2021-22 Central Division Preview

2021-22 Central Division Preview

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2021-22 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2021-22 Central Division.

2021-22 Central Division

1. Colorado Avalanche

Alex Metzger writes:

The Colorado Avalanche come in with the same goal as last year, to win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, they fell short once again last season, not making it past round two. This year, they have a new-look team and hope the change will help. Out are names like Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, Philipp Grubauer, and Ryan Graves. In are players such as Darcy Kuemper, Alex Newhook, Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson, and Kurtis MacDermid.

It is clear on the blueline they wanted to get more physical come playoff time. Whether adding Johnson and MacDermid actually pays off remains to be seen. However, this team is still loaded with elite talent at forward and defence. If Kuemper can stay healthy they have a top 10 goalie too and should cruise through the regular season. All that matters for this squad are the playoffs. The trip to get there will just be a warmup for them.

2. Winnipeg Jets

Dallas Morgan writes:

The Winnipeg Jets addressed a key issue in the offseason: their defence. It’s no secret that the weakest part of the Jets team for the past two years has been their blueline. They lacked both depth and overall talent when compared to league competition. Although, now, by adding Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon to the back end, the club should instantly improve upon its recent defensive metrics. Bringing in a couple of solid defencemen will hopefully help the team reduce the number of shots and scoring chances on net and in doing so, alleviate Connor Hellebuyck’s bell-cow workload.

Thus, by strengthening the defensive part of their game, the Jets should prove a much more daunting task. Especially since their offence is already in the elite tier of the league. Driven by a trio of gifted centres (Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny, and Pierre-Luc Dubois) who are accompanied by wingers, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and captain Blake Wheeler; needless to say, there should be almost no problems putting the puck in the net. And with an all-star between the pipes to boot, there are next to no chinks in the armour of this team.

3. Minnesota Wild

Dallas Morgan writes:

The Minnesota Wild look to continue their rise in the standings in this upcoming season. It wasn’t long ago that Minnesota was an after-thought in the league and on a downward trend, hurtling towards a potential rebuild. However, the emergence of the rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov has drastically flipped the script for them. Locking him up for another five years ensures the team is built around his offensive firepower; he was just shy of a point-per-game during his Calder trophy-winning season where he led the team with 51 points in only 55 games. Kaprizov is paired alongside Mats Zuccarello and Victor Rask on the Wild’s top line, which is going to lead by example on the scoresheet. 

Meanwhile, the buyout of hometown veteran Zach Parise and the refusal to re-sign Nick Bonino leave gaps that are expected to be filled by younger talents such as Mathew Boldy and Marco Rossi. It’s clear that the front office intends to deliver a faster and much more exciting product to the ice. Naturally, the top-six is expected to be the centre of attention this season. With Joel Eriksson Ek, and Kevin Fiala mixed in, there will be big expectations for them to deliver. 

Defensively the Wild are solid enough, with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Alex Goligoski on the blueline. They should stack up well while being backed up by an intriguing tandem of veteran Cam Talbot and young talent Kaapo Kahkonen. Overall the Wild are one of the better Central Division teams and will be pushing to make their names known atop of the league leaderboards.

4. St. Louis Blues

Alex Metzger writes:

The St. Louis Blues have had a very solid offseason: adding Saad and trading for Pavel Buchnevich. Buchnevich seems poised for a true breakout season and could bring that offence on the power play and top six that Mike Hoffman never did. This team still has a similar core to the one which won the Stanley Cup just three years ago. However, age might be the biggest question at this point.

There are two things to really watch out for this season. The first is what happens to Vladimir Tarasenko, who requested a trade in the offseason. After some unfortunate injuries, it felt like both sides were done with each other. However, as of right now a trade has not happened. Will he be back? And if so, will he make an impact like prime Tarasenko? The other thing to watch is can Jordan Binnington replicate his form from 2019? That goalie took the Blues to a Cup win and looked dominant at times. Since then, he has been an average netminder. But they may need more than average to have success. Look for this team to be in the thick of the playoff mix.

5. Dallas Stars

Luke Flannigan writes:

Dallas is one of the harder teams to gauge going into the 2021-22 season. Yes, they were unfortunate with the number of injuries last year, (they ranked fifth in lost-man games) but it’s also part and parcel of having an older core.

Speaking of which, it seems unlikely that 37-year-old Joe Pavelski has another annus mirabilis. And with it being both his and Alexander Radulov’s contract year, this could be one of the final kicks at the can for the Stars as we know them.

However, it isn’t difficult to see the upside for this team. For starters, they welcome back Tyler Seguin, who effectively missed the entirety of last season, after getting hip surgery. Then there are the anticipated breakouts for both Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, who need to take over the reins of this offence sooner rather than later. And finally, if Jason Robertson can continue to build on his impressive rookie year, the Stars should be in decent shape; you have to imagine they have enough firepower in a weak Western Conference to make the postseason. 

Mind you, it wouldn’t hurt if the goaltending had a bit of bounceback too after the team finished 16th in save percentage in 2020-21 compared to 2nd in the two seasons prior.

6. Chicago Blackhawks

Dallas Morgan writes:

The Chicago Blackhawks made a strong statement of intent this offseason. Not only did they acquire the current Vezina winner, Marc-Andre Fleury, they also picked up a big-time defenceman in Seth Jones, signing him to a blockbuster, eight-year deal worth $76 million. Finally, in what can be thought of as another addition, the club welcomes back captain Jonathan Toews who missed the 2021 season battling illness. 

Having been the bottom feeders of the league for the past few seasons, these are very important names to have in the lineup if the Hawks are to rise up the standings and bring back a certain level of competition to the Central division.

Chicago’s forward group has a decent balance of both young talent and all-star veterans. Though one of the biggest factors for its success is going to depend on the supporting cast for 14-season veteran Patrick Kane. His production, with over 1000 career points already, is practically assured and so the youth of Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik and Alex DeBrincat coupled with veteran Toews will need to replicate his standard.

Having said that, the back end will ultimately determine how successful Chicago’s season is. The Fleury gamble is low risk, in terms of cash, but if he regresses, it will torpedo their season. Meanwhile, Jones does mortgage Chicago’s future if he doesn’t fill the skates of the team’s best defenceman. Only time will tell if the Blackhawks’ offseason moves can propel the team above their recent suffering.

7. Nashville Predators

Luke Flannigan writes:

This is the least-anticipated season amongst the Smashville faithful since Barry Trotz’s final year in 2013-14. Sadly the beefy contracts handed out to Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, both hailed as an answer to the franchise’s goalscoring woes, have not paid off, leaving the team stuck in a stasis of mediocrity. Though with the departure of long-standing franchise favourites, Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson, the team is at least on the cusp of instigating a long-overdue rebuild.

This season, therefore, will be about the continued development of their youth movement. And with that, come several questions: Can Eeli Tolvanen take a step forward in offensive production? Will Tanner Jeannot establish himself as a leader in the locker room? Does Cody Glass benefit from a fresh start? And will Philip Tomasino thrive in his upcoming NHL opportunity? Those should be the focal points for fans in the stands as opposed to the on-ice results.

Put bluntly, if Nashville are to have any chance at a postseason berth, Juuse Saros will have to pull off another Vezina-calibre year. Though, you wouldn’t put it past him.

8. Arizona Coyotes

Luke Flannigan writes:

The Coyotes have bought every lottery ticket they could find in aid of the Shane Wright sweepstakes and have mortgaged this season in the process. Trading away serious talent in the offseason like Conor Garland as well as both goaltenders for unwanted contracts and picks indicates that the Yotes are here (in this rebuild) for a long time (not a good time).

Now, they’re boasting perhaps one of the weakest goaltending tandems in the NHL’s modern era. Carter Hutton has posted two consecutive seasons below .900 and Josef Korenar, the only other experienced option, has been sent down to Tucson in the AHL. That leaves rookie Karel Vejmeka as the backup to start the year. According to Money Puck, the two Arizona goaltenders with NHL experience combined for a Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) value of -12.9 in just 23 games in 2020-21. That is pretty putrid, to say the least. As such, you can expect this team to be on the end of quite a few shellackings this season.

 

That does it for our 2021-22 Central Division preview. Please check out the other articles in the series, which include a deep-dive on each team, divisional previews and a Stanley Cup champion prediction article.

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