The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 2:Central Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour
In round two of our 2013-14 season preview, we are going to head out west, to arguably one of the tightest divisions in the NHL, the Central Division. The Central is one of the most different divisions after realignment as longtime division champ Detroit and the Columbus Blue Jackets have both been moved to the Eastern Conference. In come the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars who are both going to benefit tremendously from their division alignment this year. Let’s break it down for you, starting with Chicago.
Well, not much to say about the Blackhawks. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and they were fortunate to not have much turnover this offseason. The extended their goaltender Corey Crawford long term, and although backup Ray Emery left Chicago for the greener goaltending pastures of Philadelphia, they brought back Nikolai Khabibulin to fill that void. Viktor Stalberg is gone too, but the Hawks were able to resign playoff hero Bryan Bickell, and bring in rugged Theo Peckham on defense. They also retained crucial second-line center Michal Handzus who will attempt to offset the loss of long-time Hawk Dave Bolland. With a bevy of established star power in Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, along with the emergence of rookie Brandon Saad, the Hawks will be a force to be reckoned with again this season.
It is a bounce-back season for the youthful Avs, as they finished last in the Western Conference last season, and sported the second-worst record in hockey, earning them the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, with which they chose Nathan MacKinnon. With such a young team, the Avs certainly suffered from a lockout-shortened training camp, and the Ryan O’Reilly holdout didn’t help, nor did the extended absence of their young captain Gabriel Landeskog. Both are in camp and ready to go this year, along with MacKinnon and budding superstar Matt Duchene. Combined with gritty power forward Steve Downie, underrated winger PA Parenteau, and former No. 1 . overall pick Erik Johnson, as well as the Avs goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere the Avs should be competitive and fighting for a playoff spot.
The Dallas Stars will be an interesting team to watch this season. Along with a re-branded logo and image, the team that takes the ice will be quite different from last season. For starters, longtime Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is the new bench boss. In addition to Ruff, their heart and soul and face of the franchise in captain Brenden Morrow was dealt to the Penguins at last season’s trade deadline, and his leadership will be sorely missed. In addition to the departure of Morrow, the Stars shipped perhaps the most underrated player in the league in Loui Erikkson to the Boston Bruins, but in exchange, they received Tyler Seguin, who has superstar potential, and Rich Peverley who will solidify their bottom-six forwards and their top PK unit. Jamie Benn had a tough season last year after a contract holdout that followed the league lockout. Benn will look to have a bounceback season, and my money is on him to receive the captain’s C to replace Morrow. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen continued his evolution into a top netminder, and will look to pick right back up where he left off. In addition, realignment has benefited Dallas more than most as they will now play in the Central Division, which will help TV ratings when the team is on the road, which will go a long way to financial security, something this club really needs.
The Wild enjoyed a ride back to the postseason last year on the backs of free agent signees Zack Parise and Ryan Suter (who finished as a Norris Trophy finalist) and longtime goalie Nicklas Backstrom. Unfortunately for the Wild, they finished eighth in the West, drawing the eventual Cup champs in the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs, and to make matters worse, their goaltender was hurt in warm ups of Game 1, and missed the entire series. The Wild will look to bounce back this year with the majority of the same team from last year. The loss of underrated center Matt Cullen will hurt along with the physical presence of Cal Clutterbuck, who was dealt to the Islanders at the draft for top prospect Nino Neiderreiter. Matt Cooke was brought in to replace Clutterbuck’s physical presence, and he adds a tad more skill, along with the highly skilled Neidereiter. They added depth on the blue line with the addition of Keith Ballard from Vancouver. Parise and Suter, with one year of leading this team together under their belt, will look to pick up where they left off and with second-year stud Jonas Brodin and longtime captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild will be right in the thick of it this season.
The Predators will look to rebound after a disappointing season last year. Unlike last offseason, the Preds won’t be reeling from a free agency loss as they were with Ryan Suter. Nashville will ice a slightly more talented team than last season. Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen join the mix along with young star Filip Forsberg. First-round pick Seth Jones who surprisingly fell to the Preds at No. 4 overall in this summer’s draft, will be on the team and will add a dimension on the blueline that the Preds have not had in some time, and that is a legitimate offensive defenseman. In addition to the talent, Nashville solidified their character players by signing Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom, both of whom will go along way in a playoff series. As always, it will boil down to goaltending, and Nashville boasts one of the league’s best in Pekka Rinne. Look for Nashville to sneak into the playoff hunt again this year.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Blues suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the first round of last year’s playoffs, but that shouldn’t sour anyone on this team. They still have one of, if not the best, goaltending tandems in the league with Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Veteran Brenden Morrow signed late in the preseason at a discount because he believes they have a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup. Young power forward Magnus Paajarvi was acquired from the Oilers in exchange for oft-injured, yet talented winger David Perron. Franchise defenseman Alex Pietrangelo just extended his contract for seven more years, and center Derek Roy was brought in for depth. Agitator extraordinaire Max Lapierre was brought in to help provide some grit and sandpaper to the lineup. The Blues have a diverse line up of skill, grit, and speed, and should be another contender for the Cup this year.
The Jets will benefit from a vastly reduced travel schedule, and are arguably the biggest winners of NHL realignment. The former Atlanta Thrashers played the last two years in the Southeast Division, but now will play in the Central. It could be argued that the team’s late season breakdown last year was caused by the grueling post-lockout schedule mixed with their insane travel schedule. The Jets should contend for a playoff position this season if they can stay healthy. Led by Dustin Byfuglien, the Jets should provide a pretty potent offense. Bryan Little is getting better each year, and Evander Kane is a bonafide star. The acquisitions of Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi will help solidify the secondary scoring, and depth players like captain Andrew Ladd, Matt Halischuk and Olli Jokinen will help stabilize the Jets in all three zones, and youngster Mark Scheifle has star written all over him. Tobias Enstrom helps QB the power play and Mark Stuart is an every situation type of defensemen. Goaltending will ultimately decide the Jets fate, as Ondrej Pavelic has shown a lot of potential over the past few seasons.
The Central Division looks to be one of the tightest and most contested divisions in the league this season, as it always is. Don’t be surprised if the maximum number of playoff teams (5) that a division can send to the playoffs comes from the Central this year. With Detroit out of the picture in the Central, the throne at the top is vacant, and these guys will all be battling for supremacy. Thanks for joining us for the Central Division breakdown, please stop back tomorrow to check out the Pacific Division preview. For now, we will leave you with our three picks for the divisional playoff bids:
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Chris Dazen & Patrick Riley
Guest Sports Activist for The Cover 4