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State of the Central: Ebbs and Flows

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Connor, Laine, and Rantanen? Competing by not signing your top RFAs is a bold strategy. Is it going to work though?

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NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

While the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are both dealing with aging stars and unwieldy contracts, the teams in focus for today’s preview face different issues.

The Colorado Avalanche snuck into the playoffs last year as the second Wild Card team, but a five-game dismissal of the Calgary Flames followed by a promising seven-game series loss to the San Jose Sharks showed a team on the rise.

The Winnipeg Jets held onto second place in the Central Division via tiebreaker. There were, however, signs of weakness as the season wore down, followed up by an offseason that portends problems.

Colorado Avalanche

Last year, Colorado put out one of the league’s best top lines. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen all put up more than 75 points, and they did that while playing solid defense. Scoring depth was the problem, but this was addressed over the offseason.

The biggest issue for the moment is getting Rantanen to sign a deal to put him back on the ice. The Avalanche have more than $15 million in cap space, so there is no short-term reason that this doesn’t get done. Down the road, Colorado has a number of star players who will be looking for substantial raises, but management has shown an openness to moving successful players who don’t fit in their long-term plans.

A second line centered by Nazem Kadri should bring more balance throughout a forward group that includes only one player on the wrong side of 30. Colorado was 10th in the league in scoring last year, and could very easily improve on that.

Defensively, Colorado brings in Cale Makar as a full-time defender. Makar brings some offensive talent to a defensive group that sorely needs it and Samuel Girard also brings some puck movement, but for the most part, the Avalanche roll out a steady stream of larger defensive defensemen.

In net, Philipp Grubauer gets the nod after a hot run down the stretch last year. Grubauer has yet to go into a year as a team starter, but his stats from last year show that he could be ready. Backing up Grubauer is Pavel Francouz, who put up great numbers in the KHL that were mostly validated by his play in the AHL last year.

In all, the Avalanche have the makings of a solid playoff team, but there are risks. Signing Rantanen is vital, but if the holdout goes into the season, Colorado has the depth to be competitive. Likewise, Makar has shown flash in his brief time in the playoffs, but he will be playing his first full season, so maintaining that output will be key. Without Makar, Colorado may have a tough time feeding their high-powered offense with a rather pedestrian blue line.

Finally, if Grubauer doesn’t stay in form or gets injured, Francouz as number two is a big unknown and potential risk.

Colorado has the pieces in place to be a playoff team. If things fall right, they could make a run at one of the top teams in the division. On the other hand, there are a few key areas where everything could quickly unravel. Long term, this is a team that could have a wide Stanley Cup window for a number of years.

Winnipeg Jets

This time last year, there was talk of the Jets as a realistic Cup contender. What a difference a year makes.

Start with Jacob Trouba and his move to New York, follow it up with holdouts by two key RFAs, and finish with Dustin Byfuglien taking time away from the team to try to rekindle his love for the game. Winnipeg is in flux, and it will take a masterful job by head coach Paul Maurice to patch it up.

RFAs Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine were third and fourth on the team in scoring last year and missing that output will be difficult. Of course, signings may be imminent, but with just over a week until opening night, plans are now in place to start the season with the players still in camp.

Having Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler to anchor the top line is a start. There are depth pieces in place for a reasonable second line, but without Connor and Laine, the Jets could enter the season with a mix of borderline veterans and untested rookies on the fourth line.

Defensively, there was turnover as well, and if Byfuglien doesn’t return, Dmitry Kulikov will be the team’s grizzled veteran at 28. The Jets made a big commitment to Josh Morrissey with a eight-year, $50 million extension and picked up Neal Pionk in the Trouba trade, but that’s about it for experience. The number of new faces and lack of NHL time are significant red flags.

In net, the Jets return the same pair from last year. Connor Hellebuyck’s numbers were off following a Vezina finalist year in 2018, but Laurent Brossoit looked good in 21 games as a backup. If the defense holds up, Winnipeg has the talent in net to survive, but as with most things with this team, it’s all up in the air.

In a perfect world, Winnipeg signs their RFAs and the Jets move forward as one of the top 10 in the NHL for offense, while Byfuglien returns from the mountain reinvigorated to lead a group of surprisingly competent defenders, and Hellebuyck and Brossoit put mortar in a brick wall.

Of course, this is Manitoba in the winter and this is the Central Division, so there isn’t much room for error and hope isn’t a strategy.

Coming up — St. Louis is riding the wave and Nashville makes adjustments to stay on top.