10 Players to Watch in the Central Division


With the realigning of the divisions and conferences beginning this season in the NHL, there is going to be a lot more talent in each division.

The Central Division will be no different, especially with the defending Stanley Cup Champions holding court. Joining them in the Central will be your Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St.Louis Blues, and Winnipeg Jets.

We all know who the established stars are but who are the guys to watch out for this season? Who could we see joining those stars as the talk of the league? Lucky for you, MHS is here to provide you those names. Let’s a-go!

10. Magnus Paajarvi, LW St.Louis

After parts of three seasons in Edmonton, it’s easy to forget that Paajarvi is just 22-years-old. The 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Paajarvi flashed his abilities at times both in Edmonton and with their AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, but ultimately fell out of favor among the sea of young, talented forwards on the Oiler depth chart.

He’ll get a fresh start in St.Louis, though he could struggle to find ice time in the early going. The Blues are teeming with solid offensive talent and, provided everyone stays healthy, should have one of the deeper offenses in the division. Still, Paajarvi is a very talented player who could thrive in a change of scenery.

Paajarvi will need to show that he can be just as committed to the defensive game or he’ll find himself in coach Ken Hitchcock’s dog house before finding himself on a bus to the AHL.

9. Brandon Pirri, C Chicago

Dec 26, 2011; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Brandon Pirri (37) looks for the puck during the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the United Center. The Blackhawks beat the Blue Jackets 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

When you win the Stanley Cup, role players become high-priced cap problems and depth becomes a thing of the past. Or, if you’re the Blackhawks, you just replace the departed with a talented youngster and go about your business as a championship contender.

Pirri will likely step into one of the center spots behind Jonathan Toews and could even find himself between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa if he plays his cards right. Not a bad duo to find yourself working with.

He’s a talented, hard-working player that would benefit from playing with that kind of experienced talent and his energy could get them going, too. If the Hawks want a shot at repeating, they’ll need Pirri to step up and fill his role admirably, something the team seems to have supreme confidence in.
Provided he can keep healthy, look for Pirri to be a serious contender for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.

8. Jacob Trouba, D Winnipeg

There are a few things you can never have too many of in the NHL. One being big, mobile, nasty defensemen.

Trouba fits that description all the way. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 Draft, many felt Trouba was NHL-ready the moment he was selected. At 6’2”, 190 he’s got an NHL-ready frame but more importantly than that, he loves to mash.

He’s a physical defenseman through and through, with his fantastic skating helping him get to spots faster so that he can mash more effectively. Some question his offensive upside and, despite his potential, the fear is that he may not get much better in that regard. But he’s got the potential to be an elite stay-at-home defender, someone opposing forwards have to think about any time they enter the Jets zone.

Whether he lights up the scoreboard or not, it’ll be fun to watch Trouba light up opposing forwards this season.

7. Jaden Schwartz, LW St.Louis

Though he had his official rookie season last year during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, it’ll be this year that is the one to watch for the young Schwartz. Undersized but a producer through and through, he’ll get his shot to make his mark.

He’ll likely start out on a line with the two Vladimirs: Sobotka at center and the talented if inconsistent Tarasenko on the opposite wing. I, for one, am excited to see Schwartz and Tarasenko working together.

Schwartz has the ability to light the lamp like few in the St.Louis system. If he can overcome size deficiencies (he’s just 5’10” and around 190 or so), he should become an excellent producer. He plays bigger than his size, which is always a plus, so he won’t shy away from battles for the puck.

The Blues have an embarrassment of riches up front, with depth out the wazoo. Schwartz will get every opportunity to be the star that many feel he can be. If he gets going, watch out.

6. Nathan MacKinnon, C Colorado

How is the recent #1 overall pick just fifth on this list? Unfortunately, he’s likely to be coddled a bit by new Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, which is probably best for the future of the team and MacKinnon.

But if he gets let loose, MacKinnon will be something to watch.

He’s already considered one of the best skaters in the league, possessing dynamic, game-breaking speed. His skill set is Art Ross-calibre, leading many to consider him “Sidney Crosby Lite”.

MacKinnon will do some fantastic things this season, but they’ll likely come in fits and spurts as he grows and learns how to play the NHL game. He’ll have a few highlight moments that will make all of us realize just why he was as coveted as he was.

By year two? The hockey world will need to ready itself.

5. Mikael Granlund, C Minnesota

Sep 17, 2013; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund (64) skates with the puck during the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Xcel Energy Center. The Jackets won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota fans have been clamoring for Granlund for a long, long time and it seems like this is finally the year we see him in full force.

He got a 27-game debut last year, learning the ropes and getting acclimated to the faster, more physical NHL game. This year, he’s set to take over the second-line center role behind captain Mikko Koivu.

The 5’10”, 180lb pivot has been making a name for himself as arguably the best player outside the NHL for the last few seasons for HIFK Helsinki for the Finnish League. His size is still somewhat of a question mark, but his talent is not. He is a high-end skill guy who can make some fantastic things happen when he has the puck.

Called a “Saku Koivu clone”, that’s pretty high praise coming from Finnish hockey fans. He’s very creative with fantastic hockey sense and deft playmaking abilities.

He’ll be given every opportunity to succeed this season and the talented Finn should show the Wild they’ve got a big-time player on their hands. He got in just enough games to qualify for the Calder last year, so he’s out of the running for that, but expect big things for Granlund.

4. Filip Forsberg, RW Nashville

Formerly property of the Washington Capitals, Forsberg was brought over via a trade many are wondering just why the Capitals made. The 11th overall pick in 2012 has the makings of a power forward: 6’2” frame to pack on muscle, a nose for the net and a willingness to sacrifice.

He’s got high-end talent and an already strong two-way game, something that should benefit him right out of the gates. He’ll likely step in behind Patric Hornqvist on the Preds’ second line as they search for someone, anyone to finally score some goals.

The caveat applies here: power forwards take longer to develop and Forsberg is still just 19-years-old, so there is probably going to be a large margin of error. Expect him to make plays, flash his potential, but also to take his lumps as he grows into the NHL game. If he picks things up quickly, he can be a really exciting player to watch.

3. Jonas Brodin, D Minnesota

Brodin made the hockey world remember his name last year with his outstanding performance next to Ryan Suter on the top pairing for the Wild. Though he didn’t put up the offensive numbers his partner did, Brodin’s impact was tremendous.

A stay-at-home defender through and through, Brodin puts himself in the right position almost all of the time, making the heads up play. He protects his net first and foremost, a skill that doesn’t necessarily transfer to the stat sheet.

Many felt that he was robbed of a Calder Trophy nomination as the league’s top rookie last year because he didn’t produce enough points to get noticed. But mark my words: after a strong rookie season, look for him to shut down opponents alongside Suter, bringing his name into conversations about the best defensive defensemen in the league.

Brodin is the real deal and though his offensive game will likely hurt him in the hunt for postseason hardware, fans, coaches, and fellow players will know Brodin deserves mention among the league’s best.

2. Valeri Nichushkin, RW Dallas

The wild card of the 2013 Draft becomes the wild card of this list. Many felt he could be one of the most talented players in the entire draft yet “the Russian factor” came into play and saw him fall right into the lap of the Stars at 10th overall.

They will gladly take that gift as they line him up with veterans Ray Whitney and Shawn Horcoff. Nichushkin is a freight train both in size and speed. Scariest part? He has the hands to make magic while moving at top speeds.

Sep 20, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin (43) controls the puck while guarded by Florida Panthers forward Shawn Mattias (18) in the first period at AT

Like most dynamic prospects, he’ll likely go through his growing pains and will probably make a few folks angry with lapses here and there. But try to keep in mind the fact that he’s a rookie and look forward to those frantic dashes down the ice that result in highlight-reel goals.

The Stars got a steal that will likely make a few teams who chose before them regret passing on this Russian superstar-to-be.

1. Seth Jones, D Nashville

Perhaps an even bigger steal in that same draft is the fact that Seth Jones, once considered the top prospect in the entire draft, fell to fourth overall. The Predators, with elite defenseman Shea Weber already in house, felt the impact of losing the aforementioned Suter and just happened to stumble into an elite, franchise defenseman to replace him? Totally happens all the time.

Jones is big, smart, and has the offensive skills to put himself into rarified air. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets to spend his time with Weber or if he gets put with someone like Kevin Klein or rookie Mattias Ekholm on the second pairing.

The Predators definitely have the depth to help Jones transition to the big-time, with quality players littering the top six and taking the pressure off the big American.

Jones likely won’t produce enough to get Calder buzz, but it may just be a matter of time before he’s in the Norris Trophy conversation as the league’s best defender. Not a bad bit of luck for the Preds, huh?

Ryan is the editor of Mile High Sticking as well as co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to talk Avs, Sabres, hockey in general, or to let him know what a yutz he is.

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