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State of the Central: Up From The Depths

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Two division teams finished outside of the playoffs. Can either Minnesota or Chicago step up to contend?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

With less than 10 days remaining until the start of the 2019 NHL regular season, the Dallas Stars are finalizing their lineup for an opening night matchup against the Boston Bruins.

Last year, the Stars finished as a solid fourth-place team in the Central Division, which was good enough for the first Wild Card. The team has taken multiple steps to improve on that finish. The rest of the division also has made adjustments, and once again the Central is looking like it will be a 10-round contest. Any team looking to rest on their laurels is likely to find themselves outside of the playoffs come springtime.

Final 2019 Central Division standings

Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild were in a solid playoff position last year when they lost Mikko Koivu and Mathew Dumba to season-ending injuries. Even in his mid-thirties, Koivu is the heart of a defensively responsible forward group, and Dumba is a key puck-mover and scorer. The combined loss turned out to be irreplaceable in Minnesota’s lineup.

Throw in a well-documented front office in disarray, and it was a recipe for a collapse in the second half that found the Wild in last place by season’s end.

It’s easy to look at the final standings and write off an aging core that fell off a cliff in their most recent season, but that may be a mistake.

Zach Parise, Eric Staal, and Koivu still have decent all-around games and numbers. Dallas Stars fans know the offensive capabilities that free agent signee Mats Zuccarello can bring. Throw in a healthy Dumba, and Minnesota is back to being a competent offensive group that remains responsible in the defensive zone.

On the blue line, Ryan Suter can still contribute offensively and having Dumba back will remove some pressure on him to produce as the only offensively focused defender. Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are excellent in the defensive zone, and Greg Pateryn and Nick Seeler are reliable on the third pair. Top to bottom, the Wild show few weaknesses in their own zone.

Devan Dubnyk was good last year. For this team, he needs to be better. The open question is whether last year was indicative of impending age effects or merely reflective of the awful second half that ultimately took the fight out of the whole team.

Looking past the upcoming year, the large number of expensive, long-term contracts the Wild are carrying will inevitably catch up with them. That, however, should not be this year.

At first glance, Minnesota didn’t make a large number of moves to improve what was, at the end of the year, a last-place team. That last-place team, however, was decimated by injury. Combine that with the front office issues and the second-half disaster is understandable if not predictable. The team core remains in the category of playoff caliber, so if Dubnyk returns to form and Zuccarello can bring some needed creativity to the offense, Minnesota may be the surprise team of the Central.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last year’s Chicago Blackhawks matched a top-10 scoring juggernaut with a bottom-two defense. Jonathan Toews (35 goals, 46 assists, 81 points) and Patrick Kane (44 goals, 66 assists, 110 points) may be on the wrong side of 30, but both are still highly productive. Throw in a 21-year-old Alex DeBrincat (41 goals, 35 assists, 76 points), and the Blackhawks have a formidable offensive core.

The Blackhawks added 21-year-old prospect Alexander Nylander in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, and see him fitting into a top-six role. Dylan Strome also performed well after being picked up from Arizona mid-season last year and reunited with his Erie Otters teammate, DeBrincat. Chicago also signed Czech national team standout Dominik Kubalik, after Chicago acquired his rights from the Los Angeles Kings. The Blackhawks believe that they have the young supporting cast to maintain their offensive output even as their superstars begin their inevitable decline. By all indications, this year’s Blackhawks should still score at a high level.

Defense, on the other hand, is a big question mark.

Chicago made several moves in an attempt to shore up the blue line, but they did little to address the big issue. The Blackhawks’ core defenders, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, are both on long-term contracts and both are showing signs of significant decline.

Chicago brought in Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta in an attempt to shore up defensive play, but neither has shown the ability throughout their careers to carry a top pairing. The Blackhawks gave up the highly rated prospect Henri Jokiharju in the Nylander trade with Buffalo and first-rounder Adam Boqvist is still a few years away. One way or another, Chicago is going to have trouble on the back end, and until they make some drastic changes, they are going to be dependent on outscoring their defensive deficiencies.

In net, the Blackhawks return Corey Crawford and added Vezina finalist Robin Lehner. Last year, Crawford’s numbers were down significantly from his career averages, which is understandable given the team’s defensive deficiencies. Lehner was brought in on a one-year deal and at age 28 could be entering his prime. The question is how much of his success last year was due to the New York Islanders’ defensive structure. Goaltending is hard to predict and this could go either way, but one way or another, the man in the Chicago net is going to be facing a lot of frozen rubber.

Chicago spent multiple years juggling their way through salary cap problems. Now, they have been left with a shell of their Stanley Cup championship teams. They’ve moved the contracts that could be moved but what’s left are big salary superstars in various stages of decline. There is a solid prospect core, but there is little room under the salary cap for bringing in the depth players needed to be consistently competitive.

Eventually, they’ll be able to get out from under their high-dollar, low-value contracts, but it’s not going to be this year. If the offense is spectacular and the defense is tolerable, Chicago could stay out of the division cellar, but sniffing the playoffs is a significant stretch.

Coming up — the Colorado Avalanche on the rise and what in the world is going on in Winnipeg?