The Dallas Stars grabbed huge headlines this summer with the moves they made in preparation for the 2014-2015 season. However, while they were busy bolstering their roster, the rest of the league was doing the same. That was especially true in the seven-team Central Division. While expectations and excitement are high, the road ahead promises to be a difficult one for the Stars. They play five games against five of their division rivals and four against the other, accounting for 29 games – just over 35% of their season. By now you’re probably familiar with the moves that made Dallas the talk of the NHL offseason. So now, let’s take a look at what the rest of the Central Division teams have been up to over the last few months:
Chicago Blackhawks: Despite the fact that the Blackhawks finished last season third in the division, they are still widely regarded as the team to beat in the Central. The Hawks have won two Stanley Cup Championships in the last five years, and were a Game-7 overtime goal away from returning to the Finals last season. Given their already explosive roster, the Hawks didn’t have to do too much this summer, and were one of the more quiet teams in the West. Their big acquisition came in former Stars center, Brad Richards, who was inked to a one-year deal following his buyout in New York. Richards is expected the fill Chicago’s #2 center role. Even though the Hawks were relatively quiet this summer, the bad news for the rest of the division is that their championship-tier roster didn’t suffer any major losses either. Along with the Richards addition, the biggest off-season story for the Hawks came in the matching 8-year contract extensions given to both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The question mark surrounding Chicago is that as of right now they are still about $2 million over the salary cap. That means that the Hawks still might have to move someone before next month’s start to the season.
Colorado Avalanche: In a loaded division, the Avs came out of nowhere to finish first in the Central last year. Although the Cinderella-story ended with a first round upset, Colorado’s first season under Head Coach Patrick Roy was an undeniable success. The sophomore campaign will feature a few changes in personnel. The biggest change in Colorado came in the loss of star-forward Paul Stastny. Prior this offseason he had spent his entire career with the Avs and was a six-time 20-goal scorer, but left as a free-agent to join St. Louis. The Avs are a team stocked with a lot of young talent, so this summer they focused on adding veterans. They signed 37-year old forward Jarome Iginla to a three-year deal, after he proved he had a lot left in the tank with a 30-goal campaign in Boston last season. They also acquired defenseman Brad Stuart – who has played in 985 NHL games – from San Jose, and 15-year veteran forward Daniel Briere from Montreal in exchange for P.A. Parenteau. Even with the loss of Stastny, Colorado still returns plenty of firepower in guys like Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O’Reilly, along with the premier goaltending of Semyon Varlamov.
Minnesota Wild: It wasn’t quite the splash they made two summers ago when they gave matching 13-year contracts to free-agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but the Wild once again managed to land one of this offseason’s top available names. Minnesota signed Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million deal in July, after Vanek reportedly turned down more money elsewhere. The Wild may have received a (relative) hometown discount for the Austrian-born star forward, who was a standout collegiate player at nearby University of Minnesota. This will be Vanek’s first foray in the West after spending nine years in the league in the Eastern Conference – most of which came under Lindy Ruff in Buffalo. The Vanek deal was the signature move of Minnesota’s summer, although it’s worth noting that they did expectedly part ways with free-agent Matt Moulson after he was acquired at last year’s trading deadline. One thing that still needs to be figured out is whether the Wild feel any need to fortify their goaltending position. Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom remain under contract, although Harding’s health is always a concern as he courageously continues to battle MS while playing and Backstrom is coming off an injury and subpar season. Talks are reportedly not going well with restricted free-agent Darcy Kuemper, and the Wild have reportedly not made an offer to unrestricted free-agent Ilya Bryzgalov after he played very well down the stretch as an emergency signing last year.
Nashville Predators: Last year people joked that the St. Louis Blues looked more like the Dallas Stars – North. Well, this year that title might go to the Predators. (Although Northeast might be more appropriate.) Nashville was very busy this summer, and a lot of their big moves centered around former residents of Big D. The Preds went out and got former Stars forwards James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy. That should make for a pair of interesting visits by the Preds to the AAC, including one on the final day of the season. (By the way, the Stars hosted the Blues in the home finale last year. It’s almost like the NHL plans these things, isn’t it?) The addition of Neal will certainly provide an offensive boost to a team that needs one. He has 88 goals in 179 regular season games in the three complete seasons since he left Dallas. Ribeiro will look to rebound after posting his fewest points since 2003 last season. Meanwhile, Roy is trying to rediscover his scoring touch, as three straight 25-goal campaigns from 2008-2010 feels like centuries ago. The Predators also signed 35-year old forward Olli Jokinen, who has done a pretty good job of dodging Father Time with only six missed games over the last four seasons, and an average of almost 20 goals each over the last three 82-game seasons. The biggest loss for the Preds came in the trade for Neal, as world-class agitator, Patric Hornqvist was sent East. The Preds also elected not to re-sign defenseman Michael Del Zotto after picking him up in a January trade. Yet, with all the player additions Nashville made, their biggest offseason move may be the hiring of a new coach. After 16 years of Barry Trotz as the only Head Coach in Predators history, Peter Laviolette has stepped in as the new man in charge. Laviolette, who won a Stanley Cup in 2006, is known as a much more offensive-minded coach than his predecessor and the moves Nashville made following his hire suggest the team is ready to follow that philosophy. With the changes behind the bench as well as on it, one could argue that no team transformed more this summer than the Nashville Predators.
St. Louis Blues: It was another frustrating summer in St. Louis after bowing out in the opening round of the playoffs after leading the series 2-0 for the second straight year. Swallowing that harsh finality once again, the Blues didn’t blow up their team. But they did make two big moves among several transactions. The first was the addition of Stastny. Unmatched as the top free-agent center, Stastny was plucked from the division-rival Avs for four years at $7 per season. He came up big in the playoffs last year with 5 goals and 10 points in 7 games. That postseason boost is something the Blues are counting on for the next four years. The other big move came in not re-signing free-agent goaltender Ryan Miller. Obviously, the experiment didn’t go as planned after the Blues spent largely at the trade deadline to shore up the one spot that many had been seen as standing between St. Louis and the elite teams in the league. However, it wasn’t just the departure of Miller, but also the decision to not shop for any other goaltenders that was such a major decision. Instead the Blues signed goaltender Brian Elliott to a three-year deal and are banking that he and minor-league standout Jake Allen will be able to carry this team over the hump. Among other changes to the Blues roster, they shipped defenseman Roman Polak to Toronto for blue liner Carl Gunnarsson. Additionally, former Stars captain Brenden Morrow departed, signing as a free-agent in Tampa Bay. Forward Vladimir Sobotka left to play in the KHL, and Roy signed in Nashville.
Winnipeg Jets: The Jets were the only team that really sat on their hands this summer. Their biggest move came in signing solid young forward, Mathieu Perrault who previously played in Anaheim. Their big loss was Jokinen’s jump to Nashville. With the exception of a couple of minor moves, that’s about all that transpired for the Jets. That may seem strange for a team with three pretty forgettable seasons since arriving back in Winnipeg, and an organization who has only made that playoffs once dating back to their 1999 start in Atlanta. However, the Jets were a much improved team after a January coaching change where Paul Maurice took over for Claude Noel. Maurice immediately injected a new life into the club, engineering 9 wins in their first 11 games. He and the Jets finished the year 18-12-5 and became relevant in the late-season playoff discussion. Winnipeg is banking on 82 games of Maurice’s guidance being enough after an extremely quiet offseason. It certainly won’t be easy sledding for the Jets as every other Central Division opponent reinforced their roster as they remained mostly idle.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.