My good friend BHTD9 came to me with the idea of coming up with some predictions for next season today and I have to say I was intrigued. To be fair, I'm not as solid on my western conference material. Guaranteed there'll be a few disagreements here. That said, lets give it a shot then.
Last Years Standings
Colorado - 112
St. Louis - 111
Chicago - 107
Minnesota - 98
Dallas - 91
Nashville - 88
Winnipeg – 84
Colorado: This team blew all expectations away last season. With a potent combination of talented youth, a career season for their starter and a fresh (hard to ignore) voice in Patrick Roy, the Avalanche were the Cinderella story of last season. Losing Statsny to free agency was not overly surprising but does put more pressure on MacKinnon and/or O’Reilly (assuming he remains for the season). Their blueline hasn’t changed much either in the off-season, though Brad Stuart should bring some solidifying veteran experience to the young group. Varlamov remains the lynchpin to this group having repeated success. His inflated numbers from last season are likely to drop with their poor overall possession, but even a modest relapse should keep them in the running for a playoff spot. Their biggest issue this year will either be a lot of young players relapsing a bit or other teams finally getting the book written on the new kids on the block.
St. Louis: That unfortunate scenario where a dominant regular season team just can’t translate their success to the playoffs. Making the big move for Miller showed that St. Louis was ready to hedge their bets on the team. Alas things did not go as planned. The team has stayed largely the same up front, with the big addition coming in the way of Paul Statsny. This rounds out the center situation very well and any team would be so lucky to have that kind of depth up the middle. Alex Steen’s best goal scoring season also helped this team a lot, which will need to happen again unless someone like Tarasenko shows up with a breakout season. On the back end, The arrival of Carl Gunnarsson gives the second D pairing a bit more skill than toughness. However as this team is built largely on players that show some real sand paper I think this was a good trade to make. The key to the success of this team overall rests between the pipes. Brian Elliott has had a real roller coaster career, and without a serious high point the loss of Halak (and Miller technically) could cause them some real issues.
Chicago: The consistent favourite in the west, Chicago ran into the ironmen of the West and future Stanley cup champions in Las Angeles. Up front this team remains absolutely dominant, especially with the signings of Toews and Kane for the foreseeable future. The addition of Brad Richards could be quite good as well, adding a solid 2nd line center who should be good for at least 50 points. Barring any big moves on the blueline the team stays quite solid as well. A continued source of adversity surrounding this team is the play of Corey Crawford. Despite having backstopped the team to a Stanley cup two seasons ago and continuing to play in big games for a true contender, he often attracts a lot of criticism as a starter. Assuming there aren’t any major injuries to the key players, Chicago looks to remain in the upper echelon of the west once again.
Minnesota: The first wild card team in the west made quite the splash by eliminating division champ Colorado. This was an exciting series from the start that really felt like a throwback to the 2008 match-up that saw Colorado win in 6 games. As a team that had received some real criticism for its big free agent signings (Parise and Suter) they had something to prove and wound up meeting those expectations. That core group remains largely in place, while the addition of Vanek at a cool 6.5 million per adds a proven scorer to what is becoming a powerhouse offensive unit. To supplement these large salaries the Wild will also be relying on the talented youth that they have drafted and developed. The big push for this team needs to come from their blueline. Ryan Suter heads up a very young group of defensemen. Keith Ballard lost a few steps last season, so a resurgence from him would go a long way in limiting the number of shots that whoever becomes the teams starter. Assuming the offseason has given Backstrom time to recover, the starting role should fall to him. He will absolutely need to regain form after a disappointing year last year. It would be excellent to see Josh Harding be able to return (as the starter?), but as his health remains in question the back-up duties should likely fall to Darcy Kuemper.
Dallas: Another wildcard team, Dallas ran into a high scoring team with a coach who would prove more than willing to take a gamble on a tender. However their first round elimination has shown a team that is quickly moving in the right direction. To change things up a bit I’ll start off by saying that the Stars might be one of the more solid teams in net. Kari Lehtonen has proven again and again that he can deliver for big wins, but to have success this coming post-season his team needs to stop spotting the opposing team 3 and 4 goal leads at the start (see Anaheim series). To solidify this position the Stars also signed Anders Lindback. Despite issues last season in Tampa, he is back in a system that should really compliment his big body goaltending style. Dallas sports a good mixture of veterans and youths on the blueline. Another big year from Goligoski seems likely and the Stars will also be hoping to see a better season from a veteran like Gonchar. Stars fans should be really excited to see their off-season additions hit the ice this year up front. Spezza was picked up for very little in the great scheme of things and gives an excellent 1-2 punch at center for next season. Ales Hemsky has also signed on who has experience playing with Spezza and gives Ruff a proven scorer to slot on the right wing with Benn and Seguin. As I say, lots to be excited about.
Nashville: This is the first team on the list that did not make the playoffs last season. While it is true that culture changes do need to happen from time to time, I’m still scratching my head that the removal of Trotz as head coach. For years he has kept this team in the running while they ice units made largely of a second line quality on other teams. Before the team even hit the ice this year they have lost Fisher for a significant amount of time which reveals a shallow team up the middle. Free agents Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy and Mike Ribeiro will help to remedy this problem, but it looks like a team that will be looking for some kind of identity up the middle throughout the season. Whoever ends up playing on that top line will have a winger in James Neal who is anxious to show that his goals didn’t just come from Crosby’s and Malkin’s sticks. This teams real identity comes through on defence via Shea Weber. The cast around him should be the envy of any team IF they can play a more solid defensive game. The addition of Anton Volchenkov should aid this cause as well as he is a physical presence who can block some shots and make the opposing team pay the price in his own end. Rinne remains a top flight tender and if he remains healthy should give this team a real chance to achieve this season.
Winnipeg: After missing the playoffs this year the Jets and all of Winnipeg should be hungry next season, but the team itself has not seen many changes up to this point. The glaring need for this team remains in net, as Ondrej Pavelec posted one of the worst percentages for a starting goalie. Michael Hutchinson posted good numbers in very limited experience and Al Montoya has never been able to handle a full time starter role, so I could absolutely see a move coming in that way (Reimer?). This position will also need to be supplemented with some stronger defence. Despite his offensive upside, Byfuglien was a minus twenty on the season. This team has some promising players especially in Jacob Trouba, though it will be interesting to see if he can repeat his successful rookie season. In terms of scoring the team did alright when relying on scoring by committee. They need to solidify this position more than adding Mathieu Perreault. His production should be enough to cover the loss of Olli Jokinen’s numbers. Dustin Byfuglien looks to be moving off of defence to forward whether he wants to or not. He was already third in scoring, so a chance for more offense could increase those numbers next year.
Now comes the point where I should make my picks for the order in the Central division next year. Here goes,
1st – Chicago – Remains a juggernaut in the west
2nd – Dallas – Combination of players has them poised to be very dangerous
3rd – Colorado – I see a team that overachieved and may see some regression
4th – St. Louis – Elliott and Allen will give them a solid regular season…
5th – Minnesota – Strong veterans with solid prospects that need to make the jump
6th – Nashville – Lack of a top center will give them problems
7th – Winnipeg – Need a goaltender and a true top-line center in this division
Disclaimer – I think that everything south of St. Louis is interchangeable at this point depending on their moves to round out the off-season.
Its been fun going through this and its all just opinion and speculation. Enjoy.