2015-16 NHL Preview: Central Division

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The NHL’s Western Conference has been the one to beat for a number of years as the last four champions have come from the west.

If the western conference is the best in the league there have to be teams that can carry the torch.

Unlike in the East where a new teams has represented the conference every year in those four season the west has seen two such teams.

In the four seasons that the west has been on top there have only been two teams that have taken the Stanley Cup title.

Both the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have taken their time on top of the league but the Blackhawks are the ones who continue to impress.

They are a team that has quickly become one of the best in the league as the Original Six franchise came out of anonymity to become the model franchise of the league.

As good as the Blackhawks have been, winning three Stanley Cups in the last six seasons, some of it has to do with the fact that the Blackhawks are coming out of the toughest division in the NHL.

The Central is a division that has never been an easy one even before the re-alignment changed the teams.

For a long time it was a chase to match the play of the Detroit Red Wings but the rise of the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators made it that much tougher for any team to win.

In the re-alignment the Red Wings were moved to the east but St. Louis and Nashville remained along with a number of other teams.hockey-sidebar

Through the first two years the best team in the NHL over the last six seasons has yet to even win their own division.

Colorado and St. Louis have the two titles since the new division was created and still the Blackhawks have risen to the task and taken last year’s championship.

The fact that the franchise that many wish they could be can’t seem to win in the new division expresses just how tough the Central is since re-alignment.

In both years with the new group the Central has taken both wild card spots putting five teams into the playoffs in both years.

The Pacific has only managed three each year as the teams in the Central seem to be at a different level than most.

The worst team in the Central last year, the Colorado Avalanche, ended the year with 90 points, better than nine other teams in the league.

This year they will try to prove that again as the defending champs look to win another Cup despite their unload of players while every other Central team tries to become the first team not named the Blackhawks or Kings to win a Stanley Cup in the last four years.

As the new season begins there are more than enough teams that will look to take the division or a spot in the playoffs.

There are the dominant teams like the Blackhawks, Blues, and Predators along with the rising teams like the Jets and Avalanche.

Meanwhile teams like Minnesota and Dallas will attempt to keep pace as both have had mixed results in the last few years.

The division remains one where there are plenty of possibilities as to where any team will finish but one thing is for sure, it will be another tough division to come from and another tough fight.

chicago_blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the best franchises in the league after winning their third Stanley Cup in six years. They have built a culture of success in Chicago and that is very tough to keep down as long as the core group remains. The Blackhawks have had mixed results after Stanley Cup seasons coming 8th place in 2011-12 but winning the President’s Trophy in the 2013-14 season, although they did lose in the Conference Finals. They have had the bad side of the Stanley Cup hangover and the good side but the off-seasons were also vastly different. The main reason for a bad Stanley Cup hangover is that Stanley Cup teams usually have to be gutted afterwards as players leave for bigger paydays or have to be moved to manage the salary cap. The Blackhawks this year are much like the 2011-12 version as they had to go through a retooling after winning the Cup. The Blackhawks lost some big contributors this off-season but they still have the main features of their team together. That is essentially their top two forwards that the fans hope to see stay in a Blackhawks uniform. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been the focus of this team since they entered the NHL and they are the centre of the team. This year it might be a little different though as Kane continues to deal with the sexual assault allegations and what is turning out to be a strange process that could be a massive distraction. Still these two are the leaders and without Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, and Antoine Vermette they will be depended on more than ever. The additions of Artem Anisimov, Mark Dano, and promising youngster Artemi Panarin help. They will also look at Tuevo Teravainen to take another step this year after an impressive debut last year. On defence the loss of Johnny Oduya and Kimmo Timonen will also hurt the team. The losses only mean that they will depend heavily on the top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who played plenty of minutes when the Blackhawks moved to a two pairing rotation in the playoffs. In net Corey Crawford returns but will try to be more consistent as fan favourite Scott Darling is right behind ready to take over at the first sign of weakness. The Blackhawks are a changed team but the core remains and is far more experienced than it was when it entered the same situation in 2011. They will make the playoffs again but another Stanley Cup doesn’t seem likely as the losses are too much to overcome to win a championship.

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colorado_avalanche

Two years ago the Colorado Avalanche made big changes to stop the inconsistency that had plagued the team. They brought in Joe Sakic to manage the team and Patrick Roy to coach and it all seemed to be working. The first year under the new management group and with a great young group they finished first in the Central Division. It seemed like they were headed for a great run in the next few years but fell to the bottom of the division last year. The Avs have consistently had terrible puck possession numbers and in 2013-14 it was disguised by an unbelievable year by Semyon Varlamov. In 2014-15 he came back to earth and the issue was exposed even though he still played at a high level. This year that unbelievable performance should be expected but he is still a great goaltender that provides solid support at the back-en. The additions of veteran Francois Beauchemin and young but promising Nikita Zadorov should provide support for Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. It is a far better group than it was a year ago as the Avs hope to see far better possession thanks to these players and should give Varlamov more support. The offence is led by a young and talented group mixed with a few veterans. The top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, and Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best groups of young players in the league. They will need more out of MacKinnon though as he had a bit of a sophomore slump last year and hopes to overcome that this year. The second line will be the vets as Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay were among the top three scorers on the team while the addition of Carl Soderberg this off-season provides a shot of youth to the two veterans who are trying to extend their careers. The loss of O’Reilly is definitely going to hurt but his off-season contract issues were taking up too much time. The Avs are a tough team to figure out as the have plenty of talent to compete and aren’t necessarily and old team or a young team. Still they fell to the bottom of the division last year thanks to terrible possession numbers. The Avs will celebrate their 20th year this year and will make the playoffs but they will do so by fighting for the wild card and taking the last spot.

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dallas_stars

The Dallas Stars were looking promising before the 2014-15 season began as they had added some key pieces to a team that had made the playoffs a year before. They were expected to take another step towards competing for the cup and were thought of as an emerging team in the NHL. That didn’t quite happen though as the Stars took a step back and fell out of the playoffs only a year after it all looked to be going well. The Stars were a team of extremes last year with one of the best offences and one of the worst defences in the league. This year they are hoping that some key additions to the team will help with their issues. In net Kari Lehtonen had his second worst season last year is set up to become a battery. Lehtonen has shown that he might not be the solution as the top goalie and so the Stars brought in Antti Niemi. The plan is to use a two-goalie system where both netminders split time throughout the season as they won’t depend on one true starter. The defence didn’t help much last year but the Stars also made a big addition on the blue line. They signed Stanley Cup winner Johnny Oduya who immediately needs to become a leader in this group after playing in Chicago last year. The rest of the defence will remain the same with Alex Goligoski and john Klingberg leading the way. The defence needs to step up this year along with the goalies as the Stars will not be back without a better defence. The offence is a different story though as they ranked among the best in the league last year. Led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn the Stars are a young, but not too young, and very talented group. They also have scoring depth that has only been boosted in the off-season with the addition of Patrick Sharp. The second former Blackhawks to be added to the group brings another winner with experience and he is sure to boost the secondary scoring alongside Jason Spezza and Cody Eakin. Meanwhile the return of Valeri Nichushkin after an injury shortened season is yet another weapon to work with. The Stars have one of the best offences in the league and if their defence can get better they will be a tough team to beat. The problem is that a two-goalie system rarely works well and one addition in the defensive group may not be enough as the Stars will fight for a spot but might just miss.

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minnesota_wild

The Minnesota Wild were supposed to be a good team before the 2014-15 season started but at the beginning of the year it was not the case. They struggled to start the year as the defence remained strong but behind them in net there was not much. Both Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper could not provide the steadiness needed for the Wild to be any good. Then came Devyn Dubnyk at the trade deadline and the Wild were a changed team. They had a good netminder and in addition to the good blue line the Wild were solid. They made the playoffs and surprised everyone by beating the Blues in the first round. That was as far as they could get though as they ran into the Blackhawks and their great season ended. They enter a new season looking to continue that late season momentum into another playoff run. They will continue to hold one of the best defences in the league with few changes to the roster. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are a great top pair that will be depended upon to take the most minutes. Meanwhile Jared Spurgeon and Mathew Dumba proved to be promising young talent that will be expected to continue their development. Behind them was the difference maker of last year in Devan Dubnyk and he returns for another year. If he takes a step backwards from a year ago the Wild could be in trouble but if he continues to be the difference on the team they might find their way back to the playoffs. The defence is the strength of this team and it was only made stronger last year when they added Dubnyk but the offence is not terrible. They may not be the best in the league or put up the most goals but they don’t need to. Led by Zach Parise the offence is a mix of great young talent and great veterans. Parise is one of those veterans alongside Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu while Mikhail Granlund leads the young group that includes Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. The offence can put up enough goals even if they aren’t the best in the league and they provide plenty of balance to this team. They are a team that can make the playoffs this year but they did nothing to improve their team and if any of their top players takes a step back they could be in trouble. Not everything will go right for the Wild and although they will have a good season the Central is tougher than ever as missing the playoffs is not out of the question.

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nashville_predators

The Nashville Predators have quietly become a contender in the NHL and have proven that Nashville can be a hockey town. They may not be the best hockey town but when they are in the playoffs the atmosphere is electric. They will hope to see that electric crowd once again as they enter another season looking to finish what they started. Last year was another great year for the team but down the stretch they faltered and fell out of the battle for the division. Still, after finishing last in the division two years ago the Preds were happy with the results last year. They head into another season looking to continue to contend and this time hope to make that final move towards the Stanley Cup. The Predators’ success is largely due to having one of the best goaltenders in the league providing a steady backstop. Although Pekka Rinne struggled in 2013-14 he bounced back to come second in the Vezina Trophy last year. Then he struggled again in the postseason causing many to wonder if he was beginning to show signs of wear. His performance in the World Championship ended those questions as he returns as one of the best in the league. In front of him is a good defensive group that includes one of the best defenceman in the league, Shea Weber. Along with Roman Josi, Weber makes up a good top pairing and the addition of Barret Jackman provides extra depth alongside Ryan Ellis and one of the best young defenceman in the league in Seth Jones. The defence is the strength of the team but it doesn’t hurt that they have some of the best puck possession stats in the league. That has a lot to do with their offence that saw the emergence of young stars and the resurgence of some veterans last year. Filip Forsberg became an offensive leader last year and was assisted by a resurgent year by Mike Ribeiro, who settled a sexual assault case in the off-season, and the addition of James Neal. This year that line returns along with Mike Fisher and two surprising revelations last year Craig Smith and Colin Wilson. The addition of Cody Hodgson could provide an extra boost as many wonder if he still has what many though he did and if the Sabres were the reason he struggled. The Predators are still a competitive team with a great defence and an evolving offence. They are sure to challenge for the division again this year but will hope that they can finish the season rather than falling off like last year.

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st_louis_blues

The St. Louis Blues have become one of the best teams in the NHL year after year and yet they have nothing to show for it. Every year they dominate the regular season and head into the playoffs as one of the favourites to win it all. Then the playoffs begin and what little issues they have are exposed. In the last four years, since they started consistently making the playoffs, they have only made it out of the first round of the playoffs once. It has been a frustrating few years as they consistently look good enough to win a Cup and yet disappoint every year. This year they have not made many changes but hope that they can take what looks like a great team much further into the playoffs. They are led by the rising star Vladimir Tarasenko who is a human highlight reel that led the Blues in scoring in only his third year and is among the best in the league. They will miss T.J. Oshie but they still have plenty behind Tarasenko as David Backes, Alex Steen, and Paul Stastny all provide plenty of extra support. The addition of Troy Brouwer provides some grit to the team along with consistent point production as well. The defence is among the best in the league with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk forming a great top pair that is only boosted by Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson. That defence is needed as the Blues lack a top goaltender and they know that as fact. They have been operating a two-goalie system for a number of years now and the latest iteration involves both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott is the #1 for lack of a true top goalie and he has done as much as he can in the system but Allen is the question mark. He did well in his first year in St. Louis but many wonder if he can do the same while the main question in any system like this is whether or not it can keep the goalies happy. The Blues are once again one of the best teams in the league and they are sure to compete for the division title and will likely take the crown again. That has rarely been the question for them though as everyone looks to see if they can actually make it past the first round of the playoffs. It will remain the question this year and there is not much that can be said as nobody knows why a team as talented as this can’t figure it out.

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winnipeg_jets

The Winnipeg Jets have been a franchise that has followed the path of a new team, despite moving from Atlanta. They struggled at the start with a team that was far from ready to compete, especially in the Central division. They began building as soon as they moved to Winnipeg and the process is beginning to pay off. The Jets have not been extremely active in free agency or the trade market but instead they attempted to build a strong base from within. That attitude continued this year when the Jets made almost no moves to bring anyone else while losing only a few contributors. The fact is that the Jets are happy with where they are right now after making the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg. They are hoping that the development they saw in last year’s great playoff run will continue and that they will not only make the playoffs but move past the first round. The team doesn’t have a lot of outstanding players, especially after trading Evander Kane last year, but they do have a workhorse as a leader. On the blue line the Jets have Dustin Byfuglien, who might not have the captain’s ‘C’ but might as well be considered a captain. The jets don’t make the playoffs last year without him as he provides offence and defence while having a bigger impact on the team than the stats may suggest.  Along with Tyler Myers, who was brought in with the Kane trade, and homegrown talent Jacob Trouba the Jets had a better season than ever in preventing shots. That was a big difference last year as Ondrej Pavelec is good but will not steal many games by himself. The help on defence gives Pavelec what he needs to be an effective goalie and it worked well last year but this year if he struggles the Jets won’t be worried to change goalies. Michael Hutchinson emerged as a good potential starter last year while they are awaiting the arrival of promising prospect Connor Hellebuyck. On offence the Jets don’t have any one player that is going to light things up but they don’t need that. Veterans Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little had plenty of chemistry while Mark Schiefele showed more development last year as a young leader. They will also look to Nikolaj Ehlers as their young star who has the ability to put up plenty of points in the NHL. They are a good team that is on the rise and that rise could continue this year although they will still need to fight for the wild card.

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Prediction:
The Central Division remains the best in the NHL and it is not going to be easy for any team to make the top three. The top three of last year will remain the strongest though as the Blues and the Predators will be in the hunt for the division title. The Blues will come out on top as the better, deeper, team while the Preds still make the playoffs as #2. The Blackhawks won’t be in that fight as they are not as good as they were a year ago but it is hard to write the best franchise in the league out of the playoffs. The good thing about a tough division is that the teams that don’t make the top three are still very good teams and in the Central they will once again take both wild card. It is going to be an interesting fight between all four of the teams and may come down to the very end of the season. In the end the Jets and Avalanche will find their way there as the Jets are a solid defensive team and the Avs are more improved than anyone in the division. The Stars and Wild will fall short but still have good seasons they just won’t be enough. The Central is going to be one to watch for another year as the fight will be entertaining and a champion may emerge.

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