Welcome to the Central division.
AKA: an auto-cannibalizing hydra that spits acid and napalm and insults you with deeply personal information about yourself that only you know.
AKA: A present with a claymore mine sitting under the wrapping paper, primed to go.
AKA: Where teams are either freed or embrace a blowout's sweet release.
AKA: A room full of disembodied buzzsaw blades that charge the first thing to enter the door and grind it into meat so thin you could make dog food out of it.
AKA: A division now piled up in talented teams, players, and GMs.
If you can give Gary Bettman props for one thing and one thing only, you can thank him for making sure the Bruins have to only play every team in this division twice.
Alright, like a band-aid, just gotta pull it off nice and slow...Let's assess the Central Division's THREAT to the Bruins next season.
Last Year's Performance: 3rd in Division, 1st round exit
Key New Players: Brian Campbell
Key Leaves: Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen
The fact that a team with both Johnathan Toews and Patrick Kane can only make it to the first round before being bounced is a real scary thought in the grand scheme of things.
I'm sure this team needs no real introduction: Three Stanley cups in the last half decade, Two world class players (albeit one so toxic an entity that he probably causes plants to die in his presence), followed by a number of deeply underrated or very well deployed players who've made the Blackhawks the juggernaut team it is today. Combined with a defense corps that seems deeper than the trench at marianas, now bolstered with a Brian Campbell returning (more than likely to try and get a cup before he finally retires), you'd think there'd be no beating this team, right?
Well....Maybe there can be?
As it turns out, having a bunch of young players, or at least players you knew you could count on both leave and not have replacements means you have to ask a lot of youth to step up.
Of course, due to Chicago's scouts being sorcerers of some variety, I can only assume that prospects Ville Pokka and Marko Dano are going to just be fantastic players in some variety. On top of that, when the Blackhawks committed to Shaw instead of Teravainen, it seemed like they were going into the trap of over emphasizing players that were previously "good in the room" over being "good on the ice", as it were. Them trading that very newly minted contract away means they're in an interesting spot where they can pluck in players who they think are ready for the big time, or just need a little seasoning. After all, on the forward situation, you really only need to fill four spots. That seems doable. And one of those will likely be picked up by Jordin Tootoo so...really only three! No pressure.
What isn't a quick fix is Chicago's defense, which is starting to look a bit...2015 Bruins-y.
Simply put, players like Seabrook, (Trevor) Van Reimsdyk, and David Rundblad probably aren't going to be the guys Chicago wants them to be, especially in a division made out of big guns. The re-addition of Brian Campbell will help to restabilize things, but he isn't the final piece that suddenly turns it all the way back to stanley cup winning defense. Granted, that now puts the list of good defensemen to bad defensemen to about 50/50, but at worst the Blackhawks may have to suffer the indignity of yet another third place in the Central. The scandal of it all.
Yeah, they're still Hot. They've cooled off some, but there's still more than enough fire on this roster to give people some reservation about watching the results.
Last Year's performance: 6th in division
Key New Players: Rocco Grimaldi
Key Leaves: The coach because...yeah.
I wrote a lot about this team and a lot of it sort of ended with "Patrick Roy is crazy!".
aaaaaaand then he left.
That's Colorado for ya. Full of surprises.
In general, the team's made progress...and things have also fallen out of place. Lots of talent. Landeskog is a great young player, Tyson Barrie returns, Iginla fell off a cliff, Soderberg's probably the only center that can play defense on a team where defensive talent is both sorely needed and thin...Colorado still has plenty of offensive dynamos that makes playing them quite harder than you'd like to be. Their defense however gives up fairly boneheaded chances as a group and as a whole the Avalanche barely have the puck to make their offense matter. Their goaltending is suspect, but is good enough to be challenging. It's definitely a place where surprises can get you. And now...their coaching is sort of under a question mark. Who knows what this team is anymore.
With that in mind, I think Colorado is Medium, which might as well mean you're a snowball in this hell division. They'll do well, and will likely put up some fight, but man...the Bruins can really take some advantage against some of these lines.
Last Year's Performance: 1st in division, Second Round exit
Key New Players: Dan Hamhuis
Key Leaves: Kris Russel, Vernon Fiddler
This team is not just offense: the team. It is the IDEA of Offense, the team.
Shooters galore, speed, some bite here or there, loads of skill, sometimes underhanded penalty taking, all to make sure that your decidedly...interesting defensive situation is covered up. To think a trade caused all this to happen.
The defense is still curious, on the other hand.
While they made the important decision to make sure the loss of Jason Demers was covered, the second pairing is a possession nightmare that has largely been the work of Stephen Johns dragging the corpse of Johnny Oduya around like a knapsack. The depth seems good, but is also one-dimensional in some aspects. A precarious spot to be.
Not helping this fact are two goaltenders who really don't need to be paid as much as they are: Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. While serviceable, and maybe even good some time ago, neither can be considered great anymore. Which is what you kind of need one or both to be in a consistent fashion if the Dallas defense is going to be potentially struggling at points. And struggle they absolutely will.
All this in mind, they are still quite a hot-warm sort of team. They DO have a weakness! It CAN be exploited and we have seen it happen with a team worse than the current one!...but it's buried under an avalanche of offense and scoring that'll no doubt be testing the youthful/aging Boston blueline badly.
Last Year's Performance: 5th in Division, 1st Round exit
Key New Players: Eric Staal, Chris Stewart
Key Leaves: N/A
The NHL's do-over franchise in the cold north has really shown some promise over these last few years! And this year is likely to do the same!
...No, not the Jets, this one.
The Wild are good. Very good. Their forwards are good, their defense seems really good, and the reclamation project on Devan Dubnyk seems to be bearing fruit. And now, with Eric Staal helping to boost their forward depth, they seem primed to go deeper than they ever previously had.
Of course...they do have some issues.
The Wild have a bunch of fun, and theoretically good defensemen at their disposal. However, Minnesota's a pretty tough split between three really quality players, and three players that...well...aren't Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Worse, these "alright, but not totally good"s of defense have been spread out across the depth pairings. Meaning that Dumba and Scandella will have to pull their weight as well as their own on defense. Finally, they have Devan Dubnyk in net, of whom the reclamation project seems to be working out fine, but I am convinced that there's a little bit of that Oilers-tier Devan sitting underneath the layer of paint they applied.
There has to be, as Dubnyk's SV% crashed back to Earth last season. Which isn't great if your defense happens to have major gaffes somewhere in the middle of the season.
Minnesota is a Warm team. They have some questions to answer, but otherwise they will stay competitive against the Central's top 3, will likely make the playoffs and certainly be a thorn in Boston's side.
Last Year's Performance: 4th in division, Second round out
Key New Players: PK SUBBAN
Key Leaves: Shea Weber, Carter Hutton
Oh ho hooooo man, David Poile? That man's a genius. And he brought that genius to Nashville, where nobody would question or concern him. Now? He's ready to unleash his magic out on the unsuspecting NHL.
Nashville has been on a slow, steady rise since Poile's takeover. His team has slowly become one of the best in the NHL at pure 5 on 5 play. His team features talented wingers, great centermen, and a defense corps that is the envy of 90% of the NHL. They have three top 20 defensemen in the league today playing at the moment. And they just added a fourth. The pièce de résistance. Instead of Shea Weber, a pretty good defenseman, in the back nine of his career, they have PK Subban, a great defenseman, in his prime.
PK. Subban. On one of the best 5 on 5 teams in the country.
This is gonna hurt.
Well, if the Bruins play their cards right, they in theory could have a win. The numbers, both observed and underlying, seem to imply in spite of everything that Nashville has going for it (and it has a lot) the team tends to be sort of blasé on the offense side of things, which can go poorly for them.
Another possible out is that Roman Josi, while a large body and a good hitter...doesn't really use those two things for good. Josi is the type of player that does go for the explosive move, but barely seems to be able to establish possession post-hit. This was also a bit of an issue with Weber, but with Subban's play-style, Josi will have to adapt quickly or flame out. Finally...Pekka Rinne.
They've hung on to Rinne for waaay longer than they should've. His SV% (and GAA if you still think that isn't a team stat) has been in a sharp nosedive and it doesn't seem like things are going to get better. And with Hutton out to join the Blues, Marek Mazanec, who will likely be playing his first NHL season, looks to be the man to back him up. A total unknown.
At least he's a big guy.
Make no mistake, though. Nashville as of right now is a good hockey team, and will make life absolutely miserable for anyone who faces them. They are a Warm-Hot sort of team and will likely stay that way for a good long time.
Last Year's Performance: 2nd in division, Conference Finalist*
Key New Players: Carter Hutton, David Perron,
Key Leaves: David Backes (to Boston!), Brian Elliot, Troy Brouwer, maybe Kevin Shattenkirk
Assessment: The Blues are cleaning house!
They've also kept a stupendous amount of their talent!
Because Central Division.
Yeah, the Blues did just give up their captain, everyone and their mother's cat thinks Shattenkirk is on his way out of town if the price is right, they lost goalie 1b in Brian Elliot, and to top it all off they gave up that other piece in the TJ Oshie deal in Troy Brouwer. And do you know what? Still doesn't mean a goddamn thing to St. Louis. The Blues are still a good, maybe even great hockey team even after losing all of those players.
Jori Lehtera has come into his own, Alex Steen over the last few years in different roles has managed to keep being productive, Vlad Tarasenko is a world class player that scores practically on command. Their depth remains as large and suppressive as usual, and their goaltending in Jake Allen will be more than enough to handle things.
There has to be some weakness, right?
Well, look no further than their first pairing on defense, to be honest.
A lot of people might have reservations about having two offensive defensemen (at least in terms of production and actual defensing) play on the same pairing, but that's mostly what Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester have been doing as teammates, and to mixed returns once it becomes playoff time, to say the least. And Blues fans better hope their team ends up re-signing Shattenkirk, otherwise the list of defensemen that can actually handle the rough minutes shrinks down to about two: Edmunson and Parayko. A lot of how St. Louis looks like going forward sort of hinges on that Shattenkirk thing, is what I'm going for.
That said, they still have a very tough forward group that can more than help to make up for any failings their defense might have, and Jake Allen was at league average for the half-season's worth of games he played, so the Blues are still very much a Hot team with that going forward. The Bruins will have to bring their A+ game to defeat them, otherwise...pain.
*I can't read, apparently.
Last Year's Performance: last in division
Key New Players: Shawn Matthias, Patrick Laine
Key Leaves: N/A
Assessment: Hey, the Jets are starting to look like a real team now! Good for them!
The lackluster previous season has put them, at least in my opinion, in a position where they could go nowhere but up. They get Laine, which means they don't have to worry about a right winger that might be the real deal, They signed Mark Scheifele to an incredible deal, Nikolaj Ehlers seems to be the best partner Scheifele and Blake Wheeler can ask for at the moment, and locked up a great depth center in Mathieu Perreault. Things are looking up!
But all that comes crashing down around their ears when you look and you see who's in goal. Again.
Ondrej Pavelec, five years after being part of Winnipeg's rebirth, and after time and time again of proving to not be the guy they can count on, is still the number one goaltender for the Jets. A player who has consistently proven to bring home less than league average for almost every year he's been in Winnipeg. I understand there might be some attachment here but...jesus guys, Mike Hutchinson and/or Connor Hallebucyk is right there. And he has to be better than Pavelec, right?
He can't be much worse.
On top of that, Winnipeg's defense has been basically held together with Dustin Byfuglien and toothpicks for a good while now. They finally half an even split of players that can handle the load, such as Tobias Enstrom and Paul Postma. And who knows? Maybe Josh Morrisey will be great in his new depth role. But Tyler Myers has proven he was better left on Buffalo's roster, and boy, if you didn't like how Torey Krug played defense I'd hate to see what you'd see in Jacob Trouba, who is Torey Krug in all the wrong ways. Shots are not stopped or blocked by him. They phase through him.
All that in mind, I can't be any nicer to them than call Winnipeg a Medium-Cool team. They do have genuine talent here or there, but the way they've composed their defense and the way they still cling to Pavelec makes me think they're gonna have to use this year as transition for when that contract finally dies.
Although as we're all aware, Boston can get shocked by them, but they can get shocked right back. I can't see them doing any better than Colorado did.
And that's the Central. Will they survive? Barely. It will require them to be, as a whole, on their best game possible in order to get points out of all 7 teams.
Next, we go into the knife fight that is the pacific, and maybe we a little pathos on the nature of some of the teams in there...