Hockey is almost back, and in honor of it’s return it is time to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and the rest of the Central Division.
With the league’s realignment, the Central name stays, but the teams have changed some.
Gone are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, and in are the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and the Winnipeg Jets. The St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators are the carry-overs from the old division. This shift will work in Chicago’s favor for at least the upcoming season, and the rankings below reflect that.
The other change to remember is playoff seeding.
Gone is the one-through-eight seed set-up. Now the top three teams from each division (there are two divisions again now, instead of three) make the playoffs, leaving the other two positions as wild cards for the remaining teams in each conference. The two first place teams will play the wild cards, with the #2 squaring off against the #3. The West has 14 teams, and the East has 16. The reasoning behind this uneven alignment is for an expected addition of two teams to the league.
*- Denotes playoff team
1. Chicago Blackhawks*- Chicago may have lost a long-time rival in Detroit because of realignment, but gained a few middling teams to feast on. Chicago may have the easiest path back to the playoffs and a top seed because Colorado, Winnipeg, and Nashville are pretty blah. Minnesota was the 8th seed last season, and looked pretty bad against Chicago in the first round. The Blackhawks return a majority of their roster from the 2013 Stanley Cup team, including forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and the seven defensemen who played regularly. Goalie Corey Crawford will have less competition in net with netminder Ray Emery leaving via free agency, so this will be Crow’s first crack at the full-time goalie gig. Youth will fill the roster spots voided during the offseason. Forwards Brandon Saad, Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin, and Brandon Pirri will be expected to be the tertiary scoring with an emphasis on two-way play while playing bottom six forward minutes. Look for a repeat Central Division crown.
2. St. Louis Blues*- The Blues play a bruising game that has good scoring balance between the top three forward lines and defensemen. Their ability to do so have pundits picking them to win the cup, but to do so would include outplaying the defending champs. One area that could keep the Blues from taking down the Hawks is patience. Hotheads like captain forwards David Backes and free agent addition Maxim Lapierre can run their mouths as effectively as playing the game. Center David Roy could prove to be the Blues’ biggest addition if he can get back to his 15-goal, 60 point pace from his days in Buffalo. The defense and goaltending are towards the top of the league.
3. Dallas Stars*- New general manage Jim Nill made immediate changes. In come centers Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley, and Tyler Seguin, and gone are two-way forward Loui Eriksson and young defenseman Philip Larsen via trades. Seguin could be a steal from Boston if his immature decision-making subsides. The Stars drafted Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin 10th overall in the 2013 Entry Draft, and he could be a dark horse for rookie of the year. Unlike most Russian youngsters, Nichushkin decided to come to the U.S. immediately to get used to the American style of the game. The defense is old and could be the biggest liability. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen will steal games this season despite the shoddy blue line. Dallas could be a team to surprise in the Central Division and the Western Conference.
4. Minnesota Wild- The NHL’s most vanilla offense made a minor splash trading fan-favorite forward Cal Clutterbuck to the New York Islanders for forward Nino Niederreiter (say that five times fast). Niederreiter was rushed with the Isles and never caught on with the once-fledgling franchise. A change of scenery should boost his play, but the dump-and-chase style of the Wild could cap his production. Zach Parise is one of the better wingers in the league, and should lead the team in scoring. Ryan Suter is the lead rearguard for one of the youngest and best back lines in hockey. Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon are well on their way to being All-Star defensemen. The most harrowing story in the NHL is backup goalie Josh Harding, who is battling Multiple Sclerosis. He continues to fight the disease and play a demanding position and has played well in the year-plus since his diagnosis.
5. Nashville Predators- Scoring is an issue for the Predators, as well. The team signed centers Matt Cullen and Matt Hendricks and left wing Viktor Stalberg, but none of them are consistent scoring threats. Cullen is more of a playmaker, and Stalberg strictly depends on his straight-line speed. Pekka Rinne is the best goaltender in the world. His defense let him down in 2013, but should be improved with the drafting of defenseman Seth Jones. Jones should play on the back line with star Shea Weber, and budding star Roman Josi. Useless fact of the day: Seth is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones.
6. Winnipeg Jets- “Chicago North” boasts a decent mix of youth and veterans, and former Hawks Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Michael Frolik. “Buff” is one of the best offensive defenseman today, while Ladd and Frolik will play top six forward minutes. Two wild cards for the Jets are the second line center and goalie positions. Center Olli Jokinen is known for playing his way out of a good role, so expect rookie Mark Scheifele to jump in at some point. “Finding that second line center to play with (forward) Evander Kane has been a problem for years now,” said Michael Clifford of FantasyTrade411 and XNSports. “Ironically, of the three centers that Kane played the most with last year (Jokinen, Nik Antropov, and Alex Burmistrov), he was least offensively efficient with Olli Jokinen, but he’s the only one still one the team.”
Netminder Ondrej Pavelec can win games for Winnipeg and very easily lose them, as well. “The problem is, we’ve seen how far he’s taken them the last two years,” said Clifford. “Ondrej Pavelec ranks 21 out of 23 (.906 save percentage) among all goalies that have played at least 75 games the last two years. Also among those goalies, Pavelec is last in goals against average (2.87). The short of it is, he needs to get real lucky for a season in order for the Jets to get to the playoffs.”
7. Colorado Avalanche- Former goalie Patrick Roy is the new coach of the fresh-faced Avalanche. First overall pick from the 2013 draft Nathan MacKinnon will become a star on a team with some gifted scorers. The defense is atrocious, though. Colorado’s leading ice time player on the blue line was rookie Tyson Barrie. Rookies should not be leading you ‘D’ corps in ice time. If this team can figure out a way to keep as many pucks out of their own net as the put in the opponent’s, then this team could be very special sooner than later in the Central Division.
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