Central Division review: Unmatched Avalanche, busy Blackhawks, and more

Central Division review: Unmatched Avalanche, busy Blackhawks, and more
via Blackhawks on Twitter

Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Central Division.

Current Central Division Favorite: Avalanche

Yes, you can debate the Avalanche’s place as Stanley Cup favorites. Some might feel burned by making them the sexy choice last season, being that Colorado hasn’t managed that great playoff leap just yet.

But as far as the Central Division title race goes? For all the potential depth in the Central Division, and all of the inherent uncertainty of hockey, it’s hard to imagine any team even really making the Avalanche sweat.

Truly, the most realistic scenario would be injuries piling up. Really, though, we’ve seen the Avalanche prosper during recent years even without the greatest health-related luck. If anything, those bounces might go their way in 2021-22. If so, this already frightening array of mostly prime-age talent could get even scarier.

Sure, losses like Philipp Grubauer, Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, and Ryan Graves could sting. The Avs still look like the team to beat in the Central Division, however — and possibly the entire league.

(As an aside: it’s hard to believe that the Dallas Stars aren’t that far removed from a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Heading into 2021-22, it’s truly difficult to assign them as rising or falling. Instead, the Stars are just sort of … there?)

Biggest Offseason Move: Seth Jones/the Blackhawks’ offseason, in general

If the group is grumpy enough, you could probably start a fight by asking if Seth Jones is actually an elite defenseman. That’s a question that’s difficult to answer, especially if you’re inflexibly in favor of analytics or “the eye test.”

But just about everyone can agree that the Blackhawks went for it with Seth Jones. Before the sometimes-polarizing defenseman played a single shift for Chicago, the Blackhawks gambled on an enormous eight-year extension with a $9.5 million cap hit. That Jones trade-then-sign was part of an absolutely staggering gold rush for defensemen who may or may not actually be elite.

That alone would make for a busy offseason.

The Blackhawks didn’t stop there, though.

Eventually, Marc-Andre Fleury decided to play for the Blackhawks after they traded for him. For whatever reason, the Blackhawks allowed a nice young player in Pius Suter walk. They traded Duncan Keith, and also coughed up Adam Boqvist during the Seth Jones courting process.

It’s easy to forget that they took Tyler Johnson off of the Lightning’s hands. And, frankly, one of their best moves might be one of their quietest (investing in underrated former Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe).

It’s all a lot to take in, really. Almost enough to distract you from an extremely ugly lawsuit.

(If you’re talking about different kind of biggest moves … well, the Coyotes are now members of the Central Division. That’s pretty big, too.)

Central Division team on the rise: Blackhawks

Again, we can debate Seth Jones’ value into we’re Blue-Jackets-blue in the face. He could rebound to Norris-ish-form merely thanks to a change of scenery. It could also become uncomfortably clear that Chicago should’ve waited to see if criticisms were valid before that max-term, $9.5M per-year-commitment.

But the Blackhawks improved more than any Central Division team. Sometimes, it was “improving by default.”

  • Their goaltending survived more than expected in 2020-21, thanks to Kevin Lankinen. Aging or not, Marc-Andre Fleury is the defending Vezina Trophy winner, and it wasn’t just a reptuation nod. A MAF-Lankinen duo looks like a big upgrade on paper. Maybe a really big one.
  • Even if Seth Jones fails to justify a $9.5M cap hit that kicks in starting in 2022-23, the Blackhawks improved their defensive personnel.

Frankly, by trading Duncan Keith, they might protect themselves from their worst habits. When the Oilers traded for Keith, the most confident optimists projected better things in a smaller role. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks insisted on playing him as a 23-to-24-minute defenseman, even though his days as such had passed him.

It’s basically like throwing away ice cream if you simply can’t resist dessert. Those minutes can go to more appropriate players.

Really, the McCabe signing could enhance Jones, allowing the skilled defenseman to “rove” with less damaging consequences.

The Blackhawks might also get Jonathan Toews back, which is sort of cheating, but hey … that would be a nice upgrade.

Time will tell if the Blackhawks opened themselves up to long-term pain for these short-term gains. They should be better either way, though. (It’s just a question of how much better.)

If you want a runner-up: the Jets have a chance to look better on defense. The question there is the same: how much better, though?

Central Division team on the decline: Coyotes

Technically, some things do change for the Phoenix-then-Arizona Coyotes. They’re now in the Central Division after years in the Pacific (and one in the West).

On the other hand, the Coyotes continue to endure arena-related headaches. It’s telling, too, that it feels strangely safe to say that the playoffs aren’t much of a concern if the 2021-22 season really serves as the Coyotes’ final campaign at Gila River Arena in Glendale.

To casual observers, that dim outlook might look like more of the same. The Coyotes have struggled on the ice for ages, even if things sometimes look brighter than the off-the-ice drama.

[Glendale opts out of arena deal; Bettman, Coyotes hopeful to negotiate]

But, during the later stages of John Chayka’s doomed era, the Coyotes actually eye-balled the salary cap ceiling. They tried to make pushes to compete, including trading for Phil Kessel, and signing Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the sort of contract that made you think the ‘Yotes wanted to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, it all fell apart, and the franchise now is in a dramatic rebuild. They sold off OEL, Conor Garland, and other prominent players. While the moves honestly might be smart in the grand scheme of things — including maybe selling high on Darcy Kuemper — it paints a grim picture for this specific season.

Few expect the duo of Carter Hutton and Josef Korenar to steal too many games.

Under normal circumstances, Central Division teams might be bummed about an added team. For a nice run, seven teams vied for the three automatic playoff spots. Now it’s the standard eight going for three, but let’s face it: most Central Division teams will probably view the Coyotes as a chance to cushion their points totals.

In losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson, the Predators are at risk of declining, too. They didn’t tear it down like the Coyotes did, though. In the short-term, that means less of a decline for Nashville. In the bigger picture, they could end up bigger losers for taking very underwhelming half-measures.

With some savvy drafting and development — and maybe an arena resolution (stop laughing) — the Coyotes might eventually become a factor in the Central Division. Just not anytime soon. It could get ugly this season.

Blues, Wild face huge questions that need to be answered

Yes, this is a slow time for the NHL offseason. Merely look at this recent list of lingering RFAs, and you’ll realize that teams still have work to do. Central Division teams are not immune to having to-do lists looming in the distance.

  • The Wild still need to work out a contract for star RFA Kirill Kaprizov. To put things mildly, it hasn’t been a smooth process. Even if the Wild sign Kaprizov, the asking price might make it tougher for them to be competitive after the stunning Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts.

It’s fair to wonder if the Wild can improve upon, or at least match, last season’s breakthrough. That’s even with Kaprizov in the fold. Getting some answers on that issue will be huge.

  • Are the Blues going to be able to trade Vladimir Tarasenko? If so, will it be for NHL-ready players, picks, prospects, or something in between? If not, what kind of player can Tarasenko be … and can they at least coexist enough to get the most out of him?

These are crucial questions for a Blues team that’s experienced upheaval even beyond Tarasenko.

Jaden Schwartz signed with the Kraken. That expansion team also snatched Vince Dunn, whose value inspired debates for some time. You might argue there are still some growing pains moving on from Alex Pietrangelo‘s departure last offseason.

It’s not all bad, though. Pavel Buchnevich could replace a lot of value as a wildly underrated forward. In Brandon Saad, the Avalanche’s loss is the Blues’ gain.

Ultimately, that Tarasenko situation is a huge, potentially awkward wild card. Could a wild card also be what the Blues shoot for, or do they have a chance at one of the three Central Division spots? It’s difficult to say without that Tarasenko trade settled (or postponed).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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