Biggest unanswered pre-season question for each team in the Central Division

Connor Bedard during the pre-season. (Getty Images)

Every team carries two things into a new NHL season: Hope and questions.

Of course, there’s a tiered dynamic to hope. A lot of clubs are aiming for a playoff berth, while others in a different class of team merely want to see tangible signs of progress. At the top, a few squads can look in the mirror and sincerely say this could be the year.

Questions, too, come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some squads are wondering about a young guy or two who might step up, others are still not sure who their No. 1 goalie is.

The answers, in many cases, won’t come for a long time. But with NHL camps underway, it’s time to pose a query — big or small — for all 32 outfits. To do so, we’ll break it into bite-size chunks and go division by division.

Having already delved into the Pacific and Metropolitan, let’s turn our attention to the Central and the debut of what we all expect to be a generational star.

Arizona Coyotes: Is there actually a nice 1-2 centre punch emerging in the desert?

For a while, it seemed like the uncertainty surrounding the franchise — isn’t “Where are they going to eventually play?” always the biggest question in Arizona? — might encourage 2022 third-overall pick Logan Cooley to play another season of NCAA hockey and see where things sit next spring.

But Cooley did, ultimately, ink his entry-level deal with the squad and he figures to be one of the more interesting rookies to watch this season.

Speaking of high picks, Barrett Hayton — the fifth pick in 2018 — closed the season showing he might yet justify that lofty selection slot. Skating between Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller, Hayton — who turned 23 this summer, it’s worth remembering — put up 14 goals and 29 points in his final 35 games last season. That’s better than a 30-goal clip, if you play it out over 82 games.

With Schmaltz and Keller flanking Hayton, and Cooley potentially skating alongside a cagey vet such as Jason Zucker, there’s reason to believe the Coyotes’ attack will have teeth. By Christmas, a 1-2 of Hayton and Cooley down the middle might look like a strong setup for the next decade.

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Chicago Blackhawks: Do we just let our imagination run wild with Connor Bedard?

There have only been four 40-goal rookie scorers in the past 30 years: record-holding Teemu Selanne (76!), Eric Lindros (41), Alex Ovechkin (52) and Auston Matthews (40).

It’s just hard to rule out Bedard joining this group based on everything we’ve seen of him prior to joining the NHL, and the fact he immediately netted a hat trick during his first rookie tournament game.

Buckle up; this is going to be awesome.

Colorado Avalanche: How will Ryan Johansen make out as the 2C?

It’s fair to say Johansen — along with a few other players — had grown stale in Nashville. The Avs picked him up for a song and the Predators are absorbing half his cap hit for the next two seasons.

Johansen just turned 31 and with Nathan MacKinnon doing the heavy lifting on the top unit, there’s reason to believe the six-foot-three, pass-first pivot could push up into the 75-point range.

J.T. Compher — who signed with Detroit this summer — did a decent job as the second-line centre last season, but Johansen has the potential to bring significantly more offence to the role.

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Dallas Stars: Who will step up on defence?

Miro Heiskanen officially broke into the league’s upper tier of top defencemen last season, especially with his second-half showing of 42 points in his final 39 games.

The Dallas blue-line corps is certainly serviceable after Heiskanen, but it would be a welcome development to see a couple of candidates in particular grow into larger roles.

The Stars gave up a first-round pick for Nils Lundkvist — taken 28th overall by the New York Rangers in 2018 — one year ago and he had some encouraging moments during his first full NHL season.

There’s also 22-year-old, six-foot-three Thomas Harley, who had an encouraging nine points in 19 playoff games last spring for Big D.

Minnesota Wild: How will Filip Gustavsson handle increased expectations?

Gustavsson emerged as Minny’s No. 1 guy last season by posting a .931 save percentage. That resulted in an off-season deal that will see the 25-year-old Swede count for $3.75 million against the cap in the next three seasons.

With Marc-Andre Fleury potentially entering the final year of his career — and big-time goalie prospect Jesper Wallstedt making his way up the pipeline — it will be interesting to see how Gustavsson handles the pressure of being the go-to guy with just 60 career starts on his resume.

Nashville Predators: Can they be anything more than a fringe playoff team?

There’s every chance the moves made under new GM Barry Trotz — bringing in character-forward guys Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn, eating money to ship out Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen — will improve the team’s outlook.

And, with Juuse Saros as your goalie, there’s really only so far you can sink.

Still, it’s difficult to see the Preds as anything other than a squad that’s life and death to make the playoffs.

Whether they’re anything more than that likely comes down to how much young guys Luke Evangelista, Juuso Parssinen, Phillip Tomasino and even Cody Glass are able to step forward.

St. Louis Blues: Will Robert Thomas find another gear?

Thomas registered 77 points in 72 games two years ago, fully announcing himself as an offensive menace. Last season, in 73 games, that number dropped to 65 during a rough season in which St. Louis missed the playoffs.

Thomas is 24, at the top of the centre depth chart and feels like a candidate to blast past his previous best total by 20 points or so.

The Blues might need it if they are to climb back into the post-season picture.

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Winnipeg Jets: Will Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck be on this team in six months?

Neither player has closed the door on a return, and as bad as things felt at times during last season for the Jets, it’s worth remembering there’s a nice collection of talent on this team.

If things go well out of the gate, maybe the two UFAs-to-be take a hard look at staying in the only NHL city either of them has ever known.

That said, these two players are inching closer and closer to being able to pick their next destination and if Winnipeg wobbles at all, you have to believe GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will start taking a hard look at what one or both of these players could fetch via trade.

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