Do you have questions about your favourite team after the puck dropped for the preseason?
For teams that are already playoff-bound, the preseason doesn’t really answer questions. If you’re cheering for a bottom-feeder, the preseason suddenly becomes must-watch hockey as you try to figure out who’s making the team.
In the Central Division, there are holes in some lineups. Let’s get one thing clear though, this is the only division in hockey where all seven teams have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. Only three are guaranteed a spot, which will make this one of the most competitive divisions once again.
Has the door slammed shut on this dynasty?
After two straight years without a playoff win, it’s fair to ask if the Chicago Blackhawks “dynasty” is done, winning three Stanley Cups in five years.
Patrick Kane is still performing at a high level, but Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook dropped off. However, it’s really not about the superstars, but the depth. Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat enjoyed fine seasons but Brandon Saad was a major disappointment. Look for him to rebound this season, but there are a whole bunch of question marks about other players.
Depth on defence was also a major issue. After Keith and Seabrook, the defencemen who played the most for the Blackhawks were Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle and Gustav Forsling. Murphy is injured for the foreseeable future, while Oesterle is now with the Arizona Coyotes. Defensive depth remains an issue for this team.
However, the real issue lies with Corey Crawford’s health. Once Crawford was ruled out for last season, the Blackhawks went 16-26-5 in his absence. He is still battling health issues but should return to practice before the start of the regular season. Cam Ward was acquired for more depth, but he doesn’t inspire confidence to carry the team in Crawford’s absence.
Can they avoid regressing?
The Colorado Avalanche were one of the league’s biggest surprises last season. After finishing with a measly 48 points in 2016-17, they nearly doubled their output, finishing with 95 points while finishing with a wild-card playoff berth. However, and pause us if you’ve heard this before, the Avalanche might regress.
At even strength, the Avs had the fifth-worst Corsi percentage and generated the seventh-fewest scoring chances. They also had the fifth-highest PDO and the third-highest save percentage at five-on-five.
There are also questions about the scoring depth behind Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The Avs will be hoping that Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher will take the next step in their development. If they don’t, the Avs will be hard-pressed to return to the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
Will gambling on a college coach pay off?
The trend of promoting NCAA coaches to the NHL is growing, but it signals a clear change from what the Dallas Stars have done in the past. Other than Glen Gulutzan’s two-year stint as head coach of the Stars, the franchise has routinely hired experienced coaches to lead their NHL team. That changed when they hired former University of Denver coach, Jim Montgomery, in May.
Montgomery had a stellar five-year reign as head coach in Denver, where his squad finished as NCAA Champions in 2016-17. He implemented an up-tempo, possession-based style of hockey which was hugely successful.
Despite the shift in mentality, Montgomery seems like a good fit for Dallas on paper. He was only the fourth NCAA coach to jump straight to the NHL (even though David Quinn later became the fifth), and he joins a team with playoff aspirations. It sounds like the Stars should be going back to playing fun hockey, especially when Montgomery effectively says his star players will have free rein in the offensive zone.
Can the Wild actually make a playoff run with this core and coach?
If you’re placing bets on these burning questions, chances are you aren’t investing too heavily in the Minnesota Wild.
After another disappointing playoff exit, it’s hard to see where the Wild have an advantage over some of their Central Division counterparts. The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are still the crown jewels of the division, and the St. Louis Blues drastically improved their forward group. The Wild, one the other hand, had only three steady forwards produce last season.
Injuries played a part in that but only the trio of Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker totaled above 60 points. An aging Mikko Koivu posted 43 points, and healthier seasons from Carlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise could help Minnesota this season. They will need more juice from their offence if they want to hit that next gear. The Wild played a low-event style of hockey last season. It got them into the playoffs but without Ryan Suter, they were outmatched against the Jets.
Is this the year where Juuse Saros pushes Pekka Rinne for starting minutes?
From an outsider’s perspective, this might seem like a silly question. Pekka Rinne is fresh off of winning his first career Vezina Trophy and has played in 49 playoff games for the franchise in the past three seasons. Even though he was just voted the league’s best regular season goalie, there are a number of reasons why Rinne’s ice time might diminish in 2018-19.
For one, he will be 36 years old on Nov. 3. While he could keep playing at a high level for another three or four seasons, his contract is up at the end of the season. He also didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the playoffs last year, yo-yo-ing from bad start to good start.
The Predators also have a promising goalie playing behind Rinne in Juuse Saros. He’s performed admirably in spot-duty for Rinne and just signed a three-year extension in the offseason. With Rinne’s contract nearly wrapped up, the Preds would be foolish not to see if Saros can handle a bigger workload. If he starts to outplay Rinne, it could signal a changing of the guard.
St. Louis Blues
Which Jake Allen will show up for the Blues?
Questions about goaltending tend to be controversial and the Blues have a doozy heading into 2018-19. In an offseason where they overhauled their centre depth, Doug Armstrong has constructed a team that could make a serious playoff push. Whether they make the playoffs, however, will hang on the shoulders of Jake Allen.
The erratic netminder has shown flashes of brilliance, mixed with middling results. Last season was no different. Allen finished with the worst GAA of his career and the lowest save percentage since his rookie campaign.
Allen started strong last year, ripping off to a 7-2-1 start. That was followed by some up and down play for the rest of the season, the low point coming in January when he lost the starting job to Carter Hutton. Allen also played poorly against divisional opponents and actually started more games (20) against Pacific Division opponents than Central opponents (18).
Without Hutton to battle for the starting job, there’s not much of a safety net behind Allen. Chad Johnson is a career backup and a downgrade on Hutton. Ville Husso, 23, had a nice season for the Blues’ farm team last year but he’s an unproven commodity at the NHL level.
Long story short, the Blues’ season could be derailed by bad goaltending after an offseason of improving their team. On the flip side, Allen could rebound and surprise many by leading the Blues to a top-1o finish. Neither scenario would be surprising.
Will Paul Maurice start to play Patrik Laine like a first-line winger?
While Patrik Laine is clearly one of the NHL’s most gifted goal scorers, there’s no comment from Paul Maurice on how he feels about Laine’s latest comments to the media: “My skating is not ready, hands are definitely not ready, shot is not ready, and my head, my head is not there,” Laine told reporters following practice last week.
The Finnish forward’s comments were eye-opening, but it might be the way that the 20-year-old is motivating himself entering the 2018-19 season. He finished with the second-most goals in the NHL (44), trailing only Alex Ovechkin (49). Laine accomplished that averaging only 16:29 in ice time per game. No player ranked top 10 in goals scored finished with an average ice time under 17 minutes per game.
Since the Jets are loaded on offence, they don’t need to force feed Laine minutes. However, when you do have a player of Laine’s calibre, you find a way to get him on the ice for an extra shift or two every game. We started to see more of that in the Conference Final against Vegas, where Laine averaged more than 19 minutes. He might be ready for that workload in 2018-19, and Jets fans surely won’t complain about that.