Central Division Storylines
This is the final part of TrueHockey.com’s intriguing storylines to follow throughout each division for the 2013-14 season.
Do the Blackhawks possess the forward depth necessary to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions?
The Blackhawks are the favorite to win both the Central Division and the Western Conference again this season, and rightfully so after last season’s performance. There are virtually no question marks surrounding the strong nucleus Chicago possesses. The Blackhawks return a plethora of stars throughout their roster with superstars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa up front with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as the stalwarts on the blueline. Veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin replaces Ray Emery as the backup for Corey Crawford.
The only real question for the Blackhawks is if young players such as Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, and Brandon Pirri can fill the void of exiting secondary contributors including Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg. As with every other team in the NHL, health will likely be the biggest factor for the Blackhawks as they enter April. If the youngsters in Chicago can provide secondary scoring and the roster is healthy going into the playoffs, the Blackhawks remain the team to beat in the Western Conference.
Will the addition of Nathan MacKinnon and head coach Patrick Roy be enough to make the Avalanche playoff contenders in the Central?
One of the biggest questions leading up to the NHL Draft was whether or not the Avalanche would select Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones with the first overall pick. Colorado chose MacKinnon with the hopes that he will become a franchise center. New head coach Patrick Roy should bring energy to the franchise and will attempt to grow a talented roster into a club capable of reaching the postseason.
The Avalanche feature a talented group of forwards with elite talent on multiple lines including Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Paul Stastny. Stastny is set to hit unrestricted free agency after this season if the Avalanche choose not to re-sign the veteran center which makes MacKinnon’s performance in his rookie season even more of a storyline. In goal, the Avalanche are hoping goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere can provide strong netminding especially with head coach Patrick Roy behind the bench.
Can the reloaded Stars shine bright in Big D?
After a busy offseason in which the Stars traded Loui Eriksson in a package to the Boston Bruins for a package that included the dynamic, young Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, the Stars are banking on Seguin to live up to his potential with the change of scenery. In addition, the Stars signed veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar and acquired veteran center Shawn Horcoff from the Edmonton Oilers. In the front office, longtime Red Wings executive Jim Nill was hired as Stars general manager and longtime Sabres head coach, Lindy Ruff, who was fired in Buffalo last season, was hired to serve behind the bench for the Stars.
The critical component to the Stars havinga successful 2013-14 season is the health and performance of Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen. If Lehtonen is strong between the pipes, the retooled Stars could be the surprise team to make the playoffs in the Central Division.
Can the Wild improve offensively and build off of last season’s playoff performance?
The Minnesota Wild made the biggest splash two offseasons ago signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to huge 13 year contracts. Due to those deals, the Wild lost veteran players including Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to free agency, bought out defenseman Tom Gilbert, traded Devin Setoguchi to Winnipeg for a draft pick, and acquired Nino Niederreiter in exchange for fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck. In addition, the Wild signed experienced forward Matt Cooke for more sandpaper on their energy line.
The Wild are banking on their young forwards such as Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle to provide offense to replace what they lost this offseason. In addition, the Wild are looking for improvement from their defense including Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Mathew Dumba. The Wild goaltending tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding return after Backstrom was re-signed during the offseason. While the Wild display a strong mix of talent with veterans and young players, their inexperience up front and on the blueline could result in some growing pains for an organization with high expectations.
Will the free agent signings up front and the drafting of Seth Jones improve an anemic offense?
The Nashville Predators main issue last season was their inability to score goals. The Predators attempted to correct this problem by signing Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg in free agency. In addition, the Predators drafted defenseman Seth Jones with the 4th overall pick in the 2013 draft. Nashville is hoping that Jones can eventually replace Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter after he signed with the Wild two offseasons ago.
The Predators strength is their tight defensive system backstopped by franchise goaltender Pekka Rinne and franchise defenseman Shea Weber. In addition to Weber, defenseman Roman Josi had a breakout season defensively for the Predators giving the organization strong optimism that their blueline should be stacked for years to come. If the Predators can find the back of the net more consistently, they are a team fully capable of contending for a playoff spot in the West.
St. Louis Blues
After adjustments to the roster, do the Blues have the offense needed in the playoffs to be Stanley Cup contenders?
The St. Louis Blues feature a well balanced group of forwards along with one of the best defensive units in the NHL. The main storyline to follow with the Blues this season is their progression offensively, and if an improved offense in the regular season can translate to postseason scoring. A team that currently lacks a superstar forward, the Blues signed veterans Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow to supplement the core of the offense including David Backes, Alex Steen, Chris Stewart, and T.J. Oshie. The Blues are also optimistic that talented young forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will breakout offensively this season.
On defense, the Blues extended Alex Pietrangelo after a short holdout in training camp and veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester who the club acquired prior to last season’s trade deadline. Talented D-man Kevin Shattenkirk along with veterans Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, and Jordan Leopold round out one of the strongest top six units in the league. Between the pipes, the Blues are looking to Jaro Halak and Brian Elliott to regain their goaltending form that won the duo the Jennings Trophy in the 2011-12 season.
Are the Jets flying under the radar as a surprise team in the Central?
Very quietly the Winnipeg Jets have assembled a roster heading into the 2013-14 season that can compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Jets forwards contain a solid core including
Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little. The Jets added Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi via trades in the offseason to bolster their scoring up front.
On the blueline, Winnipeg has an underrated group of defenseman including Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, and Mark Stuart. Young D-man Zach Bogosian is starting to enter his prime and is developing into the player the Atlanta/Winnipeg organization projected when they drafted him in 2008. In addition, Jacob Trouba, the 9th overall draft pick in 2012, should receive quality ice time this season on the Jets blueline and may be a strong contender for the Calder Trophy.
In the net, the Jets will need Ondrej Pavelec to rebound from a disappointing 2013 campaign with Al Montoya serving as the backup. If Pavelec can provide solid goaltending for Winnipeg, they have a legitimate chance to contend for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
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