This was always going to be a tough off-season for the Winnipeg Jets. Cap constraints finally forced GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to offload Jacob Trouba for a less-than-ideal return. Kevin Hayes was too expensive to retain so the Jets again will head into next season without a secured No. 2 centre after acquiring one at both of the past two trade deadlines.
On top of that, they still basically have all of their own housekeeping to take care of. The Jets have $22.8 million in cap space, but the amount of room they have is artificial — Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are still unsigned and on the RFA market, depth liner Andrew Copp needs a raise and Neal Pionk, the depth defencemen brought back in return for Trouba, is also without a contract.
It’ll be near-impossible for the Jets to return better on paper in 2019-20, but that doesn’t mean the team can’t be better. Natural progression from the likes of Jack Roslovic and Mason Appleton would go a long way, and maybe Kristian Vesalainen can break in as a productive rookie. More consistent output in the goal department from Laine would give a huge lift. They can again use the tactic of swapping their first-round pick for a centre. Even Connor Hellebuyck has room to bounce back toward his 2017-18 level of play.
But this isn’t a static league and the Central Division has been anything but still water. Aside from the cap nibbling on their roster, the Jets also have to deal with their rivals all being active and adding to their teams. So while we wait for Cheveldayoff to do his business and put his team back together again, it’s time to take stock of what has happened in a restructured Central.
Even though they won the regular-season division title, they really backed into it — 2018-19 was a bit of a stinker for Nashville, considering their pre-season expectations. Among the Predators’ top off-season priorities was to upgrade their power play and find some improvement on their forward unit.
The first move GM David Poile made this summer was a losing one, sending P.K. Subban’s $9-million cap hit to New Jersey for spare parts and a couple of second-round picks. But it’s important to not just look at that move in a vacuum. The reason why Subban had to go was because Roman Josi needs a fat new extension before next summer, and because they needed the immediate cap room to take care of that need for a forward.
Everyone suspected Matt Duchene’s top choice was the Predators, and that was confirmed when he signed a seven-year contract with the team. As the top centre on the market, it was reasonable to suspect Duchene could have topped a $10 million AAV in a UFA bidding war, so that Nashville got him for $8 million is a very nice fit, perfectly in line with what Ryan Johansen is getting to also play down the middle for the Preds.
Nashville’s defence is still strong even without Subban. The primary strength of the organization has always been drafting and developing elite blue-liners and 21-year-old Dante Fabbro is the next defence prospect in line. There remains a possibility Kyle Turris and his $6 million AAV gets dumped off, but maybe Poile wants to bet on him bouncing back from a 23-point season before doing that.
In many ways, Nashville is in a similar boat to the Jets. They’re both coming off disappointing seasons, but have a base to continue on as title contenders. The major difference is that the Predators have so far been able to address an area of need, and so may actually return next season better on paper.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
The defending Stanley Cup champions are the only team on this list that hasn’t done anything to improve its roster yet, and they still have six of their own RFAs to sign, including Joel Edmundson and Jordan Binnington. But that’s just fine, because St. Louis are the Stanley Cup champions.
The fact is the Blues did all their adding last summer, signing Tyler Bozak and David Perron off the UFA market and acquiring Ryan O’Reilly in a trade. They promoted some young players, including the mid-season arrival of Binnington, and that took a while to gel. So while the outlooks for most teams in the Central Division are rosier today, it’s worth remembering that when the Blues attempted their own upgrades, it took half a season for it to click.
We wouldn’t expect the Blues to conduct any blockbuster business, but just to take care of their internal requirements. The Cup champs will return intact and odds are they won’t start so slowly that they’ll be at the bottom of the league again in January.
The Stars were already looking like a much different team at the tail end of the regular season and into the playoffs, where they were one overtime win away from a Western Conference final appearance (and from knocking off the eventual champs). Having Mats Zuccarello was the reason why: his presence finally gave one of the better defensive teams in the league a secondary scoring line.
Zuccarello is now gone (more on that below), but Dallas walked away from the July 1 frenzy as a winner — and arguably the biggest winner of the day. Joe Pavelski will step into Zuccarello’s vacant role and is an upgrade with more goal scoring consistency and upside. Add to that the no-risk, one-year bets that a chip-on-his-shoulder Corey Perry will add even 20 goals, and a hopefully healthy Andrej Sekera is a steal of a third-pair defender, and you have the makings of a sleeping giant.
Of all the teams in the Central, Colorado is probably the one with the brightest future. We all know the story. Their cap situation is great. Nathan MacKinnon is on the best value contract in the league. The defence is young, quick and excels at moving the puck up ice. Philipp Grubauer stabilized after a slow start and looked the part of No. 1 netminder by the end of the season.
But the potential payoff from this roster could come sooner than later. They already won a playoff round, upsetting the best regular-season team from the West in Calgary, which will return as one of Canada’s best Cup hopes. The Avs may have missed on Artemi Panarin and Pavelski, and they didn’t throw down an offer sheet to one of the big summer RFAs (yet) to address their own need for secondary scoring, but rather GM Joe Sakic weaved an excellent hockey trade with Toronto to improve his team’s roster.
Nazem Kadri will get the promotion he wanted, but couldn’t have with the Leafs, and will land on Colorado’s second line. There, he could play with Gabriel Landeskog or even Mikko Rantanen if the Rocky Mountain Line doesn’t get put back together at the start of the season. Last year the Avs tried Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher and (most successfully) Carl Soderberg in that 2C spot, but none of them were ideal fits. Kadri is.
And Sakic was active on the secondary UFA market. Joonas Donskoi just couldn’t carve out a permanent top-six role in a loaded San Jose lineup, but his four-year, $3.9 million AAV with Colorado is a contract that could be looked back on as a real bargain. Donskoi had a 57.03 shots for percentage at 5-on-5 for San Jose last season, which ranked the best among all Sharks forwards, and his 55.91 goals for percentage at 5-on-5 was best among all Sharks who played at least half a season. He’s a good transition player who moves with speed, but was used in the same third line/depth role in all four of his seasons with San Jose. He could keep doing that in Colorado and be great, or it’s reasonable to assume with more ice time and opportunity that Donskoi could approach 50 points.
Now the Avalanche have to take care of their own. RFA Rantanen is the biggest, followed by Compher, Nikita Zadorov and newly acquired Andre Burakovsky. But even after signing each of them, the Avs could still have around $10 million in cap room. This is a team building toward its brightest years in the future, but they’re already one to be reckoned with.
The Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since 2016, so it certainly seemed like the ship had sailed on them being in the conversation for a Cup any time soon. And they may not be back there yet, but Chicago is a decent — and very early — bet as a playoff sleeper in 2019-20.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both had resurgent seasons in 2018-19, and they are the most important aspects of a full-team rebound. Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome reestablished chemistry from their junior days and could build on that, while Corey Crawford finished the season healthy and with a strong performance.
GM Stan Bowman’s off-season has been solid as well. The Hawks took advantage of a depressed defencemen trade market to bring in Olli Maatta and Calvin De Haan for very cheap in an attempt to breathe some new life into the back end. Duncan Keith is still a presence, Erik Gustafsson had a monster first full NHL season and perhaps 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist pushes for a lineup spot.
Their biggest UFA addition was Robin Lehner on a one-year, $5 million deal. Both he and Crawford are scheduled to be UFAs a year from now, but should be an excellent tandem in 2019-20. Crawford can be great, but is prone to missing time, so Vezina finalist Lehner is a perfect safety net.
The biggest challenge for Chicago is to tighten up their defensive structure. Their late-season push was nice and all — finishing 21-14-6 from Jan. 1 on — but they allowed a ton of shots in that span, and no team allowed more high-danger chances at 5-on-5 than the Hawks, per Natural Stat Trick. It’s one thing to play loosey-goosey when playoffs are a lost cause, and entirely another to grind out a top-eight spot through 82 games. Chicago should be a sleeper, but not if the team defence continues to leak high-quality opportunities.
We deemed GM Paul Fenton a loser coming out of July 1, mostly because it’s not clear what the plan of attack here is. Are they trying to get younger and perhaps take a step back, or just re-tool with an eye on winning in the playoffs ASAP? It appeared they were skewing younger — and perhaps that’s still the goal — but then they went out and signed 31-year-old Zuccarello to a five-year deal with a $6 million cap hit. It was just a weird fit for a team with a core that hasn’t won a playoff series in four years, and missed out on the post-season altogether in 2019. However, Zuccarello is an elite playmaker who gave a huge boost to Dallas. So while we don’t know what his signing says about the direction of the Wild, he was still one of the best FAs available.
It sounds like #NHLFreeAgency treated @zuccarello36 pretty well. (via @RussoHockey) pic.twitter.com/7uXyUPEHcC
— NHL (@NHL) July 3, 2019
You can’t ignore what the Wild have in place. Matt Dumba was the leading goal scorer among defencemen when his season was ended by injury in mid-December. Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin round out a pretty decent top four. Devan Dubnyk has a top 10 save percentage over the past three years among goalies with at least 100 games played. Zach Parise nearly hit 30 goals again and Jason Zucker is a good candidate for a bounce-back season unless the constant trade rumours (fairly) become too much of a distraction.
From there, Fenton and the Wild are hoping a couple of his other trades start paying off. Kevin Fiala was a highly touted 11th overall pick by Nashville and did score 23 goals two years ago, but struggled last year and was moved out. Can he finally find a breakout season in a new city? And Ryan Donato picked up 16 points in 22 games after he was acquired from Boston for Charlie Coyle.