The toughest division continues to build more elite teams while the Blackhawks struggle to regain their footing. Headed into the 2018-2019 season, the Blackhawks could be in trouble.
The NHL Central Division
Last week I opened up the series with predictions within the NHL divisions and where teams should finish. The rankings can be found here. The Central Division predictions were polar opposites. The Blackhawks received playoff mentions from all 17 analysts while only three saw the Winnipeg Jets grabbing a Wildcard spot. Come April, Winnipeg would finish second with a playoff spot and the Blackhawks dead last.
I took a look at the Dallas Stars in the previous article who also missed the playoffs last season. Dallas has an incredibly talented offensive top line and a defensive pair to match. Deeper now, though, new faces and young talent will be looking to make a splash. The Blackhawks will face off against the Stars four times in 2018-2019. Surely, they will be looking to improve from the 0-4 record against the Stars in 2017-2018.
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Moving on from Dallas and heading northwest roughly 790 miles, this organization made the playoffs last season after a three-year drought. Turning around from a 22-56-4 result in 2016-2017, the Colorado Avalanche finished 43-30-9 in 2017-2018.
The Colorado Avalanche (Blackhawks 1-3 against in 2017-2018)
The Colorado Avalanche are in a great place to make another run for the playoffs in 2018-2019. Their top offensive line ranks seventh in the NHL. Gabriel Landeskog (62 points), Nathan Mackinnon (97 points) and Mikko Rantanen (84 points) produced more total points (243) than the second-ranked Dallas Stars top offensive line (229) last season. With point-producing centers in Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot, generating scoring chances should be no issue.
Another contributing factor to creating scoring chances is Colorado’s defenders and their ability to jump in on the offensive side. The Avalanche saw four blue-liners finish with 20+ points last season. Not including the playoffs. This includes Samuel Girard (20 points), Nikita Zadorov (20 points), Erik Johnson (25 points) and Tyson Barrie (57 points). All this production while, in their own end, allowed 237 goals against, 18th in the NHL in 2018-2019.
Da Windy City
237 goals against is nothing to brag about. But, its not the worst, either. Before losing Semyon Varlamov to an upper-body injury, the 6-foot-2 goaltender started 47 games, won 24 with a .920 SV% and 2.68 GAA. Now, the Avalanche have added Philipp Grubauer from the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. Grubauer started 28 games in 2017-2018 winning 15. He finished with a .923 SV% and a 2.35 GAA. Coming to Colorado with those numbers carrying over, Grubauer now leads the active goaltenders on the Avalanche roster. The battle for the starting spot should draw some attention to this booming Avalanche team next season.
Apart from deciding who will be the go-to goaltender, coach Jared Bednar will have to focus on keeping these 40+ win seasons consistent. Turning that lowly 2016-2017 season into a playoff-bound 2017-2018 season, the pressure is on to have that success continue and grow. Bednar and the Avalanche have the tools to finish top three in the Central Division. This Avalanche team is not one the Blackhawks, or any other team for that matter, should make light of.
With the Blackhawks struggling to score goals, the presence in net for the Avalanche will pose an issue. Not to mention solid defense and a high-powered top line, the Colorado Avalanche have come a long way. The Blackhawks square off against the Avs five times in the 2018-2019 season. There will be no draw between the two if it comes down to that fifth game.
The next article will look at a team that the Blackhawks could finish above in the Central Division. Injuries and low-ranked lines could keep this team out of the playoffs for the first time since 2013.