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Avalanche could be top team in Central, opposing players say

Makar, 'unbelievable' MacKinnon praised by Crosby, Kane

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- The Colorado Avalanche could be the team to beat in a loaded Central Division this season, according to opponents inside the division and around the NHL.

"It seems like a lot of teams have gotten better in the Central and it's going to be a tough division, but that's the one that sticks out for me," Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said at the NHL Player Media Tour on Friday. "They're kind of established now."

The Avalanche were 38-30-14 in 2018-19 and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season. They were led by their top forward line of Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, who combined for 261 points (106 goals, 155 assists).

Defenseman Cale Makar, the Avalanche's first-round pick (No. 4) in the 2017 NHL Draft, made his debut during their Western Conference First Round series win against the Calgary Flames. The 20-year-old had six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 postseason games.

Colorado lost to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Second Round in seven games.

"They've got some players who played really well last year, they've got some young guys coming up like Makar and even the defenseman they drafted this year," Kane said of Bowen Byram, selected by the Avalanche with the No. 4 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. "I don't know if he'll be on the team, but he seems to be pretty good."

Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg was equally impressed with Makar.

"I watched in the playoffs. He's coming in, hasn't even played a regular-season game yet, and just floating on the ice, a little bit like [Stars defenseman] Miro Heiskanen," Klingberg said. "This is a guy who's going to be pretty good for many years to come."

Video: Breaking down the favorites from the Central Division

The biggest praise, however, was given to MacKinnon, the 24-year-old who had 99 points (41 goals, 58 assists) in the regular season and 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 12 postseason games.

"You could see in the playoffs how he took his game to another level," said Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, a close friend of MacKinnon. "The way he dominated, only a few that come to mind. I think of (Edmonton Oilers center Connor) McDavid, (Penguins center Evgeni Malkin), Nate's in that category where he can just take over a game.

"I think we saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs. He did that consistently. I'm sure that was great for him to see that and feel that out there. And I expect him to take another big step here. It's a pretty solid team. I think he's going to be a pretty solid part of that."

Klingberg, when asked who the top scorer in the NHL will be this season, immediately guessed MacKinnon.

"You saw last year how he took off and obviously with the line they have there with Landeskog and Rantanen, it's probably one of the best in the League," Klingberg said. "A guy like that, he drives to play every shift and it looks like he's going to get better. I think he's an unbelievable player."

The Avalanche added depth this offseason by acquiring forward Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade for defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot on July 1. Colorado also acquired forward Andre Burakovsky from the Washington Capitals in a trade for two draft picks on June 28.

Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, voted the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2019 playoffs after St. Louis won the Cup for the first time in its history, said he's also keeping an eye on the Avalanche.

"I'm interested to see how Colorado does, with them getting younger and stuff like that and having some pieces," said O'Reilly, who played six seasons with the Avalanche (2009-15). "And it's always tough going against Nathan MacKinnon. If you let him loose a bit, he can be tough."

The Avalanche aren't the only Central team that made offseason upgrades. The Stars signed longtime San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski to a three-year contract and former Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry to a one-year contract. The Blackhawks signed goaltender Robin Lehner, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL with the New York Islanders last season, to a one-year contract. Chicago also acquired defenseman Calvin de Haan in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes and forward Andrew Shaw in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens. The Minnesota Wild signed forward Mats Zuccarello to a five-year contract.

Video: Discussing the best teams in the Central Division

Of the seven teams in the Central Division, only the Blackhawks and Wild didn't qualify for the playoffs last season. The Blues finished third behind the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets.

Winnipeg forward Nikolaj Ehlers said he expects similar results this season.

"I mean, you look at that division and you're like, '[Darn], those are good teams,'" Ehlers said. "So it's going to be a challenge for every team in our division, but it's going to be a lot of fun." staff writers Mike Zeisberger, Nick Cotsonika and Dan Rosen contributed to this report

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