Outta the Gate: Will the NHL Central Repeat as the Toughest Division?
It's not out of the question to think that the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the hardware last spring because they survived their own division.
They didn't win the NHL Central, of course.
But when the last-placed team -- Colorado's Avalanche -- finishes with 90 points, it was a strong indication that any team in that group was odds-on to show up in the Stanley Cup finals.
Could be the same way in 2015-2016.
Chicago had a turbulent off season, to say the least, starting with Patrick Kane's legal problems stemming from a possible sexual assault.
The Blackhawks also had salary cap issues, forcing trades of important players like Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, who lured Johnny Oduya to Dallas with him. Bryan Bickell wound up on waivers, but the champs still have stars Corey Crawford, Jonathon Toews, Brent Seabrook, and of course, Kane.
Chicago usually finishes in the middle of the pack in the division and comes on in the playoffs so there's no reason to ever count out the Blackhawks.
It'll be a season-long gauntlet, though, as every team in the league will be coming with their best shot. That also includes bringing out the best in players like Henrik Lundqvist, who stole one on Opening Night:
St Louis, Minnesota, and Nashville promise to be even more aggressive this season, if that's possible.
The Blues have played well during the regular season only to fail in the playoffs. Coach Ken Hitchcock could well be in trouble if they don't make an extended run next spring. The only big change from last season was trading of TJ Oshie for Troy Brouwer. With a solid defense and a star forward in Vladimir Tarasenko, St Louis will be a factor once again in the Central.
For three years running, Minnesota hasn't gotten past Chicago in the playoffs, the past two seasons after completing first-round upsets over Colorado and Minnesota.
Devan Dubnyk became one of the best goalies in the league last season. He returns, and with Ryan Suter and newcomer Mike Reilly on defense, along with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek up front, Minnesota hopes to finally break through this season.
They definitely began the campaign with a morale-booster:
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette has already heard his GM, David Poile, claim that this is the Predators' year.
No pressure there for the second-year coach.
The Preds had home-ice advantage against Chicago in the first round last spring but kept losing close games as the Blackhawks went on to win the Cup. Pekka Rinne is one of the best goaltenders in the league and with players like Shea Weber, Mike Fisher, and Filip Forsberg on the roster, the Preds clearly could make good on Poile's boast.
They're definitely off to a good start:
Winnipeg surprised many and made the playoffs last season; the atmosphere was electric during home games. Andrew Ladd & Co plan to experience that feeling again, but they'll have to hold off Colorado and Dallas to do so.
The Jets are looking quite capable in the early season:
The Avalanche were on fire two years ago but fizzled last season. Coach Patrick Roy must already be wondering what's in store for 2015-2016 after that debacle against the Wild.
At least they followed by squaring their record with a win against Dallas and confirming they're no shrinking violets in the process:
So, like last year, it looks like winning the NHL Central isn't as important as surviving it by the time spring rolls around.