2013-14 NHL Preview: Central Division (Part 1)

central_1

The new Central Division is not the same as it once was with the top two teams taken away from the group. The Central Division had been built off of the rivalry between Detroit and Chicago but that is no longer there. The Chicago Blackhawks remain in the Central Division while the Detroit Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference. Now the Blackhawks take over the Central as the immediate favorites to win the division. At first look the Central Division looks like a division with very little contenders to challenge the Blackhawks in their pursuit of another division title and another Stanley Cup. That would not be the best assumption though as the Central Division is now full of under the radar teams that could surprise this year. There are certain teams that will not be challenging this year as they may be too far gone from their glory days. Then there are the teams that have become steady competitors under the radar with nobody paying attention. The Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, and Winnipeg Jets have come to be included in the playoff projections over the last few years but not many are talking about them. These teams have not been the teams that will light the league on fire and have a season that puts them at the top of the league but they remain competitors. They are the teams that have built and rebuilt and adding pieces to their teams that allow them to be considered a playoff team. These teams will not go away easily this year as they will continue to get better and could surprise a lot of people. The Chicago Blackhawks are still going to be the favorites throughout the season as they continue to be one of the best teams in the league. They will likely be the class of this division again but they have to make sure that they do not look past the teams that may be better than most think. The Central Division is different from most new divisions in the league this year. The majority of the divisions have added a number of very good teams into one group and force them to fight it out. The central is a division that many look at and see one true contender while the rest will sit behind them. It is almost like the NHL has given the Blackhawks a free pass this season with the new central division but if they think that they may be sorely surprised. The central division is still a very competitive division and although the top teams in the league are not in the division there are a lot of teams that will cause problems for the best teams in the league.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

chicago_blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are absolutely the team to beat in the division and in the league as they defend another Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks are the dynasty of this era as they have now won two Stanley Cups in the last three years. Last year they would be the best team in the league from start to finish. A shortened season would not change much about their preparation as they would open the season like no team before. They would open the season by earning points in their first 24 games of the season. It was an NHL record as the Blackhawks would start the season in the most successful way ever. They would lose to the Colorado Avalanche in March to end the streak but it was not the end to their dominant season. The point streak was no more but that would free the Blackhawks up to take on the rest of the season. They would cruise into the playoffs and despite one tough series against Detroit would walk into the Finals. The Blackhawks would take the final series in five games on their way to another Stanley Cup. The worry would set in after everything was set and done though as the Blackhawks had seen what success did the last time they won a Cup. The Blackhawks would be gutted in 2010 with most of their key players leaving for another opportunity in a different city. They would keep the core of the players though and that would eventually lead to success again. This year that gutting of a championship team would be limited as the Blackhawks kept the majority of their best players for another run. Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, and captain Jonathan Toews would all remain with the team. This was not the problem last time as it was the secondary players that left and this year only a few would leave. The Blackhawks will welcome back Marian Hossa, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell, and Andrew Shaw. The Blackhawks would not lose much of their Stanley Cup team and that is one of the best ways to prevent the Stanley Cup hangover. Chicago will remain one of the best teams of the year and will challenge for a Stanley cup but two in a row is a tough task that few have completed.

 

Strength:
Strong Core
– The core of Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, and Patrick Kane is one of the best in the NHL and they will all be back as they will be sure to lead the Blackhawks back to the top of the league

Weakness:
The Cup Hangover
– The last team to win back to back Cups was the 1996-98 Detroit Red Wings and that is for good reason as championship teams have less of an offseason and the Blackhawks have head the least playing until June and coming back for October

Biggest Addition:
Nikolai Khabibulin, G (Free Agent, Edm)
– Corey Crawford and Ray Emery would split most of the time in net for the Blackhawks last year and it was very successful but with Emery gone the Blackhawks will have Khabibulin in case they want to run the same system

Biggest Loss:
Dave Bolland, C (Free Agent, Tor)
– He was a major part of the Stanley Cup Championship and he added a grit to this team that they loved but now he moved on to bring his experience to Toronto in one of the few losses of the offseason

 

Colorado Avalanche

colorado_avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche have been rebuilding for the last few years and now they are trying not to fall into the same issues as Edmonton has. The Oilers continued to add great young talent to the team and yet they would never improve. The Avalanche are in the same situation now as they have added top prospects to the lineup year after year and have seen very limited returns. Matt Duchene and new captain Gabriel Landeskog highlight the young talent in Colorado but they were not enough to bring the team to the playoffs last year. The Avs would finish second last in the league and win the draft lottery to pick first and add another young star to the roster. That is not all the Avs would do though as they would look to stop the losing and avoid sliding into the Oiler rut. The Avs would fire head coach Joe Sacco and rearrange their front office in order to breathe new life into the franchise. The Avs would reach into their past to find their future this year naming Joe Sakic the Executive Vice President of hockey Operations and would name former goalie Patrick Roy the new head coach. The Avs would look to these former greats to lead the team out of the rut they have been in for the last few years. The Avs will go into the new season with Nathan MacKinnon as the newest addition to the team after picking him first overall in the draft. MacKinnon will get some time to develop on a lower line while Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, PA Parenteau, Ryan O’Reilly, and new addition Alex Tanguay sit in the top lines. The defence will be led by Erik Johnson who will need to bounce back and be the defenceman that he seemed to be when he first entered the league. He will be joined by Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, and Ryan Wilson making a good mix of offensive and defensive blueliners. In goal Semyon Varlamov should benefit from have Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire as his coaches. The Avalanche have a solid group of players but they have constantly underachieved and a rookie coach may not get them back to the playoffs. The Avalanche look improved this year but they are still not playoff material as they will be out of it again.

 

Strength:
New Leadership
– Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy are good additions to this staff and they will improve this team even if it takes some time to make the improvements as both players are committed to making their former team better

Weakness:
Falling into Oiler Rut
– The Oilers have fallen into a rut where they continue to add young talent but fail to convert that to success and the Avalanche are at danger of following the same path with three top picks on the team and one playoff appearance since 2009

Biggest Addition:
Nathan MacKinnon, C (Draft)
– He was lights out in the QMJHL as the leader of the Memorial Cup winning Halifax Mooseheads and he now adds a lot of depth to the middle of the ice as the Avs now have three top centres

Biggest Loss:
David Jones, RW (Trade, Cgy)
– He was never the player that many people talked about but he still put up 20 goals consistently every year and his production will be missed on a team that has some holes in the offence

 

Dallas Stars

dallas_stars

The Dallas Stars have not had the best reputation in the last few years as they represent one of the struggling franchises in the NHL. They have consistently had problems puling in people since their heyday in the 1990s. The Stars would be in the hunt in the shortened season but as they got closer to the end the Stars would give up. They would trade captain Brandon Morrow along with Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy. The Stars would give away their best players and they would essentially give up on a playoffs spot. They would not make it and would once again sit at home watching the playoffs. With another season outside of the playoffs the Stars would go back to the drawing boards and make massive changes to the team. It would start with a brand new look as the Stars would change their logo and their jerseys representing a change in the team. Then the serious changes would start with the hiring of Jim Nill as the new GM after he spent most of his career as an assistant in Detroit. Then Nill would hire Lindy Ruff to bring a new style to the bench of the team and bring plenty of experience. The moves wouldn’t stop at the front office though as the Stars would bring in Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff on offence while drafting Valeri Nichushkin to add another weapon on offence. The biggest addition on the offence though was Tyler Seguin who struggled as a third line centre in Boston but will now take the reigns of this offence. As the top centre and face of the franchise Seguin will truly get to show what he can do and if he comes as promised when he was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft behind Taylor Hall. The defence will see changes as well with Sergei Gonchar entering the fold and likely taking the top spot as a veteran presence on the blueline. Gonchar will not be the only veteran on the defence though as Stephane Robidas joins him and the rest of a young but experienced group. Kari Lehtonen will mind the net for the Stars and he has proven he can be a solid presence in net. The Stars are looking at a completely new franchise this year and that might mean some growing pains and will likely mean they will sit outside of the playoffs.

 

Strength:
New Leadership
– The Stars are moving on as they have changed a lot about their team and the biggest moves might be the front office as the Stars brought in two men who know what it’s like to win in Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff

Weakness:
Team Chemistry
– The Stars might have the most change in the NHL this year, along with Philadelphia, and that means they will struggle to figure everything out as a slow start might be in the cards and might put them out before they can find a groove

Biggest Addition:
Tyler Seguin, C (Trade, Bos)
– He is the new face of the franchise and top line centre as Tyler Seguin gets his chance to truly who what he has after spending the last three seasons as a secondary scorer in Boston and he will be out to show the NHL why he was mentioned alongside Taylor Hall

Biggest Loss:
Loui Eriksson, RW (Trade, Bos)
– He was a major part of the leadership in Dallas and although he was replaced by other players his leadership could have helped the Stars adjust with so many changes but now he is gone and a new leadership group must step up

 

Minnesota Wild

minnesota_wild

The Minnesota Wild went all-out in 2013 when they would sign two of the biggest free agents during the offseason. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise would join the Wild and the expectations would grow in a big way. They were expected to compete for the playoffs and they would make good on that expectation. At the trade deadline they would trade for another piece in Jason Pominville. The Wild stumbled into the playoffs though and would finish in 8th place and for their efforts would get the Blackhawks. They would push the Blackhawks to overtime in the first two games but would not be able to beat the eventual Cup winners. It was a good finish but the Wild are hoping that they can improve on it this year. The spending spree from last year would put the Wild in a bit of trouble when looking to add another piece to the puzzle this year. The team would not have much room to do many of the things they wanted and so they will be entering the season with a few losses and not many incoming players to replace them. The additions from last year are back again this year as Zach Parise and Jason Pominville will lead the offence. They will be joined by Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Jason Zucker, and rookie Mikael Granlund to create a solid offence. One defence Ryan Suter will lead the way with a number of defenceman who will look to step up this year. That includes Jonas Brodin who had a great rookie year and will look to repeat his success this year and be a part of a good top pairing. The defence may need some time to develop though and that is not good news for the goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Backstrom has been a solid netminder for the Wild but he is beginning to slow down and Josh Harding is likely not the future starter. The Wild have a solid offence with plenty of depth to put pressure on teams but the defence and goaltending is the issues. Against plenty of teams looking to move forward the Wild may fall back as they might have to fight for a Wild Card spot.

 

Strength:
Top Talent
– Parise, Pominville, Heatley, and Suter are all good players and can do great things on the ice if they are having a good year as the Wild have some very good talent at the top of the team and talent that can get them wins

Weakness:
No room to maneuver
– The Wild spent so much money in the offseason that they could not resign many of their good secondary players and could not afford to replace them thanks to a reduced cap that left the Wild in a spot where they could not make improvements

Biggest Addition:
Nino Niederreiter, RW (Trade, NYI)
– The Wild had to look to other places to get some players that could support their top talent and one of those was Niederreiter as he came in a trade in the offseason and will provide some of that secondary scoring they need

Biggest Loss:
Devin Setoguchi, RW (Trade, Wpg)
– Setoguchi earned 27 points in a shortened season and became evidence of how the Wild could not afford to keep players as he would be traded to Winnipeg to free up cap room and remove a good scorer from the lineup

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