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2017-18 season preview: Central Division

While Wild was busy making tweaks to roster, so were division rivals in an effort to chase it down

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

This story is part of Wild.com's 2017-18 season preview.

As it seemingly has each of the past few seasons, the Central Division managed to get stronger once again during the offseason. With the Vegas Golden Knights beginning play in the Pacific Division this season, the Central is the only remaining division in the NHL with seven teams.

Still, it just might be the toughest.

The defending Western Conference champions got hot during the postseason and won't relinquish their post without a fight. 

The two best teams during the regular season last year came from the Central.

One of the game's all-time great coaches came out of a brief retirement to return to the bench, a place where he won a Stanley Cup. 

Two of the NHL's brightest young stars had breakout campaigns last season and appear poised to become to of the game's best.

And that's just a few of the storylines inside the Central as the 2017-18 season begins this week. 

Here's a quick look around the division, in order of how the teams finished the 2016-17 regular season:
 

Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points)

Who's in: It was an offseason of big changes in the Windy City, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to a couple of their bright young stars and hello to a familiar face.

In one of the biggest trades of the summer, Chicago sent forward Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward and former Blackhawk Brandon Saad. 

A six-year NHL veteran, it's hard to believe Saad is still just 24 years old. Saad posted a pair of 53-point seasons for the Blue Jackets but is better known for his early work in Chicago, which he helped to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in 2013 and 2015.

While he certainly isn't the only reason, the Blackhawks have been unable to recapture the Cup since his departure, and franchise cornerstones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are thrilled to have their old teammate back. 

In another big trade (on the same day, no less), the Blackhawks acquired defenseman Connor Murphy from the Arizona Coyotes. The trade was, literally, a big one; Murphy is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, providing Chicago with some much-needed muscle on the back end. 

And speaking of reunions, the Blackhawks also brought back forward Patrick Sharp after an injury-riddled season in Dallas. Sharp scored 34 goals and 78 points in Chicago as recently as 2013-14, but has seen his production and his durability decline each of the past three seasons.

Who's out: In order to get Murphy, the Blackhawks had to give up Niklas Hjalmarsson, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the more underrated blueliners in the game.

In swapping Hjalmarsson for Murphy, Chicago got significantly younger and saved some money, but the void left by Hjalmarsson will be an ongoing storyline to watch.

Panarin is actually a year older than Saad, but has proven to be one of the most electric players in the game today. The question now is whether the skilled Russian winger can do it on his own, without Kane hanging out on his other wing.

Panarin scored a career-high 31 goals and has a pair of 70-plus point seasons under his belt, the latter of which Saad hasn't come close to duplicating yet in his career.


Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points)

Who's in: Minnesota shored up its forward depth by acquiring Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno in a trade with Buffalo, then signed centerman Matt Cullen late in free agency. 

Foligno brings some necessary size to the Wild's forward group and scored a career-high 13 goals last season.

Ennis, if healthy, has a chance to have the kind of comeback season Eric Staal did last year. A three-time 20-goal scorer, Ennis turns 28 on Sunday and has significant upside.

Cullen, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, returns to Minnesota for a second stint with his hometown Wild. He's been a critical cog for the Penguins each of the past two seasons, helping Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

Who's out: In order to get Foligno and Ennis, the Wild gave up Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella.

Pominville quietly posted 47 points last season, including 34 assists. While he isn't likely to approach 30 goals like he has three other times in his career, his presence could be difficult to replace.

Scandella has struggled to find consistency over the past couple of seasons but was Minnesota's most physical defensemen. 

Erik Haula was selected by Vegas in the Expansion Draft, a move which spurred the club to sign Cullen in August.


St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)

Who's in: The signature move of the offseason for the Blues was the acquisition of centerman Brayden Schenn during NHL Draft weekend in June. 

Schenn had 25 goals and 55 points for the Flyers last season and has missed a total of just six games over the past five seasons, providing the Blues with insurance in case Paul Stastny struggles to stay healthy, which has been a major issue.

Former Wild defenseman Nate Prosser was signed for the veteran minimum later in the summer, a move paying immediate dividends. Jay Bouwmeester could miss significant time because of an ankle injury, meaning Prosser's status on the roster should be secure. While he can't fill Bouwmeester's role by himself, he can certainly help share the load.

Chris Thorburn, a former Winnipeg Jet, was signed to help bring grit to the fourth line.

Who's out: St. Louis' only loss to another team was forward Jori Lehtera, who along with a first-round draft pick was dealt to Philadelphia for Schenn. 

But injuries have ravaged the Blues throughout the summer and into camp.

In addition to Bouwmeester, St. Louis has had to deal with injuries to Alexander Steen (hand), Robby Fabbri (knee), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Zach Sanford (shoulder). Fabbri will miss the season, while Steen could be back after a few weeks. Sanford and Berglund will be out several months.


Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)

Who's in: Forward Nick Bonino was a critical depth forward for Pittsburgh last season when the Penguins defeated the Predators in six games to win the Stanley Cup.

Bonino played in just two games in the Finals, but was invaluable before, playing in 19 games through the Eastern Conference Finals. Bonino, who scored 18 goals and 37 points in 80 games during the regular season, scored a four-year, $16.4 million contract from Nashville in free agency.

The Predators also signed forward Scott Hartnell. A former Pred, who played six years in Nashville from 2000-2007, Hartnell was bought out after scoring 13 goals and 37 points for Columbus last season.

Who's out: Predators captain Mike Fisher announced his retirement via a heartfelt letter to fans after 17 seasons in the NHL, including the past seven with the Predators. While the loss of Nashville's captain will be difficult to overcome in the dressing room, Fisher was also a solid contributor on the ice last season, scoring 18 goals and 42 points. 

With arguably the best collection of defensemen in the League, the Predators were bound to lose a quality player in the Expansion Draft.

Choosing to protect all of the valued assets on the backend, it was Nashville's forward group which took a hit when the Golden Knights selected James Neal.

Neal, who has scored at least 21 goals in each of his nine full NHL seasons, had a down campaign last year but still managed to put the puck in the net 23 times. His offense won't be easily replaced.


Winnipeg Jets (40-35-7, 87 points)

Who's in: Perhaps the biggest move the Jets made in the offseason was the addition of veteran goaltender Steve Mason. 

Connor Hellebuyck wasn't bad for Winnipeg a year ago, but he battled consistency issues. With Mason and Hellebuyck pushing each other, the the Jets hope one eventually emerges as the man between the posts.

The Jets added some grit late in the summer when they signed Blaine native Matt Hendricks, a former Edmonton Oiler.

After a couple of quality seasons with the Florida Panthers, Dmitry Kulikov struggled mightily in 47 games with the Buffalo Sabres last year. He signed a three-year deal with the Jets in hopes of getting his career back on track.

Who's out: The Jets lost longtime goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in free agency, although that parting was mutual. Pavelec accompanied the Jets north when they moved from Atlanta in 2011, but the relationship had run its course.

Thorburn and Rochester native Brad Stuart were the other losses of note for the Jets, but each was replaced on the roster by Hendricks and Kulikov.


Dallas Stars (34-37-11, 79 points) 

Who's in: As one of the busiest teams of the summer, the Stars' most prominent addition came on the bench with the signing of Ken Hitchcock as coach. 

Hitchcock, who led Dallas to the Stanley Cup in 1999, was fired midseason last year in St. Louis and appeared headed for retirement. But a final crack at a second Cup with a talented roster in Dallas got him back in the game.

The hope is that Hitchcock can bring badly needed defensive structure to a team that is loaded with talent up front, and got better during the summer.

It will also help having consistency in goal, where Dallas added Ben Bishop during the offseason. Arguably the prize among goalies in free agency, the Stars traded for Bishop days before he hit free agency, then re-signed him to a six-year deal to help lock down the blue paint.

Former Wild center Martin Hanzal was added to provide depth down the middle. With Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza already in the fold, the Stars can now roll three quality centers on the ice.

Dallas also added forward Alexander Radulov in free agency. Radulov is enigmatic but supremely talented. He had 18 goals and 54 points last season and could score in bunches playing right wing next to Seguin and Stars captain Jamie Benn. 

In an effort to shore up its D-core, the Stars also dealt for Marc Methot, a defensive-defenseman that could allow partner John Klingberg to jump into plays like he did two years ago during a division championship season.

Who's out: The Stars lost forward Cody Eakin in the Expansion Draft and bought out goaltender Antti Niemi, but were able to do a solid job of replacing them.

Sharp was never going to re-sign with the Stars after a concussion cost him half of last season. 


Colorado Avalanche (22-56-4, 48 points)

Who's in: Major changes were expected in Colorado, but the Avs decided to make some minor tweaks instead.

With one of the most talented young cores in the league still in tact in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene still around (at least for now), Colorado chose to supplement their forward group with the underachieving Nail Yakupov. The former No. 1 overall pick scored three goals and nine points in 40 games with the Blues last season.

Colin Wilson was a solid depth signing to help the Avs down the middle. he scored 12 goals and 35 points for the Predators last season.

Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was solid in Anaheim last season, was added to back up Semyon Varlamov.

Who's out: Vegas selected backup goaltender Calvin Pickard, who showed promising upside while Varlamov was out with injury a year ago.

Veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin was the only other notable loss. He signed with Anaheim for his third tour of duty with the Ducks.

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