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  • Jett

NHL Central Division Preview

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

The Central is a strong division overall, with a couple of teams at the bottom who I don’t expect to be too competitive. Which of these eight teams will make the playoffs? Here are my rankings.

8. Chicago Blackhawks

Injuries are the biggest reason Chicago fell all the way to the bottom of my Central rankings. An undisclosed medical condition has sidelined captain Jonathan Toews indefinitely, Kirby Dach fractured his wrist during last month’s World Junior Championships, and Alex Nylander is out at least four months with a knee injury.

This team was not that good with those three players, they are substantially worse without them. As currently constructed, this is one of the worst teams in the NHL, and they will struggle in this tough division. Patrick Kane is still elite, but how much can he do when he is far and away the most dangerous player on the roster? Teams will go into games against the Blackhawks knowing that if they slow Kane down, they will almost certainly win the game. This is not only because Chicago has no scoring depth, but they also are weak on defense and in goal. This team does not look like they are going to score very much, and they don’t project to be great defensively either. That is a poor combination.

Player to Watch: Duncan Keith

I mentioned that the Blackhawks are weak on defense. Keith is nowhere near the player he used to be, but he is still the best, and most experienced, defender on the team. Chicago is clearly destined for a rebuild at this point, and moving Keith at the trade deadline may be a way to expedite the process. Moving his contract off the books might be appealing to ownership as well, in order to save some extra cash during a season without ticket revenue. If Keith has a strong first half of the year, keep an eye on his name come the deadline.

7. Detroit Red Wings

The NHL’s worst team from a season ago has a chance to improve this year. They still don’t look close to a playoff team on paper, but they brought in a solid group of veterans in the offseason that have plenty to prove. Bobby Ryan, for example, is coming off a year in which he spent time away from the Ottawa Senators while recovering from alcohol abuse issues. He signed in Detroit where he has an opportunity to play heavy minutes in their top-six forward group and on the first power play. He is looking to show the league that he has a lot left to give, and set himself up to either be traded at the deadline to a contender, or at least sign a larger contract this summer.

The downfall of the Blackhawks roster and the need to bring a sense of pride back into the Detroit locker room combine to lead me to pick them to be better than Chicago. After last season, it would have been shocking to make this pick, but Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha look to be leading the Red Wings back in the right direction. I expect them to be much more competitive on a nightly basis this season.

Player to Watch: Dylan Larkin

The face of the franchise was named the newest captain of the Red Wings last week, and I am looking for him to lead this team out of its rebuild in the coming years. Larkin’s job is to show the young players coming up in Detroit how to play the game the right way- playing a 200 ft. game for 60 minutes and giving everything you have for your teammates. If he sets that example in a season in which Detroit is unlikely to be in playoff contention, that will become the standard that is already in place when the team is competitive in the coming seasons. Establishing a culture is an underrated part of a rebuild, and the captain plays a major role in doing so.

6. Florida Panthers

A team that looked poised to ascend into Stanley Cup contention a season ago disappointed and seemed to get worse this offseason. Scoring wasn’t their problem last year, but losing both Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov to free agency and failing to replace them with at least one legitimate goal-scoring threat is cause for concern. Where is the shooting threat on the power play now? I’m not sure. Who will play on the wings of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau? Same answer. The team’s biggest strength from a year ago looks to be a major question mark now.

Florida’s big issue last season was keeping the puck out of their own net. This was partially because of the defense and partially because of a down year from Sergei Bobrovsky. A team paying a goaltender an average of $10 million per year can’t afford for said player to be a question mark, not in a salary cap league. Bobrovsky will need to be better, or else this team will have almost no path to the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Anthony Duclair

Late in the offseason, Florida added Duclair, who is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 23 goals. He could be the key to the Panthers offense not being a liability, given the losses I mentioned above. If he can push the 30-goal plateau, that will go a long way in negating the losses of Hoffman and Dadonov. Duclair also signed a one-year deal, so having a strong campaign should set him up for a nice payday in free agency.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

This team has consistently played above expectations for the past few years, despite players requesting trades and leaving in free agency. They are a prime example of a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, that magic has to run out at some point. Talent wins in this league, more often than not, and I will address a big issue with the talent on this roster shortly.

Columbus lacks scoring depth, but makes up for it with their two elite defensemen, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and their pair of netminders, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. I expect this team will be solid defensively, but I don’t think they will be able to score enough to make the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Pierre-Luc Dubois

News came out before the season started that Dubois had requested a trade out of Columbus. The reason is not publicly known, but the Blue Jackets’ top center and, arguably, best offensive player doesn’t want to play for the team anymore. That is never a good sign, and it seems unlikely this relationship will be fixed. Walking back a trade request looks like one of the hardest things to do in sports. Once a player vocalizes that he wants out, they almost always get their wish, and generally sooner rather than later. I expect Dubois to be traded, and that is a major reason why I am picking Columbus to miss the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators

I have been bullish on Nashville since they went to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. They have a much different roster and a new coach, but the core of the team remains. They built up the defense corps and have a strong top-six forward group. Roman Josi is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate (best defenseman) and he, along with Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm may be the best trio of defensemen in the NHL. Bringing in Matt Duchene prior to last season was the type of impact move they needed to boost the offense that already had Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg. Their offense wasn’t great last season, but I am looking for an improvement this year.

Surprisingly, the biggest question mark, in my opinion, for Nashville is in goal. Pekke Rinne has been one of the best and most consistent netminders in the league for a decade. His play in recent seasons, however, has declined to the point where Juuse Saros has played a fair share of games. Unfortunately for the Predators, he hasn’t been great either. Nashville will need one of these two to take the job and run with it if they hope to make another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Player to Watch: Ryan Johansen

Johansen was the top center on the roster when Nashville played for the Cup in 2016, but his play has faded since. He was not only able to produce offensively, but he was also going head-to-head with some of the opposing teams’ best players. In recent seasons, his play hasn’t compared to some of the top centers in the game, leading Nashville to sign Duchene. They now have two solid options at center, which is needed in today’s NHL. If Johansen can return to past form, Nashville has a chance to do damage in the Central.

3. Carolina Hurricanes

This season may be the Hurricanes’ best chance at competing for a title. They look to have a pretty clear path to the postseason, and their roster is going to look different come the fall. This is a deep team both up front and on the back end. I preach the idea that talent wins, and Carolina has loads of it. Players like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov lead a fast and potent offense that will be able to outscore an opponent on any given night. Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce anchor one of the best defensive groups in the league, and can shut down an opponent on a night when the offense isn’t scoring.

There is, however, one glaring issue in Carolina. The duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer is not one I would expect to lead my team to a Stanley Cup. Neither one of those two is a netminder I would expect to be able to steal a game when the team needs them to do so. They can play well in front of a team playing its best, but on a off night for the Hurricanes, it would be hard to imagine them winning that game.

Player to Watch: Dougie Hamilton

Hamilton was firmly in the Norris Trophy conversation last season before sustaining an injury that kept him from finishing the regular season, prior to the pandemic. Hamilton netted 14 goals before his injury and is now in the final year of his contract. This has been a theme of many of my players to watch, they need big years heading into free agency. Hamilton looks poised to become the top free agent defenseman on the market this summer. A down year for him would be detrimental for both himself and the Hurricanes.

2. Dallas Stars

We have now reached the portion of this article highlighting the two teams to reach last season’s Stanley Cup Final. Dallas is not starting the season off well; they have had their first four games postponed after having 17 players test positive for COVID-19. They also have Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop beginning the season on Injured Reserve. That certainly isn’t ideal for a team looking to not only return to the Final, but win the Stanley Cup this year.

Despite all of those issues, this team is bringing back a majority of their roster from last year. The team is also one of the most defensively sound in the league. Their system and their goaltending allow them to succeed in low-scoring games, which will come in handy while they are without their top center. Having Anton Khudobin back is also significant with Bishop injured. Khudobin showed how good he is in last year’s playoffs, and there is no reason to think he won’t be successful again this year. The team, as a whole, was very good last year, and I expect similar results this season.

Player to Watch: Miro Heiskanen

This is one of the elite young defensemen in the NHL. He is a great skater with outstanding offensive instincts and ability who is nowhere near a liability defensively. He is another on a fairly long list of young defenders many expect to win a Norris Trophy in their career. Heiskanen should see an uptick in minutes and responsibility now that he has another year of experience under his belt. I expect a career year from him, and that will be a big reason for Dallas’ success.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year’s Stanley Cup Champion returns as what I would consider the heavy favorite to win the Central this season. Their forward group, led by a Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and a healthy Steven Stamkos can score the lights out, even without injured star Nikita Kucherov. The forward group in Tampa is one of the deepest and most talented around, and they are all 200 ft. players. The defensive play from the forwards is not changed by the fact that they are so lethal on offense. The buy-in from that group is nothing short of impressive.

Defense and goaltending are no weaknesses either. The defense is led by perennial Norris Trophy favorite Victor Hedman, who is able to shut down any opponent’s best players while still being among the highest scoring defensemen in the league. Ryan McDonagh, one of the best defense-first defensemen, is also in the mix and will be a big part of their success at keeping opponents off the scoresheet. Throw in the fact that Andrei Vasilevskiy remains between the pipes, as arguably the best goalie in the NHL, and Tampa should have no issue winning a ton of games this year.

Player to Watch: Brayden Point

Although Stamkos is coming off injury, I think NHL fans know what to expect from him. He is going to score goals and produce points. With the loss of Kucherov to injury, I am looking at Point to take another step forward this year. He is already one of the best centers in the league, but can he take a step to get into the conversation for the top five or seven players at the position? He is responsible defensively, and can match up with opponents’ best players when called upon, but I am expecting elite scoring numbers from Point this year.

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