Rat Trick Predicts: Central Division Preview


Oct 1, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) blocks the shot of Chicago Blackhawks center Marko Dano (56) during the third period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every website is doing a season preview these days, so we here at The Rat Trick might as well do one too.  Here is our Pacific Division preview, if you need more crucial knowledge.  Working from west to east, let’s continue with the Central Division preview:

Jun 15, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in game six of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

1. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – For the third time in the last six years, the Chicago Blackhawks are defending the Stanley Cup.  They are considered to be a good playoff team, maybe even the best in any sport at the moment.  And going into this year, the team doesn’t have any glaring deficiencies once again.

You know the big names, like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook.  They’ve been among the best players in the league for the last few seasons, and it doesn’t look like that will change in the near future.  Also coming back into the fold is Patrick Kane — who is everybody’s favorite these days; he is healthy again after trudging through the last postseason with a broken clavicle.  These studs can get it done on both sides of the ice for the Blackhawks, so expect them to log serious ice time and put up massive stats.

But those players also need to be paid, and that has put the Blackhawks in a tricky cap situation.  They had no room to pay Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, or Brad Richards, leaving them with some unproven secondary scoring.  Players like Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw will have to fill bigger scoring roles than they have in the past.  And with the amount of success and talent that these players share, nobody should be surprised if they excel with more ice time.

The homegrown youth movement extends to the Blackhawks’ defense.  Keith and Seabrook will man the first D pairing, and Niklas Hjalmarsson and newcomer Trevor Daley should constitute the second.  The third pairing might wind up being Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad, and neither has played a full season at an NHL level.  It looks like Keith and Seabrook will have to eat a huge chunk of minutes while van Riemsdyk and Rundblad prove themselves as dependable players.

In goal, Corey Crawford and Scott Darling make up a formidable duo with a great postseason pedigree.  Last year, the two goalies posted a .924 and .936 save% in the playoffs, respectively.  Those two should be more than enough to backstop a wealth of wins for Chicago this year.

Chicago hasn’t won the Central the divisions were reorganized, but this could certainly be the year where they overcome that streak and truly dominate the regular season.  The Central is deep from top to bottom, but nobody should forget that the Blackhawks are the class of this division.

Sep 29, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) faces the Dallas Stars attack during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2. ST. LOUIS BLUES – The Blues have been a sexy pick for the Stanley Cup ever since Ken Hitchcock came into town to replace Davis Payne as head coach.  But in each of the last three years, St. Louis has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in six games.  Their postseason stalls are haunting, but for the sake of this preview let’s just be excited about their upcoming regular season and pretend they won’t blow it again come April.

Things are mostly the same for the Blues after the offseason.  They did lose a young American stud in T.J. Oshie, and they did lose a longtime defenseman in Barret Jackman, but adding Troy Brouwer in the Oshie trade might soothe that pain.  David Backes, Alexander Steen, and the marvelous Vladimir Tarasenko are still in town.  Jori Lehtera, Paul Stastny, and Jaden Schwartz are no slouches either, so there is no shortage of options for the Blues to score with.

Defensively, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk will continue to lead the way with their terrific two-way play.  (Ex-Panther Factor legend) Jay Bouwmeester went through a rebirth of sorts in St. Louis, rediscovering his smooth-skating and pass-dishing form.  Carl Gunnarsson is another dependable player on the blue line.  And in goal, the Blues have a fearsome two-headed monster in Brian Elliot and Jake Allen.  The 1A/1B goalie set-up ensures the tough offenses of the Central are always facing the hotter goalie, making it a real chore to score against St. Louis.

There is no argument that the Blues don’t have elite talent.  They’re simply one of the most talented teams in hockey, and that skill should push St. Louis further into the playoffs than in the last few years.  However, that last statement could be written in any recent Blues’ preseason and still ring true.  The team is running out of time to put it all together, and Ken Hitchcock might not get many more chances to lead it.  But in the meantime, they should be fine in the regular season before they meet their boogeyman in the postseason.

Apr 4, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Dallas Stars right winger Patrick Eaves (18) celebrates after a goal during the third period against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

3. DALLAS STARS – The Dallas Stars are making a convincing effort to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference.  Look no further than their moves this offseason: acquiring Cup-winning, ex-Blackhawk Patrick Sharp; acquiring Cup-winning, ex-Blackhawk Johnny Oduya; acquiring Cup-winning, ex-Blackhawk Antti Niemi.  The Stars GM Jim Nill is onto something here…

Adding players with playoff pedigrees is great, and the Stars are hoping that experience is enough to push the roster into Cup-contending territory.  But what the Stars bring to the table from last year is their ability to score goals.  Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are prolific scorers, and fellows like Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Valeri Nichushkin, and Patrick Eaves are solid secondary options on the forward lines.  With John Klingberg as a very offensively minded defenseman, goals will come from everywhere in the zone for the Stars.

Everything past the forwards for Dallas remains in question, however.  They gave up 3.13 GAA last year, good for the fourth-worst number in the NHL.  That will have to change if the Stars want to challenge in the division.  Alex Goligoski and Klingberg are the big minutes-eaters on the back end, and they’ll be replacing Trevor Daley’s minutes with Jason Demers or Jordie Benn.  Acquiring Johnny Oduya is a good start to improve the defense, but he hasn’t been one in his career to anchor a blue line by himself.

Signing Antti Niemi will hopefully shore up the goaltending situation in Dallas, which has seen Kari Lehtonen in goal most of the last few seasons.  Kari’s streaky play might make him an over-qualified backup, but the two Finns ought to be a solid tandem if all goes according to plan.

Lindy Ruff’s squad has a better infusion of veteran leadership to go with some excellent talent and depth at the forward position.  If the defense and goaltending are shored up the way it seems, the Stars could be looking at a playoff run.  But if they aren’t, I’ll have to go back and edit this article.

Sep 27, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA: Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter (22) and forward Thomas Vanek (26) congratulate defenseman Matt Dumba (24) on his goal during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

4. MINNESOTA WILD – The Wild are having a hell of a time getting out of the Blackhawks’ shadow.  They’ve met them in the playoffs in the last three years, and have been crushed all three times.  At least in the last two trips, they won a series before facing Chicago.  But that’s a small amount of relief for this franchise, who need to overcome the script to actually beat the Blackhawks for a change.

Minnesota didn’t reach outside of the organization too much to improve their roster.  Young defenseman Mike Reilly might make his pro debut this year at the NHL level, and Joel Eriksson-Ek is an 18-year-old Swedish center who might get a shot as well.  Chris Porter is hanging out.  But more likely, this team will be sticking with more-or-less the same squad as last year.

That squad is a defensive machine that is well-equipped for plenty of 2-1 games.  Devan Dubnyk was the big star of last season, as he was a brick wall since coming over mid-season from Arizona (much to the befuddlement of Edmontonians).  Helping him in front of his crease is defensemen Ryan Suter, who logged a ridiculous 29:03 of ice time last regular season.  Also logging minutes from the blue line are Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and Marco Scandella.  That core of defensemen helped give the Wild the league’s best penalty kill last season, along with the best goal differential (+42).

Zach Parise is the still the captain and heart and soul of the team, and he’ll continue to be the go-to forward in any situation.  His play on both sides of the puck are elite.  What the Wild don’t seem to have is depth behind him, however.  Thomas Vanek came back to life last season, and youngsters Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker started to emerge as quality offensive options as well.  But the pickings are slim beneath that crew.  A lot will be asked of Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu to put the biscuit in the basket, especially since there wasn’t much of an effort to bring in help over the offseason.

Mike Yeo has to hope that the Wild can take that next step this year.  Because they keep stubbing their toe on a big Blackhawks-shaped nail.  Maybe this is the year they can take down those giants on Madison Avenue, but I’m not buying it.

Sep 23, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber (6) during the second period against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

5. NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Once again, like every year since I can remember, the Nashville Predators have one of the best defenses in the league.  Where it leads them is anybody’s guess, as the Peter Laviolette-led team are still working on making that really big postseason run.  It’s a testament to the depth of the Central division that I’m picking these guys to finish fifth, because they might be a sexy Cup pick once April comes around.

So about that defense.  Shea Weber is still just as much of a monster as ever, and his support of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and the young Seth Jones is almost unparalleled in the NHL.  Barret Jackman is around now to do some of the dirty, physical work that any team could use.  Despite losing another quality defenseman in Cody Franson to the Sabres, this is still arguably the best blue line around.  And to hammer the defensive side of things home, Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina-quality season.  He’ll clean up most of the few mistakes the Predators will make in front of him.

The forward group is better than in years’ past, but is certainly overshadowed on this roster.  James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, and the excellent Filip Forsberg are quite productive, but they’ll have to find some consistent scoring behind them.  Mike Fisher is fine, if a little long in the tooth at 35.  Paul Gaustad has become a glorified face-off specialist.  Cody Hodgson is a newcomer, but his best days seem confusingly out of reach.  A lot will depend on how much young players like Colin Wilson and Craig Smith can offer from a secondary role.

With a bit of luck and an avoidance of injuries, the Predators could approach another 100-point season.  But a lot has to go right for this squad, not least of which are some disappointing seasons by other teams in the Central.  The path to the playoffs gets unfairly difficult in this wild card range.

Oct 3, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Winnipeg Jet defenseman Tyler Myers (57) collides with Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano (5) during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

6. WINNIPEG JETS – Former sworn enemies of the Florida Panthers, the Jets are now quietly doing their own thing in some other, far-away conference.  We’ll never forget the incredible rivalry we shared.

But the Jets stumbled on something quite nice last year, making the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s residence in Manitoba.  With the aid of some good goaltending, solid defense, and plenty of urging-on from the Jets’ faithful, the Jets were able to impressively break out of a tough conference and find a spot in the postseason.

But Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff won’t mortgage the future for the present, and that is clear from observing his offseason moves.  Coming back into the fold from the KHL is Alexander Burmistrov, but he is essentially the only big acquisition.  Cheveldayoff received some heat for leaving too many roster spots open for his young players, but he has reason to be optimistic for the future — the Winnipeg Jets has the best farm system in the NHL.

The young players will get their time to shine on the Jets’ squad, but the mix of veterans hasn’t changed.  Gone is Michael Frolik, but Tyler Myers, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little continue to be Winnipeg’s best players.  The blue line is particularly stocked with talent, as youngsters Jacob Trouba and Ben Chiarot work well with veterans Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enström.

The Jets will ride or die based on the performances of their two-headed monster in net, Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec.  Coach Paul Maurice will get to choose the hot hand in net on a given night, but both goalies provided career years last season.  There’s no room for a step back in this division.

Sep 24, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Brad Stuart (17) checks Calgary Flames left wing Brandon Bollig (52) in the third period during a preseason game at Pepsi Center. The Flames defeated the Avalanche 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

7. COLORADO AVALANCHE – Poor Colorado, last in my preview through no fault of their own.  They have fantastic young players in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Tyson Barrie.  They have a seriously good netminder in Semyon Varlamov.  What they don’t seem to have is a chance in a talent-glutted Central Division.  They happened to win that division two years ago, but fell to last place last year with a pitiful… 90 points.  That’s how tough this division is.

Patrick Roy has an excellent core to work with, however.  Those names mentioned above, plus guys like Carl Soderberg, Erik Johnson, and Blake Comeau ought to give the Avalanche quality numbers.  And many people often forget Jarome Iginla is hiding out in Colorado as well.  There is quality to be found on this roster, no doubt.

The problem with Colorado seems to come mostly from the defensive depth.  Veterans like Mark Stuart and Nate Guenin have not necessarily been excellent on the back line, prompting Avalanche GM Joe Sakic to go out and find some help on defense.  In comes Francois Beauchemin, a stalwart veteran who should prove to be a helpful and stabilizing presence for Roy’s squad.  Also coming into the fold are Nikita Zadorov and Brandon Gormley, two very young defensemen who weren’t cutting it in Buffalo and Arizona, respectively.  If those whippersnappers can make some improvements to their game, then the Avalanche blue line will look much more solid.

As it stands, however, the Avalanche have a lot of growing up to do.  This is no lottery team, but it’s not much of a division contender the way things stand.  They could surprise like they did in 2013-14, but I can’t say I’d see it coming.

Next: Rat Trick Predicts: Pacific Division Preview

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