Tour stop No. 3 brings us to the Central Division as we continue our weekly preview searching for clubs to advance to the playoffs after sitting out last spring’s tournament.
In the Central, since there are only seven teams, we only need to select between two clubs – yes, I “somehow” pre-determined that the lowly Colorado Avalanche will remain in the cellar. Thus, either Dallas or Winnipeg will receive the golden nod – or better, how about both sides!
Why? The four playoff teams above them all show signs of future weakness so could fall based on historical data. For instance, Nashville, the fourth-place finisher in 2017, reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time ever in June. When a traditional “newbie” skates deep into the postseason, they usually falter the following season. Thus, the Predators are a candidate (if only on paper).
Despite a decade-long run of success by the Chicago Blackhawks, age, injury and the salary cap could make this the year for Chicago to make a major slide. And there’s already tinkering in Minnesota and St. Louis that may require a mild-to-complete overall of the roster.
So which is it?
On first glance, I went back to my World Hockey Association roots and went with the Winnipeg Jets. But then my handicapping hat told me to go with the Dallas Stars.
Veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock may be a grind on players – yet to post winning records, especially in his first couple of years at each of his stops. This will be the start of Hitchcock’s second stint in Dallas, replacing Lindy Ruff.
Hitchcock captured the 1999 Stanley Cup with Dallas when Ruff coached in Buffalo, claiming it on a (illegal?) goal by Brett Hull in triple-overtime. Dallas also reached the final the next season, but since has only made the Final Four one other time when “my” Los Angeles Kings beat them in six.
In a recent team preview, Hitchcock loves the acquisition of career center Martin Hanzal as a free agent. The signing makes Jason Spezza a 50/50 skater between center and left wing.
Hitchcock has committed to playing Tyler Seguin as No. 1 center. Likely the other center spot is a battle between Jamie Benn and free agent acquisition Alexander Radulov. Although the coach believes it will help in puck possession by winning face-offs, the Stars already rank third in winning draws. The moves look flashy and the club is deep in center, but it doesn’t address problems on defense and goal. He did get blue-liner Marc Methot in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights.
Everyone forgets the Winnipeg Jets produced six more victories than Dallas last season, yet had just one fewer win than Western Conference champion Nashville. That’s how close the Jets came to becoming the Cinderella story of the playoffs instead of Honky Tonk Hockey.
For you or me to figure out that Connor Hellebuyck should the starting goalie would be difficult since we don’t see many Winnipeg games on American television. But what excuse do the Jets have?
Following a nice rookie season when he posted a solid .918 save percentage, Hellebuyck, a 23-year-old out of Mass.-Lowell, “only” posted a 26-19-4 record.
Dustin Byfuglien is one of the NHL’s top-scoring defensemen. A rising young center Mark Scheifele, 23, led the club in points with 83, which ranked seventh in the league. The next two centers – Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault – are both hitting their prime at age 30.
Should the Jets fix their special teams units (25th in penalty kills) look for Winnipeg to reach the playoffs for only the second time in seven seasons since relocating from Atlanta.
AT&T SportsNet, the rights holder of the Vegas Golden Knights regional game telecasts, announced its expansion into Nevada, as well as parts of California and Mohave County, Arizona, on DIRECTV, U-verse and CenturyLink/Prism TV. The regional sports network is now available to subscribers in those areas.
There will be at least 71 live telecasts. They will be available to customers on DIRECTV channel 684, U-verse channels 757 (SD) and 1757 (HD) along with CenturyLink channels 760 (SD) and 1760 (HD).
The regular season begins Friday, Oct. 6 at Dallas. The first home game is Tuesday, Oct. 10 against Arizona.
The Golden Knights are also expected to hold their first official Media Day on Oct. 4. Full details will be announced at a later date.