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Central Division preview: Will Stars take aim at Blues?

DallasStars.com's Mike Heika takes a closer look at the most competitive division in the NHL

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The Central Division is certainly the most competitive division in the NHL.

The difference between first and last was 17 points last season, and even seventh place Minnesota finished above .500. The difference between first and last in the Atlantic Division was 64 points, the difference in the Pacific was 36, the difference in the Metropolitan was 32.

Now, those divisions each have eight teams, but the point is pretty clear that teams playing Central Division opponents have to be ready every game.

Last season, Chicago had the best record within the division at 14-8-4, while Minnesota had the worst at 12-10-4. Nobody is dominating anybody else.

Video: NHL Tonight forecasts the Central Division

"It's been like that ever since I came into the league. I think it's probably the best division in the league," said Stars defenseman John Klingberg. "I think it's a good thing we're playing in that division. It's going to help us when we get into the playoffs."

The Stars played Minnesota, St. Louis and Colorado twice each in the preseason, so the familiarity is already there. However, they play just one divisional opponent in the first 13 games, so they'll have to wait until these games get dialed up in the regular season.

"I think it's up for grabs," said Stars goalie Ben Bishop. "You look at every team in the division, and I think anyone has a chance to win the division. Every team in the Central has gotten better and it's a good test for everybody. It's fun."

Here's a look at the seven teams in the Central Division:

 

St. Louis Blues (Last season: 45-28-9, 99 points, 3rd in Central)

The defending Stanley Cup champions had quite a trip last season. They were in last place at New Year's and won it all in June. A great deal of the credit has to go to goalie Jordan Binnington, who got called up from the minors and went 24-5-1 during the regular season with a 1.89 GAA (best in the NHL) and a .927 save percentage (4th). Binnington then stepped up in the playoffs and went 16-10 under extreme pressure while posting a 2.46 GAA and .914 save percentage.

Those latter numbers might mean more, because they prove that he wasn't the only reason the Blues won it all. St. Louis is a good team that had a dip to start the season. It proved in the second half and in the playoffs that it is a good team, and that makes the Blues one of the favorites to win the division this season.

General manager Doug Armstrong decided to not stand pat in the summer, as he acquired defenseman Justin Faulk from Carolina and signed him to a seven-year contract extension. That could create some issues down the road with both Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester possible unrestricted free agents next summer, but it makes sense to help the Blues win now. That message should be pretty clear throughout the locker room that Armstrong would love to try for a repeat.

Coach Craig Berube is one of the key strengths for this team, as he will likely help the Blues push through any Stanley Cup hangover. Robert Thomas (33 points) and Jaden Schwartz (36 points) are candidates to increase their scoring.

 

Dallas Stars (Last season: 43-32-7, 93 points, 4th in Central)

The Stars have been a "win-now" team for a few years, and the hope is they now have the pieces and experience in place at the same time. Second-year head coach Jim Montgomery should be more comfortable and better poised to get the Stars off to a fast start. Goalie Ben Bishop was runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and appears ready to repeat last season's performance. And Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry have been added to Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov in hopes of giving the Stars some scoring depth.

So, can Dallas make a run at the Blues for the top team in the Central and then go on to find playoff success? It will be a step-by-step journey. The Stars have battled injuries in recent seasons, and have some injury-prone players this year. They believe they have the best depth they have had in recent seasons, but also have to replace forwards like Valeri Nichushkin, Brett Ritchie and Tyler Pitlick. The opportunity is there to upgrade the depth in all areas, but these new players have to go do that.

Back-up goalie Anton Khudobin is an unheralded cog who was key in getting the team to the playoff last season, and will be important again. The Stars also seem to have goaltending depth in the AHL with Jake Oettinger and Landon Bow. Still, the key is finding a way to increase the scoring beyond 2.55 goals per game (28th in the NHL last season) while not losing their identity as a strong defensive team.

If they can do that, maybe Dallas can compete with any team in the league.

 

Colorado Avalanche (Last season: 38-30-14, 90 points, 5th in Central)

Colorado has been on a strong track forward and is hoping this is a breakthrough year.

The Avalanche traded No. 1 defenseman Tyson Barrie, and believes that both Samuel Girard and Cale Makar are ready to take over on the blueline. Add to that the electric scoring of Nathan MacKinnon (99 points), Mikko Rantanen (87 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (75 points), and this team has the potential to take the next step.

Colorado added center Nazem Kadri in the Barrie trade, and Kadri should give the Avalanche some two-way punch and a little edge emotionally. In addition, Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are hoping to provide scoring depth that was missing last season.

The Avalanche lost goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Islanders, and are pinning their hopes on Philipp Grubauer in net. That's sort of the natural order with Grubauer now 27, but for any problems Varlamov might have had last season, he still played in 49 games and won 20 (20-19-9). Colorado is hoping 29-year-old Pavel Francouz is ready to step up as a backup goalie.

 

Nashville Predators (Last season: 47-29-6, 100 points, 1st in Central)

The defending Central Division champions are battling perception problems after the Stars took care of them in the first round of the playoffs. Nashville's trademark defense group and goaltending looked to be aging late last season, and so it will be interesting to see what happens this year.

The Predators moved defenseman P.K. Subban for prospects and draft picks and used his money to sign center Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract that averages $8 million. That could help Nashville's offense, which ranked 19th at 2.88 goals per game, but could hurt the defense, which ranked fourth at 2.59 goals against per game. It most certainly should help the power play, which ranked last in the NHL at 12.9 percent per game.

The expectations have been high for the Predators since they made it to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to Pittsburgh in 2017. So, can they respond when the external expectations might be slipping? Can they embrace an underdog role and prove people wrong?

This is a big season in Nashville and further changes might be coming if there appears to be slippage.

 

Winnipeg Jets (Last season: 47-30-5, 99 points, 2nd in Central)

Not unlike Nashville, many are predicting a slide down the standings for Winnipeg. The Jets lost to the Blues in the first round, and simply seem to be in a bit of a quandary. Hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is dealing with some issues and might not play hockey this year. He is currently suspended. That comes at a bad time for the Jets, who traded away Jacob Trouba and lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in free agency. The entire defense is going to look different on opening night.

Talented scorers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor missed all of training camp waiting for new contracts, but are back in the fold. Still, this isn't the perfect formula for a fast start in Winnipeg. If the Jets struggle early, will they be able to recover?

Now, all of that said, this team still has Laine, Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers. It finished seventh in scoring at 3.29 goals per game and fourth in power play success at 24.8 percent. It will be a challenge for any defense it faces.

Will that be enough to make up for the subtractions on defense? That's the big question for this team.

 

Chicago Blackhawks (Last season: 36-34-12, 84 points, 6th in Central)

The big question in Chicago is whether this is the team that struggled early under new coach Jeremy Colliton last season or the one that took off in the second half? After replacing Blackhawks legend Joel Quenneville on Nov. 6, Colliton watched Chicago go through a stretch in which it lost 10 of 11 games. However, after sinking to 16-24-9 on Jan. 20, the Blackhawks rallied to go 20-10-3 in the final 33 games and create optimism for this season.

On paper, this team should be improved. They already have a pretty solid top trio in Patrick Kane (110 points), Jonathan Toews (81 points) and Alex DeBrincat (76 points), and general manager Stan Bowman decided to add veteran support in the form of Andrew Shaw, Calvin de Haan and Olli Maata. What's more, he made a huge acquisition in signing goalie Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. Corey Crawford has been a rock for Chicago in net, but he's 35 and he's dealing with injuries more and more. Getting one of the Vezina finalists from last season automatically means the Blackhawks should have good goaltending every night.

If they can add that to the consistent offense (3.26 goals per game), then a surprise season for the Blackhawks could create a bit of a mess in the Central Division.

 

Minnesota Wild (Last season: 37-36-9, 83 points, 7th in Central)

The Wild was not able to make that same kind of earth-shattering addition as Chicago in the offseason.

Yes, they were able to sign Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman as free agents, and that will help an offense that ranked 27th in the NHL at 2.56 goals per game, but new general manager Bill Guerin inherits a team with a lot of long-term contracts and only about $1.5 million in salary cap space.

That could make the turnaround for the Wild a little slow.

This still is a competitive team that finished at .500 and has a veteran coach in Bruce Boudreau. It has two big stars in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and a dependable goalie in Devan Dubnyk, but all three are in their mid-30s, and they need to try to win now.

Like Chicago, that makes this team dangerous as an underdog and makes the Central probably the toughest division in the league top to bottom.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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