It’s the end of July. The days are hot and dry, filled with cloudless skies and endless 90 degree temperatures. The Expansion Draft and Entry Draft have passed. Most of the bigger name free agents are re-signed or signed to other clubs. Teams are prepping for training camps in a few weeks and rosters are unfinished. These are the dog days of summer.
What better time than to predict how the Central Division will play out when there are so many incomplete variables!
The Central Division is often referred to as the ‘pool of death’ around the National Hockey League. At least it was when the NHL realigned the divisions in the 2013/2014 season. In 5 seasons with the realignment, a Central Division team has won 2 Stanley Cups (Chicago Blackhawks x2) and made the Stanley Cup Finals 3 out of the 5 seasons. For all you non-math majors out there, that’s 60% of the time a Central Division team makes the Stanley Cup Final.
(Same can be said about the Metropolitan Division but let’s not lose focus on the task at hand)...
This season will be no different. The Central Division has some of the most improved teams in the entire league and will no doubt represent the Western Conference in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Here are my way too early predictions for the Central Division in the season ahead.
1. Dallas Stars
2016/17 result: 6th in the Central (79 points)
Key Additions: Alexander Radulov (F), Ben Bishop (G), Marc Methot (D), Martin Hanzal (F)
Key Departures: Patrick Sharp (F), Cody Eakin (F), Antti Niemi (G)
After recording 109 points and 1st place in the Central in 2016, the Dallas Stars took a major two-step back in 2017. A big part of the regression had to do with their goaltenders. Neither Niemi or Lehtonen was able to grab the bull by the horns and take over the starting role in net. Enter stage left: Ben Bishop. As one of the largest goalies in the league, there’s no question it’s Bishop’s net. Question is, can he stay healthy. The Stars also added one of the most sought-after free agents in Alexander Radulov. He was a force to be reckoned with in Montreal last year and that will continue in Dallas playing on the wing with Benn and Seguin. Tack on 6’3’’, 230 lb Marc Methot on the blue line and you have the team to beat in the Central.
2. Minnesota Wild
2016/17 result: 2nd in the Central (106 points)
Key Additions: Tyler Ennis (F), Marcus Foligno (F)
Key Departures: Marco Scandella (D), Jason Pominville (F), Erik Haula (F), Martin Hanzal (F)
After a slow start to begin the 2016/17 season, the Minnesota Wild won 26 of 39 games in the months of December, January, and February with a record of 41-16-6 to begin March. In the fight till the very end, they were eventually passed by the streaking Blackhawks to lockup the 2nd seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Subsequently losing to the St. Louis Blues in the first round. Losing Haula to Vegas and Scandella to Buffalo doesn’t help but what Minnesota has more than most is depth. Look out for Eriksson Ek, Brodin and Dumba to cause fits for the Avalanche this season. And with most of their roster still intact and a few more playoff games under their belt, the Wild should be a favorite in the west.
3. Nashville Predators
2016/17 result: 4th in the Central (94 points)
Key Additions: Scott Hartnell (F), Nick Bonino (F), Alexei Emelin (D)
Key Departures: James Neal (F), Colin Wilson (F), Brad Hunt (D)
The defending Western Conference champions will be looking to duplicate the success they had last year by bringing back essentially the same team. With many of their young players (Arvidsson, Watson, Aberg and Gaudreau) re-signed, they have a really good shot in recreating that habitual formula. Mike Fisher’s future remains unclear though I anticipate him re-signing for one more season. Nashville was dealt a big blow when they lost Neal in the expansion draft but gained some much needed veteran presence in Hartnell and Bonino. Their blue line is as deep as any team in the league with potential first time all-stars in both Ellis and Ekholm, not to mention one of my James Norris candidates in P.K. Subban. But with so many budding stars on this team, my only worry for them is that dreaded sophomore slump.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
2016/17 result: 1st in the Central (109 points)
Key Additions: Brandon Saad (F), Anton Forsberg (G), Connor Murphy (D), Patrick Sharp (F), Lance Bouma (F)
Key Departures: Marcus Kruger (F), Artemi Panarin (F), Brian Campbell (D), Johnny Oduya (D), Trevor van Riemsdyk (D), Scott Darling (G), Niklas Hjalmarsson (D)
Being one of the perennial powerhouses in the Central for quite some time, the Chicago Blackhawks feed on adversity. With much of their money tied up in Kane and Toews, they needed to restructure their cap in order to gain some players back from losing Kruger and van Riemsdyk. Re-enter stage right: Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp. Both are Stanley Cup Champions with their former club and should play an integral part as top 6 forwards. The Blackhawks are no strangers to losing players during the offseason but this was a particularly bad year. Keith and Seabrook are basically the only ones returning on defense (Rozsival is back but almost 40 years old). They did get a bit younger, trading for Connor Murphy and should play Gustav Forsling more this year. Will that make up for losing Campbell, Oduya, van Riemsdyk, and Hjalmarsson? Yikes. I think the Blackhawks will have enough to make the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season but probably as the 8th seed (WC). And we all know how dangerous that 8th seed can be in the fight for Stanley’s Cup.
5. St. Louis Blues
2016/17 result: 3rd in the Central (99 points)
Key Additions: Chris Thorburn (F), Brayden Schenn (F), Oskar Sundqvist (F)
Key Departures: Jori Lehtera (F), David Perron (F), Nail Yakupov (F)
The St. Louis Blues have made the post season 6 years in a row now. Not an easy feat by any means. One of which they made it to the conference finals but were eventually knocked out by the San Jose Sharks in 2016. The Blues are another team with a dominant blue line through and through, but the Blues need goal scorers. They can’t solely rely on Tarasenko to carry the load for the entire season again. The Blues had two, 20 goal scorers. TWO. And with Perron, Shattenkirk and Lehtera all wearing different sweaters this year, they didn’t address the need. Brayden Schenn is a good hockey player, a 20 goal scorer! But not a huge upgrade from losing both Perron and Lehtera. Jake Allen had one of his best seasons to date, starting in 60 games last year and winning 33 of them. He’ll need to stand on his head again this year if the Blues want to make the playoffs for a 7th consecutive season.
6. Winnipeg Jets
2016/17 result: 5th in the Central (87 points)
Key Additions: Steve Mason (G), Dmitry Kulikov (D)
Key Departures: Chris Thorburn (F), Mark Stuart (D), Paul Postma (D), Ondrej Pavelec (G)
The Jets find themselves right where they want to be. They have elite superstar players in Laine, Ehlers, Scheifele and Big Buff on the blue line swallowing any player that comes within 3 feet of him. The Jets have talent. They’re just not quite there yet. They were never able to find their goaltender last year, rotating between Hellebuyck, Hutchinson and Pavelec. Bringing in Steve Mason is no better. Notorious for inconsistent play, Mason will be looked upon to finally take over a starting role in Winnipeg. As one of the youngest teams in league with a ripe average age of 25.9, the Jets continue to get better, but falter to make the playoffs for a 6th time in their 7 year existence (since moving from Atlanta). Look for Scheifele to be back in the conversation for the Art Ross Trophy.
7. Colorado Avalanche
2016/17 result: 7th in the Central (48 points)
Key Additions: Jonathan Bernier (G), Colin Wilson (F), Nail Yakupov (F), Andrei Mironov (D), David Warsofsky (D)
Key Departures: Calvin Pickard (G), Mikhail Grigorenko (F)
And that brings us to our beloved Avalanche. Without a doubt, the Avs will be better this year. How could they not? With posting the worst win percentage in the salary cap era, you could say they hit rock bottom. Only up from here boys! You can’t put too much blame on them however. Roy decided to quit on the team weeks before training camp and the Avs had to rush to bring in a ‘high caliber’ coach. Unfortunately, most of the ‘high caliber’ coaches were already hired when those sort of things happen during the offseason. I think Bednar has the opportunity this year to show he can be a high caliber coach. He’s brought in new staff, he has more time to prepare and has worked with Sakic and his executives to bring in players he likes that works in his system. We won’t have slow guys like Iginla or Mitchell or Beauchemin clogging up the fast temp breakout Bednar so desperately wants. This will be a different team this year. Looking at how much things have changed already is a sign of hope and training camps haven’t even opened. We will be younger, we will be faster, and we will compete. I’m optimistic for this year. But with too many inexperienced young guns, the Avs will find themselves in the bottom of the Central Division for yet another season. But Everest wasn’t climbed in a day. It’s a long way to the top.