2018-19 Central Division Preview

nhl.com2Photo: NHL.com

NoVa Caps’ annual division preview continues today as we look into each division in the NHL. Today, we take a deep dive into the Central Division. 

Nashville Predators

2017-18 Season Review: After falling in six games in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-leading 117 points. Nashville gave up the second-fewest goals in the league at 211, just eight more than the Los Angeles Kings for first. Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender with 42 wins (second in the NHL behind Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck – 44), a .927 save percentage (second in the NHL along with Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury behind Arizona’s Antti Raanta – .930), and a 2.31 GAA (second behind Raanta and Fleury – 2.24). The Predators beat the Colorado Avalanche in six games in the first round before falling to the Jets in seven games in the second round.

Key Players: Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne, Ryan Johansen

2018-19 Season Preview: The Predators didn’t make any offseason changes but did re-sign defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year contract extension after he recorded nine goals, 32 points, and a +26 rating in 44 games. Ellis, 27, could have become an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Predators have the best defense in the NHL with Subban, Josi, Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm locked up for the foreseeable future. All had at least nine goals and 34 points last season. The Preds also have a deep offense led by Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points, +27 in 67 games last season), Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals, 61 points, +20 rating in 78 games last season), and Ryan Johansen (15 goals, 54 points, +13 rating in 79 games last season). This team is a Stanley Cup contender and could compete for a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy.

Winnipeg Jets

2017-18 Season Review: The Jets surprised everyone by coming in at second in the NHL with 114 points after missing the playoffs the two seasons prior. Winnipeg was second in the NHL with an average of 3.33 goals per game (second behind the Tampa Bay Lightning – 3.54) and a power play efficiency of 23.4% (fifth in the league). The Jets rolled past the Minnesota Wild in five games in Round 1, beat the Presidents Trophy-winning Predators in seven games in Round 2, but fell to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final. Jets’ winger Patrik Laine was second in the NHL with 44 goals, five behind Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals for the league lead while Hellebyuck was a Vezina-Trophy finalist. Captain Blake Wheeler led the team with 91 points.

Key Players: Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebyuck

2018-19 Season Preview: The Jets picked up Laurent Broissoit to back up Hellebyuck in free agency but lost center Paul Stastny (who had four goals, 13 points, and a +6 rating in 19 games after being acquired from the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline), and winger Joel Armia (who had 12 goals, 29 points, and a +3 rating in 79 games last season). Winnipeg has spent most of the offseason re-signing core pieces such as Hellebyuck, defenseman Jacob Trouba (who had 3 goals, 24 points, and a +9 rating in 55 games last year), forward Adam Lowry (who tallied eight goals, 21 points, and a +9 rating in 45 games last year), and forward Brandon Tanev (who recorded eight goals, 18 points, and a +13 rating in 61 games last year). Winnipeg needs a No. 2 center and a reliable backup goalie to take another step toward Stanley Cup contention but with players like Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, Hellebyuck, Trouba, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, forward Nikolaj Ehlers, forward Kyle Connor, this team will be dangerous once again in 2018-19.

Minnesota Wild

2017-18 Season Review: The Wild overcame a 17-15-4 start and finished the season with 101 points, which was good enough for a sixth consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Minnesota had a home record of 27-6-8. Those six regulation home losses were the fewest in the NHL. The team also went through a 15-game home point streak, where they went 12-0-3. Center Eric Staal led the team with 42 goals and 76 points during the regular season. Despite making the playoffs for six consecutive years, they have just made it past the first round only twice in that span and haven’t done so since 2015. This past spring, the Wild were bounced by the Jets in five games in Round 1. The Wild just scored nine goals in the five-game series (and six of them came in their lone win of the series). The Jets outscored the Wild 7-0 in the final two games of the series.

Key Players: Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, Ryan Suter, Devan Dubnyk

2018-19 Season Preview: The Wild decided not to extend general manager Chuck Fletcher after the Wild failed to make it past the second round for the 15th consecutive season and added depth to their roster with the additions of center Eric Fehr, forward Matt Hendricks, forward J.T. Brown, defenseman Greg Pateryn, and goaltender Andrew Hammond in free agency. The Wild lost center Matt Cullen, forward Daniel Winnik, and forward Tyler Ennis in free agency. The Wild have a nice top-four defensive unit that includes Jared Spurgeon, who tallied nine goals, 37 points, and a -6 rating in 61 games last season, Ryan Suter, who had six goals, 51 points, and a -1 rating in 78 games last season, Matt Dumba, who scored 14 goals, 50 points, and a +15 rating last year, and Jonas Brodin, who recorded six goals, 21 goals, and a +23 rating in 2017-18 and a good forward group that includes Jason Zucker (33 goals, 64 points in 82 games) and Mikael Granlund (21 goals, 67 points in 77 games). The Wild also have a solid goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, who was 35-16-7 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.52 GAA last season. Minnesota should be a playoff team again but with teams like Nashville and Winnipeg in their division, it’ll be hard to make any noise once they get in.

Colorado Avalanche

2017-18 Season Review: The Avalanche had a remarkable turnaround, making the playoffs as the second wild card in the West (despite trading center Matt Duchene in November) after finishing last with 48 points in 2016-17, 21 less than the next lowest team. Center Nathan MacKinnon was a finalist for the Hart Trophy after leading the team with 39 goals and 97 points in 74 games last season. MacKinnon had a points-per-game average of 1.31, which second in the NHL behind Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (1.32). He and linemate Mikko Rantanen, who tallied 29 goals and 84 points in 82 games last season, quietly made up one of the NHL’s elite duos. Colorado finished 11th with 257 goals. The team clinched the playoffs on the final day of the regular season by beating the Blues 5-2 on the final day of the season. Colorado was one point behind St. Louis for the final playoff spot entering the game. The Avalanche made their first-round series with the Predators more interesting than what most people expected, falling in six games.

Key Players: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie

2018-19 Season Preview: After goaltender Semyon Varlamov got hurt at the end of the regular season and missed the entire first round series for the Avs, the team acquired goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Brooks Orpik (who they bought out after they acquired him) from the Capitals. Grubauer went 15-10-3 with a 2.35 goals against average and a save percentage of .923. The 26-year old German netminder was arguably the NHL’s best goaltender from Thanksgiving to the end of the regular season, posting a save percentage of .937 and a goals-against average of 1.93. Grubauer went 15-5-2 in that span and won over the starting job from Braden Holtby after he went through a 1-5-2 stretch. The Avalanche also bolstered their defense by signing Ian Cole, who tallied five goals, 20 points, and a +14 rating in 67 games with the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets last season, and added forward depth by signing Matt Calvert, who scored nine goals and 24 points in 69 games with the Blue Jackets last season, in free agency. Colorado should be in the mix for a wild card spot but with higher expectations and other teams in the West getting better, it will be harder for them.

St. Louis Blues

2017-18 Season Review: The Blues got off to a 17-7-1 start in 2017-18 but dropped back down to earth when they lost seven of nine before the calendar flipped to 2018. St. Louis lost seven in a row in February and it appeared that they wouldn’t make the playoffs but they went 8-2-2 in a 12-game stretch in March. A 4-3 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on March 30 began a 1-4-1 finish, including a 6-0 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the worst team in the Western Conference, and a 5-2 loss to the Avalanche on the final day of the season in a game that decided who would get the final playoff spot in the West.

Key Players: Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz

2018-19 Season Preview: After missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, the Blues made some big changes. The team upgraded their center depth by acquiring Ryan O’Reilly, who tallied 24 goals and 61 points in 81 games last season, from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, a first-round pick in 2019, and a second-round pick in 2021. The team also signed center Tyler Bozak, who recorded 11 goals and 43 points in 81 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, to a three-year contract; forward David Perron, who tallied 16 goals and 66 points in 70 games for the Golden Knights last season, to a four-year contract; and goaltender Chad Johnson, who went went 10-16-3 with a 3.55 goals-against average and .891 save percentage with the Sabres last season, to a one-year contract. With a balanced offense, strong defense, and improved goaltending behind Jake Allen, who went 27-25-3 with a .906 save percentage and a 2.75 GAA, the Blues will be a playoff team but not quite up there with the Predators and Jets.

Dallas Stars

2017-18 Season Review: After having the best offseason in the NHL in 2017 and starting 18-9-1, the Stars looked like they would challenge for home ice in the Western Conference. Dallas would go on a five-game winning streak to begin February but it ended with a 6-0 loss on home ice to the Vancouver Canucks. After that, things would collapse for the Stars as they went 9-13-4 to close out the season. They went through a 1-7-2 stretch in March, including a 0-4-2 record on a season-long six-game road trip. The Stars were never able to pick themselves up from that and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year after finishing first in the conference in 2015-16. They finished three points shy of the Avalanche for the final wild-card spot. John Klingberg tied San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns with 67 points, second behind John Carlson of the Capitals, for second among NHL defensemen in that category. Forward Jamie Benn led the team with 79 points (36 goals) while center Tyler Seguin, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, led the team with 40 goals.

Key Players: Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Alexander Radulov

2018-19 Season Preview: The Stars added depth to their roster with the additions of forward Blake Comeau, who tallied 13 goals, 34 points, and a +5 rating in 79 games with the Avalanche last season; forward Valeri Nichushkin, who scored 16 goals, 27 points, and a +11 rating in 50 games in the KHL last season; defenseman Roman Polak, who tallied two goals, 12 points, and a +5 rating with the Maple Leafs last season; and goaltender Anton Khudobin, who was 16-6-7 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.56 GAA with the Boston Bruins last season. Dallas also hired Jim Montgomery as head coach after five seasons with the University of Denver. He led Denver to the NCAA championship in 2017. The Stars may need some more depth on forward and defense to compete with the other teams in the Central. Otherwise, in that division, it will be hard to make the playoffs with deeper teams competing with the Stars for a playoff spot.

Chicago Blackhawks

2017-18 Season Review: After finishing first in the Western Conference in 2017, the Blackhawks started out the season 18-13-5 but goaltender Corey Crawford, who went 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.27 goals against average, got hurt and was out from Christmas until the rest of the season. The Blackhawks went 17-30-5 in games Crawford did not play, including an eight-game losing streak (0-7-1) in February, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and finished 19 points behind the Avalanche for the final wild-card spot. Chicago allowed an average of 3.10 goals per game, 25th in the NHL.

Key Players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford

2018-19 Season Preview: The Blackhawks acquired center Marcus Kruger, who tallied a goal and six points in 48 games last season, and prospects from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for forward Marian Hossa, forward Vinnie Hinostroza, defenseman Jordan Oesterle, and a 2019 third-round draft pick. Chicago also signed forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Brandon Manning to add grit and depth to their roster. They also signed Cam Ward, who was 23-14-4 with a 2.73 goals-against average and .906 save percentage with the Carolina Hurricanes last season. The Blackhawks will not likely make the playoffs, especially if Crawford is hurt for most of the season again, but with players like Crawford, when healthy, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Alex DeBrincat on their team, they could be a surprise team this year.

Breakout Candidates

Dylan Sikura – Chicago Blackhawks

After back-to-back 50-point seasons at Northeastern University, Sikura, 23, played the last five games of the year with Chicago and tallied three points (all assists) while playing in the bottom six. If he gets put on a line with Kane or Toews this season, he could be very productive for Chicago.

Eeli Tolvanen – Nashville Predators

Tolvanen, 19, came over to the Predators at the end of the season after recording 19 goals, 36 points, and a +14 rating in 49 KHL games. He tallied a goal and six points in six games representing Finland at the World Junior Championships. Playing on a deep team like the Predators, Tolvanen, the 30th overall pick in 2017, can put up big numbers in his rookie season. He played three games with Nashville at the end of last season.

Jordan Greenway – Minnesota Wild

Greenway, 21, finished the season in Minnesota after tallying 13 goals, 35 points, and a +9 rating in 36 games at Boston University. He also played for Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games and tallied a goal and a -2 rating in five games. He ended the season with an assist in six regular-season games with the Wild and a goal, two points, and a +2 rating, while playing in all five playoff games for Minnesota.

2018-19 Projected Division Standings

  1. x – Predators
  2. x – Jets
  3. x – Blues
  4. x – Wild
  5. Avalanche
  6. Stars
  7. Blackhawks

**x denotes playoff teams

Other Division Previews
Atlantic Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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