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Predators could emerge as champion in competitive Central Division

Toews can power Blackhawks push; Bishop expected to help Stars improve

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Central Division has produced either the Stanley Cup champion or the runner-up three times in the past five seasons. Most of the seven teams in the division believe they can continue that dominance this season.

The Nashville Predators defied the odds last season by making it to the Stanley Cup Final after making the playoffs as the second wild card from the Western Conference. They return almost intact, except with Nick Bonino replacing the retired Mike Fisher as the No. 2 center.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who have won the Stanley Cup three times since 2010 and finished first in the division last season (109 points), went through some major changes in the offseason, leaving many to question their ability to stay in the hunt for the Cup.

The St. Louis Blues' optimism about building on their 99 points last season has been tested in the preseason by several key injuries, including to forward Robby Fabbri, who was supposed to transition to center but is out for the season after re-injuring his surgically repaired left knee.

 

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The Minnesota Wild think they can contend for the division title after finishing second last season (109 points). They are looking for continued growth from forwards Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker. They're all 25 years old now. They're veterans.

The Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets each believe they have the goods to make the playoffs this season after missing in 2016-17.

The Stars made significant changes in the offseason that are major upgrades after they were 29th in the NHL in goals-against per game last season (3.17).

Video: The guys on the Stars' offseason acquisitions

The Jets are hoping the addition of goaltender Steve Mason will help solve the issues they've had in keeping the puck out of the net (3.11 goals-against per game last season, 27th).

The Colorado Avalanche are hoping to defy the critics, most of whom are picking them to finish last in the division.

Here is a look at how the Central Division could shake out for the 2017-18 season:

Team to beat: Tough call, but it's hard to go against the Predators, considering what they did last season and who they have returning. They got to the Cup Final last season even after losing No. 1 center Ryan Johansen and top-six forward Kevin Fiala to injury. Each is back. Nashville won't have defenseman Ryan Ellis (knee) for the first few months, but it still has one of the best defense groups in the League.

Dark horse: The Stars brought in Ken Hitchcock as their new coach, Ben Bishop as their new No. 1 goalie and Marc Methot to play on the top defense pair with John Klingberg. In addition, forwards Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal were signed to bolster a group led by elite talents Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Video: The guys answer 5 key questions for the West

Stock rising: Nick Schmaltz, Blackhawks. Schmaltz has made enough of an impression in the preseason that he is slotted to start the season as Chicago's second-line center with Patrick Kane on his right wing.

Player to watch: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks. Toews dropped to an NHL career-low 21 goals last season and hasn't reached 60 points since 2014-15, which also was Brandon Saad's last season in Chicago before he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Saad is back. If Toews and Saad rekindle the chemistry they had before Saad was traded, Toews could return to being the player who pushes for 30 goals and 70 points without sacrificing anything on the defensive end.

Rookie to watch: Joel Eriksson Ek, Wild. Eriksson Ek, 20, will begin the season as Minnesota's No. 3 center behind Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal. The hope is Eriksson Ek, who had seven points (three goals, four assists) in 15 games last season, will bring a jolt of offense to the third line.

The new guy: Ben Bishop, Stars. Dallas had the worst goaltending in the NHL last season with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi combining for an .898 save percentage. Enter Bishop, who has an NHL career .919 save percentage and finished third in Vezina Trophy voting in 2014-15 and second in 2015-16. The Stars signed Bishop to a six-year, $29.5 million contract ($4.917 million average annual value). Niemi's contract, which will pay him $3 million over the next two seasons, was bought out by the Stars. He's now the backup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Who will make playoffs: The consensus of the NHL.com staff predictions have Chicago, Nashville, Minnesota and St. Louis in the playoffs. This might be the toughest division to predict, so keep in mind that the science on this might be off.

Video: The guys ask if the Preds can make the Final again

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