2015-16 Season Preview: Central Division

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Since it’s August, which is a dry month in the NHL hockey world other than NHL.com’s 30-in-30 coverage, I’m going to be doing an early preview of the 2015-16 season, which will be divided up into divisions, which means there will be four parts. For this second part, I will be covering the Central Division. Disclaimer: Here and there, I’ll be using advanced stats to try and justify my opinions, and since I’m new to this stuff I’m having various friends of mine help me. Therefore if I sound like a total idiot still, I’m sorry but bear with me on that.

Previously, I’d covered the Pacific Division in the first of four parts in my 2015-16 NHL season preview. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the Central Division.

 

St. Louis Blues

After another early playoff exit that saw the Blues fall to the Wild in 6 games, one might figure that St. Louis should want to do something in order to turn their Cup chances around. Surprisingly, however, that was not the case as the Blues front office largely stood pat during the offseason.

The only move was getting rid of their face of the franchise, T.J. Oshie, and sending him to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer and goalie prospect Phoenix Copley, along with a third round selection in next year’s draft.

Brouwer had 21 goals and 22 assists last season with the Caps. In the 2015 playoffs, he had no goals and 3 assists, and was a -3. Though he does have the advantage of having gotten further in the playoffs than Oshie did with the Blues, having helped the Chicago Blackhawks win their first of three Stanley Cups in recent years in 2010, it won’t help St. Louis much.

Copley spent the 2014-15 season with the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, the Hersey Bears. He had a save percentage of 0.925 and 2.17 GAA.

With Oshie gone, the Blues signed forward Vladimir Tarasenko to an eight-year, $60 million contract, presumably giving him the reigns as the new face of the franchise.

Last season, according to hockey-reference.com, the 23-year-old right-winger had 37 goals and 36 assists, totaling 73 points in 77 games, tied for 10th in the League. Of those 37 goals, two of them were hat tricks. He was also the only player to score six game-winning goals, six shootout goals and two overtime goals.

In the 2015 postseason, Tarasenko had 6 goals and 7 points, and — in a game against the Minnesota Wild — was the first Blues players to score a hat trick since 2004.

St. Louis also signed former Wild Kyle Brodziak.

The Blues are definitely still a playoff contender, but with these moves, they’ll be looking at another possible early playoff exit. I’d say they stayed largely the same.

Nashville Predators

After a two-year playoff absence, the Nashville Predators found themselves back in again and put up a hell of a fight against the eventual Cup winners in Chicago. While they did fall in six games to the Blackhawks in the first round, there seems to be much to look forward to this coming 2014-15 season and in the future. Now, the question is can they keep it up?

One of the biggest reasons why the Predators succeeded in the regular season was their goaltender Pekka Rinne. Fresh off an injury-riddled 2013-14 season, the Preds starting netminder seemed to be bailing out his team almost every time, staying sharp and making highlight reel save after save. As a result, Rinne was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender and had a career second-best save percentage of .923, and a 2.18 GAA, posting 4 shutouts.

However, you can’t expect the goalie to do everything, and in the playoffs he did falter enough to lose his touch. His save percentage went down to a .909.

Can the Finnish netminder do it again? Given he stays healthy like he did last season, it’s highly possible that he can and will.

As hints of possible trades continue to surround declining franchise defenseman and Captain Shea Weber (15 goals, 30 assists) here and there, there’s no denying that the Predators’ youth has grown and continued to improve. Seth Jones, the Predators 2013 1st round pick, came off a not-so-stellar rookie year where he had 25 points and was a -23 to a picking up 8 goals and 27 points and was a +3. While being a minus player in the postseason, he helped out Nashville’s defense by making key defensive plays at the right times. Thus, I think that Jones has the potential to become Nashville’s top D-man on their roster for their future.

Roman Josi’s another guy to look at. Drafted by the Predators in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft, the 25-year-old Swiss turned his first three seasons around, adding 15 goals and 40 assists to his career totals, and was a +15. In the playoffs, he was a -5 but had a goal (and a point) to his credit. That being said, he’s still young, but he definitely has potential as well to be a top defenseman for the Predators.

There wasn’t much for the Predators in terms of offseason moves, other than acquiring Max Reinhart from Calgary, Jamie Devane from Toronto (who’s had a less-than-stellar career in both the NHL and AHL), and giving up goalie Magnus Hellberg’s rights to the New York Rangers.

They did, however, signed former Canucks 1st round pick Cody Hodgson, who’s looking for a fresh start after not panning out in Buffalo. Career wise in both Buffalo and Vancouver, he has a total of 61 goals and 73 assists.

All in all, I think they’re a possible playoff team. It’s become more and more evident that the Predators are looking more to their youth to contribute, like forward Filip Forsberg, while veteran guys like Weber and Colin Wilson still remain with the team.

Minnesota Wild

For a team that got swept in the second round of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, the Wild were relatively quiet during the offseason, only re-signing their starter Devan Dubnyk to a six-year contract.

A 1st round selection of the Edmonton Oilers in the ’04 Draft, Dubnyk was moved around quite a bit in the League after spending five years with the Oilers. He has an overall record of 97-91-26, and is most noted for carrying the Wild into a playoff position during the regular season with a 27-9-2 record, and a career-high 5 shutouts (a total of 6 with Minnesota and Arizona).

Due to cap issues, a few players like Jordan Leopold, Kyle Brodziak, and Sean Bergenheim had to be let go. With only one new signing in the free agent market, their roster has largely stayed in tact.

It’s hard to tell the direction they’re going, but one thing’s for sure. They’re still not going very far in the playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche slid back to disappointment last season after turning their 2013-14 season around and making the playoffs in Patrick Roy’s first year as head coach. Thus, naturally, they felt they had to retool their roster a little.

In their first of two offseason moves, the Avs acquired Carl Soderberg from the Boston Bruins just before the 2015 NHL Draft. They also traded Ryan O’ Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo in exchange for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, JT Compher, and a 2015 2nd round pick.

Soderberg, originally a 2nd round pick of the St. Louis Blues, spent all three seasons of his career with the Bruins, accumulating 29 goals and 94 points. In his 14 games played during the 2013 and 2014 playoffs, he amassed a goal and 5 assists (which really came from his totals from the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as he did not record a point in his first two career postseason games).

Colorado also signed veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who left Anaheim via free agency. Beauchemin, who won the Cup with the Ducks in ’07, will be a veteran presence on an otherwise young Avalanche roster. Originally a 3rd round pick from Montreal, the 35-year-old spent nine years with the Anaheim Ducks/Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (’05-’06) and accumulated 53 goals and 126 assists with the team during the regular season.

While there’s definitely a lot to look forward to with this team in terms of offensive responsibilities, it’ll be interesting to see how they fair defensively.

According to NHL.com/Stats, they had the second worst shot differentials 5-on-5, the Buffalo Sabres being the worst, and were ranked the second highest in the USAT Against stat (Unblocked Shot Attempts Against). Again, only the Buffalo Sabres allowed more. Not surprisingly, they finished 7th — which is dead last — in the Central Division, with a goal differential in -8, the only team in the Central to have a negative goal differential.

If the Avs are planning on contending for a playoff spot this year, they’re really going to have to tighten it up defensively, as they shouldn’t have to rely on goalie Semyon Varlamov to have to make huge saves every time. Obviously, Varlamov won’t be able to bail his team out every time, so Avs fans should hope a veteran presence like Beauchemin helps mentor the young defensemen and helps the team step up on D. The young forwards need to chip in more as well, as forward and 2013 first round pick Nathan MacKinnon should be healthy by now after having to miss the rest of last season with a broken foot.

Despite the team’s defensive troubles last season, one of the better defensemen for Colorado so far, I think, has been Tyson Barrie. The 24 year old 3rd rounder from ’09 had a great 2013-14 and 2014-15 season, scoring a combined 25 goals and 66 assists for 91 points with a plus-22 rating.

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have just come off a year where they made their first postseason appearance since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta. Their last postseason appearance as the Jets before the Atlanta Thrashers made it in ’06-’07? That was back in the ’95-’96 season, their last one before the original Winnipeg Jets team relocated to Phoenix the very next year to become the Phoenix Coyotes.

Anyway, enough about the history, but you can bet your ass that that’s why Jets fans were so excited to finally cheer on their team at home at the MTS Center as they proudly prepped for the old White Out tradition.

Although the Jets were swept in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks, according to CapFriendly, they’ve so far kept their roster completely in tact. No buyouts, no new signings, no trades since the Evander Kane deal last season. Nothing.

That means Jets fans can expect the same stuff next season. With Pavelec still in net as the starting netminder, look for him to really try to solidify himself as a number one goalie to back-up Michael Hutchinson. After a not-so-good 2013-14 season, he rebounded with a .920 save percentage and a 2.28 GAA.

Still, he could very well be on watch by the front office and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. If he starts to slip up again, look for Hutchinson to take over. Although he’s played fewer games and has a relatively small sample size, Hutchinson isn’t too bad with a record of 23-11-5 and two shutouts.

Whether or not the Jets make the playoffs next season, they’ll definitely be a force to come.

 

Dallas Stars

The Stars, I think, were one of the winners in offseason deals this year. Not only did they manage to acquire rights to former Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, but they were also able to trade for three-time Cup Champ Patrick Sharp and sign defenseman Johnny Oduya, who joins his teammate from Chicago. Sharp came to Dallas in a trade that saw defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt packaged to Chicago.

With all that Stanley Cup Playoff experience, the Stars have only improved as a team. With a veterans like Sharp and Oduya who can help lead the team by example, look out. This team, which has struggled mightily in the past with puck possession and maintaining leads, those three acquisitions will be a huge boost for the Stars. Look for this team to potentially be in the mix for the playoffs.

For Niemi, this’ll be a new start for him after coming off a relatively shaky season in San Jose. Although the 31-year-old Finnish netminder didn’t have nearly the defensive support with the Sharks as he did during his Cup run with the Blackhawks back in 2010, he can still prove to be an effective starter and goalie for the Stars.

Defenseman prospect Stephen Johns also came along to Dallas in the Sharp trade. The 23-year-old had four goals and 21 points in 51 games in the regular season last year with Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

After winning their third Stanley Cup in six years, the Hawks should have plenty of reasons to celebrate, and why not? They had the core players to do it. Their role players stepped up when they had to.

Well, not so fast. While the Hawks are definitely celebrating over the summer, once again they have cap issues like they did in 2010 after their first Cup win in a while.

The Kane incident is something to definitely consider as well, but in terms of on-ice moves, they had to deal Sharp as mentioned in my section about the Dallas Stars. They lost Oduya as well to Dallas via free agency. Brad Richards went to Detroit, Vermette back to Arizona, Brandon Saad dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and back-up Antti Raanta to the New York Rangers.

That said, they’re hurting like hell. While Toews and, possibly Kane, still lead the team, this Blackhawks team just ain’t what it was anymore. They’re definitely a playoff team, but a Cup contender? I don’t think they’ve got it this

Based on many reactions on social media, the Brandon Saad trade seemed unexpected, especially when just weeks before GM Stan Bowman had said Saad would be with the Hawks for life. Unfortunately, again, the Hawks couldn’t afford to re-sign him. So, as Saad, defenseman Michael Paliotta, and forward Alex Broadhurst prep for their time in Columbus, let’s look at whom Chicago got in return.

Artem Anisimov, originally a 2nd round draft pick of the New York Rangers in the 2006 Entry Draft, spent his first four years in New York before being traded to Columbus. In his three seasons with Columbus, he scored 40 goals and racked up 44 assists for 84 points. He does have playoff experience. During his four years with both teams, he had 5 goals and 9 assists in 32 games, and is a plus-1 rating.

Jeremy Morin, a 2nd rounder of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, spent his first five years in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks, with 8 goals and 8 assists, before getting traded in December 2014 to Columbus, where he had 2 goals and 4 assists in 28 games. He has only played two games in the playoffs with Chicago, where he recorded no points and was a minus-1. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits in with the organization again.

Corey Tropp, a 3rd round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, split time between the Sabres and their affiliate, the Rochester Americans (w/ Sabres: 3 goals, 6 assists; w/ Rochester Americans: 33 goals, 11 assists). In Columbus, he had 3 goals and 18 points in 105 games.

Marko Dano, drafted by the Blue Jackets in the 2013 Entry Draft, scored 8 goals and collected 13 assists in 35 games last season. According to Eliteprospects.com, Marko Dano is a “skilled two-way forward who skates with good mobility and effort”.

Follow Felix Chow on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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