The wait is over, as a long hot summer has given way to the crispness of fall and the return of hockey. Fans everywhere await the puck drop for their favorite team and dream of what might be in this upcoming season.
The Central Division has produced 2 of the last 3 Stanley Cup champions, and it can be argued that since the lockout, the Central has emerged as the toughest division in the NHL. This season shapes up no differently.
So let's take a look at the the teams in the Central and what we can expect from them in this upcoming season.
2010 record: 55-22-8 112 points Western Conference finish: 2nd
John Madden; Dustin Byfuglien; Ben Eager; Kris Versteeg; Brent Sopel; Andrew Ladd; Antti Niemi; Adam Burish
It would be tempting to look at the Blackhawks and say they sold their soul- well, maybe their immediate future- in order to win the Stanley Cup last season. Gone are key depth players that played essential roles in the success of last season. Oh, yeah, also gone is your starting goaltender that carried you to the championship. Most teams could not absorb the kind of losses the Blackhawks have and still be competitive, but this is a team that has some high end talent on their roster. Guys like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook make a formidable nucleus around which to plug in younger players. It will be those younger players that will have to step in early and log some quality minutes and their caliber of play that will be a question mark for this team, especially early in the season.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Blackhawks will be the play of Marty Turco in net. Because of cap constraints, the team chose to walk away from the arbitration award of $2.75 million given to Niemi, instead choosing to sign the aging Turco for $1 million for one season. Conventional wisdom says that Turco will be just fine with the Hawks D in front of him. I think conventional wisdom is giving Turco a little too much credit for where he is with his ability. There is no doubt that Turco is talented and can win games. He is, however, no longer an elite goalie, and teams will find opportunity that put pucks on net.
This is a team that has the talent to be a force in the regular season and the playoffs. It remains to be seen if they have the talent to repeat as Cup champions.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2010 record 32-35-15 79 points Western Conference finish: 14th
Ethan Moreau; Nikita Filatov
I will go ahead and say it now. This is the Central Division team that will not make the playoffs. It won't be for lack of effort. New Head Coach Scott Arniel is going to do some good things with this team, and the Jackets have one of the best players in the game in Rick Nash. Unfortunately for Columbus and their fans, the talent around Nash has not come close to complimenting what he brings to the ice.
There is potential there, to be sure. Derrick Brassard and Antoine Vermette have the potential to blossom into upper echelon players. Nikita Filatov is a wild card. A potentially phenomenal talent that could not mesh with former Coach Ken Hitchcock and his authoritarian style before fleeing back to Russia on loan is now back with the team. And Steve Mason is attempting to round back into his Calder winning style of play after a precipitous drop in performance last season.
For Columbus, the question is can Arniel develop this talent up front so that it produces consistently, and can he coach up what is at best an average blue line?
Columbus will be better. I don't think Mason will be as bad as he was last season. The team will be better than 79 points.
Better, but not good enough to make the playoffs.
2010 record: 44-24-14 102 points Western Conference finish: 5th
It's easy to joke about the Red Wings needing to put skates on the walkers and canes of some of their players on the roster, but the fact is that the experience they bring to ice counts for something. Actually, it counts for a lot. This is a well coached team that know how to win and compete in the grind of an 82 game season. Last season, the Wings were decimated by injuries, and if not for the outstanding play of Jimmy Howard, could have possibly finished outside of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
You can't discount the talent of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen. These guys are good. It is the depth players on the third and fourth lines that have to produce for the Wings to get back to the playoffs and make another deep run. The aging Kris Draper has moved to the fourth line and younger players are logging more minutes in quality situations for the Wings. There is not doubt that the Wings have talent in the organization and they have proven they can develop that talent. The health of their stars will go a long way to determining the type of season Detroit will have.
Jimmy Howard has to avoid the sophomore slump that afflicted Steve Mason and continue to play at a high level. The defense is aging, but Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski are still very good, and the second pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are experienced and physical. After that, the talent level drops a bit.
2010 record: 47-29-6 100 points Western Conference finish: 7th
Jason Arnott; Dustin Boyd; Dan Ellis; Dan Hamhuis
Matthew Lombardi; Matt Halischuk; Sergei Kostitsyn; Jonas Andersson; Aaron Johnson
The words "offensively challenged" and "Nashville Predators" are used so often in the same sentence that a casual fan may think the team's name is the Offensively Challenged Nashville Predators. The Predators, however, rank about the middle of the pack for NHL teams in goals per game (2.65, 18th). And it is true that there isn't a dynamic goal scorer like an Ovechkin or Crosby on the roster. What there is, however, is a team that has balanced scoring that can come from all four lines. Lead by 30 goal scorer Patric Hornqvist, the Predators had ten players that logged ten or more goals this past year. For the Predators to get into the playoffs and move beyond the first round, production is going to have to improve from veterans like David Legwand, Marty Erat, and J.P. Dumont, and some new contributors will have to emerge. Players like Cal O'Reilly will be given every opportunity to stick with the big club. Newcomer Matthew Lombardi brings blazing speed to the ice and is expected to be the top line center for the Predators, replacing the departed Jason Arnott.
The Blue line is solid with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and veteran Francis Buillon anchoring the back. Cody Franson has inked a new deal and is expected to continue to improve. Kevin Klein's play improved after being split with his D partner last season, Dan Hamhuis. Aaron Johnson is expected to contend for the 7th D position or provide depth from Milwaukee.
Pekka Rinne is the man between the pipes for the Predators. The undisputed starter, Rinne has been focused and sharp in the pre-season. Predator fans hope he can carry the load as his backup will be rookie Anders Lindback, who beat out Mark Dekanich for the role.
St. Louis Blues
2010 record: 40-32-10 90 points Western Conference finish: 15th
Paul Kariya; Keith Tkachuk, Chris Mason
Jaroslav Halak; Vladimir Sobotka
Well, ha-ya-lak me now? At least that is what the Blues fans are saying after the acquisition of Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens. Yes, that Halak, the goalie that took le bleu, blanc, et rouge on his back and an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals. The acquisition of Halak has already made the Blues a sexy pick among pundits and has the fans of the Blues dreaming of the post season.
For the Blues to get there, however, some of their younger players are going to have to elevate their game. David Perron, T.J. Oshie, and Patrik Bergland are all players the Blues will rely upon to increase their production in the upcoming season. If these players do so, the Blues could surprise in the division.
They will benefit from having Erik Johnson back for the second season after injuring a knee in a freak golf cart accident. His game continues to improve. Barrett Jackman and Roman Polak are steady on the blueline, and Alex Pietrangelo is a talent that will attempt to stick with the big club this season.
So there you have it: a quick and dirty analysis of the teams in the Central Division.
You want a predicted order of finish?
Well, never one to shy away from a challenge, here is my predicted order of finish in the Central Division for the upcoming season:
4. St. Louis