Realignment took away Detroit and Columbus from the Central Division, but there is still plenty of intrigue within the division as the 2013-14 season approaches. Not only do the defending champs reside in the Central, but competition for the final playoff spots may not be fiercer than what will take place amongst this group. However, of the four divisions, this may be the weakest of them all.
Teams listed in order of predicted finish.
Chicago Blackhawks (2012-13: 36-7-5; Stanley Cup champions)
The reigning Cup champs enter the new season with a bull’s eye on their back. The Blackhawks are the only team since the 2004-05 lockout to have won the Cup twice, and their talented core has amazingly remained intact in the salary cap era. Coach Joel Quenneville’s squad comes into the season having to replace many off-season subtractions, including Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg; they will be relying on youngsters to get the job done. Thanks to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and company, the ‘Hawks are still favorites (on paper) to win a third Stanley Cup in five years. To do so, they will need to avoid the much-ballyhooed Cup Hangover.
Key acquisitions: Nikolai Khabibulin, Theo Peckham, Mike Kostka
Key departures: Dave Bolland, Ray Emery, Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, Dan Carcillo, Rostislav Olesz
St. Louis Blues (2012-13: 29-17-2; eliminated in first round of playoffs)
After consecutive playoff exits coming at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, the Blues are ready to prove they are among the Western Conference’s elite. They swapped David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi in the off-season and also added Derek Roy to the fold. All of this comes on the heels of the team acquiring non-rental defenceman Jay Bouwmeester last spring. Led by the two-headed netminding monster of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, this is a deep team that is capable of doing damage come playoff time. Are David Backes and the Blues up to the task in 2013-14?
Key acquisitions: Derek Roy, Magnus Paajarvi, Maxim Lapierre, Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Bolduc
Key departures: David Perron, Andy McDonald, Scott Nichol, Kris Russell
Minnesota Wild (2012-13: 26-19-3; eliminated in first round of playoffs)
A banner summer of 2012 put the Minnesota Wild under a microscope they’ve never experienced in the franchise’s existence, as signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter added pressure to win immediately. The Wild did make the playoffs last spring as the No. 8 seed, but expectations are higher heading into 2013-14. Salary cap restrictions limited the Wild’s ability to improve the team, and they watched the rest of the new-look Central Division get better in the summer. They do have numerous highly rated prospects, but all the weight will be on the shoulders of Parise and Suter to help Minnesota win in the playoffs.
Key acquisitions: Matt Cooke, Keith Ballard, Nino Niederreiter, Jonathon Blum
Key departures: Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk
Dallas Stars (2012-13: 22-22-4; did not make playoffs)
No other team changed as much as the Dallas Stars did over the summer. They have a new logo, new general manager, new coach and a new-look roster that has postseason aspirations. GM Jim Nill didn’t waste any time shaking up the roster, as he pulled off a blockbuster trade that obtained talented youngster Tyler Seguin from Boston and sent Loui Eriksson east. Lindy Ruff gives the Stars a good, experienced bench boss they’ve needed since the departure of Dave Tippett four years ago. When you consider the additions of Valeri Nichushkin via the draft and Sergei Gonchar through trade, you can see why this could be the end of their five-year playoff drought.
Key acquisitions: Lindy Ruff (coach), Tyler Seguin, Sergei Gonchar, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Valeri Nichushkin, Chris Mueller, Dan Ellis
Key departures: Loui Eriksson, Eric Nystrom, Tom Wandell, Reilly Smith, Philip Larsen, Richard Bachman
Nashville Predators (2012-13: 16-23-9; did not make playoffs)
Coach Barry Trotz and company would like to make last season a distant memory as quickly as possible. They’ve expressed a desire to return to their Predator Hockey identity, and showed it by signing five players on the first day of free agency. Goal scoring will still be Nashville’s biggest issue, but the Preds are hoping a strong defence corps – anchored by Shea Weber, featuring prodigy Seth Jones – will make up for it. The Predators are optimistic about having a bounce-back season, ready to put 2012-13 behind them. But despite the infusion of new blood, one thing remains the same: the Predators will only go as far as goaltender Pekka Rinne takes them.
Key acquisitions: Seth Jones, Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Carter Hutton
Key departures: Sergei Kostitsyn, Brandon Yip, Hal Gill, Chris Mason, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Jonathon Blum, Bobby Butler
Winnipeg Jets (2012-13: 24-21-3; did not make playoffs)
The honeymoon is over in Winnipeg. It’s time for the Jets to start winning or fans will start showing impatience with the lack of progress shown since the move from Atlanta in 2011. They came oh so close to a playoff berth last season but finished in ninth place, four points behind the Islanders, and made under-the-radar pickups in Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik over the summer. However, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is putting a lot of faith in the young core to push the Jets to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2007. Will this season be any different in a new division and a new conference?
Key acquisitions: Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik, Matt Halischuk, Adam Pardy
Key departures: Antti Miettinen, Mike Santorelli, Derek Meech
Colorado Avalanche (2012-13: 16-25-7; did not make playoffs)
The Avalanche is hoping the team that won a Stanley Cup in 2001 plays a key role in the team returning to NHL prominence. Joe Sakic, now VP of hockey operations, hired old pal and goaltending great Patrick Roy to replace Joe Sacco as head coach. Not only is the pair of Hall of Famers running the ship, but Adam Foote was brought in as a development coach and Alex Tanguay was reacquired from Calgary. Talk about a reunion, eh? Led by Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado possesses plenty of talent up front. But there are too many questions on the back end for the Avalanche to contend for the playoffs this season.
Key acquisitions: Patrick Roy (coach), Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Tanguay, Cory Sarich, J.T. Wyman, Andre Benoit
Key departures: David Jones, Shane O’Brien, Aaron Palushaj
Hottest divisional rivalry: Dallas vs. Nashville. If you watched any games between the Stars and Preds last season, you realized the two teams had a unique distaste for each other. Every tilt had its moments of hatred, and now they get to go toe-to-toe as division rivals. It’s not a natural rivalry by any means, but expect the Stars and Preds to carry over hostilities. Not to mention, they will likely be battling for a playoff spot.
Big question mark: How will the teams with new faces and new hope (Colorado, Dallas, Nashville) affect the playoff race?
And the playoff teams will be… Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota