2013-14 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Central Division
The NHL's Central Division may be one of the most unglamorous divisions in all of sports.
With the exception of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the division lacks big-time teams who are likely to threaten for the championship.
While the Blackhawks have a good chance to defend their title, the rest of the teams in the division have too many question marks to be considered legitimate threats.
Here's our look at the NHL's blue-collar Central Division.
The Favorite: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks have some obstacles to overcome, but they should be able to come out on top in the vanilla Central Division.
The Blackhawks no longer have Dave Bolland, the center who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Boston Bruins last June. They also lost backup goalie Ray Emery, who may have had more to do with the Blackhawks' 24-game streak without a regulation loss at the start of the season.
They also have endured the shortest offseason in NHL history. The Blackhawks and Bruins ended the 2013 season in late June, which was the longest any NHL season has ever gone on into the summer. They may have even more problems overcoming the Stanley Cup hangover than they did in 2010-11, when they struggled after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.
But having said that, the Blackhawks have a tremendous core of talented players who are entering the prime of their careers. Jonathan Toews (23 goals, 25 assists, plus-28 rating in 2012-13) is at the top of the heap, and while he is not a scorer like Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos, he could be the best center in the league.
Patrick Kane has remarkable skills and the moxie to rise to the moment. Patrick Sharp (scored 33 goals or more in last two full seasons) is a first-class sniper who can find the open corner and get the puck there in a heartbeat. Marian Hossa is the big horse who tells his teammates to jump on his back so he can carry them.
Duncan Keith (27 points, plus-16 rating in 2012-13) is one of the best defensemen in the league, and Brent Seabrook is one of the top clutch scorers.
Corey Crawford (19-5-5 last year) is a winner in the net. He is highly skilled and driven to win games. He may not be as talented as Henrik Lundqvist or Jonathan Quick, but he finds a way to move on to the next shot or next game without taking his past mistakes with them.
The Blackhawks have one of the best head coaches in Joel Quenneville, who is not afraid to change his personnel or game plan. This is a team that has the tools to make another long run.
The Challenger: St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have asserted themselves in the regular season in each of the last two seasons, but they have fallen short in the playoffs.
However, that doesn't mean they don't have a team that could push the Chicago Blackhawks hard throughout the season. Head coach Ken Hitchcock has built a hard-working, physical team that plays tough defense and features strong goaltending.
The offensive game is a challenge for the Blues, but they have the kind of talent that can produce clutch goals, even if they aren't a team that is regularly going to score a boatload of goals.
The Blues are going to look to veterans Chris Stewart (team-high 36 points in 2012-13), David Backes (28 points) and T.J. Oshie (seven goals) for scoring and leadership, but they also want newcomers Derek Roy and Magnus Paajarvi to put the puck in the net. Roy is a slick center who is hesitant to play the physical game, while Paajarvi is a former Edmonton Oiler who has not yet played up to his talent level.
The Blues have one of the division's top defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo (24 points and averaged 25:07 per game), and Kevin Shattenkirk (23 points, 21:18) is also dependable. The goaltending has also been solid with Brian Elliott (2.28 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and three shutouts), Jaroslav Halak and Jake Allen.
If the Blues can improve offensively, they have a team that may be ready to challenge the Blackhawks.
The Bottom-Dweller: Colorado Avalanche
The Central Division may not be overly sexy, but it seems that all of the teams in the division—with the exception of the Avalanche—are fairly complete.
Colorado has a good group of young forwards who should form the nucleus of an excellent team some day. However, the cupboard does not look quite filled when it comes to defense or goaltending.
Erik Johnson (first pick in the 2006 draft) once had the credentials to become a star, but he has been a major disappointment after registering four assists in 31 games last year. Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliot and Ryan Wilson could all develop into solid defensemen in the future, but they are not there yet and there is no guarantee that they will ever get there.
The Avs are looking for Semyon Varlamov (3.02 GAA, .903 save percentage last season) to give them a lift in net, but he has never established himself as a legitimate NHL goaltender. Head coach Patrick Roy should be able to give him all the advice he needs, but that doesn't mean he will turn the corner.
The Avs will have some great nights when Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene (43 points in 2012-13), P.A. Parenteau (43 points), Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly are flying up and down the ice at full speed. But in the games where they need to survive on defense and goaltending, they will fall woefully short.
Best Old Rivalry: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
The Blackhawks lost their traditional rival when the Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference.
The Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues have a long rivalry as well, but in recent years, their battles with the Predators have been epic.
Both teams have been solid contenders in the Central Division for years, while the Blues just jumped up in 2011-12 after failing to make the postseason in five of the previous six years. The Predators and the Blackhawks had a memorable playoff series in 2010, one that was pivotal in the Blackhawks' rise to the Stanley Cup that year
In that series, the two teams split the first four games. The Preds held a one-goal lead late in the third period of Game 5 when Marian Hossa was whistled for a five-minute penalty. The Blackhawks pulled goalie Antti Niemi in the waning moments and managed to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Once the Blackhawks killed off the rest of the penalty, Hossa returned and scored the game-winning goal to give Chicago the crucial victory and the upper hand in the series.
Since then, games between these two teams have often been heated, must-see affairs.
Best New Rivalry: Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
This rivalry has a chance to grow into a war of significant proportions.
The Dallas Stars were the Minnesota North Stars from 1967 through the 1992-93 season. At that point, they packed up and left the State of Hockey and moved to the non-hockey hotbed of Dallas.
That move angered, hurt and did not sit well with the fans in Minnesota in general and Minneapolis-St. Paul in particular. The great hockey fans in the state got another chance to get back an NHL team when the Wild became an expansion team in 2000-01. But don't think for a second that all is forgiven.
The Stars were beloved during their time as the North Stars, and now the Wild will become their division rivals. Frequent meetings will open up the old wounds.
The players will sense what the fans will feel, and the belief here is that Minnesota Wild players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will develop a blood lust when they go up against the Stars' Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
This is a rivalry that will get more intense with each game the two teams play against each other.
Best Line: Chicago Blackhawks (Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane)
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are the Blackhawks' big offensive guns. They don't always play together, but when Joel Quenneville needs his team to make a charge, he puts them together and dares opponents to try and stop them.
Toews and Kane ended the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings. Toews led a sensational two-on-one rush and slid a pass to Kane in overtime that the slick winger buried behind Jonathan Quick. That allowed the Blackhawks to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
Toews sees the game like few others and will do whatever he can to make the play in the offensive zone. Kane is perhaps the best stick-handler in the game, and he knows how to score. Sharp has a lightning-like release and can bury the puck.
Best Defense Pairing: Minnesota Wild (Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin)
There are several excellent defense pairings in the Central Division, but the two best appear to be Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild followed closely by Shea Weber and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators.
Suter did not get off to the best of starts after he signed his free-agent contract with the Wild in the summer of 2012. However, he quickly shook off his nerves and became one of the best defensemen in the game.
He is constantly on the ice for head coach Mike Yeo because he is trusted in all situations. Brodin is not quite at Suter's level, but he is a gifted skater with an unlimited future. Look for Brodin, 20, to make a tremendous jump in his second season in the league.
Suter had four goals and 28 assists last year and finished plus-two on the season while playing a league-high 27:16 per game. Brodin played like a coming star. He scored two goals and nine assists while compiling a plus-nine rating and averaging 23:16 on the ice, a remarkable figure for such a young player.
Both Weber and Josi had minus ratings, so that's while Suter and Brodin merited the edge.
Best Goaltender: Nashville Predators (Pekka Rinne)
While Pekka Rinne has all kinds of stiff competition from Corey Crawford, Jaroslav Halak and Ondrej Pavelec, Rinne is the best puck-stopper in the league.
He is a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, and it would not be a surprise if he reached that level again this year and possibly even won the award.
His equals in the league are Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. Rinne (2.43 GAA, .910 save percentage and five shutouts in 2012-13) has the edge over every other competitor.
He has a superbly quick glove hand that allows him to stop shots to the upper part of the net, and the 6'5" Rinne can cover the lower part of the cage with his long legs.
Rinne keeps his cool after a bad game and almost always responds well. He does not go into long slumps even though the Preds have a tendency to be quite a low-scoring team.
Projected 2013-14 Standings
1. Chicago Blackhawks: Reigning champions have too much overall skill and firepower.
2. St. Louis Blues: While they are the best of the rest, there's a big margin between the Blues and Blackhawks.
3. Nashville Predators: Look for a bounce-back year as Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne lead the Preds to the postseason.
4. Minnesota Wild: Could climb all the way to second if the Wild can get enough scoring.
5. Winnipeg Jets: Coming over from the Eastern Conference is a great move, but the Jets have not shown the consistency to earn a playoff spot. Close, but no cigar here.
6. Dallas Stars: New general manager Jim Nill makes a nice start on rebuilding, but it will take more than one season for Tyler Seguin to mature and lead this team to the playoffs.
7. Colorado Avalanche: They have the guns to be a high-scoring team, but they lack the physical presence, defense and goaltending to win consistently. Somebody has to finish last, and the Avs don't appear to have the grit to get out of the cellar.