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The Central Division was arguably the best division in the league in 2013-14, the first season under the new four division format. Each team in the division averaged 99 points, the highest average in the league by quite a margin. The Pacific averaged 92 points, the Metropolitan, 91, and the Atlantic, 87. Five of the seven teams in the Central were playoff teams. In a recap, the Colorado Avalanche had a breakout season, capturing the division title with 112 points, 1 point more than the second place St. Louis Blues. The Chicago Blackhawks were not far behind totalling 107 points, good for third in the division. The two Wild Card teams were both from the Central, the Minnesota Wild had 98 points, while the Dallas Stars had 91. The only non-playoff teams were the re-tooling Nashville Predators, with 88 points, and the Winnipeg Jets, who had a rude welcome to the Western Conference, with 84. Following are my predictions for the Central Division standings for the 2014-15 season.
1: Chicago Blackhawks-114 Points
The Blackhawks finished 3rd in the Central Division last year with 107 points. They lost in the Conference Finals last year to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, LA Kings. It’s hard to beat the depth that Chicago bolsters each season. They are solid in every aspect, and have proven that they have a winning team, capturing two Stanley Cups in the last four years. In the offseason, they lost Brandon Bollig in a trade to Calgary for the 83rd overall pick in the past draft. However, they added Brad Richards as a likely 2nd line center, further enhancing their depth, for 1 year at a reasonable $2 million. They also have the promising Teuvo Teravainen coming up, looking for 3rd line minutes this year, he could even take the 2nd line center spot from Richards. Chicago won’t surprise anyone this season, they’ll once again be a powerhouse team near the top of the league, led by the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Corery Crawford.
2: St. Louis Blues-108 Points
The Blues finished 2nd in the Central Division last year with 111 points. They were ousted by the division rival Blackhawks in the first round, going up 2-0, then losing the series 4-2, identical to their 2013 playoff conclusion. St. Louis boasts a very talented and defensively sound lineup. Their only question may be in goal where Brian Elliot and Jake Allen will battle for the starter job. However, with their style of play, goals against shouldn’t be a problem. In the offseason, the Blues signed Finnish UFA Jori Lehtera, likely to play 3rd line centre. They also traded Roman Polak to Toronto for Carl Gunnarsson and the 94th overall pick. Gunnarsson is likely a 3rd pairing shutdown D-man. Then, they signed Paul Statsny for 4 years to be their 2nd line centre and add some production. St. Louis was a Stanley Cup favourite at the beginning of last season and have only improved for the 2014-15 season. Look for them to battle Chicago for the Central Division title, led by Paul Statsny, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo and perhaps even Jake Allen as a Calder candidate.
3: Minnesota Wild-101 Points
The Wild finished 4th in the Central Division last year with 98 points. They were defeated in the second round by the Blackhawks, for the second consecutive year, in 6 games. Minnesota has a spectacular Top-6 and very solid defence. Goaltending is a question, but with everyone healthy, look for Josh Harding to start and Niklas Backstrom to backup. Kuemper could take over later as well. In the offseason, Minnesota lost rental player Matt Moulson. They added Michael Keranen, a 24-year old who lead the Finnish Liiga in scoring last season. Then, of course, they signed Thomas Vanek for 3 years, who will likely slot in 2nd line LW and be expected to produce at least a 30-goal season. Minnesota’s only problem last year was a lack of finish, and Vanek definitely helps that area. Look for them to improve a little bit on their results from 2013-14, led by Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Ryan Suter.
4: Dallas Stars-96 Points
The Stars finished 5th in the Central Division last year with 91 points. They were eliminated in the first round by the Ducks in 6 games. Dallas has assembled an exciting top two lines with multiple stars who are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. The questions for Dallas are whether their defence can hold up through a tough schedule and also, how well chemistry forms between their newly acquired 2nd liners and the rest of the team. In the offseason, Dallas made a giant trade, acquiring Jason Spezza and Ludwig Karlsson from Ottawa for Alex Chaisson, Nick Paul and a 2nd rounder. Then, they also signed UFA Ales Hemsky for 3 years at $4 million per year. Dallas’ downfall last year was a lack of scoring depth, mainly relying on the Seguin-Benn combo, but this year they have a promising 2nd line as well after their offseaosn additions. Expect the Stars to be better, but not significantly better. Time will allow this team to grow and mature together, predict another Wild Card year led by Seguin, Benn, and Spezza.
5: Colorado Avalanche-94 Points
The Avalanche captured the Central Division title last year with 112 points. They were ousted by division rival Minnesota in overtime of Game 7 in the first round. Colorado has a young, fast, and extremely skilled team but, their defence is very questionable are likely won’t be able to sustain their success from last season. Varlamov also finally had an amazing year and needs to prove himself for the Avs to have a chance of repeating. In the offseason, Colorado traded PA Parenteau and a 5th rounder to Montreal for Daniel Briere, hoping for a veteran presence and playoff point producer. They also signed future Hall of Famer, Jarome Iginla, for 3 years at $5.5 million per year. He is expected to play 2nd line RW on a line with MacKinnon, hopefully able to mentor the Calder Trophy winner. However, the Avs did lose Statsny to free agency. Don’t expect Colorado to be able to keep up their success from 2013-14. Their defence likely won’t sustain the pressure and the team will slip up a bit, still look for them as a Wild Card team led by Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly and Semyon Varlamov.
6: Nashville Predators-87 Points
The Predators finished 6th in the Central Division last year with 88 points. They missed the playoffs by 3 points. Nashville has always had a defensive minded team, but after hiring Peter Laviolette as head coach, and acquiring new players, they may have a new identity. They will also have a healthy Pekka Rinne to start the season. In the offseason, Nashville traded Patrik Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh for James Neal, who will be looked upon to lead the team in goals. They signed Olli Jokinen for 1 year at $2.5 million. Then, they signed d-man Anton Volchenkov for 1 year at just $1 million. Also, they have highly anticipated rookies Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg looking to crack the roster. The Predators got better, but don’t expect it to all come together just yet, wait for Jones, and Josi to develop fully for that day to come. Nashville will miss the playoffs for the 3rd straight year led by James Neal, Shea Weber, Seth Jones, and Pekka Rinne.
7: Winnipeg Jets-81 Points
The Jets finished 7th in the Central Division last year with 84 points. They missed the playoffs by 7 points. Winnipeg took over a terrible team form Atlanta but are already developing a very promising team. Their rebuild should take them another 2 years of non-playoff hockey before having a chance. In the offseason, Winnipeg signed Mathieu Perreault for 3 years at a cap hit of $3 million per. However, they did lose Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguhi, who is still unsigned, to free agency. Overall it was a fairly quiet summer and the Jets didn’t do much to improve. On the other hand, they do have kids like Josh Morrissey, Scott Kosmachuk, and Nikolaj Ehlers looking to make the team. The Jets did nothing to improve, but still gained in the ways of their younger players maturing. Anyway, expect Winnipeg to miss the playoffs for their 4th straight year in franchise history led by Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Evander Kane, and Tobias Enstrom.
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Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.