The NHL’s version of the Central Division is going through some changes, thanks to realignment. Goodbye, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets. Hello Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche. Sure it takes away a great Original Six rivalry between the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, but from a geographical standpoint, it makes sense. (I mean Winnipeg in the Southeast makes as much sense as the University of North Dakota joining the SEC.)
With realignment also comes a new playoff format in which divisional play is a much bigger factor now, than under the old format where conference play was key. So with that in mind, here’s a look at the NHL’s Central Division.
1. Chicago Blackhawks:
Additions: Nikolai Khabibulin (FA, Edmonton)
Subtractions: Michael Frolik (Trade, Winnipeg) Ray Emery (FA, Philadelphia) Dave Bolland (Trade, Toronto) Viktor Stalberg (FA, Nashville)
There is a saying made famous by 17 time world heavyweight champions Ric Flair. “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!” Well, the Chicago Blackhawks are THE MAN, after winning their second Stanley Cup in 4 years. Repeating won’t be easy though. No one has gone back-to-back since Detroit in 1998. That said, the Blackhawks return with virtually the same core that won the Cup last year. The likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will lead the charge for the Blackhawks. The key player is goalie Corey Crawford who was superb last season. Crawford’s .926 save percentage to go with the 1.94 goals against average his team put up while he was in net, were crucial to the Hawks last season. A short offseason could damage their chances, but never count out the champions. The Blackhawks are still the team to beat in the Central.
2. St. Louis Blues:
Additions: Brenden Morrow (FA, Pittsburgh) Derek Roy (FA, Vancouver) Maxim LaPierre (FA, Vancouver) Magnus Paajarvi (Trade, Edmonton)
Subtractions: David Perron (Trade, Edmonton) Andy McDonald (Retired)
The Blues aren’t the easiest team to play against, which is precisely how head coach Ken Hitchcock wants it. That being said, playoff success has eluded the Blues since Hitch took the reigns behind the bench. After building a 2-0 series lead, the Blues fell in 6 games to Los Angeles in the first round last year, which left a bitter taste along the Mississippi. The Blues are strong defensively, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Barrett Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk. But it is offensively where the Blues suffer. The Blues averaged 2.58 goals per game, and had only three players in double figures in goals. The Blues will need more from the likes of David Backes, Alexander Steen and Chris Stewart if they want to take the next step. Goaltending is solid with the veteran duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott splitting the duties. But watch for youngster Jake Allen who is rising among the ranks. The Blues are close, but not quite there yet.
3. Minnesota Wild:
Additions: Matt Cooke (FA, Pittsburgh) Nino Niederreiter (Trade, NY Islanders) Keith Ballard (FA, Vancouver) Jonathan Blum (FA, Minnesota)
Subtractions: Cal Clutterbuck (Trade, NY Islanders) Devin Setoguchi (Trade, Winnipeg) Matt Cullen (FA, Nashville) Pierre-Marc Bouchard (FA, NY Islanders) Tom Gilbert (FA, Florida)
The Wild are hoping to build off last season’s playoff appearance. Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter sees the most ice time and rightly so. He is one of the best D-Men in the NHL. The Wild are hoping Keith Ballard can revive his career after struggling in Vancouver. The Wild do have talent at the forwards, led by the likes of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Dany Heatly. The Wild are also high on big Charlie Coyle who has impressed in the preseason. Goaltending is a bit of an issue with both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding battling injuries and illness. Harding in particular returned after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is to be commended for his courage. The Wild could be the surprise team in the NHL this season.
4. Dallas Stars
Additions: Tyler Seguin (Trade, Boston) Rich Peverley (Trade, Boston) Shawn Horcoff (FA, Edmonton) Sergei Gonchar (FA, Ottawa)
Subtractions: Loui Eriksson (Trade, Boston) Eric Nystrom (FA, Nashville) Richard Bachman (FA, Edmonton)
Change was in the air in Big D, and it was necessary. The Stars haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, so new general manager Jim Nill went to work. The key addition is young Tyler Seguin who has plenty of potential, but fell out favour in Boston thanks to some off-ice issues. Nill is hoping that a change of scenery will be a boost to Seguin’s career. Jamie Benn and Erik Cole will be called upon to supply the offence for the Stars. The blue line is small and could use some physicality. Stephane Robidas plays bigger than his 5-11, 190 pound frame. Alex Goligoski and newly acquired Sergei Gonchar bring offence from the blue line. But there isn’t that one D-Man that strikes fear into opposing forwards. The Stars are still waiting for Kari Lehtonen to become an elite goalie. While Lehtonen has shown flashes of brilliance, he has lacked consistency in his game. If Dallas wants to end their playoff drought, Lehtonen must raise his game. The time is now in Dallas.
5. Nashville Predators:
Additions: Viktor Stalberg (FA, Chicago) Eric Nystrom (FA, Dallas) Matt Cullen (FA, Minnesota)
Subtractions: Matt Halischuk (FA, Winnipeg) Bobby Butler (Trade, Florida) Chris Mason (FA, Italy) Jonathan Blum (FA, Minnesota)
The big question in Music City is can the Predators score? The Preds are hoping that rookie Filip Forsberg can pick up the offensive load. Forsberg came over at the trade deadline from Washington, and he could be the game breaker the Predators franchise have desperately needed. Mike Fisher and David Legwand return to share the goal-scoring duties with Forsberg. The strength of the Predators is their defence. Shea Weber is one of the best D-Men in the NHL, and he will be a great teacher for first round pick Seth Jones. Pekka Rinne is a solid goalie who just needs more goal-scoring support from his teammates. If the Predators can find more offence, they can make the playoffs. If not, then a sad country song will be written about this team.
6. Winnipeg Jets
For a complete preview of the Jets, click here.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Additions: Alex Tanguay (FA, Calgary)
Subtractions: Milan Hejduk (Retired) Chuck Kobasew (FA, Pittsburgh) Greg Zanon (FA, unsigned)
The good news for the Colorado Avalanche is that Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy are back. The bad news is they’re still retired. Sakic is the new general manager while Roy is the new head coach of the franchise they led to Stanley Cup victories in 1996 and 2001. The Avs are in the midst of a massive rebuild and are looking at Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and first overall draft selection Nathan MacKinnon to be the foundation of the franchise. Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly bring youth and exuberance to a club stuck in a rut. Defensively, the Avs are very shaky, giving up 3.12 goals per game, ranking them 27th in the NHL. The Avs will rely on J.S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov to share the goaltending duties. Giguere is nearing the end of his career while Varlamov has never lived up to his potential. The Avalanche have a bright future, but this isn’t the same team that Sakic and Roy played for back in the glory days.
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