We’re just a few days from the start of the NHL season and this time we’re going to take a look at the Central Division, which boasts the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. There some changes from the old Central as the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets got moved to the Eastern Conference. However, there will be some good rivalries in the division. If you like (or don’t like) what I have to say, please leave comments below. You can also follow me on Twitter @DanMountSports.
Here are the previous division previews.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Last year: 36-7-5, 1st in Central Division (Won Stanley Cup over Boston)
Player to watch: C, Jonathan Toews. Patrick Kane may grab all the headlines as the offensive star, but the captain is the heart and soul of this team. He’s the major piece of what could be a dynasty.
X-Factor: G, Corey Crawford. Usually I pick x-factors as people that haven’t won anything. Crawford is a little different as he was a rock in net for the Blackhawks. However, he did split time with Ray Emery before winning the job. Crawford will now be the man and the number one choice in net.
Forecast: There’s no reason that the Blackhawks can’t repeat. I know that teams will be gunning for them because they’re the champs. (It also doesn’t help in having to deal with the old Sports Illustrated "Curse." This team is one of the most complete teams I’ve seen in recent memory. They have great playmakers on offense. They are solid on defense and have good goaltending and have a great coach in Joel Quenvillle. Anything less than winning the Cup, will be a disappointment for the Blackhawks.
2. St. Louis Blues
Last year: 29-17-2 2nd in Central Division (lost to Los Angeles in first round)
Player to watch: C, David Backes. He is one of the best two-way players in the game. His offensive production may have been down last year, but he’s stellar winning faceoffs and locking down the other team’s top offensive player.
X-Factor: Goalies Brian Elliot, Jaroslav Halak and Jake Allen. The Blues have a rare situation of having three capable goalies that can start. Halak has dealt with a series of injuries over the last two seasons, while Elliot has made a few slip ups in net that has warranted keeping Allen on the roster. Allen is 22 and could get time in the minors if Halak or Elliot become the number one. If one of the younger goalies takes the job, you could see Halak getting dealt to get the team a front-line scorer.
Forecast: The other main concern for St. Louis is the lack of a true number one scorer. The team is looking to do things by committee. They do have a lot of depth and young players like Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko. (In fact, EA Sports and The Hockey News have projected that Blues winning the Stanley Cup.) If they can sort of the scoring and decide on a number one goalie, then they can challenge the Blackhawks.
3. Minnesota Wild
Last year: 26-19-3 2nd in Northwestern, (Lost to Chicago in the first round)
Player to watch: LW, Zach Parise. He started off slow, but really picked up his scoring later on in the season to push the Wild into the postseason. The Minnesota native does have a lot of pressure to perform as a big part of ownership’s free agent spending spree last season that brought in defenseman Ryan Suter.
X-Factor: RW, Jason Pominville. He came over from Buffalo at the trade deadline and filled in after Dany Heatley went down with an injury. However, Pominville ran into his own injury problems and wasn’t much help in the first round series against Chicago. He’s capable of playing anywhere and is a good second line player.
Forecast: The Wild aren’t deep but have good young players like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund. These young guys will need to produce if this up-and-coming team wants to continue its rise. The goalie situation is also tenuous as Nik Backstrom is coming off an injury and Josh Harding is heroically dealing with MS. I do think the young guys step up and give the Wild a boost.
4. Dallas Stars
Last year: 22-22-4 5th in Pacific Division (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: C, Tyler Seguin. The embattled star was part of a blockbuster trade that sent him and Rich Peverley among others to Dallas for Loui Eriksson. Seguin is being moved to the center to help a thin center corps. He’s taken faceoffs before, but it may take some getting used after playing right wing for so long.
X-Factor: The defense corps is the main question mark for the Stars. It’s been a problem for the last few years. They did pick up Sergei Gonchar, but he’s 39 years old and the other blueliners like Alex Gologoski and Trevor Daley are less than six foot tall. The other top defenseman Stephan Robidas is 37.
Forecast: There is some good talent in Jamie Benn (who is also moving back to his natural position at left wing.) and made some great moves in the offseason thanks to General manager Jim Nill. They do have some depth issues and will have to address those. They will be in the mix for the playoffs.
5. Nashville Predators
Last year: 16-23-9 5th in Central Division (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: G, Pekka Rinne. He did all he could to keep the Preds in the playoff race with a 2.43 goals against average. The Finnish goalie is coming off a hip injury, but has looked solid in his all of his exhibition season starts.
X-Factor: D, Seth Jones. Many were shocked when the projected top pick in some people’s draft boards fell to Nashville at the fourth selection. He has high expectations because he’s showed that he has a solid two-way game. He’s drawn comparisons to his teammate Shea Weber. Jones has something to prove to the teams that passed on him.
Forecast: The Predators do have the players (Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist and David Legwand) and the coaching (Barry Trotz) to get into the playoffs. However, the Preds need to find the offensive touch in order to get to the postseason and possibly save Trotz’s job. It depends on how quickly Jones and fellow young defenseman Roman Josi develop.
6. Winnipeg Jets
Last year: 24-21-3 2nd in Southeast (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: LW, Evander Kane. He’s a forward that is young and just entering the prime of his career. Kane is coming off surgery, but is ready to go for the start of the season.
X-Factor: RW, Devin Setoguchi. The Jets acquired him from Minnesota in the offseason. He’ll be placed on the second line with Kane and either Olli Jokinen or Mark Scheifele. Setoguchi is top-six scorer this team needs.
Forecast: The Jets aren’t a bad team, but they don’t have any players that really jump out at you. The team got its wish to move closer to its geographic rivals. However, the Central Division is whole lot harder than the Southeast. Coach Claude Noel could be on the hot seat if the team doesn’t improve.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Last year: 16-25-7 5th in Northwest Division (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: F, Matt Duchene. One of the nicest guys in the league and is also fighting for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. He’s growing as an offensive player and will be motivated.
X-Factor: Patrick Roy. No he’s not returning to play goal for the Avs, but he’s the new coach. He turned the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League into a perennial contender, but the NHL is the big time. The team is already adopting his demeanor.
Forecast: This team will be good… next year. There’s a lot of young firepower in captain Gabriel Landeskog, Duchene, top pick Nate MacKinnon and the always underrated P.A. Parenteau. However, the defense is a big red flag. Erik Johnson has not lived up to the hype. I think the Avs will grow, but the defense needs help.
That’s it for the Central. I’ll be back with the Pacific Division and my playoff predictions.
Dan Mount is an NHL and college football writer for TJRSports.com. He is based in Watertown, NY.