Winnipeg Looks To Prove They Own The Central
It’s hard to discount any team with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on it, but 2018-19 will see the Blackhawks as a fringe team, only reaching the playoffs if all goes according to plan. Expectations like these are a departure for Chicago considering that they’ve notched 100 point seasons in seven of the last 10 years, but after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign that only saw the ‘Hawks record 76 points, it’s hard to maintain a positive outlook.
From a talent standpoint, this team is very top heavy. Their top two lines possess elite talent championed by Toews, Kane, Brandon Saad, and Alex Debrincat, but as you go further into the roster, there’s not much to look at. The same thing goes on defense led by an aging Duncan Keith. Bringing in Chris Kunitz and Marcus Kruger chip away at that problem by adding an additional veteran presence, but they are only replacement level.
The Blackhawks success in 2018-19 will hinge directly on whether their goalie can stay on the ice. Crawford had to sit out the bulk of last season after dealing with the complications of a bizarre head injury. Chicago needs their starting goalie healthy and productive to have any shot at the postseason.
Prediction: 84 points
It’s a regime change in Dallas. Jim Montgomery is taking over a very talented Stars team that finished 19th in points last season. The core strength of the Stars is clearly their top line. Skating Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alex Radulov together make for the best first line in the entire league. Thankfully, I’m a Rangers fan, but this line scares me. Dallas’s most pressing issue is that no other aspect of their roster will strike fear into the hearts of enemy fanbases.
Yes, Jason Spezza and Valeri Nichushkin could make for an interesting pair on the second line, but assuming they can produce on the level necessary to make Dallas a playoff club is wishful thinking (at least at this point). That coupled with the fact that the Stars are not particularly strong on defense is not exactly the recipe for success. John Klingberg is elite, and it will be exciting to see how well Miro Heiskanen can produce in his rookie campaign. After that, it’s basically you or me suiting up in green.
There are two outcomes here. Ben Bishop finds his mojo and Montgomery looks like a genius by revitalizing the Stars or, more likely, Dallas turns out to be another team in transition as a new coach starts to make his mark.
Prediction: 85 points
St. Louis Blues
The Blues have been a perennially strong team, reaching the postseason in five of the last six years. Last season was not so lucky for St. Louis. They came up short in the hunt and said goodbye to Paul Stasny. The good news is that they still have Vladimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn. The even better news is that they made a series of well-received moves this offseason including adding Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Patrick Maroon.
There is a ton of talent spread across these top three lines and this Blues team is fortunate enough to have two very strong defenders in Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko. Vince Dunn is also poised for a big year after 2017-18 left us wanting much more.
The Blues have to do a lot to be successful in 2018-19, including tightening up what was an ineffective power play last year. Mike Yeo’s job is safe, but it will be interesting to see whether he can get the most out of the impressive depth the Blues possess among their forwards. If they are even dreaming of the postseason, then Jake Allen has to become much more consistent between the pipes.
Prediction: 88 points
Led by their star center Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche posted one of the most impressive turnarounds any of us have ever seen. Colorado found a way to compete last year and even though they couldn’t get through Nashville in the opening round of the playoffs, they still carry a ton of momentum into this upcoming season.
MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog form an extremely formidable top line. The best part for Avs fans you ask? All three of those guys are under 25 years old. Their biggest concern is that outside of that trio, the rest of their forwards are essentially replacement level on a good day (with the exception of Alex Kerfoot).
On the defensive end, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Samuel Girard make for an exciting group on defense. Girard has a ton of upside and could take a major leap in 2018-19. As far as goalies are concerned, Colorado is looking at a platoon situation at least to open the season. Semyon Varlamov remains a safe option, but in a contract year, the Avs may lean towards settling Philipp Grubauer into the role. Grubauer has a higher upside and could be in net for years to come after he was acquired from Washington.
Prediction: 89 points
Zach Parise and company should have high hopes for 2018-19. Injuries robbed them of a potentially deep playoff run a year ago. Between Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Parise, and Nino Niederreiter, this team is as talented as any among their top nine. Realistically, Zucker and Staal cannot be as good as they were a year prior and for Coyle, it’s essentially time to put up or shut up after an off-track year.
Even with all of that forward talent, the Wild are a team anchored by their defense. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin make for an exceptionally talented group. Any success in 2018-19 will depend on their continued production and injury luck. Devan Dubnyk is not a star or a top-tier talent, but he is steady. With this much talent, all they need of him is to remain consistent. His affordability should continue to offset his aging body and declining level of performance, but for this upcoming season, he can be exactly what Minnesota needs to survive.
Prediction: 98 points
Winnipeg came close to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last season and there is no reason they won’t at least come close to doing so again. This team is championship ready and all they need to do is push the right buttons at the trade deadline the way they did with Paul Stastny last year.
Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler make for one of the best first lines in hockey, but the talent doesn’t stop there. Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, and Patrik Laine join forces to form a second line that could be a first line for many other NHL teams. Dustin Byfuglien leads an impressive group on defense and with the help of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Josh Morrissey should continue to wreak havoc across the league.
Connor Helleybuck has emerged as a star and possessing a premiere goalie like such is one ingredient in the recipe to bring the Stanley Cup back to Winnipeg. Let’s also not forget that this team’s special teams were crazy good a year ago, with a fifth-ranked powerplay unit and a ninth-ranked penalty kill. The Jets have big aspirations for 2018-19 and should continue to wow us with all of their talent, en route to a deep and entertaining playoff run.
Prediction: 110 points
The Nashville Predators were the best regular team in hockey last season. Nothing less than a championship will satisfy them in 2018-19. In a perfect world, their path to the Stanley Cup Finals would not include a matchup with the Winnipeg Jets. But the truth of the matter is that no team can escape a playoff meltdown if it’s in the cards for them.
Nashville shouldn’t have to worry too much because their top two lines are so talented it deeply saddens me just wishing the Rangers could compete on that level. Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Kevin Fiala, and Craig Smith are a scary group. Scary is honestly an understatement. They are terrifying.
And when you look at their defensive group, you start to doubt whether anyone could contend with this club. Roman Josi. Ryan Ellis. P.K. Subban. Mattias Ekholm. All four of those names could be top defenders of a variety of NHL teams. Subban could probably be a number one on all 30 other teams. Adding Dan Hamhuis to the fold makes them even more formidable.
This is starting to look like the farewell tour with Pekka Rinne in the final year of his contract. After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2018, Rinne should be just as stellar as he was a year ago. It’s now or never for Rinne unless Nashville decides they want to reinvest in their aging goalie. In the event of an emergency, Juuse Saros is waiting in the wings. At 23 years old, Saros is the future of this franchise and could start to show that as early as this season. Regardless, Nashville is a team that should be playing in the Stanley Cup Finals this May. Anything less is unacceptable.
- Nashville Predators (120 points)
- Winnipeg Jets (110 points)
- Minnesota Wild (98)
- Colorado Avalanche (89 points)
- St. Louis Blues (88 points)
- Dallas Stars (85 points)
- Chicago Blackhawks (84 points)