Who Will Win the Central Division in 2017?

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Samuel L. Simpkins/The Tennesseean

7. Colorado

Either last August was some of the worst news or the best news in recent Colorado Avalanche history. During that month, Calder Cup winning coach Jared Bednar replaced Patrick Roy as head coach of the Avalanche after Roy decided to leave due to “differences in opinion”. Maybe his feelings got hurt after being told that his systems were the worst in the league.

Either way, Colorado should be a different team than they were last season. Outside of the goaltenders, there are plenty of changes throughout the roster. Patrick Wiercioch and Fedor Tyutin come in to replace the miserable Nick Holden and the three headed monster that was Zach Redmond, Chris Bigras and Nate Guenin. Lots of pressure will be on the trade assets that the Avalanche got in return for giving up Ryan O’Reilly as Mikhail Grigorenko and his under-achieving scoring totals is expected to be in the top six while Nikita Zadorov is in the top pair with Erik Johnson.

Meanwhile, Joe Colborne and his unsustainably high shooting percentages, Ben Smith and Gabriel Bourque will hope to improve the forward depth that basically ended Colorado’s season when both Matt Duchene and Nathan Mackinnon went down with injuries. The evil Roy will not be able to poison this team anymore, but years of neglect at the draft and poor acquisitions still haunt this team enough for the rebuild to not be close to complete.

6. Winnipeg

While the Winnipeg Jets made one smart move in cutting Ondrej Pavelec, they took a massive step back by not resigning Jacob Trouba during the entire offseason. Now, teams across the NHL are wanting to trade for him because they know Winnipeg won’t give in to the contract Trouba demands. This is terrible management for Kevin Cheveldayoff as these should be happier times in Winnipeg.

Youngsters Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrick Laine are proving to the hockey world that they belong in the NHL and then some and either Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchinson will be massive upgrades in goal. The power play desperately needs to get better and Josh Morrisey will have to prove that he deserves top pairing minutes at such an early age. This season can go any other way, but keeping Trouba will be the most important story line for Winnipeg all year.

5. Chicago

Guys, Chicago might be in deep trouble. One of the most surprising things last season was seeing both Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith decay so miserably from a puck possession stand point. Now, they have to find a way to drink from the fountain of youth to make sure they can be counted upon as leaders on a team that has been through plenty of transition.

Speaking of awful things, they gave Marcus Kruger a three-year extension worth over $3 million per season. I don’t care if he’s the best fourth line center in the league, you DON’T EVER PAY FOURTH LINE FORWARDS OVER $2 MILLION PER YEAR. Now, he’s expected to play third line minutes. The salary cap management is so bad that Tyler Motte, Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostrosa, Nick Schmaltz, Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling are on this roster. If you knew all of these players before the season started you deserve a gold star, but basically I announced one-third of the skaters that are expected to continue to win Championships for Chicago!

Along with that, only Kruger and Brian Campbell’s one year deal are the only players on the team making over $1 million per year and don’t have a no-movement clause. It may sound like a knee jerk reaction to put Chicago so low after two losses to St. Louis and Nashville to start the season, but it can’t be stated enough how much the Blackhawks are in deep trouble. I’m not even writing out the fact that they might miss the playoffs.

4. Minnesota

After so many seasons of having such a miserable season last year where Mike Yeo refused to put his best lineup forward, Bruce Boudreau comes in as head coach hoping to deliver the best results since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have joined the team.

Both are entering their age-32 seasons and don’t have that much time to play some of their best hockey. That will mean the younger veterans will have to step up and help the team this season. Charlie Coyle will hope to do so by joining in the top line. Otherwise, there has been very little turnover for this team the last handful of years. They have been so close to the cap because of so many expensive contracts on the roster, including Suter’s and Parise’s and Mikael Granlund and Nino Neiderraiter are expected to be restricted free agents after this season.

The Wild have to figure out how to make their cap situation better if they want to go beyond the second round of the playoffs. Otherwise, plenty of pressure will be on Alex Tuch being the only prospect that could come in and make a positive contribution to the Wild mid-season.

3. St. Louis

After finally making it to the Conference Finals for the first time in fifteen years, there was a sense that St. Louis is finally ready for bigger and brighter things. Robbie Frabbri stepped up this season and Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz stepped up maginificently during the playoffs.

However, plenty of pieces from that successful team left during the offseason. David Backes and Troy Brouwer are both on the wrong side of thirty but they left voids along the top nine forward lines while Brian Elliott was arguably the Conn Smythe favorite after the first two rounds of the playoffs. Jake Allen now comes in as the starter with only Carter Hutton to compete against for that position, while the under-performing Nail Yakupov comes in via trade to replace some of the point totals left from Brouwer and Backes. To go along with that, Schwartz is starting another season on injured reserve after playing only 33 regular season games last year.

This could end up being a very important season for St. Louis as they are up against the cap with both Patrick Berglund and Kevin Shattenkirk facing free agency after this season. Do they try to keep both players or hope that some their younger players step up and find cheaper replacements. Big decisions will need to be made to keep this team competitive.

2. Dallas

It will be really hard to find a more fun and exciting team in the NHL other than the Dallas Stars. The power couple that is “Tylie Benguin” continues to excite the league and John Klingberg does his fair share of joining the rush and also playing a strong two-way game on Dallas’ blue line. Along with that, it is hard to find better top-nine scoring talent thanks to the production of Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Cody Eakin and Patrick Sharp. Along with that, Jiri Hudler could also be a nice addition to the team.

This summer, general manager Jim Nill acquired Dan Hamhuis to what the team hopes would be a final piece to fix a troubling defense last season. That being said, it will be very difficult to replace the on-ice production of Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski while Johnny Oduya did have a disappointing first year with the Stars. Along with that, their mediocre goaltending of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen is still intact. Lastly, Eakin, Hemsky and Mattias Janmark start the season on injured reserve.

Is this the last chance Dallas has to be as competitive as they are or will losing Sharp and Oduya to free agency impact them in the long run while managing a tight amount of cap space? Interesting decisions might have to be made.

1. Nashville

Thanks Mark Bergevin! The Nashville Predators are now everyone’s favorite team. Looking at this team on paper, it is very difficult to find any weaknesses beyond Pekka Rinne. Should we also mention that general manager David Poile also has a little over $5 million in cap space to work with? When you have Calle Jarnkrok and Matt Carle on the bottom forward line and bottom defense pairing, respectively, you know your depth is pretty good.

Along with that, both P.K. Subban and Filip Forsberg are among the best players in the league and are paired with players that could star in other NHL teams. It will be quite insteresting to see how well Kevin Fiala performs after racking up 80 points in 99 career games for AHL Milwaukee. If this team can avoid the bad PDO bug that they have experienced the last two years, the entire NHL can understand why this team upset Anaheim in the playoffs last season and prove why they deserve to be favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year.

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