By comparison, the Western Conference has it easy, with only eight teams left to fight for two spots. Does it make it any less challenging? Not really, but it will be something to play with at the end of the season. "Which Eastern Conference team got screwed?" I can already see all of the blogs and Twitter rants about it now.
But that's not what now is about. We take our preview to the aforementioned Western Conference (read the Eastern Conference here and here) with a look at the Central Division - the home to the defending Stanley Cup Champions and a potential champion this year as well.
The Blackhawks took full advantage of the shortened season last year. They used their speed to win games during the regular season, including 24 straight games with a point during the regular season. The roster hasn't changed much since the final buzzer went that awarded the 'Hawks the Cup. Dave Bolland, who scored the Stanley Cup winning goal, was traded to the Leafs shortly after the season. Ray Emery left to fight for the starting job in Philadelphia. That's all well and good for Chicago as they have shown forward depth to replace Bolland without mentioning the likes of Toews, Kane, and Hossa. Emery would be the back-up as the Blackhawks inked Corey Crawford to a six-year contract extension in September. On defence, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook lead the defence and could both potentially make Canada's team for Sochi. Chicago also has players on the blue line that are tough and will get down to block shots. This could be another shot at the Cup for the Blackhawks. That's funny since they just recently broke their 49-year drought in 2010.
A new season for the Avalanche brings a new coach into the mix. Straight out of the QJMHL, Patrick Roy comes back to his former team to lead them back to the playoffs. He has a young team to work with, including players such as Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene. However, that inexperience is one of their biggest problems. The team is prone to going on losing streaks they can't bring themselves out of before it's too late. One of the reasons could be the offence. In the 48-game season last year, only two players had above 40 points (Duchene and PA Parenteau with 43). The next closest player was Paul Statsny with 24. Defensively, only five of the players who played more than 25 games had a positive plus-minus rating. How much of that was the goaltending? Semyon Varlamov has 21 regulation losses in 33 starts, with a save percentage just about .900. It could be another rough year for the Avalanche. However, this division seems to have a wide open race for the third playoff spot. If someone like Varlamov catches fire, it could be enough. But, most likely they'll finish near the bottom of the division.
Bolstered by a new uniform design and logo, the Stars made some changes on the ice as well. One of the biggest moves was acquiring Tyler Seguin from Boston for Loui Eriksson. One of the underrated players coming over in the deal is Rich Peverley, who should help shore up the third line. They also added Shawn Horcoff, who desperately needed a change of scenery from Edmonton. The defence is pretty strong with puck-moving defencemen like Alex Goligoski and Sergei Gonchar. I've always liked Trevor Daley's game, and Stephane Robidas rounds out a quality top-4. Kari Lehtonen will get the lion's share of starts between the pipes. He's a strong goalie who had a goals against average of 2.66 last season. With new captain Jamie Benn, this team is going to make a very strong run for third place in the division.
The Wild made the biggest splash last offseason when they signed both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise for identical, expensive contracts. After a short camp and season last year, expect the chemistry with the team to be better after adding those big ticket players. Also great for Minnesota was the addition of Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last season from Buffalo. He adds leadership, scoring, and grit to the team, making the Wild that much harder to play against. Nino Niederreiter was added at the draft from the Islanders and his speed could add some life to the offence. He is able to create and score when giving the opportunity, which was hard on Long Island with all of the young players trying to find a spot. Sutor anchors the blue line with a good mix of veterans and young players. They should be an improved unit over last season. As for goalies, Josh Harding was the feel-good story of the NHL last season, playing extremely well while battling MS. Combined with starter Niklas Backstrom, the Wild will be hard to score against. They will be one of the teams in the mix for either the Wild Card or third place in the division.
The Predators may have got the steal of the 2013 NHL Draft when Seth Jones fell into their lap at the 4th overall selection. Thought to be the best prospect in the draft for most of the season, Jones will be a significant player in the future for the Preds. He looks like he has made the roster this year, so the learning curve for the young defenceman will be steep. The rest of the unit is led by captain Shea Weber, and will be a strong point for the team. The team will be offensively-challenged, especially with Martin Erat being traded to the Captials last season. It'll be interesting to see how Filip Forsberg fits onto the roster as well. Pekka Rinne will be very strong in net again for Nashville and will be one of the reasons they potentially make the playoffs. If he has an off year, Nashville will be at the bottom of the conference again. He'll have to step his game up to make this team competitive.
St. Louis Blues
This will be the team to challenge the Chicago Blackhawks for the division crown. Why? The St. Louis Blues are deep. They can confidently put out any of their top-6 defencemen at any time. Fresh off a big contract extension, Alex Pietrangelo is the best player of the unit and has a strong chance to make the Canadian Olympic team. Offensively, they added Brenden Morrow a couple of days ago, traded for former-Oiler Magnus Paajarvi, and signed Max LaPierre for some grit. They are still a very physical team all-around, and have a balanced offensive attack to go along with it. The Blues can also be confident either putting Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak in between the pipes on any given night. The Blues will definitely be a playoff team this year, with a potential to go very deep in the playoffs.
This season will be key in determining how travel really effects an NHL team over the course of a full season. With Detroit moving into the East, Winnipeg is now in the West - and rightfully so. It will definitely help their travel schedule as they don't have to consistently fly to places like Florida and Tampa Bay. In net, Ondrej Pavelec has been solid for the Jets and should continue to play well for the team. The Jets have some solid defencemen in players like Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien and Marc Stuart. They also have some young players who can come up and have an impact on the blue line. The forwards are led by Andrew Ladd, who has grit and puts the puck in the net. Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane can both score in bunches for Winnipeg. Mark Scheifele will have a very good rookie season, with Calder Trophy potential. The Jets were really close last year to making the playoffs for the first time since the relocation. They will be close again.
Now, here is how the division will finish:
- Chicago Blackhawks
- St. Louis Blues
- Dallas Stars
- Winnipeg Jets
- Minnesota Wild
- Nashville Predators
- Colorado Avalanche
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