Nelson: Central Division preview

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 220
Goals Against: 186
Powerplay: 17.6%
Penalty Kill: 83.4%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 52.4%
Save Percentage: .935
Corsi For Percentage: 53.6%

Strengths — Despite some major roster changes — Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen, Antti Raanta and Kris Versteeg are all gone — the Blackhawks remain a powerhouse. They’ve managed to retain most of their key pieces and have some high-ceiling young players like Teuvo Teravainen, Artemi Panarin, Marko Dano and Trevor van Riemsdyk looking to fill in the holes. The cap continues to be a source of trouble for the team, but the top end of their lineup stacks up against any team in the league at both ends of the ice.

Weaknesses — There are depth concerns and those will be exacerbated if the aforementioned young players don’t rise to the occasion. Teravainen is slated to start on the team’s top line, further depleting the scoring threat from their bottom six. They have stout defensive forwards on the third and fourth lines, like Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger, but they will need some depth pieces to over-perform in order to display the kind of roster depth that helped them hoist the Cup last year.

Biggest Question — In addition to the ongoing Kane debacle, there’s uncertainty in their third pairing of defensemen. Michal Roszival is starting the season on LTIR and it’s hard to say who is going to step up to take some of the pressure off of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The team hopes Trevor Daley (-9.1% CF%Rel with +2.1% ZSO%Rel last season) can help Niklas Hjalmarsson relieve some of the pressure. If it’s not Daley, the team is short on sure things. Kyle Cumisky, van Riemsdyk, David Rundblad and Ville Pokka round out that group.

VUKOTA projected finish: 2nd

Points: 96

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 239
Goals Against: 197
Powerplay: 22.3%
Penalty Kill: 83.7%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 53%
Save Percentage: .923
Corsi For Percentage: 51.7%

Strengths — For years the Blues have been a top team in the league, though they’ve been unable to get it done in the postseason. They’ve been without a bonafide superstar forward. They may have that now in Vladimir Tarasenko. He and Kevin Shattenkirk should also continue to make the St. Louis power play a serious threat. The team also boasts a very strong blue line that, if healthy, should help keep the Blues a strong possession team.

Weaknesses — The team returns largely the same team we saw last year, less TJ Oshie. The addition of Troy Brouwer and Kyle Brodziak provides some new veteran faces, but it doesn’t ensure that there is a lot of scoring outside of Alexander Steen’s line, which features Tarasenko on the wing. That puts a lot of pressure on the mid-level scorers like Jori Lehtera, David Backes, Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz to step up to the plate.

Biggest Question — Who is the starting goaltender? Despite assertions to the contrary, we don’t really know what is going to happen here. With a good defense in front of them, both Brain Elliott and Jake Allen have been adequate, but not the kind of goaltender who can lead the Blues to the Cup. Allen got the start in the postseason to the tune of a .904 Sv% through six games, one of which required Elliott to come in and relieve him. The Blues do their goaltenders a lot of favors, as one of the best teams in the NHL at suppressing shots in high-danger areas. With that in mind, the Blues’ goaltenders need to be better.

VUKOTA projected finish: 1st

Points: 97

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 226
Goals Against: 202
Powerplay: 16.2%
Penalty Kill: 80.8%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 53.1%
Save Percentage: .931
Corsi For Percentage: 52.8%

Strengths — Defense. The team’s .931 save percentage at even strength last is part Pekka Rinne and part what may be the best blue line in the NHL. Last year was a coming out party for this blue line, which, Shea Weber aside, is young and has the potential to be even better this season. There’s almost no team who is better at keep shots out of the home plate area in the NHL. Their success last season was not a fluke. They have four top notch defensemen who are 25 or younger.

Weaknesses — The forward group is full of great role guys, but the top end is aging and they are asking a lot if they think that Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Cody Hodgons of the world are going to be able to hold their weight against the incredibly deep forward groups in the Central. The bright spot is that Filip Forsberg looks ready for the limelight. They could have Nashville’s next top forward in him, but unless he steps into that role for real, it’s tough to see their forward group as complete enough to truly be a contender.

Biggest Question — Can the veteran forwards hold their weight? Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro are both 35. Paul Gaustad, who gets some of the worst zone starts in the NHL, is 33. They’re aging rapidly down the middle and if there is regression for any of them, it will effect the team’s forward depth in a big way.

VUKOTA projected finish: 94

Points: 5th

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 227
Goals Against: 198
Powerplay: 15.8%
Penalty Kill: 86.3%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 52.3%
Save Percentage: .918
Corsi For Percentage: 51%

Strengths — Team defense. Their blue line is highly underrated and the decision to break up Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin emphasizes that point. If Matt Dumba is able to continue what we saw toward the end of the season last year, they may have a big scoring threat on the blue line and lots of talented young players waiting in the wings with Mike Rielly and Gustav Olofsson biding their time in Iowa. Their offensive group lacks a top scorer and a number one center, but it’s a defensively stout group overall.

Weaknesses — Age is catching up with about half of this roster. Their five highest paid players are all over 30. Can the veterans still lead the team or does the next wave step up? One or the other has to happen. Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Suter cannot have a down year again. They’ll also need the continued growth of Nino Niederrieter, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund in order to be competitive.

Biggest Question — Dubnyk. They made a big commitment to the 6-foot-5 goaltender this summer, giving him a six-year deal. We all know that he isn’t the player who hit the lows of that infamous season where he finished as a black ace. But he may not be the goaltender of the extreme highs we saw last year either. Though he’s made style changes, like incorporating head trajectory, that may have him performing above career average, the Wild’s success depends on him.

VUKOTA projected finish: 6th

Points: 92

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 223
Goals Against: 204
Powerplay: 17.8%
Penalty Kill: 81.8%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 51.8%
Save Percentage: .928
Corsi For Percentage: 52.5%

Strengths — Balance. There’s a lot we need to see from the Jets still, but they’re a balanced team with some defensive and offensive depth. They have veterans who are known quantities and the potential for breakouts from young players like Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, Nic Petan and Nikolaj Ehlers. If they can get some speed and scoring from a guy like Ehlers, it’ll give them both a big physical game and a skill game that will be a big threat despite the lack of 30-goal scorer on the team.

Weaknesses — Their defense is without a number one defenseman. Byfuglien is an offensive threat, but it thins out quickly. Trouba could become a top defenseman, but it’s hard to use that as a case for their defense not being as thin as it looks. Without a top-scoring forward or a number one defenseman, it will be difficult to rise in a still deep Central Division.

Biggest Question — Is there a goalie in Winnipeg who is ready to take the reins? Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec split up the workload quite a bit last year and performed above expectations, but it’s far from certain that they will repeat their success. Pavelec’s .920 all situation Sv% and .930 even strength Sv% are easily the best marks of his career. At 28, is he finding his game or are those marks a deviation from the norm? It’s probably a deviation and that could set the team back.

VUKOTA projected finish: 7th

Points: 91

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 257
Goals Against: 257
Powerplay: 19%
Penalty Kill: 80.7%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 51.4%
Save Percentage: .909
Corsi For Percentage: 52.2%

Strengths — OFFENSE. The Stars’ offense is stacked. Led by Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who finished fourth in goals last season, they’ve also got veterans Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp, plus budding stars like Valeri Nichushkin and Mattas Janmark. There’s a solid supporting cast too with Cody Eakin, Ales Hemsky and Antoine Roussel capable of providing depth scoring. Their offense is lethal and their top power play unit could be vastly improved this season.

Weaknesses — The other side of that coin is that, despite the addition of Johnny Oduya and the removal of the declining Trevor Daley, it’s hard to know what Dallas has on the blue line. It’s not a group of stars (except for that their team name is the Stars, so it kind of is), but there’s a lot of promising young talent there with John Klingberg, Patrik Nemeth and Jyrki Jokipakka leading the way. But with four defensemen on the roster 24 or younger, none of them, outside of Klingberg, have proven themselves and it may put pressure on the team’s forward unit to make games a shootout.

Biggest Question — Will the $10 million goaltending experiment work? Arguably, if Dallas had a decent back-up netminder to relieve the struggling Kari Lehtonen last season, they may have made the playoffs. They were only a few wins away. With that in mind, they brought in Antti Niemi to battle Lehtonen for time. But the Stars’ goaltending problem is a defensive problem too. They don’t make things easy on their netminders and the preseason did nothing to alleviate fears that this experiment may fail. They finished only one preseason game with a save percentage above .900. The starter that game? Jack Campbell.

VUKOTA projected finish: 3rd

Points: 96

Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 209
Goals Against: 223
Powerplay: 15%
Penalty Kill: 84.6%

Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 45.3%
Save Percentage: .926
Corsi For Percentage: 43.2%

Strengths — This team has offensive potential in their top two lines that compares with any team in the division. Add a scoring threat like Tyson Barrie on the blue line and a system that encourages high-risk offense-first play and there’s always the potential that the Avalanche can win on any given night. They’ll need some players like Nathan MacKinnon to rebound, but they’ve got proven commodities like Matt Duchene, Jarome Iginla and Gabriel Landeskog in place and young players with high upside like Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Rantanen. The addition of late bloomer Carl Soderberg will also help their cause.

Weaknesses — Coach Patrick Roy’s system exposes the team’s defensive weaknesses. Soderberg may help shore up some center depth questions (though the loss of Ryan O’Reilly means that MacKinnon needs to make the center position stick likely), but the forward depth is problematic and their blue line is a colander for clean zone entries. Their 43.2% CF% was only better than the historically bad Buffalo Sabres last year and they didn’t do a whole lot to fix the problems that earned them that dubious honor.

Biggest Question — Is Erik Johnson a number one defenseman? Patrick Roy’s high risk, high-reward system exposes the teams biggest weaknesses. If Johnson can be a number one guy who is stalwart defensively, they may have a chance of being able to shut down opposing team’s top units. But their other pairings have big question marks. Does Francois Beauchemin have anything left in the tank? Can Nikita Zadorov become an effective defender on a better team? No matter what the answer is, Johnson is the team’s best hope to not be in the cellar defensively once again.

VUKOTA projected finish: 4th

Points: 95

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