he Central Division features two of the past three Stanley Cup winners, and with reason to think some of the have-nots will improve, this should be a pretty competitive bunch. Let's start this preview with a look at the defending Stanley Cup champs:
Pros: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup through a combination of strong defense, scoring depth, and timely (though inconsistent) goaltending. Chicago’s core forward group of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa are still there, and Hossa should have a much better year now that he’s healthy. The blueline is still immense, led by Norris-winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niclas Hjalmarsson, and despite losing penalty killer Brent Sopel, that’s the one area left relatively untouched by the salary cap.
Cons: For most of last season, Chicago was able to roll four lines, each with some level of scoring pop. That’s gone this season, as the Hawks lineup offers more traditional 1-4 roles. In net, Marty Turco is no guarantee at age 35, though he should be a good mentor to young Corey Crawford. While the Blackhawks haven’t been dismantled as much as popular opinion believes, key pieces and depth are still gone, and the Hawks won’t be able to simply overpower teams night-in, night-out.
Prediction: Last year, the Blackhawks were above-and-beyond the competition on paper, and it all came together on the ice at the right time. Now, the talent is still there but they’re no longer out of reach for the competition. The roster is missing key depth, and any significant injuries to the forward group will be felt. Still, it’s a talented bunch with a stellar blueline, and they should compete for the division crown, but there are certainly areas of vulnerability, especially if Turco falters.
Sam Fels from Second City Hockey:
The Hawks may be one of the only defending Cup champions who can sneak up on people. While everyone thinks our entire team may have left this summer, Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Campbell, and Bolland are still here. While the Hawks are going to have to be more top heavy than the socialist paradise that was last year's talent spread, it can be done. Both Toews and Hossa are capable of 40-goal seasons and Kane of a 100-point one. The Hawks will have to get a surprise or two, say breakout seasons from Jack Skille or Viktor Stalberg, or the emergence of the Affront To God that will be Kyle Beach. But none of these things are pie in the sky fantasies. In order to claim the Cup, any team is going to have to come to Chicago to do it.
Pros: With Ryan Suter and Shea Weber patrolling the blueline, Nashville’s defense is poised to have a rock-solid pair of minute-munchers for years to come -- and we’ve seen how critical two studs on defense can be for success in today’s NHL. Playing under Barry Trotz’ tough defensive style certainly helps, and Pekka Rinne certainly seems ready to get the job done in net full time. Up front, the Preds hope that Patric Hornqvist builds on his 30-goal campaign and emerges as a one of the league’s top scoring threats. Instead of Jason Arnott at center, he’ll have speedy Matthew Lombardi, who played extremely well last season in Phoenix. Outside of Hornqvist, Nashville has a top-six forward group that are all capable of 60-70 points -- no superstars, but plenty of worthwhile scoring-by-committee support players.
Cons: Of course, that top-six group could all wind up in the 40-50 point range like they did last season, and that will make things difficult. The power play will continue to be a question until they can prove otherwise, and Nashville will be haunted by The Power Play That Wasn’t stemming back to last season’s series against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Predators subscribe to the build-from-the-net-out theory, and with all that in place, it’s up to the forwards to show that they’re better than a one-and-done team.
Prediction: The small, speedy forward group has more good nights than bad nights, and the power play finally becomes above-average. Rinne and Nashville’s blueline perform to expectations, and the Predators compete for a home-ice spot, though the won’t be in the Central Division title hunt.
Dirk Hoag from On The Forecheck:
The Predators are getting younger this season, but should still put up right around 100 points thanks to emerging players like Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson, and the transition from Jason Arnott to Matthew Lombardi at center. They'll have 3 dangerous forward lines, and while they may not boast a single point-per-game player, they'll make up for a lack of star power with superior depth. On defense, Shea Weber & Ryan Suter will carry the heavy load, but questions remain as to exactly how the depth chart will shape up behind them. They'll need Cody Franson to continue his development if the power play hopes to improve, but it's the penalty kill that really needs to rebound from an abnormally poor season. In goal, Pekka Rinne has the potential to be the strongest netminder in the division, but he needs to be more consistent than last year.
Detroit Red Wings
Pros: Once the Detroit Red Wings got healthy last season, they hit their groove by rocketing up the standings during the home stretch. The Wings don’t have too much roster turnover, though they’ve added longtime Dallas Star/Minnesota North Star Mike Modano as their third-line two-way center. Modano still has flashes of brilliance and should thrive in a depth role. The return of Jiri Hudler will add scoring depth and there’s no reason why Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg can’t bounce back from mediocre offensive years. If Detroit hits its stride -- as they tend to do -- watch out.
Cons: The returning Wings roster is a double-edged sword. With a heavily veteran presence (average team age of 31.8), staying healthy will once again be a critical issue. Niklas Kronwall is already dealing with knee problems again, and Johan Franzen is also a question mark, missing at least 10 games for every year except his rookie season. In net, all eyes will be on Jimmy Howard to see how he handles his sophomore campaign -- and if he falters, there’s no guarantee as to which Chris Osgood will be there to back him up.
Prediction: It’s gonna be a one-two race between the Wings and the Blackhawks for the Central Division title. However, the battle doesn’t look as strong on paper as it did at the start of last season, as the Hawks lost depth and the veteran Wings are a year older following an injury-riddled season. While the Hawks and Wings will compete for their division’s title, don’t look for either team to run away with the Western Conference.
Casey Richey from Winging It In Motown:
I think Detroit will actually be better than last year by more or less staying the same. As the whole NHL saw last year, injuries destroyed the team but once they returned to full (or close to full) health they were a very tough team to deal with. Bringing Jiri Hudler back into the mix and adding Mike Modano will help with the puck possession style of play and the Wings have likely eliminated the back-end problems by getting rid of Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja. I think they will be back in serious contention and will win the Central Division as long as they are able to stay healthy.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Pros: Despite scoring a measly 216 goals last season, Columbus actually has the potential to have a pretty solid top two lines. Rick Nash is capable of returning to 40 goals while R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette have found a home with the Blue Jackets. Kristian Huselius isn’t a spectacular player but he provides some level of consistency, and Jakub Voracek found a groove late last season. That leaves up to Derrick Brassard to really fulfill his end of the bargain after a horrific sophomore season. If you’re looking at potential upside, there’s also the Steve Mason conundrum -- Jackets fans hope that he plays more like the Calder winner and not the sieve from last season.
Cons: Columbus sports a no-name defense with plenty of stay-at-home players that somehow all lost their way during the awful downward spiral last winter. Still, they can play effectively as a unit, though there’s no real standout among them. Anton Stralman provides some offensive punch on the blueline, but he’s more like a poor man’s Mike Green -- a freelancer more than a defenseman.
Prediction: If everything goes right for Columbus -- Mason and Brassard return to form, the defense becomes reliable, and the forwards play to their potential -- Columbus can go higher than the 7/8 spots in the west. That’s a lot of ifs, though it does seem unlikely that everything goes wrong again. A safer bet is that the Blue Jackets used last season as a learning experience, hit some bumps in the road but hang in there for a lower-tier playoff seed battle come March.
Matt Wagner from The Cannon:
With few changes to the roster this off-season, the team has put its' faith in a rebound season from players like Jake Voracek, Steve Mason, and Mike Commodore, and the new, up tempo approach of rookie head coach Scott Arniel. If the Mason and the defense around him can improve from last season's struggles, and Rick Nash and the team's offense thrive in the new system, expect the Blue Jackets to keep pace with their division, and compete for a return to the playoffs. Look for possible NHL debuts from talented prospects John Moore and Matt Calvert this year, as well.
St. Louis Blues
Pros: St. Louis’s strength comes from the blueline, where a solid top three of Erik Johnson, Barrett Jackman, and Eric Brewer provide the foundation for guys like Carlo Colaiacovo to succeed. Johnson in particular has All-Star material written all over him, and at 22, he’s well on his way to a very successful NHL career. St. Louis’s big catch, of course, was the trade-and-sign transaction of Jaroslav Halak. Coming off a star-making performance, he’s the Blues’ biggest hope in net since the 1990s. A full season of Halak’s playoff showcase is unlikely, but he has been more than solid during his time with the Montreal Canadiens.
Cons: Losing Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as both players were well past their prime and it’s time for some younger guys to get the call. However, this does signal a transition period for St. Louis, and any success they have this season depends on a group of young forwards all improving to some degree (T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen) with other forwards simply returning to expected levels (Brad Boyes, Andy MacDonald). In net, Jaroslav Halak isn’t a sure thing by any means, as this will be his first season as the undisputed starter. His playoff heroics are probably a blip on the radar but if he plays up to his career save percentage of .919, there should be plenty of stability in net.
Prediction: Halak proves more than capable of the task, and Boyes, Oshie, and MacDonald all break the 60-point plateau while Johnson takes another step towards becoming an elite-level player. All of this isn’t enough, though, and the Blues’ lack of forward depth submarines a valiant fight before slipping out of the playoff hunt come March.
Brad Lee from St. Louis Game Time:
After acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak for two prospects, the Blues are 100 percent committed to grow from within philosophy. They subtracted more than 30 goals from last season with the retirements of Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk. What that means is that younger players like David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and even the older Brad Boyes will have to improve their production and especially their conaistency. If they are to return to the playoffs after missing out ts past spring, the St. Louis front office cannot stand to be wrong on very many players. The team's margin of error and depth are very small.