The NHL season preview moves to the Western Conference, starting with the new Central Division. This division boasts last year’s Stanley Cup champion and could boast a number of playoff teams this year. As always, teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
The defending Cup champs are looking good heading into the new season. Their intense games with Detroit are now a thing of the past, but they’ll receive plenty of competition from their new division. Captain Jonathan Toews leads the offensive front, supported by Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Chicago is a gritty, tough team, and their defensive core—led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya—won’t allow opposing forwards easy access to the offensive zone. After Ray Emery headed off to Philly, the ‘Hawks brought back veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to back up No. 1 Corey Crawford. If Chicago doesn’t fall into a lull and suffer from “Cup hangover,” look for them to have another successful season and a deep postseason run.
2. St. Louis Blues
St. Louis finished second in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference last season, but went home early after falling to the Kings for the second season in a row. They’ve only made the finals three times (three years in a row, 67-68, 68-69, and 69-70) but have never brought home the Cup. In fact, they’re the only 1967 Expansion team to have not won Lord Stanley’s trophy. Captain David Backes has the support he needs in players such as T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen and Derek Roy. The Blues signed vet Brenden Morrow during the offseason, and the experienced winger should provide some valuable leadership. Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman lead a good defensive squad that will need to play well in front of the net again, after allowing only 115 goals last season, good for second best in the West. Brian Elliott looks to be No. 1 in net, and has a solid backup in Jaroslav Halak. St. Louis can be counted on to play well, especially in recent seasons, and can challenge Chicago for tops in the new Central.
3. Dallas Stars
New coach Lindy Ruff inherits a talented team in the Stars. Dallas has great offensive power, especially in new acquisitions Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Shawn Horcoff. Young captain Jamie Benn will look to lead that offensive charge and vets Erik Cole and Ray Whitney will lend valuable support. Experienced d-man Sergei Gonchar came over from Ottawa during the summer and will have good blue line help in Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley. Kari Lehtonen should be solid in net and put up impressive numbers if he gets defensive help. Dallas may surprise some people with how strong they can be in divisional play. Don’t look for Dallas to repeat missing out on the playoffs this year.
4. Colorado Avalanche
The prodigal returns to Denver, with Patrick Roy taking over behind the bench for the Avs. Roy has one of the best talents in the NHL in winger Gabriel Landeskog, who was named captain over the summer. Landy put up 52 pts (22G/30A) in his 2011-12 rookie season, but only managed 17 pts (9G/8A) in the shortened 2012-13 season. He did only play 36 of those 48 games, and he’ll need support this season from players such as Ryan O’Reilly, Steve Downie, and Paul Stastny. Former Av Alex Tanguay also returns to Colorado, after spending a few seasons in Calgary. Colorado has a good defensive group with Matt Hunwick, Erik Johnson, and Jan Hejda leading the charge. No.1 goalie Semyon Varlamov can be up and down at times, but provides solid net-minding when he’s on. Colorado can be a contender if they find their stride early enough in the season.
5. Nashville Predators
Barry Trotz enters his 16th season as Nashville’s head coach and has never made it past the Conference semifinals. The Predators boast a talented core, with Dave Legwand and Mike Fisher leading the way. The big story of 2013-14 will be rookie defenseman Seth Jones, the Pred’s first-round pick (4th overall) this summer. Jones will hopefully be the player that can truly help out Shea Weber on the blue line and contribute substantially on the back end. Goalie Pekka Rinne put up good numbers in 2013 (.910 save %/2.43 GAA) and can always be counted on to be a solid net-minder. You can never count Nashville out, and with St. Louis and Chicago the only holdovers from the old Central Division, look for the Preds to win games and make a run at the postseason.
6. Minnesota Wild
In their thirteen year existence (including the locked out 04-05 season), the Wild have made the playoffs four times. They have the talent to make a deep run, but haven’t put all the pieces in place yet to be a true Cup contender. Captain Mikko Koivu leads a gifted bunch, and is backed by players such as Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, and Jason Pominville. Center Kyle Brodziak is also a strong contributor on the offensive side. It will be interesting to see if newly-signed vet Matt Cooke and youngster Nino Niderreiter can contribute as well. The Wild have one of the best defensman in the league in Ryan Suter and brought over Keith Ballard from Vancouver to help out. No. 1 goalie Nicklas Backstrom looks to be healthy following an injury before the postseason last year. But, the Wild have a solid back up in Josh Harding.
7. Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg finally comes West and should be content with their new geographical alignment. They do leave the old, weaker Southeast division behind and jump into the tough, new Central. Dating back to their Thrashers days, the Jets have only made the playoffs once, in 2007. They have talent and leadership in veteran center Olli Jokinen and winger captain Andrew Ladd. Youngster Evander Kane can always be counted on to light the lamp and should put up good numbers again this season. Mark Stuart, Dustin Byfuglien, and Zach Bogosian lead the defense, which will need to work hard to reverse their less than desirable goal differential over the past few seasons (-16 in 2013, -21 in 2011-12). Ondrej Pavelec is a good goalie, but has been known to struggle at times. Back-up Al Montoya has only played in 63 NHL games, so it’ll be interesting to see how Claude Noel handles the net-minding duties. The Jets will have to prove themselves early in the season to gain confidence. Unfortunately, confidence won’t carry them through to the playoffs. Their new division is just too tough.
Photo: AP/Elise Amendola
You can read Aaron’s Atlantic Division preview here.
You can read Aaron’s Metropolitan Division preview here.