2017-18 NHL Preview: Central Division

How are the divisions going to shake out this season? Here’s a look at some pressing questions — and some not so much — facing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific.

Which team can shake up the division?

After the moves they made in the offseason, there’s no chance the Stars are as bad as they were a year ago. And that will make things a little more unpredictable in a division that was already too close to call. Assuming the Stars can find their way back to respectability, the Central could have six legitimate playoff contenders, meaning a team or two who made it last year could be on the outside looking in come April.

The division’s X-factor?

The last time the Jets made the playoffs in 2014-15, Ondrej Pavelec defied all logic and put together the best season of his career. If the Jets are going to push for a spot in the Central, they’re going to need a similar performance from Steve Mason, who is coming off a not so great year.

If Mason can give the Jets even league average goaltending, they have more than enough up front and on the blue line to contend. It would also help if they could stay out of the penalty box a little more this year, something they haven’t been able to do during Paul Maurice’s tenure. In the last three seasons under Maurice, the Jets have finished fourth, third and first in minor penalties taken. That’s not ideal when your penalty killing ranks 26th, 25th and 13th (the Pavelec year) respectively. Speaking of special teams, there’s no reason a team with this much talent should have a bottom-half power play. If the goaltending and special teams improve as they should, so will the Jets (duh).

Team most likely to finish behind the Golden Knights?

Colorado. There’s no other choice.

The team with bust potential?

Can the Predators win a division title with Pekka Rinne in goal?
Can the Predators win a division title with Pekka Rinne in goal?

The Nashville Predators captured the hearts of hockey fans everywhere with their run last spring, but it’s important to remember they finished 16th in the league standings.

What makes the Central so fascinating is how competitive it is. The Predators could very well win the division, but expectations on them are high now and they’re probably slightly worse off than they were a year ago.

Their defence is still the best in the league, but losing Ryan Ellis (and having to play Alexei Emelin in his place) until the new year will have an impact. Swapping Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell for Mike Fisher and James Neal is a net loss, and Pekka Rinne will be 35 in November.

Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson give the Preds some legitimate firepower up front, but there’s not too much after that, barring a big step forward from promising forward Kevin Fiala.

They’re a well coached group and have enough high-end talent to make another run, but nothing will come easy in the Central.

Which team falls furthest?

The Blackhawks probably won’t fall all the way out of a playoff spot, but they could make it interesting.

Losing Marian Hossa, a great two-way player who had 26 goals last season, will hurt. So too will the departure of Niklas Hjalmarsson. Richard Panik had a nice year, but he’s still relatively unproven, and it’s not fair to expect too much from the youth at this point.

That’s a lot of questions, and that’s without mentioning the Artemi Panarin-Brandon Saad swap. Saad is a solid player and will bring a lot to the Blackhawks, but Panarin is a bigger game-changer and put up 21 more points than Saad last season (yes he was playing with Patrick Kane, but still).

They still have Kane, Saad, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith and some decent depth pieces, so a complete collapse seems unlikely, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them dip below 100 points for the first time since 2010-11 (2012-13 lockout year notwithstanding).

Which team is irrelevant?

Things will get better in Colorado, but it won’t happen this season. Nathan MacKinnon will be better, Mikko Rantanen is being slept on and Tyson Jost has promise, but this is a team playing for tomorrow.

Which team is must-see TV?

Watching Patrik Laine rip one-timers is worth tuning in for alone, but the Jets are loaded with talent. Nikolaj Ehlers is one of the fastest skaters in the league. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are criminally underrated, and who doesn’t love to watch bodies bounce off Big Buff? Then when you consider the Jets finished top-10 in both goals for and goals against and mix in their always engaged fan base and you’re probably going to have a good time.

Which team will make you want to change the channel?

The easy answer would have been the Avalanche, but they were so bad it was hard to look away.

Outside of having one of the league’s most exciting players in Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues are just kinda meh. Losing Robby Fabbri, a feisty and talented young player, for the year doesn’t help either.

Finally, who takes it?

Dallas Stars.

Ken Hitchcock is Winston Wolf — he solves problems. The Stars’ problems? Their defence wasn’t great, their goaltending was the worst and their special teams stunk (30th on PK, 20th on PP). There’s no reason to believe Hitchcock won’t be able to iron out some of these issues, especially with the additions of Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal, Alexander Radulov and Marc Methot. The Blues were a top-10 power play and penalty killing team every year under Hitchcock’s watch and Brian Elliott was an elite goalie. He should be able to squeeze similar results out of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Bishop and co.

Bonus: Because the Wild didn’t get any love here, they will also be a favourite to win the division after putting up a 106-point season and boasting the league’s second-best goal differential (+58) in their first year under Bruce Boudreau. They’re just a very stable team, didn’t make many changes in the offseason and don’t seem likely to take a giant leap forward or fall off completely. That’s an envious position to be in.