Another NHL season is fast approaching, and in the wild Western Conference, the Central Division looks to be the most dangerous of their four counterparts, with 5 of the West’s 8 playoff teams in 2013-14. For fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, they expect their team to be at the top of the heap, but none of the 30 games against their division rivals will be easy. Today, we count down which teams the Blackhawks should be worried about this season.
#6: Winnipeg Jets
After a coaching change mid-season that saw immediate improvement, the Jets made a late playoff push in 2013-14, salvaging what was otherwise a forgettable year on the prairies. With that said head coach Paul Maurice now locked in to a four-year contract, things should be on the up-and-up, right?
No, not really. The Jets weren’t exactly the league’s most active team this summer, with their marquee addition coming in the form of career 51-goal scorer Mathieu Perrault. Granted, Perrault was a good signing for the club, but not nearly enough to give them a realistic shot at the post-season. With Al Montoya off to the Florida Panthers via free-agency, it’s up to Michael Hutchinson to fill the back-up role with 3 career NHL starts under his belt, behind a starting goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec that has been less than fantastic since the club moved north.
Between Evander Kane’s chemistry issues and a lack of defensive depth, it will take a small miracle for the Jets to end the eight-season playoff drought in 2014-15. If they don’t qualify for the post-season, fingers will be pointed at GM Kevin Chevaldayoff; the Jets simply didn’t do enough over the off-season to contend in the wicked Central Divison.
#5: Nashville Predators
The Predators joined the Jets in the division’s basement in 2013-14, and were the only other team to miss the post-season. Like their Canadian counterparts, it was time for a coaching change, and Barry Trotz was ousted after 15 seasons, with Peter Laviolette taking his place.
Unlike the Jets, however, GM David Poile didn’t rest on his laurels this summer. James Neal headlines a wild off-season of acquisitions for the Predators that includes the likes of centers Derek Roy, Mike Ribero, and Olli Jokinen, as well as defenseman Anton Volchenkov.
Sure, the additions sound good on paper, but as training camp starts, the Predators are left with nearly twice as many NHL-ready centers as they need. In an interview with The Hockey News, Poile figures it will work itself out, but acclimating several pivots to new positions on the wing is something that could hamper their offense at the start of the season. That won’t be too much of an issue, with Pekka Rinne feeling 100% heading into the season, and Volchenkov filling the no. 2 role behind Shea Weber that the Preds have been searching for since Ryan Suter’s departure.
#4: Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche took the Division title in 2013-14, so calling them the 4th-most dangerous team this coming season is a significant fall from grace. However, on the tails of a first-round exit via the Minnesota Wild, and it will be hard to duplicate the success that the Avs had last season, with every team behind them with big off-season additions.
Granted, the Avalanche did make some moves this summer, bringing in Brad Stuart, trading Danny Briere, and signing Jarome Iginla via free-agency. Solid additions, yes, but for the Avalanche, it’s more about what they lost, than what they gained.
Most importantly, the Avalanche lost their second-line center, Paul Stasny, to free-agency. With Ryan O’Reilly, Nathan MacKinnon, and Matt Duchene as natural centers, the Avalanche’s depth will be fine, but facing Stasny and his new team, the St Louis Blues, 5 times this season will cause for some tough match-ups for Jack Adams winner Patrick Roy. P.A. Parenteau, shipped to Montreal in the Danny Briere trade, will cause Erik Johnson to be in tough against other teams’ top lines, and Tyson Barrie and Nick Holden will also feel the pressure of the league’s top offenses bearing down on the Avs.
The Avalanche are solid in goal with Semyon Varlamov, and have played the Blackhawks extremely tough over the past two seasons. The Avs will be good again in 2014-15, and definitely a contender for the Central Divison crown, but compared to past seasons, the Blackhawks will be better off when facing Colorado.
With prospects like Filip Forsberg on the rise, the Predators certainly are on the road towards improvement. They got much better, however, so did everyone else ahead of them, and it will be an uphill climb if they want to make it to the Playoffs in 2014-15.