NHL 2016-17 Central Division preview: Avalanche have potential to surprise

NHL 2016-17 Central Division preview: Avalanche have potential to surprise

CSN Chicago will unveil a preview each day for every Central Division team leading up to the NHL's season-opener. First up: Colorado Avalanche.

The abrupt resignation of Patrick Roy in August stunned the hockey world, but it may be a blessing in disguise for Colorado. The Avalanche were by far the worst puck possession team in the league last year, controlling only 44.18 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, and also ranked second-to-last in 2014-15 with a 43.25 percentage.

Semyon Varlamov often unfairly took the blame despite the Avalanche owning an even-strength save percentage of 92.76, which ranked slightly above the league average, while facing the second-most shot attempts last season.

Jared Bednar gives the Avalanche a breath of fresh air and brings a style better suited for this group.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016-17 season, Blackhawks fans!]

While he doesn't have any head coaching experience in the National Hockey League, Bednar helped the Columbus Blue Jackets' affiliate win a Calder Cup this past season by playing an up-tempo brand of hockey. That perfectly fits this team's identity with core guys like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, who's a breakout candidate after a strong showing at the World Cup of Hockey.

Factor in the addition of Mikko Rantanen, their No. 10 overall draft pick in 2015, and versatile forward Joe Colborne, who set career highs in goals (19), assists (25) and points (44) last season with the Calgary Flames, and the Avalanche have a sneaky-good forward group.

It also means the Avalanche have the potential to spend significantly less time in their own zone and alleviate some pressure off a blue line that didn't get better, but didn't get worse with the free-agent signings of depth players Patrick Wiercioch and Fedor Tyutin. 

The Avalanche were five points shy of clinching the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference a year ago, so it's certainly not out of the question that they can become a sleeper team in this division.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?

Podcast: Which Blackhawks could be on the move before trade deadline?


Podcast: Which Blackhawks could be on the move before trade deadline?

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Adam Burish and Pat Boyle discuss which Blackhawks could be on the trading block and what players are building blocks for the Hawks future.

Burish also shares a couple memorable trade deadline days and his “near” return to the Blackhawks in 2012. Plus, he makes his bold trade deadline prediction for the Hawks.

Listen to the full Blackhawks Talk Podcast right here: