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Central Division as competitive as ever after another busy summer

Any of the seven teams in the division are able to make a solid case for a playoff spot

by Brian Halverson / Special to Wild.com

The following article appears in October's edition of Wild Magazine


When the Minnesota Wild's 2018-19 regular season ended, so did its run of six consecutive playoff berths. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau delivered a pointed message to his players after the season saying, "I hope it sits in everybody's craw the way it's sitting in mine because then you'll be determined never to let it happen again."

That's easier said than done in a brutally tough Central Division, perennially among the league's deepest, which, oh by the way, now includes the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The Wild weren't alone in sitting out the 2019 postseason as the Chicago Blackhawks failed to advance in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 11 years. Patrick Kane's career highs in goals (44) and points (110), a 41-goal season by Alex DeBrincat, and a rebound year (35 goals, 81 points) by Jonathan Toews were not enough to overcome a slow start which cost former coach Joel Quenneville his job.

Video: Who is the team to beat in the Central Division

Chicago's 291 goals allowed last season was second only to Ottawa (301), so the Blackhawks are counting on Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to bolster a blue line featuring emerging star Erik Gustafsson (17 goals, 60 points) and aging veterans Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Behind them, former Islander, and Vezina Trophy finalist, Robin Lehner replaces the retired Cam Ward and will split time in goal with Corey Crawford.

Already a team on the rise with a formidable top line of center Nathan MacKinnon, right wing Mikko Rantanen and left wing Gabriel Landeskog, the Colorado Avalanche fortified its second line with the offseason acquisitions of Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. Minnesota will have to contend with both the skill and grit of Landeskog, a long-time Wild agitator, and the oft-suspended Kadri on back-to-back shifts this season.

After an impressive postseason in which he made his NHL debut, reigning Hobey Baker Award-winning rookie defenseman Cale Makar looks ready to fill the hole on the Avs defense created by Tyson Barrie's departure to Toronto via the Kadri trade.

Only the New York Islanders (191) allowed fewer goals than the Dallas Stars (200) in 2018-19, who received stellar goaltending from Ben Bishop, who had a career-high .934 save percentage last season. Defensemen John Klingberg (45 points) and Miro Heiskanen (33) anchor a solid blue line that includes Esa Lindell (32). The trio ranked fourth through sixth in points for the Stars, who finished near the bottom of the league in goal scoring a year ago. 

But that's not to say Dallas lacks personnel up front that is capable of scoring in bunches. Along with forwards Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, Dallas went out and signed former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski (38 goals last year) in free agency. The Stars also bought low on former Anaheim Duck Corey Perry, a six-time 30-goal scorer. 

The Nashville Predators waved goodbye to defenseman P.K. Subban in a cap space-creating move that freed up room for general manager David Poile to sign Matt Duchene. Duchene is expected to be slotted alongside former Wild forward Mikael Granlund in an effort to boost Nashville's scoring depth and a league-worst power play (12.9 percent).
 
Subban's departure opens the door for 21-year-old Dante Fabbro to make a push for an elevated role with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm on a strong Predators' blue line. Josi's 56 points were second only to top-line center Ryan Johansen's 64 last year. The goaltending tandem of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros is among the NHL's best.

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues begin their quest to join the Pittsburgh Penguins in becoming just the second team to capture back-to-back titles in the salary-cap era. They may not be on a mission from God but these Blues brothers got nearly the whole band back together in pursuit of that goal. 

Only St. Louis native Pat Maroon, who signed a free-agent deal with Tampa Bay in August, does not return from a core that delivered the Cup to Missouri for the first time. Selke Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly leads a deep forward group which includes the always-dangerous Vladamir Tarasenko. 

Video: Potential Central Division breakout players

Defenseman Colton Parayko signed on for three more years over the summer helping Alex Pietrangelo anchor a Top-5 defense from a year ago in front breakout star, and team MVP, Jordan Binnington in goal. South St. Paul native and former UMD Bulldog Justin Faulk was added in a trade from Carolina during training camp to round out arguably the deepest group of defensemen in the League.

The Winnipeg Jets, on the other hand, greet several new faces and begin the season with more questions than answers after stumbling in the second half. 

A Vezina Trophy finalist in 2017-18, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck reverted to his 2016-17 form and will need a bounce-back season if the Jets are to be anything more than a playoff bubble team.

While Josh Morrissey agreed to a long term deal to remain a Jet, Winnipeg's defensive depth took a huge hit with the departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot over the summer. In their place, the Jets need breakout seasons from Neal Pionk, acquired from the Rangers in exchange for Trouba, and Nathan Beaulieu, picked up from Buffalo at last year's trade deadline, each of whom still has plenty to prove at the NHL level. Dustin Byfuglien left the team at the start of camp and his NHL future is in doubt.

Up front, Winnipeg still has offensive stars Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor but it remains to be seen whether that firepower will be enough to lift the Jets back to the playoffs.


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Into the Wild: An in-depth look at the team entering the 2019-20 season

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