2017-18 NHL Preview: Central Division

centralThe Central Division has been a tough one and one that has produced some great teams through the battles that many of these teams face.

The fight just to get out of the division can be a tough one as three of the last four years have seen at least three teams top the 100-point mark.

That can make it tough for teams in this division as they have to be great in order to make it out and into the playoffs.

There are no easy routes through the Central division and there never really have been for a very long time.

At one point the division was ruled by the Detroit Red Wings with every simply trying to keep up with them.

Nobody really could as they continue dot win at one point taking 8 straight division titles as one of the best teams in the league.

Lately, it hasn’t been a division that is ruled by one team but there is still plenty of tough teams to fight through to get to the playoffs.

It can be a difficult thing as the fact that there are some very good teams in the division can have some major effects on the rest of the division.

There are plenty of times when a division battle can overshadow the bigger picture and in some division, no matter the league, it can lead to some issues.

Teams can focus so much on their division battles that they put everything into trying to win the division title.

That is a good thing because they need to take a good spot in the division if they want a favourable match-up in the playoffs.

The problem sometimes can be that the division battle is so difficult that teams can get worn down by battling division rivals.

Injuries and just simple exhaustion can set in and just as they win the division they have to take on a new set of challenges in the second season.

The playoffs present that same tight division battle with better teams at every step of the way.

A team putting everything into that fight might end up not having much left in the tank for the playoffs leaving them out of it early.

There is another side to it though as the division battle can also provide the experience a team needs to make a deep run to the Stanley Cup.

Being in a division with a number of great teams can provide a team with a good foundation for a deep run because they get to see the best of the best.

Nothing is going to surprise them in the playoffs as they have already seen great teams and beaten great teams throughout the season.

The Central seems to take that to heart as they have had some very promising teams come out of the division and make deep runs.

Not all have won the division but many have made the run right to the Stanley Cup and proven that a tough division can produce winners.

Last year it was the Nashville Predators who didn’t win the division but made the playoffs through the Central and took that experience to the Stanley Cup Finals.

They couldn’t finish it off and lost in the finals but they had still worked their way to the top of the league after a tough divisional battle.hockey-sidebar

The Chicago Blackhawks did it multiple times taking three titles in six years through the Central division.

The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues are constantly considered some of the toughest competition in the playoffs year after year.

Although they tend to disappoint in the playoffs they are certainly not teams that any will take lightly.

The Dallas Stars were a feared team but have struggled with consistency while the Colorado Avalanche could not compete and were one of the worst teams in the league last year.

The Central will look to a new season with a lot of the same as everyone knows that the division will be a battle.

Who comes out on top is a mystery though as the division has been tough but has also been full of parity.

Last year the Blackhawks were on top and before that the Stars then the Blues then the Avalanche.

Someone always seems to come out and surprise everyone so the mystery will continue this year in one of the best battles in the league.

chicago_blackhawks

There is a pattern to this team that seems to continue to play out and it has kept them competitive but not always as one o the best teams in the league. The Blackhawks have been one of the best teams in the 2010s taking three Stanley Cups and remaining a top competitor throughout the years. They are a team that has continually built great groups thanks to the draft and development plan. They draft and develop players to be chi-statssuperstars and that has kept them competitive but there is an issue with their system. Every other year the Blackhawks are faced with major decisions as their young talent is good enough for big paydays but with the cap, the team can’t afford them. So they let those players walk and try to continue their development method to try to compete. It works but usually, there is a year development time before they return to being one of the best teams. After putting together a 50-win season the Blackhawks reached that point again letting some of their top young talent walk. It was a little different this year though as the team didn’t just sit back and wait on their young talent going out to grab some players both with trades and the free agent market. This year the Blackhawks have been a bit of a mystery as some believe they could be great and others aren’t so sure they made the right moves. On offence, they have made some significant changes but they are still led by their two cornerstones in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They bring very different things to the table but without them, the Blackhawks are not a three-time Stanley Cup Champion in the 2010s. They will be without their brightest young star in Artemi Panarin who was the latest victim of the cap but they did a good job of replacing him. Bringing back Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp is good while they will watch Alex Debrincat closely in his rookie year after he put up 127 points in the OHL last season. Changes also came on the defensive side with the loss of Niklas Hjalmarsson. They still have one of the top pairings in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke but beyond them, there is some mystery with promising players that could be good but there is no guarantee. Behind them is Corey Crawford who remains a top goaltender although one whose stats aren’t the best thanks to the defence in front of him from year to year. The Offence looks like a pretty scary group despite their losses and it will be enough to get a playoff run but their defence will determine how deep a run they make.

colorado_avalanche

Things have been rough for the Colorado Avalanche as they have not developed like many thought they were going to only a few years ago. That is when they were at the top of the Central division and some believed that it was the start of something special for the team. They couldn’t sustain the pace though and the next season they fell out of the playoffs entirely. Since then things have only gotten worse and last year was the worst as col-statsthey fell all the way to the bottom of the league with a total of 56 losses. It was a rough year for the team and it has set up a very important season in 2017-18 as they need to turn things around or big changes are coming for this team. Chief among them at the top where Joe Sakic has not been as successful as a front office executive as he was a player. One more bad season where no signs of improvement are shown seems pretty sure to mean the end of his career as the Executive VP of Hockey Operations. Trouble is already brewing as Matt Duchene has made it clear that he wants out but has yet to be traded. Nathan MacKinnon, Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen make up a pretty good group up front when it comes to potential. They just haven’t been able to put it together and adding Nail Yakupov is yet another player with massive potential that just hasn’t been able to meet it yet. Young players like Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher add even more potential to this team with some promise to do something. On defence, the struggles have been long-lasting as Erik Johnson remains the leader and he is a good top defenceman but there isn’t a lot around him. Nikita Zadarov is good but not top-pairing good while Tyson Barrie is another one of those potentially great players that haven’t met expectations. Chris Bigras could also be a great defenceman as well but the story is a consistent one as nobody knows if they can find their way to meeting their potential. Behind them is the only reason that the Avalanche win games as Semyon Varlamov has had to stand on his head regularly for this team. He is one of the best goalies in the game when healthy but with little to no help in front, his stats will never show that. The Avs have potential and there is no doubt that given the right circumstances they can be good but it won’t be this year as they will fall far short and out of the playoffs.

dallas_stars

The Dallas Stars seemed to had found their groove as a slow build with some great talent in their prime took home the Central Division title in 2015-16. It was a great season for this group and many thought that it was just the start as they were ready to take plenty of turns in the playoffs. They had a group of players right in their prime and they had some years left to keep producing. That is why last season was such a surprise for this dal-statsgroup as the Stars couldn’t find that magic they had the season before. Most of that had to do with the injuries that really hurt the team and took out some of their top players for extended periods of time. It forced them to fall to the bottom of the standings in the division just ahead of the worst team in the league. They are not as bad a team as their record showed last year though and a new season brings a new chance to show what they have. That new season will also involve a number of new players as the Stars signed some big names in the off-season only adding to their firepower. The run they had two years ago had a lot to do with their two stars as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can be two of the best in the league. Seguin proved it last season but Benn was not himself and that had a lot to do with the fact that he was hurt most of the season and playing through some issues. Both of them fully healthy make a really good one-two punch but they aren’t alone as Jason Spezza provides good secondary scoring while new addition Alexander Radulov can put up numbers when he’s motivated, which has been a struggle in the past. On the blue line, the Stars will look to Josh Klingberg who is a capable defenceman but might need someone beside him to help him be better. They may have lost that with Alex Goligoski but the addition of Marc Methot might be exactly what he needs. The rest of the group is young but promising as Esa Lindell and Julius Honka need to step up and meet their potential for the team to get better. Behind them is the biggest addition of the off-season as the Stars added Ben Bishop to take over as the starter. He will take over with a lesser defensive group meaning he will be relied upon a lot more but he is a very good goaltender. After addressing their needs the Stars are a better team and if they can stay healthy they will be back in the playoffs this year.

8810_minnesota_wild-primary-2014

They might just be the most underrated team in the NHL as they never get a lot of attention despite being on the top teams in the league. The main reason is that the Wild don’t have those superstars that can make a massive impact no matter what team they are on. They have great players but none are those massive stars throughout the NHL that everyone knows as one of the best. That leaves them as a team without that major min-statsstar to convince people that they can make a big impact in the league. It is somewhat misleading though as the Wild might not have that massive name player but as a team, they are one of the toughest out there. They consistently make the playoffs and are always a tough team to get out when they are in the second season. Last year they had the best season in franchise history as they took 49 wins and set franchise records but the end of their season was not great leading to an early exit in the playoffs. They head into a new season with a team built the same way as it has been for years with the sum better than the parts. One of their more underrated players has been one of the most important as Devan Dubnyk has been among the top goalies in the league for years. Not many people talk about him but he is a major part of this team that helps them to stay in every game. In front of him is a good group that is led by Ryan Suter who might not have the big name but is one of the best in the league. Alongside Jared Spurgeon, they form a good top pair while Matt Dumba has begun to match his potential. Those three are good but the rest of the group isn’t all that great leaving a bit of a hole for the team. Up front, the team doesn’t have a major goal scorer but they do have a lot of players that can put up points. A group that includes Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and Nino Niederreiter added Tyler Ennis who has talent but has struggled the last few years. Zach Parise hopes to come back from a down season to add even more to that group of talent up front. The problem is that there is no major goal scorer on the team meaning everyone needs to perform for them to be successful. The Wild are a team that still doesn’t have a major star but their team together will make the playoffs again although a deep run might not be there.

nashville_predators

They started the season as a team that many thought could do something special but weren’t quite sure what they had. They made the playoffs but for some that was surely where it would end for them as they were expected to make the playoffs but not much further. They had to take on the Blackhawks and put their stamp on the playoffs when they swept one of the best teams of the last decade. They rode that momentum all the nsh-statsway to the Stanley Cup where they came up just short against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now they enter a new season with high expectations as everyone is wondering if they can get back to the championship and finish their job. The Predators have always depended on their defence in order to be great and they still have a very good group. The defence, like any other, is led by the man in net as Pekka Rinne remains a great goalie although he has not been the same goaltender over the last few years. It might be his age showing through but for now, he remains their best option in net. In front of him, he gets a lot of help as the Preds have one of the best defensive groups in the league. Led by the top pairing of Roman Josi and PK Subban the Preds have a balance of offensive firepower and defensive responsibility. They do have an issue though as one of their top defenceman in Ryan Ellis had off-season surgery and could miss the first half of the season. They brought in Alexei Emelin in an attempt to fill the hole but he doesn’t provide the same impact that Ellis does. It leaves some questions for the start of the season as they are simply not the same without Ellis anchoring the second pairing. On offence, the Preds are a bit of a question mark as well with good scoring but not the deepest scoring in the league. Last year the line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg make up a pretty young and devastating scoring line. The loss of James Neal and Mike Fisher take away some of their secondary scoring and replacing them with Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell isn’t really the best trade-off although not entirely terrible. The Preds have a top scoring line that can compete with the other great teams but beyond that is a fairly big drop-off. That lack of depth won’t sink their hopes of another great season though as the Predators will make the playoffs and make a run but it will be tough to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

st_louis_blues

They have been one of the top teams in this division for years but every year they seem to get nothing out of their players in the playoffs. It was a constant issue for the Blues as everyone knew that a team only has a certain amount of time to be truly competitive. Wasting those years and being eliminated without a chance at the Stanley Cup means that their entire team is another year without taking advantage of that window of time. stl-statsThe frustration built for a while and after a terrible start to the season in 2016, the Blues went in a new direction firing head coach Ken Hitchcock. He had been the catalyst for change in St. Louis but his time was up as the Blues began to slip. Heading into the new season the Blues are looking to Mike Yeo who helped manufacture the turnaround last year and will take over full-time this season behind the bench. There should be no worrying for Yeo about their offensive production this year as the Blues are a deep group with a few lines that can put up points. That group is led by Vladimir Tarasenko who continues to be a human highlight reel while putting up 75 points last year. Alongside Paul Stastny, Alex Steen, Ivan Barbashev, Jaden Schwartz and new addition Brayden Schenn this group is a deep one that can score a lot of goals on every line no matter the combination. The defence was always a strength for the Blues but lately, it has begun to fall off as they were not as effective as in the past. Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko are very good defenceman but neither can be on the ice the entire time. Jay Bouwmeester is good but ageing and not as effective as he used to be while Joel Edmunsson is good but might be thrown into situations he might not be suited for against better lines. The defence isn’t terrible but it is not their strength anymore and that left Jake Allen with a lot of work to do last season. It didn’t go well for him for a while and eventually, he was sent home to take a break due to his struggles. When the coaches change he began to pick things up though and was great in the playoffs. Depending on what Allen they get the Blues could be two very different teams as they need him to be good and hide their defensive issues. The Blues should be back in the playoffs but they’re not the great team they used to be so the Stanley Cup isn’t very likely.

winnipeg_jets

The excitement over the return of a team to Winnipeg is wearing away and the demand to start competing is only getting louder. The Jets rode that love of hockey in the city for a while and they will always get the support as the city knows what happens when they don’t. Still that loyal fan base wants to see a competitive team and they continue to add great young players but can’t seem to get everything working at the right time to make wpg-statsthe playoffs. They came up just short last year finishing fifth in the division just out of the playoffs. It was another frustrating season as their young players really stepped up but they still couldn’t get there missing the playoffs. Last season was a breakout one for Mark Scheifele as the young star was one of the first players drafted by the Jets but never seemed to meet his potential. Last season he finally looked like the player that many people thought he could be putting up 82 points. The Jets are going to need that development to continue in this new season as they look to the playoffs as their goal. Scheifele leads a strong offensive group of young talented players that can be very dangerous if all can step up. Blake Wheeler continues to be one of the more consistent players for the team while Patrik Laine showed some big things in his rookie season. All three can be top players in the league if they continue to develop while Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perrault can add their own points making this group a pretty deep one. On defence, the offence gets some help with Dustin Byfuglien as a veteran leader and Jacob Trouba as a young star in the making. Both can also do great things on the defensive side making for a good top two defencemen. Behind them is not as great but Josh Morrissey could be great after a solid rookie season and Dmitry Kulikov might not have the stats but can also be a good defenceman. There will be changes for who these defencemen protect this year as Ondrej Pavelec is gone and Steve Mason will step into the starting role. Mason is good but not a world-beater as he is clearly a stop-gap until they believe that young prospect Connor Hellebuyck can take over. It leaves one big issue for a team with a lot of talent and it is an important issue. The Jets are talented and young and they can win plenty of games this season but without a top-tier goaltender, it could be tough for them to make the playoffs.

Prediction:
The Central is never an easy division and there is plenty of possibilities that more than four teams head to the playoffs from the division. It is going to be a tough fight for a lot of teams at the top who won’t be able to easily take over this division. One thing seems for sure though as the Colorado Avalanche are not going to be a part of the battle. They are headed for another rebuild and they don’t have what it takes to compete with the other teams in the division. After that, there could be any combination of finishes for the division. At the top, it seems like a healthy Dallas team is one of the best in the league and they will take over the top spot with the Blackhawks right behind them. Then it gets even more interesting as Nashville, Minnesota and St. Louis all seem to be ready to find for the remaining spots. The Preds are still in their window though as they will move to third while the Wild will take their team approach into the playoffs with the wild card. The Blues might be able to take another spot in the wild card but it will highly depend on the Pacific division. Although Winnipeg does have the talent they will not be able to find the playoffs this year ending the season far better than Colorado but not as good as the Blues.

central-prediction

 

 

 

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