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Photo Credit: © Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Central Preview: Dallas Stars look poised to return to the top of league’s toughest division

This is one part of a four-part, division-by-division series breaking down what each NHL team did over the off-season and projecting where they stand in the context of their division in 2017-18. I’m doing standings predictions from bottom to top. Also, give your predictions and rationales in the comments so we circle back and see what we got right and missed on at the end of the season. 

Welcome to the Central Division, likely the NHL’s toughest and most difficult to predict. When looking at an oddsmaker like Bodog, it’s clear this division is going to be difficult to win. Beyond the terrible Avalanche, the six teams in the Central are good enough to make the playoffs. Who’s going to get left out?

7th: Colorado Avalanche

Last year’s record: 22-56-4 (48 points)

Last year’s stats: 48.6 CF% (23rd), 37.1 GF% (30th), 6.3 SH% (30th), 90.7 SV% (30th)

Notable additions: Colin Wilson, Jonathan Bernier, Nail Yakupov, Alexander Kerfoot.

Notable subtractions: Mikhail Grigorenko, Calvin Pickard, Eric Gelinas.

The Colorado Avalanche were the worst team in the NHL last season by a damn mile. They won 22 games and had 48 points in the standings, 21 fewer than the Vancouver Canucks who were the second-worst team in the league. They also finished dead last in both goals for and against, so it wasn’t like their horrible record was some fluke.

There isn’t any reason to assume they’re going to be any better this season either. The Avs will go into 2017-18 with largely the same roster they had in their disastrously bad 2016-17 season, give or take a couple of minor additions and subtractions. Still, the realities of this roster that make it so bad — zero depth up front and a terrible blueline — weren’t addressed in the off-season. And, I mean, why would they be? This isn’t something you can fix over the summer with a few free agent signings. The process of dragging this team out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves is going to take quite some time.

Couple this already-bad roster with the fact the Avs are playing in a stacked division and it’s going to be another ugly season in Colorado. While the rest of the Central is very challenging to predict, the Avs finishing in the basement is a near certainty.

Another narrative to follow in Colorado is what’s going down with Matt Duchene. At the beginning of training camp, he said “I’m here to honour my contract. I’m here out of respect for the fans. I’m here for my teammates.” That doesn’t sound good.

Duchene’s name has been in trade talks for months now, but the Avs have yet to pull the trigger on a deal. I think it would be pretty shocking if he lasted the year in Colorado, but if he comes out of the gate and plays like he did for the majority of last season, the Avs aren’t going to be able to get what they want for him in a trade. It’s an ugly situation all around, not unlike most things going on with this organization right now.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice talks to his players in a timeout during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Boston, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

6th: Winnipeg Jets

Last year’s record: 40-35-7 (87 points)

Last year’s stats: 49.3 CF% (21st), 48.6 GF% (21st), 8.5 SH% (6th), 91.5 SV% (27th)

Notable additions: Steve Mason, Dmitri Kulikov, Matt Hendricks.

Notable subtractions: Ondrej Pavelec, Mark Stuart, Paul Postma, Chris Thorburn.

After the Avs, this becomes an impossible division to predict. The Jets, despite boasting an exciting young core with a lot of talent, still don’t appear to be ready to hop over the other veteran teams in the Central and into the playoffs. Because even beyond the strong Central, the pacific Division as I’ll cover in a few days, will have solid teams mucking up the wild card picture too. 

They got a little bit better this summer, letting Ondrej Pavelec, a long-time franchise staple from all the way back in the Thrashers era, walk in free agency. They replaced him with Steve Mason, who’s had an up and down career in Columbus and Philadelphia, sometimes looking phenomenal and other times looking terrible. They also added Dmitri Kulikov, who’s coming off of a miserable, injury-riddled season in Buffalo. Kulikov doesn’t bring anything offensively, but will add some depth and physicality on the Jets blueline alongside one of their puck movers.

The biggest improvement for the Jets, though, will have to be internal. Continued progression from the young core of Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers, and Josh Morrissey plus possible breakout years from Marko Dano and Kyle Connor could lead the Jets into the playoffs. But in the same vein, some sophomore slumps and weak rookie seasons could have the Jets towards the bottom of the West.

The talent is certainly there. On paper, this is a very intriguing roster, but we’ve been saying that with the Jets for a couple years now and they continue to have the same issues. At some point, you have to wonder if coaching is holding this group back. Paul Maurice has coached the team for three full seasons and has reached the playoffs in only one of them. Historically, his teams have struggled mightily with goaltending, meaning the Jets’ issues could be more based around system and in-game strategy behind the bench rather than roster composition and talent.

5th: St. Louis Blues

Last year’s record: 46-29-7 (99 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.2 CF% (15th), 52.7 GF% (11th), 8.4 SH% (7th), 92.3 SV% (17th)

Notable additions: Brayden Schenn, Chris Thorburn, Beau Bennett, Oskar Sundqvist.

Notable subtractions: Jori Lehtera, Ryan Reaves, David Perron, Scottie Upshall, Nail Yakupov.

It feels weird to leave a team like the St. Louis Blues in fifth place, but that’s the reality of this division.

The Blues are a pretty good team, more than likely good enough to compete a wild card spot, but they’re outclassed by the better teams in the Central. They’re also rolling into 2017-18 with major injury issues, as Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester won’t be ready for the start of the season, Patrik Berglund will be out until December, and Robby Fabbri is going to miss the entire season. That’s a lot to overcome for a roster that already isn’t overwhelming.

Last season, the Blues appeared to be at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11, but they fired head coach Ken Hitchcock, replaced him with Mike Yeo, and the team completely turned things around. They went 22-8-2 under Yeo largely because Jake Allen started playing like a superstar. Allen’s play also led the Blues to a surprising 4-1 series win over the heavily-favoured Minnesota Wild. Oddly enough, though, the Blues’ underlying numbers didn’t change dramatically after switching from Hitchcock to Yeo, so it’s difficult to say this change is going to result in long-term success.

The Blues didn’t really get better this off-season. They swapped Jori Lehtera for Brayden Schenn, which is an upgrade offensively, but they lost David Perron in the expansion draft and dealt Ryan Reaves to the Penguins and replaced him with Chris Thorburn, which is a downgrade. Like I said, the Blues aren’t a bad team by any stretch, but entering the season with injury issues in a stacked division is going to be a challenge.

4th: Chicago Blackhawks

Last year’s record: 50-23-9 (109 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.4 CF% (1st), 54.3 GF% (6th), 8.1 SH% (11th), 93.3 SV% (3rd)

Notable additions: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Connor Murphy, Tommy Wingles, Jan Rutta, Lance Bouma.

Notable subtractions: Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya, Dennis Rasmussen.

We’ve been saying it forever — this is the year the Blackhawks fall back. But it never seems to happen. With the never-changing core of Jonathan Towes, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, Stan Bowman weaves around the salary cap and Joel Quenneville puts it all together.

This year, though, it’s really difficult to see the Hawks making it work. They dealt Artemi Panarin and Nik Hjalmarsson in deals for Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy in order to add longer term contracts that make their cap situation more predictable. Trevor van Riemsdyk, Scott Darling, and Marcus Kruger became the newest batch of cap casualties to join the Carolina Hurricanes, and Marian Hossa will be going on the long-term injured reserve due to a skin condition. In some ways getting to shelf Hossa’s cap hit is a good thing, but he’s also a damn good two-way player who isn’t going to be easy to replace. 

All in all, it’ll be a new-look team in Chicago this year, which is something we’ve seen many times over the course of this Blackhawks dynasty. Actually, it’s sort of an old-look-new-look team, as Saad and Patrick Sharp are re-treads from the good old days. Still, the main core of this team is still around, the the Blackhawks have some interesting young players set to take on larger roles. Alex DeBrincat, who the Hawks drafted in the second round in 2015, will be looked upon to be a major contributor in the top six, while Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling will see increased minutes on the blueline.

After back-to-back losses in the first round of the playoffs, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators last spring, the Hawks aren’t the same Cup contender they once were during their hay day. But still, this is a team that won 50 games last season based largely on a very effective core of players and betting against them to miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade doesn’t seem like a good plan. 

3rd: Nashville Predators

Last year’s record: 41-29-12 (94 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.3 CF% (5th), 53.0 GF% (9th), 7.9 SH% (13th), 92.6 SV% (9th)

Notable additions: Nick Bonino, Alexei Emelin.

Notable subtractions: Colin Wilson, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, P.A. Parenteau.

Last year was a dream season for the Nashville Predators. The catfish-throwing-rock-and-roll hockey craze that’s swept Smashville was put on full display as the Preds made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Despite the fact Nashville’s run looked like a Cinderella story, they weren’t your typical eighth seed, boasting a talented roster led by one of the league’s best blue bluelines that underachieved in the regular season. This year, the Preds are heading into the season with major expectations and are the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Over the summer, they waved goodbye to veterans Mike Fisher, who retired from professional hockey, and James Neal, who was left exposed in the expansion draft. Neal’s role will be filled internally by the progression of younger wingers, while Fisher’s spot as the team’s two-way, second line centre was filled by the free agent acquisition of Nick Bonino. They also added Alexei Emelin in a post-expansion draft trade with Vegas, giving them a pure shutdown defenceman to play alongside one of their puck movers.

On paper, it seems Nashville’s roster is just as good as the one that was a sleeping beast that finally woke up in the playoffs. Like I said, they have an elite group of defencemen and an impressive group of high-end talent. Still, while there’s a lot to like on this Predators team, they aren’t without flaws. There’s also a reason they underachieved last year in the regular season. The Preds lack depth up front, really only have one dominant scoring line, and, while Pekka Rinne can be very good, he’s been up and down the past few years because of injuries.

They’re the team to beat right now because of their breakout performance in the playoffs last spring, but the Predators aren’t going to just sleep walk their way to another Cup Final.

Jan 31, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Matt Benning (83) defends against Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise (11) during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

2nd: Minnesota Wild

Last year’s record: 49-25-8 (106 points)

Last year’s stats: 49.3 CF% (20th), 55.8 GF% (3rd), 9.2 SH% (1st), 92.6 SV% (11th)

Notable additions: Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Kyle Quincey, Ryan Murphy, Matt Cullen.

Notable subtractions: Marco Scandella, Jason Pominville, Martin Hanzal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Darcy Kuemper.

It was the most Bruce Boudreau thing imaginable. The Minnesota Wild enjoyed their best season in franchise history last year, but got dropped in the first round of the playoffs. That’s been Boudreau’s legacy as a coach in his 12 seasons in the NHL — undeniable regular season success but consistent playoff flops that ultimately wash it all away.

The Wild were an interesting case last season. They got off to a good-but-not-great start, then completely caught fire in December, going on a 12-game winning streak that catapulted them up the standings. They played well until March, where they lost 10 of their final 16 games.

Throughout all of this, the Wild boasted very good even strength goal results, but mediocre shot attempt differentials. This would usually be cause for a ‘PDO bubble is gonna burst!’ alarm, but according to Natural Stat Trick, the Wild were better than anybody in the league at suppressing high danger scoring chances. That wouldn’t explain their league-high shooting percentage, but it helps understand how they were able to massively overachieve what their shot numbers would suggest.

On paper, the Wild have a very deep and strong roster. They’re loaded with big, good skating forwards who can chip in offensively and play responsibly in their own zone, though they don’t have one dominant star player. They also have a good blueline that moves the puck well, makes life difficult in the defensive zone for opposing forwards, and one of the league’s better goalies in Devan Dubnyk.

They also didn’t get much worse this summer. They had to jettison a solid defenceman in Marco Scandella in order to dump Jason Pominville’s terrible contract, but they got Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, a couple of intriguing players who could benefit from a change of scenery. I wouldn’t say they got any better, but the Wild are as good as they were when they won 49 games last year and should be able to be one of the better teams in this division. 

1st: Dallas Stars

Last year’s record: 34-37-11 (79 points)

Last year’s stats: 50 CF% (17th), 49.2 GF% (16th), 7.6 SH% (17th), 91.9 SV% (23rd)

Notable additions: Ben Bishop, Alex Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Tyler Pitlick, Marc Methot.

Notable subtractions: Antti Niemi, Patrick Sharp, Cody Eakin, Ales Hemsky.

The Dallas Stars went nuts this summer. They addressed their goaltending situation by adding consistent Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop, added another dynamic forward to their already-elite forward core in Alex Radulov, let defensive specialist Cody Eakin go in the expansion draft and immediately replaced him with a superior two-way player in Martin Hanzal, and acquired veteran shut down defenceman Marc Methot in a deal with the Golden Knights.

It feels like a long time ago because last season was such a disaster, but the Stars finished with the best record in the Western Conference in 2015-16, and it seems likely we’ll see them return to the top again this season with their recharged roster. This also all happened without them letting go of anybody major from their roster. Ales Hemsky and Patrick Sharp were solid veteran forwards on that strong 2015-16 team, but the main group that drove that team, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza, are still around. Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski were key catalysts on the 2015-16 team’s blueline, but Esa Lindell and John Klingberg with the veteran presence of Methot and Dan Hamhuis give the Stars a solid D-corps. 

Dallas’ offence is going to be given a major boost with the addition of Radulov to the dynamic Benn and Seguin pair, but the biggest improvement that’ll help the Stars climb the standings will be in the defensive zone. The additions of Methot and Bishop are important, but a lot of this improvement will come from the hiring of Ken Hitchcock for his second stint as head coach of the Stars. Hitchcock, who coached the Stars to their only Stanley Cup back in 1999, is notoriously good at squeezing the most out of his players and working a strong defensive game. The Stars have a very skilled roster, and so long as Hitchcock can get them to play at both ends of the ice, they’re favourites to win the Central Division.

**This is an article cross-posted on all of the Nation Network team websites. Please be reasonable with other fans in the comments.**

  • Mitch92

    With all the changes in Chicago I am surprised to not see any mention of Cody Franson who the Oilers might have done well to have signed themselves. Pretty sure he is going to sign for a couple of years following a strong preseason.

    • Skylardog

      StL has to look like a weaker team, but Mason is a big question mark. He was often outplayed by his backup in Philly, and seems prone to injuries.

      And that is the Jets concern. If Mason, or any of the big 4 forwards go down they are in a heep of trouble. Add Byfuglien to that list. Playoffs are likely a function of injury to any of the main 6.

  • Rusty bucket

    You should add Franson to Chicago’s additions. Word is he will be signed as soon as Hossa’s cap space is put on LTIR at the beginning of the regular season. Heard this from franny’s mouth himself back in August.

  • madjam

    Feel the Central Division weaker this year than at end of last season , other than Dallas which should be on the up from last season. Comparing what each team gained to what they lost here is my feeling on each . Dallas – up , Minn. ,Colorado and Winnipeg -same , Chicago , Nashville and St.Louis – down . The youth of Winnipeg might help them topple others from last season and Dallas should improve to be a playoff team . Minnesota should remain a playoff club . Chicago and Nashville may round out top 4 and 5 , with St.Louis and Colorado bringing up the rear . To be honest , Pacific might end up with an additional spot in playoffs this season .

  • Randaman

    Dallas looks very strong, both up front, defensively and in goal. They should have no problem finishing first. Colorado is a joke and they added Yakupov. Nuff said

  • camdog

    Dallas most over rated team in league. Hitchcock most over rated coach in league. The changes they have made won’t equate to a 30 point jump in standings.

    • madjam

      Hitchcock not over rated . He took a 6th place team from Gainey , and helped lead Dallas to 5 straight first place finishes and a Stanley Cup . On 6th year despite a very good record he was let go early , and so was R.Wilson who replaced him later that season with a worse record than Hitchcock had placing the team in 4th position . Tippett took over next 6 years , another very good coach , finishing from 1-3position in that time but not as successful as Hitchcock . Since their departures Dallas has been lingering in the 5-6 th positions under Gulutzan , Crawford and Ruff . Ruff did have a nbr.1 year two years ago at least . To say Hitchcock is over rated is wrong , he is quite an upgrade over Ruff , Crawford and Gulutzan .

      • camdog

        Did you read wiki to find that blurb? In Philly his teams under performed, in Columbus they underperformed and with all star filled line up in St.Louis the Blues underperformed in the playoffs. The last 10 plus years Hitch has over coached his teams, resulting in his own players losing confidence resulting his teams under performing. The same thing will happen this season in Dallas this year.

  • Oilerchild77

    The Stars will not improve that much. Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. Overrated team. Bishop is an improvement, but he’s not good enough to make that dramatic of an improvement to their place in the standings. Their d is still meh as far as I’m concerned.

      • madjam

        I’d add L.A. to that list , whom should do better this season with a healthy Quick and return to form of Kopitar and addition of Camallerri to offence . They might even finish above Flames for 4th spot , seeing as they were only 6 points behind them last season .

  • BendingCorners

    If Steve Mason plays well (and maybe if Michel Therrien replaces Paul Maurice) then WInnipeg should finish fourth and make the playoffs. The other 6 teams are in the right sequence. Last year was an aberration for Dallas.

  • leafdreamer

    Klingberg is decent and Methot is ok. Hamhius and who? Where’s the rest of the defence? Dallas has a pretty good forwards corps but that’s about it. I’m not so sure Bishop and Hitchock’s defensive system will be able to compensate for the lack of NHL-caliber defence.