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Insider debate: Who will emerge with Central Division crown?

From breakout teams to Cup predictions, our experts discuss the top league storylines entering the new season

by Mike Heika, Jeff Odom, Brien Rea, Owen Newkirk and Bruce LeVine / DallasStars.com

It's hockey time, and we have plenty to discuss with the regular season kicking off this week.

In an NHL preview edition of our "Take 5" insider debate, Mike Heika, Jeff Odom, Brien Rea, Owen Newkirk and Bruce LeVine discuss who emerges victorious in the Central Division, which club may surprise in 2019-20, who will raise the Cup and more.

Happy reading.

 

1. Which team do you think will win the Central Division and why?

Mike Heika, DallasStars.com Senior Staff Writer: St. Louis. The surprise for the Blues last season was more the poor start than the great finish. This is a very good hockey team. The addition of Justin Faulk is the right player at the right time, and they have two good goalies who can win regular season games.

They seem to be ready to play consistently good hockey.

 

Jeff Odom, DallasStars.com Site Reporter: Picking a team to emerge from this pack is about as easy as drawing names out of a hat. That said, yes, the Dallas Stars look like the team most poised to take the crown.

On paper, the Stars shored up their depth scoring issue this summer with the additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. And with arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league and an improved blueline, it's hard to pick against them.

Will the defending Cup champion Blues, Avalanche and Predators be nipping at their heels all season long? Sure. But if it can stay healthy, win consistently on the road and continue to build upon its second-half success from last season, Dallas really has all the makings of a division winner -- and potentially more.

Video: NHL Tonight forecasts the Central Division


Brien Rea, FOX Sports Southwest Host: Nashville Predators. They've been a solid regular season team during this window they're in, and I like their balance. Offense, defense and goaltending, the Preds can be effective in all three areas. Plus, their power play should be improved with Matt Duchene in the mix.

 

Owen Newkirk, Dallas Stars Radio Host: I think it's fair to say that the Central Division is going to be a bloodbath this season. I want to pick the Stars, but my gut tells me it's going to be the Colorado Avalanche.

The Avs have one of the most dangerous lines in hockey (Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen), but the team was much too top-heavy last season. Like Dallas, Colorado has improved their depth below the top line and will be much improved because of it.

 

Bruce LeVine, Dallas Stars Radio Analyst: It's hard to believe that just two seasons ago, Colorado had the worst record in the NHL with only 48 points. Not only did Colorado lose on the ice, they even lost the draft lottery, falling from the first selection to the fourth overall pick.

But the emergence of their Big Three (Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen) changed the franchise forever.

General manager Joe Sakic has done an amazing job rebuilding as the trade of Matt Duchene is the gift that keeps on giving -- the greatest hockey example of addition by subtraction. The defense has two potential superstars in Sam Girard and Cale Makar, and because of the aforementioned fleecing, the Avs also were able to draft the top-rated defenseman in the entire 2019 class, Bowen Byram. Nazem Kadri adds more punch to the power-play unit, while Phillip Grubauer is ready to prove he is an elite NHL netminder.

Colorado is my favorite to win the Central this year and for many seasons to come.

 

2. Who do you believe will be the Carolina Hurricanes of 2019-20 and become the biggest surprise this season? Who will take a step back?

Heika: I like Ralph Krueger, I like Jason Botterill. I think after a long wait, the folks in Buffalo might have it right. Both Krueger and Botterill are smart, and both should be able to build a strong culture for the Sabres. While the plan is that will take a couple of years, this squad has enough talent that it could win quickly.

I've been anticipating the San Jose Sharks would hit the wall for about five years now. I think this might finally be the season it happens, so list them as a potential disappointment.

 

Odom: Hands down, the Florida Panthers should be at the top of anyone's list of clubs ready to break out in 2019-20.

Led by champion bench boss Joel Quinneville, a long-term solution in net with two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and a talented young core headlined by Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, it would honestly be a disappointment if Florida didn't reach the postseason.

Don't look past the Rangers, Coyotes or Devils, either.

As for a team that could regress, I'd point to Nashville as that candidate. Yes, the Preds reeled in the offseason's biggest catch, signing Matt Duchene away from Columbus, but their offense didn't look good against the Stars in the postseason (about that power play, eh?) and still has question marks. Not to mention rookie defenseman Dante Fabbro faces the not-so-easy task of filling the void left behind by departed leader P.K. Subban, and it's not a certainty that aging netminder Pekka Rinne, one month shy of his 37th birthday, will continue to play at an elite level.

 

Rea: Arizona Coyotes. I don't know if they're a Conference Finals team, but they were only four points out of a wild-card spot last season, added Phil Kessel's offense this summer, and their No. 1 goaltender is healthy in Antti Raanta. A young, hardworking, in-your-face team that will cause some problems for opponents.

For my disappointment, I'll actually say the Carolina Hurricanes. No Justin Williams. No Justin Faulk. No "Bunch of Jerks" cries to rally around. They're a young team that had a great push last season, but this year they won't be surprising anyone. Consistency is the hardest lesson for a young team to learn at the NHL level, and that's the lesson the Hurricanes need to prove they've learned this year.


Newkirk: With how vicious the Central Division is going to be, the biggest disappointments will be whichever two Central teams don't make it to the big dance.

There are two teams in the Eastern Conference who missed the playoffs last year that seem primed to make the postseason in 2019-20. That would be the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers, both of whom added big pieces over the summer. However, I don't think making the Stanely Cup Playoffs would be all that much of a surprise for either one of those clubs. So for my sleeper "out-of-left-field" pick, I'm going with the New York Rangers, on the shoulders of newly acquired superstar Artemi Panarin and an age-defying season by "The King," Henrik Lundqvist.

 

LeVine: The New Jersey Devils are going to be the most improved team in hockey, but considering their offseason that will come as no surprise. The bigger surprise will come from Western New York as the Buffalo Sabres will make a return to the playoffs this season.

While only 19, Rasmus Dahlin will be a force on the blueline and prove his record breaking rookie season was just scratching the surface. Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Casey Mittelstadt will anchor an improved group of forwards. I like the additions of Colin Miller to help the defense and Jimmy Vesey to add depth up front.

If the Sabres get any semblance of decent goaltending, they see postseason play for the first time since 2011.

On the flip side, the Central Division is no place for a slow start, and Winnipeg had a tumultuous preseason that could foreshadow early season troubles.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor over the weekend will help, but the status of Dustin Byfuglien still looms as the season begins. The defense has major questions and Connor Hellebuyck will need to bounce back from an average regular season and sub-par playoffs.

Winter in Winnipeg is tough enough, but this might be a very difficult year for the Jets and their frozen faithful.

 

3. Who has your vote as league MVP entering the regular season?

Heika: Give me Connor McDavid. This is an award that usually goes to the player that scores the most points, and my guess is McDavid will score the most points. Plus, Dave Tippett and Co. might actually get the Oilers into the playoffs, and that would make McDavid most valuable to his team.

 

Odom: Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid are probably the easy choices here, but I'm going to go with Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche as my pick.

In the prime of his career, MacKinnon finished runner-up for the Hart Trophy in 2018 and has been one of the most productive offensive players in the league with 97 and 99 points over the last two seasons, respectively. With Colorado being among the handful of teams in the conversation to compete now for a Stanley Cup, I think that gives MacKinnon the slight edge over McDavid, whose Oilers will be improved with some stability under Dave Tippett, but don't seem primed for a postseason return quite yet.

It wouldn't shock me to see Vegas' Mark Stone, Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau or Tampa Bay's Brayden Point in the conversation, either.


Rea: Nathan MacKinnon. The best player on arguably the NHL's best forward line last season. He is dangerous every time he steps on the ice and plays with two very productive players in Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.

 

Newkirk: I'm a huge fan of Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov and I would not be surprised in the slightest if he were to repeat as the Hart Trophy winner for 2019-20. But I'm actually going to go with Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid.

He has reached, or surpassed, the 100-point milestone in each of his last three seasons (and probably would have done it as a rookie in 2015-16 had he not been injured and only played in 45 games). The real question will be whether McDavid and new head coach Dave Tippett can guide the Oilers to the playoffs. If they do, McDavid will be the NHL's MVP.

 

LeVine: For most of his career, Connor McDavid can best be described a shiny pearl in a sea of mud.

Last year, he was second in the league in scoring while once again playing for a non-contender. The argument that the league MVP should not come from a team that doesn't make the playoffs will not be a concern this season. Dave Tippett will get the Oilers back to the postseason play and his best talent will be league's top performer as well.

In preseason, McDavid showed a desire and determination unseen before. The 2017 Hart Trophy winner will add more hardware to his collection this year and it will not be a close race.

 

4. Which under-the-radar player has the potential to make the biggest impact for their club?

Heika: I think when you combine the fact that Colorado could have one of the most offensively skilled teams in the league with the fact the Avalanche traded away No. 1 defenseman Tyson Barrie, it opens the door for Cale Makar to be one of the most productive defensemen in the NHL.

The fourth overall pick in 2017, Makar is probably not under the radar, but for a 21-year-old to possibly battle for the Norris, that would be a surprise.

 

Odom: Phil Kessel might not truly be an under-the-radar player, but he and Arizona just seem like a perfect match.

The veteran winger brings scoring to a franchise that badly needs it (no Coyotes player exceeded 19 goals last season) and he could very well be the true difference-maker that the desert has longed for. Will it be enough to push the 'Yotes into a playoff spot? It should.

Some other names to watch include Dallas' Roope Hintz, Tampa Bay's Anthony Cirelli and Colorado's Cale Makar.

 

Rea: Does Cale Makar in Colorado count after his 10 playoff games last season? If not, I'll take Frank Vatrano in Florida. Lethal shot, 24 goals last year in 81 games, and easy to forget about behind their top guns of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Mike Hoffman.

 

Newkirk: I'm going with Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlinkins. The 25-year old Latvian has never played in a regular season NHL game and now he, along with Finnish teammate Joonas Korpisalo, is tasked with carrying the load left by Sergei Bobrovsky, who departed in free agency.

The Blue Jackets drafted Merzlinkins in 2014, but he spent the last six seasons in the Swiss NLA. If he can quickly acclimate to the smaller NHL rink, Merzlinkins will be a major impact player for Columbus this year.


LeVine: He's not exactly under the radar, but Seth Jones is about to explode in a very good way.

The Blue Jackets went all-in at the trading deadline last year and now have to retool. They still have some talent up front, but the strength of the team is on defense. There will be the need for more offense generated from the blueline, and Jones has all the tools to make it happen.

He has been a top prospect, trade bait and an All-Star in his six-year NHL career. Jones has learned how to add firepower to the offense and also be on the ice at the defensive end of close games. 

It's hard to believe he is only 24 years old, but Jones has the size, speed and power to dominate. I expect him to take the next step and become the first player from Frisco, Texas to win the Norris Trophy.

 

5. What is your way-too-early prediction for the Stanley Cup Final?

Heika: I honestly thought Vegas was the best team in the West when the playoffs started last year, and that an odd penalty (and how the Knights reacted to said odd penalty) derailed another trip to the Stanley Cup Final. I think they win it all this year. The East is tough to pick, but give me Boston again. The Bruins are resilient and Jaroslav Halak is probably the runner-up to Cale Makar in that off-the-radar question above.

 

Odom: Lightning versus Golden Knights. Vegas has been more than good enough to win it all the past two years and that won't change this time around either. But after being swept out of the first round by Columbus to end a historic season in shocking fashion, I think Tampa Bay will take a page out of Washington's book and finally get over its own hump to raise the Cup.


Rea: It's hard not to get excited thinking about the potential level the Stars could reach with Pavelski, Perry, Sekera, Hintz and Dickinson added to the full-time mix. The right ingredients could be in place, but we need to see how everything develops from the start of the season. So, right now, I'll take two teams that are on a mission to avenge disappointing playoff losses last season in Vegas and Tampa Bay.

 

Newkirk: It's very difficult to pick before the season, because you're basically going with who looks best on paper. So with that in mind, let's do it anyway. In the East, I'm sticking with my pick to win the Cup last year: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They were by far the best team in the regular season and will have spent a long summer stewing about being swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning were a scary team in 2018-19, but now with a massive chip on their shoulder, they will be downright terrifying.

In the West, I honestly believe the Dallas Stars have as good a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final as any of the other 14 teams in the conference, particularly with their elite goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. But aside from the Stars, my pick would be the Calgary Flames. They had a fantastic regular season, playing with tons of speed up front and one of the deeper blue lines in the NHL. But they came up well short of expectations in the playoffs, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the first round in five games.

Just like with Tampa, I believe that early exit will fuel Calgary's fire this year (no pun intended). If the Flames can get better goaltending from David Rittich and free-agent signing Cam Talbot, then they will be real contenders.

 

LeVine: Many great lessons on how to win have come from humiliating defeats.

Two years ago, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to lose to a No. 16 seed. This year, the Cavaliers won the championship. Wayne Gretzky talks about how getting swept by the Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final taught his young Edmonton Oilers team what sacrifices need to be made in order to capture the "Holy Grail of Hockey."

The Tampa Bay Lightning suffered one of those humiliating moments this spring by not even winning one playoff game after cruising to a 62-victory regular season. It was a long and torturous offseason for the best team in the NHL. I fully expect Jon Cooper's club to learn and get a measure of revenge by advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Where they will meet -- the Dallas Stars. Yep, I went there. Goaltending and defense wins titles. The goalie combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin is the best in the NHL. In my 10 years with the organization, the defense has never been better or deeper. The offense struggled last year, but the addition of Joe Pavelski, a healthy Jamie Benn and the emergence of speedster Roope Hintz will solve some of those issues.

With more help up front, I expect Tyler Seguin to become a 40-goal scorer this season. There should not be the drama of early last year as the team has learned Jim Montgomery's system and the culture has been established.

The Stars came within half an inch (or less) or eliminating the Blues during the second round last season.This season, Dallas will take the next step and play hockey into June.

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, and listen to his podcast.

Jeff Odom covers the Stars for DallasStars.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffodom.

Brien Rea is a contributing columnist for DallasStars.com and the host of 'Stars Live' on FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter @BrienRea.

Owen Newkirk is a contributor for DallasStars.com and the host of Dallas Stars radio broadcasts on Sportsradio 1310-AM and 96.7-FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @OwenNewkirk.

Bruce LeVine is a contributor for DallasStars.com and the analyst of Dallas Stars radio broadcasts on Sportsradio 1310-AM and 96.7-FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @BruceLeVinePuck.

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