Season Preview: Central Division

Home of the defending Champions, the Central Division is arguably the toughest in the NHL.

All seven clubs have featured in the post season over the past two years, but all have questions to answer heading in to the new campaign.

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago BlackhawksHaving secured their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, Chicago underwent it’s regular, cap enforced purge over the summer.

Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg (again) and Brandon Saad were all traded, Johnny Oduya and Brad Richards left via free agency and Antoine Vermette re-signed with Phoenix after a brief stint in the Windy City.

The Blackhawks did add Artem Anisimov and Trevor Daley however, providing something tangible in return for Saad and Sharp, with winger Ryan Garbutt and 20-year old Marko Dano bolstering the clubs depth chart.

The elephant in the room remains Patrick Kane however. The superstar winger is still under investigation by police in Buffalo, New York after an incident at his nearby home this summer.

Whilst the 26-year old has not been charged with anything at this time, due to the nature of the accusations his presence at the Blackhawk’s training camp was controversial, and with a grand jury set to review the case his status remains unclear.

While the legal process plays out, Kane seems likely to be available to Chicago – and as such remain an integral part of their lineup. Whether he should play is something of a moral argument; but keeping things purely on the ice, his presence would help maintain the clubs status as one of the best in the league. Should he be suspended (either due to a police charge or similar) then it would hit the Hawks hard, though it would also potentially clear $10m of cap space for a team sitting just over $319,000 below the ceiling…

It’s an ugly situation for the organisation and the NHL, one which only seemed to worsen after Kane’s ill-advised statement at the start of the Blackhawk’s training camp. If he plays, it looks bad but Chicago are stronger for it. If he doesn’t, they get a significant chunk of cap space back but made the decision to let him play in the first place. Yeesh.

At full strength, Chicago remain a serious contender. What sort of line up they may actually ice remains up in the air.

Key Player – Jonathan Toews

It’s hard not to feel that Toews has fumbled the Kane issue somewhat. It’s an unenviable situation for the 27-year old to be in no doubt, but the Manitoba native will be called on like never before in the coming months. As team Captain, he simply has to take the lead and haul the franchise along, regardless of what happens with Kane.

*****

Colorado Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche12 months after roaring to a Divisional title, Patrick Roy’s side tumbled out of the play-off picture as they dropped from 112-points to just 90.

Had opposing teams caught up with the Avs? Had the wave of hope Roy and Sakic brought worn off? Or was it simply that Semyon Varlamov was only good, or occasionally very good, rather than out of this world?

It may have been a bit of everything. Colorado scored 31 fewer goals last term (though only conceded eight more), lost key players to injury and saw others take a step back.

Summer changes saw Ryan O’Reilly’s fractured relationship with the club come to an end, traded to Buffalo for a package including Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, while Carl Soderberg was acquired from Boston and Stefan Elliott’s frustrating run in Denver ended when he was swapped for fellow struggler Brandon Gormley.

The Avalanche also added veteran blue liner Francois Beauchemin, signed to a 3-year, $13.5m deal, and Blake Comeau via free agency and locked up key defenceman Erik Johnson to a 7-year extension.

Are the Avs better for it? On paper, just about. By the tiniest of margins.

O’Reilly is a significant loss but both Zadorov and Grigorenko help boost the clubs youth movement and Soderberg further helps counter the departure of the Clinton, Ontario native. While Beauchemin may be on the back nine of his career, Colorado will hope he can offer more than Jan Hejda did and a change of scene might be just what Gormley needed.

But the real boost needs to come from the clubs top two centres.

Nathan MacKinnon missed 18 games and saw his production fall from 24 goals and 63 points in his Calder Trophy winning rookie year to just 14 goals and 38 points last term, while Matt Duchene also took a step back as his output fell from 70 points in 71 games to just 55 in 82 last season.

Both need to improve if Colorado are to make a serious run at the top eight in the West. The club has the skills, but simply cannot afford anything to go wrong.

Key Player – Matt Duchene

The Haliburton, Ontario native has speed to burn, great hands and all the tools to be a regular 20 goal, 70 point scorer. But he needs to put it together consistently – especially in the post-Stastny era where he is the team’s go to centre.

*****

Dallas Stars

Dallas StarsNo side has created more buzz in the last 18 months than Dallas.

Powered by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, the Stars secured the second wild card spot in 2013/14 and looked to be on the path to glory. For an encore the club secured more wins and points, and scored more goals, last season – but still the Stars missed the cut.

The leap from 235 goals to 261 was undoubtedly impressive – but they also shipped 32 more goals (228 to 260) to finish the year with one of the worst defensive records in the NHL and went 17-16-8 on home ice.

General Manager Jim Nill may have created a miniature controversy in trying to address the situation, but bringing Antti Niemi in to the fold gives Dallas options between the pipes should Kari Lehtonen falter again, or simply need a rest after the Stars struggled to find a reliable backup last season.

Veteran blue liner Johnny Oduya and winger Patrick Sharp bring championship experience to a side that already contains last years Art Ross winner Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Goligoski – who has really grown in to the role of #1 D man in Texas.

Is it a Cup winning side? Maybe not quite yet. But the Stars are dangerous and have one of the shrewdest administrators in the league in Nill. A couple of quality additions down the road and the Stanley Cup might yet find its way back to Texas.

Key Player – Johnny Oduya

Solidifying their own end was the Stars #1 priority this summer; and in 34-year old Oduya the franchise has added a two time Cup winner who logged big minutes – often against opposing sides top players – for a powerhouse Blackhawks’ side. Not a bad way to bolster your blue line.

Oduya can help relieve some of the pressure on Goligoski, whilst also acting as a sort of defensive mentor for the likes of John Klingberg.

Minnesota Wild

Minnesota WildMinnesota’s season became about one man last year – Devan Dubnyk.

The Regina natives arrival in January triggered a dramatic turn around in fortunes for the Wild, who were 12th in the West and 8 points shy of a wild card spot when GM Chuck Fletcher acquired the former Edmonton puck stopper from Arizona for a 3rd round pick.

Going 28-9-3 down the stretch, Minnesota secured the first wild card slot before eliminating Cup contenders St. Louis in the Western Conference Quarter Finals.

While Dubnyk might have been the catalyst, the run reaffirmed the Wild’s credentials as a serious competitor in the West. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter might be the spiritual leaders of the franchise, but Captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville are seasoned NHLers and the club has a burgeoning crop of under 25s.

Nino Niederreiter bagged 24 goals last term, Jonas Brodin is developing in to a top defenceman, and Mikael Granlund’s highlight reel skills are well known among hockey fans.

The Wild would undoubtedly like to see more from Thomas Vanek, who laboured his way to 21 goals and 52 points whilst taking home $6.5m last season, but the bones, and most of the flesh, of a good team are there.

Key Player – Devan Dubnyk

Veteran Niklas Backstrom might be healthy again, but Minnesota saw enough from Dubnyk to convince the top brass he was the horse the Wild’s wagon should be hitched to.

Signing Dubnyk to a 6-year, $26m extension during the summer, the 29-year old will need to repeat his heroics if this talented roster is to finally take that next step and become a serious contender.

*****

Nashville Predators

Nashville PredatorsOnly Tampa Bay had a better home record than the Predators 28-9-4 effort last season, and the clubs stacked blue line remains perhaps the best in the league.

Cody Franson may have departed, again, but veteran Barrett Jackman joins on a cap friendly 2-year deal to add depth to a group that already boasts Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones. With Pekka Rinne between the pipes, the Predators own end is well protected – and has been for some time. The issue has always been offence.

The arrival of Pete Laviolette helped change that somewhat last year, but Weber and Josi were still among the clubs top four scorers and the Predators will be hoping for full years from James Neal and Mike Fisher this season.

If 21-year old Filip Forsberg, an early front runner for the Calder Trophy last term, continues to progress and Calle Jarnkrok can build on some of the promise he has shown, Nashville has a capable group of forwards – particularly if new signing Cody Hodgson can resurrect his career.

Craig Smith and Colin Wilson are beginning to become regular producers and while Mike Ribeiro’s unpleasant off ice issues have done little to endear him to fans, the veteran centre was the teams second top scorer last season.

Key Player – James Neal

Neal missed 15 games last season, finishing the campaign with just 23 goals and 37 points – far from his 40 goal high with Pittsburgh in 2011/12.

Whilst Nashville won’t expect 40 goals from the former Stars winger – because 40 goal seasons don’t come along very often – a return closer to the 30 isn’t unrealistic given the thrifty clubs $5m investment and prime role Neal plays.

Neal was acquired to give the Preds some scoring punch, and he needs to deliver if the organisation is to progress.

*****

St. Louis Blues

St Louis BluesOne Puck Short’s pick to win the the Stanley Cup last year, the Blues again stumbled in the post season – despite the absence of nemesis Los Angeles.

Their Western Conference Quarter Final defeat raised serious questions about Ken Hitchcock’s future and that of the clubs goaltending.

Brian Elliott and the St. Louis blue line may have one of the best goalie/defence relationships in the NHL, with Alex Pietrangelo and co limiting the number of high quality chances the former Sens and Avs stopper sees, and Elliott doing the rest courtesy of his unspectacular but reliable play.

Jake Allen was always considered to be the clubs long term starter, and while he has shown flashes is yet to really surpass Elliott whilst now facing competition from Pheonix Copley.

It would be easy to mistake Copley as a ‘throw in’ in the trade that saw TJ Oshie head to Washington and Troy Brouwer join the Blues, but he isn’t. Far from it.

The trade added a three time 20 goal scorer and a goaltending prospect with starting potential, whilst providing something of a shake up for the Blues as they parted with someone previously thought to be a nailed in part of the clubs core.

Is it the shake up this stacked side need? Maybe. It’s hard to question the quality of the Blues roster, but the club needs to capitalise on their window soon.

We’ve seen plenty of coaches and General Managers lay the table for someone else to then dine out on – maybe that truly is where the Blues are with Hitchcock.

Key Player – David Backes

The St. Louis captain is entering the final year of his current deal, and despite strong regular season numbers and a ‘wrecking ball’ reputation, has never scored more than 2 goals or 4 points in a post season – making him a perfect example of Blues hockey…

Play-off qualification seems almost certain for St. Louis (as much as it can be in the NHL anyway), but the Team USA forward needs to step up in the post season if the club is to seriously challenge.

*****

Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg JetsA 19-year wait for post season hockey came to an end last season, when the Jets beat the LA Kings to the second wild card spot. And while they might have been swept by Anaheim in the Western Conference Quarter Finals, it finally felt like the club was making progress after dining out on the euphoria of the NHL’s return to the city for three years.

The February trade of Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian (as well as goalie Jason Kasdorf) not only ended the ongoing friction between the club, the local media and the winger but shook up a team that to that point hadn’t made a single notable move since relocating to Winnipeg.

Fans will now be keen to see if Tyler Myers can find his A game again in Manitoba, whilst a change of scene may also give affable winger Drew Stafford a much needed shot in the arm. The return of Alexander Burmistrov from Russia also adds depth to a side that has ability but can sometimes seem thin on the ground.

The Jets have proven they have the mettle to compete in the West, but need all hands on deck if they are to become a regular play-off participant, with goaltending front and centre of that equation after both Michael Hutchinson and starter Ondrej Pavelec exceeded expectations last term.

Key Player – Ondrej Pavelec

Having been labelled as the Achilles heel of the Jets in previous seasons, the clubs faith in the big Czech seemed to finally be rewarded when he posted career numbers last season.

Whether the campaign is an outlier or the start of something better for the 28-year old remains to be seen, but with Hutchinson and top prospects Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebuyck in the system, Pavelec isn’t only playing for the Jets success but his own place in the team.

Winnipeg needs grade A goaltending to compete in a tough Conference, Pavelec simply has to start providing that consistently now.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on October 2, 2015, in Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Hockey, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, NHL, Season Previews 2015, St Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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