2015-2016 Central Division Preview

Stanley Cup Champs Blackhawks 2015 (Getty)

Stanley Cup Champs Blackhawks 2015 (Getty)

The Central Division will be one of the most entertaining divisions in hockey which should come as no surprise. This division has no fat, and has seven teams that could find a way to win the division crown. With that in mind I will try to give everyone a bit of insight on each team and lay out where I think they will end the year.

St. Louis Blues' David Backes celebrates. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis Blues’ David Backes celebrates. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis Blues

2014-15 record: 51-24-7

Projected finish: 1st

Who’s in: Troy Brouwer, Andre Benoit, Kyle Brodziak, and Jordan Caron

Who’s out: T.J. Oshie, Marcel Goc, Olli Jokinen, Zbynek Michalek, and Barret Jackman.

Players to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, and Paul Stastny.

Season outlook: The Blues were gone early again this past year when they were eliminated in the first round by the Minnesota Wild. The Blues were viewed as a team that could make some drastic changes over the off-season, but that didn’t happen.

This is still a team that won the Central Division with 109 points last year, so they will be a force in the division again. The biggest hurdle for this team will be getting deep in the playoffs this season. That being said this club has all the tools to keep thier place in the division. Goal-tending has been something of an issue for this club, but their offense and defense always seem to make up for it. The Blues land on top again this season, they are simply stacked on defense and they have a great forward core to support the goalie. For this team to have success they will need Tarasenko to continue to be a scoring threat, but they also need Paul Stastny to bounce back. Stastny never found his rhythm last season after getting hurt early, and he finished the year with 46 points in 74 games. If he settles in he could push this teams offense to another gear with his vision.

Minnesota Wild

2014-15 record: 46-28-8

Projected finish: 2nd

Who’s in: Mike Reilly, Tyson Strachan, and Zac Dalpe

Who’s out: Keith Ballard, Kyle Brodziak, Chris Stewart, Jordan Leopold, and Josh Harding.

Players to watch: Devan Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise.

Season outlook: The Wild really didn’t do much this off-season other than add Mike Reilly who is a promising defensive prospect;  but for this team it’s addition by subtraction. The Wild have a boat load of good young players like Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle looking to take on bigger roles. I see this team being fine on offense, as they didn’t lose any key forwards, and on defense they lost some veterans, but Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin have been showing that they can be difference makers.

I see this team doing very well, but they will again need to rely on Devan Dubnyk. He arrived last season via trade and instantly became a star. The Wild have excellent balance and I see them finishing in that second slot, because of their great depth and skill in all areas.

 

Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks play game 7 Saturday. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks play game 7 Saturday. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

Chicago Blackhawks

2014-15 record: 48-28-6

Projected finish: 3rd

Who’s in: Trevor Daley, Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano.

Who’s out: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Antti Raanta, Kris Versteeg, and Joakim Nordstrom.

Players to watch: Marko Dano, Artem Anisimov, Jonathan ToewsDuncan Keith.

Season outlook: I love how the Hawks maneuvered this off-season, but they will take a bit of a step back. Chicago had their back against the cap wall after winning yet another Stanley Cup, but rather than allowing their roster to fall to pieces they found a way to add some quality players to fill the holes. That being said losing Saad, and Oduya will really hit this team hard. Both of these guys were superb supporting the bigger stars like Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith and with them gone the Hawks will need to find guys to fill huge roles.

Anisimov is a complete player who works very hard every shift and Dano has serious upside so if the Hawks can put these guys in good positions then they will still have success. I see this team having some issues scoring this season. They lost two key secondary scorers, and with Oduya out they will need Keith to take on even more responsibility, so he may have to be more conservative to log more minutes, at least until the bottom three defenders prove that they can get the job done.

There is still very limited information on Patrick Kane, but obviously if he misses any time then that will really hurt the Hawks on the ice.

Nashville Predators

2014-15 record: 47-25-10

Projected finish: 4th

Who’s in: Barret Jackman, Cody Hodgson, and Max Reinhart

Who’s out: Cody Franson, Viktor Stalberg, Mike Santorelli, Matt Cullen, and Anton Volchenkov

Players to watch:  Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg, Shea Weber, and James Neal.

Season outlook: The Predators were a bit of a surprise last year when they jumped from 88 points to 104 finishing second in the Central Division. The Predators are built around their goal-tending and defense; but if they are going to take the next step they will need James Neal to be a more consistent threat. Neal had 61 points in 59 games in the 2013-2014 campaign with the Pittsburgh Penguins; but in his first season in Nashville he played in 67 regular season games, and scored 23 goals to go along with only 14 assists, which is a concerning drop off. Despite a bad regular season, Neal did score four goals in six post season games which should encourage Preds fans.

To back Neal up they will need young studs like Colin Wilson and Craig Smith to take the next step and become 50 point players. I think the Predators have a good season, but they will take a small step back. The moves that Nashville made over the off-season made sense, and I think Cody Hodgson and Barret Jackman could pay off nicely for this club as they could provide great value and depth.

Mike Ribiero will be another critical piece for this team; he rebounded very well for them after having some issues in Arizona, but the nifty center will need to continue his consistent production for this team to hang with the heavyweights in the division.

Dallas Stars

2014-15 record: 41-31-10

Projected finish: 5th

Who’s in: Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp, Antti Niemi, and Patrick Eaves

Who’s out: Trevor Daley, Jonas Enroth, Rich Peverley, Ryan Garbutt, and Shawn Horcoff.

Players to watch: Johnny Oduya, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and Tyler Seguin

Season outlook: The Dallas Stars scored the second most goals in the NHL last season with 261; the issue was that they allowed 260 goals against them. I think Johnny Oduya will help the team tremendously. He can munch minutes, he’s played in every situation one can think of, and he should help this team play with more poise and confidence in their own end.

Jamie Benn led the NHL in points last season, and there is no reason to think that him and Seguin won’t be a force again this year. That being said the questions around this team will still revolve around their defense core. Yes, Oduya was a great add, but such issues aren’t fixed over night. For what it’s worth, I like what this team has done, except for their decision to pay a massive amount of money to two goaltenders. All and all, this team will be better.

Winnipeg Jets

2014-15 record: 43-26-13

Projected finish: 6th

Who’s in: Alexander Burmistrov, Matt Fraser, and Andrew MacWilliam.

Who’s out: Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty, and T.J. Galliardi.

Players to watch: Ondrej Pavelec, Blake Wheeler, Brian Little, and Tyler Myers

Season outlook: The Jets were one of the best stories of this past season, but they lost a key player in Frolik who had 42 points for them and really didn’t replace him. I see the Jets falling off a bit this season; yes they have a really sound back-end, and I am interested to see how Myers looks with this team for a full year, but for me this team lacks a bit of “pop” up front. At this point I see this team relying too much on Brian Little and Blake Wheeler for their goals. Last season the Jets finished fifth in their division with 230 goals, and they didn’t improve.

On the other hand is Ondrej Pavelec; he was good enough for them last season, but he isn’t the kind of goaltender that makes up for the lack of scoring that the Jets have. Pavelec will have to be stellar this year for the Jets to have a shot at getting in. That being said I see them coming in sixth in this very tough division. I love the defense, but too many questions up front to feel confident in this club.

 

Patrick Roy ( Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

Patrick Roy ( Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

Colorado Avalanche

2014-15 record: 39-31-12

Projected finish: 7th

Who’s in: Carl Soderberg, Francois Beauchemin, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Blake Comeau.

Who’s out: Ryan O’Reilly, Jamie McGinn, Daniel Briere, Jan Hejda, and Ryan Wilson.

Players to watch: Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Erik Johnson, and Francois Beauchemin

Season outlook: I see this team finishing seventh simply because they play in such a tough division. There are no easy teams and for me the Colorado defense still lacks the depth to compete against such competition. Beauchemin will help this team be more consistent, but they will need someone other than Erik Johnson to be a wall for them to hang in the race. 

The only team that gave up more goals in their division was the Dallas Stars, the difference is that the Stars have the big guns like Benn and Seguin to make up for the goals against. The way the Avalanche compete will be if Matt Duchene finally becomes the consistent producer that this team needs. MacKinnon went from 63 points in his rookie season to 38 this past year, so if he can get back to being effective this team will have a chance.

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