Now that we’ve laid out what we think about the Hawks, it’s probably time to peruse the other squads they’ll actually be competing with in the division and the West. And looking around, it’s hard to find a team that has taken a huge step forward to a point these Hawks can’t reach (assuming everything goes right for them). The only one that looks poised for a major leap, while knowing that one or two teams will get one through luck or weirdness, is Dallas. But Dallas looked like that last year, and it doesn’t look like they’ll take a big enough jump to overtake the Hawks. Let’s get through it all.
St. Louis Blues – Best to start with them, because they’ll be the division favorite and looking to claim their third Central crown in five years (which has added up to fuck and all for them, but still worth noting). It’s easy to dismiss the Blues and conclude “they’ll just be the Blues.” They certainly seem like they could quit on Ken Hitchcock any moment and it could all fall apart.
Still, there are some things to be wary of here. One, Paul Stastny isn’t going to be as bad as he was last year. He wouldn’t be the first player to struggle under the first year of a big contract, and neither the first when it was something of a homecoming. 16 goals and 30 assists isn’t actually too far off what he has produced the last four or five years, but it’s a little low. Still, he remains a really good #2 center playing as a #1 (so he would be Derek Stepan West or would Stepan be Stastny East?) He still remains a good possession, 200 foot player.
It still seems like the Blues are built on sand, though. Jori Lehtera got found out in a hurry when the temperature got turned up late in the season. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester continue to be the top pairing, and while Pietrangelo looks like he should be a #1 d-man, he just isn’t. There’s the questions in net that they still haven’t answered. Can Tarasenko and Schwartz make up for it all? Is Jaskin ready to take a step? Is Fabbri going to stick (unlikely). They don’t seem to know for sure, so how can we?
Nashville Predators – It’s certainly the best blue line in the division. Or it was until they paired Barret Jackman with Seth Jones, which is going to be the best comedy act in hockey for however long it lasts. Is Weber declining? He’s coming off a pretty serious knee injury and is on the wrong side of 30. Most of their push comes from Ryan Ellis and Matthias Ekholm, and it looks like they’re going to be on the same pairing.
This is a team that still depends largely on Pekka Rinne. While they pushed the Hawks as much as any other team in the playoffs, most of that was either due to goalie meltdowns from the Hawks or one or two very good games from Rinne. He was fairly mediocre after the turn of the year last year, and it’s unlikely Carter Hutton is going to provide much relief. This is still a team that’s throwing out Shitbag Ribeiro and Jesus-y Fisher as their top two centers. How far are you really going with that? Laviolette will have them playing at pace and with the puck, it’s unlikely they’ll be bad. But they’ll only improve how much Forsberg, Josi, and Jones progress. Everything else is pretty much a known.
Minnesota Wild – The very definition of standing still. This is almost exactly the same team that went out in four last year, as Mike Reilly hasn’t made the team out of camp, though I’m sure he’ll be up. While Suter’s ridiculously efficient game means I doubt he starts to slow up, the level of competition he faces keeps him from really pushing the Wild the other way. Dumba and Scandella can do that on lower pairings, but they’re really requiring a big jump from Dumba if their blue line is going to look any different.
Forwards? Again, the same thing. I’ve been waiting for Charlie Coyle to be the monster forward for so long now I’ve basically given up, and from what I can tell so have Wild fans. You’ll get your 30 or so grindy goals from Parise and Vanek will score 25 that no one can remember. Is this the year Mikael Granlund is officially a thing? Because he still only managed 39 points last year in 68 games so just how much of a leap are people calling for? Koivu is another year onto his decline. There’s no way Dubnyk is doing THAT again. How much that matters dependss whether the Wild are the possession positive team undone by their goalie in the 1st half of last season or the possession allergic team bailed out by its goalie that they were in the 2nd half. They had better hope for the former. Still, does anyone feel like they’re moving forward?
Winnipeg Jets –They’ve added a couple more young forwards to an already impressive crew in Andrew Copp and Nic Petan (if they stick). They gave the Hawks fits last year with their size and its mobility. If Tyler Myers doesn’t recede back into what he was before his trade, it’s a really impressive blue line whether or not the Byfuglien free agency drama hangs over it or not. But we don’t know that Myers won’t do that, and then you’re left with Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, and the drooling Mark Stuart, the wanderings of Buff, and whatever else. And it’s still backstopped by Ondrej Pavelec, who has a much longer track record of being awful than last year’s one foray into competency. Maybe better, maybe squeaking into the top three?
Dallas Stars – They’ll score. Oh lord how they’ll score. But they scored last year. Why is this defense better? Because Johnny Oduya, coming off of playing more minutes than he ever has at 33? Um…? Is Alex Goligoski still taking top pairing shifts? We’ve seen that movie. I love John Klingberg, but he’s not ready to replace Goligoski up there either. The return of Patrik Nemeth matters, but again that’s bottom pairing. Jordi Benn and Jason Demers blow chunks.
They might outscore it. While the acquisition of Sharp made all the headlines, it’s the return to health of Valeri Nichushkin that probably makes the bigger difference. You wouldn’t trade their top six with too many others. But this is a Lindy Ruff team, so they’re going to be exposed in their own end. Antti Niemi has been mediocre for two years. Lehtonen isn’t as bad as he was last year, but he’s only had one season with a SV% over .920. That’s what it feels like it would take to stem the tide against the Stars. A playoff team because of their offense, if either the Wild or Jets or Hawks or Preds have a disaster of a season.
Colorado Avalanche – They’ll almost certainly suck. Sure, Duchene, MacKinnion, ThreeYaksAndADog, could score a ton and cover up some of their warts. But this is a team that lost Ryan O’Reilly so it could sign Carl fucking Soderberg. It has two d-men you’d ever want anything to do with in Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, and you’d want neither on a top pairing. Unless Varlamov can conjure the devil again in net, they’re going to be the wooden spooners in this division and by some distance.
So where does that leave the Hawks? 2nd sounds right? But it could be anything. The Blues could totally collapse and it wouldn’t take much to be better than the Predators, which means the Hawks win the Central. But maybe their own roster wonkiness takes longer to figure out combined with fatigue/injuries, the Jets, Stars, and Predators outrun their averages just a a bit and suddenly the Hawks are scrambling just to even get in.
Still, I’m going to Occam’s Razor this, and say 2nd place with the Blues piling up their normal, meaningless boatload of regular season points before they spit it in the playoffs to anyone with a pulse.