October 02, 2014

CENTRAL DIVISION

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

LAST SEASON: 46-21-15, 107 points. Finished third in Central Division, lost to Los Angeles Kings in Western Conference final.

COACH: Joel Quenneville, 7th season with the Blackhawks, 268-127-59; 18th in the NHL, 706-410-77-100.

ADDED: C Brad Richards, G Michael Leighton.

LOST: LW Brandon Bollig, D Sheldon Brookbank.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Brandon Saad. The talented winger was terrific in the final part of the playoff series against the Kings, collecting three goals and four assists in the last four games. Playing on a line with Patrick Kane and newcomer Brad Richards, he could do even better than his career highs of 19 goals and 28 assists from last season.

OUTLOOK: It's Stanley Cup or bust for the loaded Blackhawks, who have no glaring weaknesses. They should be among the league's highest-scoring teams again this season, and Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith leads a solid group of defensemen. The Central could be hockey's toughest division, but the Blackhawks are a legitimate threat for their third NHL title in the last six seasons.

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COLORADO AVALANCHE

LAST SEASON: 52-22-8, 112 points. Won the Central Division. Lost to Minnesota 4-3 in first round of playoffs.

COACH: Patrick Roy, 2nd season with Colorado, 52-22-8; 2nd overall in NHL.

ADDED: RW Jarome Iginla, D Brad Stuart, C Daniel Briere, C Jesse Winchester.

LOST: RW P.A. Parenteau, F Paul Stastny, G Jean-Sebastien Giguere, D Andre Benoit, D Cory Sarich.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Nathan MacKinnon. As hard as this may be to believe, the speedy 19-year-old may have even gotten faster in the offseason working out with the likes of Matt Duchene and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. MacKinnon was the league's rookie of the year in 2013-14 after scoring 24 goals and dishing out 39 assists. Roy isn't concerned with a sophomore jinx with MacKinnon, saying, ''I think Nate's going to do a very good job this year despite the way people think about a second-year player.''

OUTLOOK: The Avalanche surprised the hockey world by winning the Central Division in Roy's first season. Now, Roy's eager to see his squad take the next step, which is to go even deeper into the postseason. The team added more veteran leadership by signing Iginla, along with trading for Briere and Stuart. They also have Alex Tanguay back after he missed most of the season with knee and hip injuries. Colorado boasts two formidable lines that will include some combination of Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, captain Gabe Landeskog, Iginla, Tanguay and MacKinnon. Roy is still tinkering to find the best pairings.

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DALLAS STARS

LAST SEASON: 40-31-11, 91 points, 5th Central Division. Made Western Conference playoffs as wild card, lost first-round playoff series in six games to top-seeded Anaheim.

COACH: Lindy Ruff, 2nd season with Stars, 40-31-11; 17th season overall in NHL, was 571-432-162 in Buffalo.

ADDED: C Jason Spezza, RW Ales Hemsky; G Anders Lindback, RW Patrick Eaves.

LOST: RW Alex Chiasson, D Aaron Rome, LW Ray Whitney.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Jamie Benn. In his first season as the Stars captain, the 25-year-old Canadian ranked eighth in the NHL with 79 points and ninth with 34 goals. Both were career highs, as was his plus-21 rating. Benn has increasingly accepted his role as a leader on a team filled with plenty of 20-something players, and is part of a dynamic scoring line with Tyler Seguin.

OUTLOOK: With the experience of a hard-fought first-round series in their first season under veteran Ruff, the Stars expect to do more than just make the playoffs this time around. That is a reasonable goal with their added scoring punch. With Benn and Seguin on the front line, the Stars will have another line with 31-year-old former Ottawa teammates Spezza and Hemsky likely together.

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MINNESOTA WILD

LAST SEASON: 43-27-12, 98 points. Lost to Chicago 4-2 in Western Conference semifinals after beating Colorado 4-3 in first round.

COACH: Mike Yeo, fourth season, 104-82-26.

ADDED: LW Thomas Vanek, LW Brett Sutter, D Justin Falk, D Stu Bickel.

LOST: RW Dany Heatley, LW Matt Moulson, D Clayton Stoner, C Cody McCormick, LW Mike Rupp.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Vanek signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild after spending his first nine NHL seasons in the Eastern Conference, primarily with Buffalo. Vanek will be counted on for a scoring boost for a team that tied for 24th in the NHL in goals per game, but with Zach Parise and former Sabres teammate Jason Pominville among the top six forwards the onus is not all on him.

OUTLOOK: After advancing past the first round for only the second time in franchise history with a dramatic upset of the Central Division champion Avalanche, the Wild are on track for more with the addition of Vanek and the development of young forwards Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter. The goalie situation is the biggest concern, with Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper returning as the top two after an injury-laden season at the position that forced the Wild to give four different players 19 starts or more in the net.

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NASHVILLE PREDATORS

LAST SEASON: 38-32-12, 88 points. Missed the playoffs by finishing 10th in the Western Conference.

COACH: Peter Laviolette, 1st season with Predators, 389-282-25-63 overall.

ADDED: F James Neal, F Olli Jokinen, F Mike Ribeiro, F Derek Roy.

LOST: Coach Barry Trotz, goaltenders coach Mitch Korn, F Patric Hornqvist, F Nick Spaling.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Pekka Rinne. Even with Ribeiro needing to prove his personal issues have been handled, Rinne is the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who anchors Nashville's defense. He only played 24 games last season after an infection in his surgically-repaired hip needed more surgery, keeping him on crutches for weeks. Rinne went 3-0-1 in his final four games and was the MVP of the World Championships.

OUTLOOK: The Predators missed the playoffs by three points with Rinne missing much of last season. Laviolette is expected to boost the Predators' offense and take advantage of the experienced forwards added during the offseason, and general manager David Poile has made it clear they must reach the playoffs.

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ST. LOUIS BLUES

LAST SEASON: 52-23-7, 111 points. Tied for third overall in Western Conference, lost in first round to Chicago.

COACH: Ken Hitchcock, third full season with Blues. 124-55-20. 657-405-178 overall in 18 seasons, seventh on career win list.

ADDED: C Paul Stastny, C Jori Lehtera, D Carl Gunnarsson, C Colin Fraser, F Robby Fabbri.

LOST: G Ryan Miller, D Roman Polak, F Vladimir Sobotka, F Brenden Morrow.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Jaden Schwartz. Signing Stastny in free agency creates open ice for everyone else. Schwartz led team at plus-28 last season and scored 25 goals.

OUTLOOK: They've been among the NHL's best regular-season teams the last few seasons, and one of the stingiest, too. Last season they allowed the third-fewest goals, plus defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are highly productive joining the rush. They appear to have enough firepower to contend for an ever-elusive first Stanley Cup, although as usual there's plenty of competition at the top of the Western Conference.

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WINNIPEG JETS

LAST SEASON: 37-35-10, 84 points; finished 11th in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs.

COACH: Paul Maurice, second season with the Jets, 478-469-99-73 overall.

ADDED: C Mathieu Perreault.

LOST: C Olli Jokinen, G Al Montoya.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Evander Kane: The 23-year old is entering his sixth NHL season, all with the Thrashers/Jets franchise. But the question surrounding Kane isn't where he'll start the season. Rather it's where he'll finish. Kane's name has been linked in trade rumors, leading the left winger to tell a Vancouver radio station in July he will operate under the assumption he is ''a Winnipeg Jet.''

OUTLOOK: The Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise has not qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since the 2006-07 season. That probably won't change in 2014-15.

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