The Jets enter the 2014-2015 season, with expectations of underwhelming proportions. Meanwhile, the already powerhouse Central Division continues to get substantially better. Heading in to this season it looks like the division will be anything but a cakewalk.
The Blackhawks might have not had an overwhelming offseason via free agency, but they made a few key moves. The Blackhawks signed veteran centre Brad Richards to a one-year two million dollar contract. Adding Richards at centre eliminates the Hawks long run issue of who to place next to Patrick Kane.
The move is a low risk move that could potentially yield a high reward. Though Richards is not the same player he was years ago he fills a gaping hole for the Blackhawks at number two-centre. The Blackhawks also locked up the team's nucleus of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane while opening the door to the new generation, such as rising star forward Teuvo Teravanian. Teravanian might start out the year with Rockford as the Hawks have no need to rush his development.
On the back end, Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith returns and will provide valuable minutes from the point alongside his reliable partner Brent Seabrook.
Corey Crawford is back to do what he always does, win games. You can call him out as much as you want for relying too much on his defenseman, but he wins games, which is all that matters at the end.
The Blackhawks made minor tweaks to the roster to accompany the established core which has brought the team two Stanley Cups. The Hawks look to compete for the division’s top spot this upcoming season.
After taking a big step forward and into the playoffs last season Jim Nill got aggressive. He saw that this team could be a winner and rather than stand pat, Nill made key moves to strengthen the young, skilled squad. The team filled a huge void by trading for Jason Spezza, the former Senators captain. This provides the Stars with insurance down the middle and a very legitimate one, two punch at centre.
The Stars also acquired Right Wing Ales Hemsky. Hemsky solidify the Stars second line. The Stars were largely a one line team last year, with little explosiveness behind Benn, Seguin and perhaps Valeri Nichushkin. That has changed coming into the 2014-15 season.
The Stars also could get a boost from the continued development of young forwards Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt. Meanwhile, Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie headline what is a fairly deep prospect pool.
The Stars are largely set to return the same D core. The back end features the likes of Sergi Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn. John Klingberg, the brother of Winnipeg Jets prospect Carl Klingberg will also be battling for a roster spot this year.
Between the pipes Kari Lehtonen returns but this year he will have more steady help backing him up. The Stars signed Anders Lindback to backup Lehtonen.
St Louis Blues
The Blues have been forced to re-think a few things after last year's all out attempt at a run at the cup. The Blues were active at last season's trade deadline in their quest for the cup. The team made a bold move when they traded for star goaltender Ryan Miller at the deadline. It didn't work out. The Blues were faced with a hard challenge to begin the playoffs, where they faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. This was a tough task for both teams and in the end, the Hawks won.
After failing to get past the Blackhawks the Blues had to regroup and add more pieces to the puzzle. The first bold move was the decision to let Ryan Miller walk via Free Agency. As a result of that, the Blues will have Brian Elliott and up and coming goalie Jake Allen operating the pipes.
This move is a key stepping-stone for Allen’s development. He has done all of the necessary things to get where he is today. He has been successful at every level he has played at starting from junior. The Blues cannot stash him any longer as he enters his peak. A tandem of him and Elliot should be very capable of operating the crease.
The Blues also won went out and won the sweepstakes to centre Paul Statsny. Statsny, along with David Backes, will provide the Blues with a nice 1-2 punch down the middle.
Another thing to look out for is the development of Alex Pietrangelo. The defenseman enjoyed an eventful 2013-2014 campaign in which he established himself as a top defensemen in the league. It will be interesting to see what he can do this season and how much offense he can provide from the point.
The Avs impressed many last season by finishing first in the powerhouse central division. In one season, the Avs managed to go from the bottom of the league, to the top. This was a completely unexpected accomplishment, especially with the likes of the St Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks competing in the division.
Though this season was tremendous for the Avs, many things need to be addressed. The team’s defense was horrendous on a night-to-night basis. Luckily for the Avs they had Semyon Varlamov to clean up the garbage and present stellar play in the crease.
The Avs have the potential to succeed this season, but their roster could use a few drastic moves on the back end. No offense intended to former Winnipeg Jets' prospect Zach Redmond, who will do his best to help, but the Avs current D core simply cannot compare with the Juggernaut defensive units that reside in the west.
Going into last season, all indications pointed towards as slow rebuild for the Avs. Last year's success no doubt increased expectations immensely. The young core of Calder trophy winner Nathan Mackinnon, Matt Duchene, Ryan O`Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog will continue to develop, but it is year to be seen if they can make up for the loss of Paul Statsny. The Avs also added Jarome Iginla and swapped Daniel Briere for Pierre-Alexandr Parenteau. Many consider these moves to be a step back.
Don't be surprised if the Avs are watching come playoff time baring another miraculous season from Varlamov.
The last few off seasons, the Wild have spent some serious cash. Starting off with the signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter megadeals. Those deals created the foundation of the big overhaul that is happening in the twin cities. After that the likes of Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and most recently Thomas Vanek have all joined the Wild. The early return is positive thanks to the superb job General Manager Chuck Fletcher has done in free agency over the past few years.
Youngsters Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund have also carved out legitimate full time roles with the club.
The Wild have the potential to take the next step and go from bubble team, to a contender, but a big chunk of the Wild's success depends on the health of Josh Harding. Harding produced a fantastic season for the Wild, but he was held to just 29 games due to medical concerns. Harding showed that when he is he has the ability to carry the Wild. The only question is, will Harding be a reliable option going forward?
The Wild will have to evaluate this as the season progresses and see what Harding can do for them. If Harding can't go, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom will be asked to fill the void. If the they do figure out theirgoalie situation, watch out for the Wild.
The Predators enter the season the same way they have in past years. They are a team that is solid in net and on the back end, but they also a team that struggles to create offense. The Predators have star goalie Pekka Rinne. He is back and healthy. The teams strong D core is as engaged as ever. But the missing link is up front with the forwards.
Knowing this, the team did not stand pat. The Pred traded for Penguins star forward James Neal at this year's NHL draft. They also went out and signed former Jets centre Olli Jokinen. along with low risk/high reward signings of Derek Roy and Mike Ribeiro.
The signing of James Neal does give them an offensive weapon on paper, but one also has to wonder how productive he could be along side someone like Olli Jokinen.
The team is enduring a culture change. Long time Head Coach Barry Trotz was fired and the offensive minded Peter Laviolette was hired. Will this lead to more offense or will it present a style clash given the roster? The Predators do not have the kind of weapons that Laviolette has worked with in the past. 2014 Olli Jokinen is not Eric Staal nor Claude Giroux.
Will Laviollete's systems work with this roster? Will the Predators continue to rely on Rinne to steal games? There are a lot of questions surrounding the Predators. I suspect the Predators will be battling with the Jets for second last spot in the division.
That leaves the Jets. Where do the Jets fit into this division?
Can the trio of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane compete with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp? Or Tyler Seguin, Jaime Benn and Valeri Nichushkin? In my opinion, probably not.
Can Ondrej Pavelec compete against the likes of Corey Crawford, Pekka Rinne, Josh Harding, Brian Elliot and Kari Lethonen? Again, I see this as unlikely.
You get the moral of the story; I don't believe the Jets can keep up in this division.
Sorry to say this Jets fans but buckle up, it looks like we have a long season ahead of us. Thie team that Cheveldayoff has assembled is nowhere near ready to compete in the Central Division, and it might not be for a long time.