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Central Division Preview: Big Name Trades Highlight A Busy Off-Season

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Off-season analysis of all seven Central Division teams and their individual outlook for the upcoming season.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Big time trades were the name of the game this off-season. Instead of spending in free agency many teams chose to address their needs with some massive trades, and a handful of those moves will have a direct impact on the dynamic of the Central Division. This a division that produced five playoff teams last season of the eight total in the Western Conference. The worst team in the Central last season, the Colorado Avalanche, finished with 90 points. This is a very competitive division and because of that, every tweak and roster shuffle is important. What's interesting is that looking ahead to next season, with the moves that have been made thus far, the separation between the best team and the worst team is even tighter. With such a small gap in talent, it's going to be a dog fight to gain Central Division supremacy.

Chicago Blackhawks

Off-season Moves:

  • Traded (G) Antti Raanta to the New York Rangers for (F) Ryan Haggerty
  • Traded (LW) Brandon Saad, (D) Michael Paliotta, and (C) Alex Broadhurst to the Columbus Blue Jackets for (C) Mark Dano, (C) Artem Anisimov, (LW) Jeremy Morin, (RW) Corey Tropp, and a 2016 4th round pick.
  • Traded (G) Anders Nilsson to the Edmonton Oilers for (C) Liam Coughlin.
  • Traded (F) Patrick Sharp and (D) Stephen Johns to the Dallas Stars for (F) Ryan Garbutt and (D) Trevor Daley.
  • Signed (RW) Viktor Tikhonov, (D) Cameron Schilling, and (D) Michael Liambas as UFA free agents.
  • Resigned RFA (D) David Runblad and resigned UFA's (G) Michael Leighton and (F) David Desjardins.

2015-2016 Outlook: Chicago had an eventful off-season to say the least. It would have been difficult to keep the status quo coming off a Stanley Cup Championship and a tight cap situation season. The Hawks went and dealt two key top-6 forwards in Saad and Sharp while moving on from veterans Brad Richards and Johnny Oduya in free agency. It was rumored that Sharp could be moved heading into the off-season, but shipping Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets was a shocking move. Saad is just 22 years old, is coming off a career year in points (52) and goals (23), already has 67 games of playoff experience to his name, and two Stanley Cups. Taking into consideration that Hawks also lost Brad Richards in free agency and the forward depth took a hit. Bringing in Dano is huge. He's a 2013 first round pick that played well for Columbus last year as a rookie racking up 21 points in 35 games and could fill the second-line center role behind Jonathan Toews. The additions of Anisimov, Garbutt, Tropp, and Morin adds a lot of size and physicality to the Blackhawks' bottom-6. Defensively, they essentially swapped Daley for Oduya in the top-4. Daley had a career year in Dallas putting up 38 points and 16 goals and adds another offensive weapon at the blue line. The shakeups for Chicago, especially upfront, leave some big questions unanswered. The most important of those is how well this group will be able to replace the secondary scoring that Sharp, Saad, and Richards provided. That's not even mentioning the 337 games of combined playoff experience the three added. Overall I don't think the Blackhawks got better this off-season and that can be bad news playing in such a tough and competitive division.

Colorado Avalanche

Off-season Moves:

  • Traded a 2016 6th round pick to the Boston Bruins for Negotiating Rights to (C) Carl Soderberg.
  • Traded (C) Ryan O'Reilly and (LW) Jamie McGinn to the Buffalo Sabres for (D) Nikita Zadarov, (C) Mikhail Grigorenko, (F) J.T. Compher, and a 2015 2nd round pick.
  • Signed (C) Carl Soderberg, (D) Francois Beauchemin, and (RW) Blake Comeau as UFA free agents.
  • Resigned RFA's (C) Joey Hishon, (D) Mat Clark, (C) Mikhail Grigorenko, and (LW) Arron Agozzino.
2015-2016 Season Outlook: Colorado was one of the off-season winners for me. The Av's took an aggressive approach, i.e dealing ROR, but this is a team now headed in the right direction with the players brought in. Soderberg for a 6th rounder is a steal and should go a long way toward replacing O'Reilly's offensive production. Grigorenko and Compher are talented forwards that immediately improve the team's prospect depth and the change of scenery could be just what Grigs needs to get his NHL career going. However, offense isn't where the Avalanche have issues. Minus O'Reilly, this is a team that still boosts Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog upfront along with veterans like Jarome Iginla, Danny Briere, and Alex Tanguay. Where Colorado got better is defensively. Acquiring Nikita Zadarov gives them a young NHL-ready defensemen that should be a top-4 fixture for years to come. Then the Av's went out and signed cagey veteran Francois Beauchemin in free agency to provide even more defensive depth alongside Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. By addressing their blue line needs without sacrificing too much offensively, Colorado is setup to have a bounce back season after missing the playoffs. They have the goaltending in Semyon Varlamov, they have the offense, and now the defense looks to be much improved.

Dallas Stars

Off-season Moves:

  • Traded a 2015 7th round pick to San Jose for the negotiating rights to (G) Antti Niemi.
  • Traded (D) Trevor Daley and (F) Ryan Garbutt to Chicago for (F) Patrick Sharp and (D) Stephen Johns.
  • Resigned RFA (LW) Curtis Mckenzie and UFA's (RW) Patrick Eaves and (G) Antti Niemi.
  • Signed UFA (D) Johnny Oduya.
2015-2016 Outlook: Dallas just barely missed the playoffs last season, they would've made it in my opinion if not for an untimely injury to Tyler Seguin, and spent their off-season improving the team in a few areas. First off, the Stars added some much needed depth in goal by acquiring Niemi to help shoulder the workload in net with Kari Lehtonen. Goaltending wasn't a strength of this team last season but they looked to have solidified the position. The Stars also bolstered their top-6 in a trade with the Blackhawks bringing in veteran Patrick Sharp. This is a move that really helps Dallas because if they choose to keep Seguin and Jamie Benn on the top line together then they now have a more dangerous second-line behind them led by Sharp and Jason Spezza. Secondary scoring was definitely a weakness for this team last season and again they appear to have improved that facet of the team. Finally, Dallas was forced to give up a good defensemen in Trevor Daley to get Sharp, but they quickly replaced him in the top-4 with the signing of Oduya. Oduya has a ton of playoff experience and plays a very reliable defensive game. With Klingberg, Goligoski, and Demers already in the fold there is enough talent on the defensive end to be a dangerous team. The Stars are another club that could return to playoff hockey after missing out last year.

Minnesota Wild

Off-season Moves:

  • Signed UFA's  (D) Mike Reilly, (C) Zac Dalpe, and (D) Tyson Strachan.
  • Resigned UFA's (C) Ryan Carter, (G) Devan Dubnyk, (D) Nate Prosser, (LW) Ruslan Fedotenko, and (RW) Marc Hagel.
  • Resigned RFA's (C) Mikael Granlund, (D) Christian Folin, (C) Erik Haula, and (RW) Jared Knight.
2015-2016 Outlook: Minnesota was one of the few teams in the Central Division to not have an active off-season, in terms of bringing new players into the fold, but rather focused attention on resigning its own free agents. Devan Dubnyk returning solidifies the goaltending situation, and it shouldn't be forgotten that this team made the playoffs last year despite getting the worst goaltending in the league for the half of the season. The Wild top-6 remains unchanged but that doesn't mean this group won't be better. The Wild are still a very deep team upfront with a good mix of veteran and younger talent. The hope is Pominville and Vanek can bounce back from down years and the youth movement of Granlund, Zucker, Niederreiter, and Coyle can thrive in bigger roles. The only noticeable absences in the forward group heading into next season are Matt Cooke, whose contract was bought out, and Kyle Brodziak who signed with St. Louis in free agency. Defensively, Minnesota brought back Nate Prosser and also signed highly-sought after college free agent Mike Reilly. However the pairings shake out, this should be a defensive group that provides more offense with a full year of Matt Dumba and adding Reilly. Those two should also help improve what was a woeful power play last season. On paper the Wild look like a playoff team. The bigger question now, after making three straight playoffs and advancing into the second round the past two years, is can this team be a cup contender?


Nashville Predators

Off-Season Moves:

  • Traded a conditional 2016 4th round pick to Calgary for (F) Max Reinhart.
  • Traded 2017 6th round pick to the New York Rangers for (G) Magnus Hellberg.
  • Traded (F) Taylor Beck to Toronto for (F) Jamie Devane.
  • Resigned RFA's (C) Mike Fisher, (LW) Austin Watson, (C) Max Reinhart, (LW) Gabriel Bourque, (D) Anthony Bitetto, (D) Taylor Aronson, (C) Calle Jarnkrok, (C) Craig Smith, and (F) Colin Wilson.
  • Signed UFA's (C) Mike Ribeiro, (D) Barrett Jackman, (C) Cody Hodgson, (D) Connor Allen, and (C) Cody Bass.

2015-2016 Outlook: The Preds are coming off a really strong 2014-15 season in which they finished second in the division with 104 points and third overall in the Western Conference. There's a lot of reasons to be excited about hockey in Nashville. The Predators have arguably the best defensive group top-to-bottom in the division and maybe the conference. The top-6 is much improved with Filip Forsberg leading the way after his breakout season. They acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh last off-season along with the signing of Ribeiro that paid dividends. Craig Smith and Colin Wilson have both blossomed into top-6 quality players and there's still a ton of talent on the bottom two lines. Nashville is set in goal with Pekka Rinne and if Shea Weber doesn't get hurt in the playoffs maybe they take the series against Chicago or at least push it to seven games. Out of any other team in the Central, the Preds are the team that scares me the most in the regular season. They are a deep team that will only get better with so many young players already excelling. As of today, my bet is on Nashville to take the division. The next hurdle to be climbed is beat the Blackhawks at the United Center in the playoffs, but that's no mean feat.

St. Louis Blues

Off-Season Moves:

  • Traded (RW) T.J. Oshie to Washington for (RW) Troy Brouwer, (G) Phoenix Copley, and a 2016 first-round pick.
  • Resigned RFA's (D) Robert Bortuzzo, (RW) Cody Beach, (G) Jake Allen, (LW) Vladimir Tarasenko, and (LW) Magnus Paajarvi.
  • Signed UFA's (C) Jeremy Welsh, (D) Chris Butler, (C) Pat Canonne, (RW) Danny Kristo, (RW) Jordan Caron, (D) Peter Harrold, (F) Kyle Brodziak, and (D) Andre Beniot.

2015-2016 Outlook: It's been an interesting off-season in St. Louis. After falling short once again in the first-round of the playoffs, the Blues went into the off-season looking to make some changes, and did so by trading popular winger T.J. Oshie to the Capitals. In return, the Blues acquired gritty right-wing Troy Brouwer who better fits the physical, hard-nosed style of hockey played in St. Louis. The Blues also brought in versatile, veteran forward Kyle Brodziak in free agency to provide depth in the bottom-6. The regular season hasn't been a problem for St. Louis. This team has made the playoffs the past four seasons but for reasons unknown just cannot get past the first round. I expect this team to make the playoffs, and contend for the division next season led by the dynamic Vladimir Tarasenko, However, the success of the season hangs on this team preforming in the post-season. If the Blues fall short again, their next off-season could see dramatic changes.

Winnipeg Jets

Off-Season Moves:

  • Signed RFA's (C) Alexander Burmistrov, (C) Patrice Cormier, and (D) Paul Potsma.
  • Signed UFA's (RW) Drew Stafford, (D) Adam Pardy, (RW) Matt Halischuk, (RW) Mark Fraser, and (D) Andrew MacWilliam.
2015-2016 Outlook: The Jets, coming off a playoff season that saw them finish seventh overall in the Western Conference, should be even better this upcoming season thanks to an influx of young talent and moving on from the drama that was Evander Kane. In the prospects department, Nikolaj Ehlers is definitely a name to watch as he could very well make this team out of camp and in a prominent role. Winnipeg also did well last season in bringing in a couple of talented players that really needed a change of scenery in Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers. Stafford will help bolster a forward group that includes Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Matthieu Perreault, and Mark Scheifele in the top-6. Myers, however, will bring added depth to a defensive unit of Dustin Byflugien, Jacob Trouba, Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, and Adam Pardy. The biggest questions for the Jets this season are staying healthy and goaltending. The duo of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson in net was good enough last season but the Jets will need more if they expect to compete for the top spots in the division. This is a team that is just going to keep getting better and last years taste of the playoffs has only made them and their rabid fan base  hungrier for more.

I don't think there is much of an argument against the Central Division being the toughest in the league and it also happens to be hardest to try and predict. The separation between the first-place and last-place teams in the Central was 19 points compared to 53 points in the Pacific Division. It's hard to believe that the competitive gap between these Central teams is expected to be even tighter this season, but that's just the early analysis. I will stand by my prediction of Nashville taking the division this upcoming season, who's your pick?