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Central Division preview by Bucky Gleason: Look for Blackhawks in the finals again

Chicago Blackhawks

Offense: Patrick Kane’s 23 goals and 55 points in 47 games would have been a career year if he kept the pace for 82 games. Even with the short season, he matched his goal total from the previous year. Nearly half of their goals came from Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad.

Defense: The Hawks have so much firepower up front that people forget they allowed 102 goals last season, fewest in the NHL. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the best pairing in the NHL. Toews is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL.

Between the lines: The chore for every Cup winner is overcoming the hangover from a long season. Remember, the Blackhawks didn’t play a long season. It was cut short by the lockout, a fact that should not be overlooked.

Final score: The odds are against them repeating, but it becomes more likely when considering their talent and experience. Look for them to be in the finals again.

St. Louis Blues

Offense: The Blues don’t have any true offensive superstars, so they rely more on balance along their top three lines. Chris Stewert was their only player who had more than 15 goals and 30 points, but only Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles scored more goals among conference playoff teams.

Defense: Jay Bouwmeester arrived at the trade deadline last season after three-plus miserable years in Calgary. It didn’t mean he couldn’t play. It meant he wasn’t the right fit for the Flames. If he can turn things around in St. Louis, look out. They were sound defensively without him.

Between the lines: Right around now is when coach Ken Hitchcock can start wearing on his players about defense. Hitch is widely respected in St. Louis. He needs to make sure his players continue feeling the same way.

Final score: They’re not deep enough to stay with Chicago, but they shouldn’t have too many problems beating up the rest of the division.

Minnesota Wild

Offense: The Wild were the only team to make the playoffs last year on the wrong side of goal differential (minus-5). It was primarily because of their offense. Jason Pominville could have a big year while playing with Zach Parise. They could be even better next year if Thomas Vanek joins them.

Defense: Ryan Suter gained most of the attention with his big contract, but Jared Spurgeon had more power-play goals and winners. Keith Ballard is hoping to resurrect his career back in his home state.

Between the lines: Minnesota had high expectations but slipped into the final playoff spot on a tiebreaker last season. Now that they have adjusted to Parise and Suter – and Pominville – chemistry should no longer be an issue.

Final score: The Wild is looking to take a major step, but it often takes time. If they finish in the middle of the conference and win a playoff round, the season will be a success.

Dallas Stars

Offense: The Stars have three newcomers down the middle with Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley arriving from Boston and Shawn Horcoff from Edmonton. The change will most help Seguin, who needs to shed his party-boy image and reach his potential. Jamie Benn and Erik Cole are both capable of finding the net.

Defense: Sergei Gonchar signed after a good season in Ottawa, where more responsibility led to more production after Erik Karlsson suffered an injury. There’s a good mix of speed, skill, experience and leadership on the back end.

Between the lines: Former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has more talent in his lineup than the team that fired him last season. Look for Peverley to play an important role, mainly because he plays both ends of the rink.

Final score: The change should be good for Ruff, who is one of the better playoff coaches in the league. The hard part is getting there.

Colorado Avalanche

Offense: First pick overall Nathan MacKinnon has been penciled into the lineup on the third line, but it may not be long before the Avs grab the eraser. MacKinnon has been compared to Sidney Crosby. Colorado is solid down the middle. It must get more from Paul Statsny or get rid of him.

Defense: There could come a day when the Avs regret not selecting Seth Jones with the first pick overall, mainly because they had more pressing needs along the blue line. The only teams to allow more goals were Calgary, Florida and Carolina. All missed the playoffs.

Between the lines: Patrick Roy steps behind the bench, but he may want to step into the crease after watching Semyon Varlamov and J-S Giguere. Neither was impressive last season. Fifth in the division would be respectable.

Final score: The Avs are going in the right direction, if only because they can’t get any worse. They finished last in the conference.

Winnipeg Jets

Offense: Andrew Ladd led the team in scoring last season, but he’s hardly an elite winger. Blake Wheeler was given a big contract after scoring 19 goals. They’re hoping newcomer Devin Setoguchi can rediscover the scoring touch he showed early in his career with the Sharks.

Defense: Overall, their top six are better than most. Their team defense hasn’t done enough to help them. They need more forwards getting back. The wait continues for Ondrej Pavelec to reach his potential. What if he already did?

Between the lines: The Jets move to the Western Conference should help them in terms of rest, but they’re no longer in the weak Southeast Division.

Final score: Look for them to finish in the middle of the division. Getting into the top eight in the conference will be a taller order.

Nashville Predators

Offense: The Predators scored the fewest goals (111) in the NHL last season and did almost nothing to improve the situation. Viktor Stalberg comes over from Chicago, where he scored nine goals on a great team. Defenseman Shea Webber led the team in scoring, which says enough about their forwards.

Defense: Nashville took Seth Jones with the fourth pick overall. He will likely start the season on one of the top two pairings. The Preds will rely heavily on goalie Pekka Rinne, and they should. After all, he’s making $7 million.

Between the lines: Barry Trotz is the longest-tenured coach in the league, but he could be running out of time. If things go astray early, look for them to make a change.

Final score: It’s going to be a long season. – B.G.