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Where do Preds fit in Central?

Not only do the Nashville Predators have a different look and feel heading into the season, but thanks to realignment, so does the newly-realigned Central Division. The Predators lost two division rivals to the Eastern Conference (Columbus and Detroit) and gained four more (Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota and Winnipeg) as the NHL transitions from six divisions to four.

The defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks will be unanimous favorites to win the division, but the competition behind them will be fierce. St. Louis should be better than they were last season. Minnesota and Winnipeg are banking on the progress of youngsters to provide a boost. Dallas and Colorado made drastic changes for the better.

Where do the Predators fit in this new division? It comes down to two things: Health and the performance of their youth. If the former cooperates and the latter helps on most nights, a return to the playoffs could be in store.

With the new format, the battle for an automatic postseason berth will be intriguing. The top three teams in each division are guaranteed a playoff spot; teams in fourth place or worse will be thrown into a wild card pool with the rest of the conference to determine the final two teams to qualify for the playoffs.

It’s safe to assume Chicago and St. Louis will be among the Central Division’s top three. You can make an argument for any of the other five to grab that No. 3 seed in the division, but it will likely come down to Dallas, Minnesota and Nashville unless something unforeseen happens with Colorado or Winnipeg.

Here’s a look at the division in tiers:

Tier 1

Chicago Blackhawks
What to like: Everything. If there is one Cup winner from the last five years capable of repeating as champs, these Blackhawks are it. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lead a prolific offensive attack. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook co-anchor a stout defense corps. Corey Crawford, the new $36 million man, is better than nationally perceived.

What to dislike: The Stanley Cup hangover is real. While the Blackhawks’ core has been in this position before, they did lose some quality pieces from its championship roster. This season won’t be a piece of cake like the lockout-shortened 2012-13 was at times.

St. Louis Blues
What to like: The depth of this team is scary good. Defensively, the Blues are as good as anyone in the NHL. Up front they are loaded with two-way forwards with offensive upside. There are questions in net, but a healthy Jaroslav Halak would eliminate any worries. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock will put them in position to succeed.

What to dislike: Who’s going to step up in the clutch offensively? If this isn’t Vladimir Tarasenko’s breakout season, the Blues may have trouble scoring against better opponents. Also, as proven at prior destinations, there is a shelf life to Hitchcock’s coaching style. He’s entering his third season as bench boss.

Tier 2

Dallas Stars
What to like: Lindy Ruff brings stability behind the bench that hasn’t been there in four years. Tyler Seguin fills the Stars’ top-line center vacancy, while veterans Sergei Gonchar, Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley improve the depth. Jamie Benn finding a new level to his game would make the Stars a dangerous opponent.

What to dislike: The Stars haven’t reached the playoffs since 2008, so there is work to be done by the new regime. With that in mind, it may take time for all the new pieces to mesh together. If No. 10 overall pick Valeri Nichushkin struggles, they may not get enough production on the wings.

Minnesota Wild
What to like: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are among the better all-around players at their respective positions. 20-year-old Jonas Brodin is a star in the making, while 21-year-olds Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle have great potential. A contract year for Dany Heatley could yield big numbers.

What to dislike: The core doesn’t have much help surrounding them in key depth areas. The blue line is shaky beyond Suter and Brodin. Niklas Backstrom, 35, is somewhat of a liability in net. As everyone around them in the division got better this summer, the Wild may have taken a step back with various off-season departures.

Nashville Predators
What to like: Pekka Rinne should have a monster year with an improved team in front of him. Look for Shea Weber and Roman Josi to take the next step as a pairing and strengthen an already-talented defensive unit. The free agent additions will help the Preds regain their identity, which is a must if they wish to bounce back.

What to dislike: The offense still lacks that one goal-scorer. Do they have enough depth up front to be on the right side of those 2-1 and 3-2 contests? Youngsters Filip Forsberg and Craig Smith may answer that question as the season goes on. Another concern, for when the going gets tough, is the defense’s average age of 24.

Tier 3

Colorado Avalanche
What to like: The additions of Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic to the brass will re-energize the team and fan base. The offense has an array of weapons, highlighted by Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. Ryan O’Reilly moving to left wing to complement No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon will only be beneficial.

What to dislike: To say the back end is in transition would be an understatement. The defense is below-average, as Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda try to hold up a unit that won’t do goaltender Semyon Varlamov any favors. And while the changes are for the best, it will be a work in progress when it comes to Colorado contending for the postseason.

Winnipeg Jets
What to like: The Jets’ core of young players is getting set to enter their prime. Evander Kane is a dynamic offensive talent on the upswing. Big-money blue-liners Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian can provide additional offense. Recent first-rounders Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba could make an immediate impact.

What to dislike: The division they’re in now is tougher than the former Southeast Division. Realignment will actually add to their frequent-flier miles. Ondrej Pavelec, while talented, has never been able to get the job done. This is still a franchise that has traditionally been allergic to playoff hockey.
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The Predators could easily grab the all-important No. 3 seed in the Central. While question marks do exist offensively, if Seth Jones holds his own as a rookie the defense and goaltending duo should be considered among the league’s best. Barry Trotz has his team hungry after finishing 14th in the Western Conference last season.

However, with the expected wealth of competition in the Central, there is a slim margin for error. The Predators can’t afford to sustain injuries to their best players because their depth is filled with youth and inexperience. The goal-scoring can’t finish tied for worst in the league again. They can’t sputter out of the gates, or else the climb back to that precious No. 3 seed will be a steep one.

If the Predators finish fourth or fifth in the division, their hopes for a playoff spot will plunge. Pound for pound, the Pacific Division is better. It’s a good enough division to have five clubs emerge as playoff teams. Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver should be in there; Anaheim and Phoenix will surely be in the mix; and don’t count out Edmonton.

It promises to be a wild playoff race with the new format. It would obviously suit the Predators best if they finished in the Central’s top three, and it’s more than doable if some things go their way that didn’t a season ago.

 
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