Central Division Outlook
October 5, 2016
By Scott Rickenbach
Pacific Division Outlook
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2016-17 Division Odds
Dallas Stars 9/5
Chicago Blackhawks 5/2
Nashville Predators 7/2
St. Louis Blues 7/2
Minnesota Wild 20/1
Colorado Avalanche 30/1
Winnipeg Jets 50/1
2016-17 Point Totals
Dallas Stars 103
Chicago Blackhawks 102.5
St. Louis Blues 100.5
Nashville Predators 97
Minnesota Wild 93.5
Colorado Avalanche 87.5
Winnipeg Jets 85
Odds per Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook - Subject to Change
Chicago Blackhawks: This is a hungry team this season as the 'Hawks were uncharacteristically knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Blues last spring. This gave Chicago’s players some extra time to heal up over the summer and they are refreshed and rejuvenated mentally and physically for the new season. This is in stark contrast to the prior three seasons when the Blackhawks were coming off of deep playoff runs. The problem for Chicago is they lost Andrew Ladd and Teuvo Teravainen in the off-season. However, the Blackhawks did re-acquire a key blue-liner as Brian Campbell (a member of the 2010 Cup-winning team) is back with the Hawks. Chicago was one of the top teams on the power play (22.6%) last season but they finished 22nd on the penalty kill with an 80.3% mark. If the Blackhawks improve on the kill and top goalie Corey Crawford stays healthy, Chicago could be in line to make another long post-season run this season!
Colorado Avalanche: The huge news came out of Denver at a tough time as head coach Patrick Roy stepped down on Aug. 11. That didn’t leave the Avs a lot of time but I expect the hiring of Jared Bednar to prove to be a good one in the long run. Bednar, last season, was the head coach of Lake Erie (now Cleveland) of the American Hockey League and led them to the Calder Cup championship. Bednar wants the Avalanche to play an up-tempo game and utilize the speed of their forwards up-front. Guys like Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon should be in for big seasons under Bednar. Also, Mikko Rantanen is a young right winger from Finland whom played with the Avs AHL affiliate (San Antonio) last season and whom I, as a resident of the San Antonio area, personally witnessed his domination at the AHL level. He’s ready to step up for Colorado and where I see the value with this team will likely be opportunities with taking the over. The goaltending is a question mark with the inconsistency of Semyon Varlamov and Reto Berra is now with the Panthers. That leaves Calvin Pickard (San Antonio last season) as the back-up. With coach Bednar wanting to push the pace and with defense and goal-tending continuing to be an issue in Colorado, look for high-scoring Avalanche games to be a frequent occurrence this season.
Dallas Stars: The Stars are starting to put it together in Dallas as evidenced by their 50-23-9 mark in the regular season. The problem in Big D continues to be the lack of a “Big D” as the blue-line is the concern. While Dallas did add Dan Hamhuis, the question relating to the depth of the defense is the lack of experience as they are bringing in good size but youth with guys like Stephen Johns and Esa Lindell. There could be a scoring drop-off for Dallas too. Of course the only way to go is down for a Stars team that was #1 with 3.23 goals per game last season. However, the reason for concern is that point production from the blue line (other than John Klingberg) is truly a question mark because of the changes in D-men for Dallas coming into this season. With goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, there is still concern that the Stars will make another run but aren’t ready to make it all the way to a Stanley Cup final unless a change is made at goalie. Lehtonen and Niemi combined to rank 19th for GAA and 23rd for save percentage last season and the Stars net-minding is continuing to hold this team back.
Minnesota Wild: After hitting the 100 point mark two seasons ago, the Wild really dropped off last season as they fell to 87 points. Minnesota had one of the worst penalty kills in the league (77.9%). Also, the Wild were hurt badly by a 1-9 mark in overtime games. The ones that made it to a shootout were okay (3-2) but losing 9 of 10 that were decided in the OT period really hurt Minnesota. Of course the hiring of Bruce Boudreau (8 division titles between Washington and Anaheim) as the new Wild head coach will pay dividends eventually but this hockey club will have to rebuild. There is a ton of pressure on General Manager Chuck Fletcher as he is in his 8th season with Minnesota but they’ve only won a playoff series twice in his seven seasons and they’ve never advanced past the 2nd round. The pressure could be felt early because I expect it will take some time for Boudreau to get his high-octane aggressive system properly rolled out with the Wild. Minnesota is known for being a defense-first hockey club and there will be an adjustment phase here. Fading the Wild early and then riding them later in the season will be an option worth keeping an eye on here.
Nashville Predators: The Preds won only 2 of 14 games decided in overtime last season. The point is that they certainly could have finished much higher than the #7 spot in the Western Conference. The Predators are building with youth and speed. They are getting away from the defense-first style that was common in Nashville not that long ago. With a solid #1 goalie, Pekka Rinne, between the pipes the Predators can continue to push the pace on offense as they know they have him supporting them in their own end. The concern for the Preds is that they don’t have a whole lot of size on defense. Yes they are mobile D-men and, overall, they are speedy and the acquisition of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber was a big one but do they have enough size? This could have a negative impact on the Predators penalty kill and also could be an issue against very physical teams. Overall, Nashville is solid and I look for an uptick in offensive production this season but I would recommend being leery of match-up issues based on the above.
St. Louis Blues: The Blues have dropped only a couple of points in the standings each of the last two seasons but this season a bigger drop would not be a surprise. Certainly a post-season berth is still expected but one of the strengths of the Blues has been their special teams. Last season St Louis was ranked 6th on the power play and 3rd on the penalty kill. However, they lost a couple of key special teams performers on the ice as David Backes and Troy Brouwer have departed. The bigger losses though might be in the area of coaching. A couple of key staff-members (Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller) are no longer with the Blues. Shaw led the penalty kill but he is now with the Blue Jackets and Muller led the power play but he is back with the Canadiens. Also, Mike Yeo has already been brought in as a “coach in waiting” as this is Ken Hitchcock’s final year as an NHL head coach. All the transitional issues at the coaching level make for a transitional season with the Blues in my opinion and that means a bit of a regression. I will look for opportunities to go against them especially with the departure of goalie Brian Elliott as Jake Allen will be in his first season as the undisputed #1 netminder here in St Louis.
Winnipeg Jets: Youth movement is still on at Winnipeg and, of course, the rabid hockey fans in Canada are hungry for a winner. The regression last season after making the playoffs the prior season was tough on the fans in Manitoba but, even with the emphasis on youth, there is a solid chance the Jets are back in the playoffs in April. The key will be the goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec is in a contract year and that could bring out the best in him plus he could be pushed by the other available net-minders as Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck will make sure Pavelec is at his best. Hellebuyck had a huge first half last season but then couldn’t sustain it. Hutchison is currently slated in the #2 spot and went 21-10-5 for the Jets in the 2014-15 season. Of course, the Jets must clean up special teams (30th on power play and 25th on penalty kill) and this will be the area to watch early this season as it could be telling as to the direction the Jets season is going to be headed.
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