2013-14 NHL Season Preview: The Central Division

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

The reigning Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks will begin the 2013-14 season as favourites to win the newly formed Central Division. The Hawks are joined by the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets. While the Hawks certainly must be considered the cream of this crop, they will have some stiff competition for 1st place. Widely considered the worst of the new divisions when NHL Realignment was first announced, the new Central has upped its status since because of active off-seasons by the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

Can The Blackhawks Duplicate Last Season’s Success?

Everything went right for the Chicago Blackhawks last season. They won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team and carried that success into the playoffs, winning their second Stanley Cup in four years. In such a competitive salary cap era, the NHL usually doesn’t produce dynasties anymore. If the Hawks can win the Cup this season, they’ll be the exception to the rule. Before they can win a second Cup in as many years, they’ll need to make the playoffs in a deceptively tough division. Only the top 3 are guaranteed a playoff spot in the newly formed division format. The 4th and 5th best records have a shot at qualifying for a wild card birth. Although the Hawks appear to be a lock to finish top 3 in the Central, things don’t always go according to plan. That being said, it would be a huge shock if the Hawks aren’t one of the 8 teams to begin the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference next April.

It was a busy offseason for the reigning champs. Hawks GM Stan Bowman traded away key Cup contributors David Bolland and Michal Frolik, while losing backup goaltender Ray Emery to unrestricted free agency. Breakout forward Bryan Bickell and starting goalie Corey Crawford were signed to contracts that will keep them in Chicago for the next half decade or more. Not a whole lot has changed for the Blackhawks, who were forced to dismantle half their roster after the 2010 Stanley Cup victory. They will be a threat for 1st in the division if they can stay healthy and play with the same cohesiveness that made them the most difficult team to stop one year ago.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

Are The Avalance Ready To Become A Contender?

The Colorado Avalanche will aim to rebuild a reputation as one of the NHL’s most dangerous threats to win multiple Stanley Cups, and it begins this season. With significant depth at centre and one of the best groups of talented young forwards in hockey, the question isn’t will the Avalanche be good, it’s more like, how soon will they be good?

The Avalanche used the 1st overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft to select highly touted scoring forward Nathan MacKinnon from the Halifax Mooseheads. The expectations are that MacKinnon will step in and contribute right away. Flashy young sniper Matt Duchene and Captain Gabriel Landeskog help form an impressive core of forwards with the potential to achieve greatness for the Avs in the years to come.

The Avalanche possess a playoff calibre forward group. It’s their blueline and goaltending that doesn’t compare with more seasoned rivals in the Central. Although they have a chance to make the playoffs, they are probably a Wild Card team, not a top 3 team, unless unforeseen events take place allowing them to overachieve.

There are several questions about new Avalanche Head Coach Patrick Roy. Opinions seemed to be mixed about his ability to lead a team in the National Hockey League. Roy had success coaching in the QMJHL, but this is different. Even if he is a great NHL Head Coach, chances are he’ll need a bit of time to adjust. Roy’s inexperience as an NHL Head Coach could spell one more season of growing pains for the Avs.

The New Look Stars Are A Playoff Threat

Perhaps no team has reinvented itself this offseason more than the Dallas Stars. This once mighty franchise is a decade removed from being considered an annual threat to win the Stanley Cup. The new look Stars will enter this season with new uniforms and a transformed identity from one of the league’s after thoughts, to a franchise that will be exciting to watch and difficult to keep off the scoreboard.

The Stars made waves around the league this summer when they traded long time two-way winger Loui Eriksson, and prospects Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith, and defenceman Joe Morrow for talented young centre Tyler Seguin. In Seguin, the Stars seemed to have found a franchise centreman capable of competing for scoring titles and causing fits for opposing teams. With Jamie Benn already on the roster, the Stars enjoy a double threat up front that can compete with basically any defence in the NHL.

There is more to a good team than a couple of talented forwards. The Stars will need to field a good lineup of smart two-way players, defensive specialists and grinders if they hope to compete with the big boys in the Western Conference this season. The Stars enter the 2013-14 campaign with a nice mix of young players on the rise and veterans on the downswing of their careers. Making the playoffs is going to be a challenge but they are definitely in better shape than they were last season if all goes according to plan.

The Wild Look To Improve On Last Season’s Playoff Birth

The Minnesota Wild are a solid hockey club. Two summers ago they acquired star forward Zach Parise and stud defenceman Ryan Suter, signing the Americans to lengthy contracts. The moves paid immediate dividends. The Wild were good enough to make the playoffs last year and had they not played the mighty Chicago Blackhawks in the first round who knows how well they could have done. However, this season, simply making the playoffs and losing in round one is not acceptable.

The Minnesota Wild are going for it. Over the last fourteen months, everything they have done suggests they want to win now. At the NHL trade deadline in March of 2013, the Wild traded two coveted prospects Matt Hackett and Johan Larsson, plus a 1st round pick in 2013 and a 2nd round pick in 2014 for Sabres Captain Jason Pominville. Not exactly a move one makes if they are slowly rebuilding or taking their time. The Wild are in it to win it, showing their patient fans that they mean business. This season the Wild will be a threat to make the playoffs and maybe even compete for home ice advantage in the first round if everything goes right.

The Predators Will Be Tough To Play Against

The Preds had a forgettable season in 2012-13. Injuries accumulated and goal scoring became a problem they couldn’t overcome. Losing Ryan Suter to unrestricted free agency also hurt the Predators in many ways; you don’t replace him overnight. All that being said, they are still a defensive juggernaut with one of the game’s best goaltenders and most experienced coaching staffs in place. The Predators will be tough to beat this season.

The Nashville Predators cashed in at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft when very impressive defenceman Seth Jones slipped in the rankings to 4th overall. Drafting Jones allows the Preds to potentially replace Suter in the next few seasons and it’s good for Jones too. He gets to learn from one of the game’s best defenders, Preds Captain Shea Weber.

Unless The Preds can rectify their offensive issues they are unlikely to make the playoffs this season. The Western Conference is loaded with talented hockey clubs, capable of beating the Preds on the scoresheet most nights. Their success will ultimately rely on their ability to create enough offence and remain the defensive power they have become. It’s going to be difficult.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

Image Courtesy of Flickr. Photograph by Sarah Conners.

The Blues Are A Stanley Cup Contender and Threat To The Blackhawks’ Throne

The 2012-13 NHL season was supposed to be the Blues coming out party. They entered last season on everyone’s list as a Cup threat. Their season was inconsistent, climaxing with a first round loss to the more hardened Los Angeles Kings. The hope is, the Blues learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to go all the way and they’re more prepared for a strong regular season and lengthy playoff run this time around.

If you’re looking for high quality depth all throughout an NHL roster, the Blues are near the top of that list. They are stacked in every position, making them a logical choice to qualify for the playoffs with ease and likely finish 1st or 2nd in the Central. Where the Blues lack compared to the other top contenders, is the absence of a top scoring forward or two. However, with budding sniper Vladimir Tarasenko showing signs of lethal scoring capabilities, and well rounded power forward Chris Stewart continuing to flex his muscle as a finisher, the Blues may have the high end scoring they need already. It’s on those two and a few others to step up and hit the back of the net often this season and well into the playoffs.

Goaltending is the Blues biggest question mark. Because they are so strong defensively under Coach Ken Hitchcock’s reign, all three of last season’s contributing goaltenders can step in and win games. Unfortunately, neither Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott or Jake Allen have truly proven themselves as the stand alone starter. For the Blues to have success, one of these goaltenders will need to quickly take charge and become the #1 goalie. In 2011-12 the combination of Halak and Elliott was very impressive, winning the Jennings Trophy for allowing the least amount of goals against in the NHL. The tables turned last season and they both struggled at times. How the Blues goaltenders perform this season is anyone’s guess.

The Jets Are Finally Home In The Western Conference

After rejoining the National Hockey League two seasons ago, the Winnipeg Jets are finally back where they belong in the NHL’s Western Conference. Unfortunately, the West is the best right now so making the playoffs just got a little more difficult. The Jets have not made the post season since their rebirth in 2011. The loud crowds at the MTS Centre will be noisy and nasty when they finally do qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament but they will be in tough to do that this season.

The Jets definitely have a shot at making the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they are by no means a lock, or a favourite to play their first home playoff game since 1995 this April. The Jets have significant size up front and on defence, which is perfect for battles against the giant teams from California and other top clubs in the West. It’s almost as though they’ve been building their roster for this home coming ever since they re-entered the league. If the Jets get above average goaltending they are a playoff threat, however, chances are they fall short once again. The great thing about Realignment is, it’s hard to truly know where the Jets stand. Entering a new conference creates some unpredictability about the type of season they will have in 2013-14.

PreSeason Central Division Rankings

1. Chicago Blackhawks 

2. St. Louis Blues 

3. Minnesota Wild 

4.  Dallas Stars 

5. Winnipeg Jets 

6. Colorado Avalanche 

7. Nashville Predators