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.

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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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.