NHL Offseason Review: Central Division
There was plenty of movement in the Central Division this offseason. In fact, it could be the most improved division in the league at this point.
There's plenty of time remaining in the NHL offseason, but with so much movement before the calendar even struck July 15, there's plenty to be gleaned from what has already happened. Big trades, big free-agent signings and the like have created a rather frenetic few weeks of summer without a single puck or skate in sight.
With that in mind, it's time to recap how the landscape and teams around the NHL have changed with Eye on Hockey's Offseason Review. Whipping around all four divisions, the review will cover the offseason additions and subtractions, the money spent and if teams around the league have successfully taken the strides to improve their teams for 2014-15 this offseason.
It could be said that no division improved more as a whole than the Central this offseason. The two biggest forwards on the unrestricted free-agent market (Paul Stastny and Thomas Vanek) landed within the division and six of the seven teams made major moves in the summer months in an effort to improve their stock.
The movement in the Central this offseason looks like an effort to keep up with the Joneses, with the Joneses being the Chicago Blackhawks. The St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild, each of which fell to the Blackhawks in the playoffs last season, made significant strides to improve their lineups. The Dallas Stars may have been the division's most aggressive club in utilizing both free agency and the trade market to improve on a wild-card finish last season. On the other hand, the division's best regular-season team last season, the Colorado Avalanche, had their share of good and bad moments which could lead to mixed results next season. Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators worked to get out of the lower tier of the Western Conference and the Winnipeg Jets remain paralyzed by an inability to attract free agents.
Things changed quite a bit in the Central, but will that show up in the standings and playoffs? That's the big question, but first, let's take a look at what happened this summer:
In: F Brad Richards (1 year, $2 million)
Biggest acquisition: Bringing in Richards on a one-year deal put the Blackhawks over the salary cap, but whatever subsequent move the team will have to make to get cap compliant will likely be worth it. By getting Richards coming out of a buyout from the New York Rangers, the Blackhawks get great value in the deal and fill the No. 2 center position that has been a revolving door over the years. One of the league's deepest forward groups got deeper and their power play probably improves as well.
Biggest tasks remaining: The signing of Richards is going to require the Blackhawks to shed some salary. They're currently an estimated $2.2 million over the cap. A number of players could be used in trades, like defenseman Johnny Oduya, forward Kris Versteeg or defenseman Michal Rozsival.
Review: The addition of Richards was big for the Blackhawks for next season, but the club also assured that the franchise's biggest stars will remain in Chicago for the foreseeable future and that was bigger. The Blackhawks signed captain Jonathan Toews and super-skilled Patrick Kane to eight-year extensions worth a combined $168 million. They are big deals, but the kind we should start seeing more of in the NHL as the cap rises. They don't kick in until the 2015-16 season, so the Hawks have time to figure out how they'll manage the cap with the two stars taking up a combined $21 million in cap space annually. At this point, it's pretty safe to consider Chicago's offseason a rousing success with its improvement of the roster for next season, while also making a huge move to keep some continuity among stars in the long term.
Biggest acquisition: The Avalanche responded to losing Paul Stastny by acquiring a future Hall of Famer and recent 30-goal man in Jarome Iginla. To expect Iginla to match the production he enjoyed in Boston last season is a bit of a stretch, but there are guys in Colorado that should be able to get him the puck. The real surprise was the three-year commitment to Iginla, who will be 40 years old when the deal is up. The club also went out and got another past-his-prime player in Briere and gave up a legitimate asset in P.A. Parenteau to do so.
Biggest task remaining: There is potential for disaster if the Avalanche don't find a way to amicably resolve the Ryan O'Reilly contract situation. The Avs went for team-elected salary arbitration to try and bring O'Reilly's cap hit down from the $6.5 million qualifying offer he would have been due. While Colorado likely has the advantage in an arbitration hearing, the damage possible to the already fragile relationship between O'Reilly and the team could lead to an exit. Heading into the offseason, the Avs had a shot at bringing back both Stastny and O'Reilly. They have a chance of leaving the offseason without both. How the arbitration hearing goes, should negotiations fail before that, could have a significant impact on the Avalanche going forward especially if O'Reilly wants out of town badly enough. Not only that, but the team does need to re-sign top young defenseman Tyson Barrie, who is a bright spot in a below-average defense.
Review: Losing Stastny was the first blow. The Avs were unwilling match the deal St. Louis offered their longtime center, so that is one they can get over even as it weakens them down the middle. Not improving the defense in any noticeable fashion was the second blow. Trading for Brad Stuart. who is on the wrong side of 30, and claiming he could be a top-pairing defenseman doesn't look like an upgrade in any fashion. Trading Parenteau for Briere was another puzzling moment this offseason. After such a promising 2013-14 season in which the young roster really came into its own, how could the Avs build off that to keep the momentum going? We'll still be left wondering. It is very difficult to say this roster is better at this point than it was last season, but the fact that they have a core of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon is pretty nice. With the rest of the Central Division bulking up, the Avs probably lost more than they gained and with O'Reilly's situation in flux still, it could get worse.
Biggest acquisition: Trading for Spezza and having him waive his no-trade clause to join the team is a major statement from the Stars and general manager Jim Nill, who has been aggressive since the day he took the job. To add a player who has 150 points over his past two full seasons as the No. 2 center on a team with two of last season's top scorers on the first line gives the Stars a terrific top six. Now it's not only the Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn show. The Spezza trade on July 1 also set the table for the next move the Stars made that day in adding Ales Hemsky to get a top-six winger to play with Spezza. Now the league knows that the Stars are ready to compete and they have one of the better one-two punches in the league.
Biggest task remaining: Re-signing restricted free-agent defenseman Brenden Dillon should be the top priority, though the club also has to get RFAs Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel under new deals. Since the Stars haven't done anything to improve their average defense this offseason, Dillon remains a vital piece of the club's present and future. Getting him under a sensible contract that works for both parties will be key before the season. Additionally the club wants to get Spezza under a new deal as his contract is set to expire after the 2014-15 season. That very well could happen sooner than later and probably should, assuming Spezza is willing to take a pay cut on his new deal.
Review: The moves made for the top of the lineup were fantastic. The Stars won't have to rely on Seguin and Benn to do all of the heavy lifting as Spezza's line should be expected to produce as well. All of a sudden, the Stars are a tough team to line match against. While the movement at forward is exciting for the organization, leaving the defense untouched and therefore unimproved could be a bit of a problem. That said, it's a serviceable group that is going to be aided by a forward corps that is going to help the Stars do well in the possession battle. That could mitigate the relative lack of movement on defense this offseason. Overall, there's no question the Stars are going to be better and look more like a comfortable playoff contender than wild-card possibility as they were last season. The summer has been good to Dallas so far.
Biggest acquisition: So the thing that everyone expected to happen this summer actually happened when Vanek signed a three-year deal with the Wild. As his adopted home in the United States after playing his college years at the University of Minnesota and residing locally during the offseason, Vanek's choice was as much about comfort as it was money. That the Wild got him at a relatively affordable star contract at $6.5 million a year and at a terrific three-year term makes this a real win for the club. The Wild needed more production from its forwards. Vanek, for the entirety of his career, has produced. He had 68 points last season, which would have been tops on the Wild, and at 30 years old, he appears far from done.
Biggest task remaining: After taking such strides last season, his first full time in the NHL, Nino Niederreiter figures prominently in the Wild's future plans. As a restricted free agent, he doesn't have a ton of leverage for a big-money deal and the Wild certainly have a good case to keep his cap number low. Another really important deal to get done is with Darcy Kuemper. Considering the uncertainty of the Wild's goaltending situation with Josh Harding's health concerns and Niklas Backstrom's injury history, Kuemper is a rather important piece. He performed well in limited action and ended up getting between the pipes for the playoffs before getting hurt. Both of these negotiations should go off without a real hitch for the Wild as both players have much to prove in their next deals.
Review: To add Vanek to a group that includes Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund makes for an improved top six and leads to potential for a much more productive season for all. The Wild's defense, however, remains a concern. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are well established at this point, but Clayton Stoner will need to be replaced and it doesn't look like the Wild have a lot of options to do that effectively. There are young players that may need to take on bigger responsibilities, but that won't ease the minds of an organization already dealing with a rather delicate goaltending situation. The Wild appear poised to do some big things in the Central next season, but it might not be without first finding a way to improve the defensive corps to lighten Suter's load.
Biggest acquisition: By swinging a trade for Neal at the NHL Draft, general manager David Poile showed that he was not going to take the Predators' lack of scoring punch lightly. In acquiring Neal, the Preds did have to ship out one of their most productive forwards of the past few years in Hornqvist, so it was important to make sure that Neal wasn't the only offensive contributor added to the roster. That's why the recent acquisition of Mike Ribeiro could be a nice complement to the blockbuster trade that landed Neal. Having a former 40-goal scorer is big, but someone needs to get him the puck. The Preds will have to hope that can be Ribeiro, though he's quite the step down from the last guy who was feeding Neal a lot: Evgeni Malkin.
Biggest tasks remaining: The Predators should be pretty well set at this point. All they really have to do is work out a deal with restricted free agent Ryan Ellis. The defenseman had 27 points last season and plays a lot on the power play. He's a pretty good option as a bottom-pairing defenseman and with a few extra weapons to get the puck to up front, he could see an uptick in production. It shouldn't be terribly hard to lock up Ellis on a new and affordable multiyear deal.
Review: The Predators had a lot of issues last season. Goaltending was a big one. Assuming Pekka Rinne stays healthy this season, it's not an issue anymore. That should help the club see some improvement from a season ago. The addition of Neal is going to get the headlines and should, but the fact that the Predators were able to sign three solid veteran centers for a combined $4.5 million is actually one of the most intriguing things about their offseason. Ribeiro, Jokinen and Roy all might have their best days behind them, but bringing them in allows the Preds to keep guys like Craig Smith and Colin Wilson on the wing, where they could continue some offensive development. The same goes for Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg, should they make the team for 2014-15. The Predators are unlikely to be a playoff contender due to the strength of the Western Conference, but they should be better than they were last season and could hang around for a while in the playoff chase.
In: F Paul Stastny (4 years, $28 million), F Jori Lehtera (2 years, $5.5 million), D Carl Gunnarsson (trade)
Biggest acquisition: The Blues handed Stastny the richest annual deal of any unrestricted free agent signed on July 1, helping to improve their depth down the middle while also weakening a Central Division foe. The $7 million annual cap hit that comes with Stastny's four-year deal is certainly high, but he was the top center on the UFA market and will help the Blues at both ends of the ice. Additionally, Stastny, who spent a good portion of his childhood in St. Louis, was a top playoff performer with 10 points in seven games for the Avs last season. The Blues needed to beef up offensively to keep up with the likes of the Blackhawks in the Central and adding Stastny will help, but even with all that money spent, will it be enough?
Biggest tasks remaining: With the unfortunate departure of Vladimir Sobotka to the KHL, one of the Blues' most important offseason negotiations ended on a sour note. Sobotka's agent says his client signed due to a contract dispute that amounted to a $300,000 difference between the two parties. The Blues are still going through their team-elected arbitration hearing even though Sobotka is gone. That turns the attention now to Jaden Schwartz, who is also an RFA and is coming off a terrific season in which he posted 56 points. The former first-round pick is a big part of the Blues' future and will have to be paid as such, but the Blues are in a bit of a cap crunch ($3.4 million from the ceiling) at this point and will have to make sure Schwartz's new deal works in both the short term and long term.
Review: It has been a weird two weeks for the Blues. They made improvements to the roster with Paul Stastny and they're also taking a chance on Finnish star Jori Lehtera, who very well could be a good No. 3 center for the club. If these deals pay off, the Blues have a pretty decent top nine forwards with some scoring punch throughout. That will help them compete in a tough Central, and have success. It would have been even better had Sobotka been a part of the roster for next season. He is an important defensive forward who made the Blues tougher at the bottom of their lineup. Instead, the club handed Steve Ott $2.6 million a year for the next two seasons and beyond faceoff prowess, he brought little to the Blues last season after being traded there. The defense was terrific last season and remains largely unchanged save for the trade of Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak, which may be a slight improvement for St. Louis. The goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen will be an interesting experiment, but both are more than capable of keeping the Blues competitive. They look like a surefire playoff team and are a bit more threatening heading into next season in terms of offense. Will the moves put them over the top to compete against rival Chicago? That remains unclear.
In: F Mathieu Perreault (3 years, $9 million)
Biggest acquisition: Well, this is easy enough. Perreault kind of fell into the Jets' laps after the Anaheim Ducks surprisingly didn't present a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent, but he's the only addition of note. The Jets may have had to overpay a little bit, but Perreault is going to make them better next season as a possible No. 2 center. He had 43 points last season, by far his best performance as a pro.
Biggest tasks remaining: The Jets do have to get a new deal worked out with restricted free agent Michael Frolik, but eyes are on Winnipeg and trained specifically on Evander Kane. The standout forward has had a bit of an interesting summer as trade rumors continually swirl around him. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said the team is moving forward with Kane as a member of the Jets, but for how long? It seems as though there could be a fraying relationship between the player and team as Kane was noncommittal when asked about his desire to remain with the club recently. If the Jets were to trade the talented 22-year-old, they would need a monster package in return. Will it happen? Probably not, but Kane remains a player that is going to garner a lot of attention as trade rumors continue to heat up.
Review: It must be a tad frustrating to be a Winnipeg Jets fan. Here, they had been eagerly waiting for the NHL to return and now that it does, the team can't bring in any players of note. The team's most vital players were all brought in while the team was known as the Atlanta Thrashers. No major free agents and no major trades to speak of to improve the team in Winnipeg have left the Jets running in place mostly. The success drafting with Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba making an impact on the roster is encouraging, but there's nothing else happening, which means the good people of Winnipeg may be waiting years for a contender. If the Jets finish anywhere outside of the Central Division basement next season, it will be a big surprise.
The Oilers' young star remains seriously unfair
David Kelly, a Toronto-born hockey analyst, has strong advice for Edmonton vs. Chicago game...
Gary Bettman says otherwise, for the time being, but Houston could be primed for a team
Here's what you might have missed across the NHL on Wednesday night
Ovi breaks down doors in Virginia
Winger also says he will no longer raise a fist during the anthem after his protest started...