NHL Central Division preview

Today we’ll take a look at what many consider to be the toughest division in the NHL. Every team in the Central finished with at least 90 points last season, which is something no other division can say. And really, you could make a strong case for each team in this division as to why they should make the playoffs this season. It’s incredible. Here we go.

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Blackhawks’ 2014-15 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

Chicago comes into the ’15-’16 season after winning their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons, which has many people calling them a modern day dynasty. Much like the summer following their 2010 Cup title, their roster took a major beating this offseason. Just look at who they lost: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, and Kris Versteeg just to name a few. To replace those guys, the Hawks acquired players such as Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Trevor Daley, Ryan Garbutt, Artemi Panarin (he signed last spring), and Viktor Tikhonov. They also have a handful of prospects trying to crack the team’s opening night roster. Needless to say, it’ll be a new-look team this season, but still a good one. There are some question marks though, such as how impactful can young guys like Dano and Panarin be right off the bat? Will Teuvo Teravainen see the majority of his time at center or wing, and how big of a leap will he take in his game? Will their defensive corps be deep enough? And that’s not even to mention the whole Patrick Kane debacle. Who knows where that whole situation may end up, and depending on the outcome, that could significantly affect this team’s makeup. While I’d still expect the Hawks to be a good team and a playoff team, there are simply too many questions right now that prevent us from knowing just how good they can be.

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Avalanche’s 2014-15 record: 39-31-12 (90 points)

After a major shocker of a 2013-14 season, the Avs predictably took a step back last season and finished last in the Central despite earning 90 points. This offseason, they signed Francois Beauchemin, most notably, to help on the defensive side of things. They also traded Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo. Other than that, we’re looking at relatively the same team from last season, but with another year of experience under their belts. They are still going to be a very fast team with players like Duchene, Mackinnon, and Landeskog, but that won’t mean much unless they see more offensive production from them than they did last season, along with their depth forwards. Much like the Avanlanche as a whole team, Nathan Mackinnon also took a step back last season while only registering 38 points in 64 games played. So while Colorado needs their bottom six forwards to produce, they also need guys like Mackinnon to perform up to their potential. Defensively, the Avalanche are weak, and this should put Semyon Varlamov under a lot of pressure on a nightly basis yet again.

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Stars’ 2014-15 record: 41-31-10 (92 points)

Dallas was quite active this summer in upgrading their roster. They traded for Patrick Sharp, traded for the rights to Antti Niemi (who they then gave a contract extension), and signed Johnny Oduya (all three players won at least one Cup with Chicago). In acquiring Sharp, the Stars did lose Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt, but they more than made up for that by getting Sharp and signing Oduya. Right now, it’s looking like a top line of Benn, Seguin, and Sharp could be a real possibility to begin the season, making that one of the best lines in hockey. Their offensive depth is well above average, and now their defense should be at least somewhat better than it has been in the past. That combination should lead to more victories. Arguably their biggest problem last year was keeping the puck out of their own net, where Kari Lehtonen had a pretty bad year. Now, they have not only Lehtonen, who can be one of the game’s better goalies, but also Antti Niemi. Essentially two number one goalies. If one gets hot, they’ll ride him until he burns out and then switch to the other. Dallas is a team that I thought would have made the playoffs last year, and they didn’t, but now I’m not sure how they miss them again.

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Wild’s 2014-15 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)

Minnesota looked like a team destined to miss the postseason heading into January of last season. Then they acquired Devon Dubnyk and stuck him between the pipes and everything changed. They finished the second half of the season with the best record in the NHL and wound up with 100 points on the season and a spot in the playoffs as the top wild card team. They even went on to eliminate the Blues in the first round, only to be ousted by Chicago for the third consecutive season. This summer, they didn’t really do much of anything to make themselves better. They extended the contract of Devan Dubnyk, but that’s about it. They lost Chris Stewart via free agency and didn’t sign anyone notable other than Mike Reilly, the free agent defenseman coming out of college. Essentially, this is the same Wild team we saw last April. And to be honest with you, when I look at their roster and compare it to those of their divisional foes, I don’t see Minnesota finishing close to the top three in the division and they may very will miss the playoffs. Teams like Dallas, Calgary, Edmonton, and even Nashville all got better while Minnesota did nothing. It’ll be an uphill battle right from the beginning.

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Predators’ 2014-15 record: 47-25-10 (104 points)

Nashville kind of shocked us all with how well they played last season. I’d be willing to bet that no one had them pegged to finish as a 100-point team. They ended the season right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals per game, which is nothing spectacular, but finished in the top ten in fewest goals against per game. It would be accurate to say that their defensive corps had their “coming out party” last year. Couple that with the fact that Pekka Rinne had a real nice comeback season, and that’s how they finished so well in the goals against per game category. This year, their offense is nothing great again. They were able to re-sign Mike Ribeiro, but that was their biggest news at any forward position. Defensively, they may have the NHL’s best group of d-men. Shea Weber is consistently one of the league’s best, and now he has Roman Josi alongside him to help shoulder the load of holding down the opponent’s top lines. After them you have Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and newcomer Barret Jackman. Top to bottom, an extremely solid group of defensemen. It is because of that reason and the fact that they still have Rinne in goal that I don’t think it would be surprising to see this group in the postseason once again.

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Blues’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Blues were yet again one of the best teams in the league through the 2014-15 regular season, but again fizzled out in the opening round of the playoffs. This trend of making early exits from the playoffs nearly cost Ken Hitchcock his job this past summer, and you’d have to believe he will lose his job if it’s more of the same next spring. In terms of player personnel, the Blues dealt T.J. Oshie to the Capitals in exchange for Troy Brouwer most notably. Brouwer should fit perfectly into the Blues’ system as he’s a big, physical power forward capable of being pretty effective as a top six forward. After him, no big names were added to the roster. They’ll have Vladimir Tarasenko entering his third full season in the NHL, and one that will undoubtedly turn into must-see TV once he starts scoring impossible goals again. He is St. Louis’ biggest goal scoring threat, and losing him to any lengthy injury could be costly. The Blues also have Jaden Schwartz coming into the beginning of his prime years, as well as Jori Lehtera. Those two, specifically Schwartz, were legit surprises to a lot of people last year in terms of their production. If they can continue to let their games evolve, the Blues will have a real nice top two lines or so. On the blue line, St. Louis still has a great top three in Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Shattenkirk, but after that there are some concerns. In net, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen will both be back. As is the case each year it seems, goaltending could be this teams’ biggest question mark.

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Jets’ 2014-15 record: 43-26-13 (99 points)

For the first time since moving back to the ‘Peg, the Jets made the playoffs last season as the West’s number two Wild Card team. This year, it may be a challenge to repeat that feat. They traded away Evander Kane near the end of last season, who was arguably their best offensive talent despite not putting up the numbers, and now lack a true scorer. Blake Wheeler can definitely light the lamp, as can Ladd and Little, but that’s just not enough offense. They also lost Michael Frolik via free agency and will need to find some bottom line depth from within the organization. One positive that the Jets’ group forwards has going for them is their ability to combine speed and physicality. They are a big team, both vertically and in poundage, but also a very fast team. Being able to combine those two assets is always an advantage. Look no further than the Canucks of 3-6 years ago, the 2010 Blackhawks, and the two Kings teams that won the Cup. In return for Evander Kane, the Jets acquired former “future” star Tyler Myers from the Sabres. He will be a nice addition to the team now that they’ll have him for a full season. Winnipeg has built themselves a nice group of defensemen that could be considered one of the better units in the West. If this team is serious about making the playoffs again, they’ll need another stellar campaign from Ondrej Pavolec and Michael Hutchinson in goal.

So there you have it for the Central Division. As was the case last season, I wouldn’t be shocked if this division saw five teams make the postseason, although I’d lean more towards that number being four this year.

Predicted Standings:

  1. Blues 2. Blackhawks 3. Stars 4. Predators 5. Wild 6. Jets 7. Avalanche

Predicted Western Conference playoff teams:

  1. Ducks 2. Blues 3. Blackhawks 4. Stars 5. Flames 6. Kings 7. Oilers 8. Predators

Pacific Division preview

Central Division preview

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.

CENTRAL DIVISION 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

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.)

Welcome to the Central, Winnipeg

184164326_slideIn their first ever meeting as new Central Division foes, the Blackhawks took down the Jets today by a score of 5-1. The game was over with just under three minutes left in the second period. This was one of the more dominating performances of the season by the Blackhawks, and the Jets stood no chance.

After falling behind 1-0 early in the first, the Hawks tied the game when Niklas Hjalmarsson notched his first goal of the season with a brutal slap shot right off a faceoff to Pavelec’s right. Kruger won the draw cleanly and the puck went right to Hjalmarsson who wasted no time in firing the shot on goal. The period ended 1-1.

Then the second period started, and that’s when the game pretty much ended for Winnipeg. Just 54 seconds in, Brandon Bollig fired in a wicked wrister past Ondrej Pavelec while on a two-on-one with Marcus Kruger. This was Bollig’s second goal of the season (he would later add an assist). Then about two minutes later, Patrick Sharp gave the Hawks a 3-1 lead on a breakaway goal. Hossa made a beautiful pass to Sharp to spring the breakaway. Later in the second, Nick Leddy nailed his third goal of the year with a slap shot from Pavelec’s right. That goal ended the game for Pavelec, who was replaced by Chicago native Al Montoya.

The third period saw more domination of puck possession by the Blackhawks, and Ben Smith added the fifth and last goal of the game for the Hawks on a nice deflection. With this being the first time that these two teams have met as divisional rivals, as well as the first time that they’ve played each other in Winnipeg since that city got their team back, the Blackhawks sent a stern message to the Jets that playing in the Central Division isn’t going to be easy.

So with that, here are some things that stood out to me today:

  • With five more goals today, the Blackhawks have now scored 24 goals in their last five games. That puts them behind only the Sharks for the most goals scored in the NHL this season (50). It’s safe to say the offense is “clicking” again.
  • Corey Crawford scared us for a minute when he went down after being run into by Blake Wheeler. It made me realize how valuable he is to this team when thinking about his alternative(s). He stayed in the game, however, and put together another fantastic performance.
  • Jeremy Morin messed up early in the game when he blew his coverage, which allowed Winnipeg’s only goal. He was benched the rest of the period. From the second period on, however, he was very good. He’s making a big impression on the coaching staff in my opinion as he is responsible at both ends of the ice.
  • Since Michal Handzus was taken out of the lineup four games ago, the Blackhawks have scored 19 goals. Make what you want of that statistic…
  • Two goals from the fourth line today (Bollig and Smith) is a very encouraging sign. The depth of the Blackhawks is what separated them from the pack last year, and they’ll need it again this year.

All in all, today was a very good game for the Blackhawks. They dominated in puck possession, and did not allow the Jets any easy scoring chances. The defense of the Blackhawks was just about as good as it’s been all season. Even when they did allow scoring chances, Corey Crawford was there to make the big saves.

Banner-Raising-2013-1600It will be interesting to see what route Quenneville goes tomorrow night in terms of the goalie situation. Normally, he’d start the backup goalie tomorrow night with no questions asked seeing as how it’s the second game of back-to-back games. Unfortunately, that decision isn’t so easy anymore with the way Nikolai Khabibulin has played in his last two starts. No one has much confidence in Khabi right now, so his playing time is not guaranteed. If he continues to struggle, look for Antti Raanta to get called up from Rockford. The management would rather not do that and get Raanta a full year in the AHL before calling him up, but they need wins, and Khabibulin hasn’t been producing them.

Thanks for reading.

Blackhawks trade Bolland, Frolik; Sign Bickell

1297434232923_ORIGINALJust 6 days after the Blackhawks fourth line scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, two of the three players on that line have been traded. Today, Stan Bowman sent Dave Bolland to the Maple Leafs in exchange for the 51st and 117th picks in today’s draft, as well as a 4th round pick in next year’s draft. He also traded Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets for the 74th and 134th picks in today’s draft. While these moves are definitely disappointing for Hawks fans, they are smart moves. On the bright side, it was just announced that Bryan Bickell signed a 4-year, $16 million contract with the Blackhawks.

Okay, so a lot to digest here. Let’s start with the trades.

By moving Bolland and Frolik, the Blackhawks gained about $5 million in cap space for next season, increasing their total cap space to over $13 million according to nhl_blackhawks_23CapGeek.com. With the signing of Bickell for a reported $4 million per year, that cap space now drops to around $9 million for next season. Obviously, people are going to be upset seeing the names Bolland and Frolik being traded. However, you need to look at the numbers in this trade.

Bolland and Frolik were a combined $5 million cap hit next season, which is an awful lot of money to be spending on 2 fourth line players. The Hawks knew that in order to sign someone like Bryan Bickell, they needed to free up some cap space. Trading Bolland did just that, and the Hawks wasted no time in extending Bickell. By trading Frolik, the Blackhawks have gained even more cap space to re-sign a guy like Nick Leddy. There have been talks of the Hawks trading Leddy, but I now doubt that will happen. Leddy is due to become a RFA this summer if the Hawks do not extend his contract.

So, now what do the Blackhawks do with their remaining $9 million?

They could do a number of things. My best guess is that they are going to re-sign Nick Leddy, and maybe even Ray Emery. They will also do what they did last year and sign some role players and depth players. I am not so sure that they will make a big splash by signing someone like Briere or any other big name, although that is not out of the question. It is no secret that they need a true number 2 center, and with their now high cap space, they could acquire a decent center.

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Brandon Pirri

One thing is for sure, however. Guys like Ben Smith and Brandon Pirri are going to get their fair shot at becoming impact players on the Blackhawks next season. Ben Smith will most likely be on one of the Hawks’ bottom 2 lines to start the season, and Pirri could even find himself as the second line center. Personally, I don’t think it is a good idea to put a rookie into that much important number 2 center position. I believe that going out and acquiring a good, veteran second line center would be the better option.

A lot can happen now with the Blackhawks. They have a ton of money to spend, even after signing Bickell. The question now is whether or not they will spend all of that money, and if they do, how will it be spent? On role players, or on a big name or two? Either way, Stan Bowman has really been working hard here the last 24 hours, and I am confident he’ll make the right decisions moving forward.