Heading into the month of February, it was completely fair to say...
NHL Season Preview: Burning Questions For Each Central Division Team
The NHL’s Central Division is arguably the league’s most competitive, and as such, the most unpredictable. Five of the division’s seven teams made the playoffs last season. The two that didn’t, sixth-place Colorado and Winnipeg in seventh, finished with as many or more points than the Arizona Coyotes, who finished fourth in the Pacific with 78. Frequent match-ups against tough division foes over a long season can wear you out; the St. Louis Blues were the only team from the Central to get past the second round last year, falling to San Jose four games to two in the Conference Finals. On the other hand, that can also toughen you up; the Chicago Blackhawks have been division runners-up for the last three seasons and skated off with three of the last seven Stanley Cups.
What does this year hold for the Central Division? All seven teams have burning questions. Let’s take a look at them, along with a highly-subjective (and therefor, suspect) pre-season ranking of how things might look when the season ends.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Last season: 39-39-4, 82 points, missed playoffs, 6th in the Central, 9th in the West
Burning Question: What’s GM Joe Sakic’s next move?
Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation as head coach and vice president of hockey operations in the middle of August came as a surprise to everyone, including general manager Joe Sakic. Roy announced his decision to leave via a private public relations firm, not via the team itself, which would indicate that Sakic and the rest of the organization found out roughly the same way and time that Avalanche fans did. Roy had been openly critical of the young players that comprised his roster, advocating for a bigger, stronger, veteran presence, particularly on defense. As such, many consider the team’s re-signing of 24-year-old Tyson Barrie (5’10, 190 lbs) to a four-year, $22 million dollar extension to have been Roy’s last straw. With this happening so late in the offseason, new head coach Jared Bednar had little choice but to retain the holdover assistants from Roy’s regime, including former Tampa Bay Lightning defender Nolan Pratt. This much turmoil would be a considerable distraction for a contender. For a team that missed the playoffs, it could be crippling. They actually did bring in veteran defenders Patrick Wiercioch and Fedor Tyutin, but neither are top-two defensemen. Forward Nathan MacKinnon is a star but Jarome Iginla is closed to finished. Rookie Mikko Rantanen looks NHL ready and should contribute but there simply isn’t enough talent or depth on this roster to suggest that they’re ready to contend. It will be up to Sakic to figure out if he’s happy with the direction his team is heading or whether wholesale changes are necessary.
6. Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 35-39-8, 78 points, missed playoffs, 7th in the Central, 11th in the West
Burning Question: Who emerges from the mess in goal?
The Jets have talent up front. The emergence of Mark Scheifele, who notched 32 points (16 goals and 16 assists) in the team’s final 25 games last season is one example. Another is the arrival of last year’s Finnish League playoffs MVP, 18-year-old Patrik Laine. His size and style of play has invited comparisons to a young Alex Ovechkin. He is known for a strong wrist-shot and should be a force on the power play. The problem for the Jets, at least this season, is an ongoing mess in net. Although, the fact that they recently waived Ondrej Pavelec means that they’re finally addressing it. Pavelec had been part of the organization since they were the Atlanta Thrashers and has been among the worst starting goalies in the league for at least the last five years. He posted a .920 save percentage in 2014-15 but otherwise never registered better than .906 with the Jets. They had little choice but to stick with him due to his contract but have apparently decided enough is enough and will take a $3.9 million cap hit as a result of parting ways. The eventual long-term starter will be Connor Hellebuyck, but at 23 he only has 26 NHL starts under his belt. The short-term answer is Michael Hutchinson who is 26. His save percentage last seasons was .918 and he’ll be an improvement over Pavalec, but he has seen action in just 71 over three seasons in the NHL. The Jets will be better this season, but not good enough to move up in this division or make the playoffs.
5. Minnesota Wild
Last season: 38-33-11, 87 points, eliminated in first round of playoffs, 5th in the Central, 8th in the West
Burning Question: Do aging, damaged vets have enough to help coach Bruce Boudreau get over the hump?
Bruce Boudreau’s resume as a regular season coach is very impressive. He’s never had a losing season, compiling a lifetime record of 409-192-80 (.629). In his nine seasons as a head coach, his teams have won their division eight times. He’s posted 50 wins four times, falling just shy with 46 last year with the Anaheim Ducks. Where it falls apart is the postseason, where champions are crowned, and where his record is, at best, lackluster. While eight of his teams have qualified for the playoffs, he’s amassed a record of 41-39 (.513) and has advanced as far as the Conference Finals just once, losing four games to three with the Ducks to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. He’ll begin his first season with the Wild this year where his two biggest stars are Zach Parise and and Eric Staal. Parise is 32 and wear and tear is setting in. He’s missed 35 games over the last three seasons, meaning he averages being available for about 70 games a season. He’s coming off a season that saw him miss time due to a serious back injury. He scored over 30 goals and 60 points in five out of seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils early in his career but has only hit that threshold once (2014-15) in his four seasons since joining the Wild prior to the 2012-13 campaign. Staal is 31 and is coming off his worst season since he was a rookie in 2003-04, notching just 13 goals and 39 points, splitting time with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. The Wild signed him to a three year, $10.5 million deal in the hopes that he regains his form. Unfortunately for Boudreau, that’s not like having Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as he did in Washington or Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry while in Anaheim.
4. Dallas Stars
Last season: 50-23-9, 109 points, eliminated in second round of playoffs, 1st in the Central, 1st in the West
Burning Question: Can they expect to win without a serious upgrade in goaltending?
It’s hard to pick the team with the best record in the Western Conference last year to finish fourth this season. But as stated above, this is an extremely competitive division. Plus, the Stars weren’t very impressive in the postseason. Granted, they were mostly without superstar Tyler Seguin, who saw action in just one playoff game before succumbing to injury. He’s only 24 and injuries are unlikely to be a chronic concern at this point. The biggest weakness the Stars had to overcome last season was in net. Kari Lehtonen’s save percentage of .906 ranked 41st in the league last year while Antti Niemi’s .905 was 43rd. Those aren’t exactly elite-level numbers, backing the team with the best record in the conference. Talk is already heating up regarding the Stars being the lead suitor for the services of Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop at some point this season. If Dallas looks like legit Cup contenders at the start of the New Year, expect that talk to really heat up as the trade deadline approaches.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, eliminated in first round of playoffs, 3rd in the Central, 3rd in the West
Burning Question: Can they keep their window open by plugging veteran holes with rookies?
The Blackhawks continue to enjoy an extended run of success, having posted winning records every year since the 2006-07 season. Since then, they’ve won at least 45 games six times and won three Stanley Cups. This, in spite of shedding productive-but-pricey veteran contributors along the way. The extremely talented core of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook remains intact and is probably enough to get Chicago into the playoffs on its own. This year’s salary cap casualties include Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Ladd. Prospects expected to help replace them include Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz. And Artemi Panarin, the first NHL rookie to finish among the top ten scoring leaders since Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in 2005-06, should continue to develop and contribute. However, at some point, systemic depth within the organization becomes a concern and that has the potential to be a factor as early as this season.
2. Nashville Predators
Last season: 41-27-14, 96 points, eliminated in second round of playoffs, 4th in the Central, 7th in the West
Burning Question: Can P.K. Subban carry the Predators to glory?
With the acquisition of defenseman P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens, the Predators unquestionably pulled off the flashiest transaction of the offseason. Subban is just 27 years old and in the prime of his career. He joins a team coached by Peter Laviolette whose aggressive, offensive style lends itself to defenders joining the rush, which suits Subban’s skill set. He’s expected to be paired with Roman Josi which is a perfect fit. He’s also likely to have a chip on his shoulder toward the Montreal organization and may relish every possible opportunity to show them up. Lightning fans witnessed first-hand in Jonathan Drouin last season what can happen when a player is motivated to prove people wrong. The Predators have made incremental improvement the last two seasons, advancing to the second round last year after being knocked out in the first round the year before and failing to qualify the two seasons prior to that. There’s little offensive firepower past Filip Forsberg and goalie Pekka Rinne is 33 and posted .908 save percentage, making it the third time in four seasons he’s failed to top .910. Still, it’s hard to imagine picking up one of the league’s most dynamic players in Subban not having a positive impact on this team’s progression.
1. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 49-24-9, 107 points, eliminated in Conference Finals, 2nd in the Central, 2nd in the West
Burning Question: Can Ken Hitchcock mount one last run for the Cup?
Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock (forever remembered by Lightning fans as the target of John Tortorella’s “Shut Your Yap” rant during the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals) is 64-years-old and has announced that he will be retiring when this season is over. He has a shot at winning 800 games (he’ll enter the season with 757) and currently boasts a winning percentage of .667. He’s been to the postseason 14 times, to the Conference Finals five times and won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. The St. Louis Blues’ first season in the NHL was 1967-68 and they made it to the Stanley Cup Final each of their first three seasons, falling short of the Cup each time. They haven’t been back since that 1969-70 campaign but they’ve been perennial playoff contenders throughout their history. After falling in the Conference Finals, they’re loaded for another deep run season and may be poised to finally finish things off with a championship. Vladimir Tarasenko is the team’s best player and one of the most talented in the league. Robby Fabbri notched 18 goals and 37 points in his rookie season, along with another four goals and 15 points in 20 ensuing postseason games. The Blues had to make a decision this offseason between Brian Elliott and Jake Allen in net and decided to keep Allen. He’s only 26 and his save percentage has increased steadily over the last three seasons, as has his playing time. The Blues did lose captain David Backes as well as Troy Brouwer during the offseason, but they remain young, talented and deep, giving Hitchcock plenty of weapons to make a serious challenge for the Cup.