Predicting the Central Division

With the offseason in full swing, most of us are left pondering what this new season will bring.  The so-called “arms race” in the Central Division has been well documented, as practically every team in the division added pieces that should make their team stronger in the upcoming season.  So what will these changes bring?  Hockey is already incredibly difficult to predict, but trying to predict this division that is filled to the brim with talent seems like an almost impossible task.  With the exception of maybe Winnipeg, any team in the Central not only is in the playoff discussion, but possibly even the division title discussion as well.  While it may seem impossible, why not try predicting the upcoming battle that is the Central Division race?

1) Chicago Blackhawks – They were one goal away from being in yet another Stanley Cup Final, but the last bounce went the Los Angeles Kings way and the Blackhawks were sent packing.  It is hard to imagine that they could get a whole lot better with very little cap space and an already dominant team, but somehow they did.  Going out and getting Brad Richards on a cheap one year deal could end up being one of the biggest steals of the offseason.  He is clearly not the player he once was, but he has to be an upgrade over having Michal Handzus as your #2 center.  Adding a center that put up over 50 points with less talent around him is a definite upgrade, it just remains to be seen how significant of an upgrade it will end up being.  They will contend for the division title once again, and I think they’ll take it using one of the deepest lineups in the NHL.

2) St. Louis Blues – Injuries and the immense weight of high expectations sent the Blues spiraling down the stretch and ended up costing them a Central Division title last season.  They went out and paid big time for Ryan Miller, who didn’t look to be his usual self by the end of the Blues postseason disappointment.  The offseason came and saw the end of Miller’s short stint in St. Louis, as he signed in Vancouver.  They did, however, go out and add one of the most sought-after players this offseason in Paul Stastny.  Not only does he fill a huge hole at center, but it gives the team an incredible offensive weapon.  The Blues struggled when the offense of Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie dried up, and they desperately needed someone else down the middle to help carry the offensive load.  The departures of Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak shouldn’t be an issue, as they still boast an incredible goaltending tandem in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen.  They are looking like another top contender this season.

3) Dallas Stars – The last two July’s have been kind to Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars.  In the summer of 2013, Nill made his first splash as the general manager of the Stars by acquiring Tyler Seguin.  Seguin finished fourth in the league in scoring while he and Jamie Benn became one of the most dangerous duos in the NHL.  This summer, Nill went out and landed Jason Spezza, who finished in the top-30 in NHL scoring and will slot in behind Seguin as the Stars’ #2 center.  Their top four centers are now Seguin, Spezza, Cody Eakin, and Vern Fiddler.  That is the type of center depth you need to compete in the NHL.  Their forward lines are now among some of the deepest in the league and while the defense is still growing, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley proved to be a legitimate top pairing down the stretch and in the playoffs last season.  Anders Lindback should be better than Dan Ellis/Tim Thomas, and if not they have Jack Campbell ready and waiting.  They should be back in the playoffs and I expect them to compete for the division.

4) Minnesota Wild (Wild Card) – The Wild lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in a hard-fought six game series fresh after going seven games in an epic series with the Colorado Avalanche.  This is a team on the rise, but their offseason left something to be desired.  Don’t get me wrong, Thomas Vanek is going to put up points in Minnesota, but after watching his playoff run it almost feels like a lateral move going from Matt Moulson to Vanek.  Other than that, they are largely the same team they were last year.  Their goaltending situation, while talented, is very unpredictable as both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding spent significant time out of the lineup last season.  They will compete and they will be a very difficult team to deal with in the postseason, but I think they are still a couple of years away from being a Stanley Cup contender.

5) Colorado Avalanche – What an incredible season the Colorado Avalanche had last year.  Patrick Roy took this team from draft lottery winners to the top of the division in just one season behind the bench, and he grabbed himself a Jack Adams trophy because of it.  Listen, with Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O’Reilly, this was one of the fastest and most exciting teams to watch last season.  They added Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla this offseason which brings veteran leadership to this talented, energetic, and youthful squad.  However, I don’t see them being able to repeat what they did last season, and advanced statistics play a big part in that.  Their corsi-for % sat near the bottom of the league and Semyon Varlamov posted a .927 save % while facing more shots than any other goaltender in the NHL.  Advanced statistics don’t tell the whole story, but as the Toronto Maple Leafs found out, they can be very telling.  This is without a doubt a team that will continue to get better and better in the coming seasons, but I don’t think adding two aging stars is going to keep this team from regressing.  If Varlamov is unable to replicate the incredible season he had last year, the Avalanche may find themselves just outside of the playoff bubble.

6) Nashville Predators – An injury to one of the best goaltenders in the game and the lack of an elite goal-scorer had the Predators outside of the top eight last season.  This lead to the firing of the franchise’s only head coach Barry Trotz and a new culture began with the hiring of Peter Laviolette.  While I have them finishing sixth in this ultra-competitive division,  I think they will hang around the race for a wild card slot.  Aside from the coaching change, their biggest move in the offseason was a trade that sent Patric Hornqvist to Pittsburgh for James Neal.  After that, they added offensive (in more ways than one) Mike Ribeiro, veteran Olli Jokinen, and Derek Roy to cheap contracts which should help down the middle.  The defensive talent is still there, with Shea Weber and Roman Josi anchoring a solid group of defencemen.  Getting Pekka Rinne back for hopefully a full, healthy season will help this team have a bounce back year, and I’m anxious to see how the Laviolette system will run in Nashville.

7) Winnipeg Jets – I’m sorry Winnipeg, but somebody has to finish last.  They finished last in the previous season, and they really didn’t do anything to address the issues they had last year.  Their biggest addition was Mathieu Perreault, who is a good third-liner at best.  The Central is just too deep for the Jets to be able to compete for a playoff spot this season, especially with Ondrej Pavelec still manning the pipes in Winnipeg.  His .901 save % was by far the worst out of any goalie that played near as many games as he did.  He has also lead the league in goals against for the past three seasons.  Unless he gets better or the rookie Michael Hutchinson steps up, Winnipeg will be in the running for Connor McDavid.

There isn’t likely to be a more competitive division in the NHL this upcoming season than the Central.  While it’s difficult to predict how will it unfold, it is fun to speculate the possibilities.  Realistically, at least five teams have a shot at winning the division and at least six teams will be in and around the playoff bubble.  It’s going to be an incredible season to watch and who knows who will end up at the top of the Central.  The race begins October 9th.

Post your 2014-2015 Central Division predictions below!