2017-18 Finish: 45-26-11 record, first round loss to Winnipeg (4-1)
Noteworthy Gains: Eric Fehr, J.T. Brown
Noteworthy Losses: Matt Cullen
Biggest Strength: Minnesota was hit hard by injuries in 2017-18, but the offense was still successful. The team averaged 3.05 goals for per game. Eric Staal exploded for 42 markers, while Jason Zucker hit 33 and Mikael Granlund surpassed the 20-goal plateau. All three players topped 60 points, while blueliners Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba recorded 50-point years. If the Wild get bounce-back performances from Nino Niederreiter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle then cracking the top-10 in the NHL for goals scored shouldn’t be a problem.
Biggest Weakness: The Wild have qualified for the postseason for six straight years, but the club’s lack of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has to be a concern. Minnesota has been knocked out in the first round for three consecutive years and the team has won just four postseason matches during that span. Devan Dubnyk, who struggled for two of those playoff exits, has had the finger pointed at him, but he isn’t the only player who deserves to be blamed. Minnesota’s core group has plenty of talent, but changes could come under new General Manager Paul Fenton if the club doesn’t make progress when it matters most.
Player to Watch: Including the playoffs, Parise had 15 goals and five assists in his last 24 appearances. He was forced out of the playoffs due to a fractured sternum after he was limited to 42 matches during the regular season because of a back injury. Parise could fly under the radar this year and if he stays healthy then 50-60 points could be achievable.
2017-18 Finish: 43-30-9 record, first round loss to Nashville (4-2)
Noteworthy Gains: Philipp Grubauer, Matt Calvert
Noteworthy Losses: Jonathan Bernier, Blake Comeau
Biggest Strength: Nathan MacKinnon was a juggernaut offensively for the Avalanche last season. He placed fifth in the NHL with 97 points in 74 games and helped Colorado return to the playoffs after the team had the worst record in the league in 2016-17. MacKinnon’s breakout year along the emergence of Mikko Rantanen and a bounce-back effort from Gabriel Landeskog gave the Avalanche an outstanding top line. Tyson Barrie also had a career year with 57 points from the back end, as Colorado jumped from 2.01 goals for per game (last in the league in 2016-17) to 3.11 (10th overall).
Biggest Weakness: Colorado received 19 goals from Alexander Kerfoot and 16 markers from Carl Soderberg, but there wasn’t much scoring beyond the top line. Kerfoot was the next highest producer at 43 points, which included 17 on the power play. The Avalanche will need more secondary offense, especially at even strength, in 2018-19 if the club is going to return to the playoffs.
Player to Watch: Grubauer was acquired from Washington to add some depth to the crease following the departure of Jonathan Bernier, who signed with Detroit in free agency. Grubauer, who inked a three-year contract with Colorado shortly after he acquisition, has been a solid backup goalie for the Capitals over the past three seasons. The Avalanche feel that Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov are both number one goalies, so they may end up sharing starts in 2018-19.
St. Louis Blues
2017-18 Finish: 44-32-6 record, ninth in the Western Conference
Noteworthy Losses: Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Carter Hutton
Biggest Strength: St. Louis plays a strong defensive game. The Blues ranked sixth with a goals against per game of 2.71 and allowed the third-fewest shots against per match (29.7). Jake Allen had some issues with consistency again in 2017-18, but the Blues still managed to play great around him.
Biggest Weakness: Allen will have to better, but another area St. Louis will have to improve is on offense. The goals dried up after a strong start to the season. Losing Jaden Schwartz to injury hurt and the fact that nobody managed to step up during his absence set the team back. The Blues became a team that passed up shots too often and couldn’t find the range that was needed to get back on track. St. Louis finished 24th in the league with 2.72 goals for per game. The Blues made big changes in the off-season with O'Reilly, Bozak, Maroon and Perron set to join the top-nine forward group.
Player to Watch: O'Reilly was the Blues’ big off-season acquisition. He can win faceoffs in abundance and is expected to give St. Louis’ 30th-placed power play a much-needed boost. O’Reilly hit 60 points in two of three seasons with the low-scoring Buffalo Sabres and he’ll get some superb players to work with on his new team. Robby Fabbri, who will be back from injury, is worth keeping an eye on as well.
2017-18 Finish: 42-32-8 record, 10th in the Western Conference
Noteworthy Gains: Valeri Nichushkin, Blake Comeau, Miro Heiskanen, Anton Khudobin
Noteworthy Losses: Dan Hamhuis, Kari Lehtonen
Biggest Strength: The Stars turned a weakness into a strength last year with a vastly improved defensive game and some stable goaltending. Ben Bishop went through some injury issues, but he was exactly what Dallas was looking for. He posted strong numbers in his first season with the team. The Stars permitted just 29.8 shots against per game (fourth-best in the league) and allowed 2.71 goals against per contest (tied for sixth in the league). Anton Khudobin was added in the summer to replace Lehtonen, who has struggled for the majority of the last four years even though he was better in a more limited role in 2017-18. Dallas permitted the least high-danger scoring chances against and allowed the least high-danger goals. The team’s defense corps has made positive strides. The potential arrival of top prospect Heiskanen and possibly a larger role for Julius Honka should strengthen that group.
Biggest Weakness: Dallas has a top-heavy offense and the club got very little production beyond the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. The Stars didn’t have a 20-goal scorer outside of that combination and Mattias Janmark was the team’s next highest producing forward with only 34 points. Nichushkin’s return from the KHL could help, but the Stars need someone else to step up if Jason Spezza doesn’t rebound.
Player to Watch: Nichushkin was a popular pick as a breakout candidate the season before he left for Russia. He generated a mere nine goals and 29 points in 79 games that year. However, Nichushkin could be a 45-50 point performer in 2018-19. He is slated to see time in Dallas’ top-six forward group with possible exposure to Seguin and Benn.
2017-18 Finish: 33-39-10 record, 13th in the Western Conference
Noteworthy Gains: Cam Ward, Marcus Kruger, Chris Kunitz, Brandon Manning
Noteworthy Losses: Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Duclair
Biggest Strength: Chicago was unable to capitalize on the chances the club created last year, but that didn’t stop the team from generating plenty of opportunities. The Blackhawks ranked second in the NHL in scoring chances for per 60 minutes at even strength (30.82), which was very close to Toronto’s league-leading rate of 30.94. Chicago got 76 points from Patrick Kane, but he was the only consistent producer.
Biggest Weakness: Chicago’s lack of finish was a major problem in 2017-18. The team had a goals for per game of 2.78 (21st in the league) and a shooting percentage of 8.2 (27th in the league). Brandon Saad (18 goals on 237 shots) and Duncan Keith (two goals on 187 shots) had notoriously difficult times finishing their chances last campaign. The Blackhawks also struggled defensively, while allowing 3.10 goals against per match. The loss of Corey Crawford because of injury for most of the season was a major reason behind that, but the team’s lack of depth on the back end was another culprit.
Player to Watch: Chicago needs bounce back years from Crawford, Saad, Keith, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook to get back into the playoff picture. They are worth keeping an eye on and so are young players like Dylan Sikura and Victor Ejdsell, who may get looks in the top-six forward group. However, Alex DeBrincat is most deserving of your attention after he had a successful rookie campaign in 2017-18. He led the Blackhawks with 28 goals and tied for the league lead with three hat tricks. He collected 52 points last year, while averaging 14:48 of ice time per game. DeBrincat didn’t get much time on Chicago’s top-two lines despite his success, but that should change in 2018-19. If he plays regularly alongside Toews or Kane then a breakout performance is likely.