USA TODAY Sports hockey columnist Kevin Allen sizes up the NHL's Central Division:
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks
2012-13 results: 36-7-5, won Stanley Cup
Story line: A third championship in five years could cue dynasty talk
Goaltending: Corey Crawford (19-5-5, 1.94, .926). He turned many skeptics into believers with his .932 playoff save percentage. Last summer, some Chicago fans weren't sure they wanted him as the Blackhawks' No. 1, but now there is a drumbeat for him being Canada's goalie at the Olympics.
Analysis: The Blackhawks have such an embarrassment of riches up front that the defense often gets overlooked. With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell, the Blackhawks have the best offense in the Western Conference. But not many teams have a top four defensive group better than Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. The Blackhawks can play any style you want. They have speed on every line, and they can check and play physical. Andrew Shaw has proved to be one of the league's most irritating pests.
Breakthrough candidate: Nobody in the organization would be shocked if Brandon Saad scored between 22 and 27 goals.
Key question: Will D Nick Leddy play at a higher level? He averaged more than 17 minutes a game in the regular season, but his playoff minutes were cut and he saw limited playing time in the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks hope Leddy 22, is more advanced defensively because he can be a fire starter on offense.
Forecast: The cure for a Stanley Cup hangover is to be better than everyone else in every facet of the game. The Blackhawks can do that. Take them to win their conference and return to the Stanley Cup Final.
No. 2 St. Louis Blues
2012-13 results: 29-17-2, lost in first round
Story line: Blues have Hitch in their giddyup
Goaltending: Brian Elliott (14-8-1, 2.28, .907) or Jaroslav Halak (6-5-1, 2.14, .899). Although Elliott was the playoff goalie, Halak seems like the best bet to end up as No.1. Coach Ken Hitchcock might rotate his goalies until someone stakes a claim.
Analysis: Under defensive-minded Hitchcock, the Blues are among the league's most difficult teams to play. They have three All-Star-caliber defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. Pietrangelo seems to be on a path toward earning a Norris Trophy. Add in Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold and Roman Polak, and the Blues could have one of the league's top five defenses. The Blues are deep up front, led by captain David Backes, an offensive and defensive force at center. Patrik Berglund is starting to explore the depths of his talent. T.J. Oshie feeds the team with his energy. Alex Steen is underrated.
Breakthrough candidate: RW Vladimir Tarasenko, 21, could be ready to become a 20-goal, 45-point forward. He's a highly skilled scoring wing, and Hitchcock is helping him become a complete player.
Key question: Do the Blues have enough scoring? Yes, but everyone must play at his best to put up good numbers. The Blues have plenty of players with the ability for goals, but no premium scorer. Signing Derek Roy helps.
Forecast: Under the new playoff format, the Blues won't face the nemesis Los Angeles Kings before the conference final. The Kings knocked them out of the playoffs the past two seasons. Count on the Blues finishing second in the Central.
No. 3 Nashville Predators
2012-13 results: 16-23-9, 14th in West
Story line: Predators have been looking for scorers
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne (15-16-8, 2.43, .910). His numbers weren't impressive last season, but he is one of the league's top five or six goalies.
Analysis: The Predators' goaltending and defensive play are good enough to earn a playoff spot. But will the team get enough goals? The Predators hope Matt Cullen can register 40 to 45 points and fellow newcomer Viktor Stalberg can add 20 goals, though Stalberg left Tuesday's game with an upper-body injury. The true hope for the offense starts with veterans David Legwand and Mike Fisher having exceptional seasons and younger players Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque continuing to develop. Another reason for excitement in Nashville is the drafting of heralded defenseman Seth Jones. A Norris Trophy-caliber offensive season out of Shea Weber would also go a long way toward remedying the Predators' goal-scoring woes.
Breakthrough candidate: The Predators need Smith to play with the same confidence he showed at the 2013 world championships. At 23, he should be a 20-goal scorer.
Key question: Should draft pick Jones play with Weber? It would give the team more balance and let Roman Josi be paired with a younger defenseman. Otherwise, the Predators might have to pair two younger defensemen.
Forecast: The Predators were 30th in goals last season. If they are somewhere near 15th this season, they will make the playoffs. Rinne and the defense can do the rest.
No. 4 Minnesota Wild
2012-13 results: 26-19-3, lost in first round
Story line: Wild hope to have steady climb to top
Goaltending: Niklas Backstrom (24-15-3, 2.48, .909). At a little more than $3 million a season, Backstrom has become one of the league's better salary-cap bargains.
Analysis: The Wild were the lowest-scoring playoff team in the West. Having Jason Pominville for a full season will help their offense, and Charlie Coyle is improving daily. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter remain the foundation of Minnesota's offense. Dany Heatley is a formidable scorer, but the pending free agent doesn't seem a central figure in the team's plans. With Suter playing plenty of minutes, the defense is in good hands. He also will be the foundation defenseman on the U.S. Olympic team.
MORE: Preseason power rankings
Breakthrough candidate: Nino Niederreiter, 21, is another key player in the Wild's hope for more goal scoring this season. He netted 28 goals in 74 games in the American Hockey League last season. Pencil him in for 16 to 20 goals in the NHL this season.
Key question: Where does Mikael Granlund fit in? He has to be a core player for the Wild to contend. He's 21, but his potential was evident last season when he was a point-per-game player in the AHL. He was a bit overwhelmed in the NHL, but he could step up and produce 50 points this season. He boasts overflowing talent.
Forecast: It's one step to make the playoffs and a major leap to put together a run of appearances. The Wild should make it two in a row.
No. 5 Dallas Stars
2012-13 results: 22-22-4, 11th in West
Story line: New general manager makes bold moves in Dallas
Goaltending: Kari Lehtonen (15-14-3, 2.66, .916). He's a solid, dependable performer but hasn't had the kind of run where he has taken his place among the league's elite goaltenders.
Analysis: GM Jim Nill has put a high-voltage charge into the organization by revamping the team's collection of centers, recruiting high-profile coach Lindy Ruff, signing Sergei Gonchar and drafting dazzling prospect Valeri Nichushkin. Nill fixed the Stars' weakness at center by trading for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff. This will allow Jamie Benn to move back to wing. Gonchar will help the transition game and power play. Nill had to be glad to inherit Ray Whitney, who is playing well at 41.
MORE: Nichushkin adjusting quickly
Breakthrough candidate: It's strange to suggest that Seguin is a breakthrough candidate considering he has had a 67-point season. But he's almost starting from scratch, and the Stars are hoping he'll re-establish his star potential.
Key question: Who scores when Whitney and Benn don't? The Stars are counting on Seguin to be a franchise center and need Horcoff and Peverley to produce. Don't forget Peverley, 31, had 42 points in 57 games in his second season with the Boston Bruins. Horcoff, 34, has been a 20-goal scorer and 50-point producer in the past.
Forecast: As aggressive as Nill has been, a sixth consecutive season out of the playoffs is a possibility.
No. 6 Colorado Avalanche
2012-13 results: 16-25-7, last in West
Story line: Sakic and Roy together again in Denver
Goaltending: Semyon Varlamov (11-21-3, 3.02, .903). It will be interesting to see what kind of relationship develops between Varlamov and coach Patrick Roy. While Roy, a Hall of Fame goalie, will have a better understanding of what Varlamov is going through on the ice, he also could have higher expectations for him.
Analysis: The decision to bring in Joe Sakic as director of hockey operations and to name Roy coach has injected optimism and enthusiasm into the organization. The Avs have an impressive collection of young dynamic players, led by LW Gabriel Landeskog and Cs Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. The team seems headed in the right direction. However, Sakic and Roy have much work to do, particularly in improving the defense.
Breakthrough candidate: LW Jamie McGinn, 25, showed a greater offensive upside last season. He could score 16 to 20 goals.
Key question: Will the Avalanche trade O'Reilly? Too early to know. Yes, his contract expires next summer, and the Avalanche could be back in the same situation they were last year when they couldn't get him signed until they matched an offer sheet from the Flames. But the situation is much different now. Giving Sakic and Roy the power and drafting Nathan MacKinnon has changed the game in Colorado. If the Avalanche can keep O'Reilly to go with Duchene, Landeskog and MacKinnon, they could be very good for a long time.
Forecast: The Avs could be a major contender in 2015-16. But this is 2013-14, and even Roy's aura can't get them to the playoffs now.
No. 7 Winnipeg Jets
2012-13 results: 24-21-3, ninth in East
Story line: Jets move west and go on spending spree
Goaltending: Ondrej Pavelec (21-20-3, 2.85, .905). The ironman goalie led the NHL with 44 appearances. At 26, he is entering his prime.
Analysis: The Jets hope their move to the Western Conference, along with their decision to tie up their top players with long contracts, will set them up for an extended run of success. Certainly, the travel will be better. Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian are signed for five years or more, and none makes less than $4.7million. Dustin Byfuglien, another $5 million player, has three years left on his deal. The Jets have enough offensive fuel. Underrated Andrew Ladd was close to a point-per-game player last season. Big, fast Wheeler is now considered one of the league's more dangerous threats on the wing. The jury is still out on Kane's star potential, but he is an offensive force. Byfuglien might be the league's most unique man. He's a giant on skates with a wickedly heavy shot and a knack for making big offensive plays.
MORE: Realignment brings twist to new season
Breakthrough candidate: Bogosian, 23, seems ready to take the next step and become a premium defenseman. He needs to be more consistent and generate more offense.
Key question: Can the Jets improve defensively enough to challenge in the West? The team's 2012-13 goals-against numbers would have been among the worst in the West last season.
Forecast: Even in a new conference, the Jets aren't cleared for takeoff. The planets don't seem aligned for a playoff spot.