Corey Abbott

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2017-18 Preview: Part 3

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Part Three of our 2017-18 season preview will finish the rest of the teams in the Central Division. Feel free to check out Part One and Part Two of the series for the Atlantic Division and the other clubs in the Central.

 

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St. Louis Blues

 

2016-17 Finish: 46-29-7 record, second round loss to Nashville (4-2)

 

Noteworthy Gains: Brayden Schenn, Beau Bennett, Oskar Sundqvist

 

Noteworthy Losses: David Perron, Jori Lehtera, Ryan Reaves, Nail Yakupov

 

Biggest Strength: The Blues’ defense is a strong group despite trading away Kevin Shattenkirk prior to last year’s deadline. Colton Parayko was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million extension and he’s expected to take a big leap forward in 2017-18. Joel Edmundson displayed promising two-way skills during the playoffs and he is primed for a larger role as a top-four rearguard. Alex Pietrangelo remains a cornerstone on the back end and can play in all situations.. The defense corps and the goaltending, especially Jake Allen, tightened up after Mike Yeo took over behind the bench and there’s a chance they could be better with a full training camp together to iron out any kinks in the system.

 

Biggest Weakness: Center depth could be an issue for the Blues at the start of the year. Patrik Berglund is projected to miss the first two months of the regular season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery in the off-season. Brayden Schenn, who was acquired from Philadelphia at the 2017 NHL Draft, Alexander Steen and Robby Fabbri have been mentioned as possible candidates to play in the middle for the team’s top-nine forward group. They have all played center before. Yeo could use Schenn or Steen on the second combination and perhaps Fabbri on the third unit to place the team in a decent position until Berglund returns. The offense will need to be better though, as Berglund was St. Louis’ only other 20-goal scorer besides Vladimir Tarasenko last season.

 

Player to Watch: Brayden Schenn was an interesting pickup for the Blues over the summer. He has reached the 25-goal mark and has registered at least 55 points in each of the last two seasons. He could center one of the team’s top-two lines this year and if he plays alongside Tarasenko then he could get a significant boost. Schenn has been very productive on the power play over the last three campaigns. He was especially strong last season when he tallied 17 goals and 28 points for a Flyers team that ranked 14th with the man advantage. The Blues finished eighth overall on the power play and Schenn will likely receive ice time on the top unit. The 25-year-old was one point away from 60 in 2015-16 and 2016-17 might be the year that he reaches that plateau for the first time at the NHL level.

 

Nashville Predators

 

2016-17 Finish: 41-29-12 record, Stanley Cup Final loss to Pittsburgh (4-2)

 

Noteworthy Gains: Nick Bonino, Scott Hartnell, Alexei Emelin

 

Noteworthy Losses: James Neal, Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher

 

Biggest Strength: Nashville has made a habit of developing high-caliber defensemen and they possess a deep squad on the back end that propelled them to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Roman Josi nearly reached the 50-point mark for a third straight season, while P.K. Subban recorded 40 points despite skating in 66 games and Ryan Ellis had his best offensive season in 2016-17 with 16 goals and 38 points. The Predators tied San Jose for the most points (181) by blueliners last year. Mattias Ekholm rounds out the superb top-four group and physical defender Alexei Emelin was brought in for some additional depth during the off-season.

 

Biggest Weakness: The Predators have the depth to make up for the losses of Neal, Wilson and Fisher up front, but scoring down the middle could be an issue. Bonino is slated to take over as the second-line pivot and he found the back of the net 18 times last year. His personal best came in 2013-14 when he potted 22 markers for the Anaheim Ducks. Top-line center Ryan Johansen recorded a mere 14 goals despite amassing 61 in 82 games to co-lead the club. Nashville will lean heavily on wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson for goals, but they will need help from a supporting cast that features Kevin Fiala, Scott Hartnell and Craig Smith if the centers continue to take on playmaking roles.

 

Player to Watch: Kevin Fiala impressed during the playoffs before he suffered a fractured femur and could be ready for a larger role, but Scott Hartnell appears to be a great value signing who could pay serious dividends.  The former Predator signed a one-year contract in July worth $1 million to return to the team that drafted him sixth overall back in 2000. Hartnell averaged just 12:03 of ice time in 2016-17 with Columbus, but still managed to contribute 37 points in 78 contests. If Hartnell manages to play on Nashville’s second line and sees time on the power play then he could have a solid year.

 

Winnipeg Jets

 

2016-17 Finish: 40-35-7 record, ninth in the Western Conference

 

Noteworthy Gains: Steve Mason, Dmitry Kulikov

 

Noteworthy Losses: Ondrej Pavelec, Mark Stuart

 

Biggest Strength: Winnipeg is an offensively talented team with some gifted young players leading the charge. They scored 246 goals last year, which was the second-highest total in the Western Conference and the seven-most in the league. Winnipeg was one of just seven teams to average at least 3.00 goals for per game last campaign. Rookie winger Patrik Laine, 19, led the team with 36 goals and he tied 21-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers for third on the club with 64 points. Mark Scheifele has emerged as an elite center after he amassed a team-high 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists) in 79 outings. Blake Wheeler, who will turn 31 at the end of the month, and 29-year-old Bryan Little provide the Jets with additional firepower up front, while Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba are offensive catalysts from the back end.

 

Biggest Weakness: The Jets’ defense and goaltending remain question marks going into the year. Winnipeg permitted 225 goals allowed last year, which was the fourth-most in the NHL. Former Philadelphia netminder Steve Mason and ex-Sabres blueliner Dmitry Kulikov were signed during the off-season to help, but they may not be enough. Mason has struggled with consistency over the last two seasons and may have to share time with Connor Hellebuyck. Kulikov missed most of the 2016-17 campaign because of a troublesome back issue, while posting a minus-26 rating in 47 appearances. Winnipeg’s struggles on defense extended to the penalty kill, which placed 26th overall. Winnipeg was shorthanded 275 times in 2016-17, which was fewer than just two other teams. Discipline has been an ongoing problem for the Jets since their return to the NHL.

 

Player to Watch: Kyle Connor stuck with the Jets out of training camp last year and he could be in the lineup on opening night again in 2017-18. He recorded just five points in 20 NHL matches last season, but he was limited to 12:13 of average ice time per outing. Connor displayed his offensive potential in the minors when he generated 25 goals and 44 points in 52 games for Manitoba of the AHL. It’s worth monitoring what line he ends up playing on at camp because he could end up being another offensive weapon for the Jets in the not too distant future.

 

Dallas Stars

 

2016-17 Finish: 34-37-11 record, 11th in the Western Conference

 

Noteworthy Gains: Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Marc Methot

 

Noteworthy Losses: Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, Cody Eakin, Antti Niemi

 

Biggest Strength: The Stars made some significant off-season changes and have the potential for a high-octane offense in 2017-18. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn should have much more offensive backup this year with the additions of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal as well as the return to health of Mattias Janmark. Jason Spezza only contributed 15 goals last year, but still managed to score 50 points in 68 games. Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore and Denis Gurianov have scoring upside as well. Dallas also acquired and signed Ben Bishop in the hopes of solving their dysfunctional goaltending situation. The crease situation has a chance to improve dramatically in 2017-18.

 

Biggest Weakness: The Stars obtained Marc Methot from Vegas after he was claimed in the expansion draft, but the defense is still a work in progress and right now it’s far too crowded. Dallas has nine defenders who are regarded as NHL-ready, including Julius Honka. Honka played in 16 games with the big club last year and could take a roster spot from Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Greg Pateryn. John Klingberg is expected to improve after he struggled early offensively and had his share of problems defensively in 2016-17. Having Methot as a defense partner should help and the arrival of Ken Hitchcock as head coach could put less pressure on the defense in their own zone because the forwards will need to be more responsible. Esa Lindell went through some ups and downs as well. Still, Bishop and Hitchcock could help alleviate much of the team’s defensive concerns.

 

Player to Watch: Brett Ritchie was viewed as a sleeper candidate after the 2016-17 season, but then the Stars signed Radulov and Hanzal. That will probably push Ritchie down to the third line, but he has the potential to be a productive player and could make an impact if he gets the chance to move up the depth chart.

 

Colorado Avalanche

 

2016-17 Finish: 22-56-4 record, 14th in the Western Conference

 

Noteworthy Gains: Jonathan Bernier, Nail Yakupov, Colin Wilson

 

Noteworthy Losses: Calvin Pickard, Francois Beauchemin, Mikhail Grigorenko

 

Biggest Strength: The core of the offense remains intact, at least for now, and it’s much better than they showed last campaign. Without a doubt, Colorado needs bounce-back performances from Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost have the potential to help out offensively as well as top-six forwards. The Avalanche hit rock bottom last year offensively, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel and improvements are attainable even if gambles like Nail Yakupov and Colin Wilson don’t work out.

 

Biggest Weakness: Colorado’s defense and goaltending are far more concerning issues going into the 2017-18 season. The Avalanche lost Calvin Pickard to Vegas in the expansion draft and signed veteran Jonathan Bernier to help injury-prone starter Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov was limited to just 24 appearances and 23 starts last year and Bernier posted solid numbers behind a strong Anaheim team and an impressive group of defensemen. Barrie had a rough season with 38 points and a minus-34 rating and Erik Johnson suited up in only 46 games because of a broken fibula. They both should be better and restricted free agent Nikita Zadorov has some potential, but there isn’t much depth beyond that even though Mark Barberio performed admirably after he was claimed off waivers from Montreal. Chris Bigras, Anton Lindholm, Andrei Mironov, Duncan Siemens and David Warsofsky will get looks to fill out the group if the Avalanche don’t land a defenseman in a trade.

 

Player to Watch: Tyson Jost is expected to be on Colorado’s roster at the start of the season after he skated in six NHL games at the end of 2016-17. He scored one goal on nine shots and is slated to play a key role in Colorado’s top-six forward group. Jost could play at center or on the wing and he has the dynamic offensive skills to help MacKinnon, Duchene or Landeskog get back on track.



Corey Abbott is an Associate Editor for Hockey on Rotoworld. Feel free to follow him Twitter @CoreAbbott.
Email :Corey Abbott



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