NHL 2013-2014 Central Division Preview

BlackhawksThe teams in the Central Division are out for blood. Those teams play for keeps and they don’t care that the Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions. The only thing on those teams minds is to win the Stanley Cup. If the Blackhawks happen to be in the way, so be it.  Let’s take a look at what to expect from the division rivals of the Madison Street Hockey Club this season:

I asked some of my colleagues to help me handicap the Central Division. Be nice Hawks fans.

St. Louis Blues by Jeff Ponder of Lets Go Blues Radio @jponder94

The dark and dreary summer for Blues fans has finally ended. During training camp, GM Doug Armstrong struck a long-awaited deal with top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, agreeing on a seven-year extension. The 23-year old rounds out an elite defense, which includes Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak and Jordan Leopold.

The offense saw some changes this summer as well, as left-winger David Perron was moved to Edmonton for Magnus Paajarvi and the Blues added Derek Roy for the departed center position (Andy McDonald retired shortly after the 2012-13 season ended). The goaltending looks to be top notch as well, with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott prepared to continue their friendly battle for the No. 1 job. Rookie Jake Allen was thrown into the goaltending ring last season and is always a viable option in case the Blues need another face between the pipes. The Blues are primed with young talent and a steady offense. Expect this club to battle for top positioning in the Central Division.

Minnesota Wild by Tim Olewniczak of The Hockey Writers

The Minnesota Wild are looking to build upon the success of last season. With the addition of Jason Pominville last April in exchange for several picks and prospects, the Wild sent a bold message to the league that they intend to win in the near term. Minnesota had its difficulties last year in the playoffs where the club exited in the first round at the hands of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. However, the Wild have that experience to draw upon this year and it will make them hungrier down the stretch.

Minnesota has a solid core that includes forwards Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and soon-to-be free agent Dany Heatley, as well as defensemen Ryan Suter, Keith Ballard, and youngster Jonas Brodin. Goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have played solid for the Wild giving the club a chance to earn a win on a nightly basis. There is also great potential in the Wild’s youngsters including forwards Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Zucker. If this group can gel early, look for the Wild to be in contention for a playoff berth. Once they are in the big dance anything can happen. The season hinges upon the Wild’s ability to find consistency early and to remain competitive with their new rivals in the Central Division.

Dallas Stars by Jeff Ponder of the Hockey Writers @jponder94

New jersey. New roster. New team. The Dallas Stars went through quite the overhaul this summer, calling off relationships with head coach Glen Gulutzen, GM Joe Nieuwendyk and left-winger Loui Eriksson. The faces of coach Lindy Ruff, GM Jim Nill and young star Tyler Seguin look to right the ship of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007-08. Jamie Benn will enter his first season as captain as he hopes to lead his team to a top-three finish in the Central Division to ensure a playoff berth. The team’s goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, has put up respectable numbers during his tenure with the Stars (although no one knows it outside of Dallas). A team that is led by coach Ruff is always capable of achieving greatness.

Winnipeg Jets by Luke Dixon of  Sun Belt Hockey @LukeCODixon  @SunbeltHockey

Now in their more proper geographical division, the Winnipeg Jets will attempt to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the franchise’s only previous playoff appearance.

This offseason Jets management didn’t make too many flashy moves as they added solid veteran wingers former Chicago Blackhawk Michael Frolik and former Minnesota Wild Devin Setoguchi. They also resigned three key pieces in center Bryan Little, right wing Blake Wheeler and defenseman Zach Bogosian.

Winnipeg resigned all of them to lucrative multi-year deals.

Expectations are high in Manitoba, and although they have two less teams that they have to be better than in the new Western Conference to make the postseason, the talent in the new Central Division far exceeds anything the Jets had to compete with in the southeast division. Besides the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, the Jets have the longest playoff drought of any team in their new division.

The top line of Andrew Ladd, Little and Wheeler should be the Jets most productive, but outside of that threesome, the Jets have had little offensive production. For the Jets to make the playoffs, an added offensive punch isn’t the only needed improvement. They’ll have to make drastic improvements in their defensive play and reduce the shots netminder Ondrej Pavelec faces each night. Winnipeg is knocking on the door of the postseason, and unless drastic changes, which haven’t been made, are made, the franchise’s playoff drought will extend yet another year.

Colorado Avalanche by  Kevin Goff of the Burgundy Brigade @BrgBrigadeKevin  @BurgundyBrigade

The Colorado Avalanche look to make an improvement on their abysmal 2012-2013 season in the new central division. By and large, the competition level is going to be much better in the Central than it was in the Northwest where Vancouver reigned over a bunch of bottom feeders for the past several seasons. Now, with Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Winnipeg, Minnesota and Nashville, there should be a lot to play for every single day. I don’t see the Avalanche finishing in the basement as they did a year ago, their offense is simply too potent. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov looks to take a big step forward this season with the added support and tutelage of Francois Allaire. Varlamov should finally start to take those steps forward everybody keeps wanting from him. The defense remains the big question mark, but I cannot see how this team can be as bad as they were again. Patrick Roy strives for excellence in everything and that mentality will rub off on the team. The Avalanche should finished third or fourth in the new division, and will be battling it out for one of the last playoff spots.

Nashville Predators by Andrew Hirsh of  Sun Belt Hockey @andrewhirsh

For just the second time since the 2004-05 lockout, the Nashville Predators are looking to rebound from a disappointing campaign in which they failed to reach the playoffs. Whether or not they can do so remains unclear, but with the additions of four new forwards — Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom — and the selection of blue-chip prospect Seth Jones, David Poile’s roster looks a lot better than last year’s version that limped to a 16-23-9 record.

The Preds are not going to contend for the Stanley Cup in 2013-14, but they do appear poised to finish in the top eight in the Western Conference. However, with stiff divisional competition from the likes of Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas, Nashville could very well fail to meet expectations for a second straight season, which could put head coach Barry Trotz on the hot seat.

If the Preds can get back to the hard-nosed, tough brand of hockey they’ve emphasized in the past, this should be a difficult team to play against. If not, it will be another long season in the Music City. 

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