NHL Central Division: Preview For 2017-18 Regular Season
By Randy Holndoner
The start of the 2017-18 NHL season is less than a week away, so it is time to see how the Central Division has shaped up and who looks to be a threat this year
Hockey is just about back, with the regular season kicking off Wednesday. The Chicago Blackhawks open their year Thursday with a home tilt against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Of course, what’s more fun before a season than predicting how that year will play out? With that in mind, let’s break down the Central Division and see how its teams will fare this upcoming season.
Chicago Blackhawks; 2016-17 record: 50-23-9 (109 points)
In the midst of that mess came the return of Brandon Saad. His presence can only enhance the play of Jonathan Toews. Toews has not been the same since Saad was sent to Columbus two years ago.
Also, making his return back to Chicago was Patrick Sharp. Sharp signed as a free agent to help replace some of the scoring lost with Panarin, and to play with Patrick Kane on the second scoring line. His previous chemistry with Kane is also a big part of his return.
Connor Murphy was the big return in the Hjalmarsson trade. Just 24, with five years remaining on a friendly $3.85 million cap hit contract, Murphy will be logging big minutes and bringing some big hits to the team.
If the Blackhawks’ defense can tighten up, and the faceoff ranking can be higher than a dismal 29th placement it achieved last year, the Blackhawks should be stronger than they were last year and better prepared for a playoff run.
Colorado Avalanche; 2016-17 record: 22-56-4 (48 points)
Whether or not 2016’s first-round pick, Tyson Jost, can bring a jolt to this lineup is to be seen. Other than a few of the younger players being re-signed, the Avalanche don’t look to be a threat this year, except for the lottery of the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft.
Dallas Stars; 2016-17 record: 34-37-11 (79 points)
They re-signed forwards Radek Faksa and Brett Richie. Then, they went out and captured sought-after free-agent forwards Martin Hanzal (three years/$14.25M) and Alexander Radulov (five years/$31.25M).
They also locked goalie Ben Bishop to a six-year deal worth $29.5M. Kari Lehtonen is entering the final year of his contract. It will be interesting to see how that plays out throughout the year, but it is clear that Bishop will be the man between the pipes.
Dallas will definitely be a better team this year with the additions it made, although the Stars lost the services of Ales Hemsky and Patrick Sharp. Granted, they provided little to the team last year.
Dallas is the wild card of the teams in the division this year. The Stars have enough talent to be dangerous and make their way back to the playoffs, but time will tell how the chemistry of Hanzal and Radulov mixes with the team. Having Hitchcock back behind the bench will help as well.
Minnesota Wild; 2016-17 record: 49-25-8 (106 points)
Instead, they invested in their current players and re-signed Mikael Granlund (three years/$17.25M), Nino Niederreiter (five years/$26.25M) and Mikko Koivu (two years/$11M). They did go out and sign free agent Marcus Foligno (four years/$11.5M) and veteran D-man Kyle Quincey (one year/$1.25M).
They’ve kept their core intact, and will make the playoffs. In order to do so, they are going to have to rely heavily again on goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who came off a career year last year and won 40 games.
Nashville Predators; 2016-17 record: 41-29-12 (94 points)
With the retirement of Blackhawks nuisance Mike Fisher, the Preds signed free agent Nick Bonino (four years/$16.4M) to help fill that role. They also added veteran winger Scott Hartnell (one year/$1M).
The Predators are going to be competitive again this year. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone, but they will still hold their own and be a strong contender.
St. Louis Blues; 2016-17 record: 46-29-7 (99 points)
Recently, they found that they will be without the services of Robby Fabbri for the year due to knee surgery. It could have left a door open to bring in the ageless Jaromir Jagr, but the free agent was signed by Calgary today. Still, the Blues need the scoring.
Goaltender Jake Allen came off a career year last year in notching 33 wins. He will have to be strong since the Blues traded defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals at the deadline last year. Sniper Vladimir Tarasenko will get his goals, but they will need to find more from other players.
With Mike Yeo at the helm for his first full season as Blues head coach, if they can stay healthy and, most importantly, find more scoring, the Blues could make the playoffs again.
Winnipeg Jets; 2016-17 record: 40-35-7 (87 points)
With the emergence of Calder Trophy runner-up, Patrik Laine (36 goals last season), second-year winger Nikolaj Ehlers (25 goals last season) and second-year goalie Connor Hellebuyck (26 wins), the Jets are getting younger and stronger and could find themselves back into the playoffs.
Next: Blackhawks Drop Tootoo, Jurco, Berube, Hinostroza
Overall, the division is going to be a tight battle with at least four teams making the playoffs. My prediction for how the division ends up this regular season:
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Nashville Predators
- Minnesota Wild
- Dallas Stars
- St. Louis Blues
- Winnipeg Jets
- Colorado Avalanche