If recent history tells us anything, it’s that the cream of crop in the Western Conference has resided in the Central over the last few years. Everyone knows the Red Wings have been one of the best teams in all of sports over the last decade, but it’s the Blackhawks who enter the season as the defending Stanley Cup Champions (not that you’d know it by their roster).
But immediately behind the two known powers are three teams who have a ton of young talent. The Blue Jackets made the playoffs two years ago and looked to be on the cusp of great things. The same could be said for the St. Louis Blues. And the Nashville Predators? They seemingly make the playoffs every season only to continually fly under the radar.
To make sense of the strength and talent in the Central, we brought five bloggers in to represent the five teams. Enjoy!
Ryan Hackett from NHL Hot Stove (Blackhawks)
John from Light The Lamp (Blue Jackets)
Joe Burkel from Red Wings Guy (Red Wings)
Jeremy K. Gover from Section 303 (Predators)
David Rogers from Frozen Notes (Blues)
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Ryan (Blackhawks): Well, does it get much better than winning the Stanley Cup? (Be warned, there might be a bit of rubbing it in here…) That said, the Blackhawks being better this season is not a widely held position, even among many Hawks fans. It’s common knowledge that many pieces to the championship puzzle will be skating in different colors in the upcoming season, leading to doubts about Chicago’s ability to defend the title. However, they still have their top six forwards, arguably the NHL’s best blue line, and a veteran goalie determined to break his own Cup drought. The team will no doubt have a target on its back, but their young yet experienced leadership will take the reins yet again. Captain Serious is not to be trifled with.
John (Blue Jackets): The one thing the Jackets have going for them this season is they can’t sink much lower in the standings than they did last year when they finished with the 27th worst record in the league. Just about everything that could have gone wrong last year did go wrong. Goaltending collapsed, young players like Derick Brassard struggled, their franchise player in Rick Nash had a disappointing 67 point season and the overall team play was not consistent. The end result was their coach in Ken Hitchcock was fired and the Jackets found themselves drafting yet again in the top 8 – the 10th time they’ve done so in their 11 years of drafting.
There is no question this team took a step backwards from their playoff appearance a year earlier.
This team will be better next year because quite frankly they can’t get much worse. The only way to go is up in the standings. This team has a new coaching staff which will provide at least a short term spark. The key young players like Steve Mason, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Derek Dorsett, Jared Boll and John Moore among others have spent the majority of the offseason in Columbus training for this upcoming season. Any over confidence they may have had going in to last year has been erased and this team knows that any improvement has to come from within as other than a waiver wire claim in 34-year-old veteran winger Ethan Moreau – the Jackets have not added any significant NHL talent to their roster. They are a year older and wiser and will have an us against the world mentality as nobody will be picking this team for the playoffs.
While they certainly aren’t Stanley Cup contenders or a lock for the playoffs, this team has enough pieces in place to at the very least improve upon a 32-35-15 record from last season.
Joe (Red Wings): Going into the season, the Wings are 100% healthy, something they were not last year. The addition of Mike Modano is being overlooked. I don’t think that he’s going to come in score 30 goals. I do think his presence is going to help the third line and give that little extra something special that the Wings depth hasn’t had called scoring.
Jeremy (Predators): That’s easy. The Nashville Predators will be a better team this season because they’re a home-grown team now. When the hockey gods smiled on Middle Tennessee and allowed General Manager David Poile to unload Jason Arnott and his no-trade clause, his $4.5 million a year contract and his half-ass attitude to New Jersey, they got better. Then, when they went out and signed free agent Matthew Lombardi, they got better. Then, when they named Shea Weber their captain, they got better. In short: Pekka Rinne is the first un-disputed #1 goalie Nashville has had since Tomas Vokoun in 2006-07, they no longer need “proven veterans” to compensate for the inexperience of their youth, and their leaders, both on the blueline and up front, are home-grown kids in Weber, Ryan Suter, Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson. 14 of the players on their projected opening night roster were drafted by Nashville and developed in the system. Sure, guys like Steve Sullivan and JP Dumont are still around, but not for long and it’s 100% clear the franchise can start relying on it’s own home-grown players now, something that’s never happened in their 12 year history.
David (Blues): Halak, Halak, Halak. Are you really surprised that’s my answer? The acquisition of Jaroslav Halak was enormous. While I liked Chris Mason and appreciate his time with the team, he did not have the makeup of a true number one in net. For the Blues to take the next step forward, the team needed a reliable starter in net and that hopefully will be Halak.
The 2009-10 season saw many skaters enjoy a slump that seemed to last the duration of the entire season – Brad Boyes and Patrik Berglund to name a couple. One has to imagine that even if these skaters improve just slightly, the team should be improved.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Ryan (Blackhawks): There’s not too much that immediately concerns me enough to bust out the sledgehammer on the panic button, but I think it’s fair to say the third and fourth forward lines may not be as strong as last season. Although remember, few people gave credit to the Blackhawks depth up front before the 2009-2010 season. It’s up to the locker room leaders to take the newer guys in and create that Cup-winning chemistry.
John (Blue Jackets): Goaltending continues to be a big concern as well as scoring and the ability to move the puck from the blueline up to the forwards.
Coming off a Calder Trophy performance in 08-09 – goaltender Steve Mason had what many could argue the most spectacular sophomore slumps in the history of sophomore slumps.
A goaltender is only as good as the defense around him, but those numbers must improve if the Jackets expect any success this season.
Offensively, the Jackets continue to struggle finishing 20th in the league in average goals per game with 2.61. This despite having 5 players with 50 or more points (Nash, Vermette, Huselius, Umberger and Voracek). A lot of this was due with their inability to move the puck from the blue line up to their forwards.
The new coaching staff would like to play more of an attack puck possession style of game to improve the offense. They would like to activate the defensemen in the rush more often. However, to run in such a race you need the horses to carry you there. Other than a Kris Russell and Anton Stralman, the Jackets just do not have these horses and up to this point in the offseason, GM Scott Howson has been unable to obtain one via trade or free agency.
Joe (Red Wings): Goalie Jimmy Howard. The sophomore slump is real and the Red Wings need him to use what he learned last year when he struggled. The Wings cannot afford to lean on Osgood, even if Chris is playing well. At this time they need a new “number one” goaltender and that needs to be Howard. Sure he earned that spot last year, but he needs to keep it. Chris Osgood is getting old and like it of not, in this NHL you need your home-grown talent to rise up and stay on top of their game.
Jeremy (Predators): Only one area truly worries me. Rinne is “already among the top echelon goalies in the league,” per USA Today’s Kevin Allen on our 303:30 podcast, but what happens if he goes down with an injury? Even if just for two weeks? Do the Predators really want to entrust seven or eight games of their season to a goalie who’s never seen a single minute of NHL action? (And, by the way, I mean “seen” literally. None of the goalies in the system have even been called up to ride the bench during an NHL game, let alone play in one). Four prospects will be fighting for the back-up spot in Nashville: Anders Lindback, Jeremy Smith, Chet Pickard and Mark Dekanich. One would think Dekanich would have the inside track as he was the starter for most of the year in Milwaukee last season, but he did split starting duties with Pickard when his confidence was shaky. The Predators are really high on Lindback but, if he’s anything like what we saw in Development Camp this summer, NHLers will destroy his high glove side. So yeah… the back-up goalie position is the highest area of concern.
David (Blues): The offense. That’s a pretty broad answer, but the Blues really haven’t addressed that area. With concerns over finding a new investor, the Blues clearly are in no position to splash out for an expensive forward and cannot afford to take a risk and not have it pay off. With Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk and the organization’s former top-prospect Lars Eller not in the mix, the crew that struggled last season will have to step up to keep this team competitive.
Too many times did skaters fire the puck just to see their shot sail wide. With no major signing for the offense, this simply cannot happen again.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Ryan (Blackhawks): Is it fair to say defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson? I mean, if Doug Wilson hadn’t tendered that kick to the- I mean offer sheet, chances are his name would be much less recognized. He amped up his game in the postseason, producing almost half as many points as he did during the regular season. He’s also got a new, shiny $3.5MM contract, which demonstrates the faith and incredible expectations the Hawks have for him. It’s a good thing the Hawks won’t have to worry about signing him for a while, he could be highly sought after following the 2010-2011 campaign.
John (Blue Jackets): There are two names to keep an eye on.
The first is Nikita Filatov. His departure from the Blue Jackets back to the KHL last season has been well documented. Nobody involved in this situation – from Hitch to GM Scott Howson to player development coach Tyler Wright to FIlatov himself – escape blame for how things played out for the player The Hockey News ranked at the time as the #1 prospect not in the NHL.
Fast forward a year later with a new coaching staff, a year of development for Filatov and a new chance for NHL success. Filatov has reported to Columbus for training a full 6 weeks ahead of camp. It’s a small sign that perhaps the young Russian has matured. He’ll get a fresh start under new coach Scott Arniel but will need to prove to his teammates and most importantly himself, that he belongs on this roster. He’s got a real chance to boom on a team that is desperate for a natural goal scorer but as we’ve seen last year – if things don’t go his way he’s not afraid to bust his butt back to the KHL.
The other player to keep your eye on is Matt Calvert. Calvert is 20-year-old left wing who was a 5th round pick of the Jackets in the 2008 draft. He played so well last year in camp that the Jackets wanted him to turn pro then but he decided to return to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the OHL to have a shot at the Memorial Cup – which his team hosted last season. He went on to score 47g, 52a for 99 points in just 68 games. A whopping 32 point improvement over his previous season. The Jackets are loaded with bottom 6 players as it currently stands, but if injuries start to pile up look for this kid to get a long look at the NHL level – the chances are he may never look back.
Joe (Red Wings): I don’t think the Red Wings have any really strong young players. Their younger players like Helm and Abdelkader are only good at one thing and not really great at anything. For example, Helm’s engine runs at 100%, 100% of the time. Abdelkader is the hitter, but looks uncomfortable doing it. These two will get much more playing time this season, but they need to step up in the points category as these two players combined last year scored only 30 points in 125 total NHL regular season games.
Jeremy (Predators): Colin Wilson. Period. Poile and the Preds have been sky high on Wilson (so much so that Poile lobbied hard – successfully — for Team USA to put him on the World Championship roster fresh off his senior season in college and before a single game of professional hockey) and this is the year he shines. We got to see glimpses of his potential in the 35 games he played in last season and, as the season went on, you could almost see the pro game slowing down for him. He collected 15 points in those 35 games (including 10 in the month of March) and this year, with a full-time role on either the first or second lines, the 20-year old should explode. Especially with Arnott no longer telling him “give me the puck, kid,” Wilson should be able to come into his own. Additionally, with the signing of Lombardi, Wilson won’t have the pressure of a number one center right away. He can grow into the role and then, when he’s ready, it’ll be waiting for him.
David (Blues): Alex Pietrangelo. The enormously talented blueliner will skate in his first full season at the NHL level following a 2009-10 season where he skated in just nine games. He is a naturally gifted offensive-minded defenseman and should see plenty of time on the power-play unit. While it is unclear who will pair with who, the idea of Pietrangelo skating alongside Erik Johnson is enough to make any St. Louis fan salivate.
David Perron. Entering his fourth season in the NHL, Perron has left the youngster and rookie label well behind him. He scored 20 goals and 47 points last season, but I believe the best is yet to come. Perron signed a new two-year deal with the team this summer and has the ability to push well above his current career-high of goals (20) that he set last season. Now is his time to shine.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Ryan (Blackhawks): It’s hard to find guys that fly under the radar when the team in question paraded sport’s most elite trophy around all summer, but I have to go with Troy Brouwer. He’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, and a contract year always creates a little extra motivation. Also, he’ll almost definitely be on one of the top lines, and could potentially be a 30-goal scorer.
John (Blue Jackets): For me that player would be Derek Dorsett. This guy will never be a 25 goal scorer or fantasy stud in this league but he is the glue that keeps a team together. He never takes a shift off – better yet, he never takes a STRIDE off, he’ll stand up for any teammate no matter the size no matter the circumstance. He’s one of those players you love to have but other teams love to hate.
Joe (Red Wings): Johan Franzen. Sure hockey fans know him, but he does not get the respect that he deserves. When he’s in the game, the Wings are a different team. He was hurt a bulk of last regular season, but came back flying down the ice hitting, scoring and setting up plays. Let’s not forget May 6th, 2010, when Franzen scored three goals in 3:26. That’s the kind of things that he can do. When he’s on his game, it’s very hard for the opposing team to stop him.
Jeremy (Predators): Marcel Goc is the biggest unsung hero in Nashville. When he was stuck behind a cavalcade of stars in San Jose, he never recorded more than 13 points after his rookie season and was a career minus player. When he signed with the Preds, most thought he’d spend some time in Milwaukee and maybe do some fourth line work with the big club occasionally. Instead, all he did was post career highs in goals (12), assists (18), points (30) and plus/minus (plus-10). When you can play everywhere from the second line to the fourth line, log valuable minutes on special teams and put up numbers like that… Let’s just say he rarely gets his name in the paper but he’s just as important as anyone else. So while he’s proven himself quite valuable, with the logjam at center going into training camp, this blogger hopes Goc isn’t the odd man out.
David (Blues): Cam Janssen. Before you laugh, you must realize that Janssen is not your typical fighter. He is an energy skater that causes havoc for an opponent. He engages, disrupts and dismantles anyone that comes in his path. Despite not classifying as a heavyweight in the league, Janssen’s fights are incredible to watch as he seemingly gets stronger the longer the fight lasts. Truly remarkable.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Central Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Central?
Ryan (Blackhawks): I think things in the Norris will look pretty similar to last season, with Chicago, Detroit, and Nashville at the top. It is the Blackhawks’ division to lose, and while St. Louis may make more noise this year, I doubt it will propel them into the playoff race. And honestly, I think Nashville’s losses at the blue line might cost them more than they think, potentially keeping them from the postseason. Replacing Dan Hamhuis with Ryan Parent..? Yikes.
John (Blue Jackets): Unfortunately as it stands I cannot pick my Jackets to make the playoffs. I certainly believe they will finish better than 14th in the conference and 27th overall but I just don’t feel the real holes in this roster have been addressed and that this team can improve enough from within to guarantee them a playoff spot.
That said I expect a few surprise teams to make the playoffs this season like Colorado and Phoenix did last season. I believe that if enough goes right that Jackets can be one of those teams. It will have to start with better team defense and goaltending as well as some young players having breakout seasons.
I think Chicago has enough to hold on. Nashville despite what they lose or gain always seem to find a way and I love their defense and goaltending. I think Detroit is getting older and slower and Howard will experience a sophomore slump of his own. I expect St. Louis and the Jackets to battle it out for the bottom of the division although I can also see either team with their youth, speed and goaltending being a surprise contender.
Joe (Red Wings): Quite honestly I have to go with the homer pick and pick the Red Wings to top the Central. Nashville will make it back the Second Season in the 6th or 7th spot. Chicago has lost so many players that they will not go deep, but they will still make the post season. But on the other hand (hear comes the rush of Chi-town hate mail), it wouldn’t surprise me if they tanked and did not make the playoffs.
4. St. Louis
LAST IN THE WEST: Columbus
Without Jimmy Howard emerging in Detroit, I think the Red Wings would finally see their long reign of dominance come to an end. But, alas, they’ve found yet another gem so they stay atop the Central. Nashville has the chance to make it to the Western Conference Finals this year (you heard it here first) so they take second and Chicago needs to prove they’re still competitive after the Stanley Cup hangover, parting ways with 11 guys from their Cup winning team and, of course, Marty Turco in net. St. Louis will, once again, be on the bubble and may or may not make it in, depending on how Calgary, Colorado and Phoenix fare this year. And then there’s Columbus. Poor poor Columbus. They will be so terrible in 2010-11 that you can go ahead and put them on the clock now for the number one pick in the draft.
3. St. Louis
Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis make the playoffs in what is one of the most competitive divisions in the league. This time St. Louis puts some of the pieces together and edges into the playoff picture instead of just falling short.
The next division up in our Blogger Roundtable Preview series will be the Northwest on Friday, September 17. If you want to take a look at the entire schedule, you can check it out here—or if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe to VFMS (via email or RSS) for the next couple of weeks. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and all pump out great content year-round!