Patrick Kane’s Blackhawks and Justin Faulk’s Blues will compete among a large group of teams for playoff spots this season. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Between the Avalanche at the top and the newly added Coyotes at the bottom, it’s difficult to predict in what order the Central’s other six teams — including the Hawks — will finish.
The NHL’s familiar divisions have returned for 2021-22, but the Central Division nonetheless isn’t quite the same as before.
The Coyotes have joined the group, thanks to the Kraken bumping them out of the Pacific, and the Central’s mainstays may soon greatly appreciate their presence. All seven regulars look like potential playoff teams — the Coyotes, meanwhile, will serve as a much-needed punching bag.
In between the Coyotes at the bottom and likely the Avalanche again at the top, the much-improved Blackhawks fall into the mushy middle, where every team could finish anywhere from second through seventh without much surprise.
After correctly predicting 13 of the 16 playoff teams last year, here are the Sun-Times’ projected standings for every division in 2021-22:
1. Avalanche: Regular season dominance is essentially a given for the Avalanche. What will truly determine the success of their season is whether they can finally advance past the second round of the playoffs, having lost there three straight years.
In the meantime, though, the Avs — 81-33-12 over the last two seasons — should cruise to first place. They crucially re-signed captain Gabriel Landeskog and Norris Trophy runner-up Cale Makar this summer, notably still have one of the world’s best players — Nathan MacKinnon — and also maintained a deep core around those three.
The only question is with their goaltending unit, which was already a relative weakness even before this year and now features injury-prone Darcy Kuemper instead of Philipp Grubauer.
2. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov’s NHL explosion transformed the Wild from perennially average and boring into good and exciting. They finished with the same number of points (75) as the Lightning.
Kaprizov returns after a long negotiation process, and the Hawks will have to contend with him for the first time this season. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are gone at last, but the Wild somehow lost neither top defenseman Matt Dumba nor starting goalie Cam Talbot in the expansion draft. They sit atop the Central’s middle tier entering the season.
3. Stars: The Stars were just as disappointing last season as the Wild were surprising, with injuries and COVID outbreaks derailing any carryover momentum from 2020. But from the wreckage emerged two rising stars in Roope Hintz and Calder Trophy runner-up Jason Robertson. If those two continue their ascendance this year, the Stars should be primed for a bounce-back season.
Defensive mainstays Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg and a very deep goalie group — Anton Khudobin, Jake Oettinger, Braden Holtby and Bishop — provide a steady foundation regardless.
4. Jets (wild card): Defensive additions Nate Schmidt and Brendan Dillon will be asked to solidify what has been a shaky unit for the Jets the past two seasons.
Whether those two prove enough — a top four of them plus Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk still doesn’t seem too intimidating — could decide the Jets’ fate, because the team still boasts a talented top-six and, in Connor Hellebuyck, one of the NHL’s very best goalies.
5. Blues (wild card): The Blues have steadily declined since their 2019 Cup title and look like a true bubble team for 2021-22.
Pavel Buchnevich and — sadly for Hawks fans — Brandon Saad were savvy offensive upgrades, but the defense lacks both an elite No. 1 guy and competent depth. It’ll be fascinating to see if Vladimir Tarasenko lasts the whole year in St. Louis. Jordan Binnington will need to keep up with Hellebuyck for the Blues to jump the Jets.
6. Blackhawks: The Hawks obviously believe they’ll be much better than they were last year, and logic backs up that optimism.
But just how much better depends on just how good the team’s three biggest additions — Marc-Andre Fleury, Seth Jones and functionally Jonathan Toews — turn out to be. If all three play like stars, this is a playoff team. If any of them fall short, however, the Hawks will have a tough time finding a way in.
They’ve played at only an 83-point prorated pace during Jeremy Colliton’s tenure. They’ll probably need at least 10 more points this season to vault into the postseason.
7. Predators: Considering the Predators’ domination of the Hawks last season, winning seven of eight meetings, it feels unjust ranking them seventh. But one team has to finish this low.
The Predators do appear clearly on the decline following their misguided Victor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis trades this summer. Defenseman Roman Josi and goalie Juuse Saros are still great at keeping the puck out of the Preds’ net, but this roster direly lacks offensive talent.
8. Coyotes: This offseason, the Coyotes blew up a roster that peaked just below the playoff bubble to start from scratch. The result is a team designed to lose, and lose often, in 2021-22.
Unheralded defenseman Jakub Chychrun is the only really good player left. The forward lineup is easily overlooked. The new goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Josef Korenar — who together went 4-15-1 with an .891 save percentage on other teams last year — seems comically bad.
PACIFIC DIVISION (playoff teams in bold)
1. Golden Knights
8. Blue Jackets
2. Maple Leafs
7. Red Wings
Avalanche def. Golden Knights
Panthers def. Hurricanes
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Avalanche def. Panthers