<
>

Central only going to get tougher for Hawks

The Chicago Blackhawks can exhale. They won't have to deal with their Central Division foes again this season.

After a regular season where the Blackhawks had only the fourth-best record (13-13-3) within the Central, they were able to find a way past two division opponents and into the Western Conference finals to face a Pacific Division team.

The St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild certainly didn't make advancing easy on the Blackhawks, whose first two series included six one-goal games and four overtime games. The Blackhawks were outshot in both series.

The future likely will be more of the same or even worse for the Blackhawks. There's plenty of skill already in place in the Central, and more experience will only make it more competitive.

The Wild have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu all locked up for at least the next four seasons. Parise and Suter aren't free agents until 2025. Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter and Marco Scandella are all 24 years old or younger. Matt Moulson and Dany Heatley become unrestricted free agents after the season. The Wild figure to have better luck in the future when it comes to healthy goaltenders. Niklas Backstrom is signed for two more seasons.

The Blues have David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester all signed for at least two more seasons. Oshie and Steen aren't free agents until 2017, and Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are even later than that. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz are 22 years old or younger. The Blues also have some salaries coming off the books after this season and will allow some cap space to be able to make a run at some free agents. They'll be sure to address their goaltender situation this offseason.

The Avalanche weren't expected to rise so quickly, and they're only going to get better with time. Nathan MacKinnon is 18 years old. Matt Duchene, who is signed through the 2018-19 season, is 23. Gabriel Landeskog is 21. Ryan O'Reilly is 23. Tyson Barrie is 22. The Avalanche had 10 players who were 25 years old or younger on their roster at the end of the season. Erik Johnson is signed for two more seasons. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who troubled the Blackhawks all season, is signed through the 2018-19 season. Paul Stastny is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Dallas Stars also took a step forward this season. With Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Chiasson, Cody Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Antoine Roussel and Brenden Dillon all being 24 years old or younger, the Stars have a bright future as well. The Nashville Predators finished only three points behind the Stars and have players such as Shea Weber and Seth Jones who will be around for a long time. The Winnipeg Jets finished two games over .500 and will add another top-10 draft pick in June.

When you add it all up, the Central should be a Royal Rumble for years to come.