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Team to Beat: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they will be the team to beat once again in the West. Jonathan Toews is the best captain in the league and is one of the best players in the game. He brings a complete game to the table and makes everyone around him better.
Patrick Kane has some of the best hands in the league and can score at will. Marian Hossa is a big-bodied player who can score and play great two-way hockey. Patrick Sharp can also light the lamp while playing great defensive hockey.
New guys like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad bring youth, scoring ability and grit. On defense, there’s Duncan Keith, a great offensive power on the blue line. Nick Leddy is a young gun who has great presence on the ice. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are great two-way defensive players. The final line of defense is Corey Crawford, who had an outstanding lockout-shortened year. If there were any team to repeat as Cup champions, it’s going to be the Blackhawks.
Runner-Up: St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are going to give the Blackhawks a hell of a time trying to win the division, but will ultimately fall short. Where the Blues hang their hat is on defense. Alex Pietrangelo is a favorite to win the Norris trophy this season, and he brings the perfect blend of a big body with offensive power and a stay-at-home defensemen with great vision and hockey sense.
His linemate is Jay Bouwmeester, a high-powered offensive guy who can move bodies from in front of the net. Jordan Leopold and Kevin Shattenkirk complement the first line with speed, passing and an offensive touch, while Barret Jackman and Roman Polak are physical D-men who will block shots.
Up front is a homegrown core of young players who specialize in two-way play. David Backes is a lead-by-example captain who plays some of the best two-way hockey in the league. T.J. Oshie is a physical guy who can score gritty goals, same with Chris Stewart.
Vladimir Tarasenko, the team’s biggest question mark, should be the guy who will light the lamp for the Blues and Jaden Schwartz is set for a breakout year. In net is Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, the best tandem in the league. The Blues are a team that is primed for a deep Cup run and should be a very tough team to play all year.
Dark Horse: Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild made a splash two offseasons ago when they signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. After a year of getting in sync and building chemistry, the Wild are ready to make the push to regular playoff team. Parise leads an offense with a mix of different skills, but it's a mix that works together. Parise is the offensive leader, putting the puck in the net like it’s his job. (Editor’s note: It is.)
Captain Mikko Koivu is a faceoff mastermind and is a great team player who can pass and score. Dany Heatley has not lived up to his years in Ottawa where he put up 100-point seasons. The Wild dealt Cal Clutterbuck in the offseason, but adds Nino Niederreiter, a player who has dominated the AHL and is ready for the big leagues. In net for the Wild is Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom has never been a lights-out good goaltender, but has always put up solid numbers.
The major question is the defense. Suter is more than capable on the blue line, but after him and sophomore Jonas Brodin, who will step up and be vital to the Wild?
Player to Watch: Jaden Schwartz
Jaden Schwartz is set for a breakout year this season and could be vital to a playoff push for the Blues. Schwartz has shown he can be a scorer, but also can make some passes no one sees. He plays great two-way hockey and fits incredibly well into Hitchcock’s system. Throughout the preseason, Hitchcock has said that Schwartz has been the best player on the team.
The Blues traded away David Perron in the offseason because they knew Schwartz could step up and fill the void he left in the team. Schwartz is ready to be one of the team’s highest scorers and could be the difference between a first-round exit and a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Coach of the Division: Barry Trotz
When talking about coaches in the division, Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville are always talked about. But, Barry Trotz is one of the most underrated coaches in the league and should be in the same talks. Trotz has been the coach of the Predators for their entire history and has led the team from basement dwellers to divisional threat. Two seasons ago, he led them to their first playoff series win. Now he has the challenge of leading a team with stellar defense, but no offensive power to be a playoff threat. The team will have its work cut out for it, but if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Trotz.