2021-22 Central Division Preview

Photo: Glenn James/Getty Images

With training camps and exhibition games for the 2021-22 NHL season underway, it is time to preview each of the four divisions. NoVa Caps continues their annual season previews by division with the Central Division.

Arizona Coyotes

2020-21 Result: 24-26-6, fifth in West Division

2020-21 Leaders:

  • RW Phil Kessel (20 goals, 23 assists, 43 points)
  • LHD Jakob Chychrun (18 goals, 41 points, 23:23 average TOI per game)
  • C Nick Schmaltz (21 assists, 35 points)
  • G Josef Korenar (three wins)

Key Offseason Additions: Korenar, C Jay Beagle, C Travis Boyd, LW Ryan Dzingel, LW Loui Eriksson, RW Dmitrij Jaskin, LW Andrew Ladd, LW Antoine Roussel, LHD Shayne Gostisbehere, RHD Anton Stralman, RHD Connor Timmins, G Carter Hutton, Head Coach Andre Tourigny

Key Offseason Subtractions: RW Conor Garland, LHD Oliver Ekman-Larsson, LHD Alex Goligoski, C Derick Brassard, LW Michael Bunting, RW Tyler Pitlick, LHD Jordan Oesterle,  LW Dryden Hunt, C John Hayden, LHD Niklas Hjalmarsson, RHD Jason Demers, C Michael Chaput, G Darcy Kuemper, G Antti Raanta, G Adin Hill, Head Coach Rick Tocchet

After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, the Coyotes opted to go through yet another rebuild as they parted with Ekman-Larsson and Garland to take on three bad contracts and get two high draft picks from the Canucks.

The Coyotes parted ways with three goalies that have been solid over the past few seasons to acquire future assets and enter this season with one of, if not, the worst goaltending tandem in the NHL after acquiring Kosenar, who went 3-5-0 with an .899 save percentage and a 3.17 goals-against average in eight games with San Jose Sharks last season, and Hutton, who posted a 1-10-1 record, .886 save percentage, 3.47 goals-against average in 13 games with Buffalo Sabres last season.

The Coyotes also tore up their defensive core, which has been one of their strengths over the years down, and replaced them with players on bad contracts such as Stralman and Gostisbehere. Though, Timmins, who put up great numbers in junior and earned seven assists, a +6 rating, a 57.14% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 57.54% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 56.7% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage, was a nice add.

They have not done much to improve an offense that ranked 23rd with an average of 2.68 goals-per-game as Beagle, Eriksson, Roussel, and Ladd were brought in to acquire some high draft picks. Jaskin, who earned 38 goals and 60 goals in 59 KHL games last season; Boyd, who tallied five goals and 10 points in 39 games with the Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs; and Dzingel, who notched eight goals and 13 points in 40 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators, should produce offense but will likely not be difference-making.

The Coyotes started rebuilding and did a good job over this offseason but will feel the pain for a few years before it will be worth it.

Chicago Blackhawks

2020-21 Result: 24-25-7, sixth in Central Division

2020-21 Leaders:

  • RW Patrick Kane (51 assists, 66 points)
  • LW Alex DeBrincat (32 goals, 56 points)
  • RHD Seth Jones (25:14 average TOI/game)
  • G Marc-Andre Fleury (26 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: Fleury, Jones, LHD Caleb Jones, C Tyler Johnson, LW Jujhar Khiara, LHD Jake McCabe

Key Offseason Subtractions: C Pius Suter, RHD Adam Boqvist, LHD Duncan Keith, RW Vinnie Hinostroza, C David Kampf, LHD Nikita Zadorov

The Blackhawks made a couple of major additions over the offseason in the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s goalie of the year in Fleury, who went 26-10-0 with a .928 save percentage (third in NHL), a 1.98 goals-against average (third), and six shutouts (tied for third) with the Vegas Golden Knights last season, and Jones, who earned five goals, 28 points, a -18 rating, a 48.22% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 45.52% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 46.09% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 56 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The return of captain Jonathan Toews, who missed all of last season with a medical issue, should also provide a boost for the Blackhawks after they averaged 2.84 goals-per-game (16th) last season. They also added Johnson, who earned eight points and 22 points and has earned at least 45 points five times in his nine-season NHL career, and Khiara, who earned three goals and 11 points in 40 games last season. The loss of Suter is a bit tough, though.

In addition to Jones, the Blackhawks added McCabe, who posted a goal, three points, a +2 rating, a 57.02% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 61.97% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 55.86% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 13 games with the Buffalo Sabres; and Caleb Jones (Seth’s brother), who tallied four assists, a -7 rating, a 49.19% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 50.04% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 44.78% scoring chances-for percentage in 33 games with the Edmonton Oilers, to their backend.

The hope is that bringing in Fleury will help Kevin Lankinen’s development after the 26-year-old grabbed the starter’s job and went 17-14-5 with a .909 save percentage, a 3.01 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season.

The Blackhawks made a lot of moves that should boost them into contention in the Western Conference wild-card race.

Dallas Stars

2020-21 Result: 23-19-14, fifth in Central Division

2020-21 Leaders:

  • LW Joe Pavelski (25 goals, 51 points)
  • RHD John Klingberg (29 assists)
  • LHD Miro Heiskanen (24:58 average TOI/game)
  • RW Alexander Radulov (1.09 points-per-game)
  • G Anton Khudobin (12 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: G Braden Holtby, LHD Ryan Suter, C Luke Glendening, LW Michael Raffl, LHD Andreas Borgman, RHD Jani Hakanpaa, RHD Alexander Petrovic

Key Offseason Subtractions: LHD Jamie Oleksiak, C Andrew Cogliano, C Justin Dowling, RHD Mark Pysyk, C Jason Dickinson, RHD Sami Vatanen

The Stars made changes at forward depth, defense, and goalie after a disappointing season in 2020-21 that was plagued by a COVID-19 pause in the schedule and more players missing time.

After losing Oleksiak in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, the Stars replaced him with Suter, who recorded three goals, 19 points, a +9 rating, a 47.85% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 52.74% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 52.17% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 56 games with the Minnesota Wild last season. They also signed Glendening (six goals and 15 points in 54 games with the Detroit Red Wings) and Raffl (four goals and 11 points in 44 games with the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals) to improve their bottom-six forward group.

Following the addition of Holtby, who went a career-worst 7-11-3 record, .889 save percentage, and a 3.67 goals-against average with the Vancouver Canucks, in free agency, the Stars have four goalies on the NHL roster but are likely to start Jake Oettinger in the AHL and roll with a tandem of Holtby and Khudobin, who went 12-11-7 with a .905 save percentage, 2.54 goals-against average, and three shutouts. Ben Bishop is not fully healthy yet.

The Stars are known for their strong defense that arguably got stronger with the addition of Suter after finishing with an average of 2.64 goals-against per game (tied for sixth with Toronto Maple Leafs). The previous two seasons, the Stars finished second with a 2.44 goals-against per game average in 2018-19 and a 2.52 goals-against per game average the following season.

The Stars’ offense improved last season after finishing 18th with an average of 2.79 goals-per-game and Radulov, center Roope Hintz (1.05 points-per-game last season), Pavelski (0.91), and left-winger Jason Robertson (0.88) all took step forwards. More from center Tyler Seguin and left-wing Jamie Benn (both 0.67) and right-wing Denis Gurianov (0.55) would go along way to further improve the offense.

With a healthier and improved roster, expect the Stars to be near or at the top of the division.

St. Louis Blues

2020-21 Result: 27-20-9 (fourth in West Division), swept by Colorado Avalanche in first-round of 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs

2020-21 Leaders:

  • C Ryan O’Reilly (24 goals)
  • LW David Perron (39 assists, 58 points)
  • RHD Justin Faulk (24:16 average TOI/game)
  • G Jordan Binnington (18 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: LW Pavel Buchnevich, LW Brandon Saad

Key Offseason Subtractions: LHD Vince Dunn, LW Mike Hoffman, LW Jaden Schwartz, LW Sammy Blais, LHD Carl Gunnarsson, LW Jacob de la Rose

The Blues underwent some turnover in the offseason after acquiring Buchnevich, who earned 20 goals and 48 points in 54 games with the New York Rangers last season, and Saad, who tallied 15 goals and 24 points in 44 games with the Avalanche, and losing Hoffman and Schwartz in free agency to change up a forward group that ranked 13th in the NHL with an average of 2.98 goals-per-game.

After right-wing Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade from the Blues as he did not approve of the way that the team handled his two shoulder surgeries in 2019 and 2020, the 29-year-old appears to be likely to start the season on the Blues roster, which should give them a more balanced scoring lineup.

Dunn got swiped by the Kraken and the expectation is that Marco Scandella, who earned three goals, nine points, a +14 rating, a 44.27% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 43.56% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 44.11% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 49 games last season, will step up in a bigger role. The Blues averaged 2.98 goals-against per game, 19th in the NHL.

The goaltending is fine with Jordan Binnington, who went 18-14-1 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.65 goals-against average last season, but weak behind him after Villie Husso posted an .893 save percentage and a 3.21 goals-against average in 17 games.

The additions of Saad and Buchnevich should keep the Blues afloat in the Western Conference but in a wild-card spot.

Winnipeg Jets

2020-21 Result: 30-23-3 (third in North Division), lost to Montreal Canadiens in Second Round

2020-21 Leaders:

  • LW Kyle Connor (26 goals)
  • C Mark Schiefele (42 assists, 63 points)
  • LHD Josh Morrissey (23:33 average TOI/game)
  • G Connor Hellebuyck (24 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: LHD Brenden Dillon, C Riley Nash, LHD Nate Schmidt, G Eric Comrie, C Luke Johnson

Key Offseason Subtractions: C Mason Appleton, LW Mathieu Perreault, LHD Derek Forbort, RW Trevor Lewis, LW Nate Thompson, RHD Tucker Poolman, LHD Jordie Benn, G Laurent Brossoit

After averaging 2.71 goals-against per game (10th) last season, the Jets improved their defense by acquiring Dillon, who tallied two goals, 19 points, a +15 rating, a 50.40% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 51.56% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 51.97% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage in 56 games with the Capitals, and Schmidt, who earned five goals, 15 points, a -7 rating, a 45.34% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 45.56% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 43.41% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 54 games with the Canucks.

They also strengthened their center depth by signing Nash, who recorded two goals and seven points in 37 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020-21, and re-signing Paul Stastny. Although losing Appleton in the expansion draft was tough, the Jets, who averaged 3.04 goals-per-game (12th), still have Schiefele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Stastny down the middle. The Jets have plenty of fire power with Schiefele, Connor, left-wing Nikolaj Ehlers (21 goals, 46 points in 47 games) and Blake Wheeler (31 assists, 46 points in 50 games) up front.

The Jets have one of the best netminders in the game in Connor Hellebuyck, who went 24-17-3 with a .916 save percentage, a 2.58 goals-against average, and four shutouts last season and should improve after his team added Dillon and Schmidt.

After not losing anyone from their top-six forward group and improving their defense in front of a Vezina Trophy winner, the Jets should be among the top teams in the division and Western Conference.

Nashville Predators

2020-21 Result: 31-23-2 (fourth in Central Division), lost to Carolina Hurricanes in First Round

2020-21 Leaders:

  • C Mikael Granlund (13 goals)
  • LHD Roman Josi (25 assists, 33 points, 24:21 average TOI/game)
  • LW Filip Forsberg (0.82 points-per-game)
  • G Juuse Saros (21 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: C Cody Glass, RHD Philippe Myers, RHD Matt Tennyson, G David Rittich, RW Matt Luff

Key Offseason Subtractions: RHD Ryan Ellis, G Pekka Rinne, RW Calle Jarnkrok, RW Viktor Arvidsson, C Erik Haula, C Brad Richardson, RHD Erik Gudbranson, LHD Jarred Tinordi, LHD Luca Sbisa, RHD Tyler Lewington

After a fourth consecutive early exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators have started a mini-rebuild as they dealt Arvidsson and Ellis for younger players and/or future assets in Myers (who earned one goal, 11 points, a -10 rating, a 54.19% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 51.44% expected goals-for percentage, and a 52.42% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 44 games with the Flyers last season) and Glass (four goals and 10 points in 27 games with the Vegas Golden Knights).

Following the retirement of Rinne, the Predators signed Rittich, who went 5-8-2 with a .901 save percentage, a 2.86 goals-against average, and one shutout with the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs last season, to back up Saros after the 26-year-old went 21-11-1 with a .927 save percentage, a 2.28 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season to grab the No. 1 role in Nashville.

Even with the shakeup from trading Ellis and getting Myers, the Predators still have a deep defensive core led by Roman Josi, who tallied eight goals, 33 points, a 51.88% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 52.83% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 53.01% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage. Dante Fabbro played only two games after April 6, suggesting that he fell out of favor down the stretch, while Alexandre Carrier found himself in an everyday role. The Predators’ average of 2.75 goals-against per game was tied for 11th last season.

The Predators’ offense, which averaged 2.7 goals-per-game (22nd) last season, got worse over the offseason after trading Arvidsson and losing Jarnkrok in the expansion draft. Forsberg (32) was the only Predators’ forward last season with over 30 points and the most goals any player on the team had was 13. They could use improvement from centers Ryan Johansen (seven goals, 22 points in 48 games last season) and Matt Duchene (six goals, 13 points in 34 games) as both have many years left on their contracts at $8 million per each.

After Rinne retired, the Predators are preparing for a few years of pain. They have a couple of nice pieces but with Forsberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, they could be sellers when the NHL Trade Deadline approaches.

Minnesota Wild

2020-21 Result: 35-16-5 (third in West Division), lost to Golden Knights in First Round

2020-21 Leaders:

  • LW Kirill Kaprizov (27 goals, 51 points)
  • LW Jordan Greenway (26 assists)
  • LHD Jonas Brodin (22:26 average TOI/game)
  • G Cam Talbot (19 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: Goligoski, LHD Dmitry Kulikov, LHD Jon Merrill, C Frederick Gaudreau, LHD Jordie Benn

Key Offseason Subtractions: Suter, Luke Johnson, LHD Carson Soucy, LW Zach Parise, LW Marcus Johansson, LHD Ian Cole, LHD Brad Hunt, C Nick Bonino

The Wild had a quiet offseason as most of their moves have included tinkering with their defense after losing Soucy, Cole, Suter, and Hunt and signing Goligoski (who recorded three goals, 22 points, a +2 rating, a 48.93% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 50.6% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 45.12% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 56 games with the Coyotes); Kulikov (four assists, a -3 rating, 53.41% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 54.9% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 54.03% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 48 games with the New Jersey Devils and Oilers); Merrill (five assists, -9 rating, 46.8% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 47.57% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 46.32% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 49 games with the Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens); and Benn (one goal, 10 points, +7 rating, a 47.04% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 46.82% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 46.19% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 39 games with the Canucks and Jets).

The Wild’s offense took a step forward after Kaprizov provided some firepower as they finished with an average of 3.21 goals-per-game (tied for eighth) but Kaprizov, left-wing Kevin Fiala (20), and center Joel Eriksson Ek (19) were the only scorers with more than 15 goals last season. Kaprizov led Fiala by 11 points for the team lead.

Losing Soucy and Suter hurt, so they will also have to find a way to fill in a hole on the left side of their second defense pairing. The favorite to get the job appears to be Kulikov.

Talbot won the starter’s job over Kaapo Kahkonen last season as he went 19-8-5 with a .915 save percentage, a 2.63 goals-against average, and two shutouts in the regular season before earning a .923 save percentage, a 2.45 goals-against average, and two shutouts in the Wild’s seven-game first-round loss to the Golden Knights. Kahkonen finished his rookie season 16-8-0 with a .902 save percentage, a 2.88 goals-against average, and two shutouts and will look to take the starter’s job away from Talbot this season.

The Wild may not have the best depth in the NHL but have a strong defense, wingers, and an admirable goaltending tandem. They should be in the mix for the third seed in the Central or a wild-card spot.

Colorado Avalanche

2020-21 Result: 39-13-4 (best record in NHL), lost to Golden Knights in Second Round

2020-21 Leaders:

  • C Nathan MacKinnon (45 assists, 1.35 points-per-game average)
  • LW Mikko Rantanen (30 goals, 66 points)
  • LHD Devon Toews (24:46 average TOI/game)
  • Kuemper (10 wins)

Key Offseason Additions: Kuemper, LW Darren Helm, LW Mikhail Maltsev, LHD Kurtis MacDermid, LHD Ryan Murray, LW Stefan Matteau

Key Offseason Subtractions: Saad, Timmins, G Philipp Grubauer, G Devan Dubnyk, RW Joonas Donskoi, LHD Ryan Graves, C Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, LW Matt Calvert, C Carl Soderberg, LHD Patrik Nemeth

The Avalanche made quite a few changes after a third straight second-round exit as they lost Grubauer, a reigning Vezina Trophy nominee, and acquired Kuemper, who went 10-11-3 with a .907 save percentage, a 2.56 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season but was solid from 2018-20 with a .927 save percentage over those two years.

After trading Graves to avoid losing him for nothing in the expansion draft, the Avalanche traded for MacDermid (who earned two goals, four points, a -14 rating, a 43.21% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 36.03% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 38.64% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 28 games with the Kings last season) and signed Murray (tallied 14 assists, a +3 rating, a 47.76% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 46.51% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 46.33% scoring chances-for percentage in 48 games with the Devils). The Avalanche averaged 2.36 goals-against per game last season, which ranked third.

Their offensive depth took a hit after Donskoi, Saad, and Bellemare left and they replaced them with just Helm (three goals and eight points in 47 games with the Red Wings last season) and Maltsev (six goals, nine points, and a -4 rating in 33 games during his rookie NHL season). Though, they should still be among the NHL’s best if prospects like center Shane Bowers, right-wing Martin Kaut, and center Alex Newhook find their way. The Avalanche’s 3.52 goals-per-game last season was the most in the NHL.

The Avalanche have plenty of firepower with MacKinnon, Rantanen, right-wing Landeskog (20 goals, 52 points in 54 games), and defenseman Cale Makar (eight goals, 44 points, a +17 rating, a 60.88% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 61.77% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 61.73% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 44 games) in the mix and should be among the top team’s in the NHL. Though, it is questionable whether they will be at the top again after losing a Vezina nominee and a lot of depth.

Breakout Candidates

C Tyson Jost — Avalanche

After center Nazem Kadri was suspended for eight games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche could opt to lighten his role and give Jost a shot in the top-six. The 23-year-old earned seven goals and 17 points in 54 games last season but earned at least 23 points and was flirting with the double-digit goal mark in each of the past three seasons. If the Avalanche slide Jost in between Andre Burakovsky and J.T. Compher, perhaps a breakout year is on the way.

LHD Logan Stanley — Jets

As a rookie, the 23-year-old earned a +13 rating, a 51.28% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 48.47% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 51.19% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 37 games. Stanley also stood out in the postseason where he earned two goals, three assists, and a +6 rating while playing all eight games. After the Jets acquired Dillon and Schmidt, Stanley will have an opportunity against weaker competition that he faced last season, which could be good for him

Eriksson-Ek — Wild

The 24-year-old has set career-highs in goals and points in each of the past two seasons. In 2020-21, Eriksson-Ek established himself as one of the best two-way centers in the game as he set a career-high +16 rating and earned a 57.38% expected goals-for percentage. With a longer season, he will have a chance to showcase his game more.

Lankinen — Blackhawks

After the Blackhawks acquired Fleury, Lankinen will get worked less than last season when he appeared in 37 games and posted a .909 save percentage in addition to a 3.01 goals-against average. He will also get weaker competition than Fleury and could see fewer quality chances with the return of Toews, one of the NHL’s best defensive centermen.

Standings Predictions

1. X – Stars

2. X – Avalanche

3. X – Jets

4. X – Wild

5. X – Blues

6. Blackhawks

7. Predators

8. Coyotes

Other 2021-22 Division Previews:

Pacific

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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