Now that we’ve finished with the Pacific Division, I’ll take a look at the Central Division here. There’s a solid chance that this could once again be the NHL’s top division.
Chicago: The Blackhawks are coming into the 2014-15 season with high expectations yet again. This team was one goal away from advancing to their second straight Stanley Cup Final this past season, where they probably would have won their second straight Cup in no more than six games. For the first time in a long time, they will actually have a real number two center in the form of Brad Richards, which should only make Patrick Kane that much more dangerous. They traded away Brandon Bollig this offseason to make room for guys such as Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, and maybe even Teuvo Teravainen. The lack of depth on last year’s team was a big reason for them not knocking out the Kings in the Conference Final, and it is an area that I believe they have improved on this summer just by making the room for the players mentioned above. Corey Crawford, who had a decent but not great 2013-14 season, will need to be better this year, as will Antti Raanta. I’d expect the Hawks to finish no worse than second in this division.
Colorado: The Avalanche were without a doubt last season’s biggest surprise. After finishing the 2012-13 season with the second fewest points in the NHL, the Avs came almost out of nowhere last year and ended with 112 points. Granted, they couldn’t get out of the first round, but it was still an impressive season. This offseason, they traded away P.A. Parenteau in exchange for Daniel Briere, and signed Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, and Zach Redmond. They also lost Paul Stastny to the Blues. All of this sets the Avalanche up for what should be a very interesting season in Denver. If you look at Colorado’s team stats from last season, they are pretty great. If you also look at the players that performed best for them (I’m looking at you Varlamov), you might be a bit surprised. Semyon Varlamov put together a fantastic season for Colorado; one that he probably won’t duplicate this year. Their defensive corps are not great at all, to say the least, and this was proven in the Avs’ first round loss to the Wild last year. While Colorado definitely has a potentially lethal offense again, I just don’t see their defense being good enough to be anywhere close to as good as they were last season.
Dallas: In my season preview last year, I noted that the Stars were being underrated by almost every NHL analyst at the time. I also said that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this team ended up as a playoff contender. Well, sure enough the Stars made the playoffs last season as the West’s second wild card team. This summer, they’ve only gotten better. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are the two biggest names to join the Stars since the end of last season, and Dallas fans have reason to be excited about that. The Stars now have two extremely good centers in Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza to go along with wingers such as Tyler Seguin (who can also play center) and Ales Hemsky. After that the names aren’t as recognizable, but the Stars are full of good role and depth forwards. On defense, Dallas really should have aggressively pursued one of the available top defensemen this offseason. As it stands now, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are arguably their two best d-men. In goal they still have Kari Lehtonen, who I firmly believe is one of the game’s most underrated players. Lehtonen was good last year, and he’ll need to be again this year seeing as how he will have a mediocre defense in front of him.
Minnesota: The wild finished last season with 98 points, which I think a lot of people were surprised by. They went on to knock out the Avalanche in the first round (maybe the biggest “upset” of last year’s playoffs), and then lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the second round. Nonetheless, a successful season for the Wild. Like the Stars, I believe Minnesota has only improved since their season ended in May. They lost Matt Moulson to the Sabres via free agency, but they nicely replaced him with Thomas Vanek. On defense, they added some depth by signing Stu Bickel. Other than that, no new names on the Wild this year. So why are they better than last year? They now know what it takes to win a playoff series and their young guys gained valuable experience during last year’s playoff run. Guys like Coyle, Granlund, Haula, Neiderreiter, Brodin, and Spurgeon, all of whom are very young, should only be better this season. That’s not to mention they still have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu who are all elite players. I guess the only real question mark with this team is who will be their number one goalie to begin the season. Look out for the Wild this year.
Nashville: Again, here’s another case of a team really improving this offseason. In exchange for Patric Hornqvist, the Predators acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh, and they also signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy (all three are centers). There’s no doubt that Nashville’s offense should be better this season than it was last year, as they ranked in the bottom half of the league in G/G. Defensively, they are still led by their captain Shea Weber who is also one of the NHL’s top d-men. Along with Weber, they’ll have Seth Jones entering his second professional season, as well as newcomer Anton Volchenkov, among a few others. Pekka Rinne will obviously be the team’s number one goalie again as he looks to have a bounce-back season after injuries plagued him all of last year. All in all, when you look at what the Predators have on their roster this upcoming season, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a tough team to play against. However, because of the division they’re in, we won’t see them in the playoffs.
St. Louis: The Blues were a popular pick to win their first ever Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, their first round opponent was none other than the defending champion Blackhawks, and we all know what happened there. Since then, the Blues lost their top goalie, Ryan Miller, but they did sign the top center on the market in Paul Stastny. They also signed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Other than that, we’re pretty much looking at the same team this year as the one that exited the first round of the playoffs last year. My concern with St. Louis over the past few seasons has been their lack of firepower on offense. There’s no doubt that they have a great group of defensemen and defensive forwards, but they just haven’t had that player that can take over at any given time. Paul Stastny is a step in the right direction in that department, but I’m still not convinced that this team has the offensive weapons to go deep into the playoffs. Plus, they lost Ryan Miller to the Canucks and are left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their two goalies. Elliott is not going to win you a Cup, and Jake Allen really has zero NHL experience. So while I’m sure a good handful of people will pick this team to win the Cup this year, I’m still not sold on their offense and definitely not their goaltending.
Winnipeg: The Jets are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time since coming back to Winnipeg. They finished last year as the bottom team in the Central Division with 84 points, which was the highest point total of any team to finish last in their respective division. This season, the Jets are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago at this time. Evander Kane has been the victim of many trade rumors over the last few months, so it will be interesting to see if he is still a Jet by the time the trade deadline rolls around in the spring. Their offense is not great by any means, and their defense is sub-par. Goaltending may be the Jets’ biggest weakness as Ondrej Pavelec finished last year with a .901 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average. All of that said, the Jets do have a handful of young forwards who could take the next step in their game this year. Unfortunately for Jets fans, however, this team won’t be a contender for a few years to come most likely.
1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild 4. Stars 5. Avalanche 6. Predators 7. Jets
(One through six are all legitimate playoff contenders, and they could really finish in any order. Chicago is the only clear-cut number one team in the Central.)
PREDICTED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:
1. Ducks 2. Blackhawks 3. Kings 4. Blues 5. Sharks 6. Wild 7. Stars 8. Avalanche
(That’s five Central Division teams again, with the Stars and Avs grabbing the two Wild Card spots.)