Parity, thy name is the National Hockey League.
Due to the implementation of the hard salary cap during the 2004-05 season-canceling lockout, the NHL is a league whose leadership often trumpets its across-the-board competitiveness. And they do have a point since in the 18 seasons following the lockout, the NHL has had 12 champions.
So, yes, every team does have a chance to compete for a playoff berth and, if things break the right way, a Stanley Cup.
Except, of course, in the Central Division, which is the most top-heavy division in the league, with a clear division between the top three teams and the rest.
THE CENTRAL DIVISION:
NO. 1: DALLAS STARS
OVERVIEW: It’s not exactly Cup-or-bust in Dallas, but expectations are high for a Stars team that has an impressive mix of young talent and experienced veterans.
FORWARDS: The Stars have incredible scoring depth up front with eight forwards who scored at least 20 goals, led by Jason Robertson’s 47. Robertson’s centerman, Roope Hintz, became a star in 2022-23. They are followed by second liners Matt Duchene (56 points in 71 games with Nashville), Tyler Seguin (50 points in 76 games), and Mason Marchment (31 points in 68 games), and third liners Wyatt Johnston (24-17-41) and Jamie Benn (33-45-78).
DEFENSEMEN: Miro Heiskanen is a top-10 defenseman in the NHL, and a foundational piece for the Stars. The big question is how does the corps round out following Heiskanen? Nils Lundkvist, who was acquired from the Rangers prior to the 2022-23 season, has tantalizing skill, but his size (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) and offensive production (six goals and 10 assists for 16 points in 60 games) was concerning. Veteran defenseman Ryan Suter was criticized during the playoffs.
GOALTENDING: Jake Oettinger was spectacular in the regular season (37-11-11; 2.37 goals against average; .919 save percentage) but struggled in the playoffs (10-9; 3.06 goals-against average; .895 save percentage), although head coach Pete DeBoer said the Stars “asked an awful lot” out of the 24-year-old, in a story posted on the team website. Oettinger played 62 regular season games and another 19 in the playoffs.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Finding a way to limit Oettinger’s workload to 50 regular-season games and tapping into Lundkvist’s skill set.
NO. 2: COLORADO AVALANCHE
OVERVIEW: One of the NHL’s elite teams, Colorado will be one of the favorites to win the Cup.
FORWARDS: Two seasons ago, the top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen was the NHL’s best. However, Landeskog missed all of 2022-23 with a knee cartilage transplant and the team has already said it will cost him the upcoming season. Colorado recently signed Tomas Tatar, who will provide depth scoring to round out the forward unit.
DEFENSEMEN: The best corps in the NHL is built around the league’s best pairing, Cale Makar and Devon Toews. The second pair of Bowen Byram and Samuel Girard could be a top twosome for two-thirds of the team in the league.
GOALTENDING: Alexandar Georgiev, acquired from the Rangers following the 2021-22 season, was strong in his first season with the Avalanche. Georgiev compiled a 40-16-6 record with a 2.53 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 62 games as Colorado’s No. 1 goaltender.
KEY TO THE SEASON: If the Avalanche can stay healthy, they can compete for the Cup.
NO. 3: MINNESOTA WILD
OVERVIEW: The Wild have been one of the NHL’s most consistent franchises for more than a decade. Minnesota qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs four years in a row, and 10 out of the last 11 seasons overall. That’s the positive. The negative is that the Wild have not reached the Western Conference Final in that time. Given the quality of Dallas and Colorado in particular– and the Western Conference overall – odds are better than 50-50 that Minnesota will be in the playoffs but won’t reach the NHL’s final four.
FORWARDS: In a league in which offense is the valued commodity, Minnesota will not remind anyone of the Gretzky Oilers or Lemieux Penguins. The Wild’s 2.91 goals per game average ranked 23rd in the NHL, though Kirill Kaprizov (40 goals and 35 assists for 75 points in 67 games) is one of the NHL’s preeminent snipers.
DEFENSEMEN: One of the NHL’s most solid units is led by the top pair of Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. An X factor could be rookie Brock Faber, who compiled 27 points (four goals and 23 assists) in 38 games at the University of Minnesota.
GOALTENDING: Minnesota went into the 2022-23 season with Marc-Andre Fleury as the starter and Filip Gustavsson serving as the future Hall-of-Famer’s backup. The roles will be reversed entering this season. Gustavsson (22-9-7 in 39 games) compiled a 2.10 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 2022-23, whereas Fleury (24-16-4 in 46 games) finished with a 2.85 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Can head coach Dean Evason and the rest of his staff find and develop additional offense?
NO. 4: ST. LOUIS BLUES
OVERVIEW: It was five seasons ago that St. Louis won the Stanley Cup. Five years is not an especially long period of time. But the strata the Blues found themselves on the night of June 12, 2019, in Boston is significantly different from where the organization resides now.
FORWARDS: The wild thing about the Blues is that even though they finished 17th in the NHL in goals scored per game (3.17) and 22nd in power play conversion (19.3 percent), the team does have the personnel to be far more potent. Jordan Kyrou led St. Louis in goals (37) and points (73). He is aided by Pavel Buchnevich, whose 26 goals and 67 points were second-most in both categories.
DEFENSEMEN: What is the last thing a team that finished 2022-23 ranked 27th in goals against average (3.63) and 30th in penalty killing (72.4%)? An injury to second-pair defenseman Torey Krug that will keep him out for an indeterminate time.
GOALTENDING: Jordan Binnington was key to St. Louis winning the Cup in 2018-19, and in the immediate aftermath the thinking was the then-rookie was going to be a franchise goaltender. That theory was permanently put to rest by the end of last season, due to Binnington authoring a 3.31 goals-against average and .894 save percentage campaign.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Can Craig Berube and his coaching staff implement a defensive structure that limits shots and goals against?
NO. 5: NASHVILLE PREDATORS
OVERVIEW: The sun is rising on the second Barry Trotz Era in Nashville. Trotz, who coached the Predators in the franchise's first 15 years, replaced David Poile as GM on June 30. Among Trotz’s first moves was to fire John Hynes, who was replaced by Andrew Brunette.
FORWARDS: Entering the upcoming season, it appears as if the offensive approach will be scoring by committee. Filip Forsberg is the leading returning goal scorer with 19, followed by defenseman Roman Josi’s 18.
GOALTENDING: Nashville is set in net with Juuse Saros, who finished 2022-23 with a 33-23-7 record, and a 2.69 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. But Saros played 64 games and it is probably high on Trotz and Brunette’s to-do list to find him a capable backup.
KEY TO THE SEASON: See the second sentence under goaltending.
NO. 6: WINNIPEG JETS
OVERVIEW: The dynasty that never was. In July 2015, the cover story of The Hockey News’ Future Watch issue predicted that the Jets would win the Stanley Cup in 2019 due to a deep prospect pool. Entering the 2023-24 season, the Jets have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times in eight years, but only reached the Western Conference Final once. Many of the pieces that were going to be the key components are now plying their trade in other NHL outposts, and now the Jets are facing what could be a long rebuild.
FORWARDS: Winnipeg has an intriguing group, spearheaded by top-line wingers Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, and two-thirds of a second line comprised of Alex Iafallo and Gabe Vilardi. Cole Perfetti had 30 points in 51 games before suffering a season-ending upper-body injury. But the key to the forward unit is center Mark Scheifele, and rumors persist that he may be looking to leave Manitoba.
GOALTENDING: Connor Hellebuyck is a top-five goaltender in the NHL. Which should be a franchise strength. But like Scheifele, there is a belief in league circles that he is eyeing other markets for whom to play.
KEY TO THE SEASON: What happens with Scheifele and Hellebuyck. Both the center and goaltender are unrestricted free agents following this season, and the odds that the duo sign long-term extensions in Winnipeg are extremely slim. So. the task facing GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is to maximize the returns in potential trades.
NO. 7: CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
OVERVIEW: The last time Chicago reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a full 82-game season was 2016-17, and the last time Chicago qualified for the playoffs was the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season. So, yes, it’s been a while. Chicago’s playoff drought will not end in 2023-24, but this is an organization that’s playing the long game.
FORWARDS: The 18-year-old Bedard is going to make the team out of training camp and will be the No. 1 center on opening night. He compiled a slash line of 71 goals and 72 assists for 143 points in 57 games with Regina of the WHL. The first overall pick in the 2023 draft won’t come near to those numbers in his debut season, but a 40-50 campaign is not out of the question.
DEFENSEMEN: Seth Jones is the pillar on the back end. Jones plays in all situations, and averaged just under 25 minutes of ice time a night. Looking toward the future, Kevin Korchinski compiled 73 points (11 goals and 62 assists) in 54 games last season with WHL Seattle and he’ll get a chance to earn a job with the NHL team out of camp.
GOALTENDING: Veteran Petr Mrazek should be the No. 1 goaltender and the likelihood is high he will be backed up by Arvid Soderblom. The franchise’s future in goal is Drew Commesso, who went 24-8-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .913 save percentage at Boston University last season.
KEY TO THE SEASON: The development of Bedard and the organization’s prospects.
NO. 8: ARIZONA COYOTES:
OVERVIEW: Uncertainty and instability, thy name is the Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes are entering their second season at Arizona State University’s Mullett Arena, which seats a NHL-worst 5,000 for games. This is supposed to be a stopgap, but a recent vote by Tempe residents not to authorize the city to spend $200 million to help the franchise build an arena–as this space noted in June, $1.9 billion of the $2.1 billion cost would come from private funding – has forced organizational stewards to look for other potential in-state options, while the possibility of relocation to Utah or Houston looms. Other than that, things are going great.
FORWARDS: Rookie center Logan Cooley– the third overall pick in the 2022 draft–will get every opportunity to make the NHL roster in training camp. If he makes the team, he’ll be part of a talented young corps with 26-year-old Logan Crouse and 25-year-old Clayton Keller. General manager Bill Armstrong brought in veterans Jason Zucker, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Sanford, and Alexander Kerfoot to add experience and depth.
DEFENSEMEN: The organization’s back-end future is gestating in Russia (Dmitriy Simashev and Artem Duda) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (Maveric Lamoureux), and are years away. In the interim, Sean Durzi–nine goals and 29 assists for 38 points in 72 games with Los Angeles last season–and Matt Dumba will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the interim.
GOALTENDING: Karel Vejmelka (18-24-6; 3.43 goals against average; .900 save percentage) and Connor Ingram (6-13-8; 3.37 goals-against average; .907 save percentage) will be the tandem at the NHL level.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Finding a permanent home.