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What We Learned: Breaking down Central Division, NHL Group of Death

Chicago Blackhawks players Jonathan Toews, left,  and Patrick Kane smile during a news conference at the United Center in Chicago, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The Blackhawks recently agreed to eight-year contract extensions with for their star players

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Chicago Blackhawks players Jonathan Toews, left, and Patrick Kane smile during a news conference at the United Center in Chicago, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The Blackhawks recently agreed to eight-year contract extensions with for their star players.(AP Photo/Daily Herald, Mark Welsh)

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it. 

Things have calmed down considerably in the free agent market. Rosters at this point are more or less set, and we can therefore go about taking stock of who did what this summer, and what that means for the season that's currently still three or so months away.

It's pretty tough to make the case that any single division improved more than the Central, and given the league's new playoff format, those several teams that took huge steps forward might find that it's not going to be enough for them to get things together and actually make the postseason.

We can all more or less agree that Chicago, which made only one significant move in bringing aboard bargain-basement Brad Richards and letting Michal Handzus walk, not only is the best team for this coming season as it was for the prior one, but also improved marginally. That top spot in the Central, and perhaps the whole of the Western Conference or even NHL, is very much spoken for.

But then there's the matter of everyone else. The race to get into the bottom two to five spots in the West's playoff picture — though banking on the higher side there seems foolish — is going to look like when all three Stooges try to go through the same door at once. St. Louis, Dallas and Minnesota all seem very likely contenders for those spots, having either remained good from last season or improved in this summer signing period. Dallas has clearly taken the largest step forward in adding Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, but they also have a lot more ground to make up in terms of the point gap from last season; getting into the playoffs with 91 points is barely an accomplishment.

The Blues are obviously in the best position, having added Paul Stastny and despite the loss of Vladimir Sobotka. Their biggest need was an additional top-six forward, and they added one. The decision to stick with someone who isn't Ryan Miller, meanwhile, seems a prudent one in goal.

As for Minnesota, there's still a lot to dislike about this team. Depth and goaltending remain issues that need to be proven out if anyone's going to believe they're a contender for anything any time soon. But 98 points last season does sort of seem like a fluke. One can't imagine that Josh Harding continues to post a save percentage north of .915 or so, and the rest of that cast doesn't do much to inspire confidence.

But as with a few divisions last season, the importance of finishing second versus third or fourth or, if you're really unlucky, fifth is massive in the Central. Finish third and you probably play a 100-point team that's considerably better than you are. Finish fourth and you play either the Blackhawks or (probably) Kings. A lot of people seem to think it's likely that the Central sends five teams to the playoffs, and successfully holds the fourth team in the Pacific out, but it's tough to see where that would be the case; it happened last year mainly because the Canucks were pitiful under John Tortorella. While they haven't exactly taken a step forward so far with Jim Benning at the controls, they haven't taken a step back either, overall. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Anaheim and Vancouver duke it out for a wild card spot. Both, certainly, are better than Winnipeg, Nashville or Colorado, full stop.

Of course, all this comes with the caveat that Chicago could falter as it did last season and somehow not end up first in the division, but that doesn't seem likely. Big problems with special teams was what did them in last season, but it's hard to imagine the power play finishes 10th in the league again this year, or the PK 19th. It's also difficult to envision the Avalanche doing anything but crashing and burning after a full year of cheating death in terms of possession; they were sixth in goal differential in their own conference and yet finished second in points. That doesn't happen often, especially not when your percentages are in the league's toilet.

If it's between St. Louis and Dallas for the second spot (and it probably is), though, then it's tough to see Dallas making a 20-something-point jump without a “2013 Maple Leafs” measure of luck stirred in. No team in the league improved as much as Dallas did this summer, but even no improvement from the Blues would have left them pretty tough to squeeze past. Even with unproven rookie Jake Allen in net, it's not like things are ever going to go especially badly for them, not with that lineup and depth. A worst-case scenario for the Blues is probably in the 105-point range, which you can't be too unhappy with at the end of the day.

Then there are the Stars, who could be a 100-point team if things go right. They're clearly counting on some internal improvement from the kids, especially on the blue line, to make their planned improvement. Minnesota's not far behind them, though, in both the overall quality and “expecting young players to make a jump” departments. For me, these are the two most fascinating teams in the West this season. Everyone else seems to be a known quantity, more or less.

Not that any of this really matters, of course. It's probably going to take more than moderate improvement to be better than Chicago over 82 games, or again in seven when the playoffs roll around, and even then, that doesn't make you elite. But getting closer is the goal, and Dallas and St. Louis have certainly made that step.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Saku Koivu is selling his home near Anaheim for $6.6 million. Say, Ryan Kesler's due $10 million over the next two seasons. Hint hint.

Arizona Coyotes: Y'know, when you look at it all laid out like this, the Coyotes' only additions this offseason being Sam Gagner (a player who's pretty good but was always getting unduly flogged in Edmonton for one reason or another), BJ Crombeen, Joe Vitale and Devan Dubnyk, you have to say that Don Maloney didn't have a very good summer. Another year without playoffs in the desert. What fun.

Boston Bruins: Loui Eriksson moving to the Bruins' “first line” is a little misleading because he was on it last year. Patrice Bergeron plus Brad Marchand plus (anyone) equals “first line.” They're better at all aspects of the game than David Krejci and Milan Lucic, not that you'd know it in this town. That Claude Julien gives more minutes to Lucic and Krejci is a major failing of Claude Julien's. It's really that simple.

Buffalo Sabres: Pretty alarming, isn't it, that Luke Adam had to sign a two-way deal? What happened to that dude? Pre-lockout he looked like he could be a decent contributor, but he's just dropped off a cliff.

Calgary Flames: Karri Ramo was pretty effectively put on notice by Flames brass this summer. First they bring in Jonas Hiller to take his No. 1 job — which it must be said Ramo didn't do badly with in his first season, given the circumstances — for the next two years, then they give AHL starter Joni Ortio a two-year deal that guarantees a one-way in 2015-16.

Carolina Hurricanes: Bill Peters says Eric Staal's power play output last season was “unacceptable.” Would you believe he scored just one time on the man advantage? He had more shorties than that. Good lord. (Another guy that had only one power play goal last season? Evander Kane. Five or six more of those and I doubt any of these rumors come up.)

Chicago Blackhawks: Growing up, Brad Richards dreamed of being the starting goaltender for the Blackhawks, and I don't blame him. Look what they pay their goalies when they're not even good.

Colorado Avalanche: While riding his bike last week, Cory Sarich was hit by a car and broke multiple vertebrae. Horrible news but he's apparently doing much better already. He wants to continue his playing career, which, I dunno...

Columbus Blue Jackets: Question posited by someone who I'm pretty sure is a Blue Jackets fan: “Is Sergei Bobrovsky truly the goalie of the future?” Hmm, a 25-year-old who has a .926 save percentage with the team over 96 appearances, and already has a Vezina to his name? Nah, it's probably Oscar Dansk.

Dallas Stars: One point of concern for the Stars is the workload Kari Lehtonen has pulled the last few seasons because of how bad his backups have been. This time around they have Anders Lindback and maybe, like, Jack Campbell or Jussi Rynnas. So, no?

Detroit Red Wings: Danny DeKeyser says “there won't be any problems” getting his new contract done before camp. No kidding. If they gave Danny Cleary another year, DeKeyser might be able to pull a max contract.

Edmonton Oilers: If the Oilers try to use their organizational depth to fill their hole at center, they're not really approaching things very wisely.

Florida Panthers: It's looking like Jimmy Hayes and the Panthers will indeed go to arbitration this week. There goes that chance of signing Kevin!

Los Angeles Kings: Nice to see the Kings get one of their draft picks into the Hall of Fame.

Minnesota Wild: Well sure they're never going to win a Stanley Cup, but Stephane Veilleux will lead the Wild to ping pong glory.

Montreal Canadiens: Please stop asking PK Subban about contract negotiations. He doesn't appreciate it.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Kevin Fiala is one of the growing number of high-quality Swiss players in the NHL. Thanks a lot.

New Jersey Devils: One of the things that doomed the Devils (not rhyming with Farty Frodeur) was the fact that they didn't win their first seven games of the season. That's gotta change this year. Probably will, too.

New York Islanders: Kevin Poulin will be back for another season on Long Island. After he went .893 in 28 appearances last season, they basically had to re-sign him.

New York Rangers: The award Derick Brassard wanted to play his prove-it year with the Rangers as their presumptive No. 2 center was $4.95 million. Glen Sather talked him down to $25 million over five seasons. Now THAT'S negotiating!

Ottawa Senators: The Senators plan to meet with the agents for Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur about extensions in the coming week. “How does league minimum sound?”

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers neither improved nor took a step back this summer. Given the way the rest of the division improved, though, that's tantamount to taking a step back. Gonna be a tough season in Philly, one suspects.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Now this is a fascinating question: Will this be the last season in Pittsburgh for Marc-Andre Fleury? Pretty easy to see this going either way, really.

San Jose Sharks: Dude, they didn't run over your dog. They beat you in hockey four games in a row. It happens.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues' success, ultimately, rests on whether Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz can become even better offensive weapons. They both averaged about one goal every three games last season, which will need to improve.

Tampa Bay Lightning: This was a fairly good look at the youth in the Lightning system. Shocking to see Jonathan Drouin at the top of the list. Shocking.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Loved this look at the Kyle Dubas hire from Fluto Shinzawa, which included the shocking new idea that maybe you don't need to have been in the NHL to make player evaluations, because other major business executives don't need to know how to make the products their companies sell.

Vancouver Canucks: Jake Virtanen signed Sunday. He's going to do very well at World Juniors this season.

Washington Capitals: Expecting Joel Ward to be a driver of success with the Caps this season is asking a lot. Or, if you prefer, the impossible.

Winnipeg Jets: When you're trying not to spend a lot of money, maybe giving a bunch of money to bad players is not a good idea. Just a thought. Kevin Cheveldayoff really ought to be fired. This is a catastrophe.

Gold Star Award

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Via The Globe & Mail

Via The Globe & Mail

Kyle Dubas is going to save the Maple Leafs! (As long as he doesn't get hit with the shrapnel when Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle are canned next summer, or earlier.)

Minus of the Weekend

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Kyle Dubas is a nerd and an idiot. I think the Maple Leafs are good. Put the calculator away stats boy!!!!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Bleed orange” doesn't really want to help anyone.

To STL: claude giroux, Braydon Coburn

To PHI: Alex Pietrangelo, david Backes

Don't bother bringing the mistletoe to bed.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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