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Shots on Goal: Top 9 Early Look - Central Division

Peter Maingot

Peter has been covering fantasy sports for Rotowire for over 10 years. He's covered hockey, football and basketball over the past decade but now focuses strictly on the frozen game. From the Great White North, Peter is a strong proponent of physical, up tempo hockey.

The NHL landscape has changed drastically over the past seven weeks. This seven-week window has included the NHL Entry Draft, the start of free agency, and all 30 teams' prospect development camps. With that in mind we will begin a series of articles looking at each division on a team-by-team basis to discern the important alterations that affect fantasy hockey. We will look at departures, additions, as well as those rookies/prospects that are knocking on the proverbial door for key roster spots. This examination will not cover every player movement but rather those that are considered more pertinent for roto players. Thus don't be concerned if most fourth liners are omitted.

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell - Patrick Sharp - Patrick Kane
Brandon Pirri /Jeremy Morin - Andrew Shaw/Pirri - Shaw/Jimmy Hayes/Ben Smith

With Bryan Bickell re-signed the top two lines return intact from last season. Last year's rookie success story, Brandon Saad (27 points in 46 games), will once again skate with Jonathan Toews (48 points in 47 games) and Marian Hossa. There's not much of a drop off, if any, from Line 1 to Line 2. The big if is whether Bickell can once again play the kind of effective game that he displayed in the playoffs. Bickell had nine goals and 23 points in 48 regular season games before exploding in the playoffs with nine goals and 17 points in 23 games. The Patricks - Sharp and Kane - are certainly far more known commodities than Bickell.

There are two spots up for grabs on the third line to play alongside Andrew Shaw. It will be a very interesting training camp and exhibition season for Chicago's coaching staff as there are four players competing for the two openings: 22-year-old left wing Jeremy Morin (30 goals and 58 points in 67 AHL games last year), 22-year-old center Brandon Pirri (22 goals and 75 points in 76 AHL games last year), 23-year-old right wing Jimmy Hayes (25 goals and 45 points in 67 AHL games last year), and 25-year-old right wing Ben Smith (27 goals and 47 points in 54 AHL games last year). Shaw (21 goals in 85 career NHL games) can play center or right wing. Don't be surprised if they all get a chance at some point during the season due to injuries and potential growing pains. If we had to pick one prospect above the others it would be Pirri, with 174 points in 212 AHL games (0.83 ppg).

Colorado Avalanche

Ryan O'Reilly - Matt Duchene - Pierre Parenteau
Gabriel Landeskog - Paul Stastny - Alex Tanguay
Jamie McGinn - Nathan MacKinnon - Steve Downie

The first line is expected to see center Ryan O'Reilly convert to left wing with Matt Duchene playing center. Duchene, who bounced back nicely from a disappointing third season in 2011-12 (28 points in 54 games) with a statement fourth season scoring 43 points in 47 games - his best points per game average of his career (0.91 ppg). Amazingly, Duchene is still just 22. The right wing will be P.A. Parenteau, who immediately justified his 2012 free-agent deal with Colorado by scoring 18 goals and 43 points in 48 games. Parenteau is a late bloomer, a classic example of a seemingly career AHLer and scorer (403 points in 450 games) who finally got a fair shot on an NHL scoring line three years ago and made the most of it. Though 30 years old, Parenteau has played only 236 NHL games, 30 games less than Duchene and 29 games less than fellow 22-year-old O'Reilly.

The second line features young captain Gabriel Landeskog on the left side, Paul Stastny at center and offseason addition and former Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay playing out of position at right wing. Tanguay, normally a left winger, scored 400 points in 450 games for Colorado over his first six seasons in the league. The 33-year-old Tanguay, who scored 27 points in 40 games for Calgary last season, should be a huge upgrade over the departed David Jones (nine points in 33 games). Tanguay is an excellent passer which should help both Landeskog and Stastny, each of whom who struggled last season. They both had only nine goals each. Overall Landeskog had 17 points in 36 games while Stastny had 24 points in 40 games. It should also be noted that Stastny ($6.6 million per year) is an impending free agent who likely won't be back due to the team cap situation. The second line center will be highly motivated to produce this season and he'll be playing with gifted speedy wingers.

The Avs could have three good scoring lines this year, depending on how well rookie Nathan MacKinnon fairs in his first season. The first pick in this past June's NHL Entry Draft will have power forwards on each side - Jamie McGinn (6-1,210) on the left and Steve Downie (660 PIMs in 274 games) on the right. MacKinnon's gritty linemates should make life a little easier on the ice for the 18-year-old center. Moreover, each winger can pot the odd goal. McGinn had 18 goals in 2011-12 while Downie scored 14 goals in 2011-12.

Dallas Stars

Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Erik Cole
Ray Whitney - Rich Peverley - Alex Chiasson
Cody Eakin - Shawn Horcoff - Valeri Nichushkin/Brett Ritchie

The Stars have potentially four new additions to their top nine this season. Last year's No. 1 center Jamie Benn is moving back to his natural left wing spot while new addition Tyler Seguin will take over the No. 1 center spot. The first line right wing job could be a fluid situation if Erik Cole struggles like he did last year. Cole managed just 13 points in 47 games split between Montreal and Dallas after averaging 31 goals and 57 points over the previous two seasons. However, we still expect Cole to start the season at RW1.

The second line is led by wily 21-year vet Ray Whitney at left wing, who can still score close to a point per game (29 points in 32 games) despite being 41. The second line center will be either Rich Peverley or Cody Eakin. Peverley, who can also play right wing, was acquired in the Boston trade that also involved the former Bruin Seguin and former Star Loui Eriksson. Peverley had a forgettable season last year but he did score 42 points in 57 games in 2011-12. Eakin, who played second line center last year for Dallas scoring 24 points in 48 games, may start the year at third line left wing to provide a little extra grit. Youngster Alex Chiasson has a good shot at being the second line right wing, as he developed instant chemistry with Whitney late last season. Chiasson scored six goals and seven points in seven games after being called up from the AHL in April. The 22-year-old has good size at 6-3, 210 and has NHL bloodlines (Steve Chiasson RIP).

Former Oiler Shawn Horcoff will be the third line center likely with Eakin at left wing and 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin expected to at least start the year at right wing. The forward situation at right wing is fairly fluid, as we mentioned already, but this is how we envision the season starting off. Should Nichushkin not be a regular after the first 20 games he cannot be sent down to the AHL, per his contract agreement with Dallas, he would have to be returned to Dynamo of the KHL. If he does go back, fellow prospect Brett Ritchie should be next in line. Ritchie, who turned 20 in July, had 41 goals and 76 points in 53 OHL games last year in addition to four points in six games while representing Team Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships. He's a big body at 6-4, 215.

Minnesota Wild

Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Jason Pominville
Dany Heatley/Jason Zucker - Mikael Granlund/Charlie Coyle - Dany Heatley/Coyle
Jason Zucker/Matt Cooke- Kyle Brodziak - Matt Cooke/Nino Niederreiter

The Wild's first line is easy to like. Zach Parise led the team in scoring with 38 points in 48 games while his center Mikko Koivu finished second with 37 points in 48 games. Then add Jason Pominville. The right winger had four goals and nine points in 10 games for Minnesota after the trade from Buffalo. What's not to like?

The second line situation is far more uncertain and a lot of it depends on the health of Dany Heatley. Heatley, who's been a huge disappointment for the Wild with just 35 goals and 74 points in 118 games, had shoulder surgery in April but expects to be ready for training camp in September. If he hadn't been injured this summer the team would have bought him out via the amnesty provision. Heatley, though just 32, appears to be a shell of his former self. His scoring has dropped significantly over the past three seasons. Heatley scored 299 goals and 631 points in his first 589 games. Since then, over the past three years he's scored only 61 goals and 138 points in 198 games. His goals-per-game rate has dropped from 0.508 gpg to 0.308 gpg. He's essentially gone from being a 42-goal scorer who averaged 1.06 points per game to a 25-goal scorer who averages 0.70 points per game (57 points per season). Perhaps the former All-Star LW/RW will be extra motivated by the fact that he's in the final year of his contract that carries a $5.7 million cap hit. Just don't draft him for your roto team expecting more than 25 goals and 55 points.

Assuming Heatley's healthy for camp the next question revolves around the No. 2 center position. Last year 21-year-old center Mikael Granlund was brought over from Finland with much hype and fanfare. Granlund struggled mightily with just eight points in 27 games. Granlund should be better prepared for this season, having spent a year now on the smaller ice. He displayed skill in the AHL (28 points in 29 games) but the speed of the parent league is faster. If he needs more seasoning in the AHL another 21-year-old - Charlie Coyle - could be the second line center. Coyle, who had 14 points in 37 games for the Wild last year, can also play right wing. Another second line forward could be Jason Zucker. Zucker, like Granlund and Coyle also 21, has shown himself to be a proficient scorer both in college (45 goals, 91 points in 78 games) and in the AHL (24 goals, 50 points in 55 games). Zucker got to spend some time on Granlund's wing, both in the NHL and AHL last year so they'll be looking to continue working on that chemistry should they both crack the second line.

The third line features gritty winger Matt Cooke, signed in July as a free agent, and tough two-way center Kyle Brodziak. The third line right wing should be former Islander Nino Niederreiter. The 20-year-old Swiss native was drafted 5th overall in 2010 but has yet to make an impact in the NHL. He'll have less pressure in Minnesota than he did in Long Island as a top-five pick. Moreover, playing with Cooke and Brodziak will afford him some protection plus they are each capable of scoring 15+ goals.

Nashville Predators

Colin Wilson - Mike Fisher - Patric Hornqvist
Gabriel Bourque - David Legwand - Craig Smith
Eric Nystrom - Matt Cullen - Viktor Stalberg

The Predators have always been a pretty low scoring team that plays a tight checking style of hockey. Not always fun for purists but it's been a winning formula for the NHL's current longest running coach, Barry Trotz. Fantasy-wise there aren't many options at forward, with the best two being first line wings Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson. If we forget about last season's injury riddled four-goals and 14 points in 24 games disaster, Hornqvist has averaged 26 goals and 47 points over his last three full NHL seasons. That puts him on the radar in 12 team leagues that start three right wings. The 23-year-old Wilson, the seventh pick overall in '08, was finally coming into his own last season scoring 19 points in 25 games before he was felled by injury. The first line center is Mike Fisher who has only managed 84 points in 137 games since he joined Nashville at the trade deadline in 2011.

The second line could see a battle at center between incumbent David Legwand (25 points in 48 games) and July free-agent signee Matt Cullen (27 points in 42 games for Minnesota). The wingers are expected to be Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith.

The third line will most likely feature Cullen at center with fellow offseason additions Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg (23 points in 47 games for Chicago). Stalberg, however, could push Bourque for the second line left wing spot.

St. Louis Blues

Alexander Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka/Jaden Schwartz - Derek Roy - Chris Stewart
Magnus Paajarvi - Patrik Berglund - Vladimir Tarasenko

The Blues lost two top nine forwards over the summer: Andy McDonald retired and David Perron was traded to Edmonton for 22-year-old Magnus Paajarvi. The team also signed free agent center Derek Roy to a one-year contract for $4 million and plan to play him with power forward Chris Stewart. While coach Ken Hitchcock likes to mix his lines, he wants to pair up certain players for this season. He foresees three pairings, ironically each pairing is of different nationality - Americans David Backes and T.J. Oshie, Canadians Roy and Stewart, and the Swedes Paajarvi and Patrik Berglund.

The first line returns from last year, as Alex Steen (27 points in 40 games) had taken over McDonald's former first-line left wing spot. Backes is motivated to put up better numbers this year after scoring just six goals in 48 games last year. The former 30-goal scorer saw his shooting percent drop to 6% last year from his career rate of 11.6%. More alarming was his drop in shots on goal. After 234 shots in 82 games two seasons ago, or 2.85 shots per game, Backes launched just 100 shots in 48 games last season - 2.08 shots. Oshie is the right wing. He was limited to 30 games last year scoring seven times and 20 points.

While the Blues don't have an elite first line they are poised to ice very promising second and third lines. Roy and Stewart will be joined by one of Vladimir Sobotka or Jaden Schwartz to play left wing on the second line. Sobotka is an underrated talent who can play anywhere in the lineup, scoring line or checking line, while Schwartz is a speedy offensive player who put up big numbers in college (32 goals and 88 points in 60 games) before turning pro in the spring of 2012. Schwartz, who turned 21 this summer, split his first pro season between the AHL (19 points in 33 games) and the NHL (13 points in 45 games).

The third line sees the Swedes Paajarvi (6-3, 208) and Berglund (6-3, 217) playing alongside 21-year-old Russian Vladimir Tarasenko at right wing. Tarasenko started off his rookie year well then suffered concussion symptoms that cost him 10 games and was practically running on empty when he did return later in the season. He's improved his English this summer and worked on his game. We can expect to see a more confident and consistent player this season. The third line will be one of the most dangerous third lines in the league, possessing size and skill.

Winnipeg Jets

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Olli Jokinen - Michael Frolik
James Wright/Eric Tangradi - Mark Scheifele - Devin Setoguchi

The Jets re-signed all of their top nine players except for Alexander Burmistrov, who left for the KHL. The team expects to have three new additions to their top nine this season. Nevertheless, the first line returns "as is" from last season. Led by power forward wingers Andrew Ladd (46 points in 48 games), their leading scorer, and Blake Wheeler (41 points in 48 games, their second leading scorer, this line should be even better this season if the second line can be more effective.

Last season the second line was unproductive and the main culprit was Olli Jokinen, who was terrible. Jokinen was a minus-19 and had but seven goals and a meager 14 points in 45 games despite averaging 17:08 of ice time with 2:20 on the power play. This had a negative impact on Evander Kane, who saw his numbers drop from 30 goals in 74 games (0.41 gpg) two seasons ago to 17 goals in 48 games (0.35 gpg) last season. Kane points per game also dropped from 0.77 ppg to 0.69 ppg. The Jets must have a better season from Jokinen this year if they want more balanced scoring and any chance of a playoff berth. The second line right wing spot will be decided in camp and preseason as offseason additions Devin Setoguchi (27 points in 48 games) and Michael Frolik will battle for the spot. Frolik was a top six/nine forward his first three seasons in the league while playing for Florida (50 goals, 117 points in 213 games) before he was traded to Chicago. In Chicago he was a checking line forward but he's very fast and still just 25 years old. Still, we like Setoguchi's chances for the second line gig, unless the team decides it wants a finisher for the third line to play with prized rookie center Mark Scheifele. Scheifele was dominant in his last year in junior, scoring 79 points in 45 regular season games and 41 points in 21 playoff games. The third line left wing spot will go to either James Wright or Eric Tangradi. Unlike Scheifele, neither Wright nor Tangradi appear to have top-six potential.