Seemingly year in and year out, the Central Division is one of the toughest in the entire NHL. Not only is competition for the division title is fierce, the rest of the teams underneath are usually right in the thick of the wild card playoff spot race.
In 2014-15, all seven teams earned at least 90 points and accounted for five playoff berths, including housing the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in Chicago. Dallas and Colorado, former Western Conference powers in the long, long ago strengthened their rosters in hopes of making a return to the playoffs. St. Louis and Winnipeg lost big-name pieces, while Chicago re-tooled as they prepare to take a run at a dynasty.
7. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets made the playoffs for the first time since their return to Winnipeg in 2015, being swept in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. There are problems, though. Michael Frolik, a key cog up front, left for Calgary and has not been replaced. Sure, top prospect Nicholaj Ehlers could step in and take his place, but it would be tough to expect quality production across the season from a rookie.
Even more troubling is the fact that the goaltending situation in Winnipeg doesn’t really seem solved. Michael Hutchinson had a great rookie season, though he fizzled out as the season drew to a close. Ondrej Pavelec saw a huge jump in save percentage last year after consistently hovering around a .900 percentage.
There’s also the looming expiring contracts of stars Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. There is strong belief that there isn’t room for both under the Jets’ budget and that one could be moved in-season. If the Jets are struggling to stay in the fight for a playoff spot, this could only expedite the decision to move a huge piece like one of those two. Standing pat may have hurt the Jets for 2015-16.
6. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have been in a similar position the last few seasons: no matter what they do, they find themselves clearly behind the big three in the division, fighting for a wild card spot until the very last days of the regular season.
This offseason was a quiet one, mostly revolving around the re-signing of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk was spectacular in his short time with the Wild last season, but the big question is whether he can continue to build on that success and improve or if he will regress back to something resembling his career numbers. His performance will go a long way towards determining the kind of season the Wild will have.
As for the rest of the team, they will lean heavily on youngsters Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle to take over as the top forwards on the team. They’ll still need big contributions from veterans Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, but the youngsters on the team need to take charge if the Wild are to return to the postseason.
5. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche lost a bit of top-end talent, but may actually be better in the long run. Ryan O’Reilly, he of the seemingly never-ending contract saga with the Avalanche, was finally moved in the offseason. Losing a two-way center of his caliber is never easy, but the Avalanche may have the pieces to replace him.
Part of that starts with the fact that two of the Avs’ most important players – Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson – battled injuries in 2014-15 season. A healthy MacKinnon has the potential to be one of the top offensive players in the league and Johnson is coming off a career-high in goals (12) despite playing in just 47 games. Newly-acquired Carl Soderberg and Mikhail Grigorenko could provide a shot in the arm for the offense as well.
The defense, which has long been the weakness of the team, could see a little improvement thanks to the arrivals of Francois Beauchemin and Nikita Zadorov. Beauchemin is a solid veteran while Zadorov, a youngster just starting his career, could become the physical presence the Avalanche have been looking for. Semyon Varlamov will give the defense all the help they can get as he’s been at his best the last two seasons.
Many expected big things from the Avalanche in 2014-15, but it is this year that they could make their return to the playoffs. Health and better depth should mean a playoff push for the Avalanche in 2015-16.
4. St. Louis Blues
After another dominating regular season, the Blues once again bowed out of the playoffs in disappointing fashion leading many to wonder if the group that was built in St. Louis is capable of getting over the hump and finally living up to their contender status.
Gone are long-time staples TJ Oshie and Barrett Jackman (though the latter has become less a fixture on the defense these days). The Blues got a massive breakout season from Vladimir Tarasenko in 2014-15 and paid him accordingly. They will now lean heavily on he and Jaden Schwartz to drive the team offensively.
On the whole, this is still a team to be reckoned with and a group that should once again challenge for the division crown. The million dollar question – can the Blues get over the hump and make it to the Finals – will be one that looms over them all season long.
3. Dallas Stars
Another year, another season of promise on the horizon for the Dallas Stars. A slow start to 2014-15 rendered a late playoff push moot, so the Stars went out and had their second impactful offseason in a row.
The offense should be one of the best in the West once again in 2015-16. The team already sported names like Valeri Nichushkin, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza before adding another splashy winger in former Chicago Blackhawk Patrick Sharp. Sharp has multiple 30-goal seasons on his resume and should help bolster the second-best offense in the NHL in 2014-15.
Defense and goaltending are still question marks, however. The trade for Jason Demers and the promotion of John Klingberg seemed to help settle things down on the back end for Dallas last season, but the team did lose Trevor Daley in the Sharp deal. Adding veteran Johnny Oduya will be a nice complimentary piece and a useful veteran presence on the blueline.
In net, Kari Lehtonen continues to be a frustrating enigma. He’s got the talent to be one of the top goaltenders in the league, but remains inconsistent. Adding Antti Niemi to the mix gives them another proven veteran that they can turn to if Lehtonen is ineffective.
The Stars will need a better start to their 2015-16 season, but they have all the pieces in place to be a serious threat in the Central Division.
2. Nashville Predators
The Predators were the talk of the West for most of 2014-15, rising from relative obscurity to challenge for the division title. Given the pieces they have in place, this shouldn’t come as a being such a big surprise.
Superstar goalie Pekka Rinne had a return to health and a return to elite status. The defense continues to be one of the best in the entire league, led by star Shea Weber and the very strong complimentary trio of Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis.
Up front, the Predators got a Calder Trophy season out of Filip Forsberg and will look for him to grow on last season’s 26-goal, 63-point effort as both look to take a step forward. The Predators didn’t rock the boat much, taking a flyer on Cody Hodgson as a low-risk, high-reward center.
The Predators trust the group they have, though they do have one thing going for them that most other contenders don’t: cap space. With $12 million in room, this could be the season that GM David Poile makes a big move at the deadline in an attempt to put the Predators over the top.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Who else would be #1?
The defending Stanley Cup champions underwent a busy offseason as they attempted to keep together a contender while battling salary cap issues. Gone are Sharp, Oduya, Brandon Saad, Antoine Vermette, Antti Raanta and Brad Richards. In are Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Artemi Panarin, Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt.
Saad’s loss hurts arguably the most, but highly-touted prospect Teuvo Teravainen will get his first full-time crack at the NHL this year and could help replace that offense. Anisimov will be a quality third-line center and Dano is a highly-talented prospect that could thrive in a place like Chicago.
The defense may have lost a little with Oduya’s departure, but the Blackhawks are anything but hurting on the back end. Winning the division is tough regardless of the team and even if Chicago fails to capture the division crown, they’ll remain on top of the mountain so long as the hold the most important championship.