NoVa Caps has just finished its annual Capitals player previews for the 2017-18 season. The NoVa Caps team is now shifting focus to the rest of the NHL with previews for each Division. The series continues with the Central Division.
2016-17 Record: 50-23-9; 109 points
Division finish: 1
Key Players: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith
2017-18 Outlook: After winning three Stanley Cups in a six-year time frame (from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015), the Blackhawks have been eliminated in Round 1 of the playoffs in the last two consecutive seasons. It was especially unexpected after last season when the Blackhawks earned the best record in the Western Conference and the Central Division title, as they went 50-23-9 for 109 points. With their great track record of post season success, many observers assumed that they would go deep into the playoffs. Instead, they were “halaked” by Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators as they bowed out in a sweep.
One of the reactions of the Blackhawks after last season was to “shake up” the team. The team reacquired some of the players who had contributed to their recent Stanley Cup wins that had been jettisoned due to salary cap reasons following the 2014-2015 season. This included Patrick Sharp and Brandan Saad. Sharp was traded after that season to the Dallas Stars. However, upon the completion of his contract, the Blackhawks signed him for a 1-year contract at $800,000. They also reacquired Saad, along with goalie Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick by trading Artem Panarin, their best offensive player during the 2016-2017 season outside of Patrick Kane, Tyler Motte, and a sixth-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Other moves included trading defensemen, Niklas Hjalmarsson, to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and forward Laurent Dauphin.
The Blackhawks have retained the services of superstars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, along with long time defensemen, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Forward Marian Hossa will not play in 2017-2018 due to a progressive skin disorder, caused by being allergic to his hockey equipment. He is suffering from severe side-effects from the medication used to treat the condition. However, they have other secondary scorers returning to the team, including Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik, and Ryan Hartman. The Blackhawks will still be a strong contender for the Central Division title.
2016-17 Record: 22-56-4; 48 points
Division finish: 7
Key Players: Nate MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene
2017-18 Outlook: The 2015-2016 was a miserable season for the Avalanche on many fronts. The Avs limped to a 22-56-4 record for just 48 points, which was their worse record since relocating from Quebec City.
Colorado didn’t even have the consolation of getting a top position in the 2017 NHL Draft, as they lost out on all three of the draft lottery picks. The Avs ended up with the fourth overall pick in the draft, selecting Cale Makar.
Colorado spent the off-season trying to trade forward Matt Duchene but were not able to agree to any deal; hence, he remains with the team.
The Avs received forward Colin Wilson in a trade and signed goalie Jonathan Bernier in free agency and lost defenseman Patrick Wiercioch in free agency. Forward Mikhail Grigorenko fled to the KHL.
Colorado’s best players remain Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. With very little apparent improvement to their roster and the Central Division being extremely competitive, the Avalanche will end up with another last place finish.
2016-17 Record: 34-37-11; 79 points
Division finish: 6
Key Players: Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Ben Bishop
2017-18 Outlook: After winning the Central Division title in 2015-2016, the Dallas Stars played significantly worse during 2016-2017 season, finishing in sixth place in the Central with a 34-37-11 record. One consequence of the fall in the standings was the firing of Head Coach Lindy Ruff, who was replaced with Ken Hitchcock.
The Stars continue to have a great offensive 1-2 punch with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who both had 26 goals this past season. However, the Stars had problems with defense and goaltending, with neither of their goaltenders topping a .902 save percentage. To address those deficiencies, they acquired Tampa Bay’s former goalie, Ben Bishop. They also bought out the last year of Antti Niemi’s contract so the plan now is to have Bishop as their #1 goalie, with Kari Letonen serving as his backup. The Stars also acquired defenseman Marc Methot in a trade. They signed forwards Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov in free agency. They ended up losing Center Cody Eakin in free agency.
The Stars are likely not as good of a team as their record in 2015-2016, but likely not as bad as they were in 2016-2017. Seguin, Benn, along with Radulov, Jason Spezza, Radek Faksa, and Patrick Eaves, should provide a potent offense for the team. One concern is that several of the secondary scorers, including Spezza, Eaves, and Radulov are 31 years of age or older. John Klingberg returns on defense, but Don Hamhuis turns 35 this season. They will probably be hard pressed to move too far up in the standings due to the Central Division being extremely competitive.
2016-17 Record: 49-25-8; 106 points
Division finish: 2
Key Players: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Devan Dubnyk, Mikko Koivu
2017-18 Outlook: With the hiring of new Head Coach, Bruce Boudreau, the Wild earned a 49-25-8 for 106 points and second place in the Central Division, which was a sizable improvement over their 38-33-11 and 87 points of the previous year. However, the Wild were still eliminated in Round 1 of the playoffs. This time the St Louis Blues eliminated them in five games, thanks to Jake Allen of the Blues performing extremely well.
After the season, the Wild traded Marco Scandella, Jason Pominville, and a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, and a third-round pick. One of the purposes of that trade was to get out from under the high cap-hit of Pominville’s deal, with the net effect being that they reduced their cap hit by $1,000,000. They Wild also signed veteran Matt Cullen who has recently won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Wild still have a great deal of offensive talent, given that they still have Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Eric Staal, and Nino Niederreiter on the team. They have a good defensive core in Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jona Brodin and Mathew Dumba. They also have Devan Dubnyk, who was a strong contender for the Vezina Trophy last season and is a work horse.
One of the main concerns with the team is that many of their key players are over 31 years of age, including Parise who is 33, Staal who turns 33 this October, Koivu who is 34, and Suter who is 32. The question is how long can these players be productive.
Another question is how many games can Dubnyk play in, given that he has played in 65 or more games in each of the last two seasons. An injury to him could pose a problem for the team. With their talent on offense, defense, and goaltending, and given that Bruce Boudreau is a great coach, at least during the regular season, the Wild will contend for the Central Division title.
2016-17 Record: 41-29-12; 94 points
Division finish: 4
Key Players: Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johanson, Pekka Rinne, P.K. Subban
2017-18 Outlook: For the 2016-2017 season, Nashville achieved a 41-29-12 for 94 points, which was two points less than they did the previous season. Post season for 2016-2017 was MUCH better in that they made it to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. The previous year they were eliminated in Round 2.
During the offseason, they lost forward James Neal to the expansion draft and team Captain, Mike Fisher, announced his retirement. Nashville still has many young players who can provide offense, including Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, who both scored 31 goals and nearly equal the number of assists, and Ryan Johansen who is a great playmaker.
The Preds also have three great defensemen in Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Ellis, who can also provide offense. Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wilson look to be able to provide aditional secondary scoring. Over the offseason, Nashville acquired Nick Bonino, Scott Hartnell and Alexei Emelin.
The roster looks great on paper, given the relative youth of major contributors. Concerns for the team include the hangover of recovering from a deep run and dealing with high expectations. Many times, teams do not perform as well in seasons after making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, regardless of whether they won or lost. There is also a potential concern with the fact that Pekka Rinne turns 35 early in the season. Chances are, Nashville will make the playoffs and could even contend for the Central Division title.
ST LOUIS BLUES
2016-17 Record: 46-29-7; 99 points
Division finish: 3
Key Players: Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo
2017-18 Outlook: During a mid-season slump by the Blues, the team decided to fired Head Coach Ken Hitchcock and replace him with head coach in waiting, Mike Yeo. They ended the season with a 46-29-7 record and 99 points for a third-place finish in the Central Division.
They beat the higher seeded Minnesota Wild in Round 1 of the playoffs but then fell to lower seeded Nashville in Round 2. After the season, the team also replaced all their assistant coaches.
Most of their main offensive core players are returning this fall, including Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Steen, and Paul Stastny. Their main defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmonson and Jay Bouwmeester are also back.
During the offseason, the Vlues traded center Jori Lehtera, a first round draft pick, and a conditional first round draft pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Braydon Schenn. They also traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with a second-round pick, and received a first round pick and Oscar Sundqvist in exchange. The Blues used that pick to select winger, Klim Kostin.
The Blues are hoping for improvement on defense, which was a problem area in 2016-2017. While Tarasenko was far and away the best offensive player on the Blues, they have other talented players on offense, including Schwartz, Steen, and Stastny. Patrick Berglund had a great season, scoring 23 goals. They are hoping for better health by Robbie Fabbri who was out for the season after a knee injury. New acquisition Brayden Schenn should boost their offense. They also have prospects Ivan Barbashev, Klim Kostin, and Zach Sanford who could contribute. Steen and Stastny are both over 30 years old and could be on the downside of their careers.
Jack Allen ended up with a .915 save percentage, improving in the latter part of the season, after struggling in January. Blues will likely contend for the Central Division title, although their outlook will depend on the defense improving, Jake Allen avoiding a slump like the one he endured in January, and how the young players perform.
2016-17 Record: 40-35-13; 105 points
Division finish: 5
Key Players: Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler
2017-18 Outlook: The Winnipeg Jets finished 40-35-7 for 87 points and fifth in the Central Division. The Jets had a great performance out of team captain, Blake Wheeler, and youngsters Mark Schiefele and Patrik Laine. Laine lived up to his draft day hype and scored 36 goals.
Outside of their top three scorers, the Jets had two other forwards top the 20 goal plateau: youngster Nikolai Ehlers and veteran Bryan Little. Their main defensemen were Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.
Goaltending was an issue as none of their goalies have a save percentage better than .907. The team’s main additions this year were defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and goalie Steve Mason.
The Jets lost defensemen Paul Postma and Brian Streit in free agency.
The Jets are hoping that their young players like Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Adam Lowry can continue to progress and hoping that Steve Mason will be an improvement in goal over their previous incumbents. Given that Mason has not always been consistent in goal and the fact they lost two defensemen, the Jets will be hard pressed to improve their position in the standings this year, especially given how competitive the rest of the division is.
2017-18 PROJECTED STANDINGS
1. Chicago Blackhawks*
2. St Louis Blues*
3. Minnesota Wild*
4. Nashville Predators*
5. Dallas Stars*
6. Winnipeg Jets
7. Colorado Avalanche
*Denotes playoff teams
BREAKOUT PLAYERS AND DIFFERENCE MAKERS
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Analysis: Ratanan, a first round pick in 2015, had 20 goals and 18 assists in his first full season with the Avalanche.
Jordan Schmaltz, St. Louis Blues
Analysis: Schmaltz, a first round pick in 2014, finally got his opportunity with the Blues this past season. With the departure of Kevin Shattenkirk, there could be some room for a right-handed defenseman in the lineup.
Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Analysis: Left winger, Connor, played in 20 games for the Jets, scoring 2 goals and having 5 points overall. Most of his appearances were early in the year, with the exception of an appearance on April 8. He spent most of the year playing with the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.
Center Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche
Analysis: He had a brief 6 game “cup of coffee” with the Avalanche, coming off a great year with the University of North Dakota. He was already taking on a leadership role in the team’s Development Camp.
Pontus Aberg, Nashville Predators
Analysis: He is coming off a season where he was third in the AHL in scoring while playing less games than the leaders. He was important in Nashville’s playoff run this past season where he scored 2 goals and had 3 assists in 16 playoff games.
Previous Division Previews
2017-2018 Pacific Division Preview
By Diane Doyle