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Pre-season position battles to watch: Central Division

Each team has players jockeying for important assignments this pre-season. How will each competition play out? We continue with the Central Division.

We’re now fully launched into the NHL pre-season and starting to get a taste of how coaches intend to try out their line combinations. Which position battles mean most in the Central Division right now? This is part 2 of a league-wide series. You can read the Atlantic preview here.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Who will Patrick Kane’s new left winger be?

There’s no replacing ‘The Bread Man.’ Artemi Panarin tied for the seventh-most points among all NHLers over his two seasons with the Blackhawks. His numbers were of course nitro-boosted by Kane, the man with the most points of anyone over that two-season stretch, but Kane also had his best seasons ever playing with Panarin. The man Chicago reacquired for him, Brandon Saad, is a left winger but will reunite with his old center Toews. That means Chicago has to find a new mate to play with Kane and pivot Artem Anisimov.

One option is Nick Schmaltz. He played quite well late last season as Toews’ left winger and, like Panarin, has the razzle-dazzle to keep up with Kane. Schmaltz, though, is tracking to pass Anisimov and take over as the No. 2 center. Chicago brought back Patrick Sharp this off-season, too, and he’d know the shorthand to find quick chemistry with old teammate Kane. Ryan Hartman plays the left side and broke out for 19 goals as a rookie, but he’s an ideal fit for a crash-and-bang role on line 3. Don’t forget about super-skilled Alex DeBrincat, who can play either wing and actually possesses the style most similar to Panarin’s.

Bet on: DeBrincat. Throughout camp, he’s played on Kane’s left wing, with Schmaltz in the middle, and that has the makings of a very intriguing second line. Given Schmaltz and DeBrincat both bring high-end pedigree, this unit would possesses the ceiling to rival Panarin-Anisimov-Kane.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Who plays with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen?

Colorado stole Sven Andrighetto from the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline last spring and quickly installed him on the top line with MacKinnon and Rantanen. Andrighetto went gangbusters, with 16 points in 19 games. There was thus no reason for coach Jared Bednar to break up that trio entering 2017-18, right?

We’ll see about that. As long as Matt Duchene remains an Av, this team has somewhat of a logjam at center. That will push a natural pivot to the wing. Could it be top prospect Tyson Jost? College signee Alexander Kerfoot, a center,is getting an extended look on MacKinnon and Rantanen’s line right now. Kerfoot has a legit shot at sticking with the team. He’s actually the oldest guy on that line.

Bet on: Andrighetto. I know Kerfoot is getting his shot right now, but he’s one of the few Avs forwards who is waiver exempt, so he could end up sent down as the necessary cut until a Duchene deal is struck. If it’s taken this long for GM Joe Sakic to pull the trigger, there’s little reason to expect it happens by month’s end.

DALLAS STARS: Who is the second-line center?

Jason Spezza carries a $7.5-million cap hit and has averaged 24 goals and 64 points across his three seasons with the Stars. Those are No. 2 center dollars and statistics. But the Stars have a luxurious problem, having inked Martin Hanzal to a three-year, $14.25-million contract this off-season. The mammoth two-way pivot would make for an all-world No. 3, sure, but the Stars already have a great third-line center option in Radek Faksa, who is ready for more responsibility and would seem wasted as the No. 4 pivot.

Bet on: Hanzal, with one of the other centers playing on his wing. Hanzal expects to log big minutes in a crucial two-way role and should get his wish. Maybe Spezza eventually ends up on Hanzal’s right wing. For now though, per Stars beat reporter and THN correspondent Mike Heika, coach Ken Hitchock wants to pair Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn, Hanzal with Faksa and Spezza with Mattias Janmark. Technically, Spezza’s line will have more of a scoring assignment and could be considered the “No. 2,” but Hanzal and Faska should play more minutes. The Stars have some nice forward depth right now.

MINNESOTA WILD: Can Joel Eriksson Ek find top-nine minutes?

For most of the off-season, the Wild’s depth chart was reasonably predictable. Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund were locked in as a line. Eric Staal would center Nino Niederreiter again, with Zach Parise or Charlie Coyle, and one of those two sliding to the third line. And rookie Eriksson Ek would receive a bigger role after being returned to Sweden last season because he wasn’t playing enough. But then Minny added Matt Cullen as a free agent. He’s an uber-seasoned vet coming off back-to-back Cup wins with Pittsburgh. He’s a great faceoff guy and penalty killer. It’s fair to wonder if the Wild, a Cup contender, intend to give Cullen more responsibility and ease Eriksson Ek in.

Bet on: Eriksson Ek. Cullen is 40. As handy as he was to the Pens, he was their fourth-line center and averaged about 13 minutes a night. He’s merely coming to his home state to finish his career. Eriksson Ek, a two-way threat with a goal-scorer’s release, won’t be blocked. He needs to play. He’s ready to make an impact and gun for the Calder Trophy. He’ll get his top-nine gig. In camp, he centered Coyle, with Marcus Foligno on the left side.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Does this team have a second line? Who plays on it?

With Ryan Johansen back healthy, he’s reunited with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson on one of the league’s best lines. The No. 2 group is up for debate as the Preds probably have nine guys ideally suited to the third line. Three will elevate into scoring roles, three will take their rightful spots on line 3, and three will descend onto a great fourth line. Nick Bonino comes in as Mike Fisher’s direct replacement and has the inside track on the second-line center role, but Calle Jarnkrok has the chops for it, too. Kevin Fiala is the most naturally talented left winger on the team after Forsberg, but Fiala could show some rust making his way back from a broken femur. Craig Smith is the safe veteran play at right wing on line 2, but Pontus Aberg has a higher ceiling. And what about Frederick Gaudreau and Colton Sissons? They earned unexpectedly big assignments during last spring’s Cup final run and had their moments.

Bet on: Fiala-Bonino-Smith, assuming Bonino recovers from last June’s broken tibia in time to start the season. The hardworking veteran Smith is a favorite of coach Peter Laviolette. But I predict Aberg overtakes Smith for the spot after a month or so.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: Which rookie defenseman cracks the starting lineup?

The Blues boast three solid, B+ blueline prospects who have strong puck-moving skills and are knocking on the door of NHL duty: Jordan Schmaltz, Vince Dunn and Jake Walman. One of these guys should make the opening-night roster. The Blues already needed some help in the offense department from their blueline, and Jay Bouwmeester’s broken ankle now makes it a necessity. A kid will play. Vets Nate Prosser and Petteri Lindbohm could draw in, too, but coach Mike Yeo likely knows he needs a rushing D-man to fill Bouwmeester’s void. So who gets the nod?

Bet on: Walman, but it’s pretty much a coin flip between him and Dunn. Those two have separated from Schmaltz and Lindbohm in the competition. In the long run, even when Bouwmeester returns, the Blues might be better off inserting two of their kids into their everyday lineup.

WINNIPEG JETS: Who is the second-line left winger?

We know Bryan Little is the Jets’ No. 2 center. But who gets the plum assignment on the second line’s left wing? The competition comes down to Mathieu Perreault versus Kyle Connor. Ultimately, it’s Connor who controls his destiny here. He’s the first-round pick with sky-high upside and amazing speed, the guy Winnipeg wants to win the job. Perreault is the safe, lower-ceiling choice, an analytics darling who would be an amazing third-liner.

Bet on: Perreault…or…wait…Nikolaj Ehlers? The Jets surprisingly experimented with star goal scorer Patrik Laine shifting to the left side, forming a super top line with Scheifele and Wheeler, dropping Ehlers onto the No. 2 unit. Ehlers-Scheifele-Laine were so effective last year that I don’t buy this as the long-term arrangement, but moving Wheeler up to line 1 while deploying Perreault-Little-Ehlers on line 2 does spread out the two-way responsibility nicely. Connor, who struggled in his first state of NHL duty last year, will be asked to earn his way up the depth chart. He lit it up upon his demotion to the AHL, so it’s only a matter of time before he passes Perreault.


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