The NHL’s Central division is the toughest division to predict. In reality, there is only one team who we can essentially write off as non-contenders and that is the Colorado Avalanche. Aside from Colorado, I could legitimately see any of the other six clubs in this division qualify for the postseason. As the odds will show you, this should be anyone’s division and picking a winner could be rather difficult. That said, there is a club that I believe could very well make the jump to the top of this group thanks to some offseason changes that should work in their favor. Without any more hesitation, let’s dive into who I believe will win the Central Division, a value play as a well as a team to avoid.
Chicago Blackhawks: +275
Minnesota Wild: +275
Dallas Stars: +325
Nashville Predators: +325
St. Louis Blues: +650
Winnipeg Jets: +1200
Colorado Avalanche: +2500
Division Winner: Dallas Stars (+325)
The value of a quality coach can go a long way in the NHL. Look at the Maple Leafs. Setting out on what was planned to be (another) five-year rebuild, Mike Babcock came to Toronto and turned the Maple Leafs into a playoff team one season removed from a 30th place finish. All due respect to Lindy Ruff, but I believe the returning Ken Hitchcock will do wonders for this Stars team that is loaded with talent. Hitchcock’s teams tend to play responsible defense, which was why the Blues’ brass likely felt he had lost the locker room last season when St. Louis began to allow offense with the worst of em’. Responsible defensive play is exactly what this Stars team needs to be a contender. Dallas is in great hands up front, led by the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Incoming veterans Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal combined with youthful talent in Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore and Radek Faksa will form the secondary scoring. The defensive group isn’t much different than last year, however Dallas did add the stout Marc Methot to provide a solid, stay-at-home presence in the Stars’ top four to complement the offensively-minded John Klingberg. Esa Lindell had a nice breakout season in 2016/2017 and should take another step forward in his development this season. With all of this in mind, the Stars’ chances at a division crown could rely on something they haven’t had in a lot of years and that is a number one goalie. Ben Bishop was signed to a six-year contract to come in and lock down the goaltending situation in Dallas after years of uncertainty. Kari Lehtonen and the jettisoned Antti Niemi combined to form a paltry .897 save percentage last season while Dallas allowed 3.17 goals per game, 29th in the league. Lehtonen is back, but make no mistake this is Bishops’s team. If Bishop can come close to replicating his 2.06 GAA and .926 save percentage from the ’15/’16 campaign, then Dallas is in for a major jump in the standings this season. No doubt this is a tough division, but I believe Dallas has the tools to make a run and could take down the Central Division for the second time in three years.
Value Pick: St. Louis Blues (+600)
The Blues are the only team that carries any sort of real value among long shots to win this division. The Jets are another possible play, but as we saw in their season-opening blowout loss to Toronto, goaltending is going to be an issue in Winnipeg again this season. That leaves us with the Blues, who despite a mid-season coaching change managed to tally 99 points in a tough Central Division last season. This Blues’ offense should be one to be reckoned with, that is if they can stay healthy. They have already been dealt one devastating blow as winger Robby Fabbri is set miss the entire season with another ACL injury, Alex Steen is dealing with a hand injury and Patrik Berglund could be out until mid-season with a shoulder injury. However, the Blues still boast an elite scorer Vladimir Tarasenko while the Blues will balance his first line production with second line production from Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Flyers. The Blues will also get a boost from the return of winger Vladimir Sobotka who is handling first line duties with Tarasenko and veteran pivot Paul Stastny. On the back end, the Blues are uncharacteristically thin at the moment, but should get some help when Jay Bouwmeester returns from an injured ankle at some point within the next month or six weeks. This team’s chances will indeed sink or swim on the team’s ability to prevent offense, and Jake Allen will need to be good. Not just good, but notably better than his .915 save percentage from a season ago. If the Blues can kill penalties somewhere near their 84.8% clip from last season (3rd) and prevent shots at a similar clip to the 28.4 (6th) they allowed last season, they could hang on in this tough division. Allen still needs to stop the shots that the Blues do surrender, and this team needs to get healthier, but if you are looking for value there is no reason to believe that the Blues won’t be involved in the discussion when it comes to the Central Division this year.
Avoid: Chicago Blackhawks (+275)
Yup, I said it. Last year’s Central Division champs were swept in the first round by the Nashville Predators and change could be afoot in Chicago should this season (or postseason) go sideways again. I can say with confidence that Chicago’s offense will be just fine as a Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led offenses always are, but there are serious question marks on this team’s back end. Chicago has their two franchise defenseman in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook back, but behind them it’s very dicey. In fact, their bottom four defenseman are Michael Kempny, Connor Murphy, Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta. Connor Murphy is the elder statesman of this group with 258 NHL games played for the Arizona Coyotes, but the other three have combined to play 88 career NHL games, 50 of which are Kempny’s from last season in Chicago. I’m a big Corey Crawford fan and I believe he is easily a top 6 or 7 NHL goaltender, but he is going to have to be Vezina-type good to give Chicago a chance at this division. His .918 save percentage from last season simply won’t be enough to keep this team in games where the offense gets stymied. Chicago also needs significant improvement on their special teams to have a chance. A loaded power play group produced just an 18% clip with the man advantage (19th) while their penalty kill struggled all season long to a 77.7% mark (24th). If you look at all the playoff teams from last season, they boasted quality special teams and none had a worse penalty kill than Chicago. Barring a major mid-season acquisition or two, the Blackhawks are going to need a massive season from Crawford as well as a dramatic increase in special teams play in order to compete for the Central Division crown. With how good this division is throughout, I am not banking on it and I suggest placing your money elsewhere in this division.