Today in our divisional season preview series, we take a look at the teams of the Central Division.
After missing the playoffs last year for the first time in nine seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks are in an odd predicament. The old guard is there, with talented players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith still donning Blackhawks uniforms. Then, there’s young players like Adam Boqvist, Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz. They elected to keep Brandon Saad after he was heavily involved in trade rumors early in the offseason. The Hawks are stuck in an odd transition period and it seems unclear what their ceiling is this year although the offensive talent is still there.
Corey Crawford told reporters he is still feeling the effects of the concussion that kept him out of many games of the 2017-18 season and the Blackhawks have now turned to former Hurricane Cam Ward to lead them when the season starts. With a shaky defense in front of him that includes Brandon Davidson, Ward may have a hard time keeping the puck out of the net. Luckily for Ward, he has not had a goal scorer like Patrick Kane, who finished the 2017-18 season with 76 points and is just two seasons removed from a 106 point campaign. The Blackhawks will stay competitive but a lot of 6-5 games may be in their future.
Trading away a top-six center normally doesn’t yield positive results, but the Colorado Avalanche’s 2017-18 season said otherwise. The team parted ways with center Matt Duchene in a blockbuster trade with Ottawa. The best part about the upcoming season? The Avalanche don’t need to worry about their own first round pick, because Ottawa elected to keep their fourth overall pick to select Brady Tkachuk in the 2018 NHL Draft. That means Colorado gets Ottawa’s 1st round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Star US center Jack Hughes may just be in an Avalanche uniform by the 2019-20 season. Good things come to those that wait.
The team on the ice will still stay competitive as they await Ottawa’s fate. Nathan MacKinnon had a Hart Trophy-worthy season but fell just short in favor of the New Jersey Devils’ Taylor Hall. He had a career high 97 points and it’s crazy to think MacKinnon is only 23 years old. As for the team, are they the team of last year that had 95 points last year or the one that put up 48 the year before? Their advanced stats and possession numbers aren’t great but it would be surprising to see the team regress much.
St. Louis stayed very busy this offseason, adding many pieces to bolster an already impressive offense that features star winger Vladamir Tarasenko. The team traded for center Ryan O’Reilly to solidify their center depth. They reunited with David Perron, signing him to a four-year deal, and added goaltender Chad Johnson and winger Patrick Maroon in free agency as well.
The Blues fell short of the playoffs last year for the first time in six seasons despite a 94-point season. Tarasenko will need to bounce back this season after scoring under 70 points for the first time in three seasons. He remains the star of the team alongside Alex Pietrangelo on the backend. St. Louis continues to be a talented team that falls just short every year. With the added pieces and a healthy Jake Allen, the Blues may not be singing the blues come playoff time and should be a top contender in a stacked Western Conference.
The Stars have found themselves in a difficult spot the last few seasons. They aren’t neccessarily a bad hockey team, but they’re stuck in the middle of what has been one of the best divisions in hockey in recent history. When Chicago and St. Louis aren’t lightning things up, Winnipeg and Nashville are picking up steam. Oh, and don’t forget about the steady Minnesota Wild and the sneaky Colorado Avalanche.
All that being said, the Stars aren’t a bad team. They’re in a win now mode with captain Jamie Benn locked up for the next seven years. And congratulations are in order to fellow top line talent Tyler Seguin, who signed an extension that will keep him in Big D until 2027 making $9.85 Million AAV.
They parted ways with longtime backstop in Kari Lehtonen, who’s played second fiddle to Ben Bishop since he came into the fold last summer. They plugged that hole with former Hurricane Anton Khudobin. They’re also saying goodbye to penalty minute machine Antoine Roussel and basically immediately upgrading their bottom six with a Blake Comeau signing. They lost some minutes eaters on the blue line in Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn, who both leave the team in favor of division rivals.
To address the holes on the blue line the Stars signed Roman Polak to a one-year deal, but hope to plug in some younger, homegrown talent throughout the season. It will ultimately be difficult for this stalling Stars team to keep up in the Central Division arms race.
The Wild’s defensive core, led by Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, is among the best in the NHL. And the goaltending is covered with the tandem of Devon Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. Eric Staal is in yet another contract year coming off of a 42-goal season (where did that come from?). Jason Zucker has reupped after an impressive career year. A big question mark in the middle of this is Zach Parise, who was on an absolute heater before going down with an unfortunate sternum injury. Nontheless, this team is a proven one through and through —they’re a consistant playoff contender.
But they seem to have caught the bug that haunts every professional Minnesota sports team. They’re good, but not good enough. The Central is full of monstrous teams and it’s hard to imagine this Wild team taking a top two spot in the division. A third place finish would be a successful regular season for this club, but it would still mean a very tough first round matchup against the likes of Winnipeg or Nashville.
The Predators are coming off of a President’s Trophy caliber season with high hopes for their second Stanley Cup Finals berth in three seasons. Despite a lights out regular season, the team looked off-kilter and somewhat unfocused throughout the entire post season.
With a goalie like Pekka Rinne and a top pairing like Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, the Predators are in full win now mode. They re-signed Ryan Ellis to a massive deal that will extend him through the next nine seasons and picked up old friend Dan Hamhuis to shore up that defensive depth.
The forward group should be fine, but keep an eye on Ryan Johansen, who had a pretty weak regular season but bounced back in the playoffs to be a near point-per-game player. Something to watch for as this season progresses is the performance of Pekka Rinne, as a lot of the season will likely hinge upon him. In many ways, this is a Stanley Cup or bust season for this team. I can tell you one thing, it’s a great time to be a Predators fan.
And last but certaintly not least, the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets were an incredible team to watch last season, and its looking like this year’s going to be more of the same. Coming off of a hot playoff performance, they lost a big name in Paul Stastny and a few other depth players. They paid fan favorite and perennially underrated veteran winger Blake Wheeler and gave young defensemen Josh Morrissey to a nice little bridge deal. Bryan Little’s deal signed a year ago will kick in this season, and a few big name players are going to need to be re-signed either during the season or shortly thereafter.
Connor Hellebuyck is coming off of a fantastic, record breaking year and they replenished the back up goalie slot left by Steve Mason’s departure with Laurent Brossoit. Sprinkle in a few new depth acquisitions and the Jets are a Stanley Cup favorite. One of the biggest issues to look out for this season is some regression from Hellebuyck after his best year yet. But as long as the offense keeps their pace as one of the highest scorers in the league, the Jets won’t have an issue cruising to a playoff berth.