NHL Puck Drop: Central Division Preview
Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season. Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page. Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Central Division.
The Central Division looks drastically different from last season due to the NHL realignment. The Detroit Red Wings, a team who has existed in this division since its origination in 1993, moved to the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. Another team leaving the Central is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who moved to the Metropolitan Division. The newly structured division consists of the following teams: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets, and the Nashville Predators.
If you click on the team name, you can read the full preview on that team from a fellow LWOS writer. Our hockey writers weigh in with their own versions of the division standings at the end.
7. Colorado Avalanche, (2012-2013- 39 points, 29th Overall, 15th in Conference, 5th in Northwest Division)
Coming off a dreadful season that was filled with an absence of scoring and a porous defense, the Colorado Avalanche are in the rebuilding stage of their franchise. Coming in last place in the Western Conference was the last thing coach Joe Sacco wanted for his team. In the offseason, the Avalanche decided to make a coaching change. Replacing Sacco would be a man very familiar with the organization, Patrick Roy. He was not the only Avalanche alumni that re-joined the team. Joe Sakic is now the Executive VP of Hockey Operations and Adam Foote is one of their defensive coaches. Alex Tanguay is back, still playing after his 13th season in the league. Although the change in the management is a good start, the Avs still do not have the team ready to contend in the Western Conference.
There is an upside in the future for them, though. With the first pick in this year’s draft, Colorado selected Nathan MacKinnon. He has the potential to become an offensive force in this league, considering he was only 17 years old when he was drafted. Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and captain Gabriel Landeskog lead this team, but I do not see them being able to climb up the Central. The defense needs to improve dramatically if this team wants to return to the postseason. Semyon Varlamov isn’t as solid as he was in Washington, and will need to be if they want to get better. For now, too many moving parts prevent them from becoming a playoff team. Prediction: 12th in Conference
6. Nashville Predators, (2012-2013- 41 points, 27th Overall, 14th in Conference, 5th in Central Division)
Obviously, this Predators team performed very poorly in the 2013 season. Missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008-2009, GM David Poile was a very busy man when the offseason rolled around. Grit and aggressiveness were added to the team in the form of Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom. Viktor Stalberg, fresh off his Stanley Cup victory in Chicago, has a chance to play a bigger role on Nashville. He has elusive speed that enables him to get back deeps and has a quick release when he pulls the trigger. Matt Cullen was arguably the biggest addition the Preds acquired through free agency. The issue with Nashville is their offense. David Legwand and Mike Fisher can’t score all the goals, so hopefully Cullen can center that line and make some magic happen. Other than that, the Predators don’t have any other top forwards that can score. Their defense should be stable with Shea Weber and 2013 4th overall draft pick Seth Jones along the blue line. Jones has great speed for a defenseman and is a big body that throws his weight around. He has a great coach in Barry Trotz that will certainly show him the ropes and do everything he can to get his team into the playoffs. Pekka Rinne should be impressive as usual with his 6’5” frame standing in between the pipes. Prediction: 11th in Conference
5. Winnipeg Jets, (2012-2013- 51 points, 18th Overall, 9th in Conference, 2nd in Southeast Division)
Last year, the Jets were one seed and six points away from making the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg in 2011-2012. Instead, the Washington Capitals took home the Southeast Division title. Now in the Western Conference, the Jets are hungry for more. With Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd leading the offense, there is no reason why they can’t make the playoffs. Those three combined for 120 points. Adding Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik in the offseason should help with the penalty kill and the power play. The problem is their defense. Aside from the big Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, the Jets don’t have any more shut down defenseman. Sure Mark Stuart and Zach Bogosian have the potential to excel, but they lack consistency. However, the Jets have a rookie defenseman that has the potential to win the Calder Trophy this year, Jacob Trouba. Trouba was drafted 9th overall in the 2012 draft. Now at 19 years old, he has won a World Junior gold medal (for USA) and is ready to get some NHL experience. If Trouba helps the defense or not, their goaltending is going to have be superb in order to make the playoffs. Starter Ondrej Pavelec needs to be strong in the crease if the Jets want a shot at the Stanley Cup. There hasn’t been a lot to convince me that he’ll be able to compete with the Blues, Hawks, and Stars offenses firing away at him. It can go either way at this point, but with the defense Winnipeg puts in front of Pavelec, I don’t think they will make the playoffs this year. Prediction: 10th in the Conference.
4. Minnesota Wild (2012-2013- 55 points, 15th Overall, 8th in Conference, 2nd in Northwest Division)
After a four year absence, the Minnesota Wild qualified for the playoffs last year. They clinched the eighth seed and faced off against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The series lasted five games before the Wild were sent home packing. This season, I believe, will be a different story. While the Wild lost notable forwards such as Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Devin Setoguchi (and possibly Jason Pominville), they still have plenty of offensive talent capable of putting up big numbers. Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, and Zach Parise make up one of the more dangerous lines of the Central Division. These three can skate with the puck, dish it off, and finish with excellence. In the offseason, the Wild went after the one thing you need in this league, toughness. Signing the always controversial Matt Cooke opened a lot of eyes for teams in the Western Conference. While Cooke has cleaned up his act (for the most part), nothing is going to stop him from running through players standing in his way. Keith Ballard and Jonathon Blum were also signed to shut down defenses with their checking. Also on defense is Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter. The biggest question mark on this team is if young guys like Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker will contribute to the goal scoring. If those two are successful, their offense will have a significant jump in their step. In the net is Niklas Backstrom, who is one of the most underrated goalies in the league in my opinion. Throughout his career, he has always stood tall and put up impressive numbers despite how his team is built around him. The Wild will once again make the playoffs, but where they go from there lies in their own hands. Prediction: 8th in the Conference
3. Dallas Stars (2012-2013- 48 points, 21st Overall, 11th in Conference, 5th in Pacific Division)
New to the Central along with Minnesota, Colorado and Winnipeg, the Dallas Stars are hungry for a new start. They have new jerseys, a new logo, a new coach (Lindy Ruff), and new superstars capable of bringing this team back to the Stanley Cup. Their offseason was a bit busy. Newly appointed General Manager Jim Nill traded away top forward Loui Eriksson to the Boston Bruins in return for Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley in a blockbuster deal. Nill didn’t stop there. He also went out and traded for Oilers center Shawn Horcoff and Senators veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Backing up starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen will be former Lightning goalie Dan Ellis. These changes to their roster will pay dividends in the regular season. Adding Seguin and Peverley create a very dangerous first line with Jamie Benn. The possibilities of those three together are endless, provided that Seguin doesn’t make headlines off the ice like he did in Boston. Horcoff and Gonchar both bring experience and skill to the table, making Dallas a team that will compete in this new division. Their top six forwards have the potential to put up points at will, but only time will tell if they will ever reach their goal. If Lehtonen returns to form like he was in 2011-2012, we could possibly see a Stanley Cup back in the Lone Star State. When he is on his game, Lehtonen can dominate the crease and make the 6×4 opening look like a brick wall. Similar to Pekka Rinne, Lehtonen uses his larger frame (6’4”) to transition from post to post quicker. It will be very tough to play against the Stars in 2013-2014, and the future is looking brighter. Prediction: 6th in Conference
2. Chicago Blackhawks, (2012-2013- 77 points, 1st Overall, 1st in Conference, 1st in Central Division)
This was probably my toughest decision, and I expect a lot of criticism for it. The Chicago Blackhawks will not win the Central Division. They are fresh off their recent Stanley Cup victory and hope to repeat and capture their third cup in five years. Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, and Ray Emery are the most notable subtractions from their roster. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and the rest of core remain intact. The offense will get the job done, as always. So what is standing in their way? Goaltending. I don’t believe Corey Crawford will replicate his stellar numbers from last year. Many fans were not expecting him to do so well either, with his previous track record. The defense the Hawks put in front of him limited the scoring opportunities he faced every game. There was not the traditional “goalie stands on his head” games from Crawford in the playoffs. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy, and Niklas Hjalmarsson are the ones mostly responsible for shutting down the opposition and limiting shots on goal. Don’t get me wrong, Crawford is a solid goaltender that had to come up big when he needed to, but I just don’t believe that will happen again this year. The offenses he will be facing in the Central are only getting stronger while the Hawks have basically stayed the same. Losing Emery could provide a big hole in the goaltending scheme if Crawford fails to win games. If that scenario comes to fruition, the next option in net is 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin. In the end, the Chicago Blackhawks will have another great year, but they will not win the Central. Prediction: 3rd in Conference
1. St. Louis Blues, (2012-2013- 60 points, 6th Overall, 4th in Conference, 2nd in Central Division)
The only thing preventing the St. Louis Blues from winning the Stanley Cup last year was their offense. Their defense is one of the best in the Western Conference, along with Chicago. Goaltending is the least of their worries as both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are healthy and ready to go this season. When they were eliminated for the second straight year by the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s playoffs, General Manager Doug Armstrong knew what the missing piece was for his club. The answer was a playmaking center. Derek Roy has been chosen to fit that role. While the Blues have an abundance of talent on the wings, they have lacked a superstar center in quite some time. Roy has the ability to be a difference maker at full strength and on the power play for this St. Louis Blues team. With Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, and Kevin Shattenkirk also creating offense from the defensive zone, there is no reason why the Blues can’t take over the Central. Or is there? The Blues need their offense to succeed and their goaltending to remain strong. David Perron is gone, and Magnus Paajarvi is now here. Alex Steen and Chris Stewart should continue to rack up points. Young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko should contribute consistently now in their second seasons. As long as the Blues stay healthy and the offense puts pucks in the net, they should win the Central Division. Prediction: 1st in the Conference
Now lets look at how some of the other hockey writers feel.
Russell McKenzie (@LastWordBigMick) - 1. Blues -x, 2. Hawks -x, 3. Wild -x, 4. Stars -x, 5. Jets, 6. Avs, 7. Preds
Mitch Tierney (@TheHockeyMitch) 1. Hawks -x 2. Blues-x 3. Stars-x 4. Wild-x 5. Avs 6. Preds 7. Jets
Ben Kerr ( @lastwordBKerr) 1. Hawks-x 2. Blues-x 3. Stars – x 4. Wild – x 5. Jets 6. Preds 7. Avs
Larry Scotti (@Larry_Scotti) 1. Hawks-x 2. Blues-x 3. Stars-x 4. Wild-x 5. Jets 6. Preds 7. Avs
Dom Simonetta (@dasimonetta) 1. Chicago 2. St. Louis 3. Minnesota 4. Dallas 5. Colorado 6. Nashville 7. Winnipeg
Shawn Wilken (@crimsonskorpion) 1. Hawks -x 2. Blues -x Stars -x 4. Wild -x 5. Pred 6. Avs 7. Jets
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