It’s never too early to take stock of where teams stand in the NHL. The 2019 NHL Draft has passed, and many of the big names in free agency have found a home for this season, so this is as good a time as any to look at the balance of power in the Central Division. We asked nine NHL.com staff writers for their opinions on which team will be the best in the division this season.
Here are their thoughts:
[RELATED: Atlantic Division’s best team debated by NHL.com]
Tim Campbell, staff writer
Nashville Predators: They are the Central Division champions until they’re not and having won the division in each of the past two seasons, they are the gold standard. Nashville’s top-six forwards (Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund) present a collective skill level most teams must game plan against. Even with the subtraction of defenseman P.K. Subban, who was traded to the New Jersey Devils, the Predators have elite defensemen Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to handle the tough minutes. It’s hard to imagine Nashville having the worst power play in the League again (12.9 percent last season) so any improvement there will bolster a group whose window is still wide open as a Stanley Cup contender. Nashville also has five picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 NHL Draft so general manager David Poile has assets and will have the option to be aggressive as the 2020 Trade Deadline approaches.
Nick Cotsonika, columnist
Dallas Stars: The Central is stacked, but I’m going with the Stars. After they found their identity under coach Jim Montgomery last season, they went 20-11-3 down the stretch, defeated the Predators in six games in the Western Conference First Round and were a goal from defeating the St. Louis Blues in the second round, losing in double overtime of Game 7. This is an excellent defensive team with a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie in Ben Bishop (who was the runner-up last season). The issue has been offense, but the Stars have players with latent scoring ability and added Joe Pavelski, who scored 38 goals for the San Jose Sharks last season. Put Pavelski in front of the net on the power play and watch him deflect pucks into the net. The goals and the wins will increase.
Video: 31 in 31: Dallas Stars 2019-20 preview
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
Nashville Predators: Although the Central is the home of the Stanley Cup champion Blues and some of their rivals have improved this offseason, the Predators will finish first in the division for the third consecutive season. After signing Duchene as an unrestricted free agent, Nashville is as deep as any team in the League at center with Johansen, Duchene, Turris and Nick Bonino. To create the NHL salary cap space to sign Duchene, the Predators traded Subban, but remain strong on defense with Josi, Ellis, Ekholm and 21-year-old rookie Dante Fabbro ready to step into a top-four role. Although Pekka Rinne will turn 37 on Nov. 3, he remains a top goalie and has had at least 30 wins in five straight seasons.
Video: Ranking the top goaltenders in the Central Division
Pete Jensen, senior fantasy editor
Dallas Stars: They are well-equipped to win the division for the first time since 2015-16. When healthy, Bishop is the best goalie in the NHL, and young up-and-coming players Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz should each reach greater heights in their second seasons. The addition of Pavelski could help forward Jamie Benn and defenseman John Klingberg join Seguin and Alexander Radulov in the 70-plus point range. With a ton of offensive firepower and an expected improvement in 5-on-5 shooting percentage (6.9; third-worst in NHL), Dallas is poised to be an elite regular-season team. Bishop and the Stars were an overtime goal away from defeating the Blues and advancing to the Western Conference Final last season. The motivation from that defeat will fuel the Stars to the Central crown.
Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
St. Louis Blues: They will have almost their entire Stanley Cup-winning roster intact entering this season and that has to be a scary proposition for the rest of the division. After a miraculous turnaround to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the third-place finisher in the Central last season, the Blues have the experience and will benefit in knowing what it takes to be successful. They also have a goalie, Jordan Binnington, who is out to prove that his remarkable rookie season was no fluke. The Predators and Stars added key pieces, the Avalanche appear ready to take the next step, but the Blues are the team to beat. Coach Craig Berube will not stand for mediocrity. Expect a competitive training camp, too, since there are a few standout prospects looking to win roster spots, including forwards Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin.
Video: Binnington can take the pressure in first full season
Tracey Myers, staff writer
Colorado Avalanche: I really like how the Avalanche have progressed the past two seasons and I think they’ll win the division. They already had a dynamic first line featuring Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Acquiring forward Nazem Kadri will boost the secondary scoring that’s been an issue the past few seasons. They’ve got good, young defensemen in Samuel Girard, Nikita Zadorov and Cale Makar, who proved he was NHL ready with six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 playoff games last season after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA hockey. And who knows if Bowen Byram, the No. 4 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, joins that group, too? Goaltender Philipp Grubauer was outstanding in the second half of the season, and I expect him to be good from the start.
Video: 31 in 31: Colorado Avalanche 2019-20 season preview
Robert Reese, fantasy editor
St. Louis Blues: They finished one point back in the Central Division last season, impressive considering they were last place in the NHL on Jan. 3. Their Stanley Cup winning roster is mostly intact and Binnington should be able to repeat his rookie success. If forwards Jaden Schwartz and David Perron, each of whom missed time due to injury during the regular season, stay healthy, the Blues will finish atop the division. Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks may have another run left in them and the Stars and Avalanche will be knocking on the door, but the Blues remain the more experienced team.
Dave Stubbs, columnist
St. Louis Blues: So what do the worst-to-first Blues do for an encore? Winning the Central would be a start, no guarantee of a successful defense of their historic Stanley Cup win, but a nice place to begin pursuit of it. As colleagues Mike Morreale and Rob Reese point out, the Blues should enter 2019-20 with a roster very similar to that which turned the NHL on its ear last season, when general manager Doug Armstrong gave a team of destiny to coach Berube. Binnington is a sophomore with an almost surreal year of experience. Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn will anchor a defense behind an offense that had 13 players who scored 10 or more goals. And while “Gloria” is still playing in St. Louis, the Blues should know that the late Laura Branigan recorded a tune in 1993 called, “Didn’t We Almost Win It All.” The team could now use that as an anthem, dropping “Almost” from the title.
Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
St. Louis Blues: I buy into the notion that you are the champions until you’re not. As such, the Stanley Cup winner gets the nod here until someone else knocks it off its pedestal. If titles are won from the net out, then the Blues are in good shape moving forward. But it’s more than just talent. While covering the Blues for the final three rounds of the playoffs last season it was fascinating to see them grow into their identity. The Blues are a north-south team; when they play their up-down, grinding style, they are difficult for anyone to defeat. They get into trouble when they attempt to be fancy and go east-west. They won the Stanley Cup because they understood that. There’s no reason to think it will change.
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