2014-15 Preview: The Central Divison

Image from Matt Boulton via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a fan of a Central Division team that doesn’t employ Ondrej Pavelec, you’re probably feeling optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. And you should: this is clearly the best division in the NHL, and all six of its non-Manitoban clubs have legitimate playoff hopes.

Of course, not all six will reach that milestone; at least one will join Winnipeg on the outside looking in. At this time, however, few can agree on how the standings will shake out. The Stars have been projected anywhere from second to fifth; the Avalanche have been slotted everywhere but last. Some are high on the Blues, others are sick of them constantly disappointing.

This uncertainty should make for an exciting year in “Conference III.” Below is a team-by-team breakdown of the league’s toughest division:

Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 46-21-15, third in the Central.
Additions: Brad Richards, Kyle Cumisky, Dan Carcillo (LOL).
Subtractions: Brandon Bollig, Jason LaBarbera, Nick Leddy.

Why they might take a step forward: The Blackhawks came within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final last year, and had they bested the Kings, would have probably won it all. The core stayed in tact, and the addition of Brad Richards gives Chicago some nice depth at center—an area that has not been a strength of late. Blue-chip prospect Teuvo Teravainen will begin the year in Rockford but could provide the ‘Hawks with a big mid-season boost.

Why they might take a step back: Losing Leddy hurts; adding Carcillo will do more harm than good. Still, the only way the Blackhawks get significantly worse is if Corey Crawford or multiple key skaters miss extended time. This team is simply too good to take a big step back when healthy.

Colorado Avalanche
Last season: 52-22-8, first in the Central.
Additions: Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, Daniel Briere, Jesse Winchester.
Subtractions: PA Parenteau, Paul Statsny.

Why they might take a step forward: Nathan MacKinnon could quickly jump from the best rookie in the league to one of the best players, period. Fellow youngsters Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog are on track to become stars, as well. Semyon Varlamov should be a solid option in net, even if he returns to 2011-12 form.

Why they might take a step back: The regression monster looms large. It’s unlikely the Avs can continue to succeed as a poor possession team, and it’s unlikely Varlamov can replicate last year’s numbers—especially during even strength. Varlamov’s 5v5 Sv% of .935 was incredible, but he’s never come remotely close to that mark in the past. Losing Stastny and Parenteau will hurt; replacements Briere and Iginla are well past their primes. Their blue line, now featuring Brad Stuart, could be a sore spot.

Dallas Stars
Last season: 40-31-11, fifth in the Central.
Additions: Jason Spezza, Patrick Eaves, Anders Lindback, Ales Hemsky.
Subtractions: Dustin Jeffrey, Alex Chiasson, Chris Mueller.

Why they might take a step forward: Dallas’ young core, primarily comprised of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin, is ready to do some damage. Jason Spezza and (to a lesser extent) Ales Hemsky are nice complimentary pieces to this youth, and will give Lindy Ruff some added depth from 2013-14. The Stars’ strong possession stats in 2013-14—they finished ninth in FenClose—portend more wins this year.

Why they might take a step back: Kari Lehtonen is injury-prone, and backup Anders Lindback had a rough 2013-14. This team isn’t good enough to make up for subpar goaltending. You can’t put much stock in preseason numbers, but Lehtonen has not looked good of late—nor has he looked good in the postseason, saving just 87.4 percent of shots on goal in eight games. The veteran Finn needs to rise to the occasion this spring and take his game to the next level. Otherwise, another first round exit may be in the Stars’ future.

St. Louis Blues
Last season: 52-23-7, second in Central.
Additions: Paul Stastny, Carl Gunnarsson.
Subtractions: Adam Cracknell, Ryan Miller, Brenden Morrow, Roman Polak, Derek Roy, Vladimir Sobotka.

Why they might take a step forward: The Blues are a very complete team, perhaps the deepest in the NHL. Though St. Louis lacks the star power of Chicago, its top-nine is up there with the best. Couple those lines with a solid D-corps—one that features Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barret Jackman and Alex Pietrangelo—and you have yourself a tough club to play against. Barring a catastrophe, the Blues’ strong possession numbers should lead to a successful regular season once again.

Why they might take a step back: It’s hard to feel confident in goalies Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. Ryan Miller didn’t work out, and the team was smart to let him sign elsewhere, but a true No. 1 netminder feels like the missing piece. Elliott played well last year in limited time, racking up a .922 save percentage in 31 contests, but that came after a rough 2012-13 campaign. His numbers have gone up and down several times over the course of his career, and we just don’t know what the Blues will get from him this time around. If Elliott doesn’t play All-Star-caliber hockey, St. Louis may be in for yet another postseason disappointment.

Nashville Predators
Last season: 38-32-12, sixth in the Central.
Additions: James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Anton Volchenkov.
Subtractions: Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Michael Del Zotto, Patrick Eaves.

Why they might take a step forward: Newly-hired head coach Peter Laviolette is known for making good first impressions. The Hurricanes won the Cup in his first full season behind the bench; the Flyers shocked the Bruins in the 2009 playoffs, mere months after Laviolette was hired. Along with his aggressive, offensive-minded system comes star winger James Neal, who will undoubtedly give Nashville some much-needed scoring help. Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy could return to old form, and Olli Jokinen could be a solid veteran presence. A healthy Pekka Rinne may very well carry this team on his back into the postseason: After all, the Preds fell three points short of the playoffs last year despite losing Rinne for several months.

Why they might take a step back: No longer enjoying the company of Evgeni Malkin, Neal is unlikely to replicate last year’s numbers. From 2012-14, his GF% and CF% dropped when away from the Russian star, and Nashville doesn’t boast a future HOF center of its own. While Preds fans long to see a 40-goal scorer in gold, Neal is more likely to put up 27-33 Gs and be a slight upgrade over Hornqvist. Furthermore, there’s good reason to believe Ribeiro and Roy could flop. Neither fared well in 2013-14, and reviving a career is easier said than done. If the Preds new additions don’t play to—or at least near—their potential, Nashville will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Minnesota Wild
Last season: 43-27-12, fourth in the Central.
Additions: Stu Bickel, Thomas Vanek.
Subtractions: Matt Moulson, Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner, Steve Kampfer, Cody McCormick.

Why they might take a step forward: The Wild’s premier farm system has started to produce at the NHL level, as Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund have ushered in a new wave of talent in the State of Hockey. Minnesota can improve upon last year’s numbers if its young core continues to get better. Losing Moulson hurts, but adding Vanek fills that hole at left wing—and then some. Vanek, a former Gopher who has been tied to the Wild for quite some time, should be good for roughly 20-25 goals. A team often plagued by offensive impotence, the Wild need Vanek, along with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, to take some pressure of the goalies and rearguards.

Why they might take a step back: The Wild posted some middling possession numbers last year, finishing 21st in the league in FenClose. A big reason why Mike Yeo and Co. were able to win a postseason series is because they played against the Avalanche—one of the only other playoff teams with a worse shot differential. Should the Wild continue to struggle in terms of possession, it could easily drop down the Central Division standings. And with Josh Harding out for several months, goaltending is a major problem. Can Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper pick up the slack?

Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 37-35-10, seventh in the Central.
Additions: Mathieu Perreault, T.J. Galiardi
Subtractions: Olli Jokinen, Devin Setoguchi

Why they might take a step forward: For as much criticism as this organization receives, there remains a solid amount of talent on the Jets’ roster. Evander Kane is ready to make the leap into “elite” territory; Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler are all solid up front; Dustin Byfuglien is fantastic, and Toby Enstrom has quietly carved out a strong career. The addition of Mathieu Perreault was a savvy move. After an encouraging spring, Paul Maurice could have a positive impact on this club with a full season to work with.

Why they might take a step back: There’s no way to sugar-coat this—the Jets will continue to be a terrible team as long as they give Ondrej Pavelec ample playing time, unless he hits a lucky hot streak. The veteran goalie has proven he’s mediocre at best, and this team needs an elite netminder to even sniff the playoffs. Pavelec’s Sv% has dropped in each of the last four seasons, down to .901 in 2013-14. Since Winnipeg figures to be an average possession club with depth issues, there’s no reason to even consider this team playoff-worthy.

Projected Finish:

  1. Chicago
  2. Dallas
  3. Louis
  4. Minnesota
  5. Nashville
  6. Colorado
  7. Winnipeg

Bold Predictions:
– Colorado takes a major tumble down the standings; Patrick Roy, Semyon Varlamov and Adrian Dater all get suspended at some point. (Note: I wrote this before Dater’s suspension was announced—I swear!)
– Kari Lehtonen stays injury-free and finally lives up to the hype, leading the Stars and all their young talent to at least one playoff series victory.
–Kevin Cheveldayoff pulls the trigger on his first player-for-player trade as Winnipeg’s GM. It will be for a scrub, and Jets fans will go bananas. (Note: wow, I’m already at two with Budaj)
–Tyler Seguin deactivates his Twitter account three or more times over the course of the season.
–Mike Ribeiro racks up at least 60 points and becomes one of the most hated players in the division.

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