Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:
The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.
As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.
It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.
Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.
Here are a few factors to consider:
Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.
Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks
McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.
It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.
Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.
Key situations for the Nashville Predators
There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.
Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.
Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.
McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.
The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.
Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.
Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.
As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.
Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.
Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.
We’ve looked at the East and West, laid out our predictions for the 2019 NHL Awards, and even put on record our opinions for first coach fired, underrated and overrated teams and more. Now it’s time to talk about who we think will end the season as Stanley Cup champions.
Will the Washington Capitals drunkenly celebrate for a second straight summer? The Pro Hockey Talk staff doesn’t think so. Repeating is so difficult already, and both conference sport some very strong contenders looking to knock the Caps off their throne. We have an idea of who will win it all, but so much can happen over the next eight months.
Let us know in the comments who you think will win the Cup this season.
LEAHY: Predators. There needs to be a Stanley Cup celebration down Broadway, right in the middle of Smashville. Nashville has been building toward this and they’re going to have a difficult time fighting their way through the Western Conference. But for a team that’s strongly balanced up and down the roster, they’re going to be able to contend against the best offenses in both conference. Most of this team was on the Bridgestone Arena ice when the Penguins celebrated in 2017 and last year during their second-round series against the Jets. That chemistry and experience will finally lead them to a title.
O’BRIEN: Maple Leafs. I have some worries about regression for Connor Hellebuyck, and I can’t help but wonder if Paul Maurice is an average coach at best. Toronto isn’t perfect, but they are loaded with talent and just seem whip-smart. It never hurts to have two first-line centers, either.
GRETZ: Sharks. The Sharks went all in on this season and with this team and get to send Joe Thornton out as a champion by finally winning that elusive Stanley Cup after all of these years.
ALFIERI: Predators. This is the year the Predators finally get over the hump. They’re blessed with one of the best group of defensemen in the league and they also have enough skill up front to get the job done. Pekka Rinne (or Juuse Saros) will have to be better than he was last postseason though.
BILLECK: Lightning. They have all the pieces. Depth for days. Arguably the league’s best goaltender. Solid youth. And scoring that comes at will. It’s time they finally put it all together.
1. You’re Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. How do you handle the Panarin/Bobrovsky situations?
SEAN: I go all-in until the trade deadline. The Metropolitan Division will be a battle, and if you’re going to lose these guys in free agency, might as well load up for a Cup run and try to make your way through three rounds of playoff hockey. Kekalainen has the fallback of using the Feb. 25 trade deadline to flip them both should the season not go as planned. It’s a difficult spot. These are two huge pieces of your team and pieces that can help you win. No GM wants to have a Tavares situation and watch two elite players walk for nothing next summer.
JAMES: While Panarin isn’t interested in an extension and Bobrovsky’s situation is cloudy, Kekalainen received serious peace of mind by receiving an extension of his own. With that in mind, he – or in this exercise, I – can feel far more comfortable if it becomes clear that the best option is the nuclear one: trading both.
Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Panarin’s allowed Columbus much latitude here, so the question essentially becomes closer to “When?” than “If?” Here’s where Kekalainen and I might differ, though: if the best trade package revolves around “futures” rather than “currents,” then so be it. This franchise is restless about winning a playoff series, but with Seth Jones at 23 and Zach Werenski at 21, it’s not as if the situation is now or never.
Resolving Panarin-Bob in the best way possible may just come down to timing.
The Bob situation is a tougher call because an extension might not be best for the team, rather than the goalie. Bobrovsky is already 30. It’s fascinating that Bob might want the same deal as Carey Price, as Price’s $10.5M per year looks especially scary considering that the deal just began while he’s … 31. Yes, the same age that Bob would be.
If $10.5M was the rare, would Bobrovsky at least dial his term demands to a less-imposing range of say, 5 seasons? If I’m Kekalainen, those are the answers I would need. If the answers aren’t positive, then trading both might really be the best – if most painful – thing to do.
The thing is, people will wonder how you could move a $7.425M goalie, yet things get easier during the trade deadline. Also, teams that want to win get more desperate. What if the Flames are on fire (sorry) but Mike Smith goes on IR? What if things are coming together for the Stars, but Ben Bishop is on the shelf or in a deep slump? Contenders could conceivably offer a huge price to rent Bob.
ADAM: You have to let the season play out. Yes, the possibility of losing one or both of them for nothing as free agent sucks. But you’re a playoff team, you’re probably going to be a playoff team with them. As long as you have a realistic chance to do that you have to take a run at it and see where you can go. If the team falls out of the playoff picture by the deadline, or is on the bubble, and you are sure you can’t get them signed, then by all means make them available and see what you can get. But until it reaches that point you make a run with this group.
JOEY: I think you have to do your best to convince both players that Columbus is where they need to be. That might be easier said than done, but you have to pull out all the stops for these two guys because they’re the two most important players in the organization. Panarin put up 82 points last season and he’s still going to be just 27 years old when free agency hits. That’s a talent worth trying to keep. As for Bobrovsky, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for years now, but some teams aren’t willing to pay goalies top dollar. Still, Kekalainen has to do everything he can to make these players feel like they need to be Blue Jackets. This team still hasn’t won a playoff round, and they won’t be doing that anytime soon if they lose those two players.
If, for whatever reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t willing to commit to being Blue Jackets after they’re eligible to sign extensions on January 1st, Kekalainen has no choice but to move them both. Even if the Jackets are in a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose those guys for nothing in the summer.
SCOTT: If you trade them now, say buh-bye to the playoffs. Panarin is the only point-per-game player the Blue Jackets have. Hell, he was the highest scoring player on the team by nearly 30 points and the highest scoring forward by almost 40. Panarin is the type of player you build around, so if money is the issue, PAY. THE. MAN.
Of course, it appears Panarin doesn’t want to be there, so whenever the best possible deal presents itself is when you need to pull that trigger. That’s the reality of the situation. You need — NEED — to get the best possible return given how talented he is and what you’re losing.
Still, you need to try your damnedest to convince Panarin to stay.
And that applies to Bob as well.
Bobrovsky, like Panarin, is one of the best at what they do. No Bob = no playoffs.
But if it comes to it, they have to go by the deadline. You can’t do what the Islanders did last summer and watch your best player(s) walk for free. The return at the deadline probably isn’t what it would be now, or a month or two into the season once the injury bug hits someone in the league. A tricky road to cross.
2. Will this be Pekka Rinne‘s final season with the Nashville Predators?
SEAN: Juuse Saros appears to be ready to take over the No. 1 role in Nashville, but Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and has been such a huge part of that franchise for the last decade. I can see Poile wanting to keep the tandem in place in the future as long as Saros take strides and Rinne doesn’t take a huge step back. A short-term deal — a bridge-type extension — could be ideal considering their salary cap situation, allowing for a transition phase.
JAMES: With the Ryan Ellis extension settled, the Predators don’t really have any enormous contracts to settle for 2019-20 (although Kevin Fiala is a gem). With that – and Juuse Saros’ ridiculously cheap contract – in mind, Nashville could enjoy the basically unprecedented luxury of a gradual transition from Rinne to Saros over a couple of seasons. Goalies are unpredictable, so why not try to convince Rinne to spend more time with the only team he’s known? The guy’s made a ton of cash, seems to love Nashville, and could conceivably move on, say, after 2019-20.
There’s logic to parting ways for both sides, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this will be his second-to-last season.
Then again, I thought Ellis would leave for greener pastures, so take that prediction with a grain of salt.
ADAM: It certainly looks that way. His age, combined with the fact that his replacement is already in the building and will probably get more of a role this season makes it seem inevitable. He was a great goalie for a long time in Nashville but I think this season is it for him there. Eventually Saros has to play because he might be too good to keep on the bench.
JOEY: I know Rinne’s heading into the final year of his contract, I know Juuse Saros is going to push him for the number one job and I know Rinne struggled in the playoffs, but I don’t think the Predators will want to lose him. He’s been with them for his entire career and he’s been a valuable contributor throughout the years. On the flip side, he’s also going to have to accept a decrease in pay if he’s going to stick around beyond this year.
Rinne is scheduled to make $7 million this season. He won’t be getting that kind of money again going forward, but Saros’ new deal only pays him $1.5 million per year for the next three years, so the Preds could be able to “splurge” to bring back Rinne on a short-term deal. The 35-year-old shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave a Predators team that has a real chance at success over the next few seasons.
SCOTT: Ideally, no.
Ideally, the Predators find a way to sign him to a shorter deal that takes him to the end of his career and provides a smooth transition as Saros turns into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. A one year deal, even, given the cap crunch for Nashville doesn’t come until after the 2019-20 season when Roman Josi is going to need big money.
Of course, that ball is in Rinne’s court. He’s the UFA at the end of this season and there are teams out there that would want the services of a guy one year removed from winning the Vezina. How many would line up is yet to be determined, and he’s not getting any younger, but GMs take risks and Rinne is still a good goalie, despite his blunder in the playoffs last year.
Any short-term contract likely means a pay cut for Rinne, who really doesn’t need to take a pay cut unless he wants to remain in Nashville.
3. What level of regression — if any — will the Vegas Golden Knights experience this season?
SEAN: George McPhee did a good enough job refueling the tank this off-season that the monumental drop-off that many were expecting after last season shouldn’t go down. William Karlsson won’t be chasing a Rocket Richard again and Marc-Andre Fleury may play at a Conn Smythe calibre again, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny will help with scoring depth and they still have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to make a big splash to stay in the mix in what will be a brutal Western Conference playoff battle.
JAMES: Quite a bit, yet I believe that they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Losing Nate Schmidt for 20 games is a big blow, as the inevitable toll of injuries hasn’t even kicked off. That defense could be in trouble, for real this time. While the top line is very good, I expect them to at least cool down from last season’s “molten lava” state. The drop could be really steep for Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention “Huh?” successes like Deryk Engelland. On the bright side, it was brilliant to bring in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. They might just make the difference between getting in the playoffs and barely missing out.
ADAM: There almost has to be some. William Karlsson might be a good player, but he’s not 43 goals good. Marc-Andre Fleury is a really good starting goalie whose career has done a 180 from where it was five or six years ago, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that same level of play over another full season, especially at his age. I don’t know that Erik Haula is a 30-goal scorer every year. So there is definitely some potential for regression there. That said, don’t you kind of make up for that by adding players like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty? And even if the aforementioned trio does regress, they are not going to suddenly become bad. They just might go from great to really good.
JOEY: The Golden Knights lost David Perron and James Neal in free agency, but they replaced them with forwards like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which makes them even better (on paper at least) heading into this season. And, don’t forget, they had to overcome the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury early on in the season. If Fleury plays between 50-60 games, that definitely makes them better, too.
Vegas may not get repeat performances from every player that had a career year in 2017-18, but as a team, I think they’ll be more than just competitive. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Knights and Sharks are battling for the Pacific Division crown throughout the year. They know they have a first line that works in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and now they also have Stastny and Pacioretty playing a second-line role. This team will be just fine.
SCOTT: I guess this depends on whether you think all the career years that were had in Vegas last season were just a fluke.
I don’t. Vegas good great deals in the scrap bin that was the expansion draft and they immediately found some uncanny chemistry. George McPhee didn’t stand still over the summer, either. The addition of Paul Stastny was bigger, and then getting Max Pacioretty was bigger. Those guys can make up for any regression we might see from the likes of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
Remember, this was a team that dealt with crippling goaltender injuries and still managed to win the Pacific Division. I’ll stop betting against this team until they give me a reason to.
4. What team that is flying way under the radar and could surprise people this season and why?
SEAN: They came within a point of the playoff last season, and with a year under their belts with head coach Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers appear ready to take that next step. There are a lot of other teams in the East to get excited about, which could allow the Panthers to fly under the radar this season. Between Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov up front, and Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in the back, there’s a very strong core there. Add in the potential of youngsters Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom and Sunrise, Florida could provide us with a big surprise this season.
JAMES: The Florida Panthers have been the subject of ridicule for some time, but they looked like a dangerous team late last season. Barkov and Trocheck give them a one-two punch at center that can hang with just about any other duo. As brittle as Reimer and Luongo are, both goalies are capable. There are some great supporting cast members, and we could see the ascent of intriguing young players such as Henrik Borgstrom. These Cats can play.
ADAM: Not saying they will do it, but it would not shock me if Arizona really came out of nowhere this season. Their entire season was made last season when they got off to that terrible start. It is not a coincidence that Antti Raanta played in almost none of those games. When he was in the lineup they were not only competitive, they were pretty good. Now they have Alex Galchenyuk coming in, I still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player, and they have a top-tier defenseman. The Arizona Coyotes are my sleeper team.
JOEY: The Arizona Coyotes. Yes, I realize that they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the last few seasons, but they ended last season on a high note. They also had a positive offseason, as they were able to get Oliver Ekman-Larson re-signed and they added a talented center in Alex Galchenyuk, who could be a big-time difference maker once he gets healthy. Even though the ‘Yotes are still a little young, they could be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19. The fact that Antti Raanta looked a lot more comfortable in a number one role toward the end of last season is an encouraging sign.
Today’s NHL is all about being young and fast, and the Coyotes are certainly both of those things. They may still be a year away from earning a postseason berth, but they could still shock a lot of people as soon as 2018-19.
SCOTT: The Buffalo Sabres. Rub your eyes. Splash some water on your face. Pinch yourself. But the fact of the matter is the Sabres went out and made some moves this summer in an effort to get better. And they weren’t empty moves. Skinner. Berglund. Hutton. Sheary. Oh, and some kid named Dahlin. Sure, Dahlin was the product of a disastrous season, but he’s an immediate upgrade to their defence. Casey Mittlestadt should play an important role as well. I said it before, but I believe Buffalo have gone from the joke of the NHL to a team that could work its way into the *gasps* playoff discussion this year.
Pushing people up the ladder naturally means that someone must go down a few rungs, and that’s where this post comes in.
Before we dive in, please note: none of this is to say that these players are “bad.” Fantasy hockey is ultimately about value, which means making educated guesses about players who are being drafted too soon or being passed up by too many people.
Such a list, then, could be even more vulnerable to changes than the more optimistic sleepers and bounce-back years. After all, “reaching” for a goalie is a lot more reasonable if, say, there are five skater stats and five goalie stats in your league.
Look, if you make a couple of picks and then decide you just CANNOT DEAL with a lack of goalies, I understand. Just realize that, ultimately, I personally only view there being two semi-reliable “premium” netminders: Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky.
There’s a lot to like with those choices, yet there are issues. Rinne’s struggled many times during his career, and now he must fend off a fantastic backup/goalie-of-the-future in Juuse Saros. Hellebuyck was fantastic, yet has a limited track record, and no longer enjoys contract year motivation. Rask stumbled last season, Andersen plays behind an up-and-down defense, and Gibson’s dealt with injuries and might need to overcome a dicey Ducks team.
I like Martin Jones’ situation, and he’s fine, but I’m not blown away by him, either. If you’re considering a goalie with such a prominent pick, you need to think that he could very well win the Vezina.
In a way, it’s comforting that hockey fans still hold Price in a high regard, as it resists some of the “What have you done for me lately?” culture of sports. There’s also the chance that Montreal could exceed expectations amid another dour offseason of dismal moves by Marc Bergevin.
The overall picture of Price is too risky for a top-50 pick, as Price hasn’t performed that well and/or has dealt with striking injury concerns lately.
Quick had a great season in 2017-18, and if healthy, should provide volume, if nothing else. Still, this Kings team could regress out of the playoffs, and Quick’s track record of providing quality along with all that quantity is suspect at best. At least when we’re talking about premium picks. You could get a premium center like Jack Eichel or Mark Scheifele in that range.
“MAF” was absolutely dazzling last season, carrying over an honestly incredible regular season to an almost uniformly impeccable playoff run. (Sure, he struggled a bit against Washington, but Fleury was outstanding overall. As close to heroic as you can get … you know, stopping pucks.)
Still, MAF is 33, rounding out a group of older goalies (Quick is 32, Price is 31). With increased age comes increased risks for injuries and physical decline. Also, the Golden Knights could stink like they were expected to last season, for all we know.
Goalies are already dangerous to draft early, but this trio worries me the most of the top 50 ADP.
In Yahoo formats, Nashville’s first-line forward seems to settle into the 30 range (36 ADP), which seems more or less fine. I’d be a bit more excited about the ceiling of, say, Eichel or Scheifele, but we’re talking slight difference here.
At this point, people bash “Wild Bill” for being overrated so often, I now believe that he’s underrated. Karlsson has talent, and if he can stick with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, a 20-goal season is reasonable.
But he’s being drafted as if he can at least parallel his breakout(of nowhere) 43-goal, 78-point campaign, as his ADP is 61.3. Judging by other players drafted around him, instead of rolling the dice in true Vegas fashion, I’d recommend that you make sure you get at least one elite defenseman in this range, if you haven’t already. I wouldn’t be stunned if Shayne Gostisbehere (67.6) or John Klingberg (69.1) ended up being the top fantasy hockey defensemen of 2018-19, honestly, and they’d be much safer bets than Karlsson. Just saying.
I don’t totally dismiss the possibility that Talbot and the Edmonton Oilers are due for positive regression this season. The problem is that, much like with Carey Price, too-large bets are being made that Talbot will rebound, as his ADP is 75.
My guess is that a lot of people witness a rush on goalies, panic, and settle upon Talbot. Honestly, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Antti Raanta (a sleeper pick) has a better season, and his ADP is 135.7.
Now, if you’re confident about the Oilers and Talbot’s available around pick, say, 100? Sure, why not.
Lightning round of misgivings and worthy notes
Patrik Laine (6.8) – Is there some Winnipeg edict to try to get value out of players while also keeping opportunities down while they’re not under long-term contracts? If so, that’s cagey, kind of evil, and sort of impressive.
Laine is awesome, and he could easily justify being a top-10 pick, but the Jets give him limited ice time (his reps actually went down from his rookie workload by about a minute-and-a-half per night). Yes, Winnipeg boasts a bounty of talented forwards, yet it still feels weird that Laine gets the short straw.
Anyway, when you’re talking about your top picks, being sure is pretty important. Maybe he’ll take off CURIOUSLY after signing an extension? Hmmm …
Patrice Bergeron (41.5) – Like Malkin, Bergeron was snubbed from “The NHL 100” list, in my opinion. Both are great players, yet they’ve taken their lumps. Bergeron missed 18 games last season and already enters 2018-19 with lingering issues.
Brock Boeser, Mikko Rantanen, Mathew Barzal – All three are very, very good young players. Dazzling even. Still, they’re going very high in drafts, and there are slight concerns about them stumbling in encore performances.
I’m not saying don’t draft either one of the three, but maybe wait a little while.
Ilya Kovalchuk (77.8) – If you’re like me, you’re jazzed that Kovalchuk is back. It’s like a good friend moving back into town, only without those glances at your larger belly.
That said, Kovalchuk is 35. I’d rather let someone else fit the bill in case he doesn’t really “have it” as much any longer, at least in such a lofty range. Otherwise, you might get the same feeling with Kovalchuk as you do when you realize that you’ve grown apart from your old pal.
(Sheesh, this got sad all of a sudden.)
Corey Perry, Seth Jones, other recent injury worries – As always, be careful about injuries. Sometimes a player can have a Yahoo note next to their name that amounts to them having a broken nail. Other times, they could miss a ton of time. How much of a loss does Jones suffer for missing at least one month? That’s up to you to decide, but my feeling is “quite a bit,” especially since he might be nagged by the injury even once he plays.
Anyway, that’s enough mild negativity for now. Are there any “reaches” that really stand out to you in fantasy drafts, or rankings? Feel free to share your tidbits in the comments.
It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.
It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.
What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:
Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.
Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.
MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.
Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.
Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.
They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.
Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.
2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)
MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.
Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.
Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.
Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.
Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.
2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.
MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.
Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.
Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.
Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.
Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.
Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.
2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.
Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.
Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.
Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).
Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.
2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).
The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.
Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.
Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.
Better or Worse: Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.
And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.
Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.
Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.
2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.
MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.
Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.