Center upgrades add punch to loaded Central Division
|The Central Division will be home once again to dominant centers including Jonathan Toews and Paul Stastny (Getty Images).|
The Central Division has been the center of attention in the NHL this offseason.
Nearly every team in the division has upgraded at the center position, and the two that didn't, the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, will likely be moving one of the top young players in the League to the middle on a more permanent basis.
The result of a flurry of trades and signings has the Central looking like the toughest division in the NHL for the 2014-15 season. Though the Chicago Blackhawks still look like the leader of the group, they finished third in the division standings last season and might only have the fourth- or even fifth-best collection of centers despite the presence of all-world pivot Jonathan Toews.
Five teams made the postseason in 2013-14 and the Nashville Predators missed by three points. Any of those six teams will be confident they can be a playoff team in the coming season, and 95 points might not be out of the question for any of them.
Here is a breakdown of what the seven Central Division teams have done so far this offseason and how the additions or subtractions could affect their lineup for the 2014-15 season:
Note: The additions, re-signed players, still unsigned players and subtractions pertain only to the NHL roster. The money figures are according to CapGeek.com or have been provided by the club.
Additions: Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere, Brad Stuart, Bruno Gervais, Zach Redmond, Jesse Winchester
Re-signed: Nick Holden
Still unsigned: Ryan O'Reilly (RFA), Tyson Barrie (RFA), Stefan Elliott (RFA), Andre Benoit (UFA), Cory Sarich (UFA)
Subtractions: Paul Stastny (St. Louis Blues), P.A. Parenteau (Montreal Canadiens), Matt Hunwick (New York Rangers), Brad Malone (Carolina Hurricanes)
The Avalanche lost the top center on the market, but will replace him by either shifting Nathan MacKinnon or O'Reilly to center. If Colorado had a little more depth on the wings, putting them at center (assuming O'Reilly stays with the team) along with Matt Duchene would make the Avalanche one of the best in the League at the position.
That would possibly help Colorado's puck possession problem, which eventually caught up to the Avalanche in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Colorado had fewer than 48 percent of the shot attempts, but scored more than 53 percent of its goals at even strength during the regular season through a combination of a high team shooting percentage and outstanding goaltending from previously inconsistent Semyon Varlamov.
Losing Stastny and Parenteau, the two best possession forwards in 2013-14, and replacing them with Iginla and Briere, isn't going to solve the problem. Adding Stuart on defense certainly won't either. The fourth line was an anchor last season, and Winchester isn't likely to have a dramatic effect.
The depth on defense remains an issue, though playing Tyson Barrie more would help. Varlamov is going to need to be great again, and given the tutelage of Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy he might be.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Additions: Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom, Carl Gunnarsson
Re-signed: Patrik Berglund, Brian Elliott
Still unsigned: Vladimir Sobotka (RFA), Jaden Schwartz (RFA), Brenden Morrow (UFA), Steve Ott (UFA), Derek Roy (UFA)
Subtractions: Ryan Miller (Vancouver Canucks), Adam Cracknell (Los Angeles Kings), Roman Polak (Toronto Maple Leafs)
The Blues had one of the deepest groups of forwards last season, but the offense went dry during a first-round series with the Blackhawks. Enter Stastny and Lehtera to try and help fix that problem.
David Backes and Berglund could shift to the wing, and the Blues' forward group now looks downright scary. It might have been better naturally, with improvements from Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko (though Schwartz could be in for some shooting percentage regression at both the individual and team levels).
Swapping Polak for Gunnarsson might make one of the best defense corps in the League slightly better as well. Polak was one of the worst possession players on the Blues, and Gunnarsson's raw numbers look bad but not as much in the context of the Toronto Maple Leafs' struggles.
Goaltending will be in focus, because the Blues might have one of the best collections of 18 skaters in the NHL, but Elliott and Jake Allen will have to prove they can help this team deep into the playoffs.
Additions: Brad Richards, Kyle Cumiskey
Subtractions: Brandon Bollig (Calgary Flames)
The Blackhawks were one goal from the Stanley Cup Final, where they would have been heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in five seasons. Instead, they watched the Los Angeles Kings win again and cement the two franchises as the NHL's current superpowers.
Los Angeles had one clear advantage against Chicago, and that was down the middle. Richards could help close that gap. He struggled against the Kings in the Cup Final, but should be an upgrade from Handzus. Uber-prospect Teuvo Teravainen might help eventually as well.
Otherwise, things are pretty much status quo. Getting a third-round pick for Bollig was a great deal. The big thing this summer for general manager Stan Bowman is trying to finalize extensions for Toews and Patrick Kane. If that happens, Chicago's place as a top Cup contender will be secure for years to come.
Additions: Thomas Vanek
Still unsigned: Jonathon Blum (RFA), Justin Fontaine (RFA), Darcy Kuemper (RFA), Nino Niederreiter (RFA), Jason Zucker (RFA), Ilya Bryzgalov (UFA), Dany Heatley (UFA), Nate Prosser (UFA), Michael Rupp (UFA)
Subtractions: Matt Moulson (Buffalo Sabres), Clayton Stoner (Anaheim Ducks), Cody McCormick (Buffalo Sabres)
Adding Vanek gives the Wild even more offensive punch. The top two lines will likely include Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Vanek, Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, which is among the elite groups in the League.
There is depth behind them as well, with younger players like Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter. Losing Stoner will not hurt the defense corps, and adding a top young prospect like Mathew Dumba could be an upgrade.
Like the Blues, there are questions in goal for the Wild. Josh Harding played great and was an amazing story last season, but missed a lot of it because of his illness (multiple sclerosis). Niklas Backstrom has struggled to stay healthy. Kuemper looked like a future No. 1 goaltender at times during his rookie season.
Additions: Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Anders Lindback
Re-signed: Vernon Fiddler
Still unsigned: Brenden Dillon (RFA), Cody Eakin (RFA), Antoine Roussel (RFA), Ray Whitney (UFA), Tim Thomas (UFA)
Subtractions: Alex Chaisson (Ottawa Senators)
Expectations are going to be a lot different in year two of the Jim Nill era in Dallas. After completing maybe the best trade of the offseason before 2013-14 by adding budding superstar Tyler Seguin, Nill acquired Spezza to play behind him.
Add in Hemsky, and the Stars suddenly have a potentially great second line to support Seguin, Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin. Eakin can slide to the third line, and with Fiddler back, not to mention backup options like Shawn Horcoff and even Nichushkin, the Stars are loaded at center.
What might prevent Dallas from being ready to roll through the Western Conference is the defense corps. It will be the same group as last season, though a young guy like Jamie Oleksiak or Brenden Dillon could certainly improve. If Nill goes hunting for help later this offseason or near the trade deadline, expect it to be on the blue line.
Additions: James Neal, Olli Jokinen, Anton Volchenkov
Re-signed: Carter Hutton
Still unsigned: Taylor Beck (RFA), Mattias Ekholm (RFA), Ryan Ellis (RFA), Michael Del Zotto (UFA)
Subtractions: Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh Penguins), Nick Spaling (Pittsburgh Penguins)
The spending spree last offseason didn't yield positive returns, but trading for Neal and adding Jokinen might in 2014-15. Neal gives the Predators a dynamic scorer they've lacked.
Jokinen isn't flashy, but he'll make Nashville a little better down the middle. General manager David Poile has reportedly been interested in other centers as well. Full seasons for Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok could also give the offense a little extra juice.
Having Pekka Rinne back and healthy is another big reason for optimism in the Music City. He can be the best goaltender in the division, and Nashville had problems at the position without him last season.
The Predators will look pretty similar on defense, but any gains made by Seth Jones in his second season could help them be better as well.
Additions: Mathieu Perreault
Re-signed: Chris Thorburn, Adam Pardy, Michael Hutchinson
Still unsigned: Michael Frolik (RFA), Patrice Cormier (RFA), Carl Klingberg (RFA), Devin Setoguchi (UFA), Matt Halischuk (UFA)
Subtractions: Olli Jokinen (Nashville Predators), Al Montoya (Florida Panthers), Zach Redmond (Colorado Avalanche)
The Jets were only four points behind the Predators (and seven back of the Stars) last season, and there's a good chance Perreault is an upgrade over Jokinen. That said, the other teams in this division have all made significant upgrades while this has been a relatively quiet offseason for Winnipeg.
Perreault will help at center, as will continued development and maturation from Mark Scheifele. A step forward for Jacob Trouba could make the defense corps better as well. Where Dustin Byfuglien plays will also be something to monitor in training camp.
Michael Hutchinson had a strong Calder Cup Playoffs run with St. John's and could be in line to be the No. 2 behind starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec.