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MICHAEL TRAIKOS: Toughest division in the NHL is not so cut and dried among players

Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers (right) is sent flying by Blues defenceman Joel Edmundson as he clears the puck during NHL action in Winnipeg on Oct. 22, 2018.
Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers (right) is sent flying by Blues defenceman Joel Edmundson as he clears the puck during NHL action in Winnipeg on Oct. 22, 2018.
TORONTO, Ont. —

Nikolaj Ehlers wasn’t buying the argument.

No way. No how.

Are you kidding, he asked. Like, for real?

We were sitting at a table inside a Chicago hotel boardroom and talking about the many moves that the Florida Panthers made this past summer — such as hiring a head coach with three Stanley Cup rings and signing a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie — and how it beefed up what I had already considered to be the toughest division in the NHL.

After all, the Atlantic Division included three 100-point teams last year. There was Tampa Bay, which won the Presidents’ Trophy, a Boston team that reached the Stanley Cup final, as well as the still-rising Toronto Maple Leafs. And now, the underachieving Panthers were being added to the mix.

As Ehlers listened, you could see the Winnipeg Jets forward mentally preparing his counterargument.

“I still think we have the toughest division,” he said of the Central Division. “And I think anyone you ask, if you sit down with them and show them why, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re probably right.’

“You’ve got St. Louis that won last year, you’ve got Nashville who are going to be unreal, Dallas who are going to be sick, Colorado’s going to be unreal. Chicago? C’mon. Even Minny is always a tough team to play against. How is that not the toughest division?

“It’s ridiculous.”

It’s a fair argument. Last year, there was only one point separating the top three teams in the Central Division (Nashville, Winnipeg and St. Louis) last year. Meanwhile, the two wild card teams in the Western Conference (Dallas and Colorado) both came out of the Central and went on to record upset wins over the divisional leaders in the first round of the playoffs.

“It’s silly how good that division is and how much better every team got,” said Chicago’s Patrick Kane. “It’s tough to predict who’s going to be on top and who’s going to fade out. It’s pretty wild.”

Wild might be an apt description of how things unfolded in the NHL last season. It was a wild year, with St. Louis going from last-overall in January to winning the Stanley Cup and the top-two seeded teams getting upset in the first round of the playoffs.

And yet, as wild and crazy as things were, don’t expect them to change.

On-ice sessions at training camp officially began on Friday and there was the feeling that every team has a chance to make the playoffs this year. And for once, it’s not just wishful thinking.

With the exception of maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets, who lost goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, no playoff team got noticeably worse in the off-season. At the same time, so many non-playoff teams spent the summer re-tooling and re-loading for the upcoming season.

Florida made the most improvements, by adding head coach Joel Quenneville and Bobrovsky to a team poised to make a jump up the standings. But they were far from alone.

Arizona, which finished only four points out of a playoff spot, now have Phil Kessel, who scored 82 points last season, leading the offence. Chicago, which was one of the hottest teams in the second-half, bolstered its backend with the addition of goalie Robin Lehner and defencemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maata, while Vancouver’s kids should be harder to push around after picking up J.T. Miller, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn.

“I think you can’t help but notice that within the division there’s been lots of improvements,” said Toronto’s Morgan Rielly. “Teams have gotten better. But I think if you look around the league, that’s just what happens. It’s very competitive. Teams want to win now. You just deal with it. I think we’ve done the same thing.”

It’s never been more difficult to make the playoffs. And it’s never been more difficult to win the Stanley Cup, regardless of where you are playing.

“Our division’s been great for the past couple of years and there’s no end in sight there,” Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask said of the Atlantic. “We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, and Florida and everybody. It’s a very competitive league and our division is really competitive and it feels like it’s getting more competitive every time.”

The entire league is getting more competitive. Last year, the Blue Jackets claimed the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 47 wins. That was the same number of wins as the top-seeded team in the Central Division. Meanwhile, the Montreal Canadiens missed out with 96 points, a total that would have put them in third place in their division two years ago.

Like the Atlantic Division, the Metropolitan had three 100-point teams. They also had two others (Carolina and Columbus) that won wild card spots over teams from the Atlantic. Even the Pacific Division, which included the four worst teams in the Western Conference, was top-heavy with Calgary and San Jose leading all teams in the conference.

“Everyone knows how tight that division is,” Islanders forward Mat Barzal said of the Metro. “If we take two weeks off and have a tough stretch, you’re pretty much out of the playoffs.”

So who’s got it the toughest? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

“I would say it’s us,” Dallas’ John Klingberg said of the Central, “because I play there.”

“I think ours is the hardest,” said Vancouver’s Bo Horvat, who plays in the Pacific. “I just find in the NHL right now that every single team is good. I don’t think there’s any other league out there that’s like that.”

New additions pump up Panthers

Jonathan Huberdeau is embracing the hype. After all, it sure beats the alternative.

For years, no one paid any attention to the Florida Panthers. But after hiring head coach Joel Quenneville and landing top free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer, players in the NHL have taken notice.

For once, there is chatter. More than that, there are expectations. And Huberdeau believes both are justified.

“The Panthers have been talked about a lot more this summer,” he said during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago. “Obviously, we have to make the playoffs this year.”

The Panthers have missed the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons. The pieces are there, with Aleksander Barkov and Huberdeau each hitting the 90-point mark and Mike Hoffman scoring 36 goals last season. Now, it’s just a matter of making everything fit into place.

According to Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Quenneville is the coach to do it.

“That reminds me of the team we had when he first came in,” Kane said of Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cups in Chicago. “Maybe a little bit older, but ready to take off. I think he’ll do a good job there and bring the right attitude. I’d predict they’ll make the playoffs.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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