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How the Blackhawks’ division rivals changed over the summer

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The Hawks again have the league’s most intimidating gauntlet to overcome in the Central.

NHL: Preseason-Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As the Chicago Blackhawks deal with another salary cap crunch, their rivals in the Central Division only grow. Three games against divisional opponents in the Blues and Predators on the docket to start the season will offer a small taste of expectations.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the division changed over the offseason:

Nashville Predators

Primary moves: Traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban

After trading Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen in January, who could have predicted general manager David Poile had more wizardry looming.

If the Jones-Johansen trade was a blockbuster, then there’s no adjective for the Predators prying P.K. Subban — a true superstar in his prime — from the Montreal Canadiens. In the process, Nashville GM David Poile rid himself of an albatross contract in Shea Weber, who has 10 years left on his deal and was becoming a weighing problem. While Weber was a beloved captain, he’s in decline and no longer one of the game’s elite at age 31. To his credit, Poile had no qualms about greatly improving his team, loyalty not withstanding.

Until further notice, this is the best Central team. They’re now one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup. No one can throw out the caliber of four lines and defensive pairs the Predators possess. A top six that features Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and James Neal among others will create magic. A group rounded out by Craig Smith and Calle Jarnkrok is nothing to sneeze at.

Where the Predators are especially terrifying now is defensively. No one else has four possible No. 1 defensemen in Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. However you divide them up, all can drive play with the best of them.

All hopes disappear if goalie Pekka Rinne doesn’t pick it up, though. The 33-year-old had the second-worst save percentage of his career last season and appears to be declining. Hip injuries and heavy usage have come to a crescendo. He’s not going to see much work given his defense’s caliber, and that makes him most likely to be the potential scapegoat.

Dallas Stars

Primary moves: Signed Dan Hamhuis and Jiri Hudler

Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are legitimate superstars who can almost clinch you a playoff berth on their own. Jiri Hudler, Patrick Sharp, and others will hum away as snipers in their mid-30s. But Dallas didn’t improve upon their weaknesses.

When it comes to the goalies, they’re known commodities. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen had mediocre .906 and .905 save percentages respectively last season. Both are in their early 30s. They’re not going to change and the Stars have too much money tied up to let either go early. Whoever is in net is going to allow a lot of goals and often. Dallas can improve here if it trades for a veteran like Ben Bishop or Marc Andre-Fleury, but that conversation comes later.

The defense has hope, but there’s mileage of concern. Dan Hamhuis helps buoy the third pair, but he’s hardly going to be a true difference maker at 33 years old. The 35-year-old Johnny Oduya has played a lot of hockey in the past four seasons due to his Blackhawks tenure and struggled at intermittent points last year. A continued decline is almost a foregone conclusion.

Yet, if the young guys in John Klingberg and Stephen Johns continue to develop, it might not matter. Klingberg is already one of the NHL’s top blue liners. Let’s not forget star defensive prospect Julius Honka waiting in the wings. This trio represents a litany of possibilities to help the Stars contend.

Though, everything else still might weigh them down.

St. Louis Blues

Primary moves: Traded Brian Elliott, acquired Nail Yakupov

Evidently, St. Louis thought it could live without a high-level goalie when it traded Brian Elliot to the Calgary Flames on draft night in June.

Now, they’ve saddled themselves with Jake Allen again, a goalie who they’ve shown no abject confidence in before, and someone who fades every time the postseason begins. The Blues can sell themselves on Allen all they want, but he’s not better than Elliott. Don’t be surprised if you see new backup Carter Hutton starting often come February.

There’s balance, though.

Vladimir Tarasenko is going for 40-plus goals again. Robby Fabbri looks like a young star. Any time you tie with Tarasenko for the team lead in playoff points at 15, you’re going to open eyes. Jori Lehtera and Patrik Berglund form solid center depth. And Alex Steen quietly remains one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Even the newly acquired project, Nail Yakupov, could turn into a terrific investment provided he’s deployed with guys who can cover defensively.

On the backend, Colton Parayko is a possession machine after being the best man on the blue line last spring. Others, like Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, will still control play. There were discussions of trading Shattenkirk, but the Blues seem to have come to their senses, for now.

With most of the skaters unchanged save for the loss of former captain David Backes (this might be a positive), giving Elliott away might be the one death knell for this team in the spring. Well, that and only having one true game-breaking talent in Tarasenko, unless Fabbri explodes quickly.

Minnesota Wild

Primary moves: Signed Eric Staal, hired Bruce Boudreau

Of all Central teams, the Wild are mired the most in no-man’s land.

Yes, hiring Bruce Boudreau as your head coach points the franchise in the right direction, but this roster didn’t improve much sans Eric Staal. Plus, this franchise’s main issue has been playoff success not churning out a quality regular season. Boudreau has done plenty of the latter and not much of the former in his previous stops.

Anyways, your best forward, Zach Parise, could have lingering back problems. Mikael Granlund is the player who has never emerged. Charlie Coyle enjoyed a nice 2015-16 season but is out of place on a top line. The rest of the forwards like Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu, etc., just leave an even blander taste in your mouth. Don’t expect Staal to be a cure-all.

That reflects on the defense with Ryan Suter and whoever else as well.

This team will hang it’s hat on overworking it’s entrenched goalie, Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk started 73 of Minnesota’s 88 games (including playoffs) last season. The year before that, when it acquired him from Edmonton, he started 51 consecutive games (including playoffs) from January on. The Wild would do well to have Dubnyk drop into the 50s or risk ruining him. He’s the only shot of carrying this just above-average roster to April.

Colorado Avalanche

Primary moves: Hiring of Jared Bednar

It was a toss-up between the bottom two but Colorado gets the edge for having a better goalie in Semyon Varlamov. Former coach Patrick Roy also won’t hold back the terrifying set of forwards anymore.

Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog can all set the ice on fire. Watching Duchene play is like poetry in motion. There aren’t many that can glide like he does from end-to-end. Jarome Iginla is also chugging along, still casually scoring 20 goals at 39 years old.

All in all, the Avalanche are fast and have a goalie who outright steals games ever so often. They’re always game to frustrate the top dogs. Jared Bednar — a quality head coach with a resume — also gives Colorado focus. A dangerous sentiment for contenders.

Winnipeg Jets

Primary moves: Drafted Patrik Laine, demoted Ondrej Pavelec, made Jacob Trouba angry

The Jets, a team of bright spots and not much else.

Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall pick, has the total package. Some thought he should be considered for the top pick over Toronto’s savior in Auston Matthews.

The Jets could pair the left wing Laine with 23-year-old center, Mark Scheifele, forming a dynamic duo. Blake Wheeler is basically the Max Pacioretty of the West, meaning he turns the ice towards his team every shift. Add in Mathieu Perreault, Bryan Little etc., and there’s a solid youth-veteran mix.

They’ll be better at goalie too, after waiving the maligned Ondrej Pavelec, as Connor Hellebuyck steps in.

Defensively, though, this team can’t trade Jacob Trouba. They need him to build around beyond the veteran top pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom. While poised for respectability, if this team is to contend, they need more on defense. It’s hard to see how that happens without Trouba.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Second City Hockey and Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.