Since the NHL took on its current alignment last offseason, gone are the days where one division stands out as truly weak, as the former Southeast Division once did. All four divisions are tough, with a handful of excellent clubs mixed in with teams on the rise and teams struggling to keep their heads above water.
If you had to pick a division that stands out as perhaps the more difficult division to be in, I’d give my vote to the Central. The Pacific features elite teams, but the Western Canadian clubs aren’t a threat to unseat the California teams. The Metro is wide open. The Atlantic is also very much up for grabs after Boston.
The Central Division title is Chicago’s to lose. They are the definition of elite, with balanced scoring, stout defense and serviceable goaltending. They added Brad Richards to boost their scoring lines, which will only serve to make them a more sure bet to go deep in the playoffs.
The Blues are starting to emulate the Sharks a little bit. Regular season beasts, but can’t get it done in the postseason. The Ryan Miller experiment was a failure, but Jake Allen is finally getting his chance in net, so they should be ok. They made a tinker to their terrific blueline, bringing in Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak. Their biggest offseason move however, was signing Paul Stastny to help shore up the offense. This may be the move that puts them over the top.
I’m a big fan of what Jim Nill is doing in Dallas. He stole Jason Spezza from the Senators, and followed that up by signing Ales Hemsky as well, reuniting the duo that found instant chemistry after the trade deadline last season. These two form a rebuilt second line behind the already potent duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. About the only the stopping them from making the playoffs would be an injury to Kari Lehtonen.
Depending on who you talk to, the Colorado Avalanche are either going to take the next step after being the NHL’s biggest surprise last year, or they are going to come screaming back down to terra firma. The advanced stats show that the Avs were a terrible possession team, but got by with out-of-this-world goaltending and a little bit of luck. They are in line for a regression, and they lost Paul Stastny- two reasons to not believe in an improvement. They did bring in Jarome Iginla and Daniel Briere though, who will help what should be a terrific group of forwards led by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mat Duchene. Can Semyon Varlamov repeat his heroics from last season?
The Wild are in interesting case. They have spent a ton of dough over the past couple years, bringing aboard the likes of Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter. The roster of their roster is a mixed bag of veterans and unknowns. Mikko Koivu is a very good player, but can the defense and goaltending bring enough to compete in the Central?
I’m one of the very few Jackets fans that doesn’t have a complete hate-on for Nashville. I like how they do things, and I would like to see them finally get to the point where they can consistently compete. This past offseason they were busy, bringing in veteran forwards James Neal, Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy. If the forwards can bring consistent scoring, the Preds may just be a surprise team, given their terrific defense and elite goaltending.
I feel for Jets fans. They finally got their team back, only to see the team spin its tires, with no clear direction for the franchise. Evander Kane is a major distraction. Their biggest offseason move was bringing in Mathieu Perreault from Anaheim. They have the worst goaltending in the NHL, and though there are some bright young stars like Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele, this team is destined for a long season.
Here's how we see the Central shaking out: