Previewing the Field: Central Division edition

The Blackhawks might be the Central Division favorite this year, but a talented group of teams won't make things easy for Chicago.

SB Nation 2014 NHL Preview

(As part of our season preview here at Second City Hockey, we're going to briefly break down the 29 other NHL teams and the challenges they could pose to the Blackhawks in 2014-15. For more detailed previews on these franchises, check out their respective SBN team blogs and the big, fancy SB Nation NHL preview. Today, we start with the Central Division.)

Projected standings

1. Chicago Blackhawks (DUH)
2. St. Louis Blues
3. Dallas Stars
4. Minnesota Wild
5. Nashville Predators
6. Colorado Avalanche
7. Winnipeg Jets

What changed over the summer?

The Blackhawks remain the best team in the Central Division, but the field is improved after a busy offseason. Other than the Avalanche, who are generally expected to take a step back after a lucky 2013-14 and some questionable offseason moves, the rest of the competition looks stiffer entering next season.

The Blues and Stars, in particular, appear improved after major additions up the middle. The inter-division move of Paul Stastny to St. Louis is a major shakeup, and Dallas should be able to rack up goals like nobody's business after adding Jason Spezza and a year experience to its core group. While nobody is elevating these teams above Chicago yet, the gap has seemingly decreased.

Minnesota, Nashville and Winnipeg could be potentially improved next season, as well. The Wild still need to find stability in goal, but after adding Thomas Vanek, an already solid team could pose some new problems in 2014-15. A bounceback year from Pekka Rinne could make the Predators dangerous, especially after adding offensive talent like James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy. And then there's Winnipeg, which seems destined for last place but also boasts several talented players.

3 Questions

1. Could the Hawks finish third again?
Yes. Absolutely. Chicago may be the best team in the Central Division entering the season, but there are definitely scenarios where the Hawks finish second or worse. After all, the team finished third behind Colorado and St. Louis in the standings last season, even if the postseason eventually disproved any notion of those teams being on par with Chicago. On paper, the Blackhawks remain top dog, but there's enough chaos during an 82-game slate to consider the possibility of multiple teams leapfrogging them again.

2. Will Colorado be as bad as everyone seems to think?

There are a lot of reasons to bail on the Avalanche before next season, from the unsustainable brilliance of Semyon Varlamov to the questionable Parenteau-Briere offseason trade. Losing your top center, Stastny, hurts, too. As Evan Sporer wrote for SBN, "It would have been difficult for Colorado to repeat the kind of season it had before making several offseason blunders." The Avalanche may not be the borderline disaster that some are predicting, but it's almost a certainty that they take a step back, and that's good news for the rest of the division.

3. Could Dallas have the division's best offense?

The Blackhawks, all things considered, are something of an offensive juggernaut. The team nearly led the league in goals scored last season, and even with a less-than-dominant power play, projects to be similarly daunting on that end again in 2014-15. The Stars, however, could give the Hawks a run for their money as top offense in the division. Already a solid scoring unit last season, Dallas should be able to take another leap after adding Spezza and getting more experience for its young players. An offensive core of Spezza, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin, Erik Cole, Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel is certainly nothing to shrug at. I'm expecting some crazy, 6-5 games between those two teams.