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NHL 2021-22 Central Division preview: Is this finally Colorado’s year?

After last season’s re-alignment separated many of these divisional rivals, the Central Division is now back intact with the usual suspects eying the top spots.

And with this reunion, we might once again have the league’s toughest division. This will be fun.

You know who won’t be having fun? Arizona. Seattle’s arrival in the Pacific pushes the Coyotes into a group with their tough midwest peers, and the timing couldn’t be worse for this rebuilding club whose biggest wins will come on the trade market.

From the win-now clubs to full-on rebuilds, this division has it all… but does it have a Stanley Cup winner?

(Teams are listed in order of how we think they’ll finish in the standings.)

Colorado Avalanche

2021 season outcome: 39-13-4, first in re-aligned West Division; lost to Golden Knights in second round of playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Darcy Kuemper, Kurtis MacDermid, Ryan Murray

Notable off-season subtractions: Philipp Grubauer, Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Saad, Ryan Graves, Patrik Nemeth, Devan Dubnyk

The good news: Any day you look at your top line and see Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen is a very good day. Tense times in free agency were solved with a long-term deal to keep Captain Landeskog in Colorado for another eight years, while general manager Joe Sakic was also able to lock up his top rearguard in Cale Makar, who is on pace to be the league’s best defenceman in no time. The Stanley Cup is absolute within reach for this group.

The bad news: Depth is not on their side. The cap crunch is coming, and Colorado had to watch as several key support players were scooped up on the market. The loss of Brandon Saad and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in free agency, plus Joonas Donskoi to the expansion draft, puts pressure on forwards like Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky to step up and take support the top trio.

Nowhere is their lack of depth more evident, however, than in net. The departure of Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer to Seattle in free agency came as one of the biggest surprises of the summer considering it felt like a no-brainer that he’d be staying put in Colorado after posting his best numbers to date. Landing Kuemper was a sound acquisition, but was it enough? The Avalanche have been thin in net the past few seasons, and with backup Pavel Francouz already on injured reserve, this all feels a little too familiar.

Winnipeg Jets

2021 season outcome: 30-23-3, third in re-aligned North Division; lost to Canadiens in second round of playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon

Notable off-season subtractions: Mason Appleton, Derek Forbort, Tucker Poolman, Laurent Brossoit

The good news: With a full off-season in Winnipeg under his belt and a clean bill of health, all signs point to forward Pierre-Luc Dubois playing like the guy Winnipeg traded for last January. The offence has been a strong suit here for a while, though — that’s nothing new — so let’s shift our focus to the blue line. Help is on the way! Things were, uh, a little thin back there last year. Trading for Schmidt (Canucks) and Dillon (Capitals) brings two obvious upgrades in two very different ways. In terms of their respective skillsets, Schmidt and Dillon couldn’t be more different. Schmidt brings a little finesse and some offensive flair thanks to his smooth-skating ways, while Dillon might not light up the stat sheet — but he might light you up. Call it sandpaper. Call it physicality. Call it misery-making grit. Or, take a note from head coach Paul Maurice’s book and call it… “texture.”

“They’ve kind of just fit right in,” Adam Lowry said of his two new teammates last week. “Different players and different styles, but both pieces that, in years past, we’ve been missing. (Dillon) is huge. He’s going to be great on the back end. I think he compliments some of our smaller d-men really well. You’ve seen what he’s done in his career. He’s a great defender. He moves the puck well, he’s big and he’s hard to play against. He makes going to the net really miserable.

“And (Schmidt), he’s loud, he’s fun to be around. He moves the puck well, he’s a great skater. I think they both come in and fit in and, hopefully, that continues and we see the positive impacts they have on their team.”

Granted, this group doesn’t actually need to be elite. Because that’s the best news of all: Connor Hellebuyck, whose immense talent can hide flaws big and small, is your goalie.

The bad news: That all-Canadian North Division was fun, eh? The Jets thought so, too. While struggles with consistency hit at times throughout the season in the high-scoring division, it wasn’t as punishing as what they’re used to in the Central, where there’s no room for error. The Jets are still undoubtedly one of the top teams in the Central — they belong here, and their playing style will show that — but the journey to the post-season could have a few more bumps and bruises along the way.

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Dallas Stars

2021 season outcome: 23-19-14, fifth in re-aligned Central Division; missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Ryan Suter, Braden Holtby, Jani Hakanpaa

Notable off-season subtractions: Jason Dickinson, Jamie Oleksiak, Andrew Cogliano, Mark Pysyk, Julius Honka

The good news: Considering all the bad luck thrown their way last year — an early-season COVID outbreak, a brutal winter storm, a long list of injuries — the Stars are due for better days ahead, and that starts with having a healthy Tyler Seguin back in their top six. Seguin missed all but three games last season while recovering from hip and knee surgeries.

Forward Alexander Radulov is also back in good health after playing just 11 games last season with a core injury, and Roope Hintz — hindered by a nagging ailment all year — should be able to return to his old self, too.

With last year’s top rookie, Jason Robertson, expected to take another step forward in his game, there’s no shortage of talent on this roster.

The bad news: If three’s a crowd, what happens when you have four?

Last we checked, having too much talent at a position isn’t exactly a bad thing, but the Stars goaltending situation is a little confusing. Questions about Ben Bishop’s health were answered in a roundabout way with the signing of Braden Holtby, but considering the club successfully rolled out the duo of Anton Khudobin and up-and-comer Jake Oettinger last season, did they actually need another netminder?

Bishop, who starts the season on LTIR, has said his goal is still to return to the ice this season.

While too much depth is ultimately probably a good problem to have, there’s a valid concern that there’s simply not enough games to go around for everyone to get a rhythm going. We’ll see how this plays out.

Minnesota Wild

2021 season outcome: 35-16-5, third in re-aligned West Division; lost to Golden Knights in first round of playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Alex Goligoski, Jordie Benn, Jon Merrill, Frederick Gaudreau, Dmitry Kulikov

Notable off-season subtractions: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Ian Cole, Nick Bonino, Marcus Johansson, Carson Soucy

The good news: Kirill Kaprizov is back in Minnesota with a newly signed five-year, $45-million contract worthy of his dollar-bill nickname. And this time we get to see what he does with a full 82 games.

As a rookie last year, the winger led the Wild in goals (27) and points (51), set the scoring pace for his first-year NHL peers in the COVID-shortened 2021 campaign, and was the clear Calder Trophy winner.

Apply last season’s 0.93 points-per-game scoring pace to a full 82 for his second season in the NHL, and that has him eying 76 — just seven behind Marion Gaborik’s single-season franchise record of 83. Should we go ahead and write his name into the record books now, or…?

The bad news: Of Minnesota’s off-season moves, the biggest ones took place on the blue line. The departure of Ryan Suter via buyout was certainly a surprise, and its ripple effect will be felt throughout this season as the revamped d-corps tries to fill his marathon minutes each night. Ian Cole and Carson Soucy, who suited up on the regular, are also gone. The Wild’s blue line features three new faces — read: plenty of adjustments to be made. Calling that a bad thing might not be fair, considering Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn should fill in nicely, but it might take some time for this unit to become a cohesive crew.

Chicago Blackhawks

2021 season outcome: 19-27-10, sixth in re-aligned Central Division; missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Seth Jones, Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, Jujhar Khaira, Caleb Jones

Notable off-season subtractions: Duncan Keith, Adam Boqvist, Nikita Zadorov, Pius Suter

The good news: The captain is back! After missing the entire 2021 season due to health issues, later revealed to be a chronic immune response syndrome (CIRS) diagnosis, Jonathan Toews is back with the Blackhawks. And he looks good, too, playing pretty solid pre-season minutes and looking like his old self. In a season that will hopefully bring a sense of more normalcy to hockey players and fans alike, Toews’ presence brings exactly that in Chicago as the heart, soul, and leader of this club that might just emerge from its rebuild ahead of schedule.

Way ahead, actually. Just one year after penning a letter to fans preaching patience while rebuilding the roster, Chicago went out and landed the hottest defenceman on the market in Seth Jones, the reigning Vezina winner in Marc-Andre Fleury, and two-time Stanley Cup champion (and bounce-back candidate extraordinaire) Tyler Johnson. Jones is there for the long haul after signing a massive extension as the cornerstone rearguard taking over in the wake of longtime stalwart Duncan Keith. Fleury, meanwhile, brings leadership (and maybe some levity) to the locker room and and his presence in the crease will bring calm after a few years of uncertainty in the goalie department.

The bad news: Regardless of the product on the ice, the most important development in Chicago will take place off of it with the investigation into sexual assault allegations made against a former coach, Brad Aldrich, in 2010.

It has opened up questions about which current Blackhawks executives, including GM Stan Bowman, knew of the accusations and did not act at the time. The outcome of the investigation, which will be made public by the team upon its conclusion, will have far-reaching effects not just in and around the franchise but the hockey world as well.

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St. Louis Blues

2021 season outcome: 27-20-9, fourth in re-aligned West Division; swept by Avalanche in first round

Notable off-season roster additions: Brandon Saad, Pavel Buchnevich

Notable off-season subtractions: Vince Dunn, Jaden Schwartz, Mike Hoffman

The good news: The loss of Jaden Schwartz will be felt, but GM Doug Armstrong’s pursuit of Brandon Saad in free agency and Pavel Buchnevich via trade could be the fresh blood this offence needs. Saad has brought strong secondary scoring to each of his NHL stops, and could factor into several positions up front.

Buchnevich, meanwhile, is really intriguing. The Blues thought Tarasenko would be gone by now after the forward requested a trade in the spring. That he isn’t could mean we see the two talents paired together on a line. Buchnevich quietly put up 40-plus points in back-to-back shortened seasons with the Rangers.

The bad news: Let’s talk about Tarasenko. The forward requested a trade back in May, his unhappiness stemming from the team’s handling of his shoulder surgeries in 2018 and 2019 and a need for a fresh start. The fact this situation remains unresolved could be a damaging distraction, or it could turn out to be a really good thing.

Last month, upon his arrival at camp, Tarasenko told reporters he’s “100 per cent healthy” and ready to contribute to the Blues.

“My mindset is good. Happy to be with the guys,” he said. “I have a good relationship with the guys. It’s been a weird summer, but it’s going to stay between us – between me and Doug (Armstrong). I’m here to work. As long as I play here, I will work 100 per cent. I’m 100 per cent healthy.

“(The trade request) is all behind. I don’t see the reason to discuss it now. Camp starts, you know, and I don’t want to be a distraction in the room. Like I said, I’m here to work. I’m healthy and I’m happy to play hockey again.”

It remains unclear whether this non-resolution puts the trade request completely in the rear-view mirror or whether it’s still lingering in the background. But if he stays healthy and finds his fresh start at home with fresh linemates? That’s very good news for the Blues.

Nashville Predators

2021 season outcome: 31-23-2, fourth in re-aligned Central Division; Lost to Hurricanes in first round of playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Cody Glass, Philippe Myers, David Rittich

Notable off-season subtractions: Pekka Rinne, Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson, Erik Haula, Brad Richardson, Erik Gudbranson

The good news: It’s never easy saying farewell to a franchise favourite like Nashville did with longtime goaltender Pekka Rinne last spring, but having a No. 1 like Juuse Saros makes it a little easier.

Obviously, Saros isn’t new to the spotlight — he’s been slowly transitioning to being the starter these past few seasons, and is fresh off his best one yet. Down the stretch, Saros was the league’s hottest goaltender and should he channel that same fire this year, the Predators will be in it every night.

The bad news: Last year’s Predators went from clear sellers to pushing for the playoffs in a matter of weeks. While that was exciting down the stretch and through a handful of first-round games, it kind of left them in the murky middle between rebuilding and contending. So, where are they now? That’s still unclear, though the departure of veteran Ryan Ellis and forward Viktor Arvidsson and welcoming of young players like Cody Glass and Phil Myers tells us GM David Poile is eying the rebuild-on-the-fly model.

We’ve seen some teams pull that strategy off with great success, but those teams aren’t paying $16 million for a pair of should-be stars posting bottom-six stats. Where other clubs struggle to find depth scorers, it sort of feels like Nashville only has depth scorers without the stars to complement it. Nashville is going to need more production from Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen if they are to take a step forward this year.

Arizona Coyotes

2021 season outcome: 24-26-6, fifth in re-aligned West Division; missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Anton Stralman, Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, Shayne Gostisbehere, Dmitrij Jaskin, Ryan Dzingel, Alex Galchenyuk

Notable off-season subtractions: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, Alex Goligoski, Darcy Kuemper, Adin Hill, Derick Brassard, Michael Bunting, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta

The good news: …*crickets*

Well… uh, here’s the thing: This is as true a rebuild as you can get, and we’re not at the fun part yet. This is the season of selling every tradable player in favour of accruing draft capital and restocking the cupboards with promising prospects for the seasons to come. The silver lining will be in seeing prospects make the most of their opportunities to crack the roster, while the young core of Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller, and Barrett Hayton grow into leadership roles.

The bad news: As painful as things might get at the rink this year, it’s the arena itself that might actually be the biggest cause for concern. The 2021-22 season will be the Coyotes’ last at Gila River Arena, the club’s home since 2003, after Glendale City Council announced in August its decision not to renew its annual agreement beyond this season. (In 2016, the city opted out of the long-term deal between the Coyotes and the arena.)

The organization has a bid submitted to build a new rink in Tempe, with team owner Alex Meruelo making clear his intentions to keep the club in Arizona. But even if that is approved, the Coyotes face an uncertain future with regards to where they play the next few years.



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