Do you smell that? It’s the smell of freshly zambonied ice, a cold Miller Lite draft, and freshly printed pages in the game program. Training camps around the NHL are underway and the regular season is so close I can taste it. Now, pump your brakes. Before I can talk about the best team in the world, we have to talk about the other teams. Today, we look at perhaps the toughest division in hockey, the Central.

Colorado Avalanche

2017-18 record: 43-30-9

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 3.13 (10th)
GA/G – 2.89 (14th)
PP – 21.96% (8th)
PK – 83.27% (4th)

Key additions: LW Matt Calvert, D Ian Cole, G Philipp Grubauer

Key losses: LW Blake Comeau, G Jonathan Bernier

Returning leaders
Goals – Nathan MacKinnon (39)
Assists – Nathan MacKinnon (58)
Points – Nathan MacKinnon (97)
GAA – Semyon Varlamov (2.68)
Sv% – Semyon Varlamov (.920)

This Avlanache team greatly overachieved last season, and I just don’t see them doing that again for the second year in a row.

This offense was carried by one line, and one line only. That line was Nathan MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. 93 of the team’s 257 goals were scored by that line. MacKinnon had the best season of his career since his rookie campaign and nearly won the MVP because of it. This line is fantastic, but it will be hard for them to replicate that kind of success this season. Colorado has some nice young forwards in Alex Kerfoot, J.T. Compher, and Tyson Jost. However, I’m not sure they are ready to produce at a high level just yet. Besides those guys, Colorado’s depth is not very good.

The Avs’ blue line isn’t great, but it’s not awful either. I think Tyson Barrie is a top flight defenseman, and Erik Johnson complements him well on that first pairing. I think everyone knows my stance on Sam Girard. That boy is going to be a certified stud in the NHL. However, the addition of Ian Cole is curious. He’s an older player who may end up eating some minutes that otherwise would’ve gone to Girard or Nikita Zadorov. Cole isn’t a bad player, but he seems like a bad fit for this Avalanche team.

Semyon Varlamov was pretty good, all things considered, last season. However, I’m not sure he is a guy that Colorado can count on in order to get back to the postseason. Apparently, the organization feels that way too. They grabbed Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals. It remains to be seen how he’ll handle a bigger workload, but he certainly showed signs of being a legit No. 1 goalie in this league.

I think the Avs will fall back to Earth this season, despite their nice run a year ago. There are just too many teams ahead of them in the division for them to do that again. On the bright side, Colorado has Ottawa’s 2019 first-round pick, so they may very well get the best player in next year’s draft.

Chicago Blackhawks

2017-18 record: 33-39-10

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 2.79 (22nd)
GA/G – 3.12 (T-22nd)
PP – 15.99% (T-28th)
PK – 79.24% (20th)

Additions: LW Chris Kunitz, D Brandon Manning, D Brandon Davidson, G Cam Ward

Losses: C Vinnie Hinostroza, LW Patrick Sharp, D Connor Murphy

Returning leaders
Goals – Alex DeBrincat (28)
Assists – Patrick Kane (49)
Points – Patrick Kane (76)
GAA – Corey Crawford (2.27)
Sv% – Corey Crawford (.929)

This team is not very good, and I love every second of it. Can’t wait to see the United Center half-full for most of the season.

This team has three extremely proven veterans up front in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Brandon Saad, all of whom had “down” years last season. The Hawks also have two very promising young players in Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat. Other than that, it’s not a pretty situation for the Blackhawks up front. To combat this issue, Chicago went out and signed Chris Kunitz in free agency. That guy didn’t have much left in the tank last season with the Lightning, so I really don’t think his numbers will get a bump with this lineup. The *only* way this team sniffs the playoffs would be if Kane, Toews, and Saad suddenly get back to the forms they were in while winning Stanley Cups.

Defensively, this team is an absolute mess. Duncan Keith is still a great defenseman, even if he is regressing a little. The rest of the defense though? Yikes. Show me a dependable option on that back end, outside of Keith, and I will call you a liar. Brent Seabrook’s overpaid issues have been the topic of much conversation, and 28-year old Brandon Manning won’t be the one to fix the leaks here. Teams will be able to shred these defensive corps all season.

The best news of the offseason for this Blackhawks team is that Corey Crawford is healthy and will be able to start on opening night. After he went down last year, things really took a nosedive in the Windy City. With Crawford back, the Hawks shouldn’t be quite as putrid as last year. That is, unless he misses time again. Then it’ll be up to former Carolina goalie Cam Ward to make some key sav— hahahahaha. I’m sorry. That’s hilarious. They are screwed if Crow goes down.

The Blackhawks have fallen back down to the trash heap from whence they came, and they may stay there for a few years as they attempt to rebuild.

Dallas Stars

2017-18 record: 42-32-8

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 2.87 (T-18th)
GA/G – 2.74 (7th)
PP – 19.26% (19th)
PK – 80.78% (14th)

Key additions: LW Blake Comeau, D Roman Polak, D Connor Carrick, G Anton Khudobin

Key losses: D Dan Hamuis, D Greg Pateryn, LW Antoine Roussel

Returning leaders
Goals – Tyler Seguin (40)
Assists – John Klingberg (59)
Points – Jamie Benn (79)
GAA – Ben Bishop (2.49)
Sv% – Ben Bishop (.916)

The Stars are the darlings of the offseason again, but once again it won’t translate to a playoff berth.

The very tip top of this Dallas forward group is excellent. Tyler Seguin is an elite scorer in this league, Jamie Benn is as good a two-way forward as you’ll find, and that rotten bastard Alex Radulov is a quality goal-scorer too. Mattias Janmark and Radek Faksa are good players, but relying on them to get depth scoring may not be a great idea. Jason Spezza, also rotten, appears to have fallen off a cliff in terms of production, and it’s hard to see where the Stars will turn for goals outside of the first five players I mentioned.

One player they can turn to for offense is defenseman John Klingberg. The young blueliner was in the running for the Norris Trophy last season with 67 points. He’s a great puck mover who can quickly get the puck up to those top three forwards. After missing much of last season due to injury, Marc Methot should be able to find a groove. He won’t be the same player he was with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, but maybe playing with Klingberg will get him close. Esa Lindell and Julius Honka are young and full of potential, but I do have some bad news for Dallas fans. Your team signed Roman Polak. He is a veteran player that teams seem to love because of his toughness, but he is a traffic cone back there sometimes.

Ben Bishop was supposed to solve all of Dallas’ goaltending issues last year, but he didn’t quite pull that off. He was rather average in front of a team coached by Ken Hitchcock’s defensive style of play. The Stars are better at run-and-gun. If they get back to that under Jim Montgomery, Bishop has to be better. If he isn’t, the Stars will fall back into that old pattern of having to win shootouts.

I’ve seen many say this team will be quite good this season, but I really don’t see it. It looks like the exact same team that has missed the playoffs for the last couple of seasons.

Minnesota Wild

2017-18 record: 45-26-11

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 3.09 (11th)
GA/G – 2.83 (T-11th)
PP – 20.42% (T-17th)
PK – 81.25% (13th)

Key additions: D Greg Pateryn, RW J.T. Brown, C Matt Hendricks

Key losses: C Matt Cullen, C Tyler Ennis

Returning leaders
Goals – Eric Staal (42)
Assists – Mikael Granlund (46)
Points – Eric Staal (76)
GAA – Devan Dubnyk (2.52)
Sv% – Devan Dubnyk (.918)

The Minnesota Wild are the rice pudding of the NHL. They are the most bland, flavorless organization in the league.

In the sake of full disclosure, I don’t have much to say about this forward group. They are the same kind of pudding that the entire team is. Eric Staal has turned out to be one of best free agent signings in recent memory. That top line with he, Mikael Granlund, and and Jason Zucker was very effective last season. Behind them, Nino Niederreiter is a phenomenal second line forward who can play alongside Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu if that’s what Bruce Boudreau elects to do. All in all, this offense is above average.

Defensively, that rat bastard Ryan Suter is back after returning from injury. As much as it pains me to admit this, he’s still a very good defenseman who eats the toughest minutes against the toughest competition. He and Jared Spurgeon make a great first pairing. Matt Dumba is a good No. 3, but there isn’t anyone from no. 4 to no. 6 that looks to daunting. Again, just kind of rice pudding.

Devan Dubnyk remains a great starting goaltender for the Wild. I’m still furious that he couldn’t stop a beach ball when he was with the Predators, but I’m glad things worked out for him. He’ll be the No. 1 guy again, and he’ll be as tough to beat as ever.

This team is boring as hell, and I really don’t want to waste anymore time on it. The Wild will probably get a wild card spot and get bounced in the first round. Rinse and repeat.

St. Louis Blues

2017-18 record: 44-32-6

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 2.76 (24th)
GA/G – 2.71 (6th)
PP – 15.45% (30th)
PK – 79.65% (18th)

Key additions: C Ryan O’Reilly, LW David Perron, LW Patrick Maroon, C Tyler Bozak, G Chad Johnson

Key losses: C Kyle Brodziak, C Vladimir Sobotka, C Patrik Berglund

Returning leaders
Goals – Vladimir Tarasenko (33)
Assists – Brayden Schenn (42)
Points – Brayden Schenn (70)
GAA – Jake Allen (2.75)
Sv% – Jake Allen (.906)

After missing the playoffs last season, the St. Louis Blues went out, added some pieces, and have put themselves in position to challenge for the division.

St. Louis seemed to throw in the towel on last season when they traded away Paul Stastny to the Jets. They ended up nearly making the playoffs but got their asses waxed by Colorado on the last day of the regular season. After getting rid of Stastny, the team found a new top center by trading for Ryan O’Reilly. The Blues also brought back David Perron from Vegas and signed Tyler Bozak from the Maple Leafs. Those are only the new guys. Vladimir Tarasenko is a player that scares the hell out of me every time he touches the puck. Alex Steen and Jaden Schwartz only make this offense that much deeper. Add in the fact that Brayden Schenn was a fantastic addition last season, and this St. Louis team will continue scoring.

The Blues ain’t half bad on defense either. Captain Alex Pietrangelo heads things up on the defensive side of things and redwood trees Colton Parayko, Robert Bortuzzo, Joel Edmundson, and Jay Bouwmeester are there to back him up. This is a stingy group. They may not be the smaller, smooth-skating defensemen you see more often today, but that doesn’t matter. They keep teams from scoring, and that is all that matters.

Goaltending is where things get shaky for this team. Jake Allen was unbelievable in 2016-17, but he was a disaster last year. So much so, in fact, that Carter Hutton had to take over that crease for a while. Hutton parlayed that into a starting job with the Sabres, and it’s Allen’s net once again. If he collapses like he did last season, so will the Blues. Depending on which Jake Allen shows up, this Blues team could be a bubble team or a great team.

I have the Blues comfortably making the playoffs via the third spot in the Central Division.

Winnipeg Jets

2017-18 record: 52-20-10

2017-18 Stats
GF/G – 3.38 (T-2nd)
GA/G – 2.66 (5th)
PP – 23.36% (5th)
PK – 81.75% (9th)

Key additions: G Laurent Brossoit

Key losses: C Paul Stastny, RW Joel Armia, C Matt Hendricks

Returning leaders
Goals – Patrik Laine (44)
Assists – Blake Wheeler (68)
Points – Blake Wheeler (90)
GAA – Connor Hellebuyck (2.36)
Sv% – Connor Hellebuyck (.924)

The Jets are an absolute unit of a team. There’s just not two ways around it. This team will be a problem for the Preds this season.

This forward group is deep, and they are versatile. They have skill, speed, and size. You want to run and gun? They can. You want to play a slower physical game? They can. In Patrik Laine, they have a player with the goal-scoring ability of Alex Ovechkin. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are fantastic power forwards will a nice amount of skill in their games. Nikolaj Ehlers will blow by you before you even knew he was coming. Young Kyle Connor is a nice mix of everything. I can keep going. Brian Little and Mathieu Perreault are great players to have on the bottom two lines. Newsflash: The Jets will score a shit ton of goals.

On defense, the Jets have more guys that can beat the life out of you. Dustin Byfuglien is chief among them. That guy is a house of a defenseman who can skate better than you’d think by looking at him. Tyler Myers is roughly the size of the Empire State Building, and Jacob Trouba is a forced to be reckoned with on his own. Josh Morrisey and Joe Morrow also provide some 25-and-under options for Paul Maurice in Winnipeg. These guys are good not great, but that’s all they need to be.

Connor Hellebuyck came into his own in the 2017-18 season. The Winnipeg net minder was  Vezina Trophy contender all year, and he was key in this team’s success. For a couple of years, the Jets had the offense but couldn’t find a goalie to make a stop. Now it appears that they have a goalie who will do more than just that. He’ll make more than his fair share of saves. Goaltender is the most volatile position in the NHL, and Hellebuyck has stung together a dreadful season and a terrific season in back-to-back seasons. Which goalie is the real Hellebuyck? That may be the only question this Jets team has.

The Jets are really damn good and will push the Predators for that division crown atop the Central.

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