Central Division 2018-19 predictions: Jets keep Presidents' Trophy in division

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Patrik Laine (Getty Images)

Sporting News’ hockey experts Brandon Schlager, Jim Cerny and Jackie Spiegel predicted the final standings for the 2018-19 NHL season. The playoff seeding below was determined by the average finish for each team based on our combined projections.

Inside the Central Division, home to two giants among Stanley Cup contenders, there’s a degree of certainty heading into 2017-18. A vast majority of observers are sure this is where the NHL’s best team resides. Whether that’s the Predators or Jets is open to debate, but the preseason confidence that the road to the Stanley Cup in the West runs through Nashville or Winnipeg has been unwavering. 

It’s interesting, though, that the last two Central champions missed the playoffs entirely the following season. The Predators aren’t predicted to suffer a similar fate, but neither were the 2016-17 Dallas Stars or 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks. From first to last, there isn’t a more unpredictable division in hockey right now.

The Blues, Stars and Wild are all waiting in the wings and could emerge as worthy challengers at the top. The Avalanche stunned with a last-place-to-playoff run last year and are on the rise. The Blackhawks, while aging and imperfect, are the only team in the division that has won a Cup this millennium. That’s all to say nothing is given; it’s just life in hockey’s most unforgiving division.

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Central Division: 2018-19 predictions

1. Winnipeg Jets

Additions: Laurent Brossoit, Nicolas Kerdiles
Subtractions: Paul Stastny, Joel Armia, Steve Mason, Michael Hutchinson, Toby Enstrom, Matt Hendricks

The Stanley Cup window appears wide open for the Jets, Sporting News’ pick to win the 2018-19 Presidents’ Trophy, and it won’t be closing anytime soon. From top to bottom, Winnipeg features arguably the most complete roster in the NHL with a combination of elite scorers, a deep defense corps and Connor Hellebuyck, last year’s Vezina runner-up, manning the crease. 

The free-agent departure of Paul Stastny recreates a hole at center on the second line, and the Jets’ depth down the middle might be their only significant question mark when matched up against other contenders. But like last year, they’ll have an entire season to search for an outside solution, if need be. Don’t expect and Oilers-like collapse from this group.

2017-18 finish: 114 points, second in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 111.6 points, first in Central
Year over year: -2.4 points

(Schlager: 107 points; Cerny: 118 points; Spiegel: 110 points)

2. Nashville Predators

Additions: Dan Hamhuis
Subtractions: Mike Fisher, Alexei Emelin

While other Western Conference challengers in Vegas, San Jose and St. Louis beefed up their ranks this offseason, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners stood pat, preferring to take care of business in-house by locking up Ryan Ellis long term and re-signing depth contributors Ryan Hartman and Juuse Saros.

That’s it, and it was for the best. Nashville’s only peer in depth of talent is division nemesis Winnipeg. Uber prospect Eeli Tolvanen, a Calder contender should he return from the AHL in short order, will encounter some rookie bumps but could contribute 20 goals. His addition comes free, the benefit of more savvy drafting by David Poile. Vezina winner Pekka Rinne turns 36 in November. He’s defying the traditional goaltender aging curve, but a bigger workload for Saros combined with the Predators’ shutdown defense should work to shelter any concerns in net. It’s not going to be easy getting past the Jets, but the Predators are one of two teams in the West who clearly stack up.

2017-18 finish: 117 points, first in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 111.3 points, second in Central
Year over year: -5.7 points

(Schlager: 114 points; Cerny: 113 points; Spiegel: 107 points)

3. St. Louis Blues

Additions: Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Patrick Maroon, Chad Johnson
Subtractions: Carter Hutton, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall

Overpaying aging B-list free agent targets in a mediocre class is never a great business strategy (see: Tyler Bozak, David Perron), but it was the price forward for St. Louis this offseason. Then Doug Armstrong traded for Ryan O’Reilly, a highly effective center toiling on one of the NHL’s worst teams, without giving up his best prospects. And he also signed Patrick Maroon for a one-year homecoming (much better value there).

If there’s a lesson to be learned the last few years, the Stanley Cup isn’t won in free agency. Look no further than Jim Nill and the Stars across the division. But if nothing else, credit where it’s due to Armstrong for not resting on his laurels to revamp an underachieving roster. The Blues still have a mountain to climb in the Central, miles behind the Predators and Jets, but they’re now squarely in contention with the Wild and Stars as the division’s third-best team. Getting back to the playoffs is the goal, and the Blues look on paper to be well positioned to do so. If Jake Allen, their biggest question mark, can keep together in net, they could make some noise.

2017-18 finish: 94 points, fifth in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 95.3 points, third in Central
Year over year: +1.3 points

(Schlager: 97 points; Cerny: 102 points; Spiegel: 88 points)

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4. Dallas Stars

Additions: Anton Khudobin, Blake Comeau, Roman Polak
Subtractions: Antoine Roussel, Greg Pateryn, Dan Hamhuis, Kari Lehtonen, Curtis McKenzie

Stars GM Jim Nill won the NHL’s General Manager of the Summer award a year ago, only to see his creation fall short of expectations once more. This offseason, he avoided the splashy trade or signing (though not for a lack of trying), and few around the league are under as much pressure to correct course.

There are two schools of thought on the merits of that: 1.) Holding steady is good when you have a new coach, a healthy Jamie Benn, a freshly extended Tyler Seguin and one of the top prospects in the NHL awaiting graduation. Or 2.) Whiffing on acquiring transformative players like Erik Karlsson or John Tavares is a critical missed opportunity to upgrade an otherwise aging, mediocre roster that falls short of contender status by a piece or two. Nill’s job security hangs in the balance of this season, to be sure.

2017-18 finish: 92 points, sixth in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 95.3 points, fourth in Central
Year over year: +3.3 points

(Schlager: 94 points; Cerny: 97 points; Spiegel: 95 points)

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5. Minnesota Wild

Additions: Greg Pateryn, Eric Fehr, J.T. Brown, Andrew Hammond, Matt Hendricks
Subtractions: Tyler Ennis, Matt Cullen

No coach this side of Canada is sitting on a hotter seat than Bruce Boudreau. When the Wild cleaned out their front office, newly installed GM Paul Fenton decided to spare his inherited bench boss, a regular season extraordinaire who, despite that success, has never reached a Stanley Cup Final.

Those shortcomings underscore recent trends for the Wild, whose seasons have ended in the first round each of the last three years — two under Boudreau. Will he make it into December if Minnesota starts slow? Key actors were largely untouched from a year ago, save for the man pulling all the strings. A failure to finally take that next step into the second round in 2019 likely will mean wholesale changes to the underachieving roster and its coaching staff. 

2017-18 finish: 101 points, third in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 93.6 points, fifth in Central
Year over year: -7.4 points

(Schlager: 90 points; Cerny: 91 points; Spiegel: 100 points)

6. Colorado Avalanche

Additions: Philipp Grubauer, Ian Cole, Matt Calvert
Subtractions: Jonathan Bernier, Nail Yakupov, Blake Comeau

The Avalanche have two first-round picks in the 2019 draft and one of the best top lines in the NHL. That much we know. Beyond Nathan MacKinnon, last year’s MVP runner up, his runningmates Mikko Rantanen ​and Gabriel Landeskog, and a potentially franchise-altering draft choice gifted from the Senators, everything else in 2018-19 seems less certain.

Trading for goalie of the future Philipp Grubauer was savvy and advantageous, but how many minutes will he see in a timeshare with Semyon Varlamov? Who will drive offense when the top line isn’t on the ice? Can young building blocks Tyson Jost, Vladislav Kamenev and Samuel Girard contribute meaningfully? That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like in Colorado. But expecting another darkhorse playoff run might be premature in the grand scheme of this rebuild.

2017-18 finish: 95 points, fourth in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 89.6 points, sixth in Central
Year over year: -5.4 points

(Schlager: 82 points; Cerny: 95 points; Spiegel: 92 points)

7. Chicago Blackhawks

Additions: Brandon Manning, Cam Ward, Chris Kunitz, Marcus Kruger
Subtractions: Anthony Duclair, Patrick Sharp, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tomas Jurco

Who are the Chicago Blackhawks? The Stanley Cup shine has quickly rubbed off this franchise, even though core elements Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain. Kane is still dynamic as ever, but regression of his teammates came swift in 2017-18 and contributed greatly to their last-place finish. The presence of Corey Crawford will come to determine whether the Blackhawks’ misfortune repeats itself this year. His seasonlong health is tenuous at best an awful thing to rely on.

2017-18 finish: 76 points, last in Central
2018-19 finish (projected): 84.3 points, last in Central
Year over year: +8.3 points

(Schlager: 84 points; Cerny: 80 points; Spiegel: 89 points)