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Central Division Weekly Roundup Last Call: Central Division Champion Carolina Hurricanes

The playoffs are here, but where do the teams in the Central Division go from here?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carolina Hurricanes: 80 Points (36-12-8)

Monday night’s loss marked the first time all season that the Canes lost by three or more goals without an empty-net goal being scored against them. It can be tough to separate the optics of losing two games against the team that you are getting ready to play in a playoff series. It is tough to remember that the last two games saw the Hurricanes keep out players due to being banged up and wanting to avoid any further injuries. The Canes have been a buzz saw all season, but it does bring a feeling of uneasiness the first time this season.

The Canes will have a couple of decisions to make on their roster. The most impactful will be the starting goaltender. Both Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek rank in the top five in goals-against average for goalies who have played at least 11 games. They both also rank in the top 10 in save percentage for goalies who have played 11 games. Ned leads in both categories, but Mrazek could be more comfortable choice for Brind’Amour and has more experience. There isn’t a bad option, and they can continue to rotate or switch when one gets cold. Everyone knows that a team can win a Cup with a hot goalie.

Max McCormick certainly made a push in the final game to show the coaches that he belongs on the fourth line during the postseason. In the last two games playing on an uninspired team, McCormick registered an assist and a fight. The physicality and edge he can bring is a big addition to the Hurricanes. This was the team that traded a skilled speedy winger for Cedric Paquette earlier this season. However, if the Canes are fully healthy, it’s going to be a tough sell for the coaches to pick him over Jordan Martinook or Brock McGinn.

2. Florida Panthers: 79 Points (79 Points)

The series might be the most anticipated US-based series as it is the first time that these teams are meeting in the playoffs in their nearly three-decade history. Part of the reason given for the last re-alignment was to develop more regional rivalries, and this was one of the biggest ones they were hoping for. This could bring more buzz to hockey in a non-traditional market. The two Florida teams this season have been two of the top teams all season. The fact the Canes could only have to play one Florida team in the playoffs this season is a huge break.

Much like the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers had locked up the second seed before they started playing the Lightning. While they might not have had anything to play for, unlike the Canes they won both of their games against the Lightning in convincing fashion. In their last two games, they won by a combined score of 9-1. With a 4-0 shutout to close out their season, Florida also heads into the first battle of Florida playoff series on a six-game win streak.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning: 75 Points (36-17-3)

The Tampa Bay Lightning made NHL history on Monday when they started the first All-Black forward line. Daniel Walcott, Mathieu Joseph, and Gemel Smith were on the ice for the opening face-off, with Walcott playing in his first NHL game. The Ontario Reign was the first time to have an all-Black line in professional hockey earlier this season in the AHL.

Jon Cooper commented, “Moving forward in the league, you hope it isn’t a story any more and will be the norm.”

The Lightning now look forward to their first playoff series against the Florida Panthers. They are happy to have reached the postseason promised land that is no salary cap. Now they can play their entire roster that would be $10 million over the cap. They will now get Nikita Kucherov back for the first time this season. He has been practicing for the past six weeks so he should be in game shape and ready to go. The only hope for the Panthers would be that he wouldn’t be prepared for his first full action in over a year to be in the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators: 64 Points (31-23-2)

Monday night could have very well been the last time that Pekka Rinne would play a game in front of home fans. At 38 years old, everyone has written him off as surely retiring, but the Finn did play 24 games this season with a .907 save percentage and two shutouts. I don’t see why he couldn’t come back as a backup if he wanted to keep playing with Nashville. If it was his last game, he had a great sendoff in Nashville after earning a shutout against a reduced-strength Hurricanes team.

Heading into the playoffs, Nashville has received approval from the NHL to host over 12,000 fans in the playoffs, which could prove to be a huge advantage for them. These teams haven’t played in front of a crowd that large in over 15 months; it will be fun/terrifying to see how it affects both teams in the playoffs.

5. Dallas Stars: 60 Points (23-19-14)

It’s impossible to make any long-term conclusions about the Stars after this season between the stoppages they had in the season from COVID and weather and their insane number of injuries. It is disappointing to miss the playoffs just a year after making the Finals, but the team and fans still have a lot to be proud of staying in the playoff race until the final week of the season. They did this without their top scorer and starting goaltender all season and with top-six players coming in and out of the lineup all season.

Next season, the Stars will look to have Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Ben Bishop back on the ice at the same time for the first time since the 2020 playoffs. This will also be the last hurrah for the bunch that went to the Finals in 2020. This offseason they have seven unrestricted free agents which include most of their bottom six and second-pairing defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. Next season Joe Pavelski, John Klingberg and Radulov will be unrestricted free agents.

6. Chicago Blackhawks: 55 Points (24-25-7)

The Blackhawks had an up-and-down season. Their early play that heavily featured games against the bottom teams in the division gave their fans false hope which eventually saw the team finish on the outside looking in. The Blackhawks do have plenty to be proud of. Pius Suter had an impactful rookie campaign with 27 points in 55 games while playing as the team’s top center. That is a rare position to put a rookie in and to still find success.

Before the season, they didn’t have any real NHL experience in net. It didn’t take long for Kevin Lankinen to emerge as their number one goalie. While he finished with a .909 save percentage, he still had 17 wins in his rookie campaign and could be poised for a larger role moving forward.

The biggest issue for them moving forward is the health of captain Jonathan Toews. It was clear this season that Chicago had a serious lack of center depth. Suter played on the first line with Patrick Kane but that group quickly fell off to Philipp Kurashev, David Kamp and Mackenzie Entwistle. If Toews is able to come back they immediately have their first-line center and what appears to be two very capable pivots. However, if he is unable to return, they will need to have a plan to move forward and a long rebuild ahead.

7. Detroit Red Wings: 48 Points (19-27-10)

General Manager Steve Yzerman will have a decision to make on head coach Jeff Blashill, who is on the last season of his contract. This will be the first time that Yzerman will get to hire his guy in Detroit. The team is projected to have almost $49 million in cap space between pending free agents and some dead cap space between IR, retained salary from trades and buyouts. Granted most of the cap will be taken up with their 17 free agents that need to be signed, 10 of which are restricted free agents that have lower price tags.

The Red Wings are building a foundation of good players, they just lack depth right now. The Combination of Thomas Greiss and Jonathan Bernier ended up giving them the stability that they needed in net. They continue with Greiss for one more season. Filip Zadina is showing improvement over the last two seasons and will continue to see improvement in his production numbers.

This offseason Yzerman could use his cap space to land players getting priced out of a team or assets to take a bad contract. One possible target could be Tyler Johnson with the Lightning, who was initially waived due to cap restrictions, and will eventually have to be moved before the start of the next season. Johnson was signed by Yzerman with the Lightning as an undrafted free agent in 2011.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets: 48 Points (18-26-12)

The Blue Jackets will have a busy offseason. This summer they will have contract extension talks with defenseman Seth Jones. Jones has one season left on his current contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent. His talks with Jarmo Kekalainen will influence the direction that the franchise will move in. The potential haul for a top-pairing defenseman is huge, which could allow them to accelerate a rebuild.

The Blue Jackets also have all of the pieces to be a landing spot for Jack Eichel. The young center recently shared his disconnect with the Buffalo Sabres and now a trade seems imminent. The Blue Jackets have three first-round picks in the upcoming draft and need to trade a goaltender that has NHL experience before the expansion draft. They could also add either Patrik Laine in the deal or Seth Jones if neither looks likely to re-sign.