Previously, we looked at some of the battles for the last few spots among Pacific Division teams, happening to focus mostly on the third pairing on many teams. With the Anaheim Ducks leading the way with their glut of young defenders, we’ll head to the Central Division next where there are a few teams who might be contenders to scoop up one of extra Ducks pieces.
Dallas Stars – It’s not often you see a team lose three of it’s top-four defenders in one offseason, but that’s what happened to the Stars this summer after Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Kris Russell all became unrestricted free agents. While Russell has yet to sign, he was probably miscast as the 24-minute-a-night player the Stars used him as down the stretch. They brought in Dan Hamhuis to fill one of the spots, but it’ll be a battle between Jamie Oleksiak, Stephen Johns, Patrik Nemeth, Jordie Benn and Esa Lindell for playing time this year. Because Johns is the only right-handed member of that group, perhaps Julius Honka, a former first-round pick, will make his NHL debut this season as well.
St. Louis Blues– The Blues will head into camp with a much different look on their top two lines, after veterans Troy Brouwer and David Backes left town for greener pastures. Down the middle there is a chance for a young player to step up, as Jori Lehtera and Kyle Brodziak (they of 45 combined points a year ago) are currently penciled in as the second and third line centers. Perhaps Patrik Berglund moves back to the middle, or Robby Fabbri is given the reins to the second line, but either way there are some opportunities for the taking.
Chicago Blackhawks – It’s hard to argue with the Blackhawks strategy of paying their superstars top dollar to keep them in town, while keeping costs down elsewhere by dealing away strong young talent. Again this season it’ll be a top-heavy roster, with only five forwards making over $1MM. Their lineup construction is anyone’s guess, as there has been talk of moving Marian Hossa off the top line and into a more checking role. It might be Patrick Kane skating alongside Jonathan Toews this year, or perhaps the recently signed Nick Schmaltz. Either way, there is a ton of opportunity for young players on the bottom six this season, with Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen suiting up in different cities.
Nashville Predators – On paper, the Predators seem to have too many defensemen under contract, as after signing Matt Carle to a extremely cheap deal, they now have eight blueliners with NHL pedigree. While the top-four is locked up with P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, the bottom pair is most likely going to be Carle with a revolving door of Petter Granberg and Yannick Weber on his right side. This leaves Anthony Bitetto without a spot once again, meaning the New York native would be exposed to waivers at some point.
Minnesota Wild – While Mikael Granlund spent a good portion of last season as a center, it looks like this year will have him playing the wing more often, especially given the signing of Eric Staal. With Charlie Coyle coming into his own as an offensive force, and Mikko Koivu’s steady presence, there isn’t much room for Granlund down the middle. It also might cause Erik Haula, a strong contributor from the third line last year to transition even further into a penalty killing and defensive role. We’ll see what kind of chance the team gives Chris Stewart, who is a former 28-goal scorer, who hasn’t surpassed 15 in three straight seasons.
Colorado Avalanche – It’s a good thing that the Avalanche were able to come to terms with restricted free agent Tyson Barrie, because without him the blueline looks a little thin. While Erik Johnson and Francois Beauchemin will be a steady pairing again this year, players like Patrick Wiercioch, Fedor Tyutin and Eric Gelinas will have to play big roles in the defense this season. One interesting option is Nikita Zadorov, a former first-round pick who suited up for 22 games with the Avs last season. They seem like a perfect team to go after one of the surplus defenders in Anaheim, perhaps Cam Fowler to pair with Barrie long-term.
Winnipeg Jets – Just like the Blues, the Jets find themselves with a different look up front after losing their captain. Andrew Ladd is now playing in Long Island (or Brooklyn, or Queens) and the Jets will have to find an internal replacement for his 19-minutes a night. Perhaps 20-year old Nikolaj Ehlers is that replacement, after 38 points a year ago. Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are both expected to debut with the team as well, giving them more depth on the wing than they’ve had in a few years. If anything, the team has too many young forwards to bring them all up, meaning we may see skaters like Marko Daňo and Joel Armia see extensive AHL time once again.