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Seven Central Division Teams Figure to Again be Among League's Best

by Thomas Willis & Brooks Bratten / Nashville Predators

Often described as the NHL's premier collection of teams, the seven Central Division clubs reloaded and accentuated their lineups following a 2014-15 season that saw the maximum number of Central teams qualify for the playoffs and each squad reach the 90-point mark. Below is an offseason recap and season preview for each of the Nashville Predators six Central Division brethren, a division that seems to likely have an even fiercer level of competition in 2015-16.



St. Louis Blues:

2014-15 Record: 51-24-7, 109 pts.

Preds record versus Blues: 3-1-1

Leading Scorer: Vladimir Tarasenko, 73 Points (37g-36a)

Key Additions:
Troy Brouwer Kyle Brodziak Scottie Upshall
Key Subtractions:
TJ Oshie Marcel Goc Olli Jokinen
Barret Jackman Zbynek Michalek

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The Blues won the Central Division last season, and there’s reason to believe they’ll be near or at the top again. Leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko, who potted 37 goals last season, returns, along with the likes of forwards David Backes, Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz, who all accounted for at least 24 goals and 58 points.

“They’re a team we’ve had our battles with for sure,” Preds goaltender Carter Hutton said. “They play such a heavy game and they have some big forwards. Losing a guy like [T.J.] Oshie, that’s definitely going to be interesting; I think they’re going to call upon some guys to keep stepping up. Tarasenko has become one of the elite players and a guy like [Troy] Brouwer, he knows how to win, and that’ll bring a different element for sure.”

On the blue line, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk can put the puck in the net and goaltenders Jake Allen and Brian Elliott give the Blues options in the net, with both netminders reaching the 20-win mark last season.

“I read some stuff online saying they’re going to play some more ‘reckless hockey,’ I think that lends itself more to their offensive game,” Hutton said of St. Louis. “They’ve got some good mobile defenseman, with us bringing in [Barret] Jackman you can see what he can bring, and they have some young guys that are talented. They’ve also got like a 1A, 1B with their goaltending too, so it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out with who really takes the ball there and runs with it.”

The Preds went 3-1-1 against St. Louis last season, including a 2-0-0 mark at Bridgestone Arena. Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi both frequented the scoresheet in the matchups, posting eight points apiece when facing the Blues in 2014-15.

Chicago Blackhawks:

2014-15 Record: 48-28-6, 102 pts.

Preds record versus Blackhawks: 1-1-2

Leading Scorer: Jonathan Toews, 66 Points (28g-38a)

Key Additions:
Artem Anisimov Marko Dano Ryan Garbutt
Trevor Daley
Key Subtractions:
Brandon Saad Patrick Sharp Brad Richards
Kris Versteeg Antoine Vermette Johnny Oduya
Kimmo Timonen

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The Blackhawks begin the 2015-16 season defending their third Stanley Cup title in the previous six years, but they’ll be missing some key parts from their 2015 run. Notably moving on are forwards Brandon Saad, who was traded to the the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Patrick Sharp, who was traded to the Dallas Stars. Captain Jonathan Toews and fellow forwards Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are still in the Windy City and will always provide a scoring threat when they're on the ice.

“I think their core is really good,” Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne said of the ‘Hawks. “They seem to have a lot of experience in how to win games, how to be successful in the postseason. They’ve had the same core group of players for a long time and they are the ones that drive that team. As long as those guys are playing, they’re going to be really good.”

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain as the top pairing on the ‘Hawks blue line, and new addition Trevor Daley, acquired from Dallas in the Sharp deal, will also provide stability on the backend. Corey Crawford won 32 games for Chicago last season and is expected to backstop the Blackhawks once more.

For Preds d-man Roman Josi, the repeated success of the Blackhawks, something NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has called a “dynasty,” is the most impressive characteristic of Nashville’s rival.

“Chicago is always up there every year and they always have a great team,” Josi said. “There are so many good teams in our division and every game is tough, but Chicago is probably the one team that’s always consistently up there.”

The Preds went 1-1-2 against Chicago last season; James Neal led Nashville with five goals versus the Blackhawks, including a hat trick in a 3-2 victory at Bridgestone Arena on Oct. 23.

Minnesota Wild:

2014-15 Record: 46-28-8, 100 pts.

Preds record against Wild: 2-2-1

Leading Scorer: Zach Parise, 62 Points (33g-29a)

Key Additions:
Mike Reilly
Key Subtractions:
Kyle Brodziak Matt Cooke Chris Stewart
Josh Harding

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The Wild didn’t change much during the offseason, with no major additions to the forward or defensive groups that helped the club record 100 points in 2014-15. Zach Parise led the way offensively, recording 62 points last season, while Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Nino Niederreiter can also put the puck in the net.

“Every team is tough; Minnesota and Winnipeg are great teams too,” Preds defenseman Seth Jones said. “Every team has the potential to get 100 points or more, every team has the potential to win the division and go deep in the playoffs. You really can’t underestimate any team, just because Chicago has three Cups in the past six years doesn’t mean you can treat them differently than a Winnipeg or Dallas.”

Former Predators defenseman Ryan Suter and fellow blueliner Jonas Brodin help lead the way on the backend for Minnesota, along with Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella. Vezina Trophy finalist Devan Dubnyk, who won 27 games for the Wild to guide them to a postseason berth, was rewarded with a new deal this summer.

Hutton says to expect the Wild to again be among the Central’s top clubs with the team’s style of playing lending itself toward a potentially deep playoff run.

The Preds went 2-2-1 against Minnesota in 2014-15, with both victories coming on the road. Roman Josi recorded three goals and four points versus the Wild.

Winnipeg Jets:

2014-15 Record: 43-26-13, 99 pts.

Preds record versus Jets: 3-2-0

Leading Scorer: Andrew Ladd, 62 Points (24g-38a)

Key Additions:
Alex Burmistrov Matt Fraser
Key Subtractions:
Michael Frolik TJ Galiardi Keaton Ellerby

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Winnipeg didn’t change much this offseason, and the group who made the playoffs last season will get the chance to do so once more. The franchise formerly located in Atlanta qualified for the postseason for the first time since moving north of the border and following a relatively quiet offseason, similar to the Wild, the Jets faithful are hoping for even more in 2015-16.

Captain Andrew Ladd was the team’s leading scorer with 62 points, in addition to the offensive talents of Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little.

It was the Jets defensive unit that both Jones and Hutton alluded to when referencing Winnipeg’s reasons for making the playoffs this past spring and with no turnover on the blue line, the unit is likely to again be a strength.

Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom provide an offensive threat from the blue line, while Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers help to compliment Winnipeg’s defense. Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson each hit the 20-win plateau last season, giving the Jets two options in net.

“I think all the Central [Division] teams are very hard-working, gritty teams that are still mixed with skill and a lot of offensive talent,” Rinne said. “All the teams have some dangerous individuals and lines, good power plays as well. As a group all [seven] teams are high skilled and their defenses often lead the charge.”

The Preds were 3-2-0 against the Jets last season, including a shutout from Rinne on Oct. 17. Forsberg, Ribeiro and Shea Weber each tallied four points versus Winnipeg.

Dallas Stars:

2014-15 Record: 41-31-10, 92 pts.

Predators record versus Stars: 3-1-1

Leading Scorer: Jamie Benn, 87 Points (35g-52a)

Key Additions:
Patrick Sharp Johnny Oduya Antti Niemi
Key Subtractions:
Shawn Horcoff Ryan Garbutt Trevor Daley
Jhonas Enroth

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The Stars missed out on the postseason in 2014-15, but still boasted two of the League’s top-seven scorers. Jamie Benn (87 pts.) led the NHL in scoring, while Tyler Seguin recorded 77 of his own. Jason Spezza tallied 62 points for the Stars in 2014-15 while Patrick Sharp, acquired via trade from Chicago, had 43 points last season, and is an addition to Dallas’ top-six forward group.

With a single playoff appearance in the last seven seasons, the Stars added three Cup winners in Sharp and Johnny Oduya from the Blackhawks, and also signed free-agent goaltender Antti Niemi (San Jose from 2012-15), who won the Cup with Chicago in 2010.

“Those are two great, key players and they know how to win Cups,” blueliner Seth Jones said of the Stars adding Sharp, Oduya and Niemi. “They’ve been on those Chicago teams that have won a lot, so they know what it takes, and I think that’s definitely going to help them experience-wise later in the season and if they make the playoffs, through each round.”

Young John Klingberg is the focal point of a Stars defensive corps that will try to keep pace with their potent offense by relying on veterans in Oduya and Alex Goligoski. Kari Lehtonen posted 34 wins last season in net for the stars, and the addition of Niemi gives Dallas another proven option between the pipes.

“The Stars are dangerous; they go and get Niemi too now, they’ll have two Finnish guys that are going to push each other and it’s almost like having two starting goalies,” Hutton said. “That’s going to be interesting; people question their backend but they have some young guys they brought up. I think Klingberg is really coming into his own. You look at Sharp, their power play is going to be pretty outrageous.”

The Preds went 3-1-1 against the Stars in 2014-15, with Forsberg contributing three goals and five points over five games. Weber and Josi, who each skated in four out of five contests against Dallas, recorded four points apiece.

Colorado Avalanche:

2014-15 Record: 39-31-12, 90 pts.

Leading Scorer: Gabriel Landeskog, 59 Points (23g-36a)

Key Additions:
Carl Soderberg Blake Comeau Mikhail Grigorenko
Francois Beauchemin Nikita Zadorov
Key Subtractions:
Ryan O'Reilly Daniel Briere Jamie McGinn

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Colorado’s top-four scorers in 2014-15 all return this season and will try to get the Avalanche back into the postseason. Gabriel Landeskog, Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Matt Duchene all hit the 55-point plateau last season, while forward Nathan MacKinnon looks to bounce back after a 38-point campaign.

A season removed from claiming the Central Division crown, the Avs defensive corps couldn’t keep up with their speedy offense as Colorado fell to 11th in the West.

“For Colorado, that’s a team two years removed from making that strong run to the playoffs and then falling off a bit last year, but I still think they’re going to be a dangerous contender,” Hutton said. “There’s not going to be any easy nights [in the Central Division]. I think last year we would surprise some teams, but this year that’s not going to happen anymore either, everyone knows we’re for real and we’ve got to bring it every single night.”

Veteran Francois Beauchemin was brought in on a three-year deal to add skill and experience to Colorado’s blue line. The former Duck will join up with Tyson Barrie, the Avs’ primary offensive threat from the blue line, and Erik Johnson, who recent inked a four-year, $15 million contract extension. Semyon Varlamov recorded 28 wins in 57 games for the Avs last season, including five shutouts, and is expected to be the starter once more.

The Preds were 3-2-0 against the Avalanche last season, helped by six assists from Ribeiro and three goals from Forsberg.


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