Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks finished fourth place in a crowded Central Division. This upcoming season—assuming there is one considering the current NHL lockout—the Hawks will find themselves in another tight race for the top spot.
The Nashville Predators, led by star goaltender Pekke Rinne, will play the Hawks tough each and every game.
Plus, the Detroit Red Wings always ice a solid team. The Wings and the Hawks always play each other extremely tough.
As for the Columbus Blue Jackets, well, they are the Columbus Blue Jackets. Maybe moving Rick Nash will set them in the right direction, but as of now, they do not present a threat to the Hawks and the Central Division crown.
Overall, achieving the top spot in the Central Division is going to be a tough task for any team—let alone the Hawks. With that being said, they certainly have the team to be able to do it. The team also holds three key factors that will allow them to come away with one of the top three seeds in the Western Conference by season's end.
One of these is, for the most part, the other teams within their division have got noticeably poorer. Star players such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Ryan Suter and Rick Nash are non-factors now in the division.
This is surely not saying that those teams losing those players will be no good, but it does take an important piece out of their lineup.
When compared to the Hawks, these teams have lost star power. Over the offseason, the Hawks have kept their core roster together and have added the necessary pieces they think will get them a Stanley Cup: experienced defensemen.
The only team that fails to fall into this category is the St. Louis Blues, who easily could be considered a front-runner for the Central title, along with the Hawks.
The Blues not only have a young, skilled, hard-working team, but also will benefit from the added addition of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko for a whole season. Both of these players should contribute right away.
For the Red Wings, Predators and Blue Jackets, it may be tough for them to handle the Hawks and the Blues on paper. At the very least, the Hawks should be able to battle for the top spot in the Central alongside the Blues. However, other factors involved in the situation will ultimately give the Hawks the upper hand.
Last season, the Hawks were able to dominate the Central Division. In order for them to be able to take the top spot, and not fourth, this season, they will have to make sure this happens again.
Points in the division are huge—able to provide crucial swings throughout the year. Winning those games means you jump two points up and force your opponent to stay stagnant in their position.
Every game against division opponents is crucial.
Of the potential 48 points the Hawks could have earned playing division foes last year, they were able to pocket 34—a very impressive feat. Their overall division record sat at 16-6-2 by the end of the year.
What needs to be improved, ever so slightly, is their play against their sure to be stiffest competition next season—the Predators and the Blues.
Of the six losses to division teams, four of them came at the hands of the Predators. All it would have taken was a swing of one game, where the Hawks turned a loss into a victory to place them ahead of the Predators last season.
The Blues, who finished last season eight points ahead of the Hawks, also had a decent record against them. Even though the Hawks were able to come out of the season series with eight of a possible 12 points, they allowed the Blues two extra points because of shootout losses.
If the Hawks are going to want to claim the top spot in the division, they will need to make sure to leave the ice against the Predators and the Blues with points going in their win column only.
On top of all this, it has to be remembered the Hawks have a roster full of all-star caliber players and depth. The Hockey News recently ranked the team in their newest magazine edition as having the No. 1 overall lines when you combine the top and bottom in terms of scoring and defending.
Naming off players such as Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews sounds like you are announcing the first line of an NHL All-Star game. That is without mentioning the other star players on the team.
While the Hawks possess star power, they also have a very deep roster complete with veterans, role players and young players—rookies that are ready to step up or battle their way onto an NHL roster.
With a lockout continuing into the near future, there is hope on the horizon. Many of the young Hawks who could play key roles throughout the year get some time in the AHL. Players like Nick Leddy, Dylan Olsen, Brandon Saad and Brandon Bollig all will, at some point, be in the Hawks lineup.
These young players are crucial for a team top-heavy in stars to fill in vital positions.
Also, there are important players like Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo and Niklas Hjalmarsson. These players do not get the attention like the stars do, but still play a role crucial for the team to succeed.
All in all, the Hawks will be going into this year with their eyes on that top spot in the Central Division. Gaining that place will give the team a far greater opportunity than in recent years to get past the first round, as well as having home ice to use to their advantage.
If the Hawks can take advantage of other teams losing key players, make sure to tally as many points as possible against Central opponents and play a strong team game, then the Central Division crown can easily be taken—but definitely not for granted.