Central Division capsules

Arizona Coyotes

Head coach: Andre Tourigny (third season)

Last season: 28-40-14, seventh place in Central Division

This season: The Coyotes appear ready to step forward. Unknown is how far. With only one playoff berth over the last 11 seasons — and that came because of the expanded format when the league restarted from the COVID stoppage in 2020 — there have been plenty of dark and dry days in the desert. A trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs is still a longshot for the young and improving Coyotes, but all signs point to reaching the next level and better days ahead for a team that has been stockpiling prospects and draft picks for many years now.

What’s new: Needing to solidify the lineup around a collection of young talent, the Coyotes added some solid veterans: defensemen Matt Dumba and Sean Durzi and forwards Jason Zucker, Alexander Kerfoot and Nick Bjugstad, who was traded from Arizona to Edmonton in March, then returned to the Coyotes as a free agent. Dumba and Durzi, while not considered top-pairing defensemen, will help solidify the team’s young corps. Arizona’s forwards, many 25 years old or younger, will benefit from having experienced pieces surrounding them.

Players to watch: The Coyotes boast a handful of young and talented forwards, among them Clayton Keller, Barrett Hayton and a pair of rookies last season, Dylan Guenther and Matias Maccelli. Expected to be added to the mix this season is Logan Cooley, the third overall draft pick in 2022. On defense, the future looks bright with J.J. Moser, Juuso Valimaki and Victor Soderstrom stepping forward.

Chicago Blackhawks

Head coach: Luke Richardson (second season)

Last season: 26-49-7, eighth place in Central Division

This season: The Blackhawks did everything possible to bottom out last season, and the reward was winning the draft lottery and receiving Connor Bedard with the first overall pick. It won’t mean a playoff trip, but Chicago, with a wealth of young players and even more draft picks on the horizon, will be bad enough to be in the draft lottery again. It will be playing with house money as its fans jump back on board.

What’s new: Upon netting Bedard, considered the best prospect since Connor McDavid, the Blackhawks wisely added veteran forwards Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno, Corey Perry and Ryan Donato. It’s not to ensure Bedard has top-end talent around him, but more to help him adapt to the NHL life with players who have plenty of experience. Hall, especially, knows what life is like being a first overall pick himself. Although not the player he once was, he is certainly good enough to ride shotgun.

Players to watch: Chicago’s young talent does not end with Bedard. Lukas Reichel, a 2020 first-round pick, and 24-year-old Cole Guttman are poised to become full-time NHLers, 2022 first-rounder Kevin Korchinski is a future top-pairing defenseman and 22-year-old Alex Vlasic is pushing for a third-pairing spot. The Blackhawks will be a bottom feeder for another season or two, especially with one of the league’s worst goaltending crews, but at least the Madhouse on Madison is preparing for a bright future.

Colorado Avalanche

Head coach: Jared Bednar (eighth season)

Last season: 51-24-7, first place in Central Division

This season: Despite winning three consecutive division titles and the 2022 Stanley Cup title, the Avalanche somehow are a forgotten power while pundits heap praise on Dallas, Edmonton and last year’s victors, Vegas. After a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Seattle, retooled Colorado looks like a contender and will be gunning for another championship.

What’s new: Colorado hopes to have filled major holes with Ryan Johansen pegged to be the second-line center, Jonathan Drouin slated to skate on the top line with his junior teammate Nathan MacKinnon and Ross Colton, Miles Wood and Tomas Tatar giving the squad a whole new third line. While injuries were a huge problem last season, including the loss of captain Gabriel Landeskog — who is expected to miss all of this season, too — the Avalanche are refreshed.

Players to watch: With MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen at forward and a trio of stellar defensemen — Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Bowen Byram — the Avalanche are built to win. Rantanen and MacKinnon combined for 97 goals and 119 assists last season, while Makar is a perennial Norris Trophy contender. Should the new faces provide the much-needed secondary scoring that was lacking last season, especially in the playoffs, and No. 1 goalie Alexandar Georgiev delivers as well as he did in 2022-23, the Avalanche will again be a force.

Dallas Stars

Head coach: Peter DeBoer (second season)

Last season: 47-21-14, second place in Central Division

This season: Last season was a big step forward for the Stars, and they have a great chance to put together an encore. Dallas, a team built with a deep crew of forwards, a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Miro Heiskanen and rising star goaltender Jake Oettinger, did well to reach the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Cup-champion Golden Knights. It will not be easy, but the Stars are capable of matching and even exceeding last year’s performance.

What’s new: In an effort to increase forward depth, the Stars nabbed Matt Duchene after he was bought out by the Predators, and for now, he will skate on the third line. Craig Smith was signed via free agency, as was Sam Steel, and they provide even more depth to an already strong roster. On defense, the club expects 2019 first-round draft pick Thomas Harley to be a full-time NHL player and solidify the second pairing.

Players to watch: With Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, Wyatt Johnston, Evgenii Dadonov and Tyler Seguin, the Stars were already loaded at forward. Now, they sport a crew that is as deep as any in the league. The only question mark is on defense after Heiskanen and the up-and-coming Harley. Ryan Suter, Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpaa are starting to lose the race with Father Time. Improving the blue line will remain a focus.

Minnesota Wild

Head coach: Dean Evason (fifth season)

Last season: 46-25-11, third place in Central Division

This season: The Wild have been consistent at making the playoffs, failing to qualify only once in the past 11 seasons. Unfortunately, Minnesota has been consistent at losing in the first round, claiming only two series victories in the 11-year span. Changing the narrative will be tough. Minnesota, handcuffed each of the next two seasons because of the buyouts of long-gone veterans Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, can ice a good team, capable of making the playoffs, but it’s questionable whether it will be good enough to unseat the division’s two powerhouses.

What’s new: Upon losing a handful of players, the most impactful being defenseman Matt Dumba, the Wild could only fill holes with depth forwards such as Pat Maroon and Jujhar Khaira. Minnesota is hoping that a couple of players graduating to full-time NHL status can make up the difference. Brock Faber, who played only two NHL games after he finished his junior year at the University of Minnesota, will be given the opportunity to step into the second pairing, while Marco Rossi is being counted on to be the third-line center. Rossi, the ninth overall pick in the 2020 draft, managed no goals and one assist in 19 NHL games last season, C Plus getuigenissen and he spent the bulk of the year in the AHL.

Players to watch: Minnesota is back to relying on strong defensive play to win, but does possess a solid amount of offensive firepower, led by forwards Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, Joel Eriksson Ek and Matt Boldy, and Jared Spurgeon is an excellent two-way defenseman. Even so, the key will be for goaltender Filip Gustavsson to replicate an outstanding rookie season in which he wrestled away the No. 1 job from three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury.

Nashville Predators

Head coach: Andrew Brunette (first season)

Last season: 42-32-8, fifth place in Central Division

This season: Thanks to top-tier defenseman Roman Josi and all-world goaltending from Juuse Saros, the Predators nearly made the playoffs last season despite an ungodly number of injuries to an already weak roster. Having kicked off a rebuild by selling off a few players at the deadline and then moving out veteran forwards Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene in the summer, Nashville is an even weaker squad. Saros and Josi are likely good enough to prevent the Predators from falling to the bottom, but reaching the playoffs will be one tall order.

What’s new: Former Predators coach Barry Trotz took over as general manager and promptly fired coach John Hynes, replacing him with Brunette, then turned to the roster. Integrating more young players is the plan, but Trotz’s big offseason additions were team-oriented veterans. How much defenseman Luke Schenn and forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Gustav Nyquist have left in the tank, especially considering how they will be counted on to play on the top two lines, remains to be seen, but it was a bold step to change the culture in Music City.

Players to watch: The most proven holdover forward is Filip Forsberg, who managed 19 goals and 23 assists in 50 games last season before injuries shut him down. Forsberg, a 42-goal scorer in 2021-22, will be looking for a bounce-back campaign, while forwards such as Cody Glass, Luke Evangelista, Tommy Novak and Juuso Parssinen assume bigger roles.

St. Louis Blues

Head coach: Craig Berube (sixth season)

Last season: 37-38-7, sixth place in Central Division

This season: The Blues went from a 109-point team in 2021-22 to one that tallied 81 points and didn’t make a trip to the playoffs in the most recent campaign. Sure, it’s possible St. Louis can bounce back to return to the playoff fight, but that appears unlikely for a team that jettisoned most of its scoring power at last season’s trade deadline. Even a 10-point bump likely would leave the Blues short.

What’s new: With a veteran lineup, there weren’t many holes to fill, but the Blues brought in a pair of centers, Kevin Hayes and Oskar Sundqvist, to skate on the third and fourth lines. They expect younger forwards Jake Neighbours and Alexei Toropchenko to make the jump to full-time status, but realistically, both will be in depth roles. On defense, despite a true need to move out older players and integrate younger ones, the best they may do is put Tyler Tucker, 23, and Scott Perunovich, 25, in the lineup on a more regular basis.

Players to watch: Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas and Pavel Buchnevich provide the Blues with a decent top line, while the second line of newly named captain Brayden Schenn, Brandon Saad and Kasperi Kapanen is capable of adding to the attack. The issue in St. Louis is that the team has a lot of good players and too few who are great. Mix in a dubious defensive unit — with forwards often not helping out enough on that side — and up-and-down goaltender Jordan Binnington, and the season could go sideways once again.

Winnipeg Jets

Head coach: Rick Bowness (second season)

Last season: 46-33-3, fourth place in Central Division

This season: The Jets are staring at a fork in the road. With two of their most important players, top-line center Mark Scheifele and star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, due to become unrestricted free agents after this season, Winnipeg is trying to balance goals of being a playoff team and doing what is best for the franchise’s long-term success. If the Jets are out of the playoffs, a massive change may be in the works.

What’s new: Over the summer, Winnipeg sent longtime captain Blake Wheeler packing with a buyout and then traded away integral forward Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings for a package that brought in Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari. In turn, the Jets are looking to 2020 first-round pick Cole Perfetti to claim a bigger role, namely the second-line center position between the currently injured Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter, who was acquired at last year’s trade deadline and is also a pending UFA. On defense, Winnipeg was hoping 2019 first-round draft pick Ville Heinola claimed a full-time spot, but he recently sustained a fractured ankle that may sideline him two to three months.

Players to watch: The Jets have a potent goal-scorer in Kyle Connor, who notched 47 goals in 2021-22, solid forward depth all the way to the third line thanks to new captain Adam Lowry and star defenseman Josh Morrissey and one of the league’s best goaltenders, Hellebuyck. That combination was enough to earn a playoff berth last season, and Winnipeg could duplicate that feat again. However, having key players without contract extensions in hand has created something of a black cloud and a team wondering which direction things are headed.

–Field Level Media