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Saturday, September 28, 2019

NHL Western Conference Preview-Central Division

We now start our Western Conference previews with the Central Division.

Nashville Predators  Finished 1st in the Central Division with 100 points and lost in the 1st round of the playoffs to the Dallas Stars.

What's to like The free agent addition of Matt Duchene adds more scoring to depth to the Predators and with the likes of Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Filip Forsberg, Victor Arvidsson, Craig Smith, and Mikael Granlund they could possibly have 6-8 20 goal scorers this year.  Even with the loss of P.K. Subban they still have good depth on the blue line with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Dante Fabbro, and Dan Hamhuis.  Pekka Rinne who will turn 37 in November is still an upper echelon goalie.

Concerns  Rinne has shown some slippage and did not play well in last year's 1st round playoff loss to Dallas and his game 7 debacle against Winnipeg 2 years ago.  The power play was dead last in the NHL last year at 12.9% so the Predators have to think that the addition of Duchene will upgrade that number.  The Predators had a spate of injuries last year and hope that is not an omen for this upcoming season.

Outlook  The window could slowly be closing but the Predators are still a solid playoff team and Stanley Cup contender if there is no significant drop off in Rinne.

Winnipeg Jets  Finished tied for 2nd in the Central Division with the St Louis Blues and lost to the Blues in the 1st round of the playoffs.

What's to like  Offensively not many teams can match the firepower of the Jets as they were 7th in goals last year and 4th in power play conversions.  With Blake Wheeler (20 goals, 71 assists), Mark Scheifele (38 goals, 46 assists), Kyle Connor (34 goals, 32 assists), and Patrick Laine (30 goals, 20 assists) they will night in and night out score plenty of goals.  Also Bryan Little and Nickolaj Ehlers could be 20 goal scorers this year as well.  Connor Hellebuyck won 34 games last year and is a steady presence in net.

Concerns The obvious concern for the Jets is on defense as three of their top defensemen from last year are no longer on the roster as Jacob Trouba signed with the NY Rangers, Tyler Myers signed with the Vancouver Canucks, and Dustin Byfuglien's status is still in limbo.  The Jets gave up the 5th most shots against per game and Hellebuyck was the only goaltender last year who faced 2000+ plus shots during the regular season.

Outlook  The Jets should still be a playoff team but to many questions on the blue line to make them a Stanley Cup contender and if the defense slippage is drastic this team could be on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

St Louis Blues  Finished tied for 2nd in the Central Division with the Winnipeg Jets and won the Stanley Cup.

What's to like  Nothing but positive vibes for this franchise with their historic Stanley Cup winning run. The chemistry should still be there with almost the entire roster returning. Jordan Binnington who did not start the season in the Blues goaltender rotation carried the Blues into the playoffs winning 24 games in 32 starts to end the regular season and was stellar again the playoffs.  Now they will get Binnington for a full regular season.   Defensively they gave up the 4th lowest shots against and have good depth on the blue line with the signing of Justin Faulk from the Carolina Hurricanes to go along with Alex Pietrangelo, Vince Dunn, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester.  Offensively Vladimir Tarasenko is still capable of having a 40 goal season and the offense overall could improve after being in the middle of the pack last year.

Concerns  Tough to repeat in any sport after winning a championship and the Blues will definitely have a bigger target on their backs.  The Blues this year can't afford to be dead last in points in January and expect to go on another historic run.  Binnington will have to prove he is not a flash in the pan for a full regular season after signing a huge 2 year contract extension.

Outlook  This is a playoff team but repeating will be a difficult task.

Dallas Stars Finished 4th in the Central Division with 93 points and lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St Louis Blues in the 2nd round of the playoffs in double overtime in game 7.

What's to like  Plenty to like for the Stars starting with goaltender Ben Bishop who despite injuries had a Vezina type season with a 1.98 GAA and leading the league in save percentage at .934.  The Stars made a big splash in free agency in signing Joe Pavelski from the San Jose Sharks.  Pavelski tallied 38 goals with the Sharks last year and you add Pavelski with veteran scorers Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov the offense should improve after being ranked 29th in goals last year.  Also Roope Hintz could emerge as a 25+ goal scorer and if they can get anything from Corey Perry who they acquired from the Anaheim Ducks and is sidelined with a broken foot it will also help the offense.  The Stars allowed the second fewest goals last year and features a good young solid core on the blue line with John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, and Miro Heiskanen.

Concerns Even though Anton Khudobin filled in nicely as the backup goaltender, Ben Bishop battled injuries in the regular season and playoffs and they need to get more than 46 starts from him this year.  Benn, Pavelski and Radulov are now all in their 30's and you can't expect Pavelski to match last year's 38 goals.

Outlook  This is a playoff off team and a dark horse Stanley Cup contender.

Colorado Avalanche  Finished 5th in the Central Division with 90 points and lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs to the San Jose Sharks.

What's to like  They arguably have the best scoring line in the NHL anchored by center Nathan MacKinnon (41 goals, 58 assists), Gabriel Landeskog (34 goals, 41 assists), and Mikko Rantanen (31 goals, 56 assists).  In the Tyson Barrie trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs they acquired Nazem Kadri who has averaged close to 20 goals per season in the last 8 years and also added for scoring punch Joonas Donskoi from the San Jose Sharks and Andrey Burakovsky from the Washington Capitals.  Goaltender Phillip Grubauer had a dominant second half in net carrying the Avs into the playoffs and will now be the #1 with Semyon Varlamov signing with the NY Islanders. Even with the talented Barrie being traded to the Leafs they have a future all star on the blue line with former Hobey Baker award winner in Cale Makar who you saw glimpses of in the playoffs last year as a 20 year old.

Concerns  Grubauer has never played a full season as the #1 goaltender and if he gets hurt untested Pavel Francouz would be thrown into the fire.  They are extremely young and inexperienced on the blue line with veterans Erik Johnson and Ian Cole still sidelined.

Outlook  Borderline playoff team who will probably be fighting it out toward the end of the regular season to get in.

Chicago Blackhawks  Finished 6th in the Central Division with 84 points and missed the playoffs.

What's to like  This team can still score as they were 8th in the league in goals last year.  Jonathan Kane finished 3rd in overall scoring with 110 points (44 goals, 66 assists), Jonathan Toews scored a career high in points last year in the regular season with 81 points (35 goals, 46 assists), and Alex DeBrincat emerged with 76 points (41 goals, 35 assists).  They signed goaltender Robin Lehner from the NY Islanders to be their #1 after putting up Vezina type numbers last year with a 2.13 GAA, .930 save percentage, and 6 shutouts.  They also tried to fortify their defense in the offseason acquiring Olli Maata in a trade with the Penguins and Calvin De Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Concerns  The Blackhawks gave up the 2nd most goals in the NHL last season and had the worst penalty kill percentage at 72.7%.  There will be a lot of pressure on Lehner to perform and no guarantees that the new acquisitions on defense will make the them better.  Also Kane and Toews are now in their 30's and not a ton of scoring depth behind them.

Outlook  Unless their is dramatic improvement on the blue line and in net the Blackhawks will not be a playoff team.

Minnesota Wild  Finished last in the Central Division and missed the playoffs.

What's to like  The free agent signing of Mats Zuccarello should bolster an offense that finished 27th in goals scored.  Devan Dubnyk is a steady presence in net who won 31 games last year and kept the Wild in a lot of games where they got shut out or held to only 1 goal.  Two big injury losses from last season defenseman Matt Dumba and center Mikko Koivu will return and should be 100% when the season starts.

Concerns  Jordan Staal and Zach Parise their 2 leading scorers from last year are 34 and 35 years of age who have battled injuries and are both in decline.  They will have to rely on some untested youngsters like Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway for much needed scoring production.  It is an older roster with some bad contracts who finished last in the division and head coach Bruce Boudreau could be an early candidate for the chopping block if things go wrong early in the season.

Outlook  Longshot to make the playoffs.

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