The Blues made a splash last season by coming out of nowhere to steal the Central Division crown. But, unlike last season, the Blues are expected to be the champs again.
In the current free agency, the Blues have done everything they have needed to do. They signed all of their young core to contract extensions, they baited Vladimir Tarasenko to come to the NHL and they extended Ken Hitchcock's contract for a few more years.
Despite losing a couple of players and not adding a top-four defenseman—just minor blips on the team's overall radar—the Blues look like the same team they were last year.
Except they are not.
Each player on the Blues gained valuable knowledge of what it felt like to have targets on their backs. They felt the pressure of what it was like to be the best. This season, they are expected to be the best and perform like the best, and they have become accustomed to those conditions.
And while the Blues have gotten better in the offseason, the other teams in the Central have taken some hits.
Nashville may have been hit the hardest out of all of the Central teams. The Predators lost Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild and had to sign a 14-year, $110 million contract extension to get their captain Shea Weber to stay. The team nearly went into a massive rebuilding stage just one season after its best on-ice success, and it took a massive contract to keep it from happening. The Predators are going to have a tough time putting together a good team over the next few seasons with so much money tied into Weber and Pekke Rinne.
Who Will Win the Central Division?
Columbus filled a big hole by signing Sergei Bobrovsky on draft day. But, in a huge deal, the Blue Jackets sent Rick Nash to the Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick. While Columbus does add some pieces to its lineup, ultimately this deal was a huge letdown for the Jackets.
The Blue Jackets could have went after pieces like Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Marian Gaborik or Brad Richards. They could have asked for fewer players and received a younger player who could become the superstar that Rick Nash was.
Sure, the players received will help, but the loss of a superstar will hurt the team in the long run. Pair that with a backup goalie as a first-time starter, and it could be a long year in Columbus.
Like the Blues, the Blackhawks didn't really make some news this offseason. The Hawks signed Sheldon Brookbank, but that was it. The Hawks saw a very disappointing season last year, finishing fourth in the Central. Corey Crawford was extremely shaky and, if that happens again, no matter how good Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or post-injury Marian Hossa is, the team will not succeed.
Detroit is most likely to challenge the Blues for the Central crown, but it took a huge hit in the offseason. Nicklas Lidstrom retired after 20 seasons with the Red Wings. The Wings added Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo to their bottom-six forwards, and added Jonas Gustavsson to back up Jimmy Howard.
But, the loss of Lidstrom and Brad Stuart will be apparent and the team will have a hard time assimilating to the loss of its veteran presences.
As for the Blues, they extended contracts on T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Ryan Reaves and Chris Stewart. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak look to improve on their career years. Ken Hitchcock will be behind the bench. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are ready to show the league they are elite defensemen.
And, possibly most importantly, the Blues have a reliable owner ready to take the team to new heights.
In the toughest division in the West and possibly in the NHL, the Blues are poised to show they are the best.