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Blues have work cut out for them in Central

Blues have work cut out for them in Central

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Chicago Blackhawks vs St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen keeps an eye on the puck in the second period during a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

The Blues enjoy their games against the Chicago Blackhawks as much as their fans, but defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk admitted before Thursday’s preseason finale that he wouldn’t have minded a different opponent.

It was the Blues’ second exhibition meeting with Chicago and their fourth against a Central Division foe, including two earlier against Dallas.

“It’s tough having to play the teams in your division in the preseason, when you know you’re going to see them again and again ... you’d think maybe we can get out to the East Coast or something,” Shattenkirk said, smiling. “But it’s good. We get to take a peek at what the other teams in our division are looking like, their lineup combinations and all those kinds of things that we can start preparing for now.”

Though no NHL clubs suit up their full arsenal, the Blues did finish their six-game preseason schedule 4-2, including 3-1 against their division after Thursday’s 5-2 win to the Blackhawks.

But as the reigning Central champs and winner of two of the last four crowns, the Blues know as well anyone that nothing can truly prepare teams for arguably the best division in the league, based on the number of playoff qualifiers the past two seasons.

Since the NHL realigned in 2013-14, the Central has advanced the maximum five teams to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — the only one of the four divisions that can make that claim.

“It’s really good, really deep,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “We saw that last year when five teams made the playoffs. So it’s deep, we know it, and it should definitely make for an interesting regular season. Obviously all the games are important, but in-division is going to be huge for those top three spots.”

The Blues went 17-11-1 versus the Central last season, finishing seven points ahead of Chicago. But while they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Blackhawks went on to earn their third Stanley Cup trophy in six seasons.

Once again, a Chicago title was followed with the Hawks being forced to part with a few key players in order to get below the salary cap. They dealt Patrick Sharp to Dallas, Brandon Saad to Columbus and Kris Versteeg to Carolina, and meanwhile let Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette leave via free agency.

Much like when Chicago won the Cup in 2013 and 2010 and shed salary, some are predicting a drop-off for the Hawks this season, but none of those folks wear the Blues’ sweater for a living.

“No, they’ve kept the guys there that have been kind of the spine of the team,” Shattenkirk said. “They have good core guys there that are going to be there for a while. They lose some key guys, but it’s (Patrick) Kane and (Jonathan) Toews, they make a lot of guys into better players. They keep bringing in some new talent. They’re not going to be a slouch this year.”

And neither, it appears, will anyone else in the Central.

Nashville finished with 104 points last season under first-year coach Peter Laviolette, a 16-point jump from the previous season, and finished second in the division behind the Blues. The Predators didn’t have many major additions this offseason, but another year of development for youngsters Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones should bode well.

Minnesota finished fourth in the division, but as the top wildcard team in the West, the Wild knocked off the Blues in the first round of the playoffs and, despite being swept by Chicago in the second round, lasted longer than any other qualifier except the Blackhawks. The club was rather quiet this offseason, but did re-sign goalie Devan Dubnyk to a six-year, $26 million extension.

Winnipeg was fifth in the division last year, securing the second wild card, but the Jets were swept in the first round by Anaheim. They also stayed out of the headlines this summer, but may not have needed much after last season’s big trade with Buffalo for Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers, giving them a jolt in the second half.

“At the end of the (regular season), they were one of the best teams in the league,” Blues goalie Jake Allen said.

Though Dallas and Colorado were the only two teams to miss the playoffs from the division in 2014-15, all seven finished the regular season with 90-plus points — again making it the only division in the league to accomplish that.

In addition to picking up Sharp from Chicago, Dallas signed Oduya away from the Blackhawks and also inked San Jose free-agent goaltender Antti Niemi.

“The upgrades Dallas made, obviously they’ve got some winners, got another good goaltender,” Allen said. “Colorado had a bit of a different year with injuries and stuff last year. But they’re very dangerous and have one of the best goalies in the league.

“So it’s pretty crazy to see how the division fluctuates. You can’t let the ball drop. Every point is crucial. It’s just such a challenge and it’s more rewarding in the end when you do come out on top. It’s going to be an amazing division and an amazing year. I’m excited for the fans and excited for us as well. It’s fun to play against the best of the best.”

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Jeremy Rutherford is the lead Blues beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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