It was, by virtually every conceivable measurement, the toughest division in hockey. And simply escaping the Central last season — which the Winnipeg Jets did after hard-fought playoff victories over Minnesota and Nashville — certainly took a toll.
The local squad just didn’t look the same in bowing out to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final and falling just short of getting to play for the Stanley Cup.
How beastly was the Central? For starters, it was home to the NHL’s two top regular-season teams in the Predators and Jets, who had to meet in that epic second-round series that went the distance and seemed to zap the winner of their steam.
Only one team (Chicago) finished with a sub .500 record, a boast no other division can make. The Atlantic had four losing squads, the Pacific three and the Metropolitan two.
Perhaps the gap is best illustrated by goal differential: Central teams combined to score 143 more goals than they gave up. That blew away teams from the Metropolitan (minus 31), Pacific (minus 31) and Atlantic (minus 81).
We could go on, but you get the point. And besides, we’re not here today to re-visit the past, but rather to look ahead to the future. Because while general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff have been busy getting key players re-signed this summer, their other six foes haven’t exactly been standing pat, either.
It’s shaping up to be yet another arms race in the Central, where simply staying above the playoff line will likely prove to be a difficult, season-long task. Just ask the St. Louis Blues, who put together a very respectable 44-32-6 record only to find themselves on the outside looking in by virtue of their fifth-place divisional finish. Or the Dallas Stars, who were right behind them in sixth spot despite going 42-32-8. Both teams responded by making major changes.
The point is, everyone will be starting with identical 0-0-0 records when the puck drops on the 2018-19 campaign exactly eight weeks from today, and Winnipeg faces a tough task right off the start, opening the season on the road with games against the Blues and Stars. Those will be the first two of 26 inter-divisional games this season.
With the bulk of player movement now done for the summer, let’s take a look at how the division is shaping up.
2017-18: 53-18-11, 1st in division.
Playoffs: Beat Colorado in 6 games, Lost to Winnipeg in 7 games.
Out: F Mike Fisher, F Scott Hartnell, D Alexei Emelin.
In: D Dan Hamhuis.
What they’ve done this summer: Similar to Winnipeg, it’s been more about getting their own players back under contract and keeping the band mostly together. They did sign UFA Hamhuis on a two-year contract to provide depth to a loaded blue line. F Austin Watson was arrested and recently pleaded no-contest to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge against his girlfriend. He was given three months probation after admitting to shoving her in June during an argument at a gas station. The NHL has now opened an investigation which could result in further discipline from the league.
Watch out for: F Eeli Tolvanen. The 19-year-old first-round draft pick from 2017 (30th overall) is dripping with talent and got a look in three late regular-season games after coming over from the KHL. He should get an opportunity to win a top-six role with the team.
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Oct. 11 (in Nashville); Jan. 17 (in Nashville); March 1 (in Winnipeg); March 23 (in Winnipeg).
Prognosis: There is no reason to believe the reigning President’s Trophy champions have gotten any weaker, and having their playoff dreams crushed on home ice with that Game 7 loss to Winnipeg should give them plenty of motivation not to come up short once again.
2017-18: 45-26-11, 3rd in division.
Playoffs: Lost to Winnipeg in 5 games.
Out: F Daniel Winnik, F Matt Cullen, F Tyler Ennis.
In: G Andrew Hammond, F JT Brown, F Matt Read, F Eric Fehr, F Matt Hendricks, D Greg Pateryn.
What they’ve done this summer: After another early playoff exit, the Wild wasted no time in making a big move. GM Chuck Fletcher was out, replaced by Paul Fenton who had been serving as Nashville’s assistant GM for the past dozen seasons. In addition to several depth UFA signings on July 1, they also locked up a pair of key RFAS in D Matt Dumba and F Jason Zucker on long-term extensions.
Watch out for: F Joel Eriksson Ek, 21. The 20th-overall pick from 2015 will be counted on to play a bigger role. He showed flashes of brilliance at times last season (6G 10A) and could be poised for a breakthrough.
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Nov. 23 (at Minnesota); Dec. 29 (in Winnipeg); Jan. 10 (in Minnesota); Feb. 26 (in Winnipeg); Apr. 2 (in Minnesota).
Prognosis: There’s a lot of pressure on this veteran group, starting with bench boss Bruce Boudreau. And with no major on-ice changes, there’s obviously an internal belief this squad can still go places, but time is running out, especially with a new GM in place.
2017-18: 43-30-9, 4th in division.
Playoffs: Lost to Nashville in 6 games.
Out: G Jonathan Bernier, F Blake Comeau, F Nail Yakupov.
In: G Philipp Grubauer, F Matt Calvert, D Ian Cole.
What they’ve done this summer: Keeping pucks out of the net has long been an issue for the Avalanche, so they swung a big trade with Washington to bring in Grubauer. He will compete for the top job with Semyon Varlamov.
Watch out for: C Alexander Kerfoot. He may be undersized at just 5’10, but he made a big impression in his first season with 19 G and 24 A. The 2012 5th-round draft adds to a dangerous forward group that includes stars such as Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. What can he do for an encore?
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Nov. 9 (in Winnipeg); Jan. 8 (in Winnipeg); Feb. 14 (in Winnipeg); Feb. 20 (in Colorado); Apr. 4 (in Colorado).
Prognosis: They were the NHL’s most-improved team last season, with a 47-point jump. And while that can’t be repeated this season, they’ve added a few nice pieces which could provide another boost and make them a legitimate contender.
ST. LOUIS BLUES:
2017-18: 44-32-6, 5th in division.
Playoffs: Failed to qualify by one point.
Out: G Carter Hutton, F Vladimir Sobotka, F Patrik Berglund, F Scottie Upshall.
In: G Chad Johnson, F Ryan O’Reilly, F Pat Maroon, F David Perron, F Tyler Bozak, F Jordan Nolan.
What they’ve done this summer: In a word: everything. The Blues have been the busiest NHL team, completely revamping their forward group on the fly. They’ve added major depth down the middle through trade (O’Reilly) and free agency.
Watch out for: G Jake Allen. With backup Carter Hutton shuffling off to Buffalo, there’s even more pressure on Allen to provide consistent netminding. He struggled at times last season and will need a big bounce back.
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Oct. 4 (in St. Louis); Oct. 22 (in Winnipeg); Nov. 24 (in St. Louis); Dec. 7 (in Winnipeg).
Prognosis: Their moves look good on paper, but how they translate on the ice is the million-dollar question. St. Louis will be an intriguing team to watch, and Jets fans will get an early close-up when they meet in the season opener.
2017-18: 42-32-8, 6th in division.
Playoffs: Failed to qualify by three points.
Out: G Kari Lehtonen, F Antoine Roussel, D Dan Hamhuis.
In: G Anton Khudobin, F Blake Comeau, D Roman Polak.
What they’ve done this summer: The biggest change comes behind the bench, as Ken Hitchcock stepped down following the season. He’s been replaced by University of Denver head man Jim Montgomery. Veteran assistant Rick Bowness has also been brought in after leaving Tampa. They’ll face a tough test right out of the gate.
Watch out for: F Valeri Nichushkin. The 10th-overall pick from the 2013 draft is back after two seasons in the KHL. Now 23, he could provide another explosive weapon up front for the Stars.
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Oct. 6 (in Dallas); Jan. 6 (in Winnipeg); Jan. 19 (in Dallas); March 25 (in Winnipeg).
Prognosis: Same old question. You know they’ll score enough, but can they keep the puck out of the net? Ben Bishop will need to stand tall in his second season while the new coaches will have their hands full teaching this talented group how to play better in their own end.
2017-18: 33-39-10, 7th in division.
Playoffs: Failed to qualify by 19 points.
Out: F Patrick Sharp, F Anthony Duclair, F Vinnie Hinostroza, D Jordan Oesterle.
In: G Cam Ward, F Chris Kunitz, F Marcus Kruger, D Brandon Manning.
What they’ve done this summer: They created some valuable salary cap space by trading Marian Hossa’s contract to Arizona. Bringing in the veteran Ward on a UFA deal should help with the workload for No. 1 netminder Corey Crawford
Watch out for: F Dylan Sikura. Chicago looks to have a good one in the 23-year-old, who finished up a tremendous college career and joined the Blackhawks late in the season, registering three assists in five games.
2018-19 games vs Winnipeg: Nov. 29 (in Winnipeg); Dec. 11 (in Winnipeg); Dec. 14 (in Chicago); Apr. 1 (in Chicago).
Prognosis: Was last year’s dramatic drop just a blip, or a sign of a team that is past its expiry date? The main core of Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook is still intact but showing signs of slowing down. Health will be a big factor, as the wheels came off last year once Crawford went down with injury.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.