The Central Division could be as wide open as it was last year, especially with the shake-up in lineups seen across the division. The Chicago Blackhawks pulled off a substantial make-over (and could have more changes to their lineup on the horizon). Dallas attempted to answer some of their defensive woes. St. Louis threw a bunch of money at Vladimir Tarasenko, yet parted ways with T.J. Oshie. The Predators made their own moves, most notably signing Cody Hodgson and Barret Jackman. The rest of the crew, Minnesota, Colorado, and Winnipeg, made some moves as well, though I doubt anything warranted enough to change their position in the Central hierarchy.
Best Off-Season Acquisition
Patrick Sharp, Stars. It would have been nice if Sharp had left the Central division entirely, but at least he's not on the bleeping Blackhawks anymore. Not that him being on the Stars is that much better. Dallas essentially came out of nowhere trading for Sharp on July 10th, with places like Boston and Philly expected to be in the running.
The Dallas Stars: Off-Season Champions since 1993.
The change of scenery may produce another banner year for the former Chicago top-line winger, even though he will turn 34 years old this year. Sharp's 5v5 P/60 hovered around the 2.3-2.5 range for most of his seasons with the Blackhawks, but last year saw that drop to 1.8. He missed most of November with a lower-body injury and wasn't his usual self for much of the season. He was still an important cog in the 2nd half of the year, especially in the Blackhawks' late run to the playoffs, getting 26 of his 43 points after January 1st. And he managed to produce 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games against the Preds in round 1. The combination of Sharp, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin will be especially dangerous this year, if they can all stay healthy.
Worst Off-Season Acquisition
Mike Ribeiro, Predators. This obviously has nothing to do with his play on the ice. David Poile struck gold last year when he signed an eventual 60-point top-line play-making center for $1 million. There is absolutely no way the Predators make the run they did last year without Ribeiro's contributions and the way he gelled with Filip Forsberg and James Neal. It was truly a once in a career kind of move by Poile. Lightning in a bottle, for sure.
But then Poile follows that up by making what is arguably the worst decision in franchise history. The details of the sexual assault case that came out were appalling, at best. Yes, eventually the case was settled out of court, which means... well, it means that Poile can feel ok about re-signing Ribeiro to a 2-year, $7 million deal. But from a fan's perspective? This is horse manure. No Predators fan can feel ok with this. It would have made 1000% more sense simply to let Ribeiro walk given the implications made in the lawsuit. On top of this, the likelihood that he repeats his performance from last year is low. And now you are paying him $2.5 million more per year than you did last year, on the merits of past production. The whole thing just feels wrong, like the team is being setup to fail in more ways than one.
From an on-ice perspective? I can live with over-paying for a 35 year-old center who won't likely produce the same numbers as last year... just like I can live with signing Mike Fisher for the same reasons. But as a fan of the team? As a member of the Nashville Predators fan community? Terrible move.
Other Notable Additions
- Johnny Oduya, Stars: Another former-Blackhawk joins the Stars to help improve that awful defense last year. A lot of the blame for the Stars' 3.13 goals allowed per game (4th worst in the league) can be explained by Kari Lehtonen's disappointing year, but when most of the defensive effort was laid on the shoulders of rookie John Klingberg, what can you expect? Signing Oduya improves their blue-line. A little bit.
- Carl Soderberg, Avalanche. Coming over from Boston prior to July 1, Soderberg should provide a solid centerpiece to that 2nd line... a line that already features stellar youth in Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon just got significantly better. (Wait, they expect him to replace Ryan O'Reilly?!)
- Troy Brouwer, Blues. Sending T.J. Oshie to the Capitals (where I can now root for him without an ounce of shame in my heart) was probably not a popular move, but the Blues now have a more reliable 20-goal scorer to fill out their growing depth. They will miss Oshie's play-making ability and overall American-ness. Ed. Note: Brouwer will have to hit the net, first.
- Phil Kessel, Predators. Just seeing if you were paying attention.
Breakout Player for 2015-16
Kevin Fiala, Predators. It's been 15 months and it's finally Fiala Time!
It's difficult to see a scenario where Kevin Fiala doesn't beat out the other bottom-six forwards for a spot on the 3rd line, probably with Cody Hodgson. When he defected from his U20 team in Switzerland last year, he joined up with a log-jammed Admirals squad and found success. He didn't light the world on fire or anything, but putting up 20 points in 33 games with the Ads (.60 p/g) showed he was as advertised.
Even though some were calling for him to make the roster at the beginning of last season, he probably needed that grooming time. You know, the Forsberg model. His two cameo appearances last year (including one in the post-season) showed us flashes, but we all know: this kid is special. Quick, agile, smart, and, of course, he's got the hair.
Fans Should Most Look Forward To
The crash and burn of the Chicago Blackhawks. Patrick Kane allegations aside, this year's team is hardly a facsimile of the championship team from a year ago. Off-season losses include Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, and Daniel Carcillo (with other minor losses like Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen). Additions include KHL star Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Marko Dano. Along with those questionable moves, they will have to rely on 36-year-old Marian Hossa, unproven youth in Kyle Baun, semi-proven youth in Teuvo Teravainen, and a grand jury in Eerie County, NY.
Every single non-Blackhawks fan wants this team to miss the playoffs. I think it happens this year.
Coach or GM On The Hot Seat
Chuck Fletcher, GM Minnesota Wild. Talk about all your eggs in one basket. This guy is basically putting this entire upcoming season on the shoulders of Devan Dubnyk. Of course, he sort of did this last year, and it worked fine. Dubnyk caught fire down the stretch, carrying the Wild to the 2nd round of the playoffs after upsetting the Blues in the 1st round, but... does anyone think this will happen again? Anyone besides Chuck Fletcher?
If When Dubnyk regresses to his career .914 save % next year, and it's not good enough to carry the Wild as it did last year, count on Fletcher to be sweating bullets this winter.