the Jets. Those 3 players alone provided the Jets with 210 points of production, and clearly represent the building blocks of the Jets’ future.

As has often been the bugaboo for this franchise, however, goal prevention proved too big of an issue for this team to overcome and make the playoffs. Even with the sixth most goals in the NHL, a 27th place goals-against performance doomed the Jets.

With such noteworthy young talent, and issues on the blue line in net, you would have expected more changes than have necessarily been provided this offseason. The signing of Steve Mason in net is expected to provide the starting netminder for the Jets, but his .908 save percentage for the Flyers last season still leaves something to be desired. In fact, young Connor Hellebuyck posted a similar .907 in 56 appearances last season. Dmitry Kulikov should also provide one more 4th or 5th caliber defenseman for a team perhaps in need of more.

While it may appear the Jets did not do enough to address their issues, we may actually find out of they have the firepower to win a host of 5-4, 6-5 games and remain in contention in the difficult Central Division. This should certainly be a fun team to watch, and if the addition of Mason and further development of young defensemen such as Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba can bring the goal-prevention to close to league average, they could contend for only their second postseason appearance since re-locating to Winnipeg.

Boston Bruins v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Dallas Stars

After finishing with the most points in the Western Conference in 2015-16, last season was supposed to be another building block for the Stars towards becoming a perennial power. Unfortunately, leaky goaltending and inconsistency held Dallas to an underwhelming 79 points and kept the team out of the playoffs.

Needless to say, wholesale changes were in the cards as Dallas entered the offseason. Lindy Ruff was not retained as coach after four seasons at the helm, as he was replaced by the franchise’s coaching wins leader in veteran Ken Hitchcock. A change in style will be interesting to watch, as the Stars have had to win by outscoring their opponents in recent years, not exactly Hitchcock’s calling card.

As for the team on the ice, upgrades were needed at multiple positions. The issues in net were addressed, as the tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi was upgraded by the signing of former Vezina trophy finalist Ben Bishop. GM Jim Nill made a move for defensive depth, adding Marc Methot from Vegas after being selected from Ottawa in the expansion draft. His presence should open up much more ice for 25-year-old defenseman John Klingberg, who has some common traits to Methot’s former partner in Ottawa, Erik Karlsson.

Finally, the third big piece of the summer was the signing of Alexander Radulov from Montreal. After not being able to reach an agreement with the Canadiens, decided on Dallas after his first year back in the NHL since 2011-12 yielded a 50-plus point season. Radek Faksa, Devin Shore and the Stars’ top prospect with a chance of sticking this fall, defenseman Julius Honka, are going to be important depth pieces.

With all the money and assets spent to acquire talent this summer, anything short of the playoffs and a potential run towards a Western Conference title will be considered a disappointment. They will enter the season with one of the top lines in all of hockey with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Radulov, and should be among the best power play groups in the league when you add Jason Spezza and Klingberg to the mix. But can the Stars’ depth and goaltending keep them from being too top-heavy?

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks - Game One Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chicago Blackhawks

A four-game sweep at the hands of their Central Division rival, the Nashville Predators, was certainly not how the Blackhawks were expecting to end their season in 2016-17. Following their early exit, GM Stan Bowman went as far as to call the loss a “complete failure,” promising that they would evaluate the entire roster and would not be afraid to make changes in the summer.

Apparently, he wasn’t kidding. Out are longtime defensive staple Niklas Hjalmarsson (Arizona), offensive dynamo Artemi Panarin (Columbus) and backup goaltender Scott Darling (Carolina), among others. In turn, Chicago welcomes back two-time Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad who was the key piece returning to the Blackhawks in the Panarin deal, and added a younger alternative on the blue line in Connor Murphy who was swapped for Hjalmarsson. Also returning is forward Patrick Sharp, who is looking to show he has something left in the tank after a two-year stint in Dallas.

By the betting odds, the Blackhawks are still the favorite to win the Central, but it’s hard to remember a Chicago season starting with more questions that we do not have the answers to than this one. The team has had the same top three defensemen for nearly a decade, and has been able to find serviceable pieces behind them. Can that trend continue? Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Murphy are set, but behind them, things begin to get murky. Young, talented forwards like Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Alex DeBrincat are the next wave of Hawks to come up and be difference makers at forward. Will they start to show their abilities this year?

We all know the drill. You can never count the Blackhawks out, and they will remain in the conversation of Stanley Cup contenders. However, if things start to go south and their offseason additions don’t click the way they expected, the team could find themselves fighting for a playoff berth in a tough division.

Nashville Predators v Anaheim Ducks - Game One Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Nashville Predators

The Preds’ run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final was one of, if not the most, exciting storyline of the season a year ago. Starting as an eight seed in the Western Conference, Nashville upset Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim before falling in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Entering this season with a very similar core to the one that got them within two wins of raising the Cup, expectations on the Predators will be increased this fall. The big news of the summer was the extension of top center Ryan Johansen to an eight-year contract, and the retirement of longtime captain Mike Fisher. Nashville lost third leading goal scorer James Neal to the Golden Knights after GM David Poile was unable to work out a deal with Vegas to keep him. Losing Neal will be tough to replace without a collective effort, but the team did add veteran forwards Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell to the lineup this summer for depth and have former first round pick Kevin Fiala ready to take the next step.

Nashville will always be defined by their top-four defensemen, who happen to be among the best group in the league. That group will be tested with the offseason injury to Ryan Ellis, which will keep him sidelined for several month after electing for surgery earlier this month. More pressure will be put on newly crowned captain Roman Josi, PK Subban and Mattias Ekholm to carry the load, and Ellis’ injury will likely open up more minutes for veterans like Alexei Emelin and Yannick Weber.

We have seen what the Predators can do when they get hot, but let’s not forget that they almost didn’t make the playoffs last year. With goaltender Pekka Rinne another year older, and some key players recovering from injuries for the first half of the campaign, Nashville will likely have to get hot again down the stretch to continue the success they cultivated in the playoffs. Optimism is high for another run to the Finals, and the roster is certainly playoff caliber, so is there another deep playoff run in the cards? Or will it be a Stanley Cup Finals hangover for the Preds like the Sharks suffered a season ago?