Players to Watch in the Central Division
The NHL has juggled the divisions for this year to try and navigate these troubling waters of the coronavirus. As a result, the Detroit Red Wings will be lumped into the Central Division that features some familiar foes — the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning — while bringing on some new rivals — the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars.
Of course, the best part about the new crop of opponents is the renewed bad blood of the Central Division of old, pitting them against the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators. The Hawks rivalry interests me the most, not only for the Original Six aspect, but both these franchises were part of some great playoff series between 2005-2015.
We already got a breakdown of the division a couple weeks ago, touching on which teams you can bash the most on your Twitter feed. Now, it’s time to highlight a player from each team that you, as Wings fans, may not be up-to-speed with and what you can expect when our boys in the red and white faceoff against them.
Martin Necas, C - Carolina Hurricanes / 2019-20 Stats: 64 GP | 16 G | 20 A | 36 P
Necas is as skilled as they come with dynamic speed and his lateral movement to elude the pressure of oncoming defenders is impressive. He will likely start the season in a third line role, but it shouldn’t be long before he makes his mark on the top six and playing alongside Andrei Svechknikov (Evgeny’s brother) would make for a lethal dynamic duo. Wings fans are used to some blazing speed on the ice with Dylan Larkin and formerly Andreas Athanasiou, so when you tune in this Thursday night, keep your eyes peeled for Necas as he’s fun to watch.
Dominik Kubalik, LW - Chicago Blackhawks / 2019-20 Stats: 68 GP | 30 G | 16 A | 46 P
Wings fans remember the scoring capabilities of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in their primes, but the Hawks have gone through a youth movement as of late and Kubalik is right in the center of it. He floated around the Czech and Swiss leagues the past few years before sticking with the Hawks last year. Formerly, he was picked by the club as a seventh-round choice in 2013 and I would say he proved to be worth his weight in gold last year by notching 30 goals. With Toews out indefinitely and young center Kirby Dach recovering from wrist surgery, the Hawks will rely on Kubalik’s goal-scoring prowess to win games.
Alexandre Texier, C - Columbus Blue Jackets / 2019-20 Stats: 36 GP | 6 G | 7 A | 13 P
It’s refreshing to see a young talent come along from a European country less known for churning out hockey players. And, that’s exactly what Texier is. Born in France, he is quite the story and set to start the year on the top line for the Blue Jackets. A speedy forward with a quick release, he is exciting to watch and not afraid to challenge opposing defensemen with a quick first step. John Tortorella has raved about this kid to the media, so much that he trusted him in the lineup during their last two playoff appearances.
Denis Gurianov, RW - Dallas Stars / 2019-20 Stats: 64 GP | 20 G | 9 A | 29 P
Gurianov had a quiet regular season last year, but he stormed on the scene in the playoffs for the Stars to the tune of 17 points in 27 games. If you’re looking for a player comparison to that of a Red Wing, it would be Anthony Mantha. Gurianov has a big frame, 6-3 and 200 lbs., that can be overbearing for opposing defensemen and possesses a heavy shot. He sees the ice well and shows an ability to anticipate the play before it has even happened. It might be a bold prediction, but look for Gurianov to be one of the top scorers in the division this season.
Carter Verhaege, C - Florida Panthers / 2019-20 Stats: 52 GP | 9 G | 4 A | 13 P
If Verhaege’s name rings a bell it’s probably because he played all 52 of his games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and prior to that, he was a third-round pick in 2013 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once the captain of the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs — in which he hit the 82-point mark twice in his junior career — he now gets the chance to play a key role for the Panthers as their third line center. Verhaege will try to be the new Vincent Trocheck of this squad, tenacious on the forecheck with the ability to move up and down the lineup in a scoring role if needed.
Luke Kunin, C - Nashville Predators / 2019-20 Stats: 63 GP | 15 G | 16 A | 31 P
Kunin is a former first-round pick by the Minnesota Wild in 2016 that never really got his shot to impress in the lineup. Now, he joins a Predators team that saw a lot of roster turnover in the offseason — Nick Bonino and Craig Smith are most notable — and start on the second line. The Preds struggled to find the back of the net last season, finishing middle of the pack with a 3.07 GF/GP (16th in NHL), but Kunin has a knack for being in the right spot around the net. He captained the 2016-17 Wisconsin Badgers squad and was loved by teammates for his work ethic, something he will bring to the Preds up front.
Alexander Volkov, RW - Tampa Bay Lightning / 2019-20 Stats: 9 GP | 0 G | 1 A | 1 P
Wings fans are pretty familiar with the Bolts’ lineup from top to bottom (and likely sick of seeing it by now). They will be without star winger Nikita Kucherov for the year and while they have plenty of depth throughout the lineup, this could open up an opportunity for Volkov to showcase his skills. A second-round pick by the Bolts in 2017, Volkov has played the last three seasons in the AHL, averaging 0.63 P/G and scoring 20 goals twice. Jon Cooper will likely start him in the bottom six, but the Russian’s skill may force his hand into playing him higher up in the lineup.