2014-15 NHL Preview: Central Division


The Central division saw a facelift in 2013-14 and with the adjustment of teams it was expected that one would rule them all. The Chicago Blackhawks had been the rulers of the old Central division for years and have been Stanley Cup favourites for the same amount of time. They went into last year as favourites again to win a division with a lot of questions. They seemed like the only sure shot in the division that was full of young teams and unsure talent. Then the season started and a team that many thought as a rebuilding team began to take control of the division. The Colorado Avalanche had a new head coach and new management along with one of the youngest teams in the division. They were not expected to make a lot of noise as thye tried to figure out where they stood among the elite teams in the league. When the season was over they were division champions while the old guard of the Blackhawks had fallen to third place in the division behind the young Avalanche and their longtime rivals the St. Louis Blues. Meanwhile the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars took the two wild card spots for the Western Conference. The season started out with a division of seven teams that were not expected to do a lot in the regular season or the playoffs. Before the season began it seemed like the Blackhawks were the only true contenders but by the end of the year it was the stronger of the two Western Divisions producing five of the 8 playoff teams in the conference. This year it is much of the same story for the division as there are still a lot of questions surrounding teams that had performances far and above what was expected. With a new season many wonder if these teams will have a regression in their season and show that they truly are not the teams they showed last season but that they are what was expected. The Central division is still a division that on paper has one true powerhouse while the rest of the teams will fight it out for the rest of the spot while being overpowered by the Pacific in the wild card. Then again if last season was a sign of things to come the Central could be one of the best divisions to watch in the new season as the powerhouse team continues to be a favourite but a number of young and fast rising teams are having their impact in the league and the division. If these young teams can continue to rise it could be a great battle once again for the division with evenly matched teams all having a chance to make the playoffs and the separation in many divisions not making itself present. The Central division is once again ready to start the season and answer the questions that surround many of the teams. The biggest question will be around whether or not this division is truly the best in the Western Conference or was last season just a fluke. Only the games can prove it one way or another as the season starts and the teams look for their chance to earn a Stanley Cup.


Chicago Blackhawks


The Chicago Blackhawks are one of only two teams to win a Stanley Cup in the last four years, taking home two of them. Before this period the Blackhawks were a forgotten team not making the playoffs from 1993-2010 and not winning a Stanley Cup from 1961 until their first of the stretch in 2010. After a long period of instability and poor performances the Blackhawks are now one of the best teams in the league. Last year they did not have the best regular season finishing third in the division but that didn’t prevent them from making another run at the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs they came alive moving to the Western Conference finals but losing to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games. The Blackhawks are rarely out of the picture for the Stanley Cup and this year it will not be a lot different. In their period of dominance the Blackhawks have been one of the best offensives teams in the league playing at a break-neck speed. That is in large part due to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane who seem to be in Chicago for a long time after both signing 8-year extensions. The addition of Brad Richards could be one of the savviest moves of the offseason as he joins the Blackhawks on a $2-million deal and if he can return to form after a mega-contract seemed to cripple him in New York it could be the best deal in the NHL. The Blackhawks will have some questions on defence but t will be more about depth than anything else. Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya make up a great group but the third pairing has questions that need to be answered. Meanwhile in net the Blackhawks will look to Corey Crawford once again and hope that he has a more consistent season to prove that he can be the goalie to lead them to the finals and to a Stanley Cup. Chicago has essentially the same team that made it to the conference finals this year and there is not a lot of arguments for them to win the division and make another deep run in the playoffs as they remain one of the best teams in the league with few weaknesses.



Colorado Avalanche


Last year was one of change for the Avalanche as years of promise not paying off forced the hand of the organization. To bring about change the Avalanche looked to the past and brought their two greatest players back. Joe Sakic became the VP of Hockey Operations while Patrick Roy was hired as the new head coach. The changes were expected to improve the team but were not expected to be seen very soon. That is what made the season such a surprise for the Avs as they rocketed their way up the standings and into the playoffs. Their inexperienced showed though and they lost in the opening round to the Minnesota Wild. They now enter a new season still with one of the youngest teams in the NHL and are hoping that one playoff appearance can provide the experience they need to take this team to another level. Last year one of the main reasons for their first place finish was the play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov. After a rocky start to the season that involved accusations of domestic abuse, the charges were later dropped, Varlamov became one of the best goalies in the league, becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist. The Avs will need another great year from the goaltender who may just be coming into his own in the league after starting out as a 21-year old in Washington. In front of Varlamov is a solid group led by Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda. The defence is not the best in the league but it is also not the worst as they do enough to give Varlamov some support. The offence is led by a young group of very talented players. Matt Duchene now takes on a new role with the loss of Paul Stastny while Gabriel Landeskog remains the captain and Nathan MacKinnon tries to avoid the sophomore slump. The offence will get some of the veteran leadership back that they lost with Stastny leaving when they added Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla. With the addition of some veteran leadership into a young team there is a lot of promise for the Avalanche, although repeating last year’s performance is going to be a challenge. Another playoff appearance could be in the future for the Avs but they are a part of a tough division that they have to get through to get back to the playoffs.



Dallas Stars


The Dallas Stars were at the top of the NHL world in the late 1990s when they won their first and only Stanley Cup. Since then though they have struggled to return to being a force in the league. Last year they tried to change things and remove the memories of more than a decade of coming up short. They would create a new look with a new logo and some big pieces on the ice. To usher in the new look the Stars would be new head coach Lindy Ruff and young star Tyler Seguin. The longtime Sabres coach was one of the most sought after in the league while Seguin was a player that never quite fit into Boston’s system. Both Ruff and Seguin provided the Stars with exactly what they needed to move on from years of losing and brought them to the playoffs with a wild card berth. The formula worked last year and so heading into the new season the Stars looked to add another big name that had not always performed up to par with expectations in Jason Spezza who requested a trade from the Ottawa Senators at the end of last year. The Stars gave up relatively little for a consistent goal scorer and with Spezza likely joining Ales Hemsky on the second line the Stars received some extra depth to help their issue of only really having one line. The offence will still be led by Seguin and Jamie Benn but Hemsky and Spezza should provide some secondary scoring that the Stars need. The defence showed promise down the stretch last year as Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley started to show signs of promise at the end of the season. If they can continue to develop it will help the Stars towards shoring up a blue line with a lot of questions. Behind them is a goaltender that has all of the ability to be the best but tends to get out of position after making spectacular saves. If Kari Lehtonen can settle down and be more consistent in net he can carry this team to a few wins. The Stars are still trending up and with more depth on offence they are sure to be better but it will be up to their back-end to see if they can make the playoffs again this year.



Minnesota Wild


The Minnesota Wild were expected to be one of the teams that competed at the top with the other two powers from the old Central. Moving to a new division in 2013-14 the Wild seemed like they were trending in the right direction and many expected them to be the one sure thing form the Northwest in the new division. Instead they took a backseat to their old division mates in the Colorado Avalanche. The Wild still remained a good team and still made the playoffs where they beat the Avs in the first round. That was as far as they would go though, with a loss in the second round to the Blackhawks. The Wild return this year with another veteran group that could be built for playoff success. As has been said time and time again tough grinding players are the key in the playoffs but for the Wild it has been slanted too far to that side. They have a lot of big forwards that many teams would love but they lack those players who can put the puck in the net consistently. They looked to get someone like that this offseason in signing Tomas Vanek who scored 27 goals last year. The team still looks to their big signing from two years ago in Zach Parise to lead the team and he has come as advertised. Alongside Jason Pominville, Parise makes a good first line winger and is the leader of this offence. The other part to that big offseason also remains on the team as Ryan Suter continues to lead the blue line that still has to develop. Aside from Suter and Keith Ballard no other defenceman have any more than 5 years’ experience in the NHL and they need to develop quickly if they hope to make a run at the Cup. Behind this evolving defence is one of the biggest questions of the Wild as the presumed starter, Josh Harding, will miss time with a foot injury leaving Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom to fight it out for the spot in net with neither being a sure starting option. The Wild still look like a good team but many of the problems that hurt them last year could be back this year.



Nashville Predators


The Nashville Predators looked like one of the most promising teams in 2012 reaching their highest point in the standings and moving into the playoffs. It looked like they were ready to take another step towards the Stanley Cup and then it all came apart the next year. Now they are riding a two-year absence from the playoffs and for that slide their one constant was fired. Barry Trotz was the only coach of the Nashville Predators and was the man who led the team from expansion team to contenders. With the team trending downward something had to change in Nashville and the first step was looking for a new path with a new head coach. Peter Laviolette will look to do just that as he becomes the new head coach of the Predators and brings a new attitude behind the bench. Laviolette brings an up-tempo offensive style to the team and he will have a lot of skill players to help him. The Predators added a number of offensive players including Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Anton Volchenkov, and James Neal. These additions should go a long way to helping the team solve their offensive woes that have hurt them even when they were a playoff team. With these players in Laviolette’s system the offence should be improved and should provide the always solid defence with some support. Defence has always been the strength of this team and that has been in large part due to one of the best defenceman in the league in Shea Weber. Alongside Weber is Roman Josi and young guns Mattias Ekholm and Seth Davis. Returning will be Pekka Rinne who spent most of last season on the sidelines with hip injury. With Rinne back at full health and hopefully for the full season the solid backstop will provide more than enough support in the net. The Predatrs are a new look team after being stuck in a rut for the past few seasons. They are hoping that the new offensive weapons and a new system will bring them back to the playoffs this year but that is a tough task in a division full of great teams. The fight for the playoff spots will be a closely contested and the Preds may be improved but may not be improved enough.



St. Louis Blues


The St. Louis Blues came into the 2013-14 season as another member of the old Central division and one that was considered possibly the only match for the Blackhawks. They had been fighting for the division for years and had recently rekindled their rivalry with the rise of the Blues in becoming a contender. Still they could not beat the Avalanche and ended up in second place in the division. Although they passed their rival in the regular season they could not get passed them in the playoffs losing to the Blackhawks in the first round. That has become a habit for the Blues who continually fail to match their regular season performance in the playoffs. They will look to change that pattern this year but have only made minimal changes to do so. The defence remains the concentration for the Blues as they hold one of the best defences in the NHL. With Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Petrangelo former a great first pairing Carl Gunnarsson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barrett Jackman, and Ian Cole form one of the deepest pools of defensive talent in the league. They will see some change though as the experiment with Ryan Miller did not work out and now they must return to Brian Elliott. Elliott was once half of the goalie tandem that helped the Blues return to the playoffs but now he is alone to lead the Blues from the net. The offence has received a bit of an upgrade with the signing of Paul Stastny who will provide a true top line centre that they have lacked in the past. They will lean on Stastny to help them improve their offence and assist T.J. Oshie on the top line. The Blues are also hoping to see development out of Vladimir Tarasenko in his second year in the NHL to provide some secondary scoring. St .Louis remains one of the toughest teams in the league and they are going to continue to have great success in the regular season. The question is whether or not they can extend that success into the playoffs and make their way to the Stanley Cup but as with every other team in the division it is not an easy task among a very tough division.




Winnipeg Jets


The newest team in the NHL has had the struggles that are always expected from an expansion team. When they first came into the league they inherited a bad team from Atlanta but had some initial success. That could have been attributed to the excitement that surrounded them when they returned to a city that had been waiting years for a franchise. Now it seems like the expansion woes are starting to make themselves known as the Jets continue to sit at the bottom of the division. Last year they struggled out of the gate and looked far out of the playoff hunt from the start. That forced the team to make a change behind the bench firing Claude Noel and hiring Paul Maurice. After Maurice took over the Jets looked significantly better but the damage had already been done and they finished at the bottom of the division. A new year means a new opportunity and by the way the offseason went the Jets seem to want to simply figure out what they have on their roster and what Maurice can do with them. The offseason was fairly quiet for a team with a lot of holes to fill as the Jets did not add many big players to stop the issues. One of the bigger additions was T.J. Galiardi who joins an offence that will rely on a group of players that have had mixed result. Evander Kane will need to step up if the Jets hope to do anything as he continues to fall short of expectations. Meanwhile Mark Scheifele is sure to get a better chance at making the impact that many thought he could. As the team moves further back though things do not get much better. They will need Jakob Trouba to develop quickly alongside Tobias Enstrom if they are to form a true top NHL pairing while the rest of the defence is not very deep. Then the biggest issue of the team comes to light in net as Ondrej Pavelec will be the starter and will have a rookie under him leaving the Jets with little support if Pavelec struggles. The Jets did not improve a lot next year instead putting their faith in Maurice to continue his strong end to the season with what h has.



The Central Division is one of the toughest in the league and this year will be no different as the fight will be a good one and the wild cards could be seen again in this division. The top teams will remain the same but they will likely see the order changed around. The Avalanche will regress after a surprising season while the Blackhawks will return to the top and the Blues sit in the same spot. The rest of the division will be interesting as there are three teams that could be much improved this year and could challenge for ta top three spot. They will fight it out for the wild card spots in the conference with the 4th place team likely guaranteed a spot. That earn will be the improved Stars who will take another step this year while the Wild fall just short and the Predators struggle to stay around with them. The jets round out the standings as a team that finished last in 2013-14 did nothing to change their team for the new season.


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