NHL preview: Biggest questions looming over the Central Division

The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will look to threaten the Colorado Avalanche for top dog in the Central Division this season. (Reuters)
The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will look to threaten the Colorado Avalanche for top dog in the NHL's Central Division this season. (Reuters)

Hockey is finally back, with plenty of NHL preseason action for fans to tune into every night.

And as things heat up on the ice, so do our previews for the new year, with the official start of the season less than two weeks away.

Here are the biggest questions looming over teams in the Central Division.

How much will the Avalanche miss Kadri and Kuemper?

The reigning Stanley Cup champions are well positioned to repeat, running it back this season with a roster beaming with elite talent.

But while the Colorado Avalanche have managed to retain the majority of their uber-talented core over the summer, they did lose star center Nazem Kadri and starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper to free agency.

General manager Chris MacFarland wasted no time after losing his No. 1 netminder, acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers for two third-round picks and a fifth-round pick, and promptly signing the Bulgarian to a three-year extension.

Georgiev's save percentage has dropped every season since he entered the NHL in 2017-18, but the 26-year-old has never made more than 34 starts in season, notably sharing the crease with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin over the last three years. This will be his first real shot at starting job for one of the league's best teams, and while he may not be as sure of a call as Kuemper, there's optimism that Georgiev can be relied upon to backstop this championship contender for the foreseeable future.

The real question lies down the middle, where Kadri has left a large, 87-point sized hole after signing a big deal with the resurgent Calgary Flames. All signs are pointing to offseason free agent signing Evan Rodrigues filling that role after the 29-year-old demonstrated some offensive flair with a career-high 43 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Rodrigues may not have the physical or defensive abilities that Kadri is known for, but he should be able to offer some steady secondary scoring in the top six.

Third-year forward Alex Newhook may also get some looks in a top-six role after a decent 13-goal, 33-point sophomore season in 2021-22.

While it would be tough for any team to replace Kadri's unique skill set and character, the Avalanche are as equipped as any to make up for a loss of that size.

Did the Wild reach their ceiling last season?

The Minnesota Wild took the league by storm last in 2021-22, breaking out of a characteristically timid shell to claim second place in the Central Division and setting team records for single-season points (113) and wins (53) along the way.

And while the Wild should still be a fun team to watch, especially with electric forward Kirill Kaprizov leading the way, they may have reached their peak as a team last season.

Riding behind Kaprizov's monster 47-goal, 108-point campaign, a number of Wild players broke out for career years. Ryan Hartman scored 34 goals, 15 more than his previous career high, and Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno both scored over 20 goals for the first time in their careers. These numbers may be hard to replicate for the Wild's veteran forwards, and the overall scoring output is expected to take a significant hit after second leading scorer Kevin Fiala was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer.

Matthew Boldy made a strong impression with 15 goals and 39 points as a rookie last season, and should comfortably surpass those figures this year. The Wild are also expecting big things from 21-year-old Austrian forward Marco Rossi after he registered 53 points in 63 games with the AHL's Iowa Wild last season.

Minnesota is also facing some uncertainty in net, despite locking down future Hall of Famer Marc-André Fleury to a two-year extension in early July. The problem mostly lies with his unproven running mate, 24-year-old Filip Gustavsson, who was acquired from the Ottawa Senators for disgruntled veteran goalie Cam Talbot, who reportedly asked out of Minny after losing his crease to Fleury.

The Wild should still be a lock for a playoff spot in the Central, but they'll have to get some gargantuan efforts from their up-and-coming stars if they want to reach the heights they got to last year.

Can the Blues' young star duo propel them to contention?

The St. Louis Blues had a very quiet offseason, making no notable free agent signings or trades.

They did, however, take care of some very important internal business, signing star duo Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou to identical eight-year, $65-million extensions.

Thomas, 23, registered career highs in goals (20), assists (57) and points (77), trailing only Vladimir Tarasenko for the team lead in scoring. Kyrou, 24, shattered his own career highs, scoring 27 goals and registering 75 points in 74 games in 2021-22.

The pair will be the centerpieces of the Blues' offense for years to come, as veterans like Ryan O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn progress through the back nine of their respective careers. Kyrou, who averaged 16:35 of ice time last year, should also see a bump in usage this season and solidify a top-six role with the offseason departure of David Perron.

The Blues were an offensive juggernaut last season, scoring the fourth-most goals in the league, and are still one of teams looking to threaten the Avalanche's throne. St. Louis still boasts a significant chunk of the core group that led them to their first ever Stanley Cup in 2019, and could very well be set for a deep playoff run led by their young guns.

Can the Stars squeeze more out of Seguin and Benn?

This has become a recurring theme over the last few seasons in Dallas, but the Stars can only go as far as top earners Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn will take them.

Seguin earns $9.85 million a year and is signed through the 2026-27 season, with Benn set to take home a salary of $9.5 million until July 2025.

Seguin, 30, scored 24 goals and registered 25 assists in 81 games last season, far off the pace he set in his first six years with the Stars. Benn, 33, managed only 46 points in 82 games, his worst offensive output over a full season since his rookie year. The pair takes up 23.4 percent of the Stars' salary cap, but only contributed 14.9 percent of Dallas's points between them last season.

With young star Jason Robertson expected to a sign a huge extension any day now, 38-year-old Joe Pavelski still finding ways to light the lamp, and stud defenseman Miro Heiskanen patrolling the blue line, Dallas has the tools to make its mark on the Central Division.

The duo is paid to lead the team on offense, and Dallas will need them to find their scoring touch again if they hope to put together a better postseason run than their first-round exit at the hands of the Calgary Flames last spring.

Can the Predators' stars replicate last year's lofty standards?

The faces of the Nashville Predators have high expectations heading into the new season after a standout year in 2021-22.

Forward Matt Duchene scored a franchise-record and career-high 43 regular-season goals, Filip Forsberg set his own personal best in goals with 42, and superstar defenseman Roman Josi had a monster season with 23 goals and 96 points, finishing second in Norris Trophy voting behind Colorado's Cale Makar.

In net, Juuse Saros proved to be the worthy successor to Preds legend Pekka Rinne, registering a .918 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average, while leading the league with 67 (!!!) starts. He finished third in Vezina Trophy voting behind Calgary's Jacob Markstrom and the winner, New York Rangers' Igor Shesterkin.

Luckily for this group, the Predators boast an enviable supporting cast, with the likes of Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund and Tanner Jeannot offering secondary scoring, while Mattias Ekholm and offseason arrival Ryan McDonagh support Josi on the backend. Budding forward Eeli Tolvanen and free agent signing Nino Niderreiter should pitch in their own share of goals and make this squad a formidable offensive unit.

The challenge now facing Nashville's star core is to replicate — or somehow surpass — last season's exploits to carry the club to its first playoff series win since 2018.

Will the Jets move past locker room drama?

It started with head coach Paul Maurice suddenly stepping away from his position midway through last season. It continued with Mark Scheifele seemingly asking out of Winnipeg at his season-ending media availability and Pierre-Luc Dubois flirting with a trade request of his own. It culminated in stripping Blake Wheeler of his captaincy just before the start of training camp.

The Jets have had a crazy 12 months, with a plethora of issues behind the scenes hurting their success on the ice. Major questions still linger over what exactly the problem is in Winnipeg's dressing room, and we may not be privy to the answers for a long time, but we know it needs fixing.

Enter Rick Bowness.

Bowness has seen just about everything the world of professional hockey has to offer in 34 years and 2,562 NHL games as both an assistant and head coach, so there may be fewer better to help right the ship in Manitoba.

"X's and O's don't work if the culture isn't on," Bowness told NHL.com in July.

The Jets have a lot of potential to grow into, with elite offensive talents like Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Scheifele, a versatile top defenseman in Josh Morrissey and one of the league's top shot-stoppers in Connor Hellebuyck. If Bowness can get the squad to return its focus to winning on the ice, the Jets could sneak in to the playoffs with a wild-card spot come April.

What will the trades for Kane and Toews look like?

The Chicago Blackhawks were bad last year. They're going to be even worse this season.

After trading away Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach, and letting others leave in free agency, the Blackhawks are all in for the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.

For a team that enjoyed more success than any other last decade, it's time to turn the page and begin a new chapter — one that no longer includes superstar forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

With the pair entering the final year of identical eight-year contracts they signed in 2014, the rumor mill has already begun swirling around the league as teams inquire about the veterans' prices. Kane is fresh off one of his best seasons in recent years, registering 92 points in 78 games. At 33, he still has a lot to offer to a team looking to round out its offense with an elite playmaker.

Toews is coming off a 37-point season after missing the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign. The 34-year-old may no longer be the exemplary two-way forward that he was in his prime, but his leadership and defensive instincts could be a great addition to a Stanley Cup contender.

The biggest issue around any deal involving either Kane or Toews is the cap hit they each carry — $10.5 million —-and how difficult that figure would be for any competitive team to fit under their cap ceiling. Even with Chicago allowed to retain as much as 50 percent of their cap hit, any deal would likely have to include a significant salary or a few players going the other way for a deal to work. Like any rebuilding team, the Blackhawks will be most interested in draft picks and prospects, which makes these potential deals tricky to pull off.

The trade deadline is the most obvious time for any deals to be made, with potential contenders and suitors having had time to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

It may be the end of an era in Chicago, but Kane and Toews may still get a good shot to lift the Cup for a fourth time in a different jersey.

How long will the Coyotes wait to trade Chychrun?

The Arizona Coyotes are expected to duke it out with the Blackhawks for last place in the NHL and the best odds at landing the first overall pick of the 2023 draft.

Rarely, though, are there this many eyes on Arizona as the hockey world waits on the Jakob Chychrun trade. Now, there isn't a guarantee that we see a deal for the 26-year-old actually materialize, as the Coyotes aren't under much immediate pressure to trade him away.

Still, this season might be the best time to get the best possible deal for Chychrun, as they have no desire to be competitive and he may be a little too old to fit their current rebuild. With a very modest cap hit of $4.5 million, he'll have plenty of suitors around the league.

General manager Bill Armstrong may be inclined to trade him soon though, as Chychrun has a modified no-trade clause kicking in on July 1, 2023, in which he can submit a 10-team no-trade list.

The Ottawa Senators have emerged as a potential suitor for the Boca Raton, Florida, native, and he would make quite the addition to a team that is already much improved after a memorable offseason.

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