#1 Winnipeg Jets
It wasn’t a matter of how, it was a matter of when. When the Jets will finally play as a great hockey team. Many years of building a prospect pipeline is finally paying dividends and they are ready to contend for a Stanley Cup for years to come.
In the most competitive division of the NHL, the Jets have what it takes to be #1 in the Central. Their offense is oozing with speed and skill. They play an aggressive up-tempo game and they have size to win key puck battles in the corners.
The X-factor for the Jets will be goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who had an amazing 17/18 season. He had a really good playoff showing as well. Not many goaltenders make the conference finals in their first full season and there isn’t a reason why he can’t do it again.
The Jets are poised to be a Stanley Cup contender this season and as long as distractions or the injury bug keep away, they’ll have a great chance to go the distance.
#2 Nashville Predators
Arguably the most well structured team in the league, the Preds had a disappointing playoff exit against the Jets in the Western conference semi-finals last season. They’ll look to bounce back and if they want to go anywhere in the post season, they’ll most likely have to go through the Jets again. They have the team to do it but they do have to keep themselves in check and make sure they’re prepared to match the up-tempo game the Jets like to play.
Nashville’s strength by far is their blueline. They have the best defensive core in the entire NHL with Josi, Subban, Ekholm and Ellis rounding their top 4. They all play sound defensive hockey. With Rinne as their goaltender backing the defense, it’s very difficult to score 3 goals in a game against them.
Their offense is really good but it’s not at the same caliber as their defense and that’ll be their weakness if they start scoring in streaks. Forsberg, Turris, Arvidsson and Johansen are solid contributors offensively but they are not at the same level as the Penguins, Capitals, Leafs, Lightning and Jets when it comes to fire power up-front.
The Preds will most likely be a playoff team and maybe a Stanley Cup contender if their scoring gets hot at the right time but it’ll be a wait-and-see approach from here on in.
#3 St. Louis Blues
It was a disappointing season for the Blues as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. It’s the Central we’re talking about so it’s tough for every team to get an advantage over their divisional rival. Blues management knows how hard it is to play in the Central so that’s why GM Doug Armstrong acquired Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and David Perron in the off-season. That’s a nice score for any team in an off-season, but it’s extra sweet for the Blues because those players play Blues style hockey; a blue-collar, chip-and-chase brand that’s very aggressive on the forecheck.
The Blues aren’t very good on the powerplay as they ranked 30th in that department last season. That’ll still be a concern when the season starts on October 3rd and will be their biggest weakness. None of the guys they acquired in the off-season are true powerplay specialists but their 5-on-5 game will be a huge plus. They’ll be much better even-strength.
With a nice rest in the off-season, they’ll have a fresh start to what looks to be a promising campaign for the Blues in the 18/19 NHL season.
#4 Dallas Stars
The Stars are an interesting case to look at because what you think the Stars are known for, their offensive talent, wasn’t their strength last season. The Stars were remarkably ranked 6th in goals allowed last season and that wasn’t expected from them whatsoever, but that was with Ken Hitchcock as coach. He’s retired now so Jim Montgemery will takeover. He’ll have an improved team to coach because Valeri Nichushkin is back with the team and they could have talented defensive prospect Miro Heskanen making an impact right away.
Ben Bishop was a great goaltender with his first season with the Stars last season but injuries limited him to just 53 starts in 17/18. If he has a full season, he can push the Stars to the playoffs and that’s very achievable.
The Stars will compete for a wild card spot next season and if their off-season acquisitions can improve their depth, they’ll make some noise this season.
#5 Colorado Avalanche
Besides Vegas, the Avs had the best Cinderella story of last season. Mackinnon was a beast and Rantanen played his role as shotgun perfectly for Mackinnon. The Avs had the best comeback season in recent memory after having a dreadful season in 16/17.
The Avs established themselves as playing very explosive hockey and Mackinnon thrived in that environment. He carried this team to it’s first playoff birth since 2014 and although they were defeated by Nashville, they show promise for the future. Tyson Jost is primed for a breakout season and they’ve added defenceman Ian Cole to shore up their blueline.
The Avs are in a very good situation with how they are growing and they still have an elite prospect with defenceman Cale Makar primed for the future. As for this season, they’ll build off their success they had last year and will compete for another playoff spot this year.
#6 Minnesota Wild
The Wild had a good season last year. They made the playoffs and were contending to advance once again. The problem is more teams in the Central have improved are in the toughest division in the league because of it. The Wild have a good team and have got the most out of Eric Staal and Devan Dubnyk, who performed way above expectations. Good for them but the team didn’t improve at all in the off-season while other teams were making moves. That’ll hurt the Wild this season.
The Wild aren’t great at any particular part of their game but they’re not terrible either. What’s bad is that they are average in special teams and 5 on 5 play. While that may have worked in the past, it won’t cut it this season. Will a rebuild be in order after next season? Let’s hope for the Wild, that’s not the case.
#7 Chicago Blackhawks
The main core of the team is still in tact as Kane and Toews still play good hockey. Seabrook and Keith had seasons they want to forget but their play was severely hampered because of the lack of depth they used to when they were on top of the hockey world with 3 Stanley Cups in 5 seasons. The depth drops off very fast from their first line and had to use their 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines as a season long tryout camp for their prospects, with most of them not ready to make the leap. Alex DeBrincat was a diamond in the rough and was the only bit of good news the Hawks had all year. He led the Hawks in goals in his rookie season and is looking to build off that.
If the Hawks want to make an impact this season, Corey Crawford needs to overcome vertigo plus Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith need to have monster seasons. In a division like the Central, it isn’t likely.