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Previewing the Central Division

Will the division provide another Stanley Cup champion?

2019 NHL Awards - Arrivals Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As our divisional previews roll along it’s now time to take a look at the Central Division. A division that features the current defending champs in the St. Louis Blues as well as four of the last ten Stanley Cup winners thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Philadelphia Flyers managed to go 7-7-0 against this division last year. Can they break .500 against these seven clubs in 2019-20? Let’s take a look at the teams.

Nashville Predators

2018-19 standings: 1st, 100 points
Additions: Matt Duchene, Dante Fabbro
Subtractions: P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds

Despite the fact they left last postseason earlier than expected and essentially gave away a high-end defenseman, the Nashville Predators are still in a pretty good position to win the division. As one of nine teams to finish with 100 points or more last season, the Preds’ will ice another well-rounded squad that will continue to excel at 5-on-5 play and hopefully improve their power play. Nashville’s ability to finish seventh last season with a 52.24 corsi for percentage at full-strength play, 11th with a 51.13 expected goals-for percentage, and eighth with a 53.77 goals-for percentage was hampered by the club’s league-worst 12.9 power-play percentage. The addition of Matt Duchene should help the Predators in this department, as his 14 power-play points last season would have ranked second on the club behind Roman Josi’s 16.

To make room for Duchene the Preds shipped P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils for stuff and things, and are hoping Dante Fabbro can be a contributor on the blue line from day one. If Duchene ends up leading the team in points (Ryan Johansen led the team with 64 last season) while helping to improve the power play, Fabbro is able to hold his own on a blue line that already features three proven beasts, and Peter Laviolette is able to push the right buttons with Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros there isn’t much that should get in the way of Nashville this season.

Winnipeg Jets

2018-19 standings: 2nd, 99 points
Additions: Mark Letestu, Neal Pionk
Subtractions: Jacob Trouba, Kevin Hayes, Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev, Ben Chiarot

The Central Division team in the most precarious position as the season begins is the Winnipeg Jets. A coach that has to be on one of the hottest seats in the league in Paul Maurice, a defense that has seen decent (and potentially huge) departures, and the face of the franchise making some interesting comments doesn’t exactly exude confidence following a disappointing playoff exit earlier in the year. However the Jets still have loads of talent up front and if Dustin Byfuglien isn’t retiring he may be able to log tougher minutes to help free up Joshua Morrissey.

Jacob Trouba may have been on the way out due to cap space anyways and Tyler Myers isn’t great, but if Byfuglien doesn’t return to the team Winnipeg could shift from potentially coming out of the Western Conference to a club that is just trying to outscore the opposition while having one of Dmitry Kulikov, Anthony Bitetto, and Neal Pionk on the ice at all times. With three 30-goal scorers returning from last season in Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine to go along with one of three players across the league to post 70 helpers or more in Blake Wheeler it’s easy to see how the Jets will win games this season, but questions and concerns regarding the blue line may limit their ceiling.

St. Louis Blues

2018-19 standings: 3rd, 99 points
Additions: Justin Faulk, Derrick Pouliot
Subtractions: Joel Edmundson, Patrick Maroon

For the St. Louis Blues the only question that matters this season is if Jordan Binnington can play at the same level. There’s no question of whether or not this team can do it (obviously) and the only major roster adjustment was the addition of Justin Faulk from the Carolina Hurricanes, a rearguard that brings a new element to a blue line that had what it took to get the job done four months ago. On offense almost every skater returned from last season. Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko are in line for monster seasons while the pair of Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz should see an uptick in goal production following regular seasons with shooting percentages lower than the norms. Patrick Maroon had his moments in the 2019 playoffs, but his absence shouldn’t impact a St. Louis team that finished ninth in the league with 2.39 expected goals-for-per-60 at 5-on-5 in 2018-19. In net,

Binnington posted a .927 save percentage in 32 games during the second half of last season before he ‘only’ posted a .914 save percentage in 26 playoff games. These games make up 58 of the 26-year-old’s 60 games at the highest level. There’s a big question mark as to whether or not he can repeat last season, but if Binnington can come even marginally close to last year’s play the Blues are a serious threat to repeat.

Dallas Stars

2018-19 standings: 4th, 93 points
Additions: Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, Andrej Sekera
Subtractions: Jason Spezza, Ben Lovejoy, Marc Methot, Valeri Nichushkin, Brett Ritchie

One goal away from reaching the Western Conference Final earlier this year, the Dallas Stars have a lot of pieces in place for a deep run. As the players adjusted to Jim Montgomery’s system, Dallas managed to finish seventh with a 2.14 expected goals-against-per-60 and second with 2 goals against-per-60 at 5-on-5 from New Year’s Day until the close of the regular season. On top of that the Stars’ 200 goals against in all situations was second in the entire NHL to the New York Islanders’ 191 goals against (hey, did you know the Islanders had the fewest goals against last season? Did they mention that on NBC or NBCSN at all during the playoffs? Did somebody on Twitter happen to mention that? No? No, this is definitely the first time somebody is talking about how the Islanders had the fewest goals against last season).

The defensive clampdown helped Ben Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting with a .934 save percentage, 1.98 goals against average, and seven shutouts. Up front Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry (mainly Pavelski) will serve as two more sources of offense behind a potent top line of Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Alexander Radulov. The offense doesn’t have a ton of depth and Bishop’s health is always a concern, but the overall approach to team defense should be here to stay which should bode well for the Stars come time for the playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche

2018-19 standings: 5th, 90 points
Additions: Cale Makar, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, Kevin Connauton
Subtractions: Semyon Varlamov, Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg, Alexander Kerfoot, Derick Brassard, Sven Andrighetto

The Colorado Avalanche’s end to last year’s regular season and push to within one win of the Western Conference Final created huge expectations for the club, but there are plenty of reasons to think this team can reach the Stanley Cup Final. The top line of MVP-candidate Nathan MacKinnon, 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen (coming off an 87-point campaign), and 30-goal scorer Gabriel Landeskog was all the team needed to reach the second round last season, but the team lacked depth. The additions of Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky should help to lessen opponents’ defensive focus on the top trio and cause more matchup issues in a playoff series. Although the Avs lost Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal, a full season of Cale Makar, a better play-driving campaign from Sam Girard (who is only 21 and about to enter his third full season in the NHL), and maybe some unexpected production from rookie Conor Timmins should erase any concern Jared Bednar has about his d-men.

The biggest question for Colorado may be in net, where the franchise pivots from current New York Islander Semyon Varlamov to Philipp Grubauer. There isn’t a concern as to whether Grubauer deserves to be handed the starting job, as his .921 save percentage in 138 career games indicates he does, but it’s whether or not the fact he hasn’t played more than 37 games in a season may weigh him down later in the campaign. If Grubauer plays poorly or gets injured the Avs are turning to backup Pavel Francouz, a 29-year-old netminder with precisely two games of NHL experience.

Chicago Blackhawks

2018-19 standings: 6th, 84 points
Additions: Calvin de Haan, Robin Lehner, Andrew Shaw, Olli Maatta, Zack Smith, Ryan Carpenter, Alex Nylander
Subtractions: Artem Anisimov, Cam Ward, Marcus Kruger, Chris Kunitz, Henri Jokiharju, Anton Forsberg, Gustav Forsling, John Hayden, Dominik Kahun

There were 13 40-goal scorers in the NHL last season. Two teams managed to miss the postseason despite having a pair of these 40-goal scorers on their rosters: the Edmonton Oilers (Leon Draisaitl with 50, Connor McDavid with 41) and the Chicago Blackhawks (Patrick Kane with 44, Alex DeBrincat with 41). I share that stat to ask this question: how, the fuck, do you miss the playoffs with two 40-goal scorers? To make matters worse Jonathan Toews potted 35 last season to make the Hawks one of two teams in the league with three of the 24 players that lit the lamp 35 times or more in 2018-19. The other team? The Tampa Bay Lightning, who may have won as many playoff games as the Chicago Blackhawks last season but are substantially ahead of the club that beat them in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

Needless to say Chicago’s main guys produced last season, but there wasn’t much to suggest depth will show up this year. Brandon Saad finished fourth on the team with 23 goals and Dylan Strome provided plenty of reason to believe he can help solve Chicago’s depth issues with 17 goals in 58 contests, but beyond those two Brendan Perlini is the only other forward returning that scored ten goals or more in 2018-19. On the blue line Erik Gustafsson has held his own in terms of puck possession and pitched in an impressive 17 goals and 60 points last year, but it’s fair to question whether or not he’ll shoot 10.6 percent from the point again. Outside of Gustafsson the outlook on Chicago’s blue line is rather bleak. Brent Seabrook will continue to see his average ice time slowly decrease while he keeps getting caved in at 5-on-5. Duncan Keith isn’t a detriment to the team yet, but he is 37 years old and his days of pushing teams to Stanley Cups is over. General manager Stan Bowman did attempt to help Chicago’s blue line this offseason with a pair of moves, but Calvin de Haan (good) and Olli Maatta (bad) kind of cancel each other out in terms of value added/lost.

One way to overcome a lack of scoring depth and shaky defense would be elite goaltending, which the Hawks may have if Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner can play to their potential. That’s a big request of a 34-year-old goalie that’s missed a lot of time over the last couple seasons due to concussion issues and a goalie coming off a career year switching teams.

Minnesota Wild

2018-19 standings: 7th, 83 points
Additions: Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman
Subtractions: Eric Fehr, Pontus Aberg, Nate Prosser, Anthony Bitetto

This season could be torture for the Minnesota Wild and their fans, but the pain is softened a bit knowing former general manager Paul Fenton is no longer in charge. Current general manager Bill Guerin may not be the answer, but it’s doubtful he can hurt the club as much as Fenton did in just one year. Beyond a top four on defense that can stifle most offenses Minnesota lacks the high-end offensive talent, scoring depth, or defensive depth to hang with most of the teams in the division. Watching young forwards like Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek, Luke Kunin, and Jordan Greenway develop and possibly seeing Mikko Koivu’s final campaign in the NHL unfold might be the highlights of what the Wild are in for this year.

On defense the story will be if Matt Dumba is able to record ten goals or more for a fifth straight season, which would be a pretty big accomplishment for any d-man. Unfortunately for Wild fans there isn’t much money coming off the books in 2020, so if Guerin isn’t successful in dealing some of these unfavorable contracts the outlook for Minnesota’s 2020-21 may not be much more positive.