Central Division: Team-by-team preview

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Old rivals Chicago and St. Louis could battle for the top spot in the new Central Division. (USATSI)
Old rivals Chicago and St. Louis could battle for the top spot in the new Central Division. (USATSI)

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Perhaps one of realignment's great crimes was the end of one of the best divisional rivalries in the league between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. However, this season could see the strengthening of a well-established rivalry between the St. Louis Blues and the defending Stanley Cup champions, which has heated up in the past few seasons, in the new Central Division.

The Blues and Blackhawks certainly look a cut above the rest of the division, but improving clubs in the Minnesota Wild -- a playoff team last season -- Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets should prevent any sort of cakewalk.

Though the division includes the defending champs, which brings its own prestige, the Central also includes four teams that missed the playoffs last year, including the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche, who were basement dwellers in 2013. For at least this year, the Central looks like it may be the lightweight of the four newly conceived divisions, but there's plenty of intrigue heading into the season.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

Most important player: Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks are a better team when the reigning Selke Trophy winner is on the ice. Toews' two-way play has made him one of the game's elite players.

X-factor: Corey Crawford. The probably rightful Conn Smythe winner, who recently earned a six-year, $36 million extension, will have a big ol' spotlight on him coming into this season. After the numbers Crawford put up last season -- well above his career averages -- and heightened expectations, it wouldn't be a shock to see the netminder come back to earth, at least a little bit. How far his numbers regress, if they do at all, will likely impact the team's spot in the standings. However, another step forward this season and the Crawford as weak link narrative likely gets tossed in the trash.

Unlike the overhaul following Chicago's Stanley Cup title in 2010, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman didn't have to completely dismantle the roster this summer. He did ship out some solid pieces in Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, Ray Emery and Viktor Stalberg, but the biggest contributors to Chicago's remarkable regular-season and playoff success last year remain with the club.

Though the team remains largely intact, there's reason to wonder just how much of a Stanley Cup hangover Chicago will endure. While it can be a played-out storyline for any champion, the Blackhawks are coming off a lockout season with a condensed schedule, a few less weeks of offseason to recover and this year will deal with an Olympics-altered schedule that could wear the team down.

The good news for Chicago is there was essentially zero turnover from a defensive corps that allowed the fewest goals against in the league last season, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. With the same group in front of him, Crawford may be able to at least keep himself close to last season's performance.

The forward crop, led by Patrick Kane, Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, also provides a ton of scoring talent. There are some holes, particularly at second-line center, which could be addressed by Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad, a natural wing; or prospect Brandon Pirri, who led the AHL in scoring last season. The Hawks proved last year they could win without a bona-fide No. 2 center, but it's a new year and secondary scoring is important.

Joel Quenneville will likely need to manage his roster in such a way to preserve some of his top guys over a full season, but Chicago certainly has the talent to return as a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.

Standings with last season's records
TeamWinsLossesOTLPoints
1. Blackhawks367577
2. Blues2917260
3. Wild2619355
4. Jets2421351
5. Stars2222448
6. Predators1623941
7. Avalanche1625740

2. St. Louis Blues

Most important player: Alex Pietrangelo. The seven-year, $45.5 million contract he just signed says how important the Blues think he is. The 23-year-old two-way defenseman logs major minutes against tough competition and excels at it. The scary part is he probably hasn't even reached his full potential yet.

X-factor: Jaroslav Halak/Brian Elliott. After winning the Jennings Trophy as the stingiest tandem in the NHL in 2011-12, the Blues didn't get the goaltending they needed for much of last season. Halak battled injury while Elliott underperformed in a more prominent role. It looks like Halak will be the go-to guy this season and, if he can stay healthy, he makes the Blues a much more dangerous team.

The Blues seem to be a trendy pick to win it all this season and there's at least some reason for optimism. The Blues have a terrific defensive corps led by Pietrangelo and strong puck-movers Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. That group, along with the experienced goaltending duo of Halak and Elliott, could make St. Louis a tough group to score against.

If the Blues are to be a legitimate Cup contender, however, they'll have to find a way to score more goals. St. Louis was a middle-of-the-pack team last year in the goal-scoring department and there wasn't much done in the offseason to address that area. Derek Roy was the big acquisition in free agency and he'll help, but the Blues may need to rely more heavily on the youth to do the scoring.

Vladimir Tarasenko took the league by storm last year as a rookie before a concussion slowed him down. He, along with Jaden Schwartz and possibly rookie Ty Rattie (if he makes the team) could be looked to for increased production. A healthy T.J. Oshie also could add a little more scoring punch to what has already been provided in the past by guys like David Backes , Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund.

3. Minnesota Wild

Most important player: Zach Parise. The Wild ranked 24th in the leage in scoring last season, which somehow was good enough to make it to the playoffs. Parise led the way and with so many young forwards in the lineup, he'll have to do it again. With the losses of veteran forwards Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Parise's offensive responsibility only grows. He'll also have to help guide Minnesota's litany of promising young forwards.

X-factor: Jonas Brodin. Representative of the team's youth, Brodin was dazzling as a rookie rearguard for the Wild last season. Playing beyond his years, he saw top-pairing minutes. About to enter his first full 82-game season, can he handle that kind of work load against top opposition? He'll have to if Minnesota wants to stay in the hunt.

In the first season with its two biggest free-agent acquisitions in franchise history in Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild may have outperformed expectations. Minnesota just barely squeaked into the playoffs, but it was a positive step for a franchise that was in need of a jolt.

Parise led the team in scoring and Suter turned in a performance worthy of a Norris Trophy finalist, paying immediate dividends. What may be most intriguing about the Wild, however, is the level of contributions from the team's younger players and just how much they'll need from them again this year.

Brodin will carry high expectations after his remarkable rookie campaign, as will center Charlie Coyle, who could find himself in the team's top-six this season. More will be expected from Mikael Granlund, who underwhelmed as a rookie last season after years of success in the Finnish pro leagues. Minnesota may also get a bit of a boost from offseason acquisition Nino Niederreiter. The former fifth overall pick of the Islanders, Niederreiter is young but highly skilled and could lend some scoring pop to the lineup.

The Wild have enough quality on the back end with Suter, Brodin, Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon to keep opponents at bay. In net, Niklas Backstrom is still mostly reliable when healthy and could be a real key to the team's success if he can return to form after an injury suffered in warmups knocked him out of the playoffs.

If the Wild can get some solid contributions out of veteran players like Suter, Parise, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu, there will be less pressure on the younger guys to perform and it could result in another playoff berth for Minnesota. It won't be easy, but this team got a year older and has already tasted some success. Expect a pretty hungry Minnesota club coming into the season.

4. Dallas Stars

Most important player: Kari Lehtonen. The Stars are in the process of changing their identity with many new faces and a new coach, which could mean early growing pains this season. That puts a lot of emphasis on Lehtonen, who has been mostly terrific since coming to Dallas in 2009. He can steal games and, early on, he may have to.

Tyler Seguin (USATSI)

X-factor: Tyler Seguin. Discarded by the Bruins, the former second overall pick is just 21 and is only a year removed from a 29-goal, 67-point season. Though off-ice distractions seemed to follow Seguin last season, he is a talented player with room to grow his game even more. He is expected to be put on a line with Jamie Benn, which could prove lethal if Seguin finds his touch after a forgettable 2013.

As mentioned, the Stars are a team in transition. They even changed logos and jerseys. Lindy Ruff has taken the reins in Dallas as the new head coach, which could be interesting given the number of young players Dallas will have to suit up on opening night. Ruff will have no shortage of offensive weapons to deploy, however.

After missing the first several games last year while negotiating a contract, Benn will enter this season with the security of a big deal and a leading role on the team. He'll have to carry a lot of the burden offensively, but the load should be lightened a bit by Seguin, the ageless wonder Ray Whitney and Erik Cole, who put together a 35-goal season in 2011-12 and could be due for a bounce back. The Stars also may be able to put a lot of faith in 2013 first-rounder Valeri Nichushkin, who brings size and skill to the table. If he makes the club, Nichushkin could bring some wow factor.

Defensively, the Stars will have a serviceable group led by offseason signee Sergei Gonchar, who will add some experience to a mostly young corps. Alex Goligoski is coming off a productive 2013 and Brenden Dillon showed much promise in his rookie campaign. Mammoth prospect Jamie Oleksiak should also figure into the Stars' plans in 2013-14. This group, combined with Lehtonen as the last line of defense, should make Dallas a little tighter than it was last season.

With Jim Nill taking over as GM, there seems to be a little more direction for this team and with some solid acquisitions in the offseason Dallas should be improved from a season ago. If the offense clicks and Lehtonen can hold the fort, the Stars should seriously push for a playoff spot.

5. Winnipeg Jets

Most important player: Ondrej Pavelec. Note this doesn't say "best player," but "most important." If the Jets are to take the next step, they'll need their goalie to be better than he has been. Pavelec has been mostly average in Winnipeg, but has flashes of brilliance every now and again. The pieces are in place for this club to compete for a playoff spot, but Pavelec has to put together a consistent season to make it anything close to a reality.

X-factor: Evander Kane. A lightning rod for criticism, usually for off-the-ice and often unfair reasons, Kane was on an 82-game pace for 30 goals last season with 17 in the truncated campaign. At just 22 years old, Kane is entering his fifth NHL season and is one of the better goal scorers in the league. It looks like he has a little more to give, too, which could make him the Jets' most dangerous player.

The Jets came awfully close to a playoff spot last season, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference, four points back from the eighth-place Islanders. Now playing in the Central as opposed to a full schedule of Eastern conference games like the Jets had last season, this is the year Winnipeg has reason to expect progress out of its reacquired team.

Led by captain Andrew Ladd, who has been pretty outstanding since being traded to the then-Thrashers in 2010, the Jets have some firepower up front. Ladd is a guy that can get the job done at both ends, but with a pair of snipers like Blake Wheeler and Kane, Winnipeg should expect to score more goals this season after being a middle-of-the-pack scoring team last year. Bryan Little, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and offseason acquisition Devin Setoguchi should also figure prominently into the offensive gameplan.

The Jets will have to hope for solid goaltending from Pavelec, which has never been a given, but he really is the key to this team making the jump. There are some questions on defense, however, which complicates things a bit. Zach Bogosian still hasn't met the lofty expectations from when he was drafted third overall by Atlanta in 2008, but he was leaned on more heavily last season against tough competition and looked solid. Having good puck-movers and potential blue-line threats in Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom will help quite a bit as well. One of the more interesting players to watch on defense could be 2012 first-round pick Jacob Trouba. He was signed after just one season at the University of Michigan and could step into a solid role quickly.

Due to the strength, or lack thereof, in the division, the Jets have potential to push for a playoff spot this season. It will require big seasons out of the top forwards and goaltender, but if things click, this Jets team could be the best yet since they moved back to Winnipeg.

6. Nashville Predators

Most important player: Shea Weber. The Predators don't score a lot of goals and probably won't again this season, which makes Weber and the Nashville defensive corps vital to any kind of success. Weber eats minutes and makes things difficult for opponents' top lines. He also has an additional responsibility this year in mentoring 2013 first-round pick Seth Jones, who is living with Weber throughout the preseason. The Preds will need Jones to play a big role, so Weber's tutelage will be important.

X-factor: Patric Hornqvist. The Predators scored a league-low 111 goals last season. That's not good. Part of the reason for such a low total could have been because Hornqvist was out for half the season. As a player with a 30-goal season on his résumé, Hornqvist can be the focal point of the scoring attack. If he's not going to be the guy, it's hard to figure out who else could be.

The Preds came crashing back to earth last season without some key players that had turned the club into a regular playoff contender and may need another year or two yet to get back to that status. With the fewest goals in the league last season (this dead horse can't be beaten enough), the Preds are in dire need of an offensive shot in the arm. The offseason likely didn't bring much help in that regard.

The big positives for Nashville, which at least give the Preds a chance to hang around, come in the form of the defense and goaltending. The defensive unit led by Weber, who led Nashville in points last season, is one of the division's best. Adding ace prospect Jones to the mix should only strengthen the club's top four, which also includes the very underrated but extremely talented Roman Josi. The club really needs offensive defenseman Ryan Ellis, who has just 64 NHL games under his belt over the past two seasons, to take a step forward and help contribute some points to support scoring depth.

At forward, the Predators could get a boost from prospect Filip Forsberg, who the team acquired by trading Martin Erat to the Capitals. Forsberg is ready for the NHL game after standing out in the Swedish pro leagues and could add some scoring punch right away. Nashville also can't have another season where Weber carries the mail offensively. Hornqvist, David Legwand, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson need to find a way to boost production.

Another big piece that the Predators absolutely need to click is free-agent acquisition Viktor Stalberg. With stints in Toronto and Chicago, Stalberg has always shown flashes of more offensive prowess than his points suggest, but he has never quite put it all together. Stalberg has never been in as prominent a role as he'll be in with Nashville, which means if there's ever a year to figure it out, it's this one.

Though the Predators should take a step forward from last year, it's tough to see them making the postseason after not adding much to a punchless offense.

7. Colorado Avalanche

Most important player: Matt Duchene. Last season was a drab one for the Avs, but Duchene was certainly a bright spot. With 43 points in 47 games, Duchene looked more like his old self compared to the guy who put up just 28 points in 58 games in 2011-12. As top pick Nathan MacKinnon comes along, Duchene is still the straw that stirs the drink offensively.

X-factor: Patrick Roy. Legends of the game have had mixed results coaching in the NHL and the Avalanche can ill afford a rocky run from their first-year bench boss. Roy has head-coaching experience in the junior ranks, which should be helpful in getting more out of the team's younger players, but the job in Colorado is a tough one that will need patience. Does Roy have enough of it?

When you get the first pick in the draft, that usually means last season went pretty poorly. That would probably be an understatement for the Avalanche, which finished second to last in the league.

The good news is that the young players on this team are continuing to develop and make contributions. Duchene had a great bounceback year and after shaking off an early season injury, young captain Gabriel Landeskog continued to show maturity in his play. Now the Avs add first overall pick MacKinnon, who comes in with a mountain of expectations. He'll join a well-established forward crop that includes two-way aces Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly and one of last year's big surprises, P.A. Parenteau, who tied with Duchene for the team scoring lead in 2013.

The forwards really weren't the problem, though. It was the defense, which was in a word porous last season. The Avs didn't do anything to address the issue in the offseason and will trot out largely the same group that allowed 31-plus shots and over three goals a game last season. That, combined with Semyon Varlamov's woefully inconsistent play, could be a recipe for another long season. Tyson Barrie is a big key to righting the ship defensively. As he enters his first full NHL season, expect Barrie to play a huge role this year.

There appears to be hope on the horizon for this once-proud franchise, but it rests squarely on the shoulders of new president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and Roy to make the hockey decisions now. Neither has experience doing so at the NHL level, so it is unclear just how they'll go about rebuilding this team. They're off to a good start with MacKinnon and locking down Landeskog and Duchene, but there's a lot left to do.

Division Previews: Metropolitan Division | Atlantic Division | Pacific Division, Sept. 18

 
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