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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Q&A: Stars’ Tyler Seguin on Stanley Cup window, offseason motivation

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Tyler Seguin met Joe Pavelski for the first time this week as the two are in Lake Tahoe for the annual American Century Championship golf tournament. In a group together with T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals, the Dallas Stars forward will have plenty of time to get to know his newest teammate a little better nearly two weeks after Pavelski signed a three-year deal to leave the San Jose Sharks.

As Pavelski went through the free agency interview period at the end of June, Seguin, along with Jamie Benn, reached out via text on behalf of the Stars to answer any questions about the organization and the Dallas area.

“You try to not make it too much recruiting,” Seguin told NBC Sports on Thursday. “It’s not always been my style, but I just touched base with him about this tournament and obviously said I heard you’re in Dallas, if you have any questions [let me know]. We talked a little bit. We’re ecstatic that he joined our team, he’s a huge addition for us. Looking forward to the season and getting things started.”

Pavelski was one of three big additions by Stars general manager this offseason. Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera were also been brought in to add to depth up front and on the blue line.

Seguin said he is happy to have career shift-disturber Perry, who was bought out by the Anaheim Ducks in June, on his side. He’s also eager to have these additions help the Stars build off a strong year that saw them an overtime goal away from reaching the Western Conference Final.

“I think our team’s a competitor,” Seguin said. “I want people saying we’re a competitor. I want our expectations to be very high. I think we’ve always had excuses when it’s come to new coaches or a new staff. But there should be no more excuses. We had a good team last year and I think the Twitterverse said that we needed a couple more guys that could score goals, so we answered the Twitter bell as far as our acquisitions this year. You know, let’s go. We’re all-in, I’m all-in and looking forward to a great year.”

We caught up with Seguin this week to talk about his golf game, this past season in Dallas, the secret being out on Miro Heiskanen and more.

Enjoy.

PHT: How is your golf game these days?

SEGUIN: “Very average. I can play but I usually play around a 13, 14 handicap. I’m just out here for a good time, get to see people. It’s been exciting.”

PHT: How often do you get to go out during the season?

SEGUIN: “Actually more than you’d think. Living in Dallas, we’re members at a course out there, Dallas National. We see Tony Romo out there a bunch, played with him a couple of times. When we’re on the road we’ll probably play five, six times. But we’re only playing for fun, not too seriously.”

PHT: Your new teammate Joe Pavelski finished third in this tournament last year and 10th a few years ago. Is there someone on the Stars roster who could challenge him on the course?

SEGUIN: “Maybe Taylor Fedun could challenge him. Stephen Johns can hit a deep ball. Myself and Jamie Benn, we’ll go on a golf round and we might shoot an 80 or we might shoot a 92.”

PHT: Building off of this past season, what does it mean to you that Jim Nill goes out and adds someone like Joe Pavelski coming off a 38-goal year?

SEGUIN: “The thing is, especially with GMs, with teams you’re either going all-in and going for it or you’re kind of re-stocking. When you see a GM make moves like going to get a guy like Joe Pavelski he’s telling the whole team ‘Our window’s open, we’re going to win the Stanley Cup.’ That’s our objective. That’s our goal. That’s the expectation. As a player on the team you get even more excited when you see these moves happening in the summer. You’re always working hard in the gym, but you’re even more dialed in now because you know they’re all-in so you want to be all-in and make sure you don’t let your teammates down.”

PHT: With the way last season went, the stuff with Jim Lites, the second half push, the heartbreaking end in Game 7, are you a player who turns the page and looks forward or do you keep pieces with you to serve as motivation going?

SEGUIN: “I think it changes based on the player. For me personally, it’s changed every year. A couple years ago it was not making the playoffs and I was thinking about games in November when we lost to a team like Carolina at the time that we should have won that game. There’s things throughout the year that stay in your mind. Obviously this year there was being in Game 7 double overtime and losing to St. Louis and being one shot away. You know, me being the guy that’s usually supposed to get that shot in and then seeing St. Louis go all the way and win it, those are motivation tactics in my head that I use all summer. 

“As far as the noise outside, whether it’s the stuff that happened to me earlier in the year, I kind of let that stuff go, kind of sticks and stones sort of thing. I play for my teammates.”

PHT: Jim Montgomery had a strong first year behind the bench. What about Jim and his style is different from other coaches you’ve had?

SEGUIN: “The way he’s approachable, his personality, the way he knows when to be buddy-buddy and knows when to be a bit more of a drill sergeant. He had some growing times during this year with all of us like we did, but I’m comfortable with not having any more coaches in Dallas, I’ve had three already. I’m hoping Jim’s going to stick around for at least the rest of my deal, which is eight more years. I’m looking forward to making some noise.”

PHT: Finally, Miro Heiskanen had a tremendous rookie season. How impressed were you with the way he was able to play at such a young age?

SEGUIN: “Honestly, he got to a point this year that’s never really happened with me and that was I stopped being surprised. I was continuously being surprised by him and at the end of the season you’d see something happen and you’d just say that’s Miro. Me personally, I would have liked to have hid him in Dallas a couple more years and not have everyone know how good of a player he is, but he’s so good that everyone knew. He’s going to be a heck of a player for many years with the Dallas Stars.”

You can watch Seguin, Pavelski, Oshie, and NBC’s Jeremy Roenick and Kathryn Tappen, along other celebrities from the sports and entertainment world participate in the American Century Championship golf tournament this weekend from Lake Tahoe. Coverage begins Friday at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and continues Saturday and Sunday on NBC at 3 p.m. ET. You can watch a live stream here.

MORE: Joe Pavelski on free agency process, January return to San Jose

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

How long interview period changed course of NHL free agency

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Artemi Panarin did not have to imagine what he might look like in a New York Rangers uniform.

His likeness in Rangers blue adorned the giant video screens at Madison Square Garden with the message ”Welcome Artemi” a full four days before he signed with the team.

”There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” Panarin said, ”and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

Free agency in the NHL this season had surprises, as it always does, and there was a major factor that went somewhat under the radar: The post-draft ”interview window” for teams to talk with free agent targets was the longest in its short history. It opened June 23 and went right up until the signing period opened July 1, giving it the biggest impact since the window was added to the league calendar in 2014.

Some executives hated it, but the extended chance to wine and dine played a big role in a number of deals – from the Dallas Stars landing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to the New York Islanders moving on from standout goalie Robin Lehner.

”It was a long week,” Perry said. ”There was a lot of phone calls and just feeling out teams and seeing where they are, seeing what they might have as a plan of attack for next season. I got to ask questions, they told me what they think. It was an eye-opener, not ever going through it, but it was a fun process.”

Florida general manager Dale Tallon said it was not much fun to go from the draft right into a week of free agent conversations – ”I hate this week, to tell you the truth,” he said – but it didn’t turn out so bad: The Panthers signed top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Brett Connolly and defenseman Anton Stralman .

Free agency for years was a land rush at noon July 1 and perhaps the frenzied pace of negotiations contributed to some ill-fated contracts and bad fits. With more time, many contracts were agreed to before free agency began, similar to how things work in the NFL and NBA. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said each year the league sends a memo to its clubs reminding them that deals cannot be signed until July 1 but he was not concerned about how the process went this time.

”I think it’s more an evolution of how clubs, agents and players have handled (the interview period) than anything else,” Daly said.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, assistant Tom Fitzgerald and coach John Hynes held a 90-minute conference call with winger Wayne Simmonds and agent Eustace King before signing Simmonds for $5 million. And Pavelski got to tour Dallas with Stars captain Jamie Benn and team executive Tom Holy, a familiar face from San Jose.

”To go spend a little time just kind of casually, you know how things kind of come up organically, it was just nice to kind of hang out and spend a little bit of time,” Pavelski said. ”As a player, teammates definitely come into a big part of recruiting, I think. But it’s one of those things does the fit, do you feel comfortable around different personalities.”

Panarin knew all about Rangers President John Davidson from their time together in Columbus. But the former head of the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations department believes he only had to remind the Russian winger during his visit about all the things that drew him back to New York.

”He’s made it very vocal that he’s always wanted to be in a big city, and there’s no bigger city than New York,” Davidson said. ”In talking to us, (he) talked about how he wants to win. He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Mark Messier did with the Rangers to get into the winning part of the business.”

Seeing Messier’s No. 11 and the 1994 Stanley Cup champions banner at Madison Square Garden didn’t hurt. But it was away from the rink that Panarin’s connection to the Rangers became abundantly clear and led to him taking less money than the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Panthers offered .

”You could sense his enthusiasm for the Rangers, for the big city, for the big stage,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of our team, it all shined right through. Right away for everybody in the room it was pretty exciting to hear some of the things he had to say.”

The interview period is a two-way street, and the Washington Capitals signed winger Richard Panik in large part because they reached out to him first. Panik waited for other teams to come close to the $11 million, four-year offer as the clock ticked.

”For me, it was really stressful,” Panik said. ”It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning. They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That’s why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”

Plenty of teams had interest in Perry, who signed an incentives-heavy one-year deal with Dallas to prove himself after being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars showing him their map to Cup contention and bringing in Pavelski sealed the deal.

”They have everything that I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. ”They’re on the verge of putting something really great together. I want to be a part of that.”

Lehner was part of a surprisingly great season with the Islanders, who re-signed forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to bring back almost the same team.

Had it not been for the extra time, Lehner might have reached a deal to stay. Instead, the Islanders moved on to Semyon Varlamov, Lehner learned about the potential downside of the interview period and Chicago benefited from it by signing him to a $5 million, one-year contract.

”It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me and I took a couple days to think about it,” Lehner said. ”When I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie. That is the truth.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Dallas Stars give Dickinson two-year deal after solid season

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FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Stars have re-signed center Jason Dickinson to a $3 million, two-year contract, bringing back an emerging leader after he established career highs in scoring and playing time.

Dickinson was a solid playoff performer in his postseason debut as the Stars reached the second round before losing a Game 7 to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis. He had five points (three goals, two assists) in 13 games.

The 24-year-old Dickinson had career highs in goals (six), assists (16) and points (22) while averaging the most minutes in his four seasons (13). He hadn’t played more than 27 regular-season games before getting into 67 in 2018-19.

A first-round pick in 2013, Dickinson has nine goals and 18 assists in 105 career games.

Joe Pavelski on free agency process, January return to San Jose

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It’s been 10 days since Joe Pavelski signed with the Dallas Stars, officially ending his 13-season tenure with the San Jose Sharks. Some days that reality has hit him, while there are times where it still doesn’t seem real.

In two months time, when NHL training camps open and he’s donning the Stars’ green and white, that’s when Pavelski feels the move will finally sink in.

As he went through the free agency interview period at the end of June, Pavelski still held out hope that things would work out with the Sharks. But with the team tight up against the salary cap ceiling and with a handful of players to re-sign, that hope soon faded.

“The last possible moment you still kind of feel something’s going to come out of left field and happen and get done,” Pavelski told NBC Sports this week. “But as you get to that free agency window and you start talking to teams, you understand that this is real and you’re going to make an important decision and it’s not just for me, it’s for my family and everything that comes with it. We feel like we made a good one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Nearly three months after suffering a nasty injury during Game 7 of San Jose’s Round 1 series against the Vegas Golden Knights, Pavelski said, “[I] feel like I’ve turned a corner” after needing eight staples in his head and being diagnosed with a concussion.

The Stars had no concerns about his health after signing Pavelski, who had never been through the free agency process before, to a three-year, $21 million deal. When he knew a return to San Jose wasn’t in the cards, he wanted to join a good team that would give him a chance to win. What they have in Dallas checked many of the boxes he was looking for: solid goaltending, good, young exciting defensemen, and a strong forward group that he’ll get to join. He’ll get a chance to get to know one of his new teammates, Tyler Seguin, a little better this weekend as the pair are in a group with T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals at the American Century Championship golf tournament in Lake Tahoe.

Jan. 11, 2020 will be a special date for Pavelski and his family. That’s when the Stars make their first visit to San Jose and the SAP Center crowd and his former teammates will shower him with plenty of love that evening. It’ll be a memorable night, one that the 34-year-old is expecting will be a tough one to get through, but he’s ready to experience the rollercoaster of emotions.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be,” Pavelski said. “Seeing different guys go through it, it looks like it could be a tough night. It’s one of those things, you’ve still got to play a hockey game and it’s going to be a lot of emotions.

“I’m really looking forward to going back. I owe so much to the city of San Jose and how they treated us. The bond is real. The emotions are real, and at the end of the day I’m really going to cherish my time in San Jose.”

You can watch Pavelski, Oshie, Seguin, and NBC’s Jeremy Roenick and Kathryn Tappen, along other celebrities from the sports and entertainment world participate in the American Century Championship golf tournament this weekend from Lake Tahoe. Coverage begins Friday at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and continues Saturday and Sunday on NBC at 3 p.m. ET. You can watch a live stream here.

MORE: Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.