Center of Attention – Central Division Preview

Nashville, TN, United States / The Game Nashville

Optimism is high in Nashville that the Predators will return to the playoffs under new coach Peter Laviolette with their recent success. But in order for the Preds to advance to the playoffs they will have to contend in a stacked central division.

Let’s take a look at the teams Nashville sees most often.

The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone last year on their way to a division title under first year coach Patrick Roy. The Aves off-season saw them say goodbye to leaders Paul Stasny and P.A. Parenteau but they added a couple seasoned vets to help the young guys take the next step. Jarome Iginla, Bra Stuart and Daniel Briere were added to the young core in Colorado that hopes top build on last season’s first round exit. But the Aves may see a season of regression as the division gets tougher and questions surround the Colorado back end.

The St. Louis Blues made the biggest splash last season acquiring Ryan Miller before the trade deadline. Unfortunately for them Miller simply couldn’t find his form in the Gateway city and the Blues were bounced in the 1st round of the playoffs. The Blue notes now turn back to Brian Elliot in goal after letting Miller walk. The Blues were busy this off-season letting the experience of Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy walk as free agents and bringing in All Star Paul Stastny.

Ah Chicago. The new evil empire of the Central Division. The Blackhawks return every note worthy player from the Western Conference finals team last year and brought in former All Star Brad Richards to center their 2nd line. Cory Crawford regressed a little last season and hopes to bounce back as the likes(and salaries) of Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Kieth, Seabrook and so on look to continue their strong play and another deep playoff run.

The Minnesota Wild won their first playoff series in 11 years last season and hope to improve on that mark this year. Forwards Matt Moulson and Dany Heatley left as free agents but the Wild brought in Thomas Vanek and Brett Sutter to fill the void. Zach Parise is back to lead Minnesota up front and a former unnamed Predator leads a young but experienced defensive unit. The Wild should be about where they were last season as a bubble team in the Central as questions surround goalie Niklas Backstrom’s health and Ilya Bryzgalov’s reliability. While expectations are high in the land of a 10000 lakes, don’t be shocked if the Wild miss out on the playoffs.

Jim Nill made his case for GM of the year this offseason by adding Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Anders Lindback and Patrick Eaves to a young team that already had a viable MVP candidate in Tyler Seguin and experienced players Erik Cole and Sergei Gonchar. The Stars squeaked into the playoffs last season before falling to the Ducks in 6 games. Dallas has enough talent offensively to contend in the West but questions still surround the defense in the lone star state. Still the Stars expect to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Since moving to Winnipeg the Jets have been a team in a state of unknown, and this year appears no different. On one hand the Jets have guys like Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd who can carry an offense. On the other hand you have a goalie in Ondrej Pavelec who regresses every time you think he’s about to break out and a slew of unproven players around the big guns. If the young Jets can put it together they can be a sleeper team in a deep division, but the interesting thing this season will likely be if Winnepeg goes in full rebuild mode and trades Kane or Byfuglien.

Finally, we come to the Nashville Predators. Change was the theme of the off-season as the only coach in franchise history Barry Trotz gave way to the offensive minded Peter Laviolette takes the reigns behind the bench. The Preds brought in proven offensive weapons James Neal, Olli Jokinen, Mike Robeiro, and Derek Roy to help fill the net for the Preds in exchange for Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, and Patrick Eaves. The blue line remains largely in tact with Anton Volchenkov replacing the departed Michael Del Zotto. Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm return a little more seasoned and Seth Jones looks to build on an impressive rookie season. The biggest addition to the team will hopefully be a healthy season for all world goalie Pekka Rinne. If the likes of Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok can start realizing their potential the Predators can return to the playoffs this season behind an expected stellar bounce back season from Rinne.

In all you can make a case for every team in the Central to earn a playoff spot. Chicago and St. Louis are all but set in stone and Dallas looks like a top 3 team in the Central on paper. Not much separates Nashville, Minnesota, Colorado, and Winnipeg as potential wild card teams, with the Jets being a bit more of a stretch. I think we could see another year where 5 teams from the Central make the playoffs.
by Jonathan Burchfield

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