The Central Division is never short on intrigue, and this season is no different. Here, you’ll find the best in the league – the Colorado Avalanche claimed the Stanley Cup in dominant fashion and all signs show they’re ready to repeat – and you’ll also find the worst. The Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks have already fixed their focus on the draft lottery as extensive rebuilds are well underway. In the middle, you’ve got a handful of clubs that look like contenders.
Can the Avalanche repeat as champs? Will Winnipeg’s off-season reset and leadership change be the key to a reinvigorated club? Can Minnesota maneuver its way through the cap crunch to a championship, or will the Blues beat them to it? And how will Nashville and Dallas emerge from the messy middle?
Here’s a look at the Central Division ahead of the 2022-23 NHL season.
2021-22 season outcome: 25-50-7, last in Central and 31st league-wide
Notable off-season roster additions: Zack Kassian, Patrik Nemeth, Troy Stecher, Josh Brown, Nick Bjugstad
Notable off-season subtractions: Phil Kessel, Anton Stralman, Alex Galchenyuk, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle
The good news: This is a rebuild in every sense of the word – the roster and the rink are both under construction – and that requires a creative interpretation of “good news” consisting almost entirely of silver linings. Arizona is basically the living embodiment of the 2023 Draft’s unofficial slogan, Tank Hard For Connor Bedard. Regardless of whether or not the lottery gods smile down on the Coyotes next spring, it’s clear that there are brighter days ahead for this franchise – and fans should see young veterans like Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, and Nick Schmaltz step up as leaders.
While the on-ice product might not be pulling in a lot of wins – or revenue, for that matter – they are presented with a truly fascinating opportunity as far as home-ice situations go. Their first of three years playing at the brand new 5,000-seat arena of Arizona State University could bring a really fun, intimate, and novel fan experience that the Coyotes would be smart to embrace.
The bad news: Hold the housewarming gifts – it’s gonna be a while before the Coyotes can start to feel comfortable in their new home. Arizona’s season opens with a six-game road trip before hitting home ice for four – their home opener isn’t until Oct. 28 – and then they face an entire month on the road during which they’ll travel to 14 different cities.
In terms of roster construction, this one has many flaws as expected but the most glaring one is in net. As in, Arizona currently has just one goaltender under contract for 2022-23: Karel Vejmelka. The 26-year-old has just 52 games' worth of NHL experience and, now in his second year in the NHL, goes into this one with a stat line of 3.68 GAA, .898 SV% and 13 wins to his name.
2021-22 season outcome: 28-42-12, seventh in Central; missed playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: Jack Johnson, Max Domi, Alex Stalock, Andreas Athanasiou, Colin Blackwell, Petr Mrazek
Notable off-season subtractions: Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome
The good news: Like the Coyotes, the Chicago Blackhawks are staring down a season that requires some digging to get to the good – just, with a bigger arena – but that’s all part of the plan. Yes, these Blackhawks are tanking, and they made it pretty obvious this past summer when they traded Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat and didn’t extend Dylan Strome a qualifying offer. Chicago is well-situated to stock the prospect cupboards and stack their lottery odds while also getting a glimpse of some of the young prospects coming up – with forward Lukas Reichel being a candidate here. Solid building blocks on defence, driven by Seth Jones, sparks some hope for a team that could be building things the right way from the blue line out.
The bad news: No rebuild is easy, and this one feels particularly emotional considering the fact that two of the team’s top trade candidates are the very names that brought so much success. The end of an era is here – and in its place could be a whole season’s worth of trade talks around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (particularly around Kane, a quintessential rental this year). Whether Chicago moves them ahead of the deadline or keeps them in the fold to help guide the young faces coming in, the pending UFAs will need to buy in either way. It’s going to be a long season of speculation.
2021-22 season outcome: 56-19-7, first in Central; Won Stanley Cup for third time in franchise history
Notable off-season roster additions: Alexandar Georgiev, Evan Rodrigues, Lucas Sedlak
Notable off-season subtractions: Nazem Kadri, Darcy Kuemper, Andrei Burakovsky, Jack Johnson, Nico Sturm, Nicolas Aube-Kubel
The good news: The Avalanche figured out the winning formula last season and are the odds-on favourite to claim the Cup once again. The core remains (mostly) intact, capped by the massive signing of Nathan MacKinnon last week to an eight-year extension. The loss of Nazem Kadri shouldn’t be understated, but just as Tampa Bay reconstructed its third line after winning its first Cup, Colorado appears well-equipped to do the same. Alex Newhook is expected to step into a larger role while the cap-friendly free agency signing of Evan Rodrigues gives them another versatile depth scorer. Where things haven’t changed much is along the blue line. There, with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and Devon Toews steering the (champion)ship, Colorado is about to get even better – a healthy Bowen Byram could take this defence core to another level altogether.
The bad news: In addition to losing Kadri to free agency, Colorado must also navigate the beginning of the season without captain Gabriel Landeskog.
The crease brings a familiar situation for the Avalanche, who have now lost their starting netminder to free agency two years in a row. Darcy Kuemper wasn’t putting up MVP numbers during Colorado’s Cup run, but he didn’t need to considering how puck-dominant and high-scoring a club they were throughout the playoffs. Colorado has likely found a steady hand in new starter Georgiev, he's never been a true No. 1. That’s not a reason to doubt him, necessarily, but it will be a really important storyline to watch if Colorado is to repeat as champs.
2021-22 season outcome: 46-30-6, fourth in Central; lost to Flames in Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: Mason Marchment, Colin Miller
Notable off-season subtractions: John Klingberg, Alexander Radulov, Braden Holtby, Andrej Sekera
The good news: Following the resignation of Rick Bowness, the Stars turned to veteran bench boss Pete DeBoer in hopes he can bring a fresh voice to this group with a focus on sound defensive play and opportunistic scoring. DeBoer has twice led his team to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year at the helm (2011-12 Devils, 2015-16 Sharks). A healthy Tyler Seguin, who returned last season from a lengthy absence, could see a return to form under DeBoer. The Stars were in the bottom third of the league for goals scored last year, and the addition of Mason Marchment, Florida’s breakout star of 2021-22, allows DeBoer some flexibility in his top six – especially if Jason Robertson is available. But that might be a big “if”…
The bad news: Jason Robertson, the Stars’ leading goal-scorer last season who finished second in points in both of the last two years, is still without a contract. The 23-year-old has not been skating with the club at training camp, and should the contract stalemate bleed into the season the Stars could be poised for a slow start out of the gate. The loss of John Klingberg in free agency, which followed a full season of trade speculation, is a big one in terms of offensive production from the blue line. While it opens an opportunity for a young defender like Thomas Harley or Nils Lundqvist (or both!) to step into a larger role, there could be some growing pains without the veteran there.
2021-22 season outcome: 53-22-7, second in Central; Lost to Blues in Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: Filip Gustafsson, Nic Petan
Notable off-season subtractions: Cam Talbot, Kevin Fiala, Nicolas Deslauriers
The good news: Marc-Andre Fleury is re-signed and ready to go, Kirill Kaprizov is back and looking to build on his 108-point campaign, and the Wild are all-in to win now. They have to be. Last year’s hard push at the deadline didn’t result in the long run they wanted, making them even hungrier this time around. And now, they’ve got some young reinforcements. One of the biggest names in Minnesota hockey right now is Marco Rossi, and the biggest question is whether he’s ready for the pros. The ninth overall pick in 2020 suffered a significant setback in his development following a long bout with COVID and the diagnosis of a heart condition, but a strong season in the AHL last year and a really impressive training camp this fall have him looking like he’s ready to make the jump – and the timing couldn’t be better, considering the cap-strapped club will need to rely on young players stepping up. Following in the footsteps of Kirill Kaprizov in 2020 and Matthew Boldy last year, Rossi is next in line to make an impact as a newcomer.
The bad news: The cap crunch is here, and it already claimed its first casualty in dynamic forward Kevin Fiala. The Wild traded him to the Los Angeles Kings after they were unable to settle on a new deal they could afford. His 85 points last year saw him finish second on the team in scoring, and that kind of production is hard to duplicate. The departure of Cam Talbot could also prove detrimental. The team made it clear they believe Fleury to be their No. 1, with Talbot ultimately needing to head to Ottawa to fulfill his desire to be a starter, but in doing so go from having perhaps the strongest tandem in the league to having a proven starter with a bit of a question mark behind him. Filip Gustafsson has just 23 career NHL starts to his name.
2021-22 season outcome: 45-30-7, fifth in Central; Swept by Avalanche in Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: Ryan McDonagh, Nino Niederreiter, Kevin Lankinen
Notable off-season subtractions: Luke Kunin, Matt Benning, David Rittich
The good news: Filip Forsberg is signed long-term, giving Nashville some consistency on the scoring front, and the addition of Nino Niederreiter in free agency brings a versatile top-six boost to a squad that’s been prone to growing stale. Landing Ryan McDonagh, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay, instantly upgrades the Predators’ already-strong blue line that’s led by Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. The signing of backup Kevin Lankinen is an affordable insurance policy for Juuse Saros, who likes a heavy workload but was ultimately injured late last year because of it and couldn’t backstop the Predators in the playoffs. His presence could stir up some competition for the No. 2 spot with Connor Ingram.
The bad news: Consistency is a concern, and while you can say that about any team in the NHL it feels particularly relevant in Nashville – especially up front. Last season, Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen enjoyed incredible bounce-back campaigns, with Duchene posting career-highs in goals (43) and points (86) after scoring just six times in 34 games the year before and 13 in his first season with the Predators. Logic and history tell us he’ll come back down to earth again, and in a division as deep and talented as the Central, that leaves the Predators once again somewhere in the middle – good enough to make the playoffs, sure, but not to go for a long run once they do. The centre position will be one to watch, as a lack of depth will be exposed if Cody Glass can’t build on a strong pre-season and prove he’s ready to be a full-time NHLer.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2021-22 season outcome: 49-22-11, third in Central; Lost to Avalanche in Round 2 of Stanley Cup Playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: Thomas Greiss, Noel Acciari
Notable off-season subtractions: David Perron, Ville Husso
The good news: The Jordan Binnington we saw hit the ice last spring looked like the guy who backstopped the Blues down the stretch and to the Stanley Cup just a few years ago, a good sign that the No. 1 netminder is back in fine form. He has to be – Ville Husso, who’s been challenging him for the starter’s role, is now in Detroit. The salary cap dictated that the Blues wouldn’t make a big splash in free agency, but they also didn’t need to. The development of young stars like Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou was rewarded with both players signing long-term. Thomas has made it clear he's worthy of being a top-six centre while Kyrou should slot into Perron’s place. If Logan Brown can build on last year’s success and show he’s a full-time NHLer, he helps give the Blues a really strong foursome down the middle led by veterans Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn.
The bad news: While it’s true that the Blues can fill Perron’s place in the lineup, can they really replace what he does for the club? The winger has been a consistent top-six scorer for the Blues, his steady presence and clutch scoring gene bringing a calm into this lineup – something that’s particularly important when you’ve got some new young faces being called up. And while Binnington appears to be back to old form, recent history suggests it might not be a smooth ride at all times. Bringing in Thomas Greiss helps, but with third-stringer Joel Hofer largely inexperienced there’s not much of a safety net in place.
2021-22 season outcome: 39-32-11, sixth in Central; Missed playoffs
Notable off-season roster additions: David Rittich, Sam Gagner
Notable off-season subtractions: Paul Stastny, Eric Comrie, Evgeny Svechnikov
The good news: On paper, this is still a playoff team. The roster didn’t undergo a big overhaul, nor has a cap crunch come in and wreaked havoc. The trouble last year appeared to all be internal – put simply, this was a team that looked tired and in need of a break. Now, enter Rick Bowness, who brings a new perspective and a knack for defensive consistency after the mid-season resignation of longtime bench boss Paul Maurice last year. Look up and down this roster, and you’ve got a motivated core led by Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Josh Morrissey, all of whom can find another gear. And when your goalie is perennial Vezina consideration Connor Hellebuyck, you’ve always got a shot.
The bad news: One of Bowness’ first major moves was to challenge his team to look within, forcing his players’ hands to figure out who their leadership core is after removing the captain’s C from Blake Wheeler’s sweater. While this might just be the shake-up the club needs, opening opportunities for younger voices to emerge, it also brings the risk of sending an unmoored ship into the deep Central Division and ultimately bringing an unneeded distraction to the club. A division as strong as this one won’t look kindly on slow starts and internal strife.