Welcome to ScoreBoredSports.com’s 2015-16 NHL Season Preview for the Central Division. Early last year, people wondered whether or not the Central was a division that featured seven playoff-caliber teams. The defensive profligacy of the Stars, continued stagnation in Winnipeg, and a dismal Wild season only saved by the heroics of a castaway goaltender, destabilized that dream. This year, the division’s outlook is not as rosy, with the customary dismantling of the Championship Blackhawks underway, questions surrounding uneven rosters in Colorado, Winnipeg, and Dallas, and the all-important question of when Patrick Roy will finally kill a man on the ice by the sheer venom of his hubris.
Well, might as well get this out of the way: the Blackhawks will not be as good this year. As salary cap issues forced Stan Bowman and co. to dismantle this fantastic roster, so, too, did their Stanley Cup aspirations crumble. They’ve shed key championship pieces like Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya, Antoine Vermette, and Brandon Saad. Gone, too, are Kris Versteeg and Patrick Sharp, each of whom played valuable minutes in a spectrum of roles. More pressing is the cloud that looms over the season in the form of a sexual assault allegation against Patrick Kane. No matter the outcome, nor the increasingly troublesome nature of the case, this inexorably will affect the team’s ability to concentrate and focus on the games at hand, whether Kane is present or not. But if any team has the structure to withstand such turmoil, the stalwart Hawks are the squad to do it. When a team is a dynasty on the level of these Hawks, every player tends to ooze leadership. The overall fall from surefire contender to a low playoff seed is an easy fall to predict, but make no mistake: this team still features the game’s best defenseman in Duncan Keith, the game’s best leader in Jonathan Toews, and the game’s best coach in Joel Quenneville. They added players on the cheap that have good potential to be productive, such as Ryan Garbutt and Artem Anisimov, and Trevor Daley might slot into a second-pair defensive role quite nicely. They are likely to make the playoffs, but fight for every inch along the way. It’s an ever-crowding West, but the Hawks still have too much on their roster to be silent come playoff time.
I’m mainly concerned that this team is what it is, which is not a contender — and stagnation kills in the NHL. Trading Evander Kane for Tyler Myers may have shielded the tender fans in Winnipeg from whatever hangups they had about Kane, but Myers looked uneven in the playoffs. I’m just not convinced he’s Chara 2.0, or ever will be. I can see the appeal of a towering defense featuring Dustin Byfuglien and Myers, with massive slap shots and punishing hits aplenty; but I can also see, just beyond the hulking giants, a terrible goalie in net. Ondrej Pavelec is not an NHL starter, but boy has he started a lot of NHL games. I know you might be thinking “but look at his numbers last year, they’re quite good!” Maybe, but he’s not. He will be bad this year, don’t trust this false hope of a 50-game blip. Pavelec will be bad again; Michael Hutchinson has offered tepid promise, but remains far from a proven commodity. The team’s above-average PDO (tied for 8th in the league) also suggests that the returns their forward crop offer may too be diminishing. This is a team that performed above average and is unlikely to shoot or stop the puck that well again, plain and simple. Their off-season of doing essentially nothing but reintegrating 23 year-old KHL refugee, Alex Burmistrov and re-signing the aging but adequate, Drew Stafford is a paltry re-load for a team that didn’t look like much in the playoffs. They’ll need continued development from young Mark Scheifele after a promising first full NHL season last year, but even so, I don’t see it this year in Winnipeg.
Here’s an interesting fact: Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, and Craig Smith are different people. Who knew? In researching the Nashville Predators roster, I must have done at least three major spit-takes, ruining my wife’s computer (twice). Contrary to my initial impression, those aren’t randomly-generated white guy names; they are, apparently, all unique individuals that each score between 30-50 points a year, are usually good for around 20 goals, and can play multiple positions. That’s so incredibly useful now that Nashville has a first line of players to reliably score in Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, and breakout All-Star candidate, Filip Forsberg. This marks a potentially powerful triumvirate if Ribeiro can continue to provide steady distribution, Neal re-ignites his potent shot, and Forsberg continues to develop on his current track. Throw in useful players like Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom to provide spine and leadership, and a reclamation project in Cody Hodgson, and this team is balanced and versatile. Most importantly, take a look at that loaded defense. Remember top draft pick Seth Jones? Yeah, he’s still that good. Shea Weber trudges along mercilessly firing 20 goals in a year while bludgeoning everyone in his path. There’s all kinds of depth and skill in Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and newly-inbound veteran Barret Jackman, siphoned from a division rival, no less. Most importantly, Pekka Rinne is back and, barring another serious health condition like the one that robbed him of his 2014 season, should continue to be one of the game’s elite keepers. It says a lot that he was able to bounce back from that scary bacterial infection following hip surgery, and put up one of the best seasons of his career. Watch out for Stanley Cup-winning coach Peter Laviolette to harangue his way to some serious contention for home ice in the West.
St. Louis Blues:
Will this be the year that Ken Hitchcock finally finds the right X’s and the perfect O’s for the perennially-underachieving Blues? Since he assumed the head coaching position in St. Louis, they have been consistently excellent in the regular season, finding enough firepower to accent a stalwart defense. Yet they’ve never been past the first round, and have foolishly ridden an ever-rotating goalie carousel toward soft playoff exits. Last year, they looked to be a powerful force against an inexperienced Wild team, yet squandered home ice in game five against a still-scorching Devan Dubnyk. Vladimir Tarasenko was about the only player who came out of the series looking good for the Blues. This past summer didn’t spell doom, but rather, an ultimatum: last chance.
Looking at this year’s squad, there’s some potential for addition by subtraction in losing Barrett Jackman, as his off-season departure opens up space for younger players like Petteri Lindbohm and Robert Bortuzzo to step in and add a bit of pace in the back end. Other than that, they mainly added depth in Kyle Brodziak, and secured Vladimir Tarasenko for eight years.
This is a team that tended heavily toward defensive play last year, with a 49.5% ratio of offensive to defensive zone starts (essentially a composite of how and where each player on the team is deployed and used). This indicates that King Kenny’s attention to defense hasn’t fallen away like his career as a world-renowned breeder of exotic birds. And though it may not be true that Ken Hitchcock was ever a decorated breeder of tropical birds, doesn’t it feel like he should develop a passion outside of hockey? I just worry.
Anyway, in spite of the Blues’ craven history of disintegrating at crucial moments, the future looks just as bright as last year’s Division-winning team’s could have been. The aforementioned Tarasenko is the crown jewel in an offense laden with high-level two-way players like David Backes, and the newly-acquired Troy Brouwer, but it seems like they’ll need more pure offensive value out of Paul Stastny, who, on balance, had the worst season of his career in 2015. The Blues continue to have questions in their goalie rotation, with Brian Elliott losing favor to Jake Allen in the last third of the year and into the playoffs (until Allen turned in some poor performances of his own). Yet the answer doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, so the hope is that Elliott can regain his peak form and Allen can use his time as a backup to learn what it means to be a true NHL starter. With a loaded roster and a championship-winning coach, the sky isn’t even the limit; only the Blues can hold themselves back at this point.
- As much as I’d like to offer some insight into the Wild’s season, I feel like Devan Dubnyk’s incredible run in net last year disrupts my ability to really figure out what kind of team this is. Unfortunately, my highly sophisticated intuition tells me that it will be nearly impossible for Dubnyk to reproduce such a run. However, late-career goaltending surges are not out of the question. Dwayne Roloson, somehow, took a 2011 Lightning team to within a game of the Cup final at age 41; this came after an up-and-down career in which, excepting another strange run to the Cup final with Edmonton five years earlier, he never really established himself as a top-tier keeper. Probable Ted Nugent disciple, Tim Thomas, burst out at age 33 from being a spotty starter to a four-time all-star, Stanley Cup, Vezina, and Conn Smythe winner. So there’s some hope that Dubnyk, now 29, will take that seemingly random leap into excellence. Smart money says that won’t be the case, and the Wild might re-discover some of their early-season malaise from 2014-15. One thing I do know: Jason Zucker needs to pass the fucking rock. Dude had 21 goals and 5 assists last year. That’s like, Rick Nash-level selfish, bro. I’M OPEN ON THE POINT, ASSHOLE.
- Once again, Colorado boasted high puck luck with one of the NHL’s best PDO numbers, yet still managed to be a big mess. A clue: the Avalanche had the league’s second-worst Corsi percentage, also known as Shot Attempts on NHL.com (the stat combines shots, shot attempts, and blocked shots, the idea is to measure how a player impacts the team’s ability to direct the puck at the other net). But beyond any of the numbers, the Avs just sucked last year, so we can’t really say they’re falling. Picking up veteran blueliner Francois Beauchemin should strengthen the hapless defense, and the addition of Blake Comeau, who had excellent possession numbers last year with a high personal Corsi percentage, should hopefully help in that department. Ultimately, Patrick Roy is a an inflamed gonad and he will always be lesser than a Red Wing; never forget 12/02/95, you Stanley Cup-winning chump!
- Did you know that, according to the Weather Channel, it will be 86 degrees and partly cloudy in Dallas, Texas, on the opening night of hockey season?? I’m deeply tempted to leave my comments at that for the Stars, but they’ve done enough to at least intrigue me over the summer. I don’t think they’re due for a significant push forward, nor a slump, but there’s potential for some impact with the summer acquisitions of skilled Cup-winners Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, and former Cup-winner Antii Niemi in goal. But each of those players is on the wrong side of thirty, and who knows how much is left in the tank. The Stars again play it cavalier with a thin defense, especially after losing one of their few NHL-ready defenders in Trevor Daley in the trade for Patrick Sharp. Under the guidance of their General Manager, former Detroit Red Wing head of scouting and all-around hockey savant, Jim Nill, the Stars strengthened their team through the middle last off-season, acquiring Jason Spezza as a formidable second-line pillar. The problem is that they neglected to carry six viable NHL defenders, and the team looked ghastly out of the back last year, allowing 257 goals, good for 4th-worst in the NHL. I don’t really see enough movement on this front to shift the terrain in any significant direction; the goaltending situation continues to compound the team’s defensive woes, now with two potentially over-the-hill Finnish keepers bringing great experience, but diminishing skills. Even the strong development of promising rookie D-man John Klingberg would be insufficient cover for such a porous defense. Yet, with the likes of Tyler Seguin and unlikely Art-Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn, the team have an elite duo of firebrand offensive talent atop solid cast of top-six forwards. The questions persist: can this Dallas team mature and take care of the puck in their own end? Does the combination of Kari Lehtonen and Niemi have enough in the tank to turn out wins with a shaky defense in front? Does the influx of former Chicago Blackhawk championship teammates create some sort of old-man spark? Can you see the ice around my enormous cowboy hat made of beef jerky?
Stay tuned to your favorite internet tube for part 3, coming soon!