2013-14 NHL season preview: Central Division

2013-14 NHL season preview: Central Division
September 29, 2013, 12:00 pm
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This is the first story of a four-part series, previewing the 2013-14 NHL season.

Capsules may not include latest injury or roster updates.

1. Chicago Blackhawks
You really have to admire the job the Blackhawks have done after winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, being forced to break the team up because of salary cap restrictions, then coming back three years later and winning the Cup again. Hats off to general manager Stan Bowman and the crew. No easy task. Even with the loss of Ray Emery and Dave Bolland, there’s a lot here -- more pieces than when the “disassemble” took place in the summer of 2010. Bowman managed to re-sign five players. Bryan Bickell had a breakout 17-point playoff run that earned him a fat, $16 million contract, and now needs to parlay that during the regular season. Rookie Brandon Pirri played one game last year but should be among the top nine forwards this season. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews -- looks good. Marian Hossa’s fragile back is a major concern.

2. St. Louis Blues
All you need to know here is that GM Doug Armstrong was able to keep potential RFA Alex Pietrangelo from sitting out. Now the cornerstone defenseman is locked up for seven years on a well-stocked blue line that also includes Kevin Shattenkrik and Jay Bouwmeester. Talk about a top three. The Blues accrued 109 points last season but their first-round playoff ouster to Los Angeles left a bitter taste throughout the organization because Ken Hitchcock’s club was expected to make a deep run. Management tried to move goalie Jaroslav Halak and failed so Jake Allen suffers in the minors. They expect more from second-year players Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Free agent signee Derek Roy should help push Chris Stewart back up to 25 goals or more. Say hello to Brenden Morrow, one of Hitch’s favorite players.

3. Minnesota Wild
So, after the Wild spent zillions on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, they broke their four-year playoff drought and then made a quick exit. Imagine where the Wild would have been without them, given both players combined for 22 goals and 70 points in a shortened season. Maybe they need to toughen up. That’s what Matt Cooke should bring now that he’s no longer a Penguin. A lot of people feel rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin (23 minutes a game) should have gotten more recognition from voters for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. There’s a nice core of youth (newcomer Charlie Coyle) here for coach Mike Yeo. The really bad news is the Wild are now in a much harder division with Chicago and St. Louis which doesn’t help any club going through a growth phase.

4. Nashville Predators
As if the Preds didn’t have enough with Shea Weber on defense, they sit patiently and literally watch Seth Jones fall into their loving, waiting arms. Who needs Suter, right? Jones is going to be an impact, franchise defenseman –- much like Weber. GM David Poile got a bit more scoring and grit with the acquisitions of Viktor Stalberg, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom. The big offensive prize was prospect Filip Forsberg, acquired from Washington, who might be just the offensive gun they need. The Preds still lack for big-time goals up front but their defense and goaltending -- Pekka Rinne -- are very solid. If the offense picks up significantly, maybe the Preds finally make a deep playoff run. Stalberg’s shoulder injury keeps him out of the lineup at season’s start.

5. Colorado Avalanche
This is Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic’s club now. Somehow, it does seem apropos. It’s a club stocked with youth, too, as the Avs’ No. 1 overall pick from the draft –- Nathan MacKinnon (hip flexor) -- is expected opening night and follows in the footsteps of Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchesne and others, as Colorado seeks its first return to the postseason since 2010. It should be interesting to see how a former three-time Conn Smythe winner in goal does behind the bench in an NHL setting, though Roy was very good in that role in the QMJHL. Also note that Sakic brought back Alex Tanguay, a savvy veteran with a Cup pedigree, who can help the youngsters along on and off the ice. If only goalie Semyon Varlamov was of the same pedigree as Roy, eh?

6. Dallas Stars
Perhaps the biggest “signing” for the Stars was owner Tom Gaglardi enticing exec Jim Nill to leave Detroit last spring after serving nearly 20 years with the Red Wings. New blood drawn from someone with four Stanley Cups in management. Nill then brought aboard Lindy Ruff as his new coach. He also made a couple of big trades with the Bruins to acquire Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, then swung a deal with Edmonton for Shawn Horcoff -- depth moves to help the Stars down the middle and on special teams. It remains to be seen how much an impact Sergei Gonchar will have on the power play with only four goals over the past two years. Look for rookie Valeri Nichushkin to get playing time. Jamie Benn has big bucks and he now needs to become a 25-goal player.

7. Winnipeg Jets
Moving to the West probably won't help Winnipeg, especially in this division in which every team but two had more points than the Jets last year in their former divisions. In other words, the playoffs aren’t going to be an easy grab, although the good news is that the core nucleus of this team is locked up to long-term deals, including big guns Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Evander Kane. Andrew Ladd, who led the Jets in scoring (46 points), has three years on his deal. The Jets have been a very tough opponent on home ice, yet the playoffs still elude them. Five new faces, including Devin Setoguchi, have arrived, but the fact remains goalie Ondrej Pavelec (2.80 GAA) needs to greatly raise his game. Rookie defenseman Jacob Trouba should see time this season.