NHL Central Division Preview: Can anyone take out the Colorado Avalanche

Predicting the Central Division for 2021-22.

nhl central division preview
May 23, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) shakes hands with St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly (90) after victory in the third period in game four of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

Two summers ago, the Central Division boasted the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and arguably was the most competitive of the NHL’s four divisions.

The luster has definitely faded. However; the weakness of the Pacific Division will likely mean five Central clubs will advance to the playoffs.

Here is a dive into what the Central teams have done and a prediction where their moves will take them by order of finish.

NHL Central Division: Avs at the top of this mountain

1. Colorado Avalanche: The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners are at a key point. The time has come to move forward and get to the finish line.

However, this summer has been about plugging holes. Starting goalie — and Vezina Trophy finalist — Philipp Grubauer departed via free agency, as did Brandon Saad, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Patrik Nemeth. 
The Avalanche acquired goalie Darcy Kuemper and signed free agents Darren Helm and Ryan Murray.

The Avs still boast high-end talent in their prime led by Nathan MacKinnon. They also locked up two of their own key players in Cale Makar and captain Gabriel Landeskog. A first place finish should be no problem for this team.

2. St. Louis Blues: By signing Saad and then acquiring Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers for Sammy Blais, the Blues made two huge moves to address their scoring needs.

However, the biggest change may yet come. The Blues, who saw a pair of forwards in Mike Hoffman and Jaden Schwartz leave via free agency, as well as defenseman Vince Dunn go claimed by the Kraken in the expansion draft, must come up with a solution to Vladimir Tarasenko’s trade request. If the Blues swing a deal that brings a similar caliber player back, they could be a force again.

NHL Central Division: Watch out for these teams

3. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets bolstered their defense corps. Despite losing Tucker Poolman and Derek Forbort, along with backup goalie Laurent Brossoit and forwards Mathieu Perreault, Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson, the Jets are better off thanks to their key additions.

Acquiring Nate Schmidt from Vancouver gives them more offensive touch, while Brenden Dillon will solidify the blueline considerably.

4. Minnesota Wild: The biggest focus is the contract stalemate with last year’s top rookie, Kirill Kaprizov. Assuming terms are eventually met, the Wild will truly be turning the page this season.

kirill kaprizov contract
Mar 14, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov (97) catches the puck out of the air against the Arizona Coyotes during the second period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

They bought out the final four years of the contracts for both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, and saw Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino and Ian Cole leave. In turn, the Wild added veteran free agent defenseman Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill.

5. Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have been active. Not only do they expect to have captain Jonathan Toews back after missing all of last season, they remade their roster.

With Brent Seabrook essentially retired, they traded his contract to Tampa Bay to acquire forward Tyler Johnson, netted goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from Vegas, signed free-agent defenseman Jake McCabe and forward Jujhar Khaira and dispatched veteran Duncan Keith to Edmonton to acquire defenseman Caleb Jones. But the big move was acquiring rising star defenseman Seth Jones — Caleb’s older brother — from Columbus to become a cornerstone player.

If this group can find cohesion early, they could very well climb the Central standings.

NHL Central Division: Outside looking in

6. Dallas Stars: A healthy Tyler Seguin will make a difference for the Stars, who made some curious moves after missing the playoffs following the 2020 run to the Stanley Cup Final.

They reset the defense by signing Suter and Jani Hakanpaa, acquired forwards Michael Raffl from Washington and signed free agent center Luke Glendening. They also inked goalie Braden Holtby, adding to a mix in net that includes veterans Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop, although his health is in question.

7. Nashville Predators: Having made the playoffs seven consecutive seasons, the Predators appear headed for a downfall. Juuse Saros will start as the No.-1 goalie after Pekka Rinne retired, but the team in front of him lost many key players with defenseman Ryan Ellis traded to Philadelphia, forward Calle Jarnkrok claimed by Seattle, Viktor Arvidsson traded to Los Angeles and Erik Haula leaving for Boston.

The Predators had best hope D Philippe Myers is ready for a big role and newcomer Cody Glass — acquired from Vegas — can prove why he was a first-round pick.

8. Arizona Coyotes: Not only did the Coyotes trade long-time captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland, who was third in team scoring last season, to Vancouver for draft picks and a bunch of depth players in Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel, they also traded Kuemper to Colorado for Conor Timmins and draft picks and let No.-2 goalie Antti Raanta leave via free agency.

New head coach Andre Tourigny has a team that added G Carter Hutton, F Ryan Dzingel and veteran defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Anton Stralman to a non-playoff squad that hasn’t improved.

Arizona’s moves are likely not finished as both Phil Kessel and Christian Dvorak are on the block. Speaking of moves, they are also being evicted and will need to find a new home for next season.

–By Randy Sportak, Field Level Media