2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Central Division

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2015

2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Central Division

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Last season five of the seven teams in the NHL's Central Division made the playoffs, and the Stanley Cup Champions emerged from it. Four of those teams finished with 100 or more points, and the entire division featured teams with a winning record. 

    The St. Louis Blues won the division and once again look capable, and the Nashville Predators have added to their arsenal. The Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets edged ever closer to the division's elite, but they're all chasing those Chicago Blackhawks and their playoff success. 

    As we ready ourselves for the 2015-16 season, here's a look at changes in the division and predictions of what is to come in the NHL's Central Division. 

The Favorite: The Chicago Blackhawks

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    In the seven seasons Joel Quenneville has coached the Chicago Blackhawks, his teams have brought the Stanley Cup home three times. That's the kind of record that gets a coach into the Hall of Fame.

    General manager Stan Bowman also deserves credit for this run, as both men have had to become experts in roster juggling. Their ability to win while also shifting substantial roster players borders on breathtaking and is the key to what is becoming a modern dynasty. 

    This summer's big goodbye was Patrick Sharp, sent away for cap reasons and a significant decline in production. His 10 seasons with the team represent the most successful in Blackhawks history. Also sent away were Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards and—again—Kris Versteeg. That's an enormous amount of change, but in Chicago it's business as usual. 

    Despite the losses, Chicago is bringing back the heart of the team that has been winning so much in recent seasons.

    Captain Jonathan Toews, the fantastic defensive trio of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Corey Crawford give the team amazing strength up the middle. The club also addressed the need for a strong No. 2 center during the summer, adding Artem Anisimov from the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

    The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane on the wing—for now—and as Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun writes, in the NHL's view there is no reason to suspend him at this time. Marian Hossa is aging by sundial and remains an impact player, and Artem Panarin may be the latest obscure gem to be uncovered by the Hawks. Watch out for Teuvo Teravainen, who is one of the best young prospects in the game and showed flashes of his brilliance in the playoffs. 

    If there's one area Bowman has been able to address more successfully than other GMs in this division, it's in the way he uses his dollars on players who possess a complete range of skills. Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa and now Anisimov are valuable men in both ends of the ice and represent a complete skill set.

    Only elite offensive winger Kane and outstanding shutdown defender Hjalmarsson are making big money without also being outstanding across the board. The player signed to a big contract who doesn't qualify under either banner—Bryan Bickell—appears to be a rare mistake in judgment by Bowman and may be sent away in the coming months. 

    The Central Division is extremely difficult, filled with teams capable of going deep into the playoffs. All roads lead to Chicago, as the Blackhawks are the king of the hill until someone knocks them off in the postseason. 

The Challenger: St. Louis Blues

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Blues won more than 50 games in each of the last two seasons only to be ousted quickly in the playoffs. They won the division in 2014-15 and boast a roster strong with difference-makers on offense and defense. 

    The Blues' biggest weapon is Vladimir Tarasenko, and his signing in July—as reported by Louie Korac of NHL.com—represents a step forward for the organization in terms of retaining impact players. Added to Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and David Backes, the Blues are a formidable group up front. 

    On defense, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk represent real quality, and the club has nice depth at the position. The goalie tandem of veteran Brian Elliott and youngster Jake Allen hasn't been successful in the postseason but was more than good enough during the regular year. 

    St. Louis didn't make a lot of moves during the summer, although the additions of Troy Brouwer and Kyle Brodziak give them a more rugged look. 

    The major item keeping St. Louis from being able to compete with Chicago is the lack of difference-makers. The addition of Tarasenko as an impact player helps, but the club is paying $5.6 million to Jay Bouwmeester this year and received 13 points from him a year ago—that's not good value. He'll need to rebound offensively in order to warrant the money. 

    The Blues have a tremendous team but always fall a little shy. They need their best players to deliver strong seasons in order to win, and the Bouwmeester contract is going to be a problem if he can't help more on offense. 

The Bottom-Dweller: Colorado Avalanche

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Perhaps the best way to show the strength of this division is to put the Colorado Avalanche in league-wide perspective. Although they did finish last in the division, Colorado's 90 points was good enough to rank the team No. 21 overall—it was not your typical last-place team. 

    The Avalanche have substantial skills among their forwards, and their three gifted youngsters—Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon—will impact the league now and throughout the rest of the decade. The club also boasts quality goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who is an above-average player and in his prime. 

    Colorado needed to improve its defense, and it did it early, signing free-agent defender Francois Beauchemin in the opening hours of free agency. Erik Johnson also signed long term—as reported by NHL.com—giving the roster stability and a quality No. 1 pairing. 

    The team changed its look up the middle, trading center Ryan O'Reilly for a large return, including outstanding young defender Nikita Zadorov. The Russian defender is an emerging talent, and this summer was probably the last chance to pry him away from the Buffalo Sabres—he should be a very good player for a long time. The Avalanche added Carl Soderberg to replace O'Reilly.  

    Expect an upswing in fortunes for Colorado this season, although in this division that may not mean it gets out of the basement.  

Best Old Rivalry: Chicago Blackhawks–St. Louis Blues

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    Andre Hoekstra/Associated Press

    The Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues have had an intense rivalry since the Blues entered the league in 1967. Separated by just 300 miles, the two teams have clashed many times over the years—and have been in the same division since 1970. 

    Perhaps the most infamous meeting between the two teams came on March 17, 1991. Now known as the St. Patrick's Day Massacre, the game came to a halt in the moments after Blackhawks forward Jeremy Roenick hit Harold Snepsts. Penalties and fines resulted, the game's box score becoming a curio for decades afterward because of the bizarre penalty totals for several of the players involved. 

    The teams have met several times in the playoffs, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, with Sutter brothers involved on both sides during several of these series. The two teams have seemed to enjoy ruining each other's fun over the years, an example being 1993. In that season, Chicago won its division easily but was swept by the Blues. Recent league-wide dominance by Chicago has left Blues fans frustrated and disappointed time and again—most recently in 2014. 

Best New Rivalry: Chicago Blackhawks–Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    In historical terms, the Minnesota Wild haven't been around a long time. Since the turn of the century, the Wild have been building toward what fans are hoping will be their first Stanley Cup victory later this decade. 

    Anyone who pays attention to the NHL's Central Division knows the Chicago Blackhawks are a formidable team, and the Wild found out first hand over the last three seasons. In 2013, it was a quick series as the Hawks were too strong for the fledgling Wild. The following spring, Minnesota had initial playoff success, getting past the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, before falling to Chicago in six games. 

    In the spring of this year, Minnesota once again won in the first round—this time against the St. Louis Blues—before Chicago made quick work of the Wild in Round 2. 

    Minnesota continues its build and in many ways is the strongest challenger for Chicago at this time. One thing is certain: These two teams will meet again in the playoffs, possibly in the spring of 2016. 

Best Line: Jamie Benn with Tyler Seguin and Various

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Although the third wheel on the line changed with great regularity last year, there's no question about the best line in this division. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were a force when together on a line, and the results last season were sensational. 

    Benn ranked No. 4 and Seguin No. 6 in the NHL in points-per-60 at five-on-five, according to HockeyAnalysis.com. The line did not get a big zone-start push according to behindthenet.ca, and the same resource tells us they were playing tough competition

    What does this mean? Benn and Seguin—combined with a third player who could have been anyone from Jason Spezza to Cody Eakin—set the NHL on fire in 2014-15. 

Best Defensive Pairing: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Chicago Blackhawks are a brilliant team with many two-way stars, but the heart of their success is on the blue line. Quick, accurate passes combined with patient, well-positioned defending doesn't get all of the attention, but it is deadly effective. 

    Leading the way for the Chicago blue are two veterans who have been together in good times and bad. Keith and Seabrook arrived a decade ago, and that 2005-06 team lost over 40 games and finished with 65 points. 

    The duo is splendid at defending and moving the puck, with good health and consistency also being key. In looking at last season's performance via HockeyAnalysis.com, they had possession 55 percent of the time, and Chicago was on the good side of things often. 

    It would be unfair to mention these two pillars without a shout-out to Niklas Hjalmarsson, the brilliant shut-down defender who toils somewhat in anonymity for Chicago. His strong work in trying circumstances allows Keith and Seabrook the freedom to dominate during their shifts. 

Best Goalie: Devan Dubnyk

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The amount of luck—good and bad—required to get Devan Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild is incredible.

    First, Dubnyk had to crater for the Edmonton Oilers after a successful run of more than two seasons in the Alberta capital. Then, he needed to catch on with a team like the Arizona Coyotes, as they were one of the few teams that could both fall into good luck and trade that luck away in hopes of landing the draft pick that would become Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. 

    All that luck understood, credit where credit's due in this story. Credit to Dubnyk for getting his game back together after a galling and humiliating period of months where his stock fell as quickly as any player in recent memory. Credit also to the Wild for acquiring him and then putting the big man in a position to succeed—something the Edmonton Oilers couldn't do, and that is probably the root of the original problem. 

    Dubnyk's .936 save percentage for Minnesota after being acquired was a stunning spike in performance and a major reason the Wild pulled off a 27-9-2 record in the big goalie's appearances. It changed the fortunes of the entire division and casts doubt in every other Central Division city this fall. Who has an answer for Devan Dubnyk? 

Projected 2015-16 Standings

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    DAVID BANKS/Associated Press

    1. Chicago Blackhawks: Tremendous turnover hasn't impacted this team in the past, and the core group remains. Jonathan Toews and the Hawks win the division in a close race. 

    2. Minnesota Wild: The development system is providing quality, and the team's best players remain in their prime. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk play starring roles in a terrific season. 

    3. Nashville Predators: The always-impressive defense, led by Shea Weber and Roman Josi, gets help from a stronger forward group, and the team makes the playoffs by finishing No. 3 in the division. 

    4. St. Louis Blues: While still a strong team, the Blues have enough trouble to fall back in the standings. Expect a fabulous performance from Vladimir Tarasenko and an upheaval on defense and in goal during the regular season. 

    5. Dallas Stars: An improved defense added to substantial offensive ability across the roster gets the Stars close to the playoffs. It's uncertain if they've improved enough to make it all the way this season, but they will be better. 

    6. Colorado Avalanche: A strong season by the offense and impressive goaltending are helped by the additions of Francois Beauchemin and Nikita Zadorov. In this division, the Avalanche get close, but it isn't enough. 

    7. Winnipeg Jets: The team with the best young talent in the division falters due to wobbly goaltending and inconsistent defensive play. There's no doubting the talent on this roster, and the holes are obvious but not yet addressed.