With another NHL season rapidly approaching, we’re continuing our 2019-2020 preview week. We’ll be taking a look around the league, division by division, and providing a snapshot of all 31 teams. In addition to top-to-bottom rankings, we’ll give you reasons to believe in every team and, for the pessimists, reasons to doubt them as well.
Here’s a breakdown of how things will look in the Central this season.
(Last season: 100 points, 1st in Central)
Reason to believe: They’ve been here before and this is still a pretty complete team. They needed some more firepower up front, especially down the middle, and they got it with the big offseason acquisition of Matt Duchene, who is coming off a career year. Nashville now has Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris/Colton Sissons down the middle, which should help spread the wealth throughout the top nine a bit more. The bottom six should bring a nice mix of skill and sandpaper, too.
The Predators were a 100-point team despite having the league’s worst power play (an atrocious 12.9 percent conversion rate) and it’s hard to imagine their special teams unit being that bad again, especially with Duchene in the fold.
After finishing as the third-best defensive team in the league last season, they also once again boast an impressive top four on their blue line. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are all back, and talented youngster Dante Fabbro will likely slide in for the departed P.K. Subban.
Reason to doubt: As promising as Fabbro is, replacing a former Norris winner in Subban with a rookie blue liner has the potential to get a little dicey. What if the power play does continue to stink? Pekka Rinne is 37 years old … is he on the decline?
(Last season: 90 points, 5th in Central)
Reason to believe: They have arguably the most dangerous and dynamic line in hockey with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen (still unsigned) and Gabriel Landeskog, but they’ve also been slowly adding depth to their lineup. This offseason they keyed in on secondary forward help, adding Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi.
They lose Tyson Barrie on the back end but the electric Cale Makar is ready to step in for his first full season after a strong debut in the playoffs. Sam Girard has another year under his belt and is looking like a terrific player on the blue line.
The Avalanche have been trending upward for the past few years and they took a big a step forward with their current core last season, winning a playoff series for the first time in over a decade. After some solid offseason additions, this should be the year they establish themselves as a legit contender.
Reason to doubt: There could be some growing pains with how many new guys they’re slotting in. Philipp Grubauer has shown plenty of promise but he’ll be handling a primary workload for the first time in his NHL career, and Colorado’s backup situation is a little cloudy. Their penalty kill ranked 25th in the league last season.
3. Dallas Stars
(Last season: 93 points, 4th in Central)
Reason to believe: The Stars got off to a shaky start last season but they were ultimately able to kick it into gear and take a step forward by not only getting back to the playoffs, but also winning a series before being beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blues in seven games.
Going into their second year under Jim Montgomery’s leadership, things might run a bit smoother. They’ll have a better, more experienced roster as they look to continue pushing forward. Joe Pavelski brings more offensive firepower, leadership and experience. Corey Perry could benefit from a change of scenery. Jamie Benn should be a lot better after a down year. Roope Hintz had a breakout playoffs that he can build off of.
Defense and goaltending were their strongest areas last season and they maintain most of the pieces that helped them finish as the league’s third-best defensive team, including Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin in net. Miro Heiskanen emerged as a stud on their blue line during his rookie campaign and he should only get better in his sophomore season.
Reason to doubt: They were tied for third worst in goal scoring last season and were bad on the road (19-18-4). Their bottom-six forwards aren’t very impressive. Even if their offensive improves a bit, will it offset a possible goaltending regression? Would you count on Bishop to replicate a career year in which he posted a .934 save percentage with a goals against average of under 2.00?
4. St. Louis Blues
(Last season: 99 points, 3rd in Central)
Reason to believe: Well, for starters, they’re the reigning Stanley Cup champs and there hasn’t been a whole lot of turnover in St. Louis. The Blues still have a real good mix of skill and size up front and should be able to roll four strong lines thanks to their depth. Their defense is still very good with workhorses Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, who should still help provide stability and production, and they just added Justin Faulk as an additional weapon on the back end.
We all saw how dominant the Blues were during long stretches in second half of last season, and now they’ll get a chance to put together a strong wire-to-wire effort in Craig Berube’s first full season as head coach. If they can do that, they’ll have a chance to defend their throne.
Reason to doubt: While we all saw how dominant the Blues were during the second half, we also saw how much of a mess they were in the first half with that same roster. Did they just catch lightning in a bottle or can we trust them not to turn back into a pumpkin? Jordan Binnington was outstanding and helped spark the Blues’ turnaround, but we’re dealing with a relatively small sample size for a guy who took a while to break out of the AHL.
(Last season: 84 points, 6th in Central)
Reason to believe: They’ve had a tough fall from grace over the past few years but there are positives to take from last season. They were a top-10 offensive team thanks to career years from Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome. They finished strong and hung around the playoff bubble under first-year head coach Jeremy Colliton, who had the unenviable task of taking over for Joel Quenneville midseason.
They also went out and added Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to help address need on defense. Those moves might not be overwhelming but they should probably help a back end that ranked second worst in the league last season. Adam Boqvist may be ready to take the next step and show what he has as a rookie on the blue line. They also got some strong goaltender insurance with Robin Lehner, who was a Vezina finalist after a career year.
With Colliton establishing some footing and heading into his first full season with an improved roster, the Blackhawks could see more stability in 2019-2020.
Reason to doubt: Seems fair to question if Patrick Kane can replicate the level of play and production (110 points) he showcased last season. Is Alex DeBrincat going to score 40 goals again? Some of the offensive numbers from the top six might come down a bit, and Chicago’s bottom six still has holes. The defense might be improved, but it still leaves more than a little to be desired. The penalty kill (72.7 percent) ranked dead-last in the league.
(Last season: 99 points, 2nd in Central)
Reason to believe: The Jets have been an explosive Western Conference threat for the past few years and they maintain a lot of their firepower up front. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers can do some damage offensively and helped Winnipeg finish seventh in scoring last season. Assuming Laine signs a new deal, he should be much better after he recorded just 30 goals and 50 points in a 2018-2019 season plagued by inconsistency. Ehlers should be better as well.
Reason to doubt: Aside from the fact that Laine and Connor are still unsigned? Well, they’re coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit and enter this season with their weakest personnel grouping in a few years. Kevin Hayes is gone and they’re still missing a strong second-line center, which has become a familiar problem in recent years. Their depth is pretty weak. They took major hits on the blue line with the departures of Dustin Byfuglien (retirement), Jacob Trouba (trade), Tyler Myers (UFA) and Ben Chiarot (UFA) without really replacing those guys.They look like a really top-heavy team that’s going to have to score a ton of goals to make up for what they lack in their own end.
(Last season: 83 points, 7th in Central)
Reason to believe: They seemingly began shifting into a rebuild period last season and have some decent young players (Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway) that could continue to grow, and their defense should be solid — especially with the return of Matt Dumba.
Reason to doubt: This team is kind of a mess. They’re a bit stuck in no man’s land — rebuilding but still adding more veterans on significant contracts (Mats Zuccarello) and seemingly still trying to compete. They’re not bad enough to be considered awful but not nearly good enough to be taken seriously, which is arguably the worst place to be as an organization. They’ll have to hope Bill Guerin shows a clearer sense of direction as their new GM.