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Canes Country’s 2019 Season Preview: Central Division

When will Laine and Connor sign, how does Duchene help the Predators, and can the Blues repeat?

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues - Game Seven Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Chicago Blackhawks Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks

Key Question: Will their retooled defense along with Robin Lehner be enough?

Key Additions: Ollia Maatta, Calvin de Haan, Robin Lehner

Key Departures: Chris Kunitz, Cam Ward, Marcus Kruger

After being a NHL powerhouse for nearly a decade, the Chicago Blackhawks have come back to reality missing the playoffs the past two seasons. Refusing to go in to full rebuild mode within the ultra-competitive Central Division, the Blackhawks did a small rebuild on the fly.

Adding defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to the mix should help their putrid defense which ranked dead last on the penalty kill and next to last in goals against. In net. Chicago made a big splash picking up Vezina finalist Robin Lehner to form a 1A/1B pairing with Corey Crawford.

Patrik Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat will continue to lead the team offensively, the question becomes can guys like Dylan Strome and Brandon Saad continue to hold their own in the secondary scoring area. The team will need as much secondary scoring as possible within the Central Division especially if an injury were to occur to one of the big three guys.

Answer: Lehner will take a step back and the goaltending situation will ultimately doom the Blackhawks in the Central causing them to miss the playoffs once again.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche

Key Question: Can the Avalanche build off last seasons playoff run and grab a top three spot in the division?

Key Additions: Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen, Andre Burakovsky

Key Departures: Tyson Barrie, Semyon Varlamov, Alex Kerfoot

After barely sneaking in to the playoffs last year, the Avalanche made some serious noise eliminating the number one seed Calgary Flames in just five games. They then took the San Jose Sharks all the way to game seven before ultimately falling short.

There is a lot of hype around the Avs heading in to this season as they look to build upon the success of the playoff run. Nathan MacKinnon will continue to lead the team in scoring and the addition of Kadri should help balance out the offense.

Losing Tyson Barrie and his 59 points could prove to be harder to overcome than originally thought for the Avalanche as there defensive depth is the most questionable position on the team. There will be a lot of pressure on young Cale Maker to come in and produce quickly. Scoring six points in ten playoff games the hype for the former top five pick is real. But can it be sustained? That’s is a lot to ask of a 20 year old defenseman.

On the back end Phillip Grubauer will take over sole possession of the number one spot with Varlamov moving on to New York. There will be questions surrounding Grubauer’s ability to take over the reigns but the concern should be less with that. Having a strong playoff run under his belt. Grubauer appears ready to handle the job.

Answer: The loss of Barrie and lack of defensive depth hinders the Avs ability to chase the top three down, but they will grab a wild card spot like last year, and as everyone knows once you are in anything can happen.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Stars

Key Question: Was Joe Pavelski the missing piece that elevates the Stars to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?

Key Additions: Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, Andrej Sekera

Key Departures: Mats Zuccarello, Ben Lovejoy, Jason Spezza

So close. That is the bitter taste the Dallas Stars have been dealing with all summer. After making the playoffs as a Wild Card, the Stars took down the Central Division champion Nashville Predators in round one. After that they took on the eventual Stanley Cup champions the St. Louis Blues and got game seven to double overtime before Pat Maroon broke the Stars’ heart.

If expectations are high in Colorado, they are through the roof in Dallas. After signing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, many think the Stars could be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

There was a lot of talk about the production of franchise players Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn early last season but they eventually turned things around and posted a combined 205 points. The issue in Dallas isn’t their top line, it’s the production after them that has to improve to become actual contenders. No other forward posted more than 30 points last season which meant when the top line wasn’t scoring, the team wasn’t winning.

The additions of Perry and Pavelski should dramatically improve their second line this season. Combined that with the stellar play of Vezina finalist Ben Bishop and you have a team that should grab a top three spot in the Central.

Answer: While the addition of Pavelski helps the Stars compete for the division title, it isn’t enough to grab the ultimate prize come June.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild

Key Question: Can the Wild climb out of the Central Division basement and make a push for a Wild Card spot?

Key Additions: Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman

Key Departures: Eric Fehr, Andrew Hammond, Matt Read

After a very poor and disappointing outing last season, the Wild look to bounce back and make a push for a playoff spot. A quiet off season turned dramatic when the Wild fired their General Manager Paul Fenton on July 30th and interviewed Don Waddell days later. After settling their front office issue, the Wild have put an emphasis on getting back to playoff hockey.

The key issue for the Wild last season was scoring. Only two players topped 50 points with Zach Parise leading the way at 62. Mikko Koivu missed half the season due to injury and he should help out the scoring woes.

The specialty for the Wild is their back end where they like to limit chances and play elite defense. Like Koivu, Matt Dumba missed half the season and will be greatly welcomed back. Dumba was leading the league for goals by defensemen when he got injured in December and can also be a contributing factor to increased scoring.

For an aging core of Koivu, Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, and more this may be one of their last chances before a full rebuild will need to occur.

Answer: The Wild will surprise many and be in the Wild Card hunt all the way to the end but fall just shy of the playoffs.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nashville Predators

Key Question: Was trading PK Subban to be able to afford Matt Duchene a good move?

Key Additions: Matt Duchene, Daniel Carr

Key Departures: PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Brian Boyle, Zac Rinaldo

By far the biggest trade of the off season was between the Nashville Predators and the New Jersey Devils. Nashville sent PK Subban to New Jersey for essentially pennies on the dollar in an effort to free up cap space so they could sign Matt Duchene.

While this drastically helps the Predators offensively it leaves big hole to fill on the back end. There is hope rookie Dante Fabbro can step in and help out but there’s no guarantees. With Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis on the team the defense should be good enough to help propel the team back to the playoffs, but if injuries occur there could be a big gap.

Up front the Predators will rely on Duchene to come in and be the main guy. Last season their top scorer was Ryan Johansen with 64 points and Josi was second on that list at 56 points. That shows the desperate need for offensive and why they went out Duchene so hard. The Predators need to up their scoring to keep up with the rest of the Central Division and Duchene should help with that.

In the end the Predators will be a playoff team, but if they want to go far they needed to find scoring. Duchene will provide that and their back end should be good enough to make up for the loss of Subban. Expect them to claim a top three spot and compete for the division title once again.

Answer: Barring an injury on the back end or to Duchene, yes it was a very good move.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Blues

Key Question: Can they repeat?

Key Additions: None

Key Departures: Michael Del Zotto, Pat Maroon

It took 51 seasons but the St. Louis Blues finally pulled off the ultimate feat by bringing Lord Stanley’s trophy home. After being near the very bottom of the league in December the Blues stormed back clinching the third seed in the Central Division. The Blues then went on an amazing run all the way to the finals which included a thriller in a round two double overtime win against Dallas.

How do you improve upon winning it all? By doing nothing. That was the strategy the Blues took deciding to simply lock up their own players and not trying to add any key free agents to bolster their roster.

That did let both Michael Del Zotto (who played no role in the Cup run) and hometown favorite Pat Maroon leave via free agency and plan to fill those voids from within. So the question becomes can these same guys do it all again?

Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko will lead the way up front while Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko hold down the defense. One thing the team did do over the summer was lock up Jordan Binnington for two more years banking on the idea that he can continue his success he saw after being called up last year. The biggest unknown for St. Louis is Binnington and if he will be able to be that great again. If he can they may very well win the Central this year.

Answer: History says probably not, but who knows! They should compete for the Central Division title and once you get in anyone can win as they proved last year.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Winnipeg Jets at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Winnipeg Jets

Key Question: When will Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign?

Key Additions: Brandon Tanev, Mark Letestu, Gabriel Bourque

Key Departures: Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot

If there is one team in the Central Division that made the playoffs last season that appears ripe for regression it’s the Winnipeg Jets. After being bounced out of the playoffs in round one the Jets find themselves in the heart of the RFA drama with both Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine still unsigned. While Connor may come around it is appearing more and more likely that Laine will take the Williams Nylander approached as he agreed to train in Switzerland. He also made public comments saying that he was unhappy with coaching decisions last year.

Assuming Laine and Connor do not sign before the season the Jets will be hard pressed to recreate their production of 116 points. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele will both score but outside of that the offense will struggle.

The Jets already knew they needed to replace three defensemen with the departures of Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot. Now just this morning comes the news that Dustin Byfuglien may be taking a personal leave of absence. With a timeframe for his return to be determined, will the Jets be forced to look for a trade partner to bring on more help?

Given all the unknowns, and playing in the toughest division, a slow start could leave the Jets with too much ground to make up.

Answer: The Jets season will likely go north or south by how soon they get Laine and Connor signed. If they hold out the Jets will find themselves behind the eight ball and that usually does not favor a playoff run. But then again look at St. Louis and Carolina.