Mailbag: Best division entering season, Tarasenkos future with Blues

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Rank the four divisions from strongest to weakest and give your reasons why. — @nyrprpokemon

1. Metropolitan Division
2. Central Division
3. Atlantic Division
4. Pacific Division

The Metropolitan Division has six teams I think can reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs and at least three I could see getting to the Stanley Cup Final. The New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are the playoff contenders. The Islanders, Hurricanes and Capitals are the Cup Final contenders. The New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t ready yet.

The Central Division has seven postseason contenders: the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. However, the Avalanche are a cut above and a Stanley Cup favorite. The other six will compete for playoff spots. The Arizona Coyotes are young and rebuilding.

There’s a lot to like about the top five teams in the Atlantic Division, with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning followed by the Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. The Panthers have a lot to prove but they’re built for sustained success and could win the division. The Lightning, Panthers, Bruins and Maple Leafs are ahead of the Canadiens. The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings are young and improving, but each needs more time to reach the next tier. The Buffalo Sabres are likely to miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the top team in the Pacific Division. The Edmonton Oilers are behind them and at some point have to do some damage in the playoffs with centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But there are a lot of questions after that. Will the Seattle Kraken have a big inaugural season and be a playoff team? Will the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks bounce back after missing the playoffs last season? Are the Los Angeles Kings ready to take the next step in their rebuilding phase to become a playoff threat? Do the San Jose Sharks have another run in them with their veterans such as forward Logan Couture and defensemen Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic? Can the Anaheim Ducks score enough to be in the mix after finishing last in the NHL with 2.21 goals per game last season? 

Do you think Vladimir Tarasenko is a Blue this entire season or does a strong start mean he’s on the move? — @petrupka

Tarasenko should be in St. Louis for the entire season because the expectation is the Blues will push for a playoff spot. His surgically repaired left shoulder must hold up and he must stay on the ice for the Blues to be at their best. If the forward can’t stay healthy, he would have minimal trade value, so the Blues would be in a tough spot. But they could trade him prior to the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline if they aren’t in a playoff position and don’t feel they can contend for the Stanley Cup. Tarasenko has two seasons remaining on his eight-year, $60 million contract ($7.5 million average annual value). If healthy and productive, his value on the trade market should be significant because the team acquiring him would have him for next season and could sign him to a contract extension next offseason.

Video: VGK@STL: Tarasenko wires home wrister past Fleury

Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman has made some interesting moves this offseason. He has some serious prospects in their system. He has drafted well. How long until we see a renaissance of sorts with his team? Could we see Sebastian Cossa, Lucas Raymond or Moritz Seider make the team this year? — @theashcity

The Red Wings are at least two years, if not three, away from a renaissance. But that’s not surprising. This was a five-year plan when Yzerman was hired as executive vice president and general manager April 19, 2019. They’re two truncated seasons and three NHL Drafts into it.

Seider has the best chance of making an impact this season. The No. 6 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft should be penciled in as a top-six defenseman. He scored 22 points (two goals, 20 assists) in 49 games for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League in 2019-20. He played for Rogle in the Swedish Hockey League last season, won the SHL Elite Prospects Award, and was named SHL Defenseman of the Year, scoring 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 41 games.

Raymond, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, is in the mix to earn a spot in Detroit’s forward group, but the 19-year-old might not be ready and could be headed for Grand Rapids.

Cossa won’t be in the NHL at least until the 2023-24 season figuring he has one more season with Edmonton in the Western Hockey League and then at least one in the AHL. The No. 15 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft is in line to be Detroit’s goalie of the future, but Alex Nedeljkovic has the net after signing a two-year contract July 22, the same day he was traded to the Red Wings by the Hurricanes.

Do both Washington and Pittsburgh miss the playoffs with the improvement of the Rangers and Flyers? — @schaeffnbake

My way-too-early postseason predictions have the Capitals and Rangers making the playoffs but the Penguins and Flyers missing them in the same season for the first time since 1989-90. Injuries to centers Sidney Crosby (wrist) and Evgeni Malkin (knee), and uncertainty about depth and goaltending, have led to doubt about the Penguins reaching the postseason for a 16th consecutive season. The Flyers should be better than they were last season, when they were sixth in the eight-team MassMutual East Division (23-25-8). It’s more of a toss-up between them and the Rangers, but I like what New York did in the offseason to address its forward depth and gritty approach with the additions of Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves. The Rangers’ forecheck and aggressiveness coupled with their skill will keep them above the Flyers. They were two points better than Philadelphia last season.

Video: New York Rangers 2021-22 Season Preview

Do the Vancouver Canucks have the best top-nine forward group in the Pacific Division? — @5Canuckss

They could, but a lot has to break right, including signing restricted free agent center Elias Pettersson. The Oilers have McDavid and Draisaitl as their top two centers, and no team in the NHL matches that. I’m alarmed by the Golden Knights’ center depth with Chandler Stephenson and Nolan Patrick as question marks. They need a No. 1 center. Patrick could develop into that. The Kraken don’t have a true No. 1 center or top line, but that could come to fruition depending how chemistry develops. The Flames added Blake Coleman and could have the best top-nine forward group in the division if Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan perform up to their talent level. 

The Canucks’ top nine has potential provided they get Pettersson signed. He would likely be the center on the top line with J.T. Miller at left wing and Brock Boeser at right wing. Speed, scoring, playmaking, finishing touch, physicality, chemistry and puck possession would all be traits of that line.

Bo Horvat would be the center on the second line with Tanner Pearson or Nils Hoglander at left wing and Conor Garland or rookie Vasily Podkolzin at right wing. Podkolzin has a chance to be in the Calder Trophy conversation for NHL rookie of the year. The 20-year-old, chosen with the No. 10 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 35 games for St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League last season.

Jason Dickinson was a key offseason acquisition in a trade with the Dallas Stars. He suppresses shots-against and sustains possession. He can be a shutdown center and ease some of the burden on Horvat, who has grown accustomed to facing a lot of the tough matchups. 

The potential is there for the Canucks.

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