The NHL isn’t a copycat league. It’s a response league.
After the big and gritty St. Louis Blues muscled their way to the Stanley Cup, division rivals have responded in different ways.
The Nashville Predators inked top free agent center Matt Duchene ; the Dallas Stars beefed up with tough, playoff-tested scorers Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry; the Minnesota Wild got faster by signing Mats Zuccarello; the Colorado Avalanche replenished their scoring depth up front by trading for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signing Joonas Donskoi; and the Chicago Blackhawks went bargain hunting and ended up with Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Robin Lehner.
There is no precise blueprint on challenging a champion. Teams in the East tried to ratchet up the speed and skill to keep up with the 2016 and 2017 Cup-winning Penguins, and Pittsburgh spent the past year adding size and toughness to go toe to toe with the Washington Capitals after they won.
Now the Central Division is stacked with the reigning Blues, Stars, Avalanche, Wild, Predators, Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets ready to battle it out just to make the playoffs next season. Pacific powerhouses San Jose and Vegas lost some talent in free agency , and hockey’s balance of power has tilted further toward the Central.
“Everyone is a contender before the season starts,” said Zuccarello, who left the Stars for the Wild. “A playoff spot is where to start and then everyone knows once we get to the playoff it’s about momentum and confidence. You never know what’s going to happen. Take St. Louis. Nobody thought they were going to get to the playoffs on Jan. 1 and then they got a boost and got some confidence, and boom, they’re the Stanley Cup champions.”
A year ago, the Blues dominated July 1 by signing Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak and David Perron and trading for eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly. Those moves paid off with the first championship in franchise history.
St. Louis was quieter this year, leaving the door open for plenty of activity around them. Dallas reached double overtime of Game 7 against the Blues in the second round and could sell that opportunity to win to pending free agents.
The Stars being one goal away from the Western Conference final lured Perry, who said “they have a legit chance to win.” They sure think so with the additions of Perry and Pavelski to a core of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Ben Bishop.
“Our team’s trending up and it’s a good sign,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said. “You can never be competitive enough. We saw that in the playoffs. I think St. Louis showed everybody that’s how you’ve got to play and we were right there with St. Louis.”
Nashville finished ahead of St. Louis the past two seasons before signing Duchene, and Winnipeg was right there in a six-game slobberknocker of a first-round series.
Playoff wild card Colorado is also trending up after being one win away from beating San Jose and facing St. Louis in the West final. The Avalanche had arguably the NHL’s best line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen and went into the summer stuffed with salary-cap space and the intention of supplementing those stars with more offensive forwards.
“We’re adding a supporting case to that group,” GM Joe Sakic said. “The coaches have a lot of options to mix and match with line combinations.”
That supporting cast includes a major upgrade at second-line center with Kadri, more speed with Burakovsky and a little bit of everything with Donskoi. Colorado still has plenty of room to sign Rantanen to a new contract and has enough young pieces that Kadri was convinced to waive his no-trade clause with Toronto to go there.
“The Colorado Avalanche are going to be contenders for many, many years to come with such a young team with great players,” Kadri said Tuesday. “I definitely think that this team has a chance to not only do it once but multiple times hopefully in the future with the pieces that they have.”
That won’t be easy, especially in this division. Zuccarello believes Minnesota can rebound from missing the playoffs and ride talent and goaltender Devan Dubnyk to be the Blues of 2020.
“I think we are a competitor,” GM Paul Fenton said after signing Zuccarello and forward Ryan Hartman . “You look at our team right now and the stability we have with our goaltending. There’s not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen like we do in the league. And our center ice is just solid right down the middle. You put the excitement of our wingers on the outside, and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”
The regular season and first couple rounds are enough of a gauntlet that players aren’t counting on anything done in June and July to guarantee success.
“We’re enjoying the position we’re in, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Landeskog said. “It’s about taking that next step for us, and it’s about making sure that we’re all growing and we’re all doing our part to get better.”