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Adam Proteau's 2021-22 NHL Predictions: Central Division

The Colorado Avalanche are the top team in the Central Divsion, but a few other units are ready to make it a close battle.
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For the third of my four annual pre-season NHL predictions, I’m turning to the Central Division today. (You can find my picks for the Atlantic Division here, and my Pacific Division picks are here).

Always remember, when you’re reading these, my guesses on how the standings will turn out are always just that – guesses. Informed guesses, to be sure, but guesses nonetheless. And also remember, the picks here are my personal picks. They’re not THN’s official picks, which are here.

Here’s the way I see the Central shaking out:

1. Colorado Avalanche: The Avs were one of the NHL’s best teams last season, and that’s not going to change in 2021-22. Colorado GM Joe Sakic has assembled a deep, highly-skilled squad, and he’s made it all work under the salary cap. They have arguably the top line in the league in Gabriel-Landeskog-Nathan-MacKinnon-Mikko-Rantanen, and their second line of Val-Nichuskin-Nazem-Kadri-Andrei-Burakovsky is also a stellar trio.

Sakic added former Red Wings mainstay Darren Helm and former Devils winger Mikhail Maltsev to bolster their fourth line, but Sakic’s boldest move was allowing No. 1 goalie Philipp Grubauer to leave via unrestricted free agency and replacing him with former Arizona starter Darcy Kuemper. That’s a calculated risk, but Sakic has approximately $1.4 million in cap space to go out and add another goalie during the season if things go awry in their net.

The Avalanche no longer have the luxury of playing in a division with soft touches in Arizona, San Jose and Anaheim, so they may see their overall standings point total take a dip, and they probably won’t run away with the Central. But don’t kid yourself – expectations for the Avs are as high as can be, and if they disappoint in another post-season, head coach Jared Bednar likely will be looking for other work.

2. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets were somewhat of a disappointment last season, finishing in third spot in the North Division, and winning one playoff round before being swept and eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens. That’s simply not good enough for this group, most of whom were on the roster when Winnipeg made it to the Western Conference Final in 2017-18.

To his credit, head coach Paul Maurice hasn’t let his team sag after losing important defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba; indeed, defense is a strength for the Jets, and most likely will continue to be this season. But he’s under enormous pressure to get at least as far as the second round of the playoffs this year, and Winnipeg will have a tougher go of it than they had in the North.

If star goalie Connor Hellebuyck holds up his end, the Jets easily should be a post-season team. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has no cap space to play with, so this is very likely to be the roster that ends the regular season. It’s on both veterans such as captain Blake Wheeler and star center Mark Scheifele, as well as youngsters Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor to do the daily work and help elevate Winnipeg’s overall game, but that seems doable for them.

3. Dallas Stars: I’ve been upfront about liking the Stars to do great things this year, as they are now fully healthy (which they weren’t last season) and have improved their already-impressive defense corps with the addition of former Wild star blueliner Ryan Suter. For my money, Dallas now has the best top-four defensemen in the NHL, and they’ve got a veteran goaltending pair in returning starter Anton Khudobin and former Capitals/Canucks netminder Braden Holtby.

Add to that the return of veteran star forwards Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov – who were sidelined for all but a combination of only 14 regular-season games in 2021 – and you’ve got an energized, mobile, deep team ready to atone for missing the playoffs last year. Dallas GM Jim Nill knows how to assemble a Stanley Cup-frontrunner roster, and it looks like he’s done it again this season.

4. St. Louis Blues: For a few reasons, the Blues endured a competitive dip last season, finishing fourth in the makeshift West Division behind the Avalanche, Golden Knights and Wild. St. Louis has dealt with some massive cuts to talent – forward Jaden Schwartz went to Seattle in the expansion draft, while a couple of years ago, they lost star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to Vegas due to a cap squeeze – but there’s still lots to like about this group.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong may have had a trade request by star winger Vladimir Tarasenko dangling over his head this summer, but he wasn’t pressured into making a poor deal, and so Tarasenko will start the year with St. Louis. And Armstrong replaced Schwartz in the Blues’ top six forwards with former Rangers winger Pavel Buchnevich, a two-time scorer of at least 20 goals, and an asset who is still only 26 years old. Armstrong also signed winger Brandon Saad, who has scored at least 20 goals five times in his career. Along with captain Ryan O’Reilly, center Brayden Schenn and sniper David Perron, the Blues should have no issue producing offense this year.

It’s also hard to question St. Louis’ defense unit, which includes veterans Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Colton Parayko, Marco Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo. That’s about as experienced as defense corps get in the NHL these days. If they can provide adequate support for starting goalie Jordan Binnington, they should be a lock for a playoff berth – and maybe even a higher seeding than No. 4 in the Central.

5. Minnesota Wild: Minnesota Bill Guerin shocked the hockey world this summer when he cut ties with a pair of marquee players – D-man Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise – by buying out their expensive contracts and saddling the Wild with heavily punitive buyout costs for the next four seasons. Give Guerin credit for having the stones to do it, but in buying them out, he has hamstrung his team in the short term, and as a result, the Wild’s overall depth has taken a hit.

Guerin has given head coach Dean Evason some excellent young players (including 24-year-old star winger Kirill Kaprizov and 2-year-old center Joel Eriksson Ek) and a capable defense to work with. However, their goaltending tandem of journeyman Cam Talbot and sophomore Kaapo Kähkönen isn’t the most fearsome, and they have just $2.3 million in cap space to deal with in-season issues. The Wild are still a team in transition, and playing in a division tougher than last year’s weak West Division is probably going to cut into their winning percentage. It’s fair to guess Guerin won’t be satisfied with that, and attempt to make bigger moves if Minnesota’s boat begins leaking (hello, Jack Eichel!).

The downside on that front obviously would be Minnesota failing to make the playoffs, but that’s a distinct possibility in the reformed Central. They may switch places with the St. Louis Blues in this ranking, but even if they do make the playoffs, it’s difficult to envision them going on a deep run. But it will be intriguing to see how their regular-season successes and failures impact Guerin and his blueprint to win.

6. Chicago Blackhawks: With the spectre of alleged sexual improprieties in the Blackhawks’ recent history, Chicago enters the 2021-22 season looking to make their on-ice fortunes stand out among fans and media. That may be too much of an ask, but GM Stan Bowman made extensive renovations to his roster, and the Hawks should be a more difficult squad than they were last year when they finished sixth in the Central, seven wins and nine points behind Nashville for the final playoff spot in the division.

That said, the rejigged Central promises to be tougher on Chicago, and despite the acquisitions of former Blue Jackets star defenseman Seth Jones, 2021 Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury, and former Lightning star forward Tyler Johnson, the climb up the Central’s standings in 2021-22 may be too much for the Hawks to handle. Obviously, the health of captain Jonathan Toews will be a massive factor in their results, and though Chicago has a number of talented young players, not all of them will be certain to generate enough offense to improve the Hawks’ goal output (they finished last season with 161 goals-for).

Is there light at the tunnel’s end for the Blackhawks? It does seem so. Is the light bright enough to lead them to a playoff berth? That’s uncertain. It’s possible they develop more of their prospects, yet still don’t have enough overall depth to secure a post-season spot.

7. Nashville Predators: The Preds didn’t act like a Cup contender this summer, dealing away veteran defenseman Ryan Ellis and experienced winger Viktor Arvidsson, and not replacing their talents with equally-skilled players. Nashville GM David Poile has amassed more than $11 million in cap space, another sign that he’s retooling on the fly rather than doing a ceiling-to-basement rebuild. But he’s left head coach John Hynes with a younger team that is depending largely on starting goalie Jusse Saros and a defense led by captain Roman Josi to win games.

Nashville still has talent worth watching – star winger Filip Forsberg is only 27 years old – but their bottom-six forwards are relatively unproven at the NHL level. If their kids grow their games this year, there’s a chance the Predators challenge for the final playoff berth in the Central. However, their overall depth is sub-par and their highly-paid veterans (including center Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene) are coming off down years. They’re in real danger of not making the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14 – and if they miss out, Poile may have bigger moves to make in the offseason.

8. Arizona Coyotes: There never seems to be a shortage of drama in Arizona, and this off-season was no different. Yotes GM Bill Armstrong has been aggressive in remaking his roster, even when it meant taking on the brutal contracts of former Canucks winger Loui Eriksson and former Islanders winger Andrew Ladd. Armstrong dealt away center Christian Dvorak, winger Conor Garland and veteran D-man Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and made a change at both goalie spots, trading both starter Darcy Kuemper and backup Adin Hill, and replacing them with journeyman Carter Hutton and former San Jose Shark Josef Korenar.

If that sounds like the Coyotes aren’t planning on winning many games this year, that’s because they aren’t. Armstrong’s trades brought many high draft picks in return – Arizona will have three first-round selections and five second-rounders in the 2022 draft – and the arrivals of veterans Ryan Dzingel, Anton Strålman and Shayne Gostisbehere won’t move the needle in a winning direction for them. Winger Phil Kessel is in the final year of his contract and could be a nice trade deadline pickup for a Cup contender, but it’s likely Armstrong will only get more picks and unproven NHL prospects for his services. There’s not going to be a magic solution for the Coyotes.

The bottom line? Arizona is doing the full rebuild, yet again, but there’s no assurance it’ll work any better than previous rebuilds did. They could be the worst team in the league in 2021-22, but that’s apparently part of the plan.

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