After a year that saw hockey’s divisions shaken up, the Central Division is back in full force for the 2021-22 season, with a new team joining the fray as the Arizona Coyotes move eastward out of the Pacific Division.
Those Coyotes are coming into a division that is dominated by the high-flying Colorado Avalanche, but plenty of question marks remain behind them in the race for playoff spots.
Can the Winnipeg Jets finally put things together and make a serious Stanley Cup run? Can the Chicago Blackhawks take advantage of a massive offseason retooling project and get back into the postseason? Can the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues find the magic that made them strong contenders in previous years?
Here are our predictions for how the Central Division will shake out this season.
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1 Colorado Avalanche
Additions: Jack Johnson, Darcy Kuemper
Losses: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Joonas Donskoi, Devan Dubnyk, Philipp Grubauer, Brandon Saad
The Avalanche had an interesting offseason, re-signing Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar and saying good-bye to goaltenders Devan Dubnyk and Philipp Grubauer.
Even with all of those moves, the Avalanche are still primed for another romp through the division. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the league’s best players, and coupling him up with Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen makes for one of the most terrifying lines in the entire sport.
Add to that 2019 first round draft pick Bowen Byram, and the Avalanche have the talent required to be one of the top, if not the top, Stanley Cup contenders the league has to offer.
2 Winnipeg Jets
Additions: Brenden Dillon, Nate Schmidt
Losses: Laurent Brossoit, Derek Forbort
Outside of the Avalanche, things start to get quite interesting in the division. The Jets are being touted as a dark-horse contender this season because of some of the key additions they’ve made in recent years, including Schmidt, who came over from the Vegas Golden Knights, and the addition last season of Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is healthy and hoping to bounce back after a difficult season.
The Jets are also blessed with one of the best goaltenders in the sport, as Connor Hellebuyck will line up behind an improved defense and aim to bring the Jets into serious Cup contention.
3 Minnesota Wild
Additions: Jordie Benn, Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov, Jon Merrill
Losses: Nick Bonino, Ian Cole, Marcus Johansson, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter
The losses of Suter and Parise may not kill the Wild on the ice, but they will certainly impact their pocketbooks in future years, as the duo will cost millions in dead salary cap money in coming seasons.
Losing Johansson, Cole and Bonino will also hurt the Wild, but the team is hoping that new acquisitions like Goligoski and Benn will help soften the blow, especially on the blue line.
Fans should also watch for Kirill Kaprizov to make a big impact this season, as he celebrates his new five-year deal with Minnesota.
4 Chicago Blackhawks (Wild Card)
Additions: Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, Seth Jones, Jake McCabe
Losses: Adam Boqvist, Vinnie Hinostroza, Pius Suter, Nikita Zadorov
The Blackhawks have tossed aside the idea of a slow rebuild and instead hit the accelerator this offseason, acquiring both Fleury and Jones via trades and signing McCabe via free agency.
The team will hope that its new-look blue line will help protect the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net, and they’re also hoping that the return of Jonathan Toews will help to bolster an offense that already bragged some big weapons in the form of Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik.
5 Dallas Stars (Wild Card)
Additions: Braden Holtby, Ryan Suter
Losses: Andrew Cogliano, Jason Dickinson, Jamie Oleksiak
The Stars were bitten hard by the injury bug last year, with Tyler Seguin and Roope Hintz both back after dealing with various issues.
The team will hope that improved health will be in the cards this season, but they will also have to figure out how their lineup will shake out with Oleksiak, Dickinson and Andrew Cogliano all playing elsewhere this season.
6 St. Louis Blues
Additions: Pavel Buchnevich, Brandon Saad
Losses: Mike Hoffman, Jaden Schwartz
The Blues are a fascinating team, not least of which because it’s still not known whether or not Vladimir Tarasenko will be around for the whole season. Granted, he was in camp and says he is fully healthy, but after he wasn’t traded following a request to be dealt, it’s going to be interesting to see how he looks on the ice.
The Blues’ additions are certainly helpful, as Saad brings serious two-way game and Buchnevich is coming off of back-to-back solid seasons with the Rangers, but all eyes will certainly be on Tarasenko as a barometer for how the season will go in St. Louis.
7 Nashville Predators
Additions: Cody Glass
Losses: Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Ellis, Erik Gudbranson, Calle Jarnkrok, Erik Haula, Pekka Rinne
There’s no need to mince words: the Predators have some of the biggest names in the NHL playing in their forward group, but Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen have hardly been worthy of that title in previous seasons, combining for just 35 points in 82 combined games last season.
Losing Calle Jarnkrok, who tied for the team lead in goals last season, isn’t going to help matters either, and unless the Predators get some superhuman production out of some key guys, it could be a difficult season in Music City.
8 Arizona Coyotes
Additions: Jay Beagle, Ryan Dzingel, Loui Eriksson, Alex Galchenyuk, Shayne Gostisbehere, Antoine Roussel, Anton Stralman
Losses: Christian Dvorak, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Alex Goligoski, Adin Hill, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Raanta
Nothing ever comes easy for the Coyotes, and that extends both to their on-ice product, with the departures of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Christian Dvorak and Conor Garland, and their off-ice issues, as the team has no clue where it will be playing its home games next season.
Needless to say, the Coyotes made a ton of moves this offseason in aiming to ice a more competitive lineup, but it’s hard to see much of a path forward through a really difficult division. Gostisbehere and Galchenyuk are both solid additions, as is Dzingel, but the fact of the matter is that the team lost a ton of firepower and some really good goaltending in the offseason, and it’s not exactly clear who is going to step into all of these roles in the coming year.