NHL Season Preview: In the New Central Division Don’t Expect Anything Different from Defending Champion Chicago Blackhawks

With the new re-alignment taking effect this season, the Western Conference has changed quite a bit losing aging Detroit and up and coming Columbus for Winnipeg which is very odd but the NHL never makes 100% pure sense anyways.

In the Central Division, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, and Winnipeg Jets.

Let’s breakdown these teams one by one based on where I think they’ll place in the division, I don’t do W-L records because no matter the prediction they’ll never be right and injuries, rest, and road trips factor in also.

Chicago Blackhawks

Key Player:                Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews

Up and Comer:         Brandon Saad

The Defending Champions are standing tall heading into this season for certain. They still have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa in their forward lines that are a proven, veteran and deadly combination.

Scary thought of the end of next season with Toews and Kane as free agents, but of course some have told me they’d then just buy out Hossa and/or trade Patrick Sharp to keep both of them if necessary but that kind of talk isn’t for this season in particular. It’s definitely a topic to keep in the backburner hockey fans.

In addition to the forward lines that they’ve got, they also have in my opinion three #1 defensemen in Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and the newly resigned Niklas Hjalmarsson. No team quite has the core of players that Chicago has.

They made Starting Goaltender Corey Crawford’s job a lot easier, even though to his credit he stepped up huge in the playoffs last season when he needed to. Crawford now has the Stanley Cup Trophy in his resume as a goalie which always helps against the doubters he may have.

As far as youth and up and coming talent are concerned, Chicago has a core of guys in their mid-20’s, but with Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, and Nick Leddy they’ve got little chance to regress this season if they play with the intensity they did last season and in the playoffs.

They’re the best team in the Western Conference for certain but don’t expect a big winning streak or unbeaten streak.

St. Louis Blues

Key Player:                 C David Backes/ D Alex Pietrangelo

Up and Comer:         RW Vladimir Tarasenko/ Jaden Schwartz

EA Sports’s season simulation had the Blues win the Stanley Cup! But let’s not get all carried away on either the side of no way to jumping on the bandwagon. But this team has been a fun team to watch last season although they lost a tough seven game series with then defending champion Los Angeles.

On the bright side St. Louis has a nucleus that presents a challenge for anybody to compete with on a daily basis. But one has to wonder, who is that guy that will take them over the top? They have RW Chris Stewart, C David Backes, and D Alex Pietrangelo but I still feel they’re a dominant scorer away from Chicago’s level to being a championship contender.

Maybe Ty Rattie, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko could develop along even further to become the players who can round out a solid forward line? But Tarasenko has to stay healthy and Rattie is only twenty years old, tough to determine how he’ll project. This could be a line combination in the future for them.

They did add Maxim Lapierre from Vancouver, Branden Morrow from PIT for a more veteran presence while keeping their physicality that they were imposing on other teams.

But in terms of Goatending and Defense, St. Louis has more than enough to compete with Jay Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold, and Alex Pietrangelo so they’re formidable and dreams would dream to have the goalie situation that they have with Brian Elliot, Jiroslav Halak, and Jake Allen.

Halak has proven he’s a number one goalie, Elliot stepped in greatly for them last season and Jake Allen who maybe in the minors but they’ve got high hopes for him in the future. They may trade Halak or Elliot in the future but a goalie controversy intact as far as I’m concerned, but competition may bring out the best in both of them.

The Blues will likely be a three or four seed because Chicago may run away with this division with a strong start. The young guys will determine how they’ll be down the road if the injury bugs bites them like last year.

Winnipeg Jets

Key Player:                Evander Kane/ Andrew Ladd

Up and Comer:         Mark Scheifele

Winnipeg may have gotten dominated Friday Night by the Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins but this team has taken the step that has taken them a few years to take which is compete for a playoff spot.

The last few years in Atlanta were brutal but have finally seen the light, after all when you can get a player like Evander Kane who at 22 maybe on a verge of an All-Star season if he can score as good as he has speed on the ice and if Scheifele can make an impact this season at 20 years old to counter the veteran presence of Andrew Ladd and Olli Jokinen.

Bryan Little and Michael Frolik will have an impact also at C but at the wing position along with Kane they’ll need Blake Wheeler and Devin Setoguchi to help them to take the next step offensively and on the power play.

The defense is kind of a missing a little something other than the big man Dustin Byfuglien and alternate captain Mark Stuart but other than 2013 1st rounder Josh Morrissey they don’t look to be improve too much too soon there, but some would agree that a coaching change would benefit the talent they’ve got top to bottom.

Enstrom and company have to play with a tougher mentality because they weren’t consistent much last season or they’ll miss the playoffs again although I believe they’ll be in it this year as a 6th or 7th seed most likely.

Ondřej Pavelec has been a .500 goalie to this point of his career with the last two seasons at (29-28 11-12) and (21-20 2012-13) but if Winnipeg hopes to contend they’ll need the twenty-six year old goaltender to take the next step as a player.

As a whole this could be the season to prove if this team is talent but flawed system or just a team that has the lack of a consistent dose of playmakers. We will find out right away, but this should be a playoff team if everything falls into place.

Minnesota Wild

Key Player:                Zach Parise/ Niklas Backstrom

Up and Comer:         Mickael Granlund/ Nino Niederreiter

Minnesota was the 8th seed last season in the Western Conference before being overmatched by eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.

After the injury to Backstrom last year, Harding became the main story after his remarkable comeback from a medical condition. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to lift them into a higher playoff spot. The Pominville trade with Buffalo has mixed feelings about how he impacted them and the fact they gave up a 1st rounder too.

Regardless Parise and Suter as their main free agents before last season have proven to not be the impact guys they were panned to be although injuries derailed them last year. They still have Dany Heatley who can flat out score when healthy. Miko Koivu, the captain, may have some more assists if the wingers can find lanes to rebound and score.

The defensive group they have with Suter and Gilbert is a good 1st pair of guys but the depth may be lacking for them to go up against a great offensive attack. But they do have Backstrom who’s a great to near elite goal tender, Harding can certainly step in when needed to as well.

Neiderreiter and Granlund are valuable assets for the future both have spent major time in the minors since being drafted by the Blackhawks benefited from Saad and Shaw last season so we’ll see what happens going forward. The addition of Matt Cooke should add some grit to them on the fore check, maybe a 7 or 8 seed but a playoff team barring disappointment.

Dallas Stars

Key Player:                Kari Lehtonen and Tyler Seguin

Up and Comer:         Jamie Benn

Dallas made the trade for Seguin in the summer and I wrote the article on why the deal may be a huge risk or a huge reward. But either way they gave up Joe Morrow, Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Matt Fraser to get him and Peverley from Boston.

Whether you like it or not he’s the new face of the franchise, along with Kari Lehtonen and hopefully for Stars fans LW Jamie Benn. Benn has potential to become an elite scorer, a 35G scorer. Seguin will have a lot to do with that in the coming years. Regardless of the presence that veteran D Sergei Gonchar will have, they still won’t truly compete for a playoff spot this season.

They may be in the running to be sellers in the trade deadline and looking to continue the young nucleus they already have LW Valeri Nichushkin with the 10th pick in 2013 to match along with Benn and Seguin in the future.

On defense they have Cameron Gaunce who they hope can continue to grow as a player. The twenty-year old D-man will look to learn from veterans Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar on how to have longevity in the NHL since are around the age of forty.

G Kari Lehtonen has always been known as a future elite goaltender and now with the young nucleus on their way in you have to wonder how his mentality will be. He’s a talented goalie, who will be rewarded if he devotes himself to being a leader and being there in crunch time to keep them in the games their offense stalls.

Like Brobovsky a year ago, Lehtonen has a team that on paper looks inferior but a sold half season could propel a move to help them make a transition instead of continuing to rebuild.

Colorado Avalanche

Key Player:                   Matt Duchene

Up and Comer:            Nathan MacKinnon

The once consistent teams of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy are LONG gone but there’s a bit of optimism in the Rockies with this team for years to come with Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and #1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, who was once compared to Sidney Crosby. But nevertheless of all the hype they’re still very young and need some time to grow up a bit.

Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie were added to the list of forwards that can produce for them but both are average players and on a bad team (at the moment) they can take advantage for better trade value.

The veteran presence of PA Parenteau, Paul Statsny and Alex Tanguay could pay dividends if they were to become sellers but this team like Edmonton was last year is an up and comer in transition. Next year they could take the next step but for now this is a building year.

Defensively they struggled a year ago although they handed Chicago their first loss of the season to end the streak. Other than Eric Johnson they don’t really have much going on there. They passed on Seth Jones to take MacKinnon in the draft so they must’ve thought he’s a future game-changer.

Varlamov is not horrendous like Bryzgalov was for Philadelphia but he’s no franchise goalie either. He struggled at times a year ago, but one great season can change anyone’s opinion on you just ask Sergei Brobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

They’re not too far away from the continuous playoff berths and division titles but it’s not this year I can tell you that much for certain.

Nashville Predators

Key Player:                 Shea Webber/Pekka Rinne

Up and Comer:          Seth Jones

After losing Ryan Suter to free agency and being forced to sign Shea Weber to a deal that strangled the team a bit they got caught in a pickle. Last season’s struggles were attributed to that, they couldn’t score and with Rinne out for some time, the supporting cast lost control of the season.

With the 4th pick I bet all were surprised to see Seth Jones fall to their lap, he’s an 18 year old that many believe can evolve to be an elite two-way defenseman. What kind of impact he has this year remains to be seen.

Another big question has to do with the offense, they have Viktor Stalberg, Mike Fisher, Matt Cullen (at 36 mind you) who have made an impact in other spots of their careers. Stalberg has to recover from a shoulder injury, while Cullen may have nothing left in the tank.

A man there’s hype around is 2008 1st round pick Colin Wilson to fill a big scoring role. An injury last March cut last season short for him. Injuries riddled this time to be the lowest scoring team in the NHL last season.

Roman Josi is predicted to be the sidekick for Norris contender Shea Weber, obviously it’s hard to match what Weber and Suter were able to bring to the table, but other than Kevin Klein (main PK guy) there isn’t much there.

Pekka Rinne is one of the highest paid goalies in the NHL and last season’s numbers would make one think the Predators are getting a fair investment. In 2011-12, he won 43 games as a starting goalie, the team’s lack of production had to do with the performance dip more so than him.

Nashville may struggle again but the NHL is a weird league, so with one emerging player and consistent goal scoring could turn them around.

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