Who will win the Central Division in 2015?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

7. Nashville

  • 38-32-12, 88 points, 6th in the Central
  • -23 goal differential,-7.62 Rob Vollman Luck Score (RVLS in short) (4th unluckiest)
  • 28.6 Even Strength SF60 (20th), 28.6 Even Strength SA60 (15th)
  • 48.5% Corsi (23rd), 53.1% FO (1st), 989 PDO (25th)
  • 19.2% PP (11th), 80.2% PK (25th), +1 penalty differential

As much as Nashville brought in some interesting veterans in the offseason, not a single one is under 31 years old and is dealing with rapid decline in productivity. Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy will bring center line depth, but I just don’t know how good that will be when competing in such a difficult division the majority of the season. These were expectations before Mike Fisher was lost until as late as January to a ruptured achilles. James Neal is a major acquisition to the forward group, but critics wonder how good he would be without having one of the best centers in the world on his line. Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg will also start the season on injured reserve. Younger players like Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg will be pressured to produce big numbers for Nashville to be competitive. What will be interesting will be the direction GM David Poile goes with his forward lines long term as not even half of the group have contracts that go beyond this season.

On defense, dependability is certainly there and they didn’t need to sign the oft-injured yet effective shot blocker Anton Volchenkov to prove that. Shea Weber is easily one of the most well-rounded defenders in hockey, while Seth Jones is still regarded as one of the best teenage blueliners. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm round out a very impressive group and Pekka Rinne could return to form if he avoids the injury bug he has been dealt with the last couple of seasons. If there was enough top tier scoring and a legitimate fourth line, Nashville would be a playoff team, but instead they are the worst team in the toughest division in hockey.

6. Winnipeg

  • 37-35-10, 84 points, 7th in the Central
  • -10 goal differential, -3.92 RVLS (10th unluckiest)
  • 30.1 Even Strength SF60 (8th), 29.5 Even Strength SA60 (20th)
  • 50.1% Corsi (16th), 46.9% FO (28th), 994 PDO (22nd)
  • 15.4% PP (25th), 83.2% PK (10th), -32 penalty differential

Like Nashville, there are talented players on the Winnipeg Jets roster, but not enough to shape perfect line combinations and pairings that a playoff team requires. To make things worse, the lack of star goaltending will make an already shaky defense even worse off. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did acquire Peter Budaj from Montreal in exchange for Patrick Holland and Eric Tangradi, but Budaj was sent down to their AHL affiliate days later. Now they are stuck with Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec. No longer will Dustin Byfuglien be playing on the back end under head coach Paul Maurice and pressure will mount on solid two-way player Tobias Enstrom. If anything, it will be interesting to see if 20-year old Jacob Trouba becomes the team’s best defenseman long-term, while Zach Bogosian and Grant Clitsome round out the top four. The remainder of this group is too mediocre (Adam Pardy, Paul Postma) or overpaid (Mark Stuart) to compete with anyone in the Central Division.

Up front is where all the fun of this team is occurring. Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler form one of the most underrated top lines in the NHL and the second line of Evander Kane, Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik could be an interesting one. Once you pass new signing Mathieu Perreault is where the depth of this forward group falls off an absolute cliff. Byfuglien should contribute, but we don’t know how much he will since his days with the Chicago Blackhawks and that was four years ago. As far as I am concerned, Winnipeg always seems to be a team that doesn’t do anything to make their roster better and feels almost like the Carolina Hurricanes of the Western Conference.

5. Colorado

  • 52-22-8, 112 points, 1st in the Central
  • +30 goal differential, 14.05 RVLS (Luckiest)
  • 28.5 Even Strength SF60 (21st), 31.2 Even Strength SA60 (25th)
  • 47.0% Corsi (25th), 49.5% FO (18th), 1018 PDO (3rd)
  • 19.8% PP (5th), 80.7% PK (24th), +3 penalty differential

Was there ever a more lucky team in recent memory than last year’s Colorado Avalanche? If you were to use the expected standings points methodology used by Rob Vollman in his first Hockey Abstract, last year’s Avalanche outperformed their expectations more than any team in NHL history with 40 xPts. While the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart and Daniel Briere will keep this team competitive, out are stalwarts Paul Stastny and P.A. Parenteau, along with Cory Sarich and Andre Benoit.

Nathan Mackinnon should be okay with the additional burden as the team’s top center thanks to being only the third 18-year old to make the top 50 in points since the most recent NHL expansion in 2001 (Jeff Skinner and Sidney Crosby are the other two). Gabriel Landeskog took a major step in his development and his leadership last year while Matt Duchene has turned into one of the most fun players to watch in hockey. Having Alex Tanguay fully healthy should be an improvement for the team’s depth scoring, but one has to wonder how long can Iginla and Briere produce. The depth falls apart for this team once you get out of the top six, even though John Mitchell has the pedigree to be a solid bottom six center come playoff time. It’s too bad to see him, along with Patrick Bordeleau and Marc Andre Cliche on injured reserve to start the year. Now the world could be introduced to Dennis Everberg, who scored 34 points in 47 games with Rogle in the Swedish Second Division last year.

On the back end, things could get dicey. Despite having Tyson Barrie, who had a huge season last year to put him in the discussion as best young defenseman, Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda receive too many minutes for the Avalanche. One is mediocre since setting foot on an NHL ice surface and the other will be entering his age-36 season. Brad Stuart should help mitigate the loss of the underrated-Benoit, but Ryan Wilson better stay healthy if Colorado wants to upgrade from Zach Redmond, Nate Guenin and Nick Holden. In goal, Semyon Varlamov is finally producing at the level he was expected when becoming a starting goaltender for Washington more than five years ago. If only he made better decisions last Halloween. Can the luck gods ravage this team or will the under-23 stars of the Avalanche carry them to bigger and better heights?

4. Minnesota

  • 43-27-12, 98 points, 4th in the Central
  • +1 goal differential, 3.68 RVLS (8th luckiest)
  • 25.6 Even Strength SF60 (29th), 26.3 Even Strength SA60 (5th)
  • 48.6% Corsi (22nd), 50.9% FO (13th), 1010 PDO (5th)
  • 17.9% PP (16th), 78.8% PK (27th), +2 penalty differential

Despite having really poor possession numbers and a consistently poor offense under head coach Mike Yeo, the Minnesota Wild took advantage of their first round matchup with luck-filled Colorado and advanced further into the playoffs than they did in 2013. To help get passed their scoring woes, they brought in Thomas Vanek on a three year, $19.5 million deal to put an end to the most predictable speculation in recent NHL history. Having Vanek will add depth to a top six that could be one of the most underrated in hockey. Mikael Granlund should breakout this season and could even get top line minutes this year. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu bring a two-way game so potent that it makes New Jersey jealous that both are not on their team, while Jason Pominville is one of the most underrated forwards of his generation and is still producing at a high level while getting into his 30s. The question will be whether Charlie Coyle can get into the act and produce solid numbers as well, along with facing the toughest opponents every night. The bottom six is where I have issues. Nino Niederreiter is the only bright spot in a group that almost every single one of them plays a poor possession game or gets shellacked when facing tough competition. Erik Haula was a great story during the playoffs, but he was completely sheltered in his first year in NHL competition.

In defense, Ryan Suter leads the charge as always while Jonas Brodin felt a few growing pains in his second full NHL season. It’s the second pairing that makes this blue line stupendous as Marco Scandella and Jarred Spurgeon put out the best possession numbers (52.5% when together) on the back end last season. Keith Ballard returns being his usual overpaid and mediocre self, but he could be partnering with a fascinating prospect this season in either Christian Frolin or Matt Dumba. In goal, Darcy Kuemper will be counted on to make key stops when the defense makes a rarefied mistake. If the offense can produce, the Wild should get back into the playoffs, but their bottom six desperately needs upgrades if they even want to make it back into the second round.

3. Dallas

  • 40-31-11, 91 points, 5th in the Central
  • +7 goal differential, -4.98 RVLS (8th unluckiest)
  • 30.0 Even Strength SF60 (9th), 29.1 Even Strength SA60 (16th)
  • 50.5% Corsi (14th), 50.1% FO (15th), 1002 PDO (12th)
  • 15.9% PP (23rd), 81.4% PK (21st), +27 penalty differential

Dallas Post

One thing I mentioned in my Dallas piece is how head coach Lindy Ruff will have to put their defensemen in the best possible line combinations and it is not off to a great start. Yes, Sergei Gonchar is out for close to a month with an ankle injury, so Patrick Nemeth will come into the lineup, but Kevin Connauton is still playing third pairing D while Jamie Oleksiak is nowhere to be found. Also, Trevor Daley is partnering Alex Goligoski again while Ruff isn’t seeing that Goligoski and Brendan Dillon were a solid partnership last season.

Also, Erik Cole also sustained an undisclosed injury that will force Patrick Eaves (of all people!!!) into the second line with Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. I seriously hope these are not long term solutions, otherwise I will be really regretting putting Dallas so high in my rankings.

2. Chicago

  • 46-21-15, 107 points, 3rd in the Central
  • +47 goal differential, -2.01 RVLS
  • 32.5 Even Strength SF60 (3rd), 26.1 Even Strength SA60 (4th)
  • 55.5% Corsi (2nd), 52.0% FO (5th), 999 PDO (17th)
  • 19.5% PP (10th), 81.4% PK (19th), +9 penalty differential

Chicago Post

So Chicago found a way to get below the salary cap by trading away Nick Leddy and seeing if 20-year old prospect Ville Pokka can join the blue line in the long term. For now, the Blackhawks will resort to the legendary David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey and Trevor Van Riemsdyk. Michal Roszival seems to be a healthy scratch these days and that is not a good sign considering how long in the tooth he is. Van Riemsdyk is interesting in that he signed last March as a college free agent from New Hampshire putting up 16 goals and 75 points in 102 career NCAA games. Kris Versteeg really should have been the piece traded all along, but his lower body injury did not help matters and he is expected to be out for a month.

1. St. Louis

  • 52-23-7, 111 points, 2nd in the Central
  • +57 goal differential, 12.59 RVLS (2nd luckiest)
  • 28.9 Even Strength SF60 (17th), 25.6 Even Strength SA60 (3rd)
  • 53.1% Corsi (6th), 51.9% FO (7th), 1007 PDO (7th)
  • 19.8% PP (7th), 85.7% PK (2nd), -10 penalty differential

St. Louis Post

Even if this Blues team is deep as heck, there is enough tension amongst the Blues fans as to whether or not the Roman Polak-Carl Gunnarsson trade worked in their favor. Already Gunnarsson is out for one more week while recovering from offseason hip surgery, but if things don’t play out correctly, Blues fans will feel that they simply lost a piece to a blue line that, while stacked, could do better on their third pairing; especially in a division such as the Central.

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