The top Central Division teams set up exciting storylines for the playoff push. Adam Proteau gives projections for the Stars, Jets, Wild and Avalanche.
The NHL has arrived at its weeklong all-star break, and we’re in the process of breaking down each team and projecting where we see them headed through the league’s March 3 trade deadline and the rest of the season.
We started the breakdowns Monday with the bottom four teams in the Pacific Division. Tuesday, we turned to the top four Pacific teams.
Wednesday, we analyzed the bottom four teams in the Central Division. Time to keep it rolling with the top four in the Central.
Standings Position: 1st
Projection: Remaining in the lead of the division and potentially enjoying at least one playoff series win
Why: The Stars are salary capped out right now, but CapFriendly projects them to have $2.7 million in space by the trade deadline. That should frighten opponents because Dallas already is one of the best-balanced lineups in the league, and any trades they make will be to add talent to this year’s roster.
The Stars have gone just 5-4-4 in their 13 games before the all-star break, yet they’ve managed to grind out enough standings points to keep them at or near the top of the Central because of a defensive attack that has produced three shutouts in Dallas’ past three wins.
The Stars have incredible young talent in Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen and Jake Oettinger. They have incredible older talent in Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn and Ryan Suter. They can run and gun with you, or they can squeeze you on defense and show enough patience to capitalize on the offensive opportunities that eventually present themselves. They’re certainly a playoff team, and they could indeed go on a deep post-season run.
Standings Position: 2nd
Projection: Remaining in the chase for the lead of the division and potentially enjoying a playoff series win or two
Why: The Jets didn’t have pre-season hype behind them this year, but that didn’t stop them from carving out a prominent place in the Central. The only reason they’re not in the No. 1 spot in the division is they’ve lost too many games in regulation time – and their 3-5-0 record in eight games heading into the all-star break is part of that bigger pattern.
When the playoffs begin, Winnipeg will have the confidence of knowing star goalie Connor Hellebuyck gives them every opportunity to win games. Hellebuyck’s .923 save percentage is terrific, and the Jets get just enough offense to get the job done most nights.
CapFriendly projects Winnipeg to have more than $9 million in cap space by the deadline, making the Jets one of the bigger potential players on the trade market. They could use help on forward and on defense, with Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and Arizona blueliner Jakob Chychrun as their top targets. So long as the Jets are healthy, they should continue to be near or at the top of the Central, and Hellebuyck can help carry them to 1 or 2 post-season series wins.
Standings Position: 3rd
Projection: Slowly slipping away from third spot thanks to the rise of the Colorado Avalanche; in a desperate fight at the end of the year for a wild-card playoff berth; possibly missing out on the playoffs altogether
Why: The Wild have been a mediocre 5-4-2 in their past 11 games, and slowly but surely, they’ve allowed the Avs to push up near them. If it weren’t for their 4-2 shootout record, Minnesota would find itself at near or below the wild-card cutoff in the West.
GM Bill Guerin is motivated to win now, and CapFriendly projects he’ll have more than $16.5 million in cap space to use by the deadline. Whether it’s moving out a veteran like D-man Matt Dumba, or trading for Jakob Chychrun or Brock Boeser, the Wild will be prepared to make a notable move or two in the next month.
Whether that’s enough to push them into solid playoff spot territory remains to be seen. Many Minnesota fans are tired of the average overall play, but Guerin still has more time to realize his blueprint for success. But that doesn’t mean it’s bound to happen. There are many structural problems with this team, today and for the foreseeable future, to envision it as a bona fide Cup contender. A playoff contender? Sure. But a playoff winner? Not so sure.
Standings Position: 4th
Projection: Moving up the Central and West standings; potentially challenging Winnipeg and Dallas for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Why: After dropping seven of eight games beginning in late December, the Avalanche have come roaring back into playoff contention, going 7-1-0 in their eight games before the all-star break and pulling within one point of Minnesota for third place in the Central.
They have a challenging month-long stretch after the break, with 13 games against talented opponents in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay (twice), Florida, Minnesota, Dallas, and a slew of others. But as the Avs have gotten healthier, they look more like a defending Stanley Cup champion, and they should be up to the task of winning games more consistently.
The underrated part of Colorado’s game is its defense, which limited opponents to just 10 goals in the Avalanche’s past seven wins. This is why we’re more likely to see them acquire a skilled, veteran forward at or close to the trade deadline. They’re firmly in win-now mode, and if that means moving a top pick or above-average prospect to land them a proven, elite competitor, then that’s the price the Avs will pay. They’ll still improve once everyone is healthy, but they’re projected to have more than $7.2 million in cap space by the deadline, and we don’t expect that space to go unused. Colorado is still a dangerous team, and the rest of the Central is now on notice.
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