Just as soon as the Chicago Blackhawks lost the two players that headlined their early 2010s dynasty, they got a new franchise savior. Is Connor Bedard the piece that puts Chicago right back into playoff contention? The National Hockey League (NHL) Central Division has other plans.
This division is far different from the stacked Atlantic Division. Three teams stick out as contenders, but are all the others pretenders or is there a diamond in the rough?
The Coyotes are certainly not a diamond in the rough. They are rough. Their best defenseman, arguably, is Sean Durzi, a castaway from Los Angeles. None of their active defensemen are signed past this season. Clayton Keller finally had his first point-per-game season (86 points in 82 games). No active goaltender on their roster had a save percentage above .910.
Maybe some of the young guns such as Logan Cooley, Dylan Guenther, and Mattias Maccelli can impress, but this looks to be yet another season of nothingness in the desert. The question, as it usually seems to be in Arizona, is what they can get at the trade deadline for their veterans. What can they parlay players like Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba, or perhaps players with term like Nick Schmaltz into?
Potential Arizona opening night lineup
Keller – Hayton – Schmaltz / Zucker – Cooley – Crouse / Kerfoot – Bjugstad – Guenther / Maccelli – McBain – Boyd
Durzi – Dumba / Moser – Stecher / Valimaki – Soderstrom
Vejmelka / Ingram
Projected Central Division finish: 8th of 8.
Connor Bedard will lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the playoffs… in a few years. For now, he finds himself on a team with significant holes to be patched and veteran players on their way out of Chi-Town. Sure, Bedard gets to play with Taylor Hall, but this is nowhere near the Hart Trophy-winning Taylor Hall from 2018. A good portion of this roster feels like a dream team from 2018.
Seth Jones is the rock of the blue line and bounced back after signing what, at the time, was a candidate for the worst contract in hockey. Connor Murphy and Nikita Zaitsev round out the right side on defense. Taylor Hall is a lock for first-line minutes with a supporting cast of Nick Foligno, Corey Perry, Tyler Johnson, and Andreas Athanasiou. Petr Mrazek is the starting goaltender.
While graduating prospects such as Lukas Reichel and Kevin Korchinski give Hawks fans something aside from Bedard to get excited about, this Chicago team is still a few years out from legitimate playoff contention. There are still growing pains to be had.
Potential Chicago opening night lineup
Hall – Bedard – Johnson / Athanasiou – Reichel – Raddysh / Donato – Dickinson – Kurashev / Foligno – Blackwell – Perry
Vlasic – Jones / Korchinski – Murphy / Roos – Zaitsev
Mrazek / Stauber
Projected Central Division finish: 6th of 8.
It might be time to hit the panic button in the Mile High City. Not only did the Avalanche fall flat in their title defense, losing to sophomore Seattle, but captain Gabriel Landeskog is out for this season with knee issues, perhaps for good. He missed all of last season with a knee injury, as well. J.T. Compher also got the bag with old rival Detroit, meaning the Avalanche needed to find a second-line center and fast.
They decided it was not Alex Newhook, as they traded him to Montreal. In his stead, they brought in Ryan Johansen from Nashville and Ross Colton from Tampa Bay. They also signed Miles Wood from New Jersey to be the rock of their bottom six for the next six years. Finally, Jonathan Drouin is reunited with Nathan MacKinnon and, thanks to injuries, might be his linemate at some point this season.
If this team stays healthy, they still have a good chance at winning the Central, but that’s the rub. The Avalanche lost 465 man games to injury last season and by the time everyone was healthy, it was just barely enough to win the Central. Players like Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin, the latter of whom missed the majority of the playoffs in one of the weirdest incidents involving an NHL player in recent memory, will be key in this season’s outcome.
Potential Colorado opening night lineup
Lehkonen – MacKinnon – Rantanen / Drouin – Johansen – Nichushkin / Wood – Colton – O’Connor / Cogliano – Meyers – Olofsson
Toews – Makar / Girard – Byram / Hunt – Manson
Georgiev / Francouz
Projected Central Division finish: 3rd of 8.
This team has sky-high expectations going into this season. Miro Heiskanen headlines one of the most well-rounded defenses in the NHL featuring Esa Lindell, Ryan Suter, and Nils Lundkvist. Jason Robertson was breathing down the neck of a 50-goal season and looks to continue his elite level of play. Joe Pavelski is back for what may be his last ride, though 77 points in 82 regular season games at 38 years old (39 now) says otherwise.
The Stars have just a touch of salary cap space to free up, but that will likely be fixed just by placing someone on waivers. They were smart in free agency, not making any extreme moves and instead buying low. Matt Duchene can thrive on a prove-it deal. Evgeni Dadonov is still serviceable as a third-line winger. Sam Steel is a good enough 13th forward with OK numbers.
The question for the Stars is whether or not they can get over the hump. They have the pieces to go deep and still have prospects like Mavrik Bourque and Logan Stankoven on the way. Peter DeBoer just had his best regular season as a head coach in fifteen seasons. If the Stars align, the Stanley Cup might make a return trip to the Lone Star State. If Dallas exits the playoffs early, a shake-up may be in order.
Potential Dallas opening night lineup
Robertson – Hintz – Pavelski / Benn – Duchene – Seguin / Marchment – Johnston – Dellandrea / Dadonov – Faksa – Smith
Lindell – Heiskanen / Suter – Lundkvist / Harley – Hakanpaa
Oettinger / Wedgewood
Projected Central Division finish: 1st of 8.
The Minnesota Wild have failed, try as they might, to escape the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs… again. Kirill Kaprizov put up another 40-goal season only to disappear in the playoffs (one goal in six games). Matt Boldy looks to prove his $49 million contract is worth every penny. Brock Faber will have a chance to stake his claim in the top four in his first full season.
The true revelation last season was Filip Gustavsson. He signed a very team-friendly contract this offseason that takes him to free agency. If he keeps up the good work, he may be the Wild starter moving forward. If not, Jesper Wallstedt should be NHL-ready in not too long.
The Wild are not the best team in the Central. They are a good team, but not a great team. First, they need to stay healthy. Joel Eriksson Ek played all of 19 seconds in Minnesota’s six-game series loss to Dallas. In order for Minnesota to win a series, perhaps two, everything needs to go right. For a Minnesota sports team, that is quite a tall order.
Potential Minnesota opening night lineup
Kaprizov – Eriksson Ek – Zuccarello / Johansson – Hartman – Boldy / Foligno – Rossi – Gaudreau / Maroon – Dewar – Duhaime
Brodin – Spurgeon / Middleton – Faber / Merrill – Addison
Gustavsson / Fleury
Projected Central Division finish: 2nd of 8.
Barry Trotz took a very interesting approach to his first-ever free agency period. He went the wily veteran route, signing Ryan O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist, and Luke Schenn to four-year, two-year, and three-year contracts respectively. It is also clear that, aside from O’Reilly, analytics are not at the forefront of Trotz’s approach.
O’Reilly defaults as the first-line center and he will have Filip Forsberg to feed pucks to. His support down the middle is interesting, too. Will Thomas Novak have another strong season or was he a one-year wonder? Will Cody Glass finally get his act together? Can Juuso Parssinen emerge as another threat down the middle?
None of these questions will mean anything, though, if Juuse Saros gets hurt or falls apart. Since 2020, this team’s philosophy has been “live by the Saros, die by the Saros.” Kevin Lankinen does not inspire confidence as a replacement and goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov, fun to watch as he is, may not be NHL-ready yet. This team, Saros or not, does not eclipse 100 points. The question is whether just north of 90 points will be enough in the Western Conference.
Potential Nashville opening night lineup
Forsberg – O’Reilly – Evangelista / Trenin – Novak – Tomasino / Parssinen – Sissons – Nyquist / Jankowski – Glass – Gurianov
Josi – Fabbro / McDonagh – Barrie / Carrier – Schenn
Saros – Lankinen
Projected Central Division finish: 4th of 8.
St. Louis Blues
St. Louis is difficult to get a gauge on. This team was beyond inconsistent last season and decided to trade away key pieces at the deadline. Out went Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly to teams going all-in and neither returned to St. Louis. Jordan Binnington had a season to forget as his transformation from playoff hero to complaining extraordinaire continues.
On one hand, the Blues could bounce back and make the playoffs again. They, for the most part, have a wonderful top nine headlined by young players like Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou hitting their primes. Their three centers are the aforementioned Thomas, Brayden Schenn, and newly-acquired Kevin Hayes.
Their defect is everything else. Nick Leddy, Torey Krug, and Justin Faulk have all refused to play defense as of late. Binnington has needed support from his defense and he has not gotten any from his blue line. The Blues’ prospect pool is also on the shallow side. The only three prospects with any potential to make the roster are Tyler Tucker, Matthew Kessel, and Scott Perunovich. Even still, Tucker and Perunovich have both played a season at the NHL level. Eight of the 20 players starting for St. Louis are where they need to be in order to be taken seriously as a contender.
Potential St. Louis opening night lineup
Buchnevich – Thomas – Kyrou / Vrana – Schenn – Saad / Neighbours – Hayes – Kapanen / Blais – Alexandrov – Sundqvist
Krug – Parayko / Tucker – Faulk / Scandella – Perunovich
Binnington / Hofer
Projected Central Division finish: 5th of 8.
Fans of the Winnipeg Jets are asking the same question WCW fans were asking around 1998: who’s next? Pierre-Luc Dubois finally got traded and instead of focusing on draft picks, the Jets got NHL-caliber players. Alex Iafallo, Gabriel Vilardi, and Rasmus Kupari are all great depth pieces, but when this Jets team inevitably careens off the cliff, their contributions will not be enough.
Who is the next man out, then? Is it perennial Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck? Will it be first-line center Mark Schiefele? Perhaps it’s Nikolaj Ehlers, or a pending free agent defenseman like Brenden Dillon or Dylan DeMelo.
There are two ways Winnipeg’s season can go. The first is they either barely make or miss the playoffs after keeping the core together. The alternative is they sell at the deadline and crater. The latter seems more likely, especially now that Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded.
Potential Winnipeg opening night lineup
Connor – Schiefele – Ehlers / Iafallo – Lowry – Vilardi / Niederreiter – Perfetti – Appleton / Namestnikov – Barron – Kupari
Morrissey – DeMelo / Dillon – Pionk / Samberg – Schmidt
Hellebuyck / Brossoit
Projected Central Division finish: 7th of 8.
Invest in your favorite athletes like stocks with “Prediction Strike!” Use code FANTOM when you sign up.