2017-2018 NHL Season Preview: Central Division

We finish our season preview with a look at the highly competitive Central Division. A big thanks to Patrik Lövberg, Damon Macioce and Phil Macioce for their contributions!

Central Division

Winnipeg Jets

2016-2017 Season Finish: 50-24-8 108 Points 1st in the Central. Lost to Chicago in round 2.

Outlook

Fast and steadily build in Winnipeg, will this be the year for the Jets? Many things are pointing in that direction and with the pick-up of free agency most eligible bachelor in Tomas Tatar the Jets have strengthen an already very strong core. Damon Macioce has been adding talent to this team for the past seasons and the Jets is now to be considered a top contender for the cup.

Offense

Already before the arrival of Tatar the Jets offense was strong and now they hold one of the best top-lines in the league with the Malkin and Jeff Carter who both joined Jets before or during last season. Besides Malkin there is a real impressive center core in the Jets with Schiefele, Little competing for the 2nd line task but with highly touted prospect Dudek and Chase Bailsy not being far behind. The wings are filled with grit and great two-way forwards and it seems there is a clear strategy for the Jets to have offense who can compete on all ends and aspects of the ice.

Defense

Young star Seth Jones joined the Jets in a trade with Columbus last season where Ehlers was dealt and he immediately delivered with a strong defense and a point per game production. Jones will pair up with Jacob Trouba who is another great young defender and the future blue-line of the Jets seems to be set top in the league for years to come. Second pairing is not too shabby either with offensive threat Dustin Byfuglien who most likely will play together with Erik Johnson who joined from Colorado mid-season and made an immediate impact. Veteran and leader Mark Stuart will complete the Jets defense with prospect Erik Cernak who competes with Kevin Connauton for the 6th place in the start-up.

Goaltending

Michael Hutchinson has had two really solid regular seasons as an NHL starter and could arguably be one of the most underestimated goaltenders in the league and could very well lead the Jets all the way in a Stanley Cup race. He most however do a lot better than the 2017 playoffs and below 90 in save percentage. Behind him Connor Hellebuyck is chasing the first position and with a 14-7 record and 92% he is really making a case. One thing for sure coach Macioce has options for the position.

Prospect Watch

Center Santeri Virtanen was taken by the Jets with the 26th overall pick this summer in the entry draft. The talented Finn plays a responsible two way game and is a great playmaker. Playing for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL, Virtanen took the league by storm last year with 85 points. Virtanen suffered through some injuries but was also to put up great numbers in the playoffs. The Jets really are excited to see how Virtanen develops over the next couple years but will need to be patient as he is still quite raw and needs to work on his strength and conditioning.

Key Player

It´s impossible not to pick Evgeni Malkin as the Russian on a good day is easily one of the most dominating forces on the ice. With 52 points in only 42 games last season after joining from the Devil’s it’s likely he will produce even more with an entire season together with the Jets and flanked by sharp-shooters like Tatar and Carter he will have a legitimate chance on the Art-Ross trophy when the season is summarized.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

2016-2017 Season Finish: 47-24-11 105 Points 2nd in the Central. Lost to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Final.

Outlook

Chicago was one of the top teams in the Western Conference last season making their way to the conference final falling in four games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the San Jose Sharks. Chicago looks to once again be one of the top teams in the league and is a pre season favorite for a Cup win.

Offense

The Blackhawks are led by Captain Jonathan Toews and high flying Patrick Kane. Toews is one of the top 2 way centers in the game today and provides the hawks with a true #1 centerman. Captain Serious is one of the great leaders of this generation on the ice and can be used in all situations. Patrick Kane is the flanking forward on the top line and can be relied upon to consistently put up points each season. The former #1 overall pick in 2007 is still only 28 and looks to be one of the top scorers in the league this season. Young Teuvo Teravainen has had two solid campaigns of 50 plus points and could be ready for a breakout season playing on the top line. Andrew Shaw and Kris Versteeg provide the hawks with gritty depth and are reliable defensively. Marian Hossa is now 38 but should still have a couple good seasons left in the tank, he has been slowed by a back injury to start the year however.

Defense

Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are two battle tested veterans on the back end and can be relied upon to play against opposing top lines and shut them down. Keith especially is still quite productive on the power play and has 5 more seasons remaining on his current deal. Chicago hopes David Rundblad and Finnish defender Valtterri Hietanen will be able to take some of the pressure of the top pairing and contribute more this season as they look to keep their veterans fresh and healthy.

Goaltending

Corey Crawford has been one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league during his time being the # 1 netminder in Chicago. Crawford has been a consistent winner since 2009 and had 9 shutouts last year. Chicago has peace of mind every time Crawford makes the start in net and the Hawks know they are able to play an up tempo game and will usually be bailed out by Crawford. Scott Darling backs Crawford up and will most likely see about 20 games this season.

Prospect Watch

Defenceman Ryan Shea has been a steal for the Hawks since being selected 121st overall in the 2015 draft. A mobile defender with decent size and strength, Shea has been a model of consistency for the Northeastern Huskies. Shea will continue to develop in the NCAA this season and could be signed this offseason. He most likely will need a year or so in the AHL to further refine his game.

Key Player

While Patrick Kane may drive the offense, Jonathan Toews is the heart and soul of this hockey club. Toews came into the league with a reputation of being a great leader and nothing has changed in his time in the NHL. Always leading his team by example and putting them on his shoulders when things are not going their way, Toews can shut down almost any player in the league while putting up top line points. The Blackhawks are wholly invested in Toews who is signed to a massive $10.5 million dollar per season deal through the 2022/2023 season.

 

St. Louis Blues

2016-2017 Season Finish: 45-31-6 96 Points 3rd in the Central. Lost in the 1st round to Chicago

Outlook

The St. Louis Blues were not able to translate a their solid play in the regular season into any playoff success last year falling to the Chicago Blackhawk 4 games to 1. While making some major moves at last year’s trade deadline, the team was unable to get any real momentum against the Hawks. They look this year to again be one of the top teams in the central division and reload for a longer playoff run

Offense

The Blues are lead up front by superstar Vladimir Tarasenko. Built like a fire hydrant, Tarasenko has an absolute laser of a shot and does not need much space to get it off.  Although Tarasenko regressed a bit last season only scoring 29 goals, the team felt like he was a complete player all season playing well in all three zones. Tarasenko has the ability to score 50 goals if everything comes together. Fellow winger Jaden Schwartz plays an intelligent offensive game and just needs to stay healthy to have an all star season. While not physically imposing, he goes to the dirty areas and has great hands around the net. Patrik Berglund and Brandon Sutter will center the top two lines and the Blues will need to get more out of each player. Neither are considered top line center-man and more thought of as 2 way centers. The Blues hope Sutter has more offensive upside than he has shown thus far in his career. James Neal is a nice depth piece on the second line and will sneak up on teams in games. He could pot 30 with a good season. Although there are not many youngsters expected to make an impact up front, the Blues hope Oscar Lindberg has more offensive upside than he has been able to show thus far in his career.

Defense

The Blues are led by the dynamic duo of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk on defense. Both are exceptional offensively and defensively and really drive the play of the Blues when they are on the ice. Shattenkirk suffered a scary calf laceration last season and was slowed by it when he returned late in the season. With a full summer to recover he should be 100% to start the year. Pietrangelo has become one of the top defenseman in the game today. Capable of playing in all situations, he is a beast and routinely plays 20 plus minutes a game. While his offense was down slightly last season his play in his own zone was Norris worthy and many were surprised he did not win the top defenseman in the league. Joining the defensive corps is 22 year old rookie Tommy Vannelli. Unlike Milli Vannilli there is no faking this guys talent. He is the prototypical Blues blue liner who moves the puck well out of his own zone, contributes offensively and takes care of business in his own end. He has started the year with 18 year old phenom Ian Blacker although some wonder if it is wise to have two rookies playing together. Blacker was taken 19th overall this summer and had a fantastic camp to make the team. He most likely will be given 9 games to see if he can stick or be returned to the London Knights before burning a year off his ELC. Petteri Lindbohm and giant German Konrad Abeltshauser bring up the rear for this solid unit.

Goaltending

It’s the Allen show in St Louis as Jake Allen and Allen York for a solid goaltending tandem for the Blues. Jake Allen is the undisputed number one and should see the bulk of the playing time if healthy. Allen had a solid year last year posting 26 wins and 20 losses with a 2.73 GAA. He has constantly been thought of as one of the top goaltending prospects while coming up through the ranks and now is the time for him to show he is a true top goaltender in the league. His 53 games last season were the most he had ever played and the team believes he can play 60-70 if needed. Allen York is untested at the NHL level and has performed adequately at the minor league level.  Should something happen to Jake Allen the Blues do have Jordan Binnington waiting in the minors for a chance. For now though he needs playing time and will be the first stringer once he returns from the injured reserve.

Prospect Watch

Michael Pastujov is a talented winger who joined the UMass Minutemen in the NCAA this year. Pastujov previously played for the US National Development Team and put up spectacular numbers in his time there. With a deadly shot and creative instincts Pastujov needs to work on his defensive game and first step while he plays in the NCAA. He looks to be about 3 seasons away from making any impact at the NHL level.

Top Player

Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the few players in the league capable of dominating a shift on his own on a nightly basis. While not overly tall, Tarasenko weighs in at 220lbs and is incredible strong on the puck. Also a burner, if he is not going through you he is already by you most times. Tarasenko is also very creative and has incredible hockey IQ often seeing plays develop before they actually happen. He also scored 11 game winning goals last year and is a sure bet to be on the ice when it matters the most.Tarasenko is signed through the 2022/2023 season.

 

Minnesota Wild

2016-2017 Season Finish: 44-30-8 96 Points 4th in the Central. Lost to San Jose in the first round.

Outlook

There are a lot of good players on the Wild but with no major moves in the offseason who will take that extra step needed to make this team a real threat for the Cup?

Offense

Nick Bjugstad joined the Wild during last season contributing with 25 goals and 52 points and together with fellow Americans Zach Parise and Jason Zucker are the ones who needs to have a great and produce the points for Wild. Behind them Minnesota is probably hoping to see Swiss star Nino Niederreiter building on his 62 points and +18 season last year. Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund both from Finland and both around 0.5 points/game last season will be looked upon for secondary scoring.

Defense

Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and Zach Bogosian are the ones leading the Wild defense since last year deal seeing veteran Ryan Suter leaving the team. They all put up good defensive stats last season but offensively the Wild might be missing some flair and production. Maybe youngster Dylan Labbe who had 64 points in 76 games for the Iowa Wild in AHL can be that guy and there is also 20 year old Gustav Bouramman who looks promising.

Goaltender

The undisputed starter for Wild and has been so for a few years now is Devan Dubnyk. Last year was yet another solid one but he needs to be more than solid for the Wild to take it all the way. Behind him as the everlasting loyal back-up there is Darcy Kuemper who had impressively 14 wins in 21 games last season.

Prospect Watch

Callan Foote is the son of former Avalanche great Adam Foote and if he is anything like his old man, the league is in for another couple decades of misery and pain. Foote plays a rugged game and is known for getting into the grill of opponents. While not noted for his offensive skills, he still managed to chip in 31 points for the Kelowna Rockets. Playing in a Kelowna which is noted at a junior level defense factory, Foote will look to hone his game further and work on his foot speed and passing as he routinely crushes weaker foes.

Key player

Jason Zucker had a great season 16/17 scoring 36 goals and 84 points beating his own personal high with 30 points compared to his 54 points in 2015. Can he continue to improve on his production then he can be the guy who take the Wild a long way.

 

Nashville

2016-2017 Season Finish: 43-31-8 94 Points 5th in the Central. Lost in the First round to Chicago.

Outlook

There are some real superstar qualities in the Nashville Predators but is there enough depth behind the top players for a successful season, that´s the question in country town this year.

Offense

A lot of offense is dependent on young Swede Filip Forsberg, not related to the great Peter Forsberg and more of a goal scorer compared to the playmaking Forsberg from the Avs. Forsberg was the top producer of last years Predators with 46 goals and 51 assists. Forsberg will be playing together with Ryan Johansen who joined the team in a trade with Columbus before last season and had a good +34 and 76 points start to his new team. These two really need to good for the preds and behind them someone needs to take big leaps and contribute with goals. Could it be Max Reinhart or maybe Russian Artemi Panarin who was picked up in free agency?

Defense

Shea Weber and Roman Josi could arguably be the best defense pairing in the entire league and the Predators will be counting on them both logging heavy minutes all season. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is a really solid second pairing and behind them young Jack Dougherty will be looking to make an impact after an impressive season in the AHL last year. Defense has been the cornerstone of Nashville for some years and this one is no difference.

Goaltending

Finland has been exporting great goalkeepers to the NHL for many years now and Pekka Rinne is one of the finest fins. Rinne who now has turned 34 had have 9 respectively 8 shoot outs the last two season and need to keep on with that style of play and stay healthy for this to be a fun season for the preds. Behind him Jusse Saros and Marek Mazanec will fight for the leftover starts.

Prospect Watch

The Preds are usually known for their defensemen but left winger Vitali Abramov has Nashville fans excited to add a dynamic winger to their lineup in the not too distant future. Abramov is a pure goal scorer with a great shot and high end skating ability. Putting up 45 goals last year in the QMJHL, Abramov returns to Gatineau for another season and should be among the league leaders in goals and points.

Key Player

Filip Forsberg had an all-time high 97 points season last year and this could be the season when he breaks the 100 mark. He has picked up an early season injury keeping him out of a few games making that mission harder but with the quality he has it´s still doable.

 

Colorado Avalanche

2016-2017 Season Finish: 37-38-7 6th in the Central. Did not make the playoffs.

Outlook

It´s rebuild time in Kurt Schulze’s Colorado but still enough talent to upset any team in the league on a given day. Last year there were major dealing for the Avs and especially with Tampa where Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and keeper Varlamov left and the talent pool was filled with top prospects such as Patrik Laine and Anthony DeAngelo as well as high round picks.

Offense

This season the Avs offense will be carried by Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog with support from Brayden Schenn who also joined Colorado in one of the deals with the lightnings. Patrik Laine will be a future star and will be interesting to see what he can produce already this season and young center Brayden Point is looking to take the place as second center behind Schenn. In the organization there is also highly regarded prospect Nico Hischier and Maxime Comtois who both were drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft. Lawson Crouse is another highly talented offensive prospect who might have an impact already this year.

Defense

If there is plenty of future in the offensive lines of Colorado to look forward to but the question is if defense isn’t even better? With Anthony DeAngelo and awesome offseason pick-up Derrick Pouliot is leading a range of talented defenders like Nikita Zadorov, Chris Bigras, Brendan Guhle and Cale Makar just to name a few. There will most likely be struggle in Colorado at least this season too but this defense will be feared in the league in the coming years.

Goaltending

When Varlamov left then Malcolm Subban joined and became the first keeper of Colorado and he did so really well with a 92.2% save percentage and solid play. He is still only 23 and the future looks promising also on this position with Calvin Pickard only 25 putting up good performance when given the chance.

Prospect Watch

The Avs were ecstatic to take Swiss forward Nico Hischier at 10th overall this summer in the first round. Some mock drafts had the shifty forward going higher or lower however there is no denying he is supremely talented and just needs time to develop. Hischier played last season in the Suisse pro league for SC Bern but the Avalanche were able to convince him to come to North America where he will suit up for the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. Hischier should be one of the top point getters in the league this season

Key player

He is only 22 himself but it’s still superstar and Captain Nathan MacKinnon who Colorado and Kurt Schulze will look to guide the future of the Avs and be the role model for young prospects that will become the cornerstones of this project. With 69 points last season he lead the team in scoring but he has all the tools to score even more and it would not be surprising if he continue to break personal records every season while the Avs are gradually becoming more and more competitive.

 

DALLAS STARS

2016-2017 Season Finish: 37-38-7 81 points 7th in the Central. Did not make the playoffs

Outlook

The Dallas Star Fanbase eagerly anticipated the 2016-2017 season given the amount of offensive star power on the team.  The Stars struggled to keep pucks out of their own net throughout the season though, and were second-worst in the league with 275 goals against.  Dallas will return both goaltenders this upcoming season, so the pressure will be on their shoulders to take their game to a couple more levels to get the Stars back into playoff contention.

Offense

The Stars have plenty of high-end offensive talent – well known names like captain LW Jamie Benn, RW Tyler Seguin, C Jason Spezza, LW Valeri Nichushkin and LW Patrick Sharp.  Jamie Benn led the team in goals (32), assists (44) and points (76) last season.  He helps form a formidable top line with Spezza and Seguin which compiled 189 points all together.  The 22-year old Nichushkin had 19 goals and 18 assists last season while playing all 82 games.  Dallas has another 22-year old RW Remi Elie who was impressive in his first NHL season with 11G, 14A in 54 games.  Both Nichushkin and Elie look to improve on last season’s numbers.  All in all the Dallas offensive unit is solid from 1 through 12.

Defense

As mentioned above, Dallas’ problem has been preventing goals, and it isn’t all the goaltender’s fault.  Other than elite talent D John Klingberg, the Stars are very average at best defensively.  Klingberg posted 16G and 43A while playing in all 82 games last season, but he is also a force in his own end.  Dallas will count on him to log a lot of ice time 5-on-5, power play, penalty killing, and whatever else they can throw at him.  The loss of D Alex Goligoski to free agency in the offseason will hurt, but they are hoping top prospects Julius Honka and Luke Martin will develop quickly to help the unit out.  Both are very raw, but project to be elite talents 2-3 years from now.  D Jason Demers and Jamie Oleksiak are solid defensive defenseman who can occasionally contribute some offense as well.  It seems the task of preventing goals will be challenging this season as well.

Goaltending

Dallas goaltenders Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen had rough seasons last year, both posting GAA above 3.00 (3.19 and 3.65 respectively).  Niemi’s save percentage was bad at .907, but it was outstanding in comparison to Lehtonen’s .877.  Both netminders need to clean up their game this upcoming season because they will need to bail out the defense at times (and vice versa).  The team will have to work as a unit to improve the overall play in the defensive zone.  

Prospect Watch

As mentioned above, Dallas has two elite defensive prospects in 21-year old Julius Honka and 19-year old Luke Martin (9th pick overall in the 2017 draft).  While Honka projects to be an offensive force someday, Martin looks to be more of a defensive specialist.  Both will take at least 2-3 years to see their potential though.  The Stars 2nd round pick in the 2017 draft C Tommy Zeglen also projects to be an elite talent, but probably will not be in the NHL for another 3 years or so.

Key Player

Jamie Benn – this is an easy choice because Benn leads the team not only in statistical categories, he is the team’s clear leader in the locker room and on the ice.  If Dallas were to lose him for any length of time – even with their offensive depth – the team would suffer tremendously.

Leave a Reply

css.php