The Central Division was arguably one of the best divisions in the NHL last year, seeing no team finish too far out of reach from the playoffs. Many of theses teams made both additions and subtractions in their respective offseasons to boast their chances of competing for the Stanley Cup. One team is looking for repeat success as well. Let’s break down the Central Division heading into 2020.
In my opinion, the Minnesota Wild are in one of the most difficult positions to be in as a hockey team. Mediocrity. Excluding last year, the Minnesota Wild had made the postseason for 6 consecutive years although they only made it out of the first round twice. The Wild have proved to be too good to miss the playoffs, but not good enough to make a deep run. Coupling all of last year with the damage previous general manager Paul Fenton was able to do and the Wild have a lot to get done if they want to make the playoffs in 2020.
Leading Minnesota’s offense is Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Jason Zucker and newly signed Mats Zuccarello. Zuccarello’s deal was a slight over-payment, but should help an offense that finished in the bottom five in terms of goals scored (210). Zach Parise’s contract is still cause for concern as it pays him $7.538 million for the next 6 years and even though he was the team’s leading scorer last season, age will begin to creep up on him as he heads into his late 30s. This can be applied to defenseman Ryan Suter as well since both Parise and Suter signed massive 13 year, $98 million deals in 2012. This handicaps the Wild as it takes up a large portion of their cap space on players who have likely seen their best seasons pass them by.
Another hard pill to swallow for Minnesota is the losses of Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Although going into greater depth in this article by the Athletic, both of these moves were seen as bad for the Wild the moment they happened and I think they will feel their losses heavily next season.
Despite Suter’s contract and age, Minnesota still has one of the league’s better defenses. Boasting a blueline of Suter, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin is nothing to laugh at and coupling that with the play of Devan Dubnyk is likely why they haven’t fallen farther down in the standings in recent years. Ultimately, I think Minnesota will miss the playoffs in 2020 and this may hurt now, but could be a better thing that needs to happen in the long run.
In Jim Montgomery’s first season as Dallas Stars’ head coach he brought the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and almost got them to the Western Conference Final for the first time in over a decade. General manager Jim Nill made some exceptional complementary moves to give the Stars that extra edge that will not only help them make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but hopefully contend for the Stanley Cup.
Despite having a lethal top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, Dallas finished tied for the third least amount of goals scored last year (209). Nill took a flyer on Corey Perry, who despite seeing his goal totals diminish over the years, is still an excellent secondary/depth player on a 1 year, $1.5 million contract. Dallas also added the likes of Joe Pavelski, signing the high scoring winger to a 3 year, $21 million contract. Pavelski, 35, had been with the San Jose Sharks since breaking into the NHL during the 2006-07 season. He has been an incredibly consistent goal scorer netting 30 goals or more 5 times in his career scoring 38 last season. Pavelski takes some of the pressure off of the Stars’ top line to score and despite entering this season in his mid 30s, should be an excellent addition to Dallas’ lineup.
The Stars’ defense last year was one of the best in the league allowing the second least amount of goals (200). Although John Klingberg and Esa Lindell played incredible, a lot of credit needs to be given to 18 year old rookie Miro Heiskanen. Heiskanen came directly to the NHL after being drafted 3rd overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and averaged over 23 minutes of ice time a night, all while adding in 12 goals and 33 points. Heiskanen is only going to get better as he continues to develop and the Stars’ defense looks like it could develop into one of the best in the Western Conference.
Between the additions made up front along with the steady play of Dallas’ defense and goalies, it would shock me if the Stars weren’t in the playoffs at the end of the 2020 regular season. Depending on how well they play, it wouldn’t surprise me if they wound up as one of the best teams in the entire Western Conference.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the standard of success in the 2010s winning 3 Stanley Cups. They have suffered some losses since their most recent championship thanks to managing the salary cap, but if Chicago builds off their offense last year, they may have a chance to get back into the playoffs in 2020.
Jeremy Colliton had huge shoes to fill after replacing Joel Quenneville and in his first NHL season as a head coach, did a relatively good job. Chicago finished the 2019 season with a 36-34-12 record and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year by 6 points. The Blackhawks boasted one of the best offenses in the league, scoring the eighth most goals (267), while simultaneously being one of the worse teams defensively, allowing the second most goals in the league (291). The addition of Dylan Strome to play with Alex DeBrincat paid off in dividends with Strome scoring at almost a point per game pace and seeing DeBrincat net over 40 goals. This allows pressure to be taken off of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and provides the team with young, reliable scoring options.
Despite having one of the more lethal offenses’, the Blackhawks defense and play between the pipes struggled. To combat this heading into 2020, general manager Stan Bowman brought in Olli Maatta and Calvin De Haan. As for goaltending the Blackhawks brought in Robin Lehner on a 1 year, $5 million contract. Lehner, 28, had a resurgent year with the New York Islanders last season collecting a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 GAA and .930% save percentage. If Corey Crawford can elevate his play a little bit back to what it used to be and Lehner can continue his excellent play than Chicago will have a good shot of sneaking back into the playoffs. If the team can fix their defensive issues and get better goaltending than last year, I think Chicago will be competing for a wildcard position in 2020.
Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Nashville Predators have been doing everything they can to add to their lineup to push them over the edge. Heading into the 2020 season, Nashville has made some interesting moves that should help them continue to be one of the NHL’s better teams.
Up front general manager David Poile fleeced previous Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton trading 23 year old winger Kevin Fiala for 27 year old Mikael Granlund. Granlund immediately helps the Nashville lineup as he has been a consistent 40-60 point scorer. The other main addition to the Predators’ forward corps is the signing of Matt Duchene. Duchene, 28, had bounced around between the Colorado Avalanche, Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets before finding a permanent home with the Predators signing a 7 year, $56 million contract. Duchene bolsters the team’s center depth and should help raise their goal totals from last year after finishing nineteenth in goals scored (236).
Nashville’s defense has been touted as one of the best for years now, but with the subtraction of P.K Subban, things will look different on the Predators’ blueline. Dante Fabbro will have big shoes to fill as he is Subban’s likely replacement. Fabbro, 21, scored 1 goal in 4 games last season after turning pro following his junior season at Boston University. Aside from the departure of Subban, whose money was used to sign Duchene, Nashville’s defense still has arguably one of the best managed groups in the NHL.
As a team that has had much success in the mid 2010s, I don’t expect much to change in 2020. The team’s new additions should help raise scoring overall and the defense will likely continue to be sharp. I see Nashville as a lock for the playoffs this coming season.
St. Louis Blues:
The team that defied the odds last season went from dead last to winning hockey’s greatest prize. The best part of the St. Louis Blues spectacular season? It’s absolutely possible for them to repeat the same success in 2020.
St. Louis surprised everyone by turning their season around and continued to carry that momentum all the way through the playoffs, beating the Boston Bruins in 7 games and capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Despite having a number of players to re-sign, including rookie sensation Jordan Binnington, the Blues have succeeded in bringing the majority of their roster back.
The Blues have scoring options on every line whether it be winger Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, Jaden Schwartz or rookies like Robert Thomas and Sammy Blais. Their defense is composed of a plethora of skilled players led by captain Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester and Vince Dunn. The Blues are set up for success on the backend in 2020, but will have some hard decisions to make following this season as a majority of their defensemen will need new contracts.
Jordan Binnington’s historic play earned him a 2 year, $8.8 million contract extension and this year will be huge for him personally. The 26 year old rookie finished the 2019 season with a 24-5-1 record, 1.89 GAA and .927% save percentage. For any goalie, regardless of age, those are insane numbers. I’m not sure if Binnington will be able to recreate those exact numbers with the Blues in this upcoming season, but I think they have found their franchise goalie for years to come. The St. Louis Blues will not only contend for the Central Division title this year, but have a serious chance of making another deep run in the playoffs.
After losing in the Western Conference Finals in 2018, the Winnipeg Jets took a minor step back losing in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champion, the St. Louis Blues. Although Winnipeg has an incredibly deep lineup, some questions that still need to be answered could dramatically impact the Jets’ upcoming season.
While some teams are dealing with trying to sign their star RFA player, the Winnipeg Jets get the joy of trying to extend two at once in both Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Laine and Connor are both a huge part of the Jets’ offense as they combined for 64 goals last season and trailed only Mark Scheifele in goals scored on the entire roster. Winnipeg does have a little over $17 million in cap space to work with, but with recent reports of Laine saying “you never know where you’re going to play next year”, things aren’t very positive right now. Ultimately I do think Winnipeg will retain and extend both of these players, and on top of that they do have a deadly offense that adds in the mixture of Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Winnipeg’s defense also took a hit as they finally moved on from defenseman Jacob Trouba, trading him to the New York Rangers in return for Neal Pionk and a 2019 first round pick (Ville Heinola). The Jets still have a solid group of defensemen such as Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Nathan Beaulieu, but look for rookie Sami Niku to get a good look at being on their blueline full-time.
Winnipeg is hard to pin down right now as losing Connor and Laine would be massive blows to their lineup. Regardless, I think the Jets are still a very good team and should be able to lock up a playoff spot in the 2020 season.
Since their worst season in franchise history two years ago, the Colorado Avalanche are trending upward. After finishing their season one game shy of getting to the Western Conference Finals, the Avalanche are a team to be on the lookout for in 2020.
Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog was one of the best lines in hockey last season and that will continue next season as well. Even though the Avalanche still need to sign Rantanen to an extension, the club has roughly $15.6 million in cap space, so that shouldn’t be a problem. To take pressure off the top unit, Colorado has added some needed depth in the additions of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Valeri Nichuskin. This along with home grown young talents like J.T Compher and Tyson Jost should allow the Avalanche to roll four lines and have scoring options all throughout their lineup.
Colorado’s defense core will be very interesting to watch this season as the Avalanche potentially develop two rookie defenseman in Cale Makar and Bowen Byram. Makar, 20, made his NHL debut in the playoffs scoring 1 goal and 6 points in 10 playoff games. Byram, 18, was just selected with the 4th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. It’s unsure whether or not he will be on the roster opening night, but Makar is a lock and will torment teams for years to come.
The Avalanche will also fully give the reigns to Philipp Grubauer as Semyon Varlamov signed with the New York Islanders this offseason. Grubauer, 27, had a formidable season as his first year as a starter collecting a 18-9-5 record, 2.64 GAA and .917% save percentage. I think he will only continue to get better as he gets more starts. Colorado is a team that wasn’t on many team’s radars last year and they made them pay. With the additions general manager Joe Sakic has made in the offseason, the Avalanche are a team now that can not only contend for the Stanley Cup, but will be able to do for years to come.