Over the last number of days, I have given my 2017-18 preseason picks and predictions for the NHL’s Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions. The NHL regular season is quickly approaching, as the games will begin to count for 2 points on October 4.
With the Eastern Conference predictions in the books, now it is time to shift over to the NHL’s Western Conference. These predictions will focus on the NHL’s Central Division. The Central Division saw 4 teams make the playoffs last season – Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Nashville. Nashville came in as the 8th seed in the Western Conference and advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017.
Which Central Division teams will remain in the playoff picture? Which teams will be on the rise this year?
Here is how I am looking at the Central Division clubs in the preseason:
PROJECTED STANDINGS FINISH IN 2017-18:
1. MINNESOTA WILD
2. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
3. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
4. ST. LOUIS BLUES
5. DALLAS STARS
6. WINNIPEG JETS
7. COLORADO AVALANCHE
Analysis: The Avalanche are an absolute dumpster fire right now. Everyone outside of Colorado must feel bad for Matt Duchene. Duchene has mentally checked out, and has stayed patient through this difficult time. The Avalanche will likely be the worst team in the NHL again in 2017-18 – yes, even worse than expansion Las Vegas. The Avalanche defensive core is not built for the NHL level, as the Avalanche had a -112 goal differential last season. The Avalanche might get 50 points this year, if they decide to hold on to Matt Duchene. The Avs are a mess and will be for the foreseeable future.
Analysis: The Jets attempted to improve their goaltending over the summer, as they signed former Flyer netminder Steve Mason to a 2-year deal. Mason finished with a 2.66 goals against average and .908 save percentage with the Flyers last season. With Mason and Connor Hellebuyck, this goaltending tandem is still very average. Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are excellent forwards for the Jets, but the defensive core is big and sometimes too slow when they face quicker opposition. The Jets can be a fun team to watch, especially in front of their home fans, but average goaltending and a slow defensive core will hold them back in 2017-18.
Analysis: If there is a sleeper team to make it back into the playoffs, it is the Dallas Stars. The Stars had the best offseason of any of the Central Division teams. They brought in former bench boss Ken Hitchcock for a 2nd stint. They upgraded their defense core, as they brought in former Senators defenseman Marc Methot through Las Vegas. They also upgraded their goaltending by signing former Lightning star Ben Bishop to a long-term deal. I think Ken Hitchcock is a great coach, and could get this team close or maybe even back into the playoff picture. The Stars have upgraded their goaltending, defensive core, and coaching during the offseason. This should translate into more points in the standings.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Analysis: The Blues just took a huge blow in the preseason, as they recently announced that forward Robby Fabbri re-injured his knee and will miss the entire 2017-18 season. Fabbri was previously recovering from a torn ACL. The club will be walking into the regular season banged up, as they will likely be without defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, forward Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, and Zachary Sanford. During the offseason, the Blues made a deal that sent forward Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for forward Brayden Schenn. Schenn should likely bring a little bit more of an offensive punch up the middle for the Blues. Despite the injuries, the Blues have a potent goal scorer with Vladimir Tarasenko and a couple of talented blueliners Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo. Once the Blues get healthy, they should be in contention to compete for the top spot in the Central Division.
Analysis: I feel the Blackhawks could slip up a little bit in 2017-18, but they will remain in contention. I did not like their Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad swap with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Panarin recorded 74 points with the Blackhawks last year, while Saad recorded 53 points with the Jackets. In addition to the questionable Panarin for Saad trade, the Blackhawks sent reliable defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes in exchange for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman shook up his roster a bit in the offseason after a 1st round sweep by the Nashville Predators. The Blackhawks won the Central Division last season, but I think it will be challenging for them to do it again. The Blackhawks have one of the top coaches in the league with Joel Quenneville and have plenty of experience in their lineup, so they should still be able to make the playoffs.
Analysis: The Predators are coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell a little short to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During the offseason, they lost James Neal to Vegas in the expansion draft, and they lost Mike Fisher to retirement. They signed former Penguins centre Nick Bonino to a contract and brought back veteran Scott Hartnell. The Predators will be without defenseman Ryan Ellis for several months, but their defensive core is one of the deepest units in the NHL. With P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm on the blueline, this group will not miss a beat, and they will be very productive offensively. I like the Predators enough to put them in contention for the top of the division.
Analysis: The Wild saw a breakout season from forward Mikael Granlund in 2016-17 as he recorded 69 points. During the offseason, the Wild traded defenseman Marco Scandella and forward Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres and received forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno in return. While they sacrificed some scoring depth, the Wild wanted to get a little quicker up front. The Wild defense is still very good with the likes of Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon leading the way. Devan Dubnyk will continue to hold down the fort for the Wild in net. This team does not have many holes, and should contend for the top spot in the Central Division.
By: George Foussekis