NHL CENTRAL DIVISION PREVIEW
This week we continue our NHL preview series. So far we have looked at both divisions in the Eastern Conference, the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division. We now move to the Western Conference and will start this week looking at the Central Division. Next week will finish up this series with a preview of the Pacific Division. Now lets jump into the Central Division.
Team number one in the Central Division was the second best team in the regular season last year, the Dallas Stars. The Stars are led by Jamie Benn who was third in goals scored last year with 41, and had 48 assists to finish second in total points at 89. Benn also finished third in Hart Trophy(MVP) voting. The Stars also have Tyler Seguin who had 73 points last year and big, young defenseman John Klingberg who tied Benn in assists at 48 and added 10 goals as well. The Stars will likely pick up where they left off offensively this year. What I see as their area of concern is their goaltending. The Stars have two quality goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Both are experienced and capable starters and split starting duties fairly evenly in 2015-16. Lehtonen ended up getting the majority nod for the playoffs but neither one was able to carry the Stars to the finals. The Stars will still be a good team and compete to win the division again this year but I feel they will end up slipping a little bit. They will still be a playoff team but I do not think they will make it over the hump to the finals this year.
Next up is the St. Louis Blues who finished only two points behind the Stars in the Western Conference and were the third best regular season team in the NHL in 2015-16. They also made a playoff run to the Western Conference finals where they lost to San Jose but this run led to coach Ken Hitchcock returning to coach the Blues for one final season before he retires and turns the Blues over to Mike Yeo. After Brian Elliott left for Calgary, the Blues signed their goalie Jake Allen to a four-year contract extension after he posted a 26-15-3 record in 47 regular season games with a .920 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average. The Blues also lost center David Backes to Boston. St. Louis will have to rely on Vladimir Tarasenko who had a 40 goal season and 74 total points last year to lead the Blues. Alex Steen and Paul Stastny may need to kick in a bit more this year too to help make up for the loss of Backes. The other big positive for the Blues is the defensemen pairing of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues are poised for another good season but may have a slightly tougher time if Allen cant pick up for Elliott in goal now that he is the starter. They will be a playoff team but we will have to see if they have what it takes to get back to the conference finals and make a bid for the Stanley Cup.
The third team to look at in the Central Division is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are led again by the reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane. Kane had 46 goals and 60 assists for 106 points to lead the league in his MVP season. In his rookie season last year, Artemi Panarin put up 30 goals and 47 assists on his way to the Calder Trophy(rookie of the year) and Jonathan Toews contributed another 28 goals and 30 assists. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook lead the defense for Chicago and Corey Crawford minds the net. The Blackhawks are a very solid team returning all of their main pieces and will make the playoffs again in 2016-17. I see Chicago getting past the first round of the playoffs this year and making a solid run at winning the Stanley Cup.
The Nashville Predators had a good year in 2015-16, making it to the second round and losing in seven games to the eventual Western Conference winners, San Jose. Their goaltender, Pekka Rinne, went 34-21-10 in 66 games with a .908 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average. His playoff numbers were just slightly off from that at 7-7, .906, and 2.63. If the Predators want to go deeper in the playoffs this year, they will need Rinne to improve on those numbers at least a little bit. The addition to the roster of defenseman P.K. Subban should help that somewhat. Subban should help shore things up at the blue line with Roman Josi. I feel that for the Predator to succeed this season, they will need to add some more scoring as well. Filip Forsberg led the team with 64 points last year followed by Josi at 61. Overall, I think the Predators have a good shot at making the playoffs but to go deeper this year it will take some all around improvement over last year’s performance. They have to potential to be better it is only a question of can they live up to the potential.
Our Central division coverage continues with the Minnesota Wild. The Wild started off by naming a new head coach in Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau brings a winning record from his nine seasons as a coach in the NHL with him to Minnesota in an attempt to help this team take the next step and not just make the playoffs but to go deeper and make a run at the Stanley Cup. Devan Dubnyk is the netminder for the Wild. He played in 67 games last season posting a 32-26-6 record. Dubnyk had a .918 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average. He will need to improve on those numbers in order for Minnesota to move farther in the playoffs. The defense in front of Dubnyk is led by Ryan Suter who was third on the team last year with 51 points. Ahead of Suter was Zach Parise with 25 goals and 28 assists and the captain, Mikko Koivu with 17 goals and 39 assists. The Wild also added Eric Staal in the offseason. Staal should help the Wild increase their scoring for this year. I think Minnesota is on the right track to improving and I see them squeaking into the playoffs this year but they are not quite ready to go much past the first round yet.
Next up is the Colorado Avalanche for the Central division. It seems like the Avalanche are a team in flux this season. On August 12th, Patrick Roy announced his resignation as coach and vice president of hockey operations of the Colorado Avalanche. 23 days later, Jared Bednar was named the new head coach of the Avalanche. This year will be Bednar’s first as a head coach in the NHL but he did coach the Lake Erie Monsters to the Calder Cup Championship last season at the AHL level. So, Bednar brings a winning experience with him but we will need to see how his winning at the minor league level translates to winning at the NHL level. On the player side, the Avs signed Nathan Mackinnon to a seven-year deal to ensure he will be staying around. Mackinnon was third on the team in scoring last year with 21 goals and 31 assists. Gabriel Landeskog was second at 20 goals, 33 assists and Matt Duchene led the team with 30 goals and 29 assists. The Avs have some good players on the roster and Bednar looks to be a quality coach. The key here is how quickly Bednar can adjust his coaching from the AHL to the NHL and get the best out of his players at this level. I feel that this year will be a building year for Colorado as a team and I do not expect them to make the playoffs this season.
The final team in the Central Division is the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are a team that is building. They have a number of veteran players on the roster that can play but they also have a lot of young players. The Jets are the second youngest team in the NHL going into this season at 26.425 years old. Their top three scorers last season were 30-year-old Blake Wheeler with 78 points, 23-year-old Mark Scheifele at 61 points, and 31-year-old Dustin Byfuglien with 53 points. Their goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is 29 and had injury issues last season causing him to miss quite a few games. Pavelec ended up playing in 33 games with a 13-13-4 record, .904 save percentage, and a 2.78 goals against average. A couple of young players to watch in Winnipeg this year are 19-year-old Kyle Connor who was a 1st round pick in the 2015 draft and 18-year-old Patrik Laine who was selected second overall in the 2016 draft. Both of these players have a chance to play and make an impact for the Jets this season. The Jets are not a playoff team this year but the future certainly looks to be pretty bright with some of the young players they have in their system and we will get a preview of some of them as they develop this year.
THAT’S IT FOR NHL CENTRAL DIVISION PREVIEW!
Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Also, don’t forget to listen to the Fantasy Jester show this Saturday 9/10 from 8-9:30 pm to hear what the Jester has to say about this and everything else.