The NHL season draws nearer, with many teams now releasing their training camp rosters, all of which are starting soon. Most teams have completed their offseason moves and are looking to use training camp to fine tune their rosters. With the expansion draft as well as all the question marks surrounding the NHL draft and prospect evaluation, it all led to plenty of moves—big and small—across the NHL.
After a year in which the divisional structure of the NHL’s teams was switched up, the NHL returns to normal 2021–22 season. This means the Western Conference’s deepest division will be back together once again. The Central division should be wide open this year as it usually is, with almost every team in the division in the running for a playoff spot.
So which Central division teams improved the most this offseason, which stayed the same, and which got worse? Let’s take a look at each Central division teams roster moves using Goals Above Replacement (GAR).
GAR value assesses a players value in terms of how many goals they contribute to their team above replacement. It is calculated using even strength offence, even strength defence, special teams contributions, as well as penalty differential. A replacement level player would have a GAR of zero. Consequently, anything above zero is an above replacement level player, and anything negative is a below replacement level player.
All GAR numbers are courtesy of the Evolving-Hockey.com model.
We’ll only be looking at moves involving NHL players who met the minimum requirements last season to have their GAR calculated.
2020–21 record: 24-26-6
Season finish: 5th West Division, missed playoffs
Now that’s how you tank. After a season in which the Arizona Coyotes were just one spot out of the playoffs, the organization decided to blow it up and go nuclear with their rebuild. The Coyotes lost a staggering 16 players in the offseason and acquired 18 draft picks as they went full tank mode and weaponized their cap space.
At forward the team shipped out arguably their best forward in Conor Garland who ranked second among Coyotes forwards in terms of GAR at 7.9. The move brought in three below replacement level forwards in Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson, and Antoine Roussel. In that same trade the Coyotes also managed to offload Oliver Ekman-Larsson and his terrible contract.
The move certainly made the Coyotes much worse going into the 2021–22 season, but all three of the aforementioned forwards will come off the books following the season while Ekman-Larsson still has six years remaining on his contract. Overall a great move from the Coyotes as they took advantage of a desperate Jim Benning and cleared a ton of cap space for the future.
Losing Michael Bunting in free agency was also a hit for the Coyotes as his 3.7 GAR was fifth among Coyotes forwards in 2020–21. That said considering the team’s current situation, it made sense for both parties to see the 26-year-old move on from the organization.
On the back end the Coyotes essentially reset their entire defence core. The team lost five of their six regular defencemen from last season, with only Jakob Chychrun—someone how might be getting looks for playing with Team Canada—still around. The good news is both Jason Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson were both well below replacement last year and will make way for better younger players.
As mentioned, shedding Ekman-Larsson and his bloated contract was some nice work. The only major loss on the back end was Alex Goligoski, who finished first on the Coyotes and 10th league-wide among defencemen with a GAR of 11.1 last season. The Coyotes did a great job replacing his minutes by picking up Shayne Gostisbehere and his 9.1 GAR for essentially nothing from the Flyers.
In net the Coyotes got rid of all three of their goalies from last season by trading Darcy Kuemper to Colorado, Adin Hill to San Jose, and letting Antti Raanta walk in free agency. Raanta and Hill are both solid backup goalies as evident by their 6.9 and 5.4 GAR from last season. Both are losses for the Coyotes.
Kuemper meanwhile struggled last season with injury behind a bad Coyotes team, but had been one of the league’s best goalies in terms of GAR the two seasons prior and the Coyotes will be much worse without him.
They then replaced their goaltending trio with the below replacement level Carter Hutton and rookie Josef Korenar. Hutton’s -4.3 GAR ranked 81st among goalies last season while Korenars 1.9 GAR ranked 45th. Don’t expect the Coyotes to stop many pucks next year.
The Coyotes’ offseason may look bad on paper considering they had a total GAR change of -28.3, but the fact is they wanted to get worse and they achieved that goal. Of the 12 new players they brought on, only three were above replacement level last season. The Coyotes will battle the Sabres for Shane Wright next season and may even be the favourites at this point.
2020–21 record: 24-25-7
Season finish: 6th Central Division, missed playoffs
The Blackhawks made some of the biggest moves of the offseason this year, bringing in some big name players to try to help them speed up their retool. They should be in contention for a playoff spot in the Central this season after a miserable 2020–21 season.
Up front the Blackhawks added two-time champ Tyler Johnson for free from the cap strapped Lightning, also picking up a second round pick in the process. Johnson may never reach his early career heights again, but he’s still a sol-d pickup for the middle-six especially considering the cost. Jujhar Khaira meanwhile likely lands a spot as a fourth line defensive forward.
Although Johnson was a nice add, letting Pius Suter walk for nothing was a questionable decision from the Blackhawks. Suter’s 6.2 GAR was second among Blackhawks forwards last year and he’s still just 25 years old. The Blackhawks also saw three depth forwards walk in free agency, with Vinnie Hinostroza being the only loss as both David Kampf and Lucas Wallmark leaving were wins for the Blackhawks.
On defence is where the major changes happened for the Blackhawks. Chicago made the biggest trade of the year, shipping out promising youngster Adam Boqvist along with two first round picks and a second round pick for Seth Jones. They then signed him to a monstrous eight year, $9.5 million AAV deal.
Despite his reputation, Jones simply wasn’t very good last year and hasn’t been a top pairing defenceman for a couple seasons now. He’s likely an Olympic lock based on status and reputation, despite Team USA having better options. His -5.9 GAR ranked sixth worst among all defenceman last season. Swapping Boqvist and his 2.1 GAR for Jones is actually a significant loss for the Blackhawks.
That said the team is clearly hoping Jones can rediscover the form from the beginning of his career that made him a Norris contender as he’s still only 26. At $9.5 million AAV though, it’ll be nearly impossible for Jones to live up to his contract.
On the bright side the team was able to offload Duncan Keith and his league worst -7.9 GAR to the Oilers without retaining salary while picking up Caleb Jones in the process. Jones isn’t great but he’s cheaper, and better than Keith. They also got rid of Nikita Zadorov who has been below replacement the past two seasons.
They also made one of the best signings of free agency, bringing in the underrated Jake McCabe on a four year $4 million AAV deal. McCabe’s 5.5 GAR last season ranked 52nd among defenceman in 2020–21.
In net the Blackhawks made a huge splash, picking up the reigning Vezina winner for virtually nothing. Marc-Andre Fleury will provide a massive boost to the Blackhawks and is responsible for the teams entire GAR gain in the offseason.
The Blackhawks made some of the best moves of the offseason, compounded by some of the worst. The Jones trade could look disastrous from day one if he doesn’t bounce back next season and letting a promising young player like Suter walk made little sense. That said, with Fleury in net now and swapping out Keith for McCabe, the Blackhawks should be a better team next year. Expect them to fight for a wild card spot.
2020–21 record: 39-13-4
Season finish: 1st West Division, eliminated 2nd round (4-2 vs. Vegas Golden Knights)
After claiming the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team in 2020–21, the Colorado Avalanche had a tough offseason. As is typically the case with a team so close to the cap and going all in, the Avalanche had to watch a couple key players leave due to cap constraints. That said they’ll still be one of the league’s top teams and the favourites to win the division.
The Avs saw some key forwards leave over the offseason. The team lost Joonas Donskoi for nothing in the expansion draft while Brandon Saad left in free agency. Donskoi has been a staple in the Avs’ middle-six for years, and his 8.9 GAR ranked fourth among Colorado forwards last year. Saad meanwhile priced himself out of Colorado, signing a big contract in St.Louis.
The Avs didn’t really do anything to replace them either due to their cap constraints. They just brought on a trio of bottom-six forwards in Darren Helm, Stefan Matteau, and Dylan Sikura to replace the departing trio of Matt Calvert, Carl Soderberg, and Pierre-Edouarde Bellemare. The swap was a loss as only Helm was above replacement last season, while the departing three were all above replacement.
On defence, the team’s hands were tied in regards to Ryan Graves but made a good call shipping him to New Jersey over losing him for nothing in expansion. They also did a great job replacing him by signing Ryan Murray to a bargain $2M AAV deal. Murray’s GAR was nearly double that of Graves last season at 4.4. Exceptional work from Joe Sakic.
The team also lost Conor Timmins and Patrick Nemeth. Neither of which were big losses although Nemeth is a solid bottom pairing option but was just too expensive for Colorado. For whatever reason they decided to replace them with Kurtis MacDermid and his -6.7 GAR which was a big downgrade.
Kuemper struggled last year on a bad Coyotes team but in 2019–20 he finished fourth among goalies with a GAR of 20 and in 2018–19 he finished seventh at 23.4. Behind arguably the best team in hockey, Kuemper is set for a huge bounce back year in Colorado.
Colorado may have lost some key pieces up front in the offseason, but they did a good job minimizing their losses on defence and in net by bringing in cheaper options like Murray and Kuemper. With the top-six mostly intact and one of the best defence cores in the NHL, the Avalanche will once again be favourites to take first in the Central division despite getting worse in the offseason.
2020–21 record: 23-19-4
Season finish: 5th Central Division, missed playoffs
After narrowly missing the playoffs, the Dallas Stars didn’t make any major moves in the offseason. They saw a couple key veterans leave but made some decent moves to replace them. They should once again be right around the playoff bubble.
At forward is where the Stars took the biggest hit. Veteran Andrew Cogliano left in free agency while Jason Dickinson was dealt to Vancouver. Both Cogliano and Dickinson were staples in the team’s bottom-six and were both very solid defensively for the Stars. Losing Justin Dowling however was a win for the Stars.
To replace them the team signed Michael Raffl and Luke Glendening. Glendening was a nice add as his 2.9 GAR was fifth on the Red Wings last year. Raffl however was well below replacement level at a GAR of -2.9, essentially cancelling out the addition of Glendening.
On defence the team lost Jamie Oleksiak to expansion, and Sami Vatanen and Mark Pysyk to free agency. Among the three, Oleksiak was the only notable loss given his excellent defensive ability. With some extra cap to work with the Stars went out and signed the newly bought out Ryan Suter to a four-year $3.65 million AAV deal. Suter’s GAR of 8 last season was tops among Wild defencemen and he’ll be a nice addition to the Stars’ top-four.
In net the Stars made one of the strangest moves of the offseason, signing veteran Braden Holtby to a one-year $2 million AAV deal despite having Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and Jake Oettinger in the NHL already. Holtby was one of the worst goalies in the league last season as his GAR of -2.5 ranked 75th among eligible goalies. This move made no sense on any level.
The Stars were a bubble team last season and didn’t do anything in the offseason to move themselves above or below that spot. They’ll once again be right on the cusp of a wild card or maybe a divisional playoff spot if things go well.
2020–21 record: 35-16-5
Season finish: 3rd West Division, eliminated 1st round (4-3 vs Vegas Golden Knights)
The Minnesota Wild are coming off an impressive season in which they nearly knocked off the Vegas Golden Knights in round one of the playoffs. They’ll be looking to take the next step in 2021–22 and finally go on a deep playoff run back in a wide open Central division.
The Wild were one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL last season, finishing ninth in the league for goals so it makes sense they didn’t make many major changes up front. The one major loss at forward came in the form of dependable veteran Nick Bonino who left in free agency. Bonino’s 8.4 GAR ranked fourth on the Wild among forwards last year and he’ll be hard to replace.
The team also made the surprising call to buyout the remaining four years of Zach Parise’s contract. Parise is well past his prime and not worth his current cap hit of over $7 million AAV but is still a useful bottom-six winger. Considering the future cap hit of the buyout, the move didn’t make much sense. Bringing in Frederik Gaudreau on a cheap $1.2 million AAV deal will help to offset some the loss at least.
Apart from Parise and Bonino, the Wild only lost Marcus Johansson from their forward group. Johansson was well below replacement last season and the Wild are better with him off the team.
On defence is where the Wild underwent most of their changes. They underwent an overhaul of the entire bottom half of their defence. Out the door are Ryan Suter through buyout, Ian Cole and Brad Hunt via free agency, and Carson Soucy through expansion.
Like Parise, Suter was inexplicably bought out despite still being a useful player and carrying a massive future cap hit. His GAR of 8 actually ranked first among Wild defenceman last year. Losing Soucy in expansion was also a tough loss as he’s a cheap dependable option who ranked second on the Wild for GAR by defenceman last year.
Cole is a decent bottom pairing defenceman but not a huge loss. Hunt meanwhile is well below replacement level and the Wild are better off without him.
The good news for the Wild is the four new defenceman they brought in are all well above replacement level and should make the team better. Alex Goligoski leads the bunch with an impressive GAR of 11.1 which ranked 10th in the NHL last season. His $5 million AAV cap hit may seem expensive but he’s well worth it especially for one year.
The Wild clearly believe their window to win a Stanley Cup is right now. With the buyouts of Suter and Parise the team essentially destroyed their cap structure for the future to gain a relief for this season. They certainly have one of the stronger rosters in the NHL, but I don’t think their offseason was good enough for a team claiming to be all in. Regardless they’ll be one of the favourites to take a divisional playoff spot in the Central division this year, especially with Kirill Kaprizov opting to stay instead of going to the KHL.
2020–21 record: 31-23-2
Season finish: 4th Central Division, eliminated 1st round (4-2 vs Carolina Hurricanes)
The Predators had a rather confusing offseason. After a year in which they qualified for the playoffs, the Predators took the path of a team in a rebuild this offseason despite having a roster that is built to contend right now.
At forward the Predators made the shocking call to ship out top-six winger Viktor Arvidsson for just two draft picks. Arvidsson’s 7.2 GAR was second among Predators forwards and cost the team just $4.25 million against the cap. Arvidsson’s GAR was second behind only Calle Jarnkrok’s 8.4 GAR who the team also lost to Seattle in the expansion draft.
The Predators capped off their quiet offseason by swinging a big three team deal, shipping out Ryan Ellis in return for Phillipe Myers and Cody Glass. Like the Arvidsson trade, this one just doesn’t make sense for a team in a win-now mode.
Ellis struggled with injury last season, but was still comfortably above replacement at 3.6 GAR. The year prior in 2019–20 however he posted a GAR of 23.2 which led the entire NHL among defencemen. The year before that in 2018-19 his GAR was 11.4, good for 25th among defencemen. There’s a good chance that the 2020–21 season was an outlier for Ellis and he’ll once again be among the best defenceman in the league next year.
Sure the Predators got Myers back who’s a solid young player with potential, but Ellis is by far the superior player. Glass meanwhile has potential, but has to yet play above replacement level thus far in his career. At least they got rid of Erik Gudbranson and his terrible -6.1 GAR which was a big win.
In net Pekka Rinne decided to retire which was a gain for the Predators as he struggled mightily last year, posting the 80th worst GAR among eligible goalies last season. To replace him they picked up former Flames David Rittich. Rittich wasn’t great last season but is much better than Rinne.
I honestly don’t know what the Predators plan is here. They’re built like a team that is trying to win now, but they then proceeded to trade two of their best players for future assets and young players this offseason making them a worse team. They’re still deep enough to compete for a wild card spot, but don’t expect much more from them.
2020–21 record: 27-20-9
Season finish: 4th West Division, eliminated 1st round (4-0 vs Colorado Avalanche)
The Blues should once again be one of the favourites to make the playoffs out of the Central division, although the hope is they won’t get absolutely steamrolled in the first round this time. They had a quiet offseason but the moves they did make were solid ones.
The Blues lost two key forwards in Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman through free agency. Schwartz was a big loss as he’s been a mainstay in the Blues top-six for nearly a decade while Hoffman had only been with the team for a single season, but was one of their best goal scorers last year.
That said the Blues did a great job replacing them both. St. Louis pulled off probably the best trade of the offseason, shipping out Sammy Blais and a second-round pick for Pavel Buchnevich. Buchnevich posted the second best GAR among Rangers forwards last season at 8.3 and is only getting better. Exchanging a bottom-six forward for a bonafide top line winger in Buchnevich was exceptional work.
The Blues also brought in Brandon Saad, on a five-year $4.5 million AAV deal. The term may be a little long, but Saad was well above replacement in Colorado last year and will be nice replacement in the Blues top-six.
On defence the Blues didn’t make additions, but did lose both Vince Dunn and Carl Gunnarsson. Both players were near replacement level last season, however Dunn was a much bigger loss considering his age and potential. Gunnarsson meanwhile retired in the offseason and didn’t bring much to the table last season at this point in his career.
Overall the Blues had a quiet offseason, but did a great job replacing the forwards they lost. The loss of Dunn in the expansion draft definitely hurts but the Blues should still be firmly in the conversation for a divisional playoff spot next season. They did however just name Peter Chiarelli VP of hockey operations which puts a damper on their offseason.
2020-21 record: 30-23-3
Season finish: 3rd North Division, eliminated 2nd round (4-0 vs Montreal Canadiens)
After suffering the most lopsided series loss in the analytics era, the Jets went out this offseason with the goal of improving team defence. They did a solid job at that, however it didn’t come without some losses as well.
The Jets made it a goal to go out and add to their dreadful defence core in the offseason. The first move they made to do this was picking up Brendan Dillon from the Washington Capitals for a pair of second-round picks. Dillon was very good last year, leading the Capitals in GAR among defenceman at 9.9. He’ll provide a massive boost to the Jets’ top pair.
The team also went out and traded a third-round pick for Nate Schmidt. Schmidt struggled last season in Vancouver coming in at below replacement level but was great the two seasons prior in Vegas. In 2019–20 he posted a GAR of 4.5, and in 2018–19 he came in at 13.8. There’s a good chance Schmidt bounces back and plays like a top four defenceman again so moving a third round pick for him was a good gamble for the Jets.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Jets let the Canucks massively overpay Tucker Poolman in free agency which was a great call by the team as his -4.9 GAR was second worst among Jets defencemen last season.
At forward the team added Riley Nash, but lost both Matthieu Perreault and Mason Appleton who were both above replacement level last year. Perreault in particular was third on the Jets for GAR last season and his loss will certainly be noticeable. That said Nash is a good depth add which will help with the loss.
In net, the Jets lost their backup goalie Laurent Brossoit. Broissoit was one of the best backups in the league in 2020–21, but with Eric Comrie waiting in the wings the move made sense for the Jets given they have Connor Hellebuyck holding down the fort.
The Jets were terrible defensively last season, but did a solid job at patching up their issues by picking up both Dillon and Schmidt without giving up a single roster player. They’re still very much a flawed team, but with their top-six forward group, improved defence and Hellebuyck in net they should be able to fight for a divisional playoff spot.
Wide open field
Unlike the Pacific division, the Central only contains one truly bad team in the Coyotes. The Avalanche are the clear favourites for the top seed in the division, but every other team outside of the Coyotes has a realistic shot at claiming the second and third seeds going into the season. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs and went on to make huge improvements in terms of GAR.
The Central may not be very top heavy, but it is certainly one of the deeper divisions in the league in terms of teams with a realistic shot at the playoffs. Given how bad the Pacific division is, it wouldn’t be surprising to see five Central teams make the playoffs for 2021–22.