Tuesday, August 29, 2017


By Adam Bernard

With the 2017-18 NHL Pre-Season a little under a month away, it's time to start looking ahead to what to expect for the upcoming campaign. With every team, the obvious best case scenario is hoisting the Stanley Cup in the late Spring. On the flip side, the obvious worst case scenario would be catastrophic injuries and missing the playoffs. I'll be going division by division and giving each team's realistic ceiling (not every team is an actual Cup contender) and floor for the 2017-18 season. Today we take a look at the Central Division in part three of the four part series: 

2016-17 RESULTS





-1st in Central

-Lost in 1st round of playoffs to Nashville

Until Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith aren’t their usual selves, the Blackhawks are always in the conversation to win it all. Yes they were swept out of the playoffs by the lowest seed to make the playoffs, but Nashville was no fluke either. For a team used to making deep playoff runs, last year serves as motivation to run through the league and win their fourth Stanley Cup in nine seasons. The chemistry between Toews and Brandon Saad picks up where it left off when Saad was traded to Columbus, Corey Crawford plays like a Top 10 goalie, the youngsters in the bottom six contribute, and Joel Qunneville becomes only the eight coach in NHL history to have four or more championships.   

The Blackhawks have too much talent to miss the playoffs, and too much pride to be eliminated in the first round again. But with the playoff format the way it is, Chicago could be beaten by any of the Central teams minus Winnipeg and Colorado (yes even Minnesota). The losses of Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Marian Hossa (injury) are a lot and could be too much to overcome. Patrick Sharp continues his downward production trend, the Hawks get no reliable contributions from the bottom six, and they find themselves eliminated in the 2nd round of the playoffs.




-2nd in Central

-Lost in 1st round to St. Louis

The Wild resembled their coach Bruce Boudreau very well last season. They were downright dominant at times during the regular season, but faded when it mattered at the end. St. Louis was a tough first round opponent for sure, but Minnesota only won one game. Devan Dubnyk has been a top goalie in the league the past two seasons. If he can keep that up another year, Minnesota can go deep. They traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to get deeper up front with the additions of Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. I think the Wild are good enough to get to the Western Conference Finals if everything goes their way (but more realistically 2nd round), but I can’t see them getting past there until Boudreau proves he can coach past that point in the postseason.

Devan Dubnyk plays more like the Dubnyk of the Edmonton/Arizona part of his career, the blueline misses Scandella more than they realize, Eric Staal starts showing his age, and Charlie Coyle doesn’t take another step in his progression. It’s a lot to go wrong, but any one of those things can have an exponential effect in a division as deep as the Central. The Wild could find themselves struggling in the wild card mix, with Dallas expected to be much better, and the fact that there are 4-5 legitimate playoff contending teams in the Pacific Division. I still think they’d get eliminated in the first round even if they qualified, but they could be on the outside looking in come mid-April.




-3rd in Central

-Lost in 2nd round of playoffs to Nashville

I may be one of the only people outside of the St. Louis-metro area that truly thinks this, but I think the Blues are built to win it all. Yes they lost Kevin Shattenkirk from the blueline, but Colton Parayko has been developing nicely and could easily fill the void. Them being a true championship contender is totally reliant on Jake Allen being the goalie he was last season after working with Martin Brodeur, not the Jake Allen from prior. Brayden Schenn is a perfect fit in St. Louis. Vladimir Sobotka picks up where he left off in the playoffs as a  reliable secondary source of offense, Robby Fabbri stays healthy the whole season, and Alex Pietrangelo is invited to hoist the Cup.

As I pointed out earlier, a small misstep in this division could have a large impact. Vladimir Tarasenko has consistently produced around 40 goals (37, 40, 39) the last three seasons. But if his production dips, only Patrik Berglund (who is out until December) and Schenn (w/ PHI) scored more than 20 goals last season. I think Allen has turned a corner, but if he regresses, Carter Hutton isn’t exactly a “1B” option. The Blues won’t miss the playoffs baring a catastrophic collapse, but their floor is a first or second round playoff exit. Chicago is always tough, Nashville beat them last year, and Minnesota and Dallas both have axes to grind after being eliminated by St. Louis the last two seasons.





-4th in Central

-Lost in Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh

Despite being the Western Conference Stanley Cup representatives last season, I don’t see them getting back there this season. Last season they had the advantage of being the underdog, this season they will have a target on their backs. I can see them getting as far as the Conference Finals due to their mix of young speed, and their blueline being one of the best defensive groups in the league (especially with Alexei Emelin anchoring the third pairing). Filip Forsberg needs to play more like the Forsberg from the second half of the season and Viktor Arvidsson can’t be a one-season wonder. That will also require Pekka Rinne to play like the Rinne from the first three rounds and not the one from the Stanley Cup Finals. Despite Carrie Underwood’s husband (Mike Fisher) retiring, the country music community continues to come out and publically support the team the way they did during the recent playoff run.

It wouldn’t be the first time a defending Stanley Cup finalist missed the playoffs the following season. But considering the Predators were the last team in the playoffs, and the fact that the Stars will be a much better team, they could be like Minnesota and find themselves in a multi-team race for one playoff spot and fall short. Pekka Rinne is 34, and he showed how bad he can be in Games 2 and 5 against Pittsburgh last year, and if those type of performances become more commonplace, it doesn’t matter what Nashville’s offensive is capable of. If Nick Bonino is only average, and Ryan Johansen can’t chip in more goals to fill the void left by James Neal (23G) being drafted by Vegas, Smashville will find themselves quiet from mid April 2018-early Oct 2018





-5th in Central

-Missed playoffs

The fans of Winnipeg deserve a playoff appearance (and one that lasts longer than a first round sweep), but I don’t see it happening this season. The only way the Jets sneak in to the playoffs is if one of the five teams projected to be in front of them in the division falters badly, and they would still also need help from a TBD underachieving team in the Pacific. Even if Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mark Schiefele are all better than they were last season (which is saying something), I still don’t think it puts them ahead of any team in the Central except for Colorado. The team is heading in the right direction, even if it’s at a grudgingly slow pace.  

The one thing that can do the Jets in for sure is goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck flashed some strong stretches, but overall was very mediocre. They brought in Steve Mason, who is a capable starting goaltender, but he’s not a difference maker. It’s also very possible that he stinks and the crease becomes the team’s obvious weak link. Paul Maurice is very much on the hot seat, and this could become another lost season in Manitoba. The fact they are in the second toughest division in hockey doesn’t help either. They should be able to get a decent haul for Bryan Little at the trade deadline if they are sellers again.





-6th in Central

-Missed playoffs

The Stars are no doubt a much better team on paper this season. They have an actual #1 goalie now in Ben Bishop, they added Martin Hanzal, Alexander Radulov up front, and Marc Methot on the blueline. Ken Hitchcock is back behind the Dallas bench for a second go-around and will have the team playing better defense. All of these additions were made to a team that already had Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and some other budding young talent. They have the talent to get to the Stanley Cup Final, but I’m not ready to put them in the elite class yet. This season will be a big step in the right direction to be a true competitor for the Cup in 2018-19.

Not to be a broken record, but it’s tough to move up in the Central Division. They will definitely be better than Colorado and Winnipeg, but they could finish anywhere from first to fifth in the Central. The wrong match-up could lead to a first round exit, but I would be shocked if Dallas didn’t bounce back and at least make the playoffs this season. Half of their blueline is still green (pun only partially intended), so some growing pains from Esa Lindell and Julius Honka could hurt them. If Bishop sustains an injury (he’s been fragile-ish in his career), Kari Lehtonen isn’t bad, but he hasn’t shown the ability to consistently play well beyond short bursts.





-7th in Central

-Missed playoffs

The good news is that when you were as bad (48 points) as the Avs were last season, it’s real easy to be better than that. Anything is possible, but I’d think the odds of getting struck by lightening while be attacked by a shark are better than those of a Colorado playoff appearance this season. A successful season would be breaking 65 points and putting an end to the Matt Duchene-trade saga sooner rather than later. Progression from Miko Rantanen, and better seasons from Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog would be a victory for the mile-high hockey team. The other bit of good news is there is only two season left on the injury prone Semyon Varlamov’s (roughly $5.5 million per season) contract.

The worst thing that could happen to Colorado (lets face it, to not be better than 48 points takes a lot of ineptitude) is if Matt Duchene is still with the Avs past this deadline (and he still has one more year left on his deal, so Joe Sakic doesn’t HAVE to trade him). Lack of quality talent on the blueline and in the net are two major contributors to Colorado being terrible, but Duchene constantly being on the trading block is a locker room distraction on some level.  Head Coach Jared Bednar could be gone by the end of the season (some Avs fans might consider that a positive), and Joe Sakic could also be relieved of his GM duties if his insistence of waiting for the perfect offer for Duchene doesn’t pay big dividends.

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