NHL Power Rankings: The Central Division Fear Factor

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May 13, 2014; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild defenseman Keith Ballard (2) takes a shot and Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) makes the save during overtime1 of game six of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Xcel Energy Center. The Blackhawks clinch the second round with a 2-1 victory over the Wild in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

#3: Minnesota Wild

The Wild saw their post-season come to an end against the Blackhawks for the second year in a row in 2013-14, and there will certainly be some hard feelings when these two teams meet again in the coming season. With some solid moves down the depth chart, the Wild will again rely on the likes of Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Jason Pomminville for success in 2014-15.

Tomas Vanek will give the Wild’s offsense a huge boost, likely lining up alongside former Buffalo Sabres teammate Pomminville. Jordan Shroeder and Michael Keranen are free-agent signings that will give the Wild forwards solid depth, while the defense will enter the season with largely the same core that they had in 2013-14, including the likes of minute-muncher Ryan Suter, Keith Ballard, and Jonas Brodin.

The Wild are certainly stacked at the goaltender position, with Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding, and Niklas Backstrom all vying for the #1 job at training camp. Although the Blackhawks have had lots of success against the Wild in seasons past, the State of Hockey won’t be friendly territory to any visiting team this year, and with one of their best rosters in recent memory, the Wild will be a dangerous opponent in 2014-15.

#2: Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars were one of the biggest movers last year, and with a summer of big off-season moves behind them, look for that upwards trend to continue into 2014-15.

The Stars went out and traded for Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators, losing little of their NHL roster in return. They reunited Spezza with Ottawa teammate Ales Hemsky via free-agency, and from there, it’s all about improvement from within. With Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin combining for over 160 points last season, the Stars now enter 2014-15 with one of the most dangerous offenses in the NHL. Spezza, Seguin, and Benn offer the leadership, along with proven veterans such as Shawn Horcoff down the line. With Valeri Nichuskin on the verge of a breakout season, this Stars team will certainly have no trouble filling the net.

The Stars’ biggest question lies on their blue-line, but if Jordie Benn, Trevor Daley, and Brenden Dillon can hold down the fort, Dallas should be able to rely on the 1-2 goaltending punch of Kari Lehthonen and Anders Lindback to bring home the wins on any given night. The Stars play tough against the league’s biggest teams, and with arguably no bigger team than the Blackhawks, the stage is set for some memorable battles in the coming season.

#1: St. Louis Blues

The Blackhawks put another chapter in the story with their most hated rival in last year’s post-season, and the St. Louis Blues will be primed for battle as the two teams enter the season as favourites for the Central Division crown.

The Blues’ offense is looking even more potent with the addition of Paul Stasny, and players like Jaden Swartz and Magnus Paajarvi are poised to take a bigger role with the club this coming season. The grit that the Blues are known for lies in captain David Backes, but Ryan Reaves and Steve Ott will keep opponents on their toes with each match-up

Canadian Olympic teammates Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester will again be the Blues’ top defenders, but St. Louis has tremendous depth on the blue-line with the likes of Carlo Coliacovo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and the addition of Carl Gunnarsson.

In goal, Ryan Miller’s brief stint with the club is over, and it will be up to long-time back-up Bryan Elliott to carry the load, with Jake Allen likely to start his rookie-season in the no. 2 role.

As always, the Blues play the Blackhawks hard, even at the United Center, and these teams will trade shots all year long, with a Central Division Champions banner hanging (no pun intended) in the balance. It will make for some intense rivalry, and may end up in another post-season meeting, but one thing is for certain; the Blackhawks and Blues are set to play some exiting hockey this coming season.

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