State of the Central: Riding The Wave

The Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues tinker with improvements while the Nashville Predators try to stay on top by making mid-course adjustments.

The Colorado Avalanche have set themselves up to be a contender for the division title, but perhaps not this year. The Winnipeg Jets, on the other hand, have been hit by adversity, only some of which is self-inflicted. Either could be contenders, but would need some good fortune to do so.

The St. Louis Blues parlayed a dominant second half of the season into a magical run to the Stanley Cup. They kept much of their core group together, and with the addition of Justin Faulk may have improved on that winning lineup.

The division champion Nashville Predators used a first round knockout from the playoffs as reason to reevaluate the team’s Stanley Cup window. They made substantial changes as a result. In patching up a second line that was overwhelmed by the Dallas Stars in that first-round loss, the Predators hope that a few core changes can keep them in the hunt.

St. Louis Blues

A team that wins a championship, and then retains the bulk of their players is likely to remain in contention for that championship the following year. That is the situation the Blues find themselves in entering the season.

Within the forward group, the Blues did lose Patrick Maroon via free agency. That leaves Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, and a host of other contributors who pitched in on the way to the Stanley Cup. Alexander Steen and Tyler Bozak are well into their thirties, however the Blues have been able to find roles for them outside of the top six where they can still contribute.

Defensively, St. Louis added Justin Faulk — who played a first pair role with the Carolina Hurricanes — to the mix. Faulk is likely to move into a third-pair role for the Blues, where his defensive problems can be buried while still leaving him to run the power play. Colton Parayko should continue to improve and Alex Pietrangelo can take first-pair minutes with a rapidly improving Vince Dunn.

Goaltending is the one area where St. Louis could have a vulnerability. Specifically, wunderkind Jordan Binnington could hit a sophomore slump. If Binnington isn’t reliably there to save the day, the Blues are left with Jake Allen as a somewhat shaky backup.

Compared with the rest of the division, the Blues don’t have any glaring weaknesses or major question marks. Things could go wrong, and certainly a sequence of injuries or bad luck could derail a playoff run, but St. Louis should make the playoffs and very easily could win the division.

Nashville Predators

Nashville getting bounced from the playoffs last year was a bit of a shock. Dallas exposed the Predator’s second line and physically dominated what had been considered a solid defensive group. The Predators were considered a Stanley Cup contender and there was no reason to think that the defeat was a final last gasp for an aging core.

Instead of trying minor tweaks, the Predators opted for minor surgery. Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million contract, bringing in the center to handle duties on the second line. Seventy-point scorers are valuable, and by adding one through free agency, the Predators didn’t need to lose any of their key pieces.

Defensively, Nashville parted ways with P.K. Subban, trading him to the New Jersey Devils for prospects. The cap space that the Predators saved by dropping Subban paid most of Duchene’s contract, but it also left a sizable hole on the blue line. Nashville still has two solid top pairs, with Dante Fabbro stepping in on the right side of the second pair. That leaves a third pair of Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber, which could become a problem.

In net, nothing has changed. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros return, and although Rinne is now 36, the duo remains solid.

The Predators traded Subban, who’s numbers were sliding as he dropped from first to second pair last season, for a younger forward in Duchene who plays a high-level, two-way game. If one of Nashville’s young defenders can step up, this team has the makings of a group that could challenge for the division title.

Dallas may be in the mix, but these two teams should battle it out for the division crown.