Who will win the Central Division in 2018?

Stanley Cup Penguins Predators Hockey

Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

1. Nashville

It was nothing short of a magical season for the Nashville Predators and hopes are that 2017-18 is an improvement on that. The real question is whether those said hopes can actually be a reality. There is a strong argument that the Predators should have won the Stanley Cup last year. That was before Pekka Rinne returned to being a league-average goaltender pumpkin and their one too many injuries were not enough to overcome Pittsburgh. For the Predators to get better, they hope that the most underrated top line in hockey in Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson continue to produce at elite levels while the rest of the depth follows suit.

That depth will certainly be different, but it’s uncertain if it will be better. Colin Wilson and Mike Fischer have signed elsewhere and retired, respectively, and have been replaced by Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell. While Hartnell is a low-risk signing for an aging player that can still contribute from time to time, Bonino will easily be the addition observed under the biggest microscope. With a $4.1 million cap hit for four years, the 30-year old really used his two Stanley Cup rings as leverage on the negotiating table because the dude has only been able to produce over 40 points and generate a positive relative puck possession percentage once in his seven seasons in the NHL. Like playoff heroes of the past, he’s not talentless, but NHL teams time and again get burned by overspending on these guys and act like they never see it coming when the same players don’t live up to the contract. I worry that is what will happen to Bonino considering that he’ll be playing in a second line center role.

Still, Kevin Fiala returns to the team in hopes that his second full season in the league will be enough to make up for the loss of production from James Neal. Alexei Emelin also joins the fold of one of the deepest crop of defensemen out there while Ryan Ellis recovers from offseason knee surgery.

Even if you feel like the Predators didn’t do enough to replace what’s been lost for this season, general manager Dave Poile has really set himself up nicely with over $6 million in salary cap space with no one of prominence expected to have their next contract chew up on that figure. They really could use the trade deadline to their advantage should there be a lack of top-tier talent exist in certain positions.

No matter what happens, Nashville will continue to be a fun story in 2018. Whether they have what it takes to get back to the final is a story that is a bit more uncertain.

 

2. Dallas

Last season, the Stars went from being the most fun team in all of hockey to being the most injury-ravaged within the span of twelve months. Patrick Sharp missed all but 48 games while Jiri Hudler and Ales Hemsky combined to play fewer games than that. Lauri Korpikoski continued to be his usually terrible Lauri Korpikoski self and even Jason Spezza missed plenty of games this season. I haven’t even brought up how Antoine Roussel or Cody Eakin couldn’t even get to 70 games played.

Now, only Spezza and Roussel is still in Dallas from the walking wounded and all that cap space was used to bring in some fascinating reinforcements. Alex Radulov surprised all by signing with the Stars for five years and over $30 million after a fantastic age-30 season with Montreal. It is a massive gamble, especially as the right winger begins to have his point totals decrease, but as long as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are in the primes of their careers, it is a risk worth taking according to General Manager Jim Nill.

Along with that, Dallas spent big on Martin Hanzal to improve the scoring depth up front as well as hit and miss goaltender Ben Bishop with hopes that he can finally put an end to the Stars’ longtime woes in that department. Even Marc Methot comes in with hope to help Dallas’ defensive issues that plagued the Lindy Ruff era. However, those issues will mostly be cured by head coach Ken Hitchcock as he will implement such a no-nonsense approach that it will make the Stars look completely different from what they were recently.

When you include Julius Honka being added to the mix on the blueline, the Stars have the potential of developing a solid blue line with John Klingberg and the aging, but still reliable, Dan Hamhuis. This will feel like a completely different Dallas team than a year ago and they will be better because of it. Whether or not they’ll be good enough to hit the NHL’s elite is another story.

3. Minnesota

Outside of Washington, there was no team in the league that was so pinched up against the cap like Minnesota was coming into the offseason. For them to relieve themselves out of this mess, they traded Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella went down the Buffalo well again and shipped them there in exchange for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. The new editions are 100% a downgrade to what they had previously, even if it was to save up to $3 million in cap space.

That amount of money was used up quick to make sure one of the best two-way forwards in the game in Nino Niederreiter stayed with the Wild for five years for the price of $26.25 million over the length of the contract. That means that General Manager Fletcher will have to work with a roster that only has a tad over $800,000 in cap space and with 11 players worth over $3 million each in cap hits. There’s just no room for younger players to come through even if you think there aren’t any that could develop long-lasting NHL careers to begin with.

That being said, Mikael Granlund really developed into one of the better point producers in the league last season while Matt Dumba finally had the chance to prove his worth as a top ten draft pick come good. Both Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu were ageless wonders last season and Ryan Suter was not that far off from his usual production, but you seriously have to wonder if they ever lose half a step or two. The same especially applies with Zach Parise who’s only been able to play over 74 games in two of his five seasons with Minnesota.

Lastly, Kyle Quincey LOL.

I still think Minnesota is going to be good and I trust Bruce Boudreau to make this team work more than many of the coaches in the league. Whether they’ll hit the same elite levels that they performed last season, just doesn’t seem feasible now unless something drastic happens to positively alter this roster.

4. St. Louis

The season hasn’t even started and already it feels like the Blues are in midseason form when it comes to how many people are treated for injuries. Of all the usual names that you would see on the roster that is on the mend, Robby Fabbri is the biggest casualty. The 21-year old has gone from being a potential breakout star to now missing over a year and a half of hockey thanks to re-injuring his surgically repaired left knee. Along with that, Jay Bouwmeester, Zach Sanford, Alexander Steen and Patrick Berglund are all expected to miss extended periods with their respective ailments. While

While St. Louis’ depth is really going to be stretched to its absolute limits, there are still players on this team that will contribute massively to their efforts to continue to hit elite levels. Jake Allen really stepped up to the levels that are capable of him when he was one of the better goaltender prospects in the game. Vladimir Tarasenko is still around and Jaden Schwartz is a very dependable linemate for him. Paul Stastny continues to bring a solid two-way presence up front while Alex Pietrangelo will do likewise on the backend. Colton Parayko is a fantastic top four defensemen as is Joel Edmundson.

While the team is down many core pieces, a few of “AAAA” players in Wade Megan and Chris Thorburn will come in to fill their roles and hope to stem the tide while the walking wounded return to the lineup. Youngsters Samuel Blais, Ivan Barbashev and Vince Dunn will also hope that these are the opportunities for them to make a stake a permanent spot on the team after playing prominent roles with AHL Chicago last season. Barbashev himself produced well at the NHL level when counted upon in the regular season and postseason.

Lastly, I’ll be remiss if I forgot about Brayden Schenn, who came from Philadelphia in exchange for Jori Lehtera. While Schenn is a more expensive option by one contract year and is a weaker possession player, Schenn is a much more dynamic scorer and can produce at an elite level on the power play.

St. Louis fans will hope that man advantage will improve because head coach Mike Yeo is not one to be trusted in bringing in analytically friendly systems on both the power play and at even strength. For St. Louis to succeed under him, lots of shooting luck will have to happen, along with limiting shot attempts on the other end of the rink. It can be done since this team was previously coached under Ken Hitchcock, but we hope as hockey fans, and for Tarasenko’s sake that this team can actually be a little more fun once in a while.

5. Chicago

In year two of Chicago struggling to sort out its current state with the salary cap, general manager Stan Bowman hopes that the pieces he has in place is enough for them to make it back to their glory days. Instead, I fear that this will be year two of the beginning of the end of a once proud franchise.

Whether it has been Anze Kopitar now with Los Angeles or Connor McDavid in the future with Edmonton, there just hasn’t been any positive signs of a franchise player making more than $10 million per season leading to long term success, even though the NHL has to get to a point where giving such contracts are a portrayal for how healthy the league is as a whole. In this case, it is never good when two players from the same team are under such expensive deals, but here we are with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Surely enough, both of these players are in their late 20s and will probably never hit the primes of their career ever again.

Even if you think that Kane and Toews still have enough left in the tank, Chicago now only has $54 million left on 21 players on the roster. It sounds like a feasible task to at least field a competitive team, right? Well not exactly. Nine players make over $4.5 million every season and are under contract for at least three years. Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith signed contracts that will last over a decade as their deals were signed before the 2013 lockout agreement where such deals will not last beyond eight years. While Keith and Seabrook have been decaying stars since 2016, Hossa is now on injured reserve thanks to a rare skin disorder.

Once you get rid of all those exorbitant deals, you’re now left with 14 players for about $13 million. Yes my friends, that is less than $1 million for the majority of the NHL team. Ryan Hartman has become a solid contributor to the club as has Nick Schmaltz in their first seasons in the NHL. Along with that, Alex DeBrincat could be a fantastic find from the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft after tearing up the OHL last season. Eventually, though, these dudes have to become the future core pieces of the franchise and Chicago may simply not have enough money to keep every one of them.

That leads us to the Blackhawks dealing arguably their best defenseman in Nicklas Hjalmarsson for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy. That is a horrific trade when you look at it from the outside. On the inside, what else could Bowman do in terms of simply cutting costs and saving any future cap space. By the time 2018 is said and done, Bowman may need to replace half of their defense corps who are making a combined $2.675 million dollars. How on earth are you going to build something out of that?!

In the future, will they have to consider getting rid of Corey Crawford just to save up for the long term or even Richard Panik who genuinely has been a positive contributor as one of Toews’ linemates. Patrick Sharp did return to the Windy City, but just don’t expect much as a 35-year old who is just coming off a horrifically injury-riddled campaign. There’s a reason he’ll make $850,000 this season.

Everything about the Blackhawks screams fools gold about them and the core has been rotting for sometime now. After getting swept by Nashville in first round of the playoffs last season, I just find it difficult to see them get any better. Maybe Crawford plays lights out again, Brandon Saad returns to be such a high caliber star this year and maybe DeBrincat shocks everyone and wins the Calder Trophy. Other than that though, I’m just not all that excited about the Blackhawks.

 

6. Winnipeg

On paper, Winnipeg should be one of the better teams in the NHL. Mark Scheifele stepped up and become one of the better centermen in the league last season and Patrick Laine was an Auston Matthews away from winning the Calder Trophy. The rest of the forward lines also have solid pieces like Nikolaj Ehlers, Mathieu Perreault, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little. On the bottom six, you have youngsters Joel Armia, Adam Lowry and Kyle Connor who should continue to improve and be able to show what

On the bottom six, you have youngsters Joel Armia, Adam Lowry and Kyle Connor who should continue to improve and be able to show what they’re made of in 2018. In fact, someone like Connor could develop into a strong score first player after being such a major contributor at Michigan and at AHL Manitoba.

On the back end, the points are no different with Dustin Byfuglien still there with his cannon shot. Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba still provide strong depth as well as the improving Josh Morrisey.

If anything, it is the bottom pairs that are of concern to head coach Paul Maurice. Matt Hendricks is just not a player that will improve that part of the team and neither does Dmitry Kulikov who has dealt with too much experience playing defense only minutes on really bad Florida and Buffalo teams of the past.

Lastly, Steve Mason could be the deciding factor in not just Winnipeg’s season, but also Maurice’s job. The Jets simply have to make the playoffs this year and there is no excuse for not being able to do so with the talent they have. The problems over the years have been the systems play from both the discipline standpoint and on special teams. There is simply no excuse to see the Jets in the bottom of the NHL in both power play and penalty kill efficiency with the talent they have.

It may come down to having Maurice fired midseason and getting someone like a Daryl Sutter to come in and see what he can do with the all forecheck and shoot from everywhere style he implements. Until then, they’re going to have to sink and swim with a dead weight coach that may or may not make the most out of a genuinely talented roster again. That’s a darn shame for a city that loves its team (but hasn’t shown signs of being completely politically correct).

7. Colorado

In all fairness, the Colorado Avalanche actually made moves this summer to make the roster better. Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher will be fulltime NHLers this season and form a potentially solid third line with newcomer Colin Wilson. They essentially replaced one under-achieving Russian in Mikhail Grigorenko with another in Nail Yakupov, but at least the latter has produced in bursts. Sven Andrighetto really gelled nicely from a solid puck possession forward in Montreal into a top-six forward in Colorado.

Now there are still one too many problems for them to go beyond last place in the division. Half of Colorado’s defense has been changed within the span of six months and it’s not certain if any one of them are good enough to stay on the Avalanche whenever they become a consistent playoff team. While Yakupov is given another chance in the NHL, how many lives does this kitten have left, especially as a potential top six forward? Also, are we seriously talking into ourselves of Erik Johnson being a number one defenseman again?Finally, is Colorado’s front office going to hit a point of such impatience that they may en

Finally, is Colorado’s front office going to hit a point of such impatience that they may end up trading some of their best players just like Edmonton did with Taylor Hall? With only two years left on each of Matt Duchene’s and Semyon Varlamov’s contract and three years left on Tyson Barrie’s contract, it might seriously happen. After all, the Avalanche can never say that they have executed a complete rebuild because they never have drafted on masse the likes of which you see other great franchises pull off. So there is some sense to pull it off.

If they are able to make one major trade, I wouldn’t stop there. I would see what I can get out of every veteran that can contribute and see how many draft picks I can get. Anything short of a 2018 draft that gives me less than 10 picks is unacceptable and should be a fireable offense if the plan is not agreed upon. Then again, I’m not Colorado’s ownership group.

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