• Drew Weber

Central Division Offseason Recap

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

The Central Division re-established itself as the strongest division in the NHL after sending five teams to the playoffs, including the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Even the last-place Minnesota Wild—who finished with 83 points—were still better than 10 other teams in the league.

But this offseason introduced new rosters, new front offices, and new potential powerhouses to the group, making an already competitive division that much more difficult to traverse.

And while the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild may still be at the bottom of the pack, the improvements made by the wild-card Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche could make them contenders to win the division and the conference this season.

It’s anyone’s race, but the rest of the league has to be along for the ride.

Nashville Predators (47 - 29 - 6 , 100 Points)

Additions: (F) Matt Duchene, (D) Steven Santini

Subtractions: (F) Brian Boyle, (F) Phillip Di Giuseppe, (F) Cody McLeod, (F) Zac Rinaldo, (F) Wayne Simmonds, (D) P.K. Subban

The Nashville Predators finished first in the Central Division but were knocked out by the Dallas Stars in the first round. One of the team’s weaknesses in that series was their depth at center, which was limited behind Ryan Johansen.

So, Nashville addressed that issue by signing free agent centerman Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million contract. Duchene finished last season with 70 points in 73 games for the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets, and scored at a point-per-game pace in the playoffs.

But the 28-year-old forward cost the Predators more than just his salary. To make room for Duchene financially, Nashville needed to clear out contracts before the start of free agency. 

One of those contracts was that of P.K. Subban, whose $9 million cap hit was sent to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, a 2019 second-round pick, and a 2020 second-round pick.

While it hurts to lose someone of Subban’s caliber, the Predators dealt from a place of great strength and managed to snag two second-round draft picks in the process.

Interestingly enough, Nashville was involved in the initial Matt Duchene trade, giving the necessary assets to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Kyle Turris. Now, both Turris and Duchene are playing in Tennessee.

One more note on the Predators: Colton Sissons’ contract.

Nashville signed Sissons to a seven-year, $20 million deal—an unheard of term for a bottom-six forward. 

He’s a serviceable player now, but that contract may be difficult to handle if his playing falls below the NHL level.

Winnipeg Jets (47 - 30 - 5 , 99 Points)

Additions: (D) Anthony Bitetto, (D) Neal Pionk

Subtractions: (F) Kevin Hayes, (F) Matt Hendricks, (F) Par Lindholm, (F) Brandon Tanev, (D) Ben Chiarot, (D) Joe Morrow, (D) Tyler Myers, (D) Jacob Trouba

Unknown: (F) Patrik Laine, (F) Kyle Connor, (G) Eric Comrie

The Winnipeg Jets’ offseason can be summarized with two names: Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor.

Laine and Connor are two of the many high-profile RFA holdouts coming into September, the only two from the same team. Both of them scored at least 30 goals last season, and they combined for over 110 points heading into the playoffs.

Ironically, the Jets traded away two of their pending RFAs in Jacob Trouba and Kevin Hayes to make room for the potential contracts of Laine and Connor.

Trouba was sent to the New York Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and a 2019 first-round pick. This was a risky move for Winnipeg, as he was one of the top defensemen on a blueline that lacked solid talent behind him and Dustin Byfuglien.

Hayes, on the other hand, was someone more easily replaceable. Winnipeg dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers for a fifth-round pick in 2019 after a season that saw him put up 55 points in 71 games.

Although moving Trouba and Hayes may have saved the team up to $15 million in cap space given their eventual contracts, the Jets still only have $16 million to sign Laine and Connor.

In theory, this could be enough to get them both under contract. But if Hayes is worth over $7 million a year in Philadelphia, then what are Laine and Connor worth in Winnipeg?

St. Louis Blues (45 - 28 - 9 , 99 Points)

Additions: None

Subtractions: (F) Pat Maroon, (F) Nikita Soshnikov, (F) Chris Thorburn, (D) Chris Butler, (D) Jakub Jerabek, (F) Jordan Schmaltz

The Stanley Cup champions had one of the quietest offseasons in the league, losing only a small bit of talent while adding no players with significant NHL experience.

Here is the St. Louis Blues’ summer in a nutshell:

1) They signed Jordan Binnington to a two-year, $9 million contract.

2) They let Pat Maroon, the St. Louis native and Game 7 hero, walk in free agency.

3) They traded Jordan Schmaltz—who has five points in 52 NHL games—to the Toronto Maple Leafs for AHL defenseman Andreas Borgman.

Other than that, the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2019 is the one that will defend it in 2020. 

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dallas Stars (43 - 32 - 7 , 93 Points)

Additions: (F) Joe Pavelski, (F) Corey Perry 

Subtractions: (F) Erik Condra, (F) Valeri Nichushkin, (F) Tyler Pitlick, (F) Brett Ritchie, (F) Mats Zuccarello, (F) Jason Spezza, (D) Ben Lovejoy, (D) Marc Methot

Unknown: (D) Julius Honka

The Dallas Stars were one overtime goal away from knocking out the eventual-champion St. Louis Blues in the second round of the playoffs. But even though they fell short of the Western Conference Final, the Stars saw they had a chance to be contenders for the Stanley Cup. 

So in the offseason, they added more skill to the roster.

Most notably, Dallas signed former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski to a three-year, $21 million deal. 

Although Pavelski turned 35 years old in July, he’s coming off a season where he scored 38 goals—tied for second most in his career. He’s projected to slide onto the second line with Roope Hintz to boost the team’s scoring behind Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov.

The Stars also signed long-time Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry to a low-risk, one-year, $3.25 million deal ($1.5 million cap hit). 

Perry scored just 10 points in 31 games last season, missing over half the year due to injury. His career may be in decline, but he could make a small comeback with the more-talented Dallas organization.

Like all teams in the salary cap era, the Stars had to make room for Perry and Pavelski’s contracts. They did this by buying out the final year of Valeri Nichushkin’s deal and trading Tyler Pitlick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for pending RFA Ryan Hartman, who wasn’t given a qualifying offer by Dallas.

Another RFA who may not have a future with the Stars is defenseman Julius Honka. While Dallas did tender him a qualifying offer, they are shopping him around after he spent most of last year as a healthy scratch behind a stacked defensive group.

Even if the team wanted Honka, they would have less than $1 million in cap space to sign him.

Colorado Avalanche (38 - 30 - 14 , 90 Points)

Additions: (F) Nazem Kadri, (F) Valeri Nichushkin, (F) Joonas Donskoi, (F) André Burakovsky, (F) Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, (D) Kevin Connauton, (D) Calle Rosen

Subtractions: (F) Alex Kerfoot, (F) Andrew Agozzino, (F) Sven Andrighetto, (F) Gabriel Bourque, (F) Derick Brassard, (F) Marko Dano, (F) Carl Soderberg, (F) Dominic Toninato, (D) Tyson Barrie, (D) Patrik Nemeth, (G) Semyon Varlamov

Unknown: (F) Mikko Rantanen

After surprising the hockey world by upsetting the Calgary Flames in the postseason and taking the San Jose Sharks to Game 7, the Colorado Avalanche are poised to make a deep playoff run with the most improved forward group in the league.

The biggest addition to that forward group is centerman Nazem Kadri.

The Avalanche acquired Kadri, along with Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round pick, from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot, and a 2020 sixth-round pick.

Although Barrie was Colorado’s best defenseman, the success of Cale Makar in last year’s playoffs made it possible for the Avalanche to deal him to improve their depth up front. But they’ll also need big years from Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard to help make up for Barrie’s lost skill set.

Kadri will slot in as the team’s second line center behind Nathan MacKinnon, filling a physical shutdown role that will complement the team’s high-scoring top line. 

Colorado also traded Scott Kosmachuk, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2020 third-round pick to the Washington Capitals for the rights to RFA André Burakovsky, who they signed to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.

Burakovsky registered 25 points in 76 games last season. The point total is low, but he played under 12 minutes a night while in Washington and saw next to zero time on the power play. With more even-strength and man-advantage ice time, the Swedish forward should increase his production.

The Avalanche made some splashes in free agency as well, signing Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Valeri Nichushkin, and Kevin Connauton to contracts in order to fill open roster spots.

Overall, the team brought in six new skaters with significant NHL experience. In fact, their projected second line of Donskoi, Kadri, and Burakovsky is made up entirely of players who will make their Avalanche debuts this season.

There is just one more piece of Colorado’s forward group that needs to be put in place, but it’s a big one.

Mikko Rantanen.

Rantanen is one of the many high-profile RFA holdouts this summer. He had another fantastic season in 2018-19, scoring 31 goals and 87 points in just 74 games. 

Colorado has over $15 million in cap space to sign the young star, but a deal has not been reached with the season coming nearer. 

This would not be the first time contract negotiations bled into the regular season. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the Avalanche weren’t able to come to terms with forward Ryan O’Reilly until over a month into the year—only signing him because they matched a two-year, $10 million offer sheet by the Calgary Flames. 

During the offseason, Rantanen skated with Storhamar of the Norwegian league, although he did not sign a contract with the organization. It appears he is training over there until he and Colorado come to an agreement.

Lastly, Philipp Grubauer will take over the full-time starting goaltender position for the Avalanche after Semyon Varlomov left the team in free agency. This is the first time Grubauer will have sole possession of the starting job in his six-year NHL career.

Chicago Blackhawks (36 - 34 - 12 , 84 Points)

Additions: (F) Ryan Carpenter, (F) Alex Nylander, (F) Andrew Shaw, (F) Zack Smith, (D) Calvin de Haan, (D) Olli Maatta, (G) Robin Lehner

Subtractions: (F) Artem Anisimov, (F) John Hayden, (F) Luke Johnson, (F) Dominik Kahun, (F) Marcus Kruger, (F) Chris Kunitz, (F) Andreas Martinsen, (D) Brandon Davidson, (D) Gustav Forsling, (D) Henri Jokiharju, (G) Cam Ward

The Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the second straight year, although they did improve from their 76-point campaign in 2017-18.

They’re looking to continue that upward trend, and they made a number of deals in the summer to make the team better immediately.

The biggest trade Chicago made was sending a 2020 second-round pick, a 2020 seventh-round pick, and a 2021 third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for former-Blackhawk Andrew Shaw and a seventh-round pick in 2021. 

Shaw put up 96 points in 182 games with Montreal after being traded from Chicago for a pair of second-round picks in 2016. He should bolster the Blackhawks’ forward depth, but giving up two picks to try and compete while the Central Division is so stacked might be costly.

The team also sent prospect defenseman Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander, the younger brother of William Nylander who has seen little time at the NHL level. 

Jokiharju was one of the few promising defensive prospects for the Blackhawks and was projected to be a key part of the team’s blue line in the future, especially once Duncan Keith retired. Moving on from him is a risk, but it could pan out if Nylander is able to find his game and play like a former eighth-overall pick.

The Blackhawks made other smaller trades during the offseason, shipping off players like Artem Anisimov, Dominik Kahun, and Gustav Forsling to various teams while bringing in the likes of Zack Smith, Olli Maatta, and Calvin de Haan.

But Chicago didn’t just rely on trades this offseason. In free agency, they signed Masterton Trophy and William M. Jennings Trophy winner Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5 million contract.

Lehner was a key part to the success of the New York Islanders last season, posting a .930 save percentage while sharing the net with Thomas Greiss. He was New York’s starting goaltender in the playoffs and registered a .936 save percentage as well as a 2.00 goals against average in eight postseason games.

The new addition in goal should help the Blackhawks immensely after subpar performances from an often-injured Corey Crawford, as well as backups Cam Ward and Colin Dellia.

Chicago got better in the summer, but we’ll have to see if it’s enough to sneak them into a playoff spot.

Minnesota Wild (37 - 36 - 9 , 83 Points)

Additions: (General Manager) Bill Guerin, (F) Ryan Hartman, (F) Mats Zuccarello

Subtractions: (General Manager) Paul Fenton, (F) Pontus Aberg, (F) Eric Fehr, (F) Matt Read, (D) Anthony Bitetto, (D) Nate Prosser

Unknown: (F) Kevin Fiala

The Minnesota Wild finished last in the Central Division, but stayed relatively quiet on the player side of things this offseason.

Instead, they made a major change to their front office by firing general manager Paul Fenton and replacing him with former NHL player Bill Guerin, who has never held the position before.

Fenton had a rough tenure in Minnesota. He was responsible for the infamous Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask trade that quickly backfired, and he established a toxic relationship with forward Jason Zucker

Even though he only spent one season with the team, some people have called him the worst general manager in Minnesota Wild history.

One of the last things Fenton did while with the team was sign Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million deal during the offseason.

Zuccarello has had a respectable career, and he looked great in his few games with the Dallas Stars. However, he is a 32-year-old forward coming off of an injury that took him out for over a month.

He could be serviceable in the near future, but signing someone over the age of 30 to a long-term deal could prove problematic as the years go on.

One thing left from the Fenton era that Guerin will have to take care of is RFA Kevin Fiala’s contract. 

Fiala came to the team in the middle of last season in a trade that saw Mikael Granlund go to the Nashville Predators. But while Granlund was under contract for one more season, Fiala became an RFA in July, and the Wild haven’t been able to come to terms with him.

Guerin will either need to trade the rights to the forward, who scored 39 points last season, or use his nearly $8 million in cap space to sign him.

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