The Central Division promises to be extremely competitive for the 2011-2012 season. With Chicago taking a step in the wrong direction last season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the door was opened for the Red Wings to regain their spot atop the standings. With the Red Wings getting older and the Blues and Blue Jackets getting better, things will not be so easy for the Nicklas Lidstrom lead Red Wings this season . To follow my fellow writer Stephen’s approach, I am going to preview each team in the division according to how I see them finishing the season. I will start from the worst team in the division and move up the ladder until my predicted division winner.
Key Additions: Niclas Bergfors and Zac Stortini.
Key Losses: J.P. Dumont, Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi, Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, Marcel Goc and Shane O’Brien.
Analysis: I know it sounds crazy to place a team that was fifth in the conference last season at fifth in their own division, but hear me out. There are a number of factors that contributed to my decision of putting the perennially overachieving Predators in last. The first reason, and perhaps most apparent, is that they lost a significant amount of depth from their roster. Franson, Ward, Dumont and when healthy Sullivan, were key parts of the Predators team and have been replaced by younger and inexperienced players. Barry Trotz and his coaching staff are going to be asking a lot from young prospects Jonathan Blum, Ryan Ellis and Cal O’Reilly, and I am simply not sure that they are up to the task. Last season the Predators relied on a deep defence corpse and on offence a scoring by committee mentality, I am not sure that the same production can be expected this upcoming season.
This past year the Preds were backstopped by a goaltender that in the majority of seasons would have won the Vezina Trophy. Does Pekka Rinne have the ability to post a .930 save percentage again? To put that into perspective Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour never had seasons with that high of a save percentage, and Patrick Roy, whom many consider the best goalie of all time only managed to do it three times in his career. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect Rinne to have a slight drop in his production.
Another reason that I don’t think it is so crazy to see a big drop in the standings for the Predators is due to the significant gains that the other teams in their division made over the summer. When you combine the Preds loss of talent over the summer, with the significant gains that the Blue Jackets and Blues made,it is not too unreasonable to to see the Preds slipping to the basement in the division. Also, don’t think that this is unprecedented, it was only three season ago that we saw them at the bottom of the Central, behind the Blues and Blue Jackets. Despite being in the bottom of the division, I think the Predators will be competitive for a Playoff spot, in what is always a tight Western Conference, but will ultimately just miss out.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Key Additions: Jeff Carter, Vaclav Prospal, James Wisniewksi and Radek Martinek.
Key Losses: Jakub Voracek, Mike Commodore, Scottie Upshall, Nikita Filatov, Jan Hejda and Mathieu Garon.
Analysis: Wow! What an off-season for the Blue Jackets! They landed Jeff Carter, one of the best forwards in the league to play with superstar Rick Nash, in what is one of the most lethal 1-2 combos in all of hockey. The Blue Jackets also significantly upgraded their offensive ability from the defence, with the addition of James Wisniewski and his wicked slap-shot. The blockbuster trade that took place between the Jackets and Flyers was extremely beneficial to both teams. The Flyers needed to shave some salary, and received young assets in Voracek and first round pick Sean Couturier. The Jackets, stacked with failed prospects, needed to finally land a bona-fide NHL star, and were able and willing to give up some young star-potential players.
With the addition of Carter and a healthy Prospal, the Blue Jackets for the first time in their history, have the luxury of having some depth up front. Nash, Carter, Huselius, Umberger, Vermette, Brassard, and Prospal are all legitimate options on the top two lines, and provide a nice combination of veteran experience and young explosive skill. Also, young phenom Ryan Johansen will be able to adjust to the NHL game at a slower pace and will not be hindered by too much responsibility and expectation.
Despite all of the offensive improvements, the puck stops with the Blue Jackets goaltending. If Steve Mason is able to return to the heights that he reached in his rookie season, this is a surefire playoff team. With the improvements to the defence, look for Mason to have a bounce-back year and for the Jackets to seriously compete for one of the bottom seeds in the Western Conference Playoffs.
St. Louis Blues
Key Additions: Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jonathan Cheechoo (potentially), Brian Elliot and Kent Huskins.
Key Losses: Ty Conklin.
Analysis: The St. Louis Blues have a very deep team, and one of the most underrated group of forwards in hockey. This team when healthy can flat out score. They have three lines that can put the puck in the with the best in the NHL. David Backes, Chris Stewart, Alex Steen, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Patrick Berglund, Matt D’Agostini and the newly acquired Jason Arnott, form what is the best comparison to the Boston Bruins style of attack. They can score from any line and are dangerous on every play. Barring injury of course, and assuming David Perron will be able to return from his concussion, the Blues look to be one of the most improved teams in the entire league. They are a young and fast team, and as their stars continue to mature playing together, they will only get better. Bringing in Langenbrunner and Arnott will provide guidance to their young skilled players.
Their mid-season trade with the Avalanche last season seems at the present moment to be a win-win for both teams. The Blues received Stewart, who in his 26 games as a Blue registered 15 goals, as well as Kevin Shattenkirk, a young and gifted offensive defenceman and together with Pietrangelo will improve the Blues power play drastically.
Backes is a real star in this league, aside from Daniel Sedin he was the only player in the entire NHL that registered 30 goals, 30 assists and had a +/- over 30, and the fact that he did it on a team that did not even make the playoffs makes it all the more impressive.
Another solid move that the Blues pulled off this summer that will pay off for them over the course of the season, was the signing of Elliot. Halak showed last season that he may not be able to play a full 65+ games, and finding him a backup as qualified as Elliott will go a long way in making sure that he can get the adequate rest that he needs.
With the additions of some experience and backup goaltending, combined with the natural growth of all the youngsters on the Blues current roster, I think that a return to one of the lower seeds in the West is back in the cards after missing the Playoffs the last two seasons.
Key Additions: Steve Montador, Dan Carcillo, Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers.
Key Losses: Brian Campbell.
Analysis: After a slow start to the season last year, which I am sure can be largely attributed to the Stanley Cup hangover, the Hawks came roaring back to end the season on a hot streak, and nearly came back to beat the Western Conference champion Canucks in 7 games.
The Hawks have some of the best top end talent in the game. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are all superstars, and on a talent basis can compare favorably with any teams top line in the league. One of the biggest knocks on the Hawks after their Cup winning run, was that they lost their team depth and relied too much on their top players. Well that no longer seems to be the case. Aside from 30 goal scorer Patrick Sharp, the Hawks also are expecting big numbers from Michael Frolik, Andrew Brunette, Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg. The Hawks will miss the production from Troy Brouwer, after he skipped town to join the Capitals, but nevertheless should have enough to still compete with the best in the Western Conference.
While the defence lost offensively gifted Brian Campbell, I do not envision that there will be a significant dropoff without him on the backend. With Seabrook and Keith getting the majority of minutes on the PP, Campbell’s talents were not being utilized correctly. With a very weak defensive game, it was an intelligent decision to move Campbell and his $7 million dollar contract to the Panthers and use some of that money to sign the rugged and physical Steve Montador in the summer at the more reasonable cap number of $2.75 million. Montador is the perfect addition to the Hawks, and together with Hjalmarsson and youngster Nick Leddy provides a solid group of defenders in front of second year goalie Corey Crawford.
The Blackhawks have one of the strongest foundations in the entire NHL, and last season’s near miss of the Playoffs was an anomaly, and they should easily make it into the Playoffs this season.
Detroit Red Wings
Key Additions: Ty Conklin, Ian White and Mike Commodore.
Key Losses: Kris Draper, Mike Modano, Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, and Ruslan Salei (may he rest in peace).
Analysis: Is this the year that the Red Wings finally collapse? Will they be overtaken as the perennial favorites in the division by the younger Hawks, or maybe even the Blues? Despite the losses in talent that the Wings incurred over the summer, I think that with the return of Lidstrom and a healthy Datsyuk and Zetterberg, the Wings have another season with the bragging rights of being the best in the division.
While the Wings will miss Rafalski’s talent and experience, they partially replaced him with Ian White offensively, and they will get some great use out of Commodore and his physical play in a depth role. The Wings for the most part are going to be expecting additional production from some of their younger players. Nicklas Kronwall is going to be given the chance to showcase more of his offensive talent and turn in another 51 point season like he had three years ago. Together with the continuous improvement of Jonathan Ericsson, the Red Wings still have some solid players on defence.
The forwards situation is actually quite interesting. While Datsyuk and Zetterberg are basically known variables and can always be counted on for solid production, the remainder of the group carries with it a lot of question marks. Can Thomas Holmstrom continue to bang in front of the net? Can Johan Franzen stay healthy for an entire season? Can Jiri Hudler return to his level of production before he went on his year long escapade to the KHL? And finally what I consider the most crucial question: How good can the trio of Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Darren Helm become? They have fantastic speed and work ethic, and do all of the little things in the game correctly. While I think that Thomas Holmstrom is on the last leg of his career, Jiri Hudler and the aforementioned trio will have fantastic seasons, and provide the secondary scoring that is so crucial to the Detroit system.
As with any Mike Babcock team, the Red Wings will get the most out of every player on the roster, and barring any significant injuries, or serious goaltending issues, the Red Wings will just barely edge out the Blackhawks atop the divison.
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