Top to bottom this is the best division in the NHL. There isn’t a single team here that I would call “terrible”, which should make for a few intriguing races as the season goes on.
Nashville Predators (+150) – Last year’s President Trophy winners look primed to make another run at the top of the NHL standings. The Preds are probably the most well balanced team in the league, with a world class goalie, an extraordinarily talented defensive unit and one of the true 4 line teams in the NHL. They seem almost unstoppable in the regular season. Filip Forsberg is coming off of his best season to date with 64 points in 67 games and this is the year he vaults himself into the top tier forward category with 80+ points. P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm make up 2/3 of the best defensive group in the NHL and they are helped by the tremendous play of last year’s Vezina trophy winner, Pekka Rinne in net. The over/under on this team is 103.5, I think they finish closer to the 117 points they had last year than 103.
Winnipeg Jets (+160) – The Jets are talented enough to keep pace with the Preds this year, but a lot would have to continue to trend in the right direction for them to come out on top. The big key will be if goalie Connor Hellebuyck can build on his tremendous season last year. I don’t think anyone expected that kind of season, 44 wins and 23.75 goals saved above average is insane. This led to him being second in the Vezina voting last year behind divisional rival, Pekka Rinne. If he can have a similar season to last year, and the defensive unit can stay healthy and improve a bit, their offense is going to be powerful enough to win A LOT of games. With that said, I don’t think the Jets have a good enough chance to pass the Preds to justify taking them for such a small payout bonus.
Dallas Stars (+800) – Over the last few seasons the Stars have told us exactly who they are: an extremely talented team that just doesn’t have what it takes to get over the hump. They are going to finish in the 87-93 point range and in this division that means they can finish anywhere from 3rd-7th. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn create one of the most talented duos in the NHL but the fact that 35 year old Jason Spezza is centering their second line highlights their extreme lack of depth. This team is destined for the middle of the pack unless an unexpected star emerges to help push them over the top.
St. Louis Blues (+800) – Similar to the Stars, the Blues are good, just not great. In this deep division it will be the little things that set teams apart. Goalie Jake Allen doesn’t seem to be good enough to take them over the top. He finished last season with career worsts in save percentage and goals saved above average. Tarasenko is an elite scorer and Jaden Schwartz is one of the most underrated forwards in the league, who in a short season last year had 59 points in 62 games. If the Blues want to jump up in the standings, guys like Schwartz, Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn are going to have to step up and have career years. I don’t like the Blues in this spot.
Colorado Avalanche (+1800) – The Avs aren’t going to win this division, but I buy the progress they made last season. Nathan Mackinnon, who shut his critics up last year with 39 goals and 58 assists in only 74 games is ready to continue his stellar play. Winger Mikko Rantanen also broke out with 84 points in his 2nd full NHL season to complete one of the best young, dynamic combinations in hockey. I like the addition of goalie Philip Grubauer who could steady their net minder situation similarly to Talbot in Edmonton and Raanta in Arizona.
Minnesota Wild (+900) – The Wild are easily the most boring, good team in the NHL. Their entire roster makes me roll my eyes and think, “I can’t believe these guys are actually good.” It is living proof that elite goaltending can take you a long way in this league because Devin Dubnyk carries them. The Ryan Suter contract hasn’t hurt them yet, which is more then I can say for the Zach Parise contract (man, the Devils really dodged a bullet). Both of these contracts will eventually handicap the Wild going forward as both players move into their mid and late 30’s (my god those contracts are just awful, WTF were they thinking!!)
Chicago Blackhawks (+2000) – The best days are behind the Hawks, but for this season they are a tough read in my mind. As we already know, goalies can make or break a team with even the most talent. The Hawks missing Corey Crawford for most of last season can’t be understated, but it is unlikely that the 33 year old who was just medically cleared to play will regain his old form. Not to mention they would have to completely stop the regression of Jonathan Towes, and Patrick Kane would probably need to have a 100 point season. Their depth would also have to stop being completely anemic and produce goals at a decent rate. I seem to be starting to ask a lot of the Hawks, huh? Even if all of that happens, maybe they can come in 3rd? That is the best case for this Hawks team and its extremely unlikely.
Pick – Nashville Predators (+150) – Simply put, the Preds are stacked. The Jets could absolutely make a run at the division but I imagine there will be some sort of slide from Hellebuyck this season, which will end up leaving Nashville all alone at the top of the Central when it is all said and done.