From Avalanche down, 'never an easy night' in Central Division
Nathan MacKinnon didn't feel right about how last season went for the Colorado Avalanche. Sure, they shook off their Stanley Cup hangover and won the Central Division but something was off.
“I just don’t think we had the team to win last year,” MacKinnon said. “Just didn’t really feel like we really had it.”
With extra rest from a first-round exit and the additions of Ryan Johansen, Miles Wood and Tomas Tatar filling some major voids, the Avalanche go into the season as favorites to win the Cup again. Just to get out of the Central, they will have to fend off Dallas coming off a trip to the Western Conference final and retooled Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg — and handle games against Chicago and Arizona that won't be as easy as they were last year.
“There’s never an easy night at the Central,” Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey said. “It’s a tough division to play. It’s always a grind. The games are physical.”
The Avalanche are more physical with Wood, deeper down the middle with Johansen and more skilled on the wing with Tatar. The holes left by the departure of Nazem Kadri in the summer of 2022 after the Cup run and the absence of captain Gabriel Landeskog, out for a second consecutive season after knee surgery, no longer seem as gaping.
“I think it addressed a lot of needs,” MacKinnon said. “All the guys that are brought in are very chatty, and very personable guys, which is fun to have around on a day-to-day basis, as well as great players. The fit seems great. ... It feels right.”
Colorado is the Cup favorite at odds just over 8-1 on FanDuel Sportsbook in large part because of the high-end talent of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and 2022 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and playoff MVP Cale Makar. The Avalanche also seem to have found their long-term answer in net with Alexandar Georgiev, who tied for the league lead in wins last season.
“He proved himself as a really good goalie,” defenseman Bowen Byram said. “He’s very athletic and makes a lot of saves that you don’t think he’s going to make, so he was a great pickup for us. And hopefully he can keep growing his game this season.”
The Avalanche's challengers in the Central range from the Stars to the Minnesota Wild, who still have Marc-Andre Fleury backstopping them and a couple of dynamic scorers in Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy.
“We have a tough division,” Byram said. “No game’s easy. (But) stiff competition is good.”
ON THE RISE
The Stars were a Stanley Cup contender last season under new coach Peter DeBoer, pushing the eventual champion Vegas Golden Knights to six games.
The expectations are back in Dallas after 46-goal scorer Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and others got their first taste of a long NHL playoff run. The Stars added Matt Duchene after his buyout by Nashville and are running it back for another season with a core that includes Joe Pavelski and Norris candidate Miro Heiskanen.
“The hunger that you get from getting knocked out in the third round — that doesn’t happen often you get to the third round — and now you know what it takes to get there,” said Robertson, who set a career high with 109 points last year. “We’re hungry to get back at it.”
At the bottom of the division, the Blackhawks should be better after drafting generational talent Connor Bedard with the first pick. And the Coyotes are adding 2022 No. 2 pick Logan Cooley, who has been impressive in preseason.
ON THE DECLINE
Whether the Nashville Predators are on the decline is actually a question more than a statement. New general manager Barry Trotz has made wholesale changes since returning to the organization he coached for 15 years from its inception, including firing coach John Hynes and replacing him with Andrew Brunette.
Gone are Johansen, Duchene, Nino Niederreiter, Mattias Ekholm and Tanner Jeannot. In are 2019 playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly, big defenseman Luke Schenn and winger Gustav Nyquist.
Forward Filip Forsberg, who's signed through 2030, said those three players in particular will add a lot. He has also appreciated getting a heads up from Trotz on the moves.
"It’s nice to hear it from him," Forsberg said. “The direction, it speaks for itself. He’s got an idea and he wants to get it done right way. New coach, a couple players gone. He’s got his plan, and if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it.”
Keeping Nashville from any serious decline is Juuse Saros, who finished fourth in voting for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie.
ON THE HOT SEAT
It's setting up to be a fascinating few months in Winnipeg, where 2020 Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck and longtime top center Mark Scheifele are in the final season of their contracts. After Blake Wheeler was stripped of the captaincy last year, the Jets bought out the veteran winger and could at any point trade Scheifele and/or Hellebuyck.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff continues to have the full trust of ownership. He and coach Rick Bowness now have to deliver on changing the culture around the franchise, or changes could be coming.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg, Arizona, Chicago.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed.
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