We begin our preparations for the upcoming fantasy hockey season with a look at players who have moved onto new teams or others who will play more prominent roles. We continue with the third of four columns, this time exploring the Western Conference's Central Division.
In the aftermath of their Stanley Cup triumph, the Blackhawks acted swiftly to deal with salary cap pressures on their roster. Well aware of the impending cap hits of $10.5 million for both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane over the next eight seasons, Chicago swung a deal with Columbus, parting ways with promising young forward Brandon Saad and getting four younger or cheaper assets in return, including Artem Anisimov, who should slide into a second line center slot. In addition, 20-year-old Marko Dano is another pivot with significant upside that the Hawks hope to realize. In another deal, they received top-four blueliner Trevor Daley from the Stars to bolster a blueline that was depleted by the departure of two veteran defensemen (Johnny Oduya signed with Dallas as a free agent and Kimmo Timonen retired). In that deal, the Hawks also shipped out Patrick Sharp, a longtime component of their offensive core. Some observers look for the club to take a step back, but they still retain the aforementioned offensive leaders, as well as Duncan Keith and Brendan Seabrook on defense. Young winger Teuvo Teravainen had a great playoff and should compete for top-six minutes this season.
The Avalanche took quick action to fortify a lineup that took a giant step back last season. First, they pried useful forward Carl Soderberg from the salary-cap strapped Bruins in exchange for a late-round draft pick next year. Second, they moved out Cal O’Reilly, a restricted free-agent center who could no longer fit on a roster that already has Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon as the scoring line centers. In exchange, they added a pair of high-end prospects in former Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov and winger Mikhail Grigorenko. In another development, they managed to bring in veteran defender Francois Beauchemin, a top two-way blueliner who will be an excellent team leader and instructor for younger players like Zadorov and Tyson Barrie. He will also take some pressure off Erik Johnson and be a key figure on all special teams units.
As noted above, the Stars brought in defenseman Johnny Oduya and winger Patrick Sharp to a group that includes defending top scorer Jamie Benn, and dynamic centers Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza up front, as well as John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski on a talented blueline. In a bit of a surprising move, they also signed veteran goalie Antti Niemi to share the netminding chores with longtime starter Kari Lehtonen. Oddly, that ties up over $10 million for two experienced goalies, which is a luxury and a tactic that not too many other teams have chosen. Nonetheless, general manager Jim Nill continued to add veteran quality and depth throughout the lineup with an eye toward moving the Stars into a more competitive posture in the deep Western Conference. We should keep an eye on Antoine Roussel, a very physical winger who has an underrated scoring touch. He could evolve into a top power forward if he can hold onto a top-six winger role. Similarly, big winger Valeri Nichushkin will be back in shape after losing much of last season to injury, and he hopes to make his own case for a top-six forward role that was ticketed for him last season - maybe even on the top scoring line with Benn and Seguin.
The Wild saw their season turn as soon as they acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk and they rewarded the big workhorse goalie with a six-year, $26 million contract that solidifies his role ahead of Niklas Backstrom. Other than that move, the most notable off-season transaction was the free-agent pickup of Ruslan Fedotenko, a depth forward who has some scoring ability but is likely destined for a third-line role. That’s because the Wild had already locked up a number of higher-end offensive talents like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville as big-ticket forwards who take up a significant amount of cap space. Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter are both on more cap-friendly deals and hope to build on the nice progress they've made in the past two seasons. An impressive top four on this blueline are similarly locked up, but particular attention is due to the potential that Mathew Dumba showed in spurts last season. He could become a signature piece if he finds consistency to his game.
Last season the Predators shed their image of a low-scoring, defensive-minded club largely due to the presence of veteran sniper James Neal, who tallied 23 goals in his first season in Nashville, and the emergence of Filip Forsberg, who compiled 63 points, as their most dynamic young forward. They hope they added another dynamic player to fuel their offense after signing Cody Hodgson, a former top-six pivot who was deemed expendable by the rebuilding Sabres. He has a very legitimate shot at reviving his career with a similar role in Nashville and will only cost the Preds $1.05 million this season. Nashville’s main strength is found along their blueline, and when Cody Franson failed to fit in as a late-season trade pickup, they opted for Barret Jackman, a more defensive-minded player, whom they also added in free agency. Beyond these additions, they re-signed Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro, two forwards who were central to their newfound offensive success last season. Kevin Fiala is a highly skilled 19-year-old who will get a long look at training camp and could make a breakthrough this season.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues have long been regarded as a very deep team, in terms of overall talent, but last season’s postseason failure unveiled a lack of physicality that opponents preyed on. That appears to have been the catalyst for the trade that saw them ship T.J. Oshie to Washington in exchange for rugged winger Troy Brouwer, a more aggressive forward who has a nice scoring touch and can play on the power play. They also brought in Kyle Brodziak, a similar big body presence who will likely be assigned a third line checking role. Captain David Backes is the happiest Blues forward, armed with the knowledge that he has more support in the heavy going. The Blues also made an eight-year, $64 million commitment to Vladimir Tarasenko, who was rewarded for a breakout (73-point) campaign that saw him emerge as a top offensive weapon at a time when he was well positioned to test free agency. In a move that lies below most radars, the Blues re-signed enigmatic forward Magnus Paajarvi to an economical one-year $700,00 contract to give him one more shot to rediscover and display the offensive skills that made him a high draft pick five years ago. He should find a way to flourish while surrounded by so much talent.
The Jets jumped out ahead of free agency to lock veteran up winger Drew Stafford and defenseman Ben Chiarot, who both solidified their credentials with their fine play for the Jets last season. They also recommitted to former Jets forward Alex Burmistrov, who toiled in the KHL the past two seasons. They hope that those two years will translate into a maturation of his overall game that was not evident during his first tour with Winnipeg. The Jets are hoping to avoid another drama, such as the Evander Kane story that dogged them last season, but that may be replaced by the contract status of rare talent Dustin Byfuglien, who is in the final year of his current deal that pays him $5.2 million this season. This may be a relatively low-budget team, but they have shelled out big bucks for their top players. It looks like it will come down to whether Big Buff wants to stay or not. Coach Paul Maurice was given much of the credit for navigating the troubled waters last year, but he credits the club’s leadership core, particularly captain Andrew Ladd, for showing the way. Among the players to watch, defenseman Jacob Trouba looked like a budding star who could take another giant step in ascending among the top young defensemen in the league. Similarly, big Tyler Myers displayed a form that was very reminiscent of his high-scoring debut with the Sabres from a few years ago.