If anyone was on the fence about the potency of the Central Division entering the 2015-16 NHL season, the first week of the season was a compelling argument to its strength. Time for those people to dismount said fence into the camp ready to enjoy seven teams duking it out in the best division in sports for the next twenty-six weeks.

Through the first week of the season, the Central has blitzed the rest of the NHL to the tune of a 12-2 record against opponents outside the division. Only the Colorado Avalanche, who split their first two games of the season within the division, are not currently sporting a winning record. So it begins…

Last year, the Avs crossed the finish line as the Central Station caboose, yet still amassed 90 points in the standings. The tracks seem poised to be just as treacherous this season, and it would come as a major shock to me personally if this division isn’t represented by five teams in the playoffs.

It will be a tough grind to earn the right grow a beard this spring. Let’s take an early look at how teams stack up so far, in the debut of BSN Denver’s Central Division Power Rankings.


1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Nashvil

Current Record: 3-0-0 (6 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Pekka Rinne — stopped 80/82 shots faced while backstopping all three Predator victories.

Last Week’s Results: 2-1 W vs. CAR, 2-0 W vs. EDM, 3-1 W @ NJD

What’s the story?

Armed with one of the top defensive cores in the entire NHL, and a goaltender primed to be a Vezina Finalist this season, the Predators look like the early favorite to take home the division crown. Nashville has always been known to play a tight defensive system, and this season’s defensive core may be the best the hockey club in the Music City has ever deployed. They certainly have strut their stuff thus far, giving up a measly pair of goals through their first three games.

Nashville isn’t rich on big names at the forward position, but that does not mean they are lacking in offensive talent. Last season’s leading scorer, Filip Forsberg, will look to improve on his 26 goal and 63 point campaign. The real strength of Nashville, is that their forwards aren’t in the fight alone to generate offense. Last season, the defense contributed an impressive 193 points toward the offensive cause, and four of Nashville’s top-ten scorers came from the blueline.

If there is a weakness to be found in Nashville, it’s the lack of a true number one center. Despite that glaring hole, the strength on the backend and overall team depth looks like a recipe the Predators can use while feasting on competition this season.


2. WINNIPEG JETSWPG Jets LOGO

Current Record: 3-1-0 (6 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Blake Wheeler — 2G, 3A, four-game point streak to open season.

Last Week’s Results: 6-2 W @ BOS, 3-1 W @ NJD, 2-4 L @ NYI, 4-1 W @ NYR

What’s the story?

An early opportunity to cash in some frequent flier miles led to the Jets cashing in three victories on their season opening four-game road trip. Everyone and their mother can beat Boston right now, and the Devils aren’t exactly an imposing opponent these days, but a 4-1 smackdown of last year’s Eastern Conference finalist, the New York Rangers, added some credibility to their impressive roadie.

Winnipeg has quietly assembled a roster with scoring threats up and down the lineup, and an unheralded defensive core that is sure to start turning some heads this season. The Jets were middle of the road in scoring last season, at 2.72 goals per game, but have the engines roaring so far this season with 15 goals through four games. Slick sticked 19-year old Dane, Nikolaj Ehlers, could be the final ingredient required to turn this into a top offensive club in the NHL. Especially now that Mark Sheifele and Alexander Burmistrov have another year of seasoning under their belts.

On defense, Jacob Trouba is one of the best young blueliners in the NHL. If you have friends who are casual hockey fans, start hyping up Trouba, because he isn’t going to be unheralded on the national scene for too much longer. This is your chance to look like a savant! Tyler Myers is the most intriguing piece on the backend in Winnipeg. Since beating out Matt Duchene for the Calder Trophy in his rookie season, Myers has struggled to live up the hype and take his game to the next level, which is why Buffalo was willing to part ways the 6-foot-8 defenseman last season. Given Erik Johnson‘s ascent to the elite stratosphere recently, Avalanche fans are familiar what a change of scenery can do for a player.

The Jets are a testament to what smart drafting and solid player development can do for an NHL organization, and whether the Central Division likes it or not, they have emerged as big players at the poker table this season.


3. ST. LOUIS BLUESSTL Blues LOGO

Current Record: 2-1-0 (4 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Vladimir Tarasenko — 2G, 2A, four-game point streak to open season.

Last Week’s Results: 3-1 W vs. EDM, 2-3 L @ MIN, 4-3 W @ CGY

What’s the story?

The defending Central Division champions come in at a respectable number three in the rankings. They have been this division’s toughest regular season team over the past two years, and get a respect nod in the debut power rankings for that reason, although I personally think the competition has gotten stronger around them. Nashville and company will make it very difficult for the Blues to defend their crown.

A steady first week of the season saw the Blues pick up four out of a possible six points, paced by the scoring prowess of their Russian superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko. Although St. Louis fell short in Minnesota, the home opener for the Wild, the Blues played a strong game and won the shot battle 32-19. Despite their lack of playoff success, this Blues team is still deep and capable of putting up another 100-plus point season, and should be a safe bet to reach the playoffs.

Once the playoffs do begin is when St. Louis will try to sing a different tune… a tune besides the Blues, perhaps. Maybe it’s just their nature to have melancholy results in the playoffs, and saxophone it in when their season is on the line.

It appears that Jake Allen and Brian Elliott will tag team the goaltending duties this season. Ken Hitchcock is sure to ride the hot hand, but I do not have an abundance of confidence that either of these guys are much more than lukewarm options.


4. MINNESOTA WILD

MIN Wild LOGO

Current Record: 2-0-0 (4 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Zach Parise — 4G, opening night hat trick.

Last Week’s Results: 5-4 W @ COL, 3-2 W vs. STL

What’s the story?

Avalanche fans won’t want to relive the juicy climax of the plot of the Wild’s first week of the season. Minnesota looked dead in the water in Denver on opening night, but on the back of Zach Parise’s hat-trick heroics, the Wild erased a 4-1 third period deficit to send the hometown fans home with their tails between their legs.

Parise and Ryan Suter will be forever linked, since they signed matching 13-year $98M dollar contracts to come to Minnesota in 2012. While the duo has helped the Wild reach the playoffs in three straight seasons, a deep postseason run hasn’t yet come to fruition. More specifically, a formula to get past the Chicago Blackhawks hasn’t yet been concocted — which is nothing to be ashamed of… 28 other teams have their top scientists trying to crack the Blackhawks’ code. The Hawks have dumped the Wild from the playoffs for three consecutive years.

Depth pieces such as Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund are starting to come into their own, and the blueline has up-and-comers Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin emerging as potential stalwarts in the top-four going forward. The Wild have a good mix of veterans and youth, and should be hungry to prove they are more than cannon fodder for the truly elite teams in the NHL.

I have just one question, Minnesota: Will the real Devan Dubnyk please stand up? If he performs at a level, even close to how he played down the stretch last season, the Wild are in good shape. If he regresses into the player he has looked during shaky stretches in his career, the Wild are in trouble.


5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKSCHI Blackhawks LOGO

Current Record: 2-1-0 (4 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Patrick Kane — 3G, 3A.

Last Week’s Results: 2-3 L vs. NYR, 3-2 W(OT) @ NYI, 4-1 W vs. NYI

What’s the story?

The big story out of Chicago early this season, is that Patrick Kane is on the ice for the Blackhawks. I’m not touching that can of worms, other than saying that is the way it is right now. His importance to the Blackhawks franchise while on the ice was on full display through the first week of the season, as he fueled the offense in both of Chicago’s victories, including a 3-on-3 overtime goal to cinch the win over the Islanders.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not sold on Chicago this season. This team has played a lot of hockey over the past half-decade, lost some key pieces this offseason, and maybe… just maybe… will have a little karma working against them this season.

While Stan Bowman did a solid job retooling his team this offseason, I just have a hunch there will be a rough patch this season which will turn the Hawks into a team on the playoff bubble. It will be up to the rest of the division to capitalize (looking at you Colorado).

Keep an eye on Russian winger Artemi Panarin. An import from the KHL, Panarin ranked fifth in the league in scoring for the season while playing with SKA St. Petersburg, with 26 goals and 62 points in 54 games. Through his first three NHL games, he has racked up a pair of goals and four points.


6. COLORADO AVALANCHECOL Avalanche LOGO

Current Record: 1-1-0 (2 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Gabriel Landeskog — 3G, 2A.

Last Week’s Results: 4-5 L vs. MIN, 6-3 W vs. DAL

What’s the story?

The Avalanche’s first two games gave us a glimpse of two personalities with potential to define this team. Against Minnesota, the Avalanche stormed out to a 3-0 lead in the first period, before eventually squandering a 4-1 advantage with 15 minutes left to play. Two nights later, it was Dallas who jumped out to the 3-1 lead over the Avalanche — gut check time for the Avs. Colorado responded with a rally and three-goal third period to even their record.

What’s the take home? This team has the offensive firepower to put up goals in bunches, but still are learning how to put down the clamps and do the grinding work in accordance with sound positional and system play to close out victories. The Avalanche’s ability to gel and keep other teams contained will be necessary if they hope to keep up in the Central.

Newcomers Francois Beauchemin and Blake Comeau have impressed early on. Beauchemin appears to be the vocal general this team craved for their backend, and has contributed five assists already this season. I’ve been most impressed by his ability to execute crisp, hard, tape-to-tape passes, a skill that the rest of the Avs roster should take notes on. Comeau is yet to pick up his first point with the Avs, but his high-energy style of play has already endeared him to Avs Nation.

External expectations aren’t too high for the Avs this season, but internally, this is a team ready to prove they have arrived as a consistent winner in the NHL. As Matt Duchene said, “it’s time to live in the house we built.” We shall see if that house is made of bricks or straw. What are my expectations? I like that the Avs have something to prove, which is why I have them sixth in my rankings to start. I think there will be playoff games played at Pepsi Center this spring, and I don’t think the Nuggets are making the playoffs.


7. DALLAS STARSDAL Stars LOGO

Current Record: 1-1-0 (2 points)

Last Week’s MVP: Jason Spezza — 3G, A, hat trick against Edmonton

Last Week’s Results: 3-0 W vs. PIT, [email protected], 4-2 W vs. EDM

What’s the story?

I daresay, the Dallas Stars had the most overrated offseason in the NHL. Sure, Johnny Oduya and Patrick Sharp are nice additions, but they are both entering their mid 30s and their names carry a lot more weight than their games at this point. With Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza already in the fold, they didn’t need to land any stars in free agency, but I like Colorado’s offseason better than what Dallas did.

Much like the Avalanche, the Stars are loaded with offensive firepower. Unlike the Avs, Dallas put that offensive firepower on full display last season, averaging 3.13 goals-per-game which ranked 2nd in the NHL.

Much like the Avs, the Stars can sometimes have difficulty stopping opposing teams from scoring. I don’t think Oduya will be enough to shore up the blueline, and the goaltending situation seems highly combustible.

Frankly, Dallas coming in last in my debut power rankings isn’t a knock on them, but a testament to just how gosh darn good this division is. Dallas has a talented roster, and while I’m not as high on them as many others, I could see them having a very good season and topping the 100-point barrier. Every team in this division is capable of that type of year, and there’s not another division in the NHL that can boast that.


I said it before, and I’ll say it again; the Central Division is the best in sports, and hockey fans are in for a treat watching the storylines unfold this season. Make sure and stay current by swinging by every other Wednesday for our BSN Denver Central Division power rankings.

 

 

Austin Manak

Austin became a life-long Avalanche fan at the ripe-old age of seven, and grew up idolizing Joe Sakic, Chris Drury, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy. After residing in Colorado for 24 years, it’s safe to say, the Centennial State is in Austin’s blood. Now he begins the next chapter of his life in Arizona, while keeping ties to the Mile High City writing for BSN Denver. Previously, Austin served as editor of Mile High Sticking during the 2014-15 season.