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NHL Central Division roundup: Three-team race for first place

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NHL Central Division roundup: Three-team race for first place

The Central Division race is just getting started, with the Blackhawks, Blues and Stars closing out February all within two points of each other for the top spot. Let's review the month.

Chicago: After a hot month of January, the Blackhawks finished February with a 6-4-1 record, slightly taking their foot off the gas pedal, presumably to conserve some energy for the stretch run and postseason. They also lost Marian Hossa midway through the month, which threw a wrench in the lines. But once he, and Marcus Kruger, returns, there may not be a deeper forward group than the Blackhawks, who loaded up for another Stanley Cup run with the additions of Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise at the trade deadline, along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

Colorado: The Avalanche dropped four straight games to kick off the month of February, but concluded by winning five of their last eight. They slipped to the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, and they are by no means a lock to stay there. To make sure they do though, general manager Joe Sakic added Mikkel Boedker to an already-speedy forward group and Eric Gelinas for some depth on the blue line, which was a necessity if they plan on keeping up with teams in their division.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Dallas: It appeared that the Stars reverted back to their dominant ways after winning six of their first seven games in February, including important victories against Colorado, Minnesota, Chicago, Washington, and Nashville, but they ended on a sour note, picking up just one win in their final seven contests. They allowed at least three goals in six of those games, and in three of them they gave up six or more, watching their goals against average sink to 2.84, which ranks No. 23 in the league. In an effort to patch up a subpar defense, the Stars traded for defenseman Kris Russell and paid a large price to get him in giving up Jyrki Jokipakka, Brett Pollock and a second-round pick that could turn into a first-rounder if Dallas reaches the Conference Final and Russell plays in at least 50 percent of the games.

Minnesota: What a roller coaster February it was for the Wild, who fired head coach Mike Yeo after losing eight consecutive games, and 13 of 14 dating back to January. John Torchetti was named the interim coach, and they proceeded to win four straight games, scoring at least four goals in each of them. But then they followed it up with a three-game losing streak, ending the honeymoon phase. Still, after everything that's happened, the Wild find themselves only two points behind Colorado for the final wild card spot in the West with a game in hand. They're very much still in the thick of the playoff race and won't be an easy out if they continue to play the right way under Torchetti.

Nashville: The Predators are taking a nine-game point streak and a four-game winning streak into March, and have leapfrogged the Avalanche for the first wild card position in the West by five points with a game in hand. What's even scarier is that the Predators are controlling 52.6 percent of even-strength shot attempts, which ranks fifth in the league, but own a team shooting percentage of 6.82, which ranks in the bottom 10. That suggests puck luck hasn't been in their favor, and the tide could turn down the stretch. If Pekka Rinne has indeed turned back into the Pekka Rinne that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist last year, this is not a team to sleep on come April.

[MORE: NHL Power Rankings: Trade deadline edition]

St. Louis: Injuries keep plaguing the Blues, yet they keep finding ways to overcome them. Once one guy returns, another goes down. And these aren't just depth players. They're important ones. In the past, it would have derailed them, but not this year. All season long it's been about Chicago and Dallas for the Central Division lead, but the Blues consistently hung around and have pulled themselves into that race with a solid February, going 8-4-1 despite losing Brian Elliott and Alex Pietrangelo. Jaden Schwartz, who missed the majority of the first half of the season with an ankle injury, returned to the lineup and has given this team some additional pop.

Winnipeg: The Jets made the right decision by dealing Andrew Ladd and retrieving assets for a team that's still thinking about the big picture. Marko Dano, a first-round pick in 2016 and a conditional third-round pick in 2018 which could turn into a second-rounder if the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup is a nice haul for a player that just reached the back-nine of the age of 30. Winnipeg now has two first-rounders for the second straight draft, barring a draft day trade.

Previous roundups: October | November December January

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.