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2019-20 NHL predictions: Stacked Central Division makes Blackhawks’ playoff path difficult

All seven teams in the division have legitimate playoff aspirations, making the Hawks’ quest to avoid missing a third consecutive postseason all the more challenging.

Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope their active summer will guide them back to the playoffs, but they’ll first have to survive a tough Central Division.
AP Photos

The Central Division has evolved into the deepest and most competitive in the NHL.

It features the defending Stanley Cup champion (Blues), the biggest up-and-coming contender (Avalanche) and five other teams — including the Blackhawks — with legitimate playoff aspirations.

That will make the Hawks’ quest to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2016 all the more difficult.

Still, considering the glut of changes the Hawks made this summer and the general unpredictability of hockey, the playoffs remain within reach, despite the precariousness of the road in between.

Here are the Sun-Times’ projected standings in every division in 2019-20:

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. Avalanche: Just three seasons removed from a 22-victory campaign, the Avalanche — led by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, otherwise known as the best line in the NHL — have the look of an impending dynasty.

Newly acquired forwards Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky add some secondary scoring beef, top prospect Cale Makar looked like a top-pairing defenseman in his 2019 playoff debut and Philipp Grubauer quietly might be a top-10 goalie.

The Avs won’t enter the season as the Central favorites, but they might well be by December.

2. Blues: The 2018-19 season was a storybook one in St. Louis. In last place in the league in January, the Blues were the NHL’s best team in the second half of the season and carried that momentum all the way to a Cup title.

The Blues might be the deepest team in the league. Down to the fourth forward line and third defensive pairing, there are no weak links.

There are plenty of stars, too, with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and playoff hero Ryan O’Reilly leading the offense and Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and new addition Justin Faulk anchoring the defense.

Still, longtime minor-league goalie Jordan Binnington must prove he’s not a one-hit wonder.

3. Predators: Perhaps the Preds need a weaker regular season to advance in the playoffs. They finished fourth in the division in 2017 but played in the Cup Final. They’re 2-for-2 on division titles the last two seasons but boast only one victory in a playoff series in that time.

After trading away P.K. Subban and using that cap space to sign Matt Duchene, the Predators hope that their still-stout defense (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Matthias Ekholm are all great) will mitigate the loss of Subban and that Duchene will jump-start Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and the rest of a surprisingly mediocre 2018-19 offense.

It’s not a bad plan.

4. Stars (wild card): If the Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin era is going to produce any hardware in Dallas, it needs to be soon. The Stars are getting old: Benn is 30, Alex Radulov is 33, Ben Bishop is 32 and big summer addition Joe Pavelski is 35.

The Stars took a long-awaited step forward in 2019, coming close to the Western Conference finals despite scoring only 210 regular-season goals (third-fewest in the West). They’ll be eyeing more success in 2020, but it will be tough in this division with their lack of depth.

5. Blackhawks (wild card): The Hawks proved they could score last season, and that’s unlikely to change this season.

The fate of their postseason hopes rests almost exclusively on the other end of the ice. Can Olli Maatta’s and Calvin de Haan’s presences — and maybe Brent Seabrook’s revival — fix the defense? Can goalies Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford stay healthy and live up to their elite tandem potential?

Even if those answers are ‘‘yes,’’ the Hawks likely will be on the bubble into April. But at least there’s now a viable, if shaky, path to the playoffs.

6. Jets: It has been a disastrous offseason for the Jets, who lost three of their top six defensemen (Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot) and are now without a fourth, with Dustin Byfuglien contemplating early retirement. If Byfuglien hangs up his skates, the Jets might have the worst defense in the league, barring a trade.

Kevin Hayes departed, too. And this is all from a team that lost six more games than it won from Feb. 3 on last season. The Jets well might finish near the top of the Central, but they also might finish near the bottom.

7. Wild: The abundance of negative press in the Twin Cities has shrouded the fact that the Wild finished only one point behind the Hawks last season and had made the playoffs the six seasons before that.

The Wild are far from a hopeless case, but they’re also not in promising position, either. Being old and bad is never a good combo, and the Wild are flush with players on the wrong side of 30. Devan Dubnyk, 33, has kept the Wild competitive with four consecutive solid seasons in goal, but his advanced analytics indicate he’s starting to decline, too. New general manager Bill Guerin inherits a flawed group.

PACIFIC DIVISION (playoff teams in bold)

1. Golden Knights

2. Sharks

3. Flames

4. Canucks

5. Coyotes

6. Ducks

7. Kings

8. Oilers

METROPOLITAN DIVISION (playoff teams in bold)

1. Capitals

2. Hurricanes

3. Penguins

4. Rangers

5. Devils

6. Islanders

7. Blue Jackets

8. Flyers

ATLANTIC DIVISION (playoff teams in bold)

1. Maple Leafs

2. Lightning

3. Bruins

4. Panthers

5. Canadiens

6. Sabres

7. Red Wings

8. Senators

CONFERENCE FINALS

Predators def. Golden Knights

Lightning def. Capitals

STANLEY CUP FINALS

Lightning def. Predators