NHL Central Division capsules: Avs set for title defense

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Close but no cigar was a common theme for Central Division teams until the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup title in 2019. The Colorado Avalanche further buried that reputation with a championship run last season.

Many consider the Avalanche the favorite to lift the Cup again in 2023.

Winning back-to-back championships would be nothing new in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins won consecutive championships in 2016 and 2017, and the Tampa Bay Lightning did the same in 2020 and 2021.

The Avalanche will have stiff competition just to win the Central Division, however.

The Blues have a plan in place, and they have shown they can execute. The Nashville Predators were also very talented last season, and they have made their roster even stronger.

(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)

1. Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche begin defense of their Stanley Cup title with a few new faces, most notably goalie Alexandar Georgiev, who was brought in to replace Darcy Kuemper. Georgiev doesn’t need to be spectacular, as the Avalanche should possess one of the league’s highest-scoring teams again.

The front office also took care of a major piece of business by signing Nathan MacKinnon to an eight-year deal that will assure he stays in Denver through the 2030-31 season. Colorado lost a big chunk of its offense when Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky signed elsewhere in the offseason, but there is still plenty of offense remaining with MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and high-scoring defenseman Cale Makar.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Blues are building toward the future while trying to remain in Stanley Cup contention. They signed young centers Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas to eight-year extensions while showing the exit door to veteran David Perron, who had three stints in St. Louis totaling 11 seasons.

Vladimir Tarasenko, who requested a trade last summer, will likely be the next veteran to depart, as he is in the final year of an eight-year, $60 million deal he signed in July 2015. Despite his unhappiness, Tarasenko was an important piece for the Blues last season, leading the team in goals (34) and points (82), the latter being a career high for the 30-year-old right winger.

3. Nashville Predators

The Predators haven’t made much noise in the playoffs since 2018, and the organization is getting antsy.

Nashville went after free agents with recent playoff success and acquired defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the Lightning and forward Nino Niederreiter from Carolina Hurricanes. They will be nice additions to a lineup led by an elite top line of Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund. Forsberg and Duchene were both 40-goal scorers for the first time in their NHL careers last season, and Granlund put up a career-high 53 assists.

With defenseman Roman Josi also coming off a career year on the offensive end, the Predators are a team to be reckoned with.

4. Dallas Stars

The big news in Dallas a week before the season opener was restricted free agent Jason Robertson agreeing to a four-year, $31 million contract. Robertson scored 41 goals and added 38 assists in 2021-22 to help the Stars post their second-best regular-season record in the past 15 seasons. With the deal done, Robertson’s contract will take a huge bite out of the salary cap and force the Stars to make some tough decisions on other players.

The Stars also will have to compensate for the loss of defenseman John Klingberg, who signed a free agent deal with the Anaheim Ducks. Colin Miller, a free agent signee from the Buffalo Sabres, and Nils Lundkvist, picked up in a September trade with the New York Rangers, could be asked to help fill the void.

5. Minnesota Wild

Kirill Kaprizov has been billed as the player who can lift the Wild over the first-round hump that’s stopped them in their tracks six of the past seven seasons. The 25-year-old Russian has fallen short his first two years with Minnesota, and the division obstacles appear to be even higher this season.

Kevin Fiala, who was second in scoring behind Kaprizov the past two seasons, was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in the offseason. The Wild also lost their No. 1 goalie from last season, Cam Talbot, who was traded to the Ottawa Senators. That leaves 37-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury as the prime netminder, though he has averaged just 49.1 games over the past seven seasons.

6. Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes won’t have a traditional home arena this season, instead playing in a 5,000-seat complex on the campus of Arizona State in Tempe. They have reasons to be optimistic about escaping the Central Division basement, however.

Clayton Keller took a big step up last season by scoring a career-high 28 goals in 67 games. Nick Schmaltz, Travis Boyd and Lawson Crouse also had their most productive offensive seasons in the NHL. The club rewarded Crouse by signing him to a five-year contract extension.

Arizona also liked what it saw from rookie goaltender Karel Vejmelka last season, and he will get long look as the No. 1 netminder.

7. Winnipeg Jets

The Jets had a respectable four-year playoff run come to an end last season, and the organization seems to have lunged at the reset button rather hurriedly.

Winnipeg traded Andrew Copp midway through last season and then watched Paul Stastny sign a free agent deal with the Hurricanes over the summer. At the start of training camp, Winnipeg sent another message by stripping Blake Wheeler of the captaincy he had held since 2016.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Jets will open the season with a formidable top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, who combined for 104 goals last season.

8. Chicago Blackhawks

Patrick Kane didn’t show any signs of slowing down last season, posting 92 points, the third-highest total of his 15-year career in Chicago. Longtime teammate Jonathan Toews was another story, however, as he finished with 12 goals and 37 points, the lowest totals in his 14 years with the Blackhawks.

Chicago didn’t do the aging veterans any favors by trading Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for three draft picks. The right winger hit the 41-goal mark last season for the second time in four years, while none of his Blackhawks teammates had more than 26.

–By Dan Arritt, Field Level Media

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