Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar celebrate a goal
(Photo Credit: @Avalanche/ Twitter)

The powerhouse Colorado Avalanche are the clear favorites in the Central Division heading into the 2021-22 NHL season. Can an improved team like Winnipeg or Chicago challenge the Avs for the division crown?

Below are my 2021-22 NHL Central Division standings predictions:

2021-22 Central Division Predictions

1. Colorado Avalanche

Pros: The 2021 Presidents Trophy winners locked up captain and first-line winger Gabriel Landeskog for eight more years. Now both the Avalanche and Landeskog can refocus their time away from the negotiation table and towards another successful regular season. Undoubtedly, the pressure to win is building on this group as the talent is clearly there yet the playoff success is not. Infuriated, the Avalanches’ best player, Nathan MacKinnon, has already expressed his frustration with the lack of playoff success and will set a tone for the entire team’s demeanor this season.

Luckily for the Avalanche, there wasn’t much turnover from last year’s most successful regular-season team. The biggest change was in net after Philipp Grubauer signed with expansion franchise the Seattle Kraken. As a replacement, the Avs brought in Coyotes former number one goalie Darcy Kuemper. The outlook on Kuemper for whatever reason seems a bit glim when being compared to Grubauer. This is despite the fact Kuemper kept a weak and rebuilding Arizona team relatively competitive last season. Now with a better overall team in front of him, Kuemper has an opportunity — like Grubauer did when he left Washington — to take the reins on a team with serious Cup aspirations.

Cons: Players like Brandon Saad and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be missed in their supporting roles. Both players can play a versatile game that is needed to thrive in both the regular and postseason. Time will tell how well Kuemper will fare in replacing Philipp Grubauer and his Vezina-caliber season. It can be assumed at least for the time being that the Avalanche downgraded in the crease.

Conclusion: The Avs are still few and far between the most talented team in this division. They should have no problem claiming the top spot when all is said and done. Kuemper’s performance will certainly determine how the Avs finish this year in both the regular and postseason. Overall, Avs fans shouldn’t be overly concerned with the big change in net. The corners should be about what form this team takes into the playoffs come April.

2. Winnipeg Jets

Pros: The Jets return in 2021-22 with potentially the best depth down the middle and a very strong top-six forward group. Winnipeg will have a full season of Pierre-Luc Dubois, who will have the opportunity to play at center or the wing thanks to the flexibility within the Jets forward group. The biggest story line for the Jets, however, was the emphasis GM Kevin Cheveldayoff put on upgrading the blueline. This has been a glaring weakness for the team the last couple of seasons.

Brendan Dillon comes in and profiles as a top-pairing d-man that Winnipeg needs to stabilize the blueline. His experience and Stanley Cup pedigree will help teammates Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey develop while also alleviating their pressures to perform. Nate Schmidt, on the other hand, won’t come in and make a huge impact on the defensive side of the puck. Rather, Schmidt will ignite some more offense from the back end while upgrading the power play. Perhaps the Jets biggest asset will be having the best goalie in the division.

Cons: The bottom-six isn’t quite as strong with the departure of Mason Appleton, Tucker Poolman, Mathieu Perreault, and Nate Thompson. And while the defense has improved, Dillon isn’t getting any younger and Schmidt doesn’t provide much in his own zone. The Jets also lost a quality backup goalie in Laurent Brossoit, who has served well during his years behind Hellebuyck.

Conclusions: Winnipeg still has talented playmakers on both sides of the puck and the best goaltending in the division. There isn’t much of an excuse for them to miss playoffs, and they should be motivated to bounce back after a lackluster playoff performance. As long as health isn’t a problem, Winnipeg should be the frontrunner to give the Avs a run for their money.

3. Chicago Blackhawks

Pros: No team made more headlining moves than the Blackhawks this offseason after a distasteful finish last season. Obviously, the biggest addition this summer was Blue Jacket workhorse Seth Jones. Although he isn’t an analytical darling, he slots in as the Blackhawks best defenseman and a guy who can play in all situations and eat tons of minutes. This is something the Blackhawks haven’t had with the aging of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. In a continuous effort to improve the blueline, the Blackhawks also brought in stay-at-home defenseman Jake McCabe, who will drastically help the Blackhawks defensive woes if he can stay healthy.

McCabe is a defensive defenseman — who unlike Seth Jones — is a bit of an analytical darling due to his emphasis in his own blueline. Caleb Jones, Seth Jones’s brother, rounds out the defense acquisitions for the Hawks. Of course, the Blackhawks weren’t finished there as they acquired Vezina trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury over the summer after an apparent falling out in Vegas. MAF is one of the best goalies in high-danger chances, a stat the Blackhawks know all too much about. Tying things all together is depth piece Tyler Johnson, who has had his troubles recently in Tampa but could find his old form with a change of scenery.

Cons: All the offseason changes are certain to help the Blackhawks, but it won’t cover up the fact that the defense will still give up a lot in their own zone. The return of Jonathan Toews is certainly something to be excited about for Blackhawks fans, but you also have to remember he hasn’t played ice hockey in a year. If Toews is anything below average, the Blackhawks are left with a big hole up the middle at 2C.

Conclusions: You can’t not make the postseason or at least make a serious push after the series of moves the Hawks have made over the summer. Patrick Kane is still playing at an elite level, while Kirby Dach figures to take a big step forward this year. Alex DeBrincat has again cemented himself as an elite sniper at the NHL level after a 32-goal campaign. Meanwhile, issues on the blueline were addressed, leading one to believe at least some defensive woes will be cured this season. Lastly, Chicago possess one of the best goalie tandems in the division.

4. Minnesota Wild

Pros: Much of last year’s team that almost upset Vegas in the first-round has returned. The defense remains largely intact, while the goaltending remains exactly the same. Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek have both taken the next steps in their respective careers and are now more poised to take over the Wild. Promising prospect Matthew Boldy could also debut this season. With his size and scoring ability, Boldy could contribute sooner rather than later.

Cons: Like their 2021 playoff opponent, the Wild still lack a game-changing talent outside of Kirill Kaprizov. If the Wild hadn’t signed Kaprizov, they would definitely have fallen a few spots in the predictions. Even with Kaprizov locked up, I have my concerns about the depth of this team and last year’s potentially overachieving performance. The Wild are certainly better than they have been before last years breakout season, but a lack of scoring threats worries me a bit.

Conclusions: Like I mentioned, I am a bit concerned about the Wilds prospects for the 2021-22 season. The defense is good not great, and while I do like the Talbot-Kahkonen tandem, I wonder if the Wild will be able to outscore opponents. Nevertheless, the team is built in a way where it doesn’t need a lot of flash — just responsible hard-working players.

5. Dallas Stars

Pros: After an injury prone 2020-21 season, it appears Tyler Seguin should be back for the Stars this year. This is is huge news given his skill-set. Much like Toews, Seguin’s playing ability is unclear after missing such lengthy time. Nevertheless, his presence alone is encouraging for the season. The Stars once again have a solid forward group and thus didn’t make many changes to their top-nine. The defense, on the other hand, saw two new additions in Jani Hakanpaa and veteran Ryan Suter. Suter adds size, reliability and experience, while Hakanpaa slots well into a third-pairing role. Oddly enough, the Stars have brought in Braden Holtby to an already crowded goaltending trio. This likely indicates Bishop’s health is not quite where the Stars would like it to be at.

Cons: With virtually the same roster as last season, one has to wonder if the Stars will bounce back or repeat last years disappointing performance. The goaltending situation is puzzling with Anton Khudobin’s regression and Jake Oettinger’s minimal experience at the NHL level. Furthermore, Holtby’s age and decline leaves question marks surrounding his play. Not to mention, Bishop’s return isn’t very anticipated coming off such a long absence.

Conclusions: It feels like a boom or bust type season for the Stars. We saw potential in 2020 and a bust in 2021, which leaves 2022 up in the air. Talent is there and the offseason additions will help the Stars in some aspects. Overall, they should compete for playoff spot like last year. The difference being the team having a bit more upside this season.

6. St. Louis Blues

Pros: Former 20-goal-scorer Pavel Buchnevich is one of the best offseason additions the Blues have made in recent history. Buchnevich can score, create and skate, making him a perfect linemate for either Brayden Schenn or Ryan O’Reilly. Even better is that fact that Buchnevich was revered by many of his teammates in New York, emphasizing his personality and locker-room presence. Brandon Saad, the other top-six acquisition, has moved around in the Central once again. This time, however, he figures to stay in St. Louis for at least five years. The proven winger has been a key piece to regular season and postseason success with both the Blackhawks and Avalanche. Saad posses a scoring touch and proficient two-way game to help round out the Blues forward group.

Cons: Most of the Blues team underperformed last year, which chalks up for some of the reasons the Blues struggled to make and be competitive in playoffs. The blueline, which happened to be a bit of an issue for St. Louis last year, remains virtually untouched. The Blues also made no moves in net, where there has been a noticeable weakness following Jordan Binnington and the Blues’ miraculous run in 2019.

Conclusions: They have playoff potential thanks to a strong top-six; however, the defense and especially the goaltending is too much of an unknown to trust. The Blues struggled to gain points last year against teams like Anaheim, San Jose, and L.A. Now, they enter back into a much more competitive division.

7. Nashville Predators

Pros: Cody Glass needed a change of scenery and he got one here in Nashville. He still has to perform well, however, in order for this move to workout on both ends. Philippe Myers, a right-handed defenseman with a booming shot, also fits perfectly alongside the dynamic Roman Josi. Juuse Saros also figures to continue to develop and become an NHL starter.

Cons: The depth that the Preds once had at the forward, defense, and goaltending positions are now long gone. They’ve lost Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Ellis, Erik Haula, and Pekka Rinne all this year. Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene are unlikely to provide the type of 1-2 punch needed down the middle to be competitive in this division. Defensively, the blueline is certainly due to take a step back.

Conclusions: Nashville seems to be trending in a rebuilding on the fly phase. They have some solid prospects worth waiting for but not enough talent on their current roster to make another impressive playoff run this year. It will be interesting to see what they do at the deadline if they figure to be on the outside looking in with some intriguing pieces in Filip Forsberg, Mattias Ekholm, and Mikael Granlund.

8. Arizona Coyotes

Pros: The Coyotes essentially got paid in draft picks to acquire Shayne Gostisbehere, who will help to produce some more offense from the backline while elevating the power play. The Yotes were also able to acquire former first-round pick Conor Timmins, who could blossom in his new role after being stuck down the depth chart on a loaded Avalanche blueline.

Cons: The team is clearly rebuilding after having traded away some very big pieces in both Connor Garland and Darcy Kuemper. Garland was their most consistent forward last season, placing third on the team in points with less games played. Kuemper, meanwhile, posted a .907 save percentage while on a team that was within the top-15 for shots against per game.

Conclusions: Much like how the Avs will pull away at the top, the Coyotes will do the same at the bottom. They’ve sold off some of their best players for hopes of future success and thus come into the year with little to show for at each position. Potentially better times ahead a few years from now.

Other NHL Division Predictions:

Pacific Division Predictions

Metropolitan Division Predictions

Atlantic Division Predictions