Central Preview: Time to go all-in on the Avalanche?

(Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)
(Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)

The Central looks to be much like what it was last year: No really great teams, but no really bad teams either. There are a few that could surprise and either be way better or worse than expected, but for the most part it feels like there won’t be all that many points separating first from last.

Interestingly, most teams in the Central improved at least somewhat (with one notable exception), but not enough that you should expect huge growth from any of them. Most of the intrigue, then, comes from the narrow margins that generally separate many of these clubs.

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Let’s have a look:

Highest Ceiling

The Colorado Avalanche.

As of this writing, Mikko Rantanen still isn’t in the fold (he may not even be close) and that’s a pretty big point of concern for the team as a whole. As long as they can get him locked in relatively early — either during camp or within a week or two of the season starting — there’s no reason to think he and Nathan MacKinnon would be anything less than they were last year, the anchors of arguably the best line in hockey.

The problem last season, for a team that made the playoffs, was that when MacKinnon and Rantanen were off the ice, they were often quite bad, to the point that MacKinnon expressed visible frustration on the bench in the middle of a game. And he was pretty much justified in doing so. To help shore up those concerns, the team went out and added a slew of depth forwards: Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky via trade, as well as Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Val Nichushkin via free agency.

The Kadri trade in particular gives them critical center depth they previously lacked, even if it also forced them to swap Tyson Barrie (a perfectly good defenseman) for Calle Rosen, who might be something at the NHL level but would otherwise appear to be an AHL superstar/safe call-up.

But speaking of that defense, Cale Makar having a full season behind Sam Girard (and the potential for Bowen Byram to make the team in his draft year plus-one) give the blue line an absurd amount of promise to go with the collectively just-okay supporting cast like Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov.

In goal, it’s a bit of a guessing game with Philip Grubauer, but he should be fine. If he’s better than that, and the rest of the team produces as expected, this team could finish tops in the division.

Lowest floor

Chicago.

Everyone in the core is a year older and (probably) worse, and while some of those guys will be helped along by younger players — that Patrick Kane/Alex DeBrincat combo should be good for a while — how do you trust a defense that will still be anchored by two of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and new addition Calvin de Haan?

The team allowed something like 50 goals more than the league average last year, and hopes to fix that (at least in part) by adding de Haan and Olli Maatta to the blue line mix, and Robin Lehner as a 1b option with Corey Crawford.

There’s room for these guys to improve from last year’s poor performance (their second straight season without a playoff appearance, third straight without a playoff win), but if the bottom drops out on Toews and Keith in particular, things could get ugly.

X-Factor

St. Louis’s goaltending situation.

You all know the argument on this one: Not even Craig Berube’s incredible system could make Jake Allen look any good last season, and Jordan Binnington is a career AHLer who spent three months looking like the god of goaltending.

That run by Binnington — in no way reminiscent of Andrew Hammond’s run-out with the Ottawa Senators a few years ago, I’m quite sure — got the Blues back to where they needed to be after a dismal start, and also won them a Cup. Banners hang forever, but the odds that a Binnington/Allen combo doesn’t come close to replicating last season’s post-Yeo save percentage seems quite high.

That said, it wouldn’t need to be. If the Blues can play the full 82 like they did after Thanksgiving last season, they won’t need .930 or even .920 goaltending. League-average would more than do to keep you near the top of the standings, such was the power of everything St. Louis did under Berube.

The question is: Can these two tenders be league-average despite the fact that their longer-than-just-last-year track records suggest it would be a bit of a stretch for them? You should probably lean toward “yes,” but not at all surprised if the answer is “no.”

Most Important Newcomer

Nashville’s $8-million, previously unrequited love, Matt Duchene.

After what felt like 50 years, David Poile finally got his man, signing Duchene to a max-term contract that gives him an $8-million AAV until he’s 36. The idea is that the Predators need some help to juice the offense after last season’s underperformance (even if they won the division).

They had one of the better defenses in hockey, but a sub-average offense seems to have been what held them back from beating Dallas in the first round. Duchene, who had a career year on a dead-end team in Ottawa before turning back into his old “I guess he’s pretty good” self after the trade to Columbus, is the potential solution to that.

You can call him the No. 1 guy, or you can say he’s the 1b behind Ryan Johansen — who scored just 14 goals last season. In either case, it pushed Kyle Turris to the No. 3 slot in the hopes he can get back on track after an abysmal 2018-19 campaign that has some wondering whether he’s washed.

Staking your offensive outlook to a guy who’s never scored more than 70 in a season may not be the best strategy, but it’s one the Predators were forced to go with. As long as the blue line is as good as it was last year (and there’s little reason to think it won’t) they should be fine, but there has to be a lot of pressure on Duchene to make the offense go.

Worst Outlook

The Minnesota Wild.

Not that you’d know it from how everyone acted this summer, but the team defense was very good last season. By expected goals, it was the league’s best, in fact. It seems Bruce Boudreau is still a competent coach.

And while there’s plenty of room for optimism that the team is now in much better hands after the mid-summer GM turmoil, one must also acknowledge that the roster changes in that time are underwhelming. There probably wasn’t enough done to ensure the offense takes a step, apart from adding Mats Zuccarello and hoping everyone can stay healthy this time around, which, ehhhhh.

The real problem is that nothing was done about the goaltending. Just like last year, it’ll be Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock, both of whom have performed poorly in each of the last three seasons. You never know with goaltending, of course, but you can make a pretty good guess.

The combo of an underwhelming outfield roster and those two in the crease means even if you think they improve, there’s basically no way they’re a playoff team.

Gamecenter Pick (Most Watchable)

The Dallas Stars.

Much like the Avs, this was mostly a one-line team last year, but with then-new coach Jim Montgomery’s system, they were at least fun to watch more often than not. This summer, Jim Nill went out and added a guy who will definitely help the offense in Joe Pavelski.

He also added two big maybes who, if they work out, would be welcome additions to the depth chart. There’s every reason to believe Corey Perry is dunzo as a legitimate scorer (and he’s currently/already hurt), but what his bonus-laden contract presupposes is, “What if he isn’t?”

If they get even 15 goals out of Perry (unlikely) that’ll be a nice boost for the offense. The other question mark here is Andrej Sekera, who may or may not be 100 percent and in theory helps the defense move the puck out of their own zone, a skill that was critically lacking farther down the lineup. Then again, he’s been so banged-up over the years, and he’s 33, so maybe not.

Another year of Montgomery’s system and more talent should help the team a lot, especially because they can’t rely on Ben Bishop to lead the league in save percentage again. They probably end up right around where they were in the standings last year, but they likely won’t need the PDO to get there, and that’s a nice cushion.

Plus, you never know when the team president will go on an expletive-filled rant about two of the handful of actual good skaters on the team. Tune in to find out.

Team With Most Pressure

The Winnipeg Jets.

While Josh Morrissey just about doubled his AAV on the first day of camp, with an extension that kicks in next year, there are so many questions around this team. And that was before Dustin Byfuglien maybe-retired.

If the Morrissey deal felt like it was intended as a distraction for that fact, and that Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remained unsigned (at least as of this writing), well, it probably was.

This team is expensive and is at least one year removed from being a popular pick for Cup contention. Because of the looming cap crunch before Byfuglien’s leave of absence — still unresolved — they not only didn’t add much talent, they also lost some. Whatever you think of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, they undoubtedly downgraded on the blue line, which is bad considering it was not a good blue line last season.

Up front, none of the expected trades from the summer came to pass (though they still may, one supposes). On the one hand, the offense was well above average last season, but on the other, it arguably overperformed on the power play in particular, and there should be plenty of questions about what Laine will be if they can get him back into the fold.

It says a lot about expectations around this group that last year’s 99-point campaign was considered a major disappointment, but it feels like things could go much worse than that this time around. Especially if Connor Hellebuyck doesn’t get back to above-average performance.

The Pressing Question

CZ asks: “Has the Jets’ window slammed shut, and is there a case for doing an NBA-style tear-down/tank?”

Pertinent to the previous section, this really is the most pressing issue in the division: Figuring out what the Jets actually are will give a lot of insight into the proceedings for the next 82 games.

I’m not willing to say the window is even closed, let alone slammed shut, at this point. Maybe I’ll feel differently in January, but with the blue line taking a huge step back in quality, they need everyone up front to have a good season simultaneously to even make the playoffs.

And if that goes sideways and the new year arrives with no evidence of improvement, your thing about a tear-down would be difficult to accomplish: You probably wouldn’t want to move a Connor, Laine, Scheifele, Ehlers, Hellebuyck, or Morrissey, as they’re all in their primes or entering them. Almost all of them are also signed long-term.

Unfortunately, those are your only real “Big Name” players that don’t have no-move or partial no-trade protections. Wheeler, Little, and Perreault all have them, making them difficult or impossible to move. So too does Byfuglien, but again, who knows what’s going on with that?

Probably you try a coaching change before you get rid of the group everyone believed in so much just a year ago around this time. But I wouldn’t be optimistic about that working either.

Predicted Finish

1) St. Louis Blues – 100 points

2) Nashville Predators – 98 points

3) Colorado Avalanche – 97 points

4) Dallas Stars – 95 points (first wild card spot)

5) Winnipeg Jets – 91 points (second wild card spot)

6) Chicago – 86 points

7) Minnesota Wild – 86 points

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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