Part Five of the 2019-20 season preview will finish the Central Division and begin the Pacific Division with the top-three teams from last year’s standings. You can view Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the series, which has covered the Atlantic, Metropolitan and most of the Central Division if you haven’t already done so.
2018-19 Finish: 38-30-14 record, second round loss to San Jose (4-3)
Strengths: Colorado’s dynamic duo of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen has been one of the best combinations in the league over the past two seasons. They have the NHL’s second-ranked point pair in each of the last two years, which accounts for team goals in which both players picked up a point. MacKinnon and Rantanen also helped the Avalanche finish seventh in the league in power-play percentage (22.0%).
Weaknesses: As good as Colorado’s top line is, the team has been hurting for secondary scorers. The Avalanche placed 18th in the league in even-strength goals for with 186. Barrie, Soderberg and Kerfoot were the club’s fourth, fifth and sixth highest point producers, respectively, after MacKinnon, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog and they are all gone. Kadri, who was acquired in the deal that sent Barrie and Kerfoot to Toronto, will be counted on to change that. He will be inserted into the second-line center role and there’s a good chance he will be joined on that combination by Burakovsky, who was obtained from Washington. Colorado also brought in Donskoi and Nichushkin for additional depth in the middle-six forward group. There is a bit of question mark in the crease, but if Philipp Grubauer carries the momentum he built in the second half and during the playoffs then Colorado shouldn’t have much of an issue. There is a lack of depth behind him, though, which could be concerning if he struggles out of the gate again or with the increased workload. Having sharp goaltending will certainly be helpful if the club continues to lose in one-goal games. The Avalanche had the worst win percentage in the NHL in one-goal matches (.290) in 2019-20.
Player to Watch: Burakovsky ran out of chances with the Capitals, but he was used sparingly and dealt with injuries. He has a chance to start over with the Avalanche and could be a contributor on the team’s new-look second line with Kadri.
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2018-19 Finish: 36-34-12 record, 10th in the Western Conference
Strengths: Chicago’s offense was dangerous last season, while placing eighth in the league in goals for per game (3.26). The club also ranked seventh in even-strength goals (213). Patrick Kane (110 points), Jonathan Toews (81 points), Alex DeBrincat (76 points) and Erik Gustafsson (60 points) were stars offensively. Dylan Strome also proved to be an excellent addition with 51 points in 58 outings after he was acquired from Arizona.
Weaknesses: The Blackhawks struggled mightily defensively in 2018-19. The team permitted the second-most shots against and the most high-danger scoring chances against. Chicago ended up ranking 30th in the league with 3.55 goals against per game with only the Ottawa Senators behind them at 3.67. The club also had the worst penalty kill in the league and surrendered the most power-play goals against (63). Corey Crawford, who has dealt with concussion problems over the last two seasons, will get Robin Lehner as his understudy in 2019-20. Lehner was outstanding for the New York Islanders last year and provides the team with a very good insurance policy should Crawford get hurt again or struggle in the crease. The Blackhawks also added de Haan and Maatta in the hopes of shoring up their defense corps.
Player to Watch: Dominik Kubalik is worth monitoring during training camp, as he attempts to land a roster spot with the Blackhawks. He starred in Switzerland’s National League last year with a league-leading 57 points in 50 games, while earning awards for NLA Media Best Forward, NLA Media Most Valuable Player and NLA Most Valuable Player. Kubalik also had a strong showing at the 2019 IIHF World Championship with six goals and 12 points in 10 games for the Czech Republic. He is expected to be in the mix for a top-six forward spot.
2018-19 Finish: 37-36-9 record, 11th in the Western Conference
Noteworthy Losses: Eric Fehr
Strengths: Minnesota was good when it came to limiting scoring chances against last year. The team allowed the least scoring chances against. Boston finished second and they permitted 108 more chances than the Wild. Minnesota also allowed the fewest high-danger scoring against. That’s a good situation for a goaltender to be in, but Devan Dubnyk will be looking to be better in 2019-20. Dubnyk didn’t have a poor 2018-19 season, but it wasn’t as strong as his previous four campaigns with the Wild.
Weaknesses: Minnesota struggled to score last season after it was an area of strength in 2017-18. The Wild ranked 27th in the league with 2.56 goals for per game and 29th overall in even-strength goals (156). Zach Parise was the team’s top producer with 28 goals and 61 points. Eric Staal was the team’s only other player to surpass the 50-point plateau. Minnesota signed Zuccarello for some more offensive firepower. Staal and Jason Zucker will be looking to bounce back, while Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato could be presented with more opportunities. The return of Matt Dumba from injury should help as well.
Player to Watch: Donato and Fiala are both popular breakout candidates for the Wild. Fiala has struggled to put it all together, while Donato impressed after he was acquired from Boston. Whoever gets top-six forward minutes will be more likely to take the next step, so combinations will be worth keeping an eye on during training camp.
2018-19 Finish: 50-25-7 record, first round loss to Colorado (4-1)
Strengths: Calgary’s top line was a great source of offense last year. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm all recorded personal bests offensively. Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano also established new career-highs for some secondary scoring. The Flames piled up a league-leading 118 goals in the third period last year. Calgary also played well defensively, while surrendering the fewest shots against in the league.
Weaknesses: The Flames could use some secondary scoring this campaign. Outside of the top line only Tkachuk and Giordano made a mark offensively. Calgary’s goaltending isn’t a major problem, but David Rittich and Mike Smith didn’t exactly stand out last season. The team ranked 21st in save percentage (.903) despite sitting fifth in even-strength goals against. The penalty kill, which finished 21st in the NHL, was more of the issue despite the fact that they led the league with 18 shorthanded goals for. Smith was permitted to walk as a free agent and signed with Edmonton. Rittich appeared in 45 games last year and he will compete with Cam Talbot for starts in 2019-20.
Player to Watch: Mikael Backlund has hovered just below the 50-point mark in three of the last four seasons, including each of the past two. He accounted for 22 goals and 53 points in 2016-17. The Flames could use that kind of production and more from him in 2019-20, especially if Tkachuk’s contract situation drags into a holdout for the start of the season.
San Jose Sharks
2018-19 Finish: 46-27-9 record, lost in Western Conference Final to St. Louis (4-2)
Noteworthy Gains: Dalton Prout
Strengths: San Jose still has plenty of offensive weapons despite the loss of Pavelski. Taking away his team-high 38 goals definitely hurts, but Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier all hit the 30-goal plateau in 2018-19. Logan Couture is also more than capable of upping his efforts this campaign. The Sharks also boast two of the biggest threats from the back end in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, who both rack up points like forwards. Burns led the team in scoring last year with 83 points in 82 games. The team’s sixth-ranked power play benefited from Pavelski’s presence, but it should remain an area of strength in 2019-20 as well.
Weaknesses: The Sharks need a bounce-back performance from Martin Jones. The team’s top goaltender struggled in 2018-19, while posting a 2.94 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. Jones led all netminders with 14 starts that resulted in him recording a save percentage below 85%. Only Ottawa’s Craig Anderson (21) had more games with four or more goals against than Jones (19) and Washington’s Braden Holtby, who also had 19.
Player to Watch: San Jose wants to give younger players a chance to step up in 2019-20. Dylan Gambrell, Alexander Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich and others will get long looks during training camp and could land roles in the top-six forward group of the Sharks. However, Kevin Labanc is the pick here after he signed a one-year, $1 million contract in the off-season. He did the Sharks a big favor and will probably be compensated next summer, but first he will be looking to prove himself in 2019-20 and could be poised for a much larger role.
Vegas Golden Knights
2018-19 Finish: 43-32-7 record, first round loss to San Jose (4-3)
Noteworthy Gains: Garret Sparks
Strengths: Vegas’ cap crunch cost the team some very good players this off-season, but the core group remains intact up front and it features two lines that can light up the scoresheet. The combination of Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny was outstanding down the stretch last year and during the playoffs. Stastny and Pacioretty missed extended periods due to injuries, but they were very productive when they were in the lineup. The Golden Knights have also received great contributions from the line featuring Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. They weren’t as good as they were in 2017-18, but still finished as the top three point producers on the team. The club will also get strong goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, who has registered very good numbers during his previous two seasons with Vegas.
Weaknesses: The loss of Miller hurts Vegas defensively, but it opens a spot for a young blueliner to compete for during training camp. Nicolas Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff and Dylan Coghlan will battle for a spot on the team. Jimmy Schuldt still needs to be signed, but once that happens he will enter the mix as well. Another competition to keep an eye on is for the backup goalie job, where Malcolm Subban could be challenged by Garret Sparks. They both have looked unimpressive during their limited NHL action over the last two seasons, which is a bit of concern that Fleury could be overworked. The power play finished 25th during the regular season, but erupted in the playoffs after the Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny unit took center stage. They should help the team get back on track.
Player to Watch: Shea Theodore had 12 goals and 37 points last season, but could reach another level in 2019-20. He impressed in the playoffs when the power play turned things around and has breakout potential this campaign. Theodore could comfortably surpass the 40-point mark for the first time in his career.