The NHL season is finally upon us and its time for previews and predictions. Today we preview the Western Conferences Central Divison in order of how they will finish.
Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings are coming off another Central Division Title, their 10th in 12 years, but for the second year in a row they lost to the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs. Coming in to this season, Detroit is dealing with another transition in player personnel.
Brian Rafalski surprisingly retire citing injuries and wanting to spend time with his family. The Red Wings also lost Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and Mike Modano to retirement and tragically Ruslan Salei, who had left for the KHL only to perish in the Lokomotiv plane crash.
In true Detroit fashion, though, they were able to secure players who fill the roles lost for the right amount of money. Entering Detroit’s lineup are veterans Ian White and Mike Commodore on the blue line and returning to where he found success is back up Ty Conklin. Fabian Brunnstrom was brought in on a tryout basis but may be a longshot to make the team.
Pavel Datsyuk is looking for a healthy season after missing some time with injury. Datsyuk played in 53 games and accumulated a 1.05 points per game average last season, up from his career of .88 average. Paired with Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom this team will continue to push for a division title and will hope to hand Niklas Lidstrom another Cup Title in his 20th season in the NHL.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Chicago Blackhawks are looking for a return to glory a year after the dreaded Stanley Cup hang over. After winning the Cup , the Hawks stumbled to an 8th seed and a first round exit at the hands of nemises Vancouver. With the loss of many key parts of the Cup winning team, Chicago struggled to find cohesiveness.
This off season brought another overhaul of talent but this one may bring the team back to the level they played at two years ago. Gone are high priced defensemen Brain Campbell and Tomas Kopecky to Florida, Troy Brouwer is in Washington, while ties were severed with Ryan Johnson, Fernando Pisani, Chris Campoli and Marty Turco.
Rotislav Olesz was brought in through the Campbell trade and a lot of toughness was added with Steve Montador, Daniel Carcillo, and Jamal Mayers. Rounding out the acquisitions are Sean O’Donnell, Sami Lepisto and Andrew Brunette. These players don’t scream offensive power like some of the players let go after the Cup win, but they will plug holes that sunk this team last year.
Corey Crawford had a breakout season last year and will look to build on that after signing a long term deal in the off season. Crawford was a stellar 33-18-6 with 4 shut outs and a 2.30 goals against average after taking over for the departed Antti Niemi. Chicago let Niemi walk over money but they were not going to let it happen again with Crawford. While Niemi is looking great in San Jose, Crawford will likely be the better overall goalie and his youth gives Chicago the ability to have a franchise goalie they have lacked since Ed Belfour.
Chicago still boasts two great lines with Jonathon Towes, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa and they will be tough to stop yet again. With a more solid blue line and Crawford between the pipes, the Hawks are in a position to make another run at the Stanley Cup and take down the Red Wings as the class of the Central.
St. Louis Blues: If any Central team needs a big year its the St. Louis Blues. After watching Detroit, Chicago, and Nashville win playoff series and Stanley Cups the last two years, the Blues are hoping this year is their turn. Aggressive off season moves, a new captain and some good luck hope to be the formula for a playoff spot in St. Louis.
Due in part to the ongoing team sale, the Blues had very little turnover in the off season, but what was done with their money may prove to be big steals. The Blues brought in veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to be steadying forces in the locker room. Kent Huskins, Scott Nichol and Brian Elliott will play pivotal roles even in limited playing time. The Blues only losses were enforcer Cam Janssen and back up Ty Conklin.
The Blues announced a new captain this off season, after having traded away captain Eric Brewer at the trade deadline last year. David Backes now has the charge of being the man to lead this team and of all the players on the roster, he is the right fit. His grit, goal scoring ability, international experience and presence in the community, Backes could be the next coming of Brian Sutter.
The Blues are also set to welcome David Perron back to the fold, although it will be late in the season and not the start. Perron has dealt with concussion like symptoms since a November 4th hit by Joe Thornton. Earlier this week Perron passed a baseline concussion test and will resume skating and practicing with the team. This will be a boost to a team that lacked scoring until the big trade in February.
St. Louis will need Jaroslav Halak to be more consistant this year as well. After his stunning run in the 2010 playoffs, Halak was looked at as the savior of the Blues but was unable to have a consistant season between injuries and lack of focus. Halak still finished with a 27-21-7 record, 7 shut outs, a 2.48 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
The Blues will need to avoid injuries and have goal scoring from all four lines in order to make the playoffs this season. With Chris Stewart, Backes, Patrik Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo leading the way, the Blues will make the playoffs and will make some team wish they didn’t have to play them.
Nashville Predators: Every year the Nashville Predators are counted out, forgotten, or never mentioned in any division title talk. Yet every year, Barry Trotz gets his motley bunch of players in a position to make the playoffs. The Predators won their first playoff series in franchise history last season as they defeated the Anahiem Ducks. Trotz will have one of his toughest years yet but never count out the Preds.
Nashville is a team that is always looking for scoring and with the losses this off season they may be looking even harder. Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc, JP Dumont and Matthew Lombardi all depart Nashville and while these players weren’t lighting the lamp on an every game basis, they did help share the load. The guys brought in do not make up for what the Preds are losing and that could be what kills this team.
What Nashville lacks in scoring, they more then make up for on defense and in goal. Ryan Suter and Shea Weber anchor the top defensive pairing in the Central and maybe the league and Kevin Klein gives Nashville a third solid defensemen which most teams do not have. Pekka Rinne is quietly one of the best goalies in the NHL and yet no one will talk about him again this year.
This may be the last good chance for Nashville to build on their success from last year. Suter, Weber, and Rinne are all free agents after the year and if the Predators fail this year all three could walk and leave the team hampered for years to come.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus is the enigma of this division, a team capable of winning the division or being the worst team in the league. The Blue Jackets made one of the biggest splashes this off season with the trade for Jeff Carter from Philadelphia. Carter brings another scoring threat and gives Rick Nash a true center that can help him be a better player.
Also joining Carter in Columbus are James Wisniewski, who signed a monster contract after only one plus seasons of solid if not uninspiring play. Wisniewski could be a huge pick up for Columbus but he has already been suspended for the start of the season and that could be a sign of whats to come in his career.
Columbus welcome Vinny Prospal, Cody Bass, Curtis Sanford, Aaron Johnson, and Radek Martinek to fold as well but none of them really scream sleeper pick up. One of the better players in Columbus was shipped to Philly for Carter in Jakob Voracek but Carter will make fans forget his so-so play quickly. Jan Hejda and Scottie Upshall also leave the Blues Jackets, while draft pick Nikita Filatov’s chances in Columbus finally ran out and he was sent to Ottawa.
One man will make or break the Blue Jackets chances this year and that is goalie Steve Mason. After his Calder win, Mason has struggled mightly and needs to regain his form to make this team a playoff contender. If Mason falters, the Blue Jackets do not have much beind him as their back up is Curtis Sanford and their minor league system has no one ready to make the leap anytime soon.
If Mason rebounds big time and Carter becomes a superstar next to Nash, Columbus can really turn heads and make a run to the playoffs this year. Unfortunately that probably won’t happen and the fans in Ohio will have yet another year of no teams making a championship run.
Once again this year, the Central Division is going to be one of the toughest divisions to win and that competition will breed the S