The cliché goes that the Central Division in the Western Conference is the Best In The League. There's a reason for it: it is. Every single team Every team not from Nashville and Winnipeg in the conference made the playoffs last year, and every team not from Nashville and Winnipeg fully expects to do so again this year. Most of the conference has aspirations of reaching the finals, and all have a chance. They each have their weaknesses (some more than others), so let's take a look!
The Blackhawks are quickly becoming a team of #WildKillers. They've eliminated the Wild from the playoffs two seasons in a row now, and haven't gotten any weaker. From star scorer Patrick Sharp to young gun Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks are stacked with talent. They have one of the most underrated goalies in the league with Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks are quick, and they possess the puck brilliantly, posting the second-best 5v5 CF% last season (55.7, second to the LA Kings 55.9). Lest we forget, the Blackhawks picked up Brad Richards in the offseason, and he will add depth to an already deep-scoring team.
If "none" were an acceptable response, that would be it. Their third and fourth lines are not particularly imposing, though neither are they hapless. Andrew Shaw, predicted to be their 3C, posted a 58 CF% last season at 5v5. Marcus Kruger (4C) posted a 51 CF% at 5v5... suffice to say, the Blackhawks have some talent. This shootout goal was scored by Teuvo Teravainen, who isn't quite good enough to crack the Hawks' NHL lineup.
The Colorado Avalanche stormed back onto the NHL scene last season, surging late to take first place in the division (with a primary assist by the Blues and a secondary assist from the Blackhawks). They are young, and they have talent. Everyone is familiar with can-you-believe-he's-only-18 19-years-old-Nathan-Mackinnon. Despite losing Paul Stastny and PA Paranteau, the Avalanche have significant talent.
The two biggest questions facing Patrick Roy are his goaltending and his defense. Colorado had the worst GA/60 at 5v5 of all Divisional teams that made the playoffs. Semyon Varlamov had the third-highest Sv% at 5v5 of all net minders last season. Unfortunately for Colorado, he also had the fourth-highest PDO.
The Stars are a lot of people's "Dark Horse" candidates this year. Jamie Benn is, quite frankly, stellar. They performed a bit of a coup in July, picking up Jason Spezza, who isn't too bad either. Tyler Seguin is one of the best in his position. The team is built fast, and built with scoring depth; they are an up-and-comer, and are coming to play this season. Much like Chicago and Colorado, the Stars have a young group of players and they are intriguing at the very least.
Dallas' defense leaves questions to be asked; they have no 'big name' stars on their blue line. Lehtonen is reliable... to be injured for a while. On top of his history of being hurt, Kari is far from a lights-out goalie; his 5v5 Sv% has never been fantastic, while avoiding being terrible in recent memory. Despite their scoring depth, the Stars are not sturdy in case of injury. While they have a number of capable wingers, should more than one or two be injured, the Stars will be tapping a well of players with virtually no experience in the NHL.
The Nashville Predators, better known as "Ryan Suter's old team" are one of two teams that the Wild really shouldn't fear at all. The Perds are not a strong offensive team, nor are they strong defensively. Shea Weber is, granted, beastly, but has had his fangs dulled since he lost his partner Suter. The Predators have posted a GF% of 45% over the past two seasons. They have few truly great forwards, though they did add James Neal this summer. Pekka Rinne is quality, but has very little help from his defenders. They are a team in need of a rebuild, many say, and I can't say I disagree.
The biggest question facing Nashville is how they will fare with Laviolette in the Head Coach's chair. Barry Trotz was the franchise's only coach. How much will he get out of newly acquired players is a big question: Neal is joined by newcomers Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy, and Nashville hopes they will add much-needed offense to the squad. Another big question is whether someone will finally step up and be a first-line-quality center, another position Nashville is weak in.
St. Louis Blues
The big, bad Blues... not an unfamiliar foe for the Wild. Games between the Wild and Blues usually get nasty by the end of the season, but they've already been there. There were 54 penalty minutes in the most recent meeting, and 92 in the game before. Multiple members of both teams looked to start fights, including Stu Bickel, Jason Zucker, Joel Rechlicz, Shattenkirk, and Bissonette. The Blues struggled to find the back of the net towards the end of last season, and faltered in the playoffs against the Blackhawks.Captain David Backes is usually an agitator, which is obnoxious enough, but he produces points competently as well (2.3 per 60 last season). The Blues acquired Paul Stastny from the Avalanche this summer, adding to their depth. Between BizNasty and Steve Ott, the Blues can goon it up with pretty much any team in the league, and they look to a physical game to help them win.
The Blues grabbed Ryan Miller last year to aid them in their cup-hunt to no avail. This year, they will look to Brion Elliot and Jake Allen to lead them to victory. How well that will work out is a big question for Hitchcock's team coming into the 2014-15 season. Another HUGE problem for the Blues was their 5v5 scoring. Of their goals, only 67% came at even strength. With a PDO right near 100, they can't claim a low Sh%... they just aren't very good at scoring at even strength. They will hope Stastny addresses that issue, but it will be a big question coming into this season.
Ah, the Jets. Vlogger-Blogger Steve Dangle said it best in his season preview: the Jets never seem as bad as some say they will be, but never as good as they could be. With talents like Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little, the Jets should be at least decent. While none but Kane are superstars, they are certainly capable players. They were a positive possession team last year, with above-50 (barely) CF% and FF%. The big weakness, however, lies in net. Ondrej Pavelec, who posted a 5v5 Sv% of 90.89. Without competent goaltending, it's hard to see any team succeed in the NHL.
The biggest question facing the Jets is: will Ondrej Pavelec improve? He only played 57 games last season, but that was far from Pavelec's first season in the NHL. He's played in at least 50% of the games in ever season since the Jets were the Thrashers, and has never posted a higher Sv% than 91.4. Unfortunately, the blue line is not particularly strong either. Moving Byfuglien back to defense could help strengthen the defensive corps, it would not likely be enough.
All of this is, of course, barring injury. The Blackhawks just can't be beat. Between Toews, Kane, Sharp, Saad, Oduya, Hjalmersson... pretty much all of their players are top-notch. The Blues will come in second (unless they are as snake-bitten as the end of last season, or worse). They are big and their physicality won't be matched by the skill of other teams in the league. The distance between the Blues and the Wild, however, will be slight. The improvement on the power play, a consistently healthy Koivu and Parise, and development from young players will allow the Wild to take 3rd in the conference. If Kuemper turns out to be as good as he could be, however, this could change. The Wild and the Blues suffer from the same condition: a lack of scoring. The Stars will take fourth; their issues aren't quite worked out yet. They are a quickly rising team, and will soon be playing with the big dogs.
The Avalanche will return to earth. Without elite goaltending again by Varlamov, their thin defensive corps will simply cost them too many goals, particularly when you remember that two of their better defensive players play for someone else nowadays. Despite their elite goalscorers, defense is a necessary part of the game; you can't win every game 5-4. The Predators and Jets will battle for the bottom. The Predators only succeed by virtue of the Jets' horrid goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec will be the downfall of Winnipeg, and they could well be a contender for the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes.
Well, there you have it, Wilderness! What do you think? What would your placements be? Who rises, and who falls?