After some seriously lean years at the beginning of this decade, it looks like the Central Division might be the strongest in the Western Conference this year. You want a Calder Trophy winning netminder? Check. How about another goaltender who should have been a Calder Trophy finalist? Check. What about one of the best young teams in the league that was MISSING their cornerstone defensemen last season—yet still managed to earn the 6th seed in the Western Conference? Check. And those are the BOTTOM three teams in the Division. Check mate.
In case you haven’t heard, there are a couple of decent teams at the top of the Division as well. The Red Wings have had a stranglehold on the Central since—well, since they started calling it the Central Division. The Blackhawks have finally parlayed all of those crappy years and high draft picks into a contender. And they fired the guy that put this contender together. And their young superstar had issues with his cab fare (sorry, still not old to me yet). Oh, then there’s that Hossa guy. Apparently he switched teams within the division. Not sure if you heard.
If nothing else, there should be a lot of hockey and some growing hate between the teams in the Central Division this season. Here to break it down for us are a great collection of hockey bloggers from all over the Central Division. Chief from Abel to Yzerman and Jessica from Bingo Bango give us as much Red Wings analysis as we could handle. Matthew from 2nd City Hockey kicks in his thoughts on the maturing Blackhawks. John from Light The Lamp (Blue Jackets) and Laura from St Louis Game Time (Blues) tell us why their teams are going to take the next step this season; Mark from The View From 111 tells us what Predators fans can expect with a full season with Pekka Rinne.
And so begins our breakdown of each Division in the Western Conference. Tomorrow we’ll have a Pacific Division Roundtable with 5 more bloggers. Our week long Roundtable Preview week will conclude on Saturday with the Northwest Division getting their day in the sun. If you’re interested in any of the Eastern Conference Roundtable Discussions from earlier this week, here’s a list of all the Divisions and the appropriate links.
Sit back and relax– this is a lengthy discussion (Jessica, I’m looking at you). You might want to get a sandwich/beer for this one. And when you’re done, we want to hear your comments. Did the bloggers get it right? Are they completely off base? What do YOU think?
Onto the guests of honor…
1. Why is your team going to be better than they were last season?
Chief (Red Wings): I honestly don’t know if we’re going to be better, or not. I’m not sure we need to. Realistically, we need to be better than Chicago and I’m not concerned about that because of their goaltending. Then we need to be better than Boston. They worried me last season and still do. I think we can count on Osgood being better during the regular season, but it’s not a requirement as he proved in the playoffs.
The Wings don’t need to improve. They just need to be healthy going into the Finals. Pittsburgh proved that even a mediocre team can beat a great one if players like Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Rafalski and Cleary are all hurt.
Jessica (Red Wings): Well despite the fact that the mainstream media have already predicted the demise of the Red Wings dynasty, and a certain Pensblog twitted or maybe more appropriately for them twatted that the Wings will fail to make the playoffs, I think they are underestimating this team of champions. This failure of other teams to respect their superiors will certainly make watching the Wings piss in Bettman’s cereal once again that much more delightful and rewarding. Oh I know I sound like a cocky, pompous, arrogant, elitist Red Wings fan, but suck it. Call me a douchebag bastard if you will, but the Wings will once again finish the regular season at the top. We fans have a lot to be excited about. Let’s begin with the obvious, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Osgood, Franzen, Kronwall….oh you know the lists goes on. They have some of the best players in the league compiled on one team, and the kicker is they know how to win. Sure Hossa jumped ship quicker than a college freshman loses their morality, but he doesn’t seem to be clutch when necessary so quite frankly I was ok to see him and his butt buddy Kopecky go. Actually when Kopecky left I performed an Andy Bernard inspired dance in the middle of my cube, trust me Chicago by the end of the season you’ll understand. Anywho, I digress, many of the Wings best players are reaching their prime while their veterans are still strong contributors and difference makers. Ummm the day you begin betting against the abilities of the superhuman, the super Swede that is Nick Lidstrom is the day you deserve to be, well, Kronwalled.
Even if we ignore the veteran talent and experience that packs the Wings locker room, there are multiple young players ready to step up and prove themselves to the organization. It’s hard to crack the Wings line up but this year Leino, Helm, and Ericsson will all enjoy a full NHL season and will make the most of it. This may be one of greatest factors contributing to a better 2010 Red Wings – some young talent with just the right amount of energy. Leino is certain to bring in a great deal of offensive talent and play making abilities. Darren Helm personally bent the Chicago Blackhawks power play unit over with what I affectionately call “the kill.” Ericsson, the seemingly 9 foot tall Swedish beast, will be sending the fear through the hearts of forwards and their mothers’ league wide. It’s an exciting time to watch the Wings meld their core with the new young players.
And yet if that still weren’t enough of a reason to be excited and expect more from the Wings, there is the motivation to regain what is rightfully theirs. Oh I said it. All the little whinny bitches out there salivating over the possibility of a Wings downfall, you will be disappointed. This team is ready to once again cause Crosby to go running and crying into Mario and Bettman’s arms wondering why, why life is so unfair. They have the number one motivation. To prove that last year was a fluke compounded by injuries and a cup hangover. Something of theirs was taken away, and they’ll get it back.
Matthew (Blackhawks): There are a couple reasons – first up, they were a young team last year and just about everyone is coming back. There’s so much young talent on the team that having another year under their belts makes them a bit more dangerous. Many of the kids are also just coming to the age where they’re creeping up to the theoretical primes of their careers. Kane, Toews, Versteeg and others are all still on their way up. There’s also some of the not talked about signings that the Hawks had over the summer. John Madden could be a great piece to add some grit and skill to a 3rd line. Also (hopefully) watch for Hjalmarsson to step it up in his first full year in the show. Of course there’s also the signing of Hossa who will make the top lines for the Hawks just scary good. And hey, Pat Kane isn’t going to jail … that’s always good news.
John (Blue Jackets): With names like Fedorov, Foote, Zherdev, Hainsey and Vyborny on their way out last offseason and names like Commodore, Huselius, Tyutin, Umberger and Torres in the Jackets had a lot of new faces in their lineup and a short time to work on developing team chemistry. With that in mind they got off a very slow start to the season going 4-6-0 over their first 10 games. They eventually recovered off the surprising and stellar play of Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason and strong team commitment to all 3 zones.
This year the Jackets shouldn’t have those early season team chemistry issues as only two new faces will be introduced into the lineup in checking line center Sammy Pahlsson and backup goaltender Mathieu Garon.
They will also have rookies who made significant contributions last season with guys like Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Derick Dorsett and course Steve Mason returning for their sophomore campaigns looking to build off the success they had the previous season and play even bigger roles in the lineup.
While they haven’t yet addressed their need for a right handed puck moving defensemen the continued development of players like Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell should help improve on what was the worst ranked power play in the league last season.
Add in the potential of pre-season Calder candidate Nikita Filatov and the long term stability of a re-signed and franchise cornerstone Rick Nash and the Jackets have for the first time what looks, on paper at least, to be a potent offense capable of burning holes in nets around the league.
Laura (Blues): They have to be. All kidding aside, they’ll be better because they know what they’re capable of and they now know clearly what is expected of them. Instead of having the benchmark of “Hey – we weren’t last!” to surpass, they have that first round sweep to make up for – quite a bit more motivation. They’ve lost veteran leadership in Jay McKee and Manny Legace (though the effectiveness of Emo Manny is open for conversation), but they kept Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald, and Paul Kariya, who are more than enough to help guide the kids.
Speaking of the kids, they’re another year older and another year wiser (and another year less hurt from a golf cart). If you think that TJ Oshie, David Perron, and Patrik Berglund were fun LAST year, wait until this season.
Mark (Predators): There are several reasons why I believe the Predators will be better than last season. First, goaltending is a settled issue. Pekka Rinne is established as the number one goalie. Dan Ellis will challenge and get playing time, but this is Pekka’s job. Last season was a rotation until midway through the schedule, when Rinne claimed the starter’s job. Once that happened, the team seemed to settle down in front of him and play solid defense. I look for Pekka to build off a solid campaign last season to become one of the top goalies in the league. Secondly, having a healthy Steve Sullivan will positively affect the offensive production of this team. Sully is an offensive threat and a playmaker that commands the respect of the opposing team’s D, and his presence on the ice makes his line mates more productive. Lastly, I think this is the year players like Marty Erat and David Legwand “get it”. They are starting to reach their prime as hockey players and realize they have to improve their game and step to the next level. The team has made a commitment to them by locking them up to healthy long term contracts; the coaches have called for more production and better effort; and I believe they will respond. Their productivity of the second line and these two players in particular, is essential to this team improving their scoring and getting back to the playoffs.
2. What part of your team scares the hell out of you this season?
Chief (Red Wings): The penalty kill. Again. That worries me because I think it equals intensity. I believe last year’s poor performance on the kill was the only real indication of a Cup hangover. That carried over, the weak PK, all the way through the playoffs.
Jessica (Red Wings): Now despite the fact that my first answer may have come off a wee bit cocky if you will, there are still a number of things that scare the hell out of me. Oh yes some issues may cause me to experience the fear Kane had when he bitched out and skated away after the big bad Franzen stole his mouth guard and still other issues may cause family and friends to lock me away under observation for a few days while I rock back and forth and sort my animal crackers by species. What can I say I am full of contradictions when it comes to the Red Wings this season?
They lost a great deal of offensive power, there is no getting around that and it was a frightening kick to the balls. Instead we now have Jason “I’d rather rot away in mediocrity in Columbus” Williams and Todd “I have more baggage than a jilted lover” Bertuzzi. Yeah that last one still stings. I’m excited about the core of the team, but the new players brought in and the young guys coming up for their first full season will have a lot of challenges. It scares the hell out of me that this could be a rebuilding year full of frustrations and the loss of the Central Division.
We then have the possibility of pure and utter exhaustion. Multiple years of serious ass kicking and ball stomping is bound to take its toll. Add in an Olympic year plus two consecutive finals appearances, will they have enough gas to get through this? Will the team once again find the switch they’re sure to need in the playoffs? Exhaustion is a possibility.
However, if I am forced to pick the one thing that scares me the most, it would be the goaltending situation. Ozzie cannot afford to have an off regular season again. No “finals hangover” if you will. There is no Conklin to pull him through. Instead he will potentially need to make up for an inconsistent, young goaltender in a do or die situation. The positive, despite perhaps last year’s playoffs, a goalie for the Wings does not need to steal games, he simply needs to do his job
Matthew (Blackhawks): There are a couple things here too – the biggest thing on ice is probably the situation between the pipes. Huet had a solid but far from stellar year for the Hawks after splitting time with Khabby last season. The fact that he played in only 3 of the playoff games doesn’t speak too highly for him, especially since he was downright awful in one of them. He ended strongly in the final game against the Wings though so we’ll have to wait and see how he can do with the number one job. The Hawks have two capable backups in Rockford with Crawford and Niemi. Both have seen some time with the Hawks but neither has really proven to be the future of the team. Off ice there’s all the issues with the front office that stand to distract us from possibly the strongest Hawks team we’ve seen in a long time. Hopefully with Tallon taking hush money and Bowman in place we can just put it all behind us and focus on the team.
John (Blue Jackets): No question it’s the power play. GM Scott Howson was able to check off everything on his offseason priority list except obtaining that right handed puck mover to not only help the power play but to also compliment a defensive corps that while being a solid and underrated group, consists primarily of defending defensemen.
The organization is very aware of this need in the lineup and there is still time to address it however Scott Howson is a very patient and calculated man who won’t just make a move to make it. He understands there are no shortcuts to building a consistent contender and will only make a move when it makes sense for the short and long term future of this franchise.
Should he fail to land that puck mover he’ll have to rely on improvement from within to help the power play? Suggestions have also been made that both Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek will be given long looks on the power play points in camp.
Laura (Blues): I’d like to lie and say “nothing,” but honestly, I can’t. Our special teams were excellent during the regular season, but then fell apart during the postseason. That needs to improve. The injury-ability of some of the older guys that we need worry me. The fact that this will be season 2 as a starter for Mason, and we all saw how that worked for him in Nashville concerns me as well. I’m glad for the ConkBlock pick-up, but it still is a bit of an issue to me.
Mark (Predators): Two types of scared here- scary frightening and scary good. The scary frightening aspect of the Predators is if the injury bug hits either of the top two lines, there will be some really young pups out on the ice. I look for some youngsters on the third line anyway- Colin Wilson, Mike Santorelli, and Cal O’Reilly to name some possibilities, and given their talent and drive they could be productive. If we have to move them up to the first or second lines due to injury, then I think the learning curve steepens and scoring is going to take a nasty hit. That is something the offensively challenged Preds can’t afford.
The aspect of the team that I think will be scary good is the blueline. Shea Weber is a beast and grabs the headlines, but Ryan Suter has elevated his game and has quietly turned into a very good NHL D-man. Dan Hamuis continues to improve his game and if on some other team could be a top two D-man. There has been some question about the youth and experience of the D corps behind these guys, but I think having a full season under his belt will allow Kevin Klein to continue to develop into a solid defender, and I think the pleasant surprises for the Preds will some of the players in Milwaukee (our AHL affiliate) that will make the jump. I expect Alexander Sulzer to secure a roster spot and play well this season. Cody Franson, Jonathan Blum, and Teemu Laakso will vie for a shot at regular playing time. The blue line got younger for the Preds with the loss of Greg de Vries and Greg Zannon, but I believe they improved the overall talent and potential upside with the young guys. I will go out on a limb (albeit a short one) and say this group could be one of the best defensive corps in the NHL in the upcoming season.
3. Every year there are players that break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes they’re rookies that are expected to be great, sometimes they are rookies that shock the world and sometimes they’re younger players that simply come into their own. Who is someone on your team that we should all look to have a breakout season?
Chief (Red Wings): I’d recommend you watch Jonathon Ericsson. His name became familiar in the playoffs, especially when he played less than 48 hours after an appendectomy. But he’s mean, he’s big and he’s got a cannon for a shot.
Jessica (Red Wings): Tough question! There are a number of players I could see really stepping up and breaking out. Filppula will finally be getting second line and power play minutes, Kronwall is entering his prime along with the benefit of Lidstrom being a constant mentor, Helm gave us the greatest penalty kill I have personally witnessed, I’m not a crier but that damn kid brought a tear to my eye and warmed this cold heart. But I still think the breakout player will be Ville Leino.
Already a confirmed star and MVP of the Finnish league, Leino put his time in the AHL last season and is ready to prove himself with the big club. During his first game with the Wings last season he had a beautiful wrap around goal against the Capitals. Yes he’s ready.
While he still is not aware of what the term backchecking means, (I’m hoping it’s just a language issue and not a lack of defensive ability) I think he will explode offensively and become a strong second line winger. With a little Babcockian ass kicking and discipline mixed with Datsyuk, Filppula, and Zetterberg as possible mentors Leino’s puck handling and play making abilities will allow him to be a difference maker. And quite frankly, with the Wings offensive losses, it’s important for him to step up and lay the Finnish hammer on some unsuspecting defensemen.
Matthew (Blackhawks): With so many young guys on the roster, there’s a couple. Among the three writers for our site, we all came up with different players to keep an eye on. I think the best bet is probably Niklas Hjalmarsson. He made the roster starting the year but got injured on just his first shift against the Rangers. He didn’t make it back on the team until March but finally found his place anchoring the blue line while Brian Campbell does what he does best (read: spin-o-ramas). The more we saw of him the more we liked him. He’s solid in his own end, brings some toughness and isn’t totally inept on providing some offense. The biggest thing for him will be learning to use his size and hit a bit more. He’s 6’2 and 200lbs but rarely used that frame to knock around the other teams.
John (Blue Jackets): Derick Brassard was off to a terrific start last season as a rookie notching 10 goals, 15 assists for 25 points in 31 games before suffering a season ending shoulder injury in a fight against James Neal of the Dallas Stars.
Brassard is an extremely competitive and gifted player. He isn’t afraid of the “rough” areas of the ice and has shown the ability to score goals in addition to making world class plays at high speed. He has said to be 100% healthy and to have added some nice bulk to his frame.
What makes him even more attractive is that he’s expected to center the #1 line between Rick Nash and Kristian Huslieus. With those two riding shotgun and assuming he can stay healthy look for Brassard to put up big numbers over the course of an 82 game season.
Laura (Blues): Erik Johnson has something to prove this year – he was chomping at the bit near the end of last season because he wanted to return, and he trained all summer with Al MacInnis, so look for some motivation and improved playmaking ability there. Hopefully Al taught him how to work from the point, because we are lacking in that.
TJ Oshie should continue to impress, and I would toss in David Backes, but seeing as how he might be the 1st line center for the US Olympic team, it seems like people have noticed him already. I, for one, am looking to see what Alex Pietrangelo has up his sleeve for a full year. I completely expect him to make the cut this year thanks to the Brewer injury.
Mark (Predators): There are going to be some young players on this roster, and it’s difficult to gauge how a young player, especially a forward, will produce. I do look for good things out of Colin Wilson. I think he makes the roster and is very productive. As I stated earlier, I think we will have some of the young D put forth a solid campaign. But the player that I believe is going to truly have what we would call a “breakout season”, and my answer will surprise those that know me since I have not been a big fan, is David Legwand. I think David finally gets it, as I mentioned in reply to the first question. He knows what it takes to succeed in the league, but frankly at times has not been consistent enough in his efforts. David was the number two draft choice in 1998, and many frustrated Nashville fans will tell you that he hasn’t produced like a second overall pick and there are times he just disappears when he is on the ice. In fairness, he has drawn major defensive responsibilities in the Preds system, but I think he can be more productive offensively as well (his best NHL season was in 2006-2007; 27-36-63). David has the tools- speed, vision, and hands to be a better scorer and play maker. I believe this is the year that he really starts to put effort together with his skills and matures into the player many thought he would be when he was drafted.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games, you start to appreciate things that casual fans won’t necessarily know. Who’s the guy on your team that doesn’t get nearly the respect that he deserves?
Chief (Red Wings): It’s an interesting question because I’d say there are about ten Red Wings who fall into that category. I’m talking about players as elite as Lidstrom and Zetterberg–who still don’t get the respect from the Canadian MSM, mainly because they’re Swedish. Then there are players like Dan Cleary, who plays both ends of the ice, PP and PK, last minute situations and in every conceivable scenario. He’d be the captain of twenty teams in the NHL, but in Detroit he’s another role player.
Jessica (Red Wings): While most teams would be happy to have Filppula on their second line I still truly believe he doesn’t get the respect or perhaps I should say notoriety he deserves. True, he has become the pinnacle of male fashion and style in the states with his flowing sun in golden locks, but that’s not enough for this potential Finnish star. This will be the year that he is known for more than his hair, the league and perhaps even Detroit fans take notice of his puck handling and play making abilities.
With Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Detroit’s own Eurotwins, most certainly being reunited on the first line, this gives Filppula the opportunity to increase his minutes while centering the second line. It’s the small little passes and playmaking that make him such a valuable player. Who can forget the pass he made during the 09 Western Conference Finals to Samuelsson finally proving to Chicago, that yes you’ve improved, but don’t think you can compete with The Detroit Red Wings… a reality check they soon won’t forget. Most players would have shot the puck but Filppula seems to think one step ahead and has the touch and puck handling skills to back him up. He will be a difference maker for the team this year whether the rest of the league takes notice or not.
Matthew (Blackhawks): There are two and they mostly played on the same line. Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland. A lot of questions were thrown our way when word came out that the Blackhawks signed Dave Bolland for $3.375 Million for 5 years. Most of them were something along the lines of “who?… why?” The truth is that Bolland proved that there isn’t much he can’t do when put in the proper spot. Playing with Martin Havlat allowed Bolland to dish the puck off and rack up assists (28) while also having a knack for scoring meaningful goals. His biggest strength though was his defensive play. When he was matched up against other teams’ top lines he had little trouble shutting them down. His QUALCOMP rating was second not on the team, but in the league (tied with Lidstrom). The only player that had a higher rating was Andrew Ladd. Both of these players could be considered Selke candidates (though probably not winners). These two together are great to watch – they won’t make many highlight reels but they’re the kind of player you love if you watch them all year long.
John (Blue Jackets): Hands down that guy is Jan Hejda.
Hejda is a 31 year old defending defenseman. He has led the Jackets in the +/- the past two season registering +20 and a +23. He logs huge minutes at even strength and in penalty kill situations. In fact he led all Jackets in penalty kill time with a total of 326:10 minutes which equals out to an average of 3:58 per game. He also isn’t afraid of the physical stuff registering 168 hits which was good for 2nd amongst all Jacket players.
While defense is Hejda’s prime responsibility he has also shown the ability to move the puck quickly and effectively out of his zone. His offensive production also jumped from 13p in the 07-08 season to 23p last year.
Still it’s Hedja consistency game in and game out in his own zone that earns him accolades from his coaches, teammates and fans alike. He is also well respected and liked by his teammates.
Laura (Blues): Can I be original and say everyone? No? Well, then, probably David Perron. I’m throwing him out there not just because few outside the St. Louis market appreciate his speed and amazing puckhandling skills (that ad on the NHL Network everyone saw last year? Yeah. That’s real – my boyfriend thought it was CGI until he saw him doing it during warm-ups). I’m also putting him up for consideration because he was part of EVERY SINGLE TRADE RUMOR AT THE DEADLINE LAST YEAR. Good God. Anyone who knows the Blues understands we would not have shipped him off as part of a deal for Blake Wheeler or (ugh) Chris Pronger.
Mark (Predators): There is no doubt in my mind that it is Head Coach Barry Trotz. Trotzy has done more with less than any coach in the NHL over the past 10 years. Trotz has piloted an expansion team into a highly competitive team that plays hard every night, and it has been done with less top to bottom talent in the lineup. The aspect of his coaching that is most impressive to me is that he takes what he is given and molds it into a squad that plays solid hockey. Last year, the Preds were anemic on offense, ranking 24th in the league in goals scored, yet they were in most every game because of sound coaching that emphasized solid D and an aggressive, attacking style of play. As the Preds made a run late last season for the final playoff spot (they just fell short), I felt that Trotz and his staff were pushing the right buttons and squeezing everything they could out of the personnel on the ice.
5. Prediction time: If you were throwing down some serious money, how do you think the final standings of the Central Division will shake out? More importantly, which teams do you think are going to make the playoffs from the Central?
Chief (Red Wings):
3rd: St. Louis
Top four will make it. Bubba’s shit out of luck again.
Jessica (Red Wings):
1. The Detroit Red Wings, oh come on you knew that was coming
2. The Chicago Blackhawks. Are we ready for an original 6 rivalry returning? With the off season changes made by the Blackhawks and their one year window fully choking them with pressure and expectations, it should be interesting to watch, or should I say enjoyable to observe them flounder when it really counts. Will they make the playoffs? Damnit yes they will. Mother fu……
3. St. Louis Blues. With the strides made last year they will only continue to grow. Will they make the playoffs? Yes.
4. Columbus BJs. Hot off their first playoff appearance they have a lot to prove. Led by Nash and young Steve Mason, they should be ready. True the Wings crudely took his playoff virginity last year, but if Mason can have another stellar season, Columbus should make the playoffs.
5. Nashville Predators. Heh? No I predict they don’t make the playoffs and quite frankly they will probably make me yawn this year.
Matthew (Blackhawks): This is an insanely difficult question. After being a joke for so long the Central became a powerhouse in the loaded Western Conference. Obviously the Wings have been a model franchise for a while but the Hawks are at their heels and could challenge for the division. The Blues and Blue Jackets are both teams that aren’t too much further behind and the Predators always seem to be around the race even if no one believes in them other than their own fans. For a little while it was looking like all 5 teams from the central could make the playoffs… that said… I think it goes like this:
Initially I had the Wings on top still but I decided to say screw it and go with the homer pick. I think the battle for the top spot will be a close contest and could come down to just a few points. Likewise I think the Blues and Jackets will go back and forth for the third spot and it’ll be another fun battle to watch. I also wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the Predators get in there and ruin my predictions just because they can. I’d love to see 4 teams from the division make the playoffs again but don’t want to be greedy so I’ll say the Jackets just barely miss out… sorry guys.
1. Detroit – x
2. Chicago – x
3. Columbus – x
4. St. Louis – x
I like Detroit to win the Central for two reasons – their power play and experience. Yes they have lost some firepower in guys like Hose, Samuelsson and Hudler but their power play will still be hard to stop with the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Rafalski and Holmstrom in front of the cage. As long as that thing keeps clicking they will be a threat in just about every game.
A lot of folks have talked about how two long Stanley Cup runs could catch up to them this season. I think that’s a fair statement but I also think the vast experience in that lineup will ensure that doesn’t happen.
The biggest weakness I see again on that Red Wings team is Osgood in the net. Unfortunately for the rest of the Central that weakness is nothing new and the Wings continue to win despite it. Team also must continue to exploit the Wings 25th ranked PK when they get their opportunities with the man advantage.
Chicago will make a good run at the Central crown this year. I think they ultimately come up short for one more season. It’s going to be a battle though. For them to overtake the Wings they must improve off their 12th ranked PP. That is certainly possible if they can get more of a contribution from Brain Campbell in his second season as a Hawk as well as another step taken from its young studs in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. Offseason acquisition and Wing defector Marion Hossa could certainly come into play once he fully recovers from offseason surgery.
To overtake Detroit the Hawks need to win those head to head matchups against Detroit as they only went 2-2-2 against them last year. Probably the most important thing is that Huet is going to have to be able to carry the load between the pipes now that Khabibulin has departed for Edmonton.
Columbus and St. Louis are toss ups but I think both make the playoffs. Both will be relying heavily on their young players.
For Columbus they will need an encore performance from Calder winning goaltender Steve Mason. Mason was probably the single biggest reason the Jackets were able to secure a playoff position last season. After incumbent starter Pascal Leclaire went down with yet another injury and Freddy Norrena proved too inconsistent the job fell to the 20 year rookie who seized the opportunity and never looked back notching 33 wins, 20 losses with a 2.29 GAA, .916 save percentage and 20 shutouts. The Jackets will need him to be the man again between the pipes.
They will also be relying on 2nd year players Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek to continue to develop. Brassard is slotted in the #1 center position playing next to Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius. He had 25 points in 31 as a rookie before suffering a season ending shoulder injury. Voracek, who played straight out of juniors, turned in a very respectable rookie campaign scoring 38 points which was 1 less than Rick Nash had in his rookie year.
While key contributions from their young players are a must their older players, led by newly re-signed franchise captain Rick Nash, must stay healthy and lead by example. Responsible hockey in all 3 zones with a focus on fore checking and puck management is the game plan and must continue. If the Jackets have any visions of securing home ice advantage in the 1st round then they absolutely must improve their 30th ranked PP from last season.
St. Louis has the possibility to be a very dangerous team this season. They are loaded with young talent with guys like TJ Oshie, Partik Berglund, David Backes, David Perron and Erik Johnson.
This is going to seem like kind of a cop-out on the Preds but every year they lose players and everyone counts them out… but every year they end up in the mix right until the end. I don’t see that formula changing next season.
What the Preds have going for them is a coach in Barry Trotz who knows how to milk everything out of the cows he’s got. They have a franchise defenseman in Shea Weber and an emerging goaltender in Pekka Rinne. What they don’t have is a lot of scoring – for proof just look at the 213 goals for last season which was good for 4th worst in the Western Conference. The did lock down Steve Sullivan for two more seasons and he combined with Jason Arnott and JP Dumont combine for a dangerous top line. Beyond them they have David Legwand and Martin Erat as secondary scorers but not a whole lot after that.
The Preds will once again rely their stellar defense and goaltending as well as a disciplined workman like effort to keep them in the playoff hunt. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they are in the fight to the bitter end.
Laura (Blues): Well, I tend not to bet because I have terrible, horrible, awful luck, but if I were betting, the Central will wind up looking exactly like it did last season, but without that nail-biting conclusion, because the Blues will be improved enough to maintain some sort of quality the year long. Detroit will still be first despite the pieces that they lost (Hossa is not the be-all and end all) and Chicago should be good this year without Hossa for the first 3-4 months (see: Detroit). Coaching is these teams’ specialties. The Blues have maintained for the most part other than adding a 2-way defenseman and Ty Conklin. For some reason, and I can’t put my finger on it, the Jackets just don’t seem to impress me much (like I said, no clue why, because they probably should). The Preds stayed almost the same as they were last year, and while they were capable of some pretty good play, they couldn’t make it down the stretch. I’m betting (hypothetically, of course) that it’ll be the top three in the Central that sneak their way in this season.
Mark (Predators): Arguably, the Central Division was the toughest division in the NHL this past season, and after watching some of the off-season moves by other teams, I believe it just got tougher. The criticism of the Preds is that Central Division opponents made off season moves to better themselves and the Preds did nothing. I will contend that the Preds did the right things- re-signing Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward, locking up core young talent like Shea Weber, David Legwand, and Marty Erat, and most importantly, not overpaying for free agent talent. Last season, with Sully out of the lineup for a majority of the time, and significant injuries to Jason Arnott late in the season, the Preds managed to remain competitive against division rivals. The Preds were 3-3 against Columbus; 3-3 against Chicago; 4-2 against Detroit; and 2-4 against St. Louis. I expect the Central Division games to be a war again this season. All that being said, here are my fearless predictions:
3. St. Louis
I can hear the howls and cries of “homer”, but I believe that if the Preds can stay healthy, and the young talent develops as the season progresses, then this team can make some noise and return to the playoffs. Two big “ifs” admittedly, but I believe this team will be tough to play and score against. Four teams from the Central go to the playoffs this year. Good-bye, Columbus.