Central Division Shaping Up to be a Slugfest for Nashville Predators

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Ryan McDonagh #27 of the Nashville Predators skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Ryan McDonagh #27 of the Nashville Predators skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Almost two full weeks into 2023-24 and the Nashville Predators have managed to split their six games and are in a tie with the Arizona Coyotes for third place in the Central Division.

Yes, I know. It’s way too early to be paying much attention to the standings, but I will say that overall the Central Division has looked balanced and deep. Really the Winnipeg Jets have been the only team I’d consider a “disappointment”.

Central Division Standings (10/23/23)

  1. Colorado Avalanche: 5-0-0 (10PTS)
  2. Dallas Stars: 3-0-1 (7PTS)
  3. Arizona Coyotes: 3-2-0 (6PTS)
  4. Nashville Predators: 3-3-0 (6PTS)
  5. St. Louis Blues: 2-1-1 (5PTS)
  6. Minnesota Wild: 2-2-1 (5PTS)
  7. Winnipeg Jets: 2-3-0 (4PTS)
  8. Chicago Blackhawks: 2-4-0 (4PTS)

Avs & Stars are Being Chased by Everyone Else in Deep Central Division Race

The Avalanche and Stars are doing exactly what everyone thought they would be doing this year. The Stars have had to win some much closer games, while the Avalanche have been more dominant by outscoring the opposition 21-8 through their first fives games.

The division does look deeper this year. The Coyotes aren’t pushovers anymore and have some scoring talent led by Clayton Keller, and reliable goaltending with the duo of Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram.

In my preseason Central Division power rankings piece, I had the Coyotes at No.5, but really right there with Minnesota and Nashville. An improved Coyotes team is going to make this division much more competitive in 2023-24.

I’m still not sure what to think about the Wild. A team that didn’t do much of anything to make itself better in the offseason, but did decide to hand out some contract extensions to core players like Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno. They’re up against the salary cap with virtually no money to spend.

The Blues are expected to be in for a down year in 2023-24, but can be a playoff bubble team if Jordan Binnington keeps up his insanely hot numbers through three starts with a .959 save percentage and a 1.26 GAA. My suspicion is those numbers will come back down to reality as the season progresses.

Then you have the Chicago Blackhawks who are getting all of the media’s attention thanks to Connor Bedard. While Bedard is certainly living up to the hype with two goals and two assists through his first six NHL games, the Blackhawks just aren’t deep enough. Especially on the defensive end.

The Blackhawks have the highest Expected Goals Against total at 24.77 through six games. Over four goals per game expected is a high total, especially when you lack elite level goaltending.

The Jets are a big question mark and I wonder what’s going on in that locker room. It feels like a team that’s not together, especially with the forced contract extensions of Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele. They locked in a lot of future money into these two veteran leaders.

Scheifele is powering through it with six points through five games, while Hellebuyck has not enjoyed the same individual success with a .878 save percentage and 3.72 GAA.

Much like I suspect Binnington’s lofty numbers to come back down to reality, I also expect Hellebuyck to return closer to his Vezina Trophy form and get the Jets some wins to keep them somewhat relevant in the middle of the division.

I do wonder, though, just how motivated Hellebuyck is right now in a Jets uniform. This spells disaster if your franchise goaltender isn’t fully invested.

And the sagging attendance numbers for the Jets is just mind boggling to me. I remember that place being a madhouse and electric road environment not that long ago, including the 2018 2nd Round playoff series against the Nashville Predators.

Have your Preseason Expectations Changed for the Nashville Predators?

This brings me to our Nashville Predators, who have strung together two wins where the offense really took off and finally started burying their scoring chances. A 4-1 win over a Stanley Cup caliber New York Rangers team, followed by a 5-1 win over the rebuilding San Jose Sharks which had the makings of being a letdown game.

I originally had the Predators at No.3 in my preseason rankings, but was cautious about them getting off to a below average start. They’re 3-3-0, with brutally close losses to Tampa Bay and Boston, and a complete drubbing to Edmonton where nothing went right.

Related Story. Predators are an Enigma in Preseason Division Rankings. light

It’s hard to say where the Predators stand right now in the division because it’s so deep after you get past Colorado and Dallas. The Predators’ first test against one of these two division stalwarts will come on November 20 against the Avalanche.

By that time, we’ll have a much better idea of just how effective Head Coach Andrew Brunette‘s system is becoming, and also the division will begin to take a more clear shape.

I do stack Nashville’s roster with the balance of young talent and veteran leadership up against any roster aside from Dallas and Colorado. So a third place finish is not some biased or unrealistic expectation for the Predators.

What gives me optimism that the Predators can compete with anyone in this division is they’re balanced. You have veteran leaders like Ryan O’Reilly and Roman Josi at the top, followed by young scoring talent in Thomas Novak, Luke Evangelista and Juuso Parssinen. Round it out with Juuse Saros in net, a buzzing Filip Forsberg and you have a team that can rally to be a top-three team in the division.

Overall, not too many surprises in the early going other than I may not have given the Coyotes enough credit, even though I was probably higher on them than most. They look really solid early on and a team that has a strong chance to get a wildcard berth.