2019-2020 Division Preview: The Central
Hey! It’s the one the Preds are in!
The Central Division in 2019 vs. the Central Division in 2020 pic.twitter.com/VOPDn7EFWX— Nick Morgan (@_nsmorgan) July 1, 2019
I don’t know if this is a hot take or not, but I’m going to go ahead and say this year’s Central Division is the best top-to-bottom in the NHL. I look at every single team in the division and could list some valid reasons why they’d finish first...and valid reasons why they’d finish dead last.
The Predators, of course, have won the past two division titles, and should be a favorite to win again. But don’t forget: five teams made the playoffs last year, and the two who didn’t only missed it by three games. Almost every team improved (at least on paper), and some of the league’s best up-and-coming players are playing in the Central. So if the Preds want to raise another 16 or whatever banners next fall, they’re going to have to win an uphill battle.
Let’s break down the teams based on last year’s standings.
Nashville didn’t make a lot of moves this summer. But what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in Twitter chaotic-ness.
P.K. Subban, of course, is gone...shipped off to New Jersey in what was basically a salary dump. With the extra cap space, they brought in Matt Duchene, who they hope will be the answer to the second-line issues that have plagued them for the past two seasons. He joins a young offensive core that includes two potential 40-goal scorers in Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, and an elite playmaking center in Ryan Johansen, whose 50 assists last year were the third-best in team history.
The defense, even minus Subban, is still the team’s biggest strength. Captain Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all held in high regard around the league. But the back-end has its question marks. Josi’s entering the last year in what’s proven to be one of the best bargain deals in NHL history. His next deal will be much more expensive, and with seemingly every team interested in his services, will someone else make an offer enticing enough to move Roman out of Music City?
The goaltending situation has its own question marks. Pekka Rinne is just one year removed from a Vezina-winning campaign. But he turns 37 this year, and concerns over his health have become more prevalent in the past few seasons. He still has something left in the tank, for sure. But how much?
Another guy whose future is unknown? Head coach Peter Laviolette. Lavy’s now in year six with the Preds; he’s made the playoffs every season he’s been in town and helmed Nashville to their first Finals appearance and their first Presidents’ Trophy win. But two disappointing playoff exits have fans restless.
All of that sounds kind of bleak, doesn’t it? Despite all the questions about the future, right now the Preds are still a playoff team, and if they can solve the mystery surrounding their secondary scoring woes, they can be a really GOOD playoff team.
How far they go in the postseason, though, will determine their future.
Hey! We have some breaking division preview news!
After a dramatic negotiating process that included a — let’s be honest — subtle shot at his linemates, Patrik Laine finally has a new deal.
2 years at $6.75 aav for Laine. Announcement soon. https://t.co/gwWN9rO7gD— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) September 27, 2019
The new deal will help solidify what was already a strong offensive corps with the likes of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. There is one big domino that’s left: Kyle Connor. As of this writing, the 22-year-old is still an unsigned RFA.
This year’s defense is almost unrecognizable from last year’s corps. Jacob Trouba is gone, as are depth guys Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Veteran Dustin Byfuglien is currently on a leave of absence and is reportedly mulling retirement. That’ll put a lot of pressure on newcomer Neal Pionk: a promising, but still unproven blueliner who will suddenly take on the role of #1 defender. Sami Niku, voted the AHL’s best defender last season, should also make an impact.
The Jets will hope for a rebound year from Connor Hellebuyck, following a disappointing 2019 season. Laurent Brossoint, who somehow isn’t from Quebec, will serve as backup.
Paul Maurice returns for his seventh season as the Jets’ coach, the longest current tenure in the entire division.
St. Louis Blues
True story: I started writing this article with the mindset of “huh...the defending champs didn’t really do much this year.” Halfway through it, the Blues turned around and brought in Justin Faulk: one of the league’s most consistent offensive defensemen.
He’ll join a roster that, honestly, didn’t need a whole lot of work. Most of the players from last year’s cup run return. Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko will lead the offense, while Captain Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko anchor one of the league’s best top-to-bottom defensive units.
The biggest spotlight will be on goaltender Jordan Binnington. His epic rookie campaign (24-5-0-1 with a 1.89 GAA) helped spark St. Louis’s “worst to first” turnaround. But now that he’s “the guy” for an entire season, can he keep up his high level of play? Or will he join the likes of Steve Mason and Andrew Raycroft, who cooled down after sensational rookie years?
The only key losses for the team are playoff hero Pat Maroon (10 goals and 28 points last season) and bottom-pair defender Joel Edmundson. 24-year-old Zach Sanford should step into a bigger role on offense with Sanford gone.
Craig Berube is technically entering his first season as the team’s full-time head coach. He lost his “interim” title after winning the Stanley Cup because yeah that’s probably a reasonable thing to do.
After being the division’s “team on the rise” for the past four seasons, the Stars finally showed flashes of the team they’re supposed to be during last season’s playoff run. They outplayed the Predators in Round 1, and were just one OT goal short of knocking the eventual champs in St. Louis out of the second. And the scary thing? They should be much be better this season. Key word: should.
Much like the Preds, Dallas’s strength is in the back end. Ben Bishop (1.98 GAA and .934 save% last season) is in the conversation for best goalie in the league when he’s healthy. 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a legitimate future superstar, and his defense partner, John Klingberg, would be a #1 on at least half the other teams in the league.
Up front, the Stars relied heavily on the line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, but they didn’t get a lot of scoring help from the rest of the roster. To fix that this season, Dallas brings in veterans Joe Pavelski (38 goals last season) and Corey Perry. Roope Hintz will also be expected to step up his game after a good showing in the playoffs (5 goals and 13 points).
The potential’s there, but we say that every year with Dallas it seems. Is this finally the combination that helps the Stars break through to “contender” status? Or was last season’s run just a flash in the pan, similar to 2016?
The head coach is Jim Montgomery, now in year two with the Stars.
GM Joe Sakic said the goal this offseason was to put the Avs in position to win the Stanley Cup this season. And objectively speaking, they might have the tools to do it...or, at the very least, make it to the Finals.
It’s not a hot take to call Nathan MacKinnon one of the five best players in the NHL right now. He’s coming off the best year of his career with 41 goals and 99 points, and he’s centering what NHL.com called the second-best top line in the league. Of course, that’s assuming Mikko Rantanen returns within the next few weeks. The 22-year-old is still an unsigned RFA after a career year of his own. Rantanen’s been practicing with SC Bern (aka the Fightin’ Roman Josis), but after recent deals by fellow RFAs Brayden Point and Matthew Tkachuk, there’s optimism he could return to Mile High Country in the near future.
Sakic spent the offseason trying to build some depth beyond the top line. The biggest move was trading for Nazem Kadri, who’ll anchor the Avs’ second line. They lost Alexander Kerfoot (42 points last season) in the deal with Toronto, but Colorado hopes the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will offset that loss.
The defense will be the wild card this season. Cale Makar, last year’s Hobey Baker winner, wowed fans with his short debut stint in last year’s postseason. He’ll be thrust into an even bigger role this season, as will 21-year-old former Pred Samuel Girard, who’ll join Erik Johnson on the top pairing. However, the Avs lose last year’s #1 defender Tyson Barrie (sent to Toronto in the Kadri deal), and veteran Ian Cole will likely miss the first couple of months due to injury.
Another big question will be if Philipp Grubauer is ready to be the full-time starting goalie. Last year, he split time with Semyon Varlamov (who signed with the Islanders this summer) and had an impressive playoff run. But he’s never played more than 37 games in a season.
Head Coach Jared Bednar returns for his fourth season with the Avalanche.
After two straight years of missing the playoffs, the Blackhawks might be due-due-due... due-due-due...due-due-dudududue for a return.
Get it?...cuz...the goal song... *ahem* Anyway, let’s move on.
We all know what the Hawks bring to the table. Patrick Kane (44 goals, 110 points last year) is a perennial MVP candidate. Jonathan Toews is coming off a career high in points (81 last season) and 21-year-old Alex DeBrincat (41 goals last season) may be the most overlooked rising superstar in the league.
The rest of the roster though? It’s a wild card year-to-year.
The issues start in the defensive zone. The Blackhawks gave up 291 goals last season... second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the Senators. Duncan Keith is still putting up decent offensive numbers at age 36, but it’s clear he can’t handle the defensive load on his own. And Brent Seabrook is...well...let’s just say he’s not living up to his 8-year contract.
All of that was the focal point behind the Blackhawks’ biggest offseason moves, starting with goaltender Robin Lehner. The 28-year-old signed a one-year “prove-it” deal after a banner year with the Islanders (he won the William Jennings Trophy and finished third in Vezina voting). How he’ll split time with Corey Crawford remains to be seen. The additions of Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan should also help shore up the blueline.
Up front, look for Dylan Strome (57 points last season) and the newly acquired Alex Nylander to take on bigger roles this season. Also, Andrew Shaw is back, so prepare yourself for more shenanigans.
Jeremy Colliton, who took over the team last November after long-time coach Joel Quenneville’s dismissal, returns for his second season.
Last but not least, we have the Wild. And whooooooo boy what a fun offseason it’s been in Minnesota.
It started with the team signing Mats Zuccarello, one of the five best free agents to hit the open market. That evolved into GM Paul Fenton making a weird comment about lizards...
"I told him when I was talking to him that he's like a lizard, the way a lizard takes his tongue and sticks it as far as it does and retrieves what it was trying to do." — GM Paul Fenton on @Zuccarello36— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) July 1, 2019
📰 → https://t.co/2V4Lig6AeV #mnwild pic.twitter.com/2tjfFXo1GJ
...and less than a month later, Fenton was gone; fired after just one season filled with questionable roster moves and organizational in-fighting.
One the ice, however, things are a bit more stable, at least in terms of personnel. 12 of last year’s 15 leading scorers are back (the only exceptions being Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Nino Niederreiter... all of whom were traded at the deadline). That includes leading scorer Zach Parise (coming off his best season since 2015) and Eric Staal, who’s enjoyed a career renaissance in his three seasons in Minnesota. Ryan Suter is still reliable on both ends of the ice, while captain Mikko Koivu remains one of the better defensive forwards in the league.
But do you notice a problem with this entry so far? All of those key players in the last paragraph are 34 years old or over. Zuccarello is 32. Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk turns 34 this year. But if Minnesota wants to start building momentum for the future, they need their younger players to start transitioning into the “main” roles, especially if Jared Spurgeon, 29, decides to test free agency next summer.
Matt Dumba will be one of those guys to watch. The 25-year-old was on pace for a career season before a chest injury cut his season to just 32 games. Up front, Jason Zucker will look to shake off a season filled with trade-talk distractions and regain his 33-goal form from 2018. 21-year-old Luke Kunin should move into a top-six role this year, while top prospect Ryan Donato could fill in nicely on a third-line/power play specialist role.
Bruce Boudreau, who may have the hottest seat among the Central’s head coaches, is entering his fourth season with the Wild.
Best Move: Blues Acquire Justin Faulk
The Blues’ defense.... wow.
The team essentially upgraded Joel Edmundson to a guy who averaged 22 minutes of ice time per game last year, and statistically speaking, has been one of the league’s most consistent defenders in terms of creating offense. Add him to a group that already includes Pietrangelo and Parayko? That’s a recipe for another Cup run.
Worst Move: The Jets’ return for Jacob Trouba
It’s not that Neal Pionk is a bad player, in fact, he’ll probably develop into a nice top-four defender. But when your franchise defender is on the block, you have to get more in return.
The Jets needed a defender to replace Trouba, sure. But if you can’t find a sure-fire #1 prospect in return, why not demand another piece? Or try to get someone like Filip Chytil?
Of course, now that I say this, Pionk will probably become a four-time Norris winner.
Like I said earlier, you could make a case for pretty much every team making a long postseason run... and a case for every team becoming a dumpster fire.
I like the potential of the Avalanche, especially if Makar has the type of rookie season I think he’ll have. I’ll go a little more in depth with my Preds predictions when we do our OTF staff picks, but the talent’s there for another deep run. I think St. Louis rounds out the top 3, and after that, it’s a toss up.
One thing’s for sure. This will probably be the NHL’s best top-to-bottom division.
What say you?
Who will win the Central Division in 2019-2020?