For a majority of its existence, the Central Division has been owned by two or three teams in particular. This year, the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators have a chance to lay claim to the division.
When the NHL realigned in 2013 and the Dallas Stars were placed in the Central Division, it came at a price. That price happened to be the insane amount of depth they would be competing with.
Since the 2013-14 season, a select few teams have ruled the Central Division. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Minnesota Wild always seem to be at or near the top of the standings.
It’s been a struggle for the Stars and the other teams in the division to make their case known. It has also forced these teams to adapt and reconfigure their lineups in order to compete.
It’s worked so far, but it’s been a slow progression. But, as it happens in every major sports league, the seat of power constantly changes. And in the Central Division, that’s exactly what is happening.
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This past June, the Nashville Predators became the first Central Division team not named the Chicago Blackhawks to go to the Stanley Cup Final. Yes, the Predators (just in case you had forgotten). We’re talking about the team that was the very last team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were the 16th seed, if you will.
We’re talking about a team that had never made it past the second round of the playoffs since their origin in 1998. Almost twenty years without making it past the semifinals. That’s part of the reason why their run last season was so special and incredible; it’s because it had never been done before.
Though they didn’t come away with the Cup, they kept their wits about them and look poised to take another swing at it this year. But this hasn’t been a quick progression by any means. When the realignment happened, Nashville was lurking at the bottom of their division. After that, it was a slow, year-by-year climb. Now they are simply waiting to reach the top.
It’s impressive seeing Nashville come this far. The Central Division is no easy task, and they have adapted carefully and concisely. While their stock continues to rise, the typical powerhouses like Chicago and St. Louis could be in for rough years. It’s all about that constant cycle of dominance.
But the Predators might not be the only team ascending the standings this year. The Dallas Stars could be coming out of the depths as well in an effort to find consistency on a season-to-season basis.
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For the past four years, the Stars have established an on-and-off reputation in regards to being a playoff-worthy team. In 13-14, they were a wild card; in 14-15, they missed the playoffs by a few points; in 15-16, they ran the Western Conference in the regular season; and finally last season, they put together the second-worst season in franchise history and missed the postseason by 15 points.
They have finished in each of the four mediums (barely in, barely out, easily in, easily out) since realignment and need to reclaim their fame.
This year will be the year to do it. The other teams in the Central Division could very possibly take a step back this coming season after their offseason work. Though it may not be a large one depending on the team, there is an opportunity for the Stars to capitalize like they did in 2015-16.
Dallas took the 2017 offseason by the reins this past summer and came out a much better team. GM Jim Nill acquired a new head coach in Ken Hitchcock, an elite goaltender in Ben Bishop, a top-pairing defender in Marc Methot, and two powerful forwards in Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal.
They upgraded every position and turned a good team with a bad scheme into a great team on paper with an excellent scheme. All that’s left now is for them to prove the paper right when they get on the ice.
But it won’t be easy. The Nashville Predators only got better this offseason. The run at the Cup gave them more confidence and chemistry and they added Nick Bonino to bolster their offense.
Nashville will also be back for blood this year after being cut two wins short of the ultimate prize. Dallas is simply trying to get back into the playoff picture.
These two teams have come from the cellar of the Central to the top in just a matter of a few years. That’s impressive. It’s not easy clawing through this thick division, but when you do, you know you’re definitely heading in the right direction.
It’s going to be a battle for supremacy this year, and there may be more than one competitor in the mix. But the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators have the strongest claims to Central Division fame.
Not bad for two teams that couldn’t make the playoffs five years ago.