The Minnesota Wild were moved to the realigned "West Division" last season, and they finished third with 75 points, including a playoff appearance that was cut short in the first round. While their success definitely surprised some people, part of it was due to them playing in a weak division. They easily accumulated wins against teams like the Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks. The Wild will have a more difficult time making the playoffs again next season because they are moving back to the Central Division.
The offseason is coming to an end for most teams who are finalizing their rosters except for teams trying to sign their restricted free agents. With that said, it is a perfect time to predict the central division standings and how the Wild stack up against each team.
I used Evolving-Hockey's player projections to see how many wins (WAR) each player is expected to be worth next season, except for goalies because there are no projections for them. It served as a baseline for how many wins each team added or lost from their offseason moves.
I considered the following to form my final standings predictions:
Number of wins a team added or lost this offseason
Potential breakout, bounce-back, and regression candidates
Injuries that sidelined players last season
Last season's final standings and divisional strength
Prospects who could play significant time
1. Colorado Avalanche
Wins Added: minus-2.1
The Avalanche lost some significant pieces this summer, but they could at least upgrade at goaltending by bringing in Kuemper as their replacement for Grubauer. They aren't as deep of a team, but their top-heavy forward corps and formidable defensive corps still make them an easy favorite to win the division.
They're poised to do damage, considering the intriguing prospects in Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram. It's just inevitable that their losses this offseason will appear minimal next season as a result. It also helps that they will be getting Erik Johnson in the lineup after he missed the entirety of the 2020-21 season.
2. Winnipeg Jets
Wins Added: minus-0.2
The Jets lost some depth pieces, but they planned for that with some younger players inserted into the lineup. Winnipeg's roster will be much better with a more intriguing, younger bottom-six forward corps despite the depth subtractions. They finally addressed their back end this summer by adding Schmidt and Dillon too.
Blake Wheeler is projected to bounce back, which is crucial for them, but Pierre-Luc Dubois is a big uncertainty. He is entering his first full season with the Jets and is poised to breakout sooner rather than later. If he makes strides next season, it will make Winnipeg even more dangerous up front and potentially a sleeper in the West.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
Wins Added: minus-0.6
The Blackhawks are probably the biggest question mark in the league. I almost had them finishing second but went with the safe bet in the Jets. It appears Jonathan Toews will play this season after missing all of last season. That and a healthy Kirby Dach should scare teams. Last season, the biggest takeaway from Chicago was that they have some great young talent, even beyond Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik. Sure, the departures of Suter and Boqvist may hurt, but the organization took a huge step forward this summer despite the contract given to Seth Jones.
The addition of Fleury shores up any questions around their goaltending. The tandem of Fleury and Kevin Lankinen could be one of the best in the league next season. After being one of the worst defensive teams in hockey, Chicago upgraded their backend by dumping Keith and adding Jones and McCabe. Subsequently, the defensive core looks much better going into the season. The addition of Johnson could pay dividends and be one of their more underrated moves this offseason as they try to maximize the remainder of Toews and Kane's careers.
4. Minnesota Wild
Wins Added: minus-0.1
The Wild's defensive core was altered this offseason when they bought out Suter and lost Soucy in the Seattle Expansion Draft. However, the damage is minimal, and the replacements basically wash out the departures overall. One storyline to watch is how the "center-by-committee" approach goes for a second year.
The team's biggest question mark is when Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and Calen Addison will play. Will they make the team out of training camp, or will they be inserted halfway into the season? It could be the difference-maker and affect where they end up in the standings. The fact is that the influx of prospects could potentially lead the Wild to be a darkhorse candidate in the Central.
5. St. Louis Blues
Wins Added: minus-0.5
It's hard to envision the Blues finishing fifth, but it might arguably be the most competitive division next season. Add that to the fact that St. Louis had little improvement this summer, and it becomes more of a possibility for a team that struggled last season. While the Blues added a top-line forward in Buchnevich and a complementary piece in Saad, they also lost Schwartz and Hoffman.
Not to mention they lost Dunn, Bozak, and Blais. The biggest uncertainty on the roster is Vladimir Tarasenko. It appears the 29-year-old winger will pay for the Blues next season after he requested a trade. If he can be the 30-goal scorer he once was, then there's potential for this team to be one of the best in the division.
6. Dallas Stars
Wins Added: minus-2.1
The Stars weren't very active this summer. They added Holtby to shore up some goaltending concerns and brought in Suter to replace Oleksiak. Most of the moves they made were replacing depth players that left for free agency or traded, in the case of Dickinson.
Dallas had a COVID outbreak at the start of the 2020-21 season and ended up starting late as a result. Perhaps the late start had an effect on their season? The Stars also lost a league-high 14 games after regulation. The good news is that Alexander Radulov and Ben Bishop should be healthy at the start of the season. There's a good chance the Stars will bounce back next season, but there's a good chance they find themselves outside the top four in this competitive division.
7. Nashville Predators
Wins Added: minus-2.9
It looks like the Predators realize it's time to retool as they moved both Ellis and Arvidsson this summer. They got some decent pieces in return this summer, but overall the roster took a huge step back. Realistically, there's just no way the Predators grab a top-four spot in a very competitive Central division, especially after the offseason they had.
Losing a top-pairing defenseman and two middle-six forwards is damaging to a roster that was already lacking talent. Saros is an above-average starter, and their defense is still respectable. This isn't an awful team by any means, especially considering the young talent that will be inserted into the lineup next season.
8. Arizona Coyotes
Wins Added: minus-1.3
The Coyotes are the favorites to finish last in the division and the league, for that matter. After almost the entire roster departed, the rebuild is underway aside from Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel, Nick Schmaltz, and Jakob Chychrun. They didn't lose a lot of value in terms of wins because goaltending isn't accounted for in that number. Aside from the goaltending loss, the only talent that really departed was Garland.
On paper, Arizona might be one of the worst teams the NHL has seen recently.
Minnesota will have a more difficult season as the Central will be more competitive than the West was in the 2020-21 campaign. With that said, I think the Wild still make the postseason with the young kids leading the way.