Welcome one and all to part 5 of the 6 part pre-season installment. Today we look at one of the least entertaining divisions in the NHL, the Western Conference's poor child, the Central Division!!
The Central division has been a fascinating case study over the past few years. They are the ultimate example for changing up the schedule to make less games between divisional opponents. The Blue Jackets, Blackhawks and Blues (hey they all have colours in their name...and so do the Red Wings...I think that Nashville needs to change their name to the Purple Predators to match up, sorry...ADD moment over...now) have struggled in recent years which has been a huge benefit for the Predators and Red Wings, who many (including me) would argue that their records have been inflated in recent years due to an easier schedule. I think that the Wings will once again coast to the best record in the conference, the Blue Jackets will once again finish in the leagues basement, the Blackhawks will once again make some big mistakes, but I see the Blues and Predators having slightly different results. Intrigued? Well then read on my friends...
Let me start with the Predators. Certainly one of the most interesting teams to watch from a management stand point. They showed some promise in the last season before the lock-out as they made the playoffs for the first time and surprised many people by playing well against the mighty Red Winds. Right after the lock out they began to load up by getting some big names like Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott, and Peter Forsberg, plus they showed some big development with players like Kimmo Timonen, Chris Mason and David Legwand showing some major growth. They looked to be a model franchise that would be competitive for years, but then something interesting happened...nobody cared. That's right, despite being near the top of the league in wins, they were near the bottom of the league in attendence. This has prompted a number of rumours of them moving to anywhere from Hamilton, to Kansas City, to Las Vegas. This team has taken a serious hit in the off-season losing Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Thomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Tmmonen, and Vitali Vishnevski. To fill in the gaps they got...uhhh...Radek Bonk and Greg de Vries. Now that's not going to cut it at all. I for one believe that this team is trying hard NOT to be competitive in order to get out of their lease with the city of Nashville so they can pack up and go somewhere else, more than likely Kansas City. Sorry Preds fans (both of you), but you're going to have a long season.
One teams loss is another teams gain. I see no team that could benefit more from the destruction of the Predators than the St. Louis Blues. First off they make a direct gain by signing Paul Kariya from the Preds, but they are the most likely team to fill in the power vacuum left in the Central Division. Last season, this team had a 27-18-9 record after hiring Andy Murray as their head coach and that is nothing to be embarrassed about. They have once again assembled a veteran cast with Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight joining Kariya and a host of some very good young players, including Eric Johnson, who has to be an early Calder Trophy favourite. They do have some questions between the pipes, as Manny Legace has proven inconsistent over his career, but I think that the benefit of playing the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets and Purple Predators 8 times each could make this team a dark horse to claim that 8th spot in the west.
Next up we look at a team that has been floundering for many years, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks may end up being their own worst enemy as the core of their team is pretty overrated and often injured. Sure a top line of Robert Lang, Martin Havlat and Sergei Samsonov sounds dynamic, but do you really think that all three of them will show up on any given night? But what is interesting about this team is their core group of young players. They have some very good players who have a ton of potential to really step up this year including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Skillie. I think that the Hawks will make some progress from last year, but still have a long way to go before they truly are able to make enough progress in the wild, wild west.
Speaking of teams with a long way to go, we have the Columbus Blue Jackets. They are officially the only franchise in the NHL to have never made the playoffs, and I don't see that streak changing any time soon. They do have a great group of young players who could be very good someday. Unfortunetly for them, someday is not today. Michael Peca should help their development, but he is not nearly enough for them to make the jump that they are looking for. Also, I have my doubts as to the choice of Ken Hitchcock as a coach. I think that Hitchcock is great behind the bench, but I feel that he is a great choice to get a good team over the hump, and not to build a franchise. I would be shocked if the Jackets are any higher than 14th in the conference.
I guess that ends with perennial Cup contenders, the Detroit Red Wings. This is a team that amazes me with its ability to withstand time and continually reinvent themselves. I thought this team would fall apart after they lost Yzerman and Shanahan, but somehow they managed to not only pull through, but make it all the way to the conference finals last year. I also think that they may have made the best free agent signing of the summer when they snagged Brian Rafalski from the Devils. I could see Rafalski playing huge minutes alongside Chris Chelios and being a top shut down man in the league. I see the Wings not only having the best record in the central, but the best record in the West.
So my predicted standings are:
1. Detroit Red Wings
2. St. Louis Blues
3. Nashville (Purple) Predators
4. Chicago Blackhawks
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
Oh the Central Division. Such a joke. Detroit must love playing in this division. The only competition to them has been the Predators allowing them to coast every year to an undeserved division title. This year will be no different as Detroit has remained mostly status quo while Nashville has definitely been taken down a peg or two. The other three teams, St. Louis, Chicago, and Columbus have improved slightly, but still suck.
This is a team that lead the Western Conference for a while last season and only lost the lead at the end due to some injuries but this off season was horrible for the Preds. Nashville lost of a lot of talent up front with the likes of Kimmo Timmonen, Scott Hartnell and Paul Kariya all on the way out and Peter Forsberg has yet to resign and is a long shot at best to return to Nashville. A few holes were filled by acquiring Radek Bonk and Martin Gelinas who is always a solid contributor but there is no doubt this team took a few steps backwards in the off season. If Nashville can stick to their solid defensive play they may be able to play some competitive hockey but I would be very surprised to see them at the top of the conference this year.
In the last few years the Blues have been a bit of a laughing stock but this off season was a positive step towards this team becoming consistently competitive. This is now a team loaded with high end veteran leadership with the likes of Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and the new addition, Paul Kariya who can still put the puck in the net. Andy Murray is an underrated coach and with this being his first full season in St. Louis his team will be ready to play every night. Last season goaltending was an issue but if Manny Legace can stay healthy he should be able to keep his team in the game more often than not. Look for this to be a turn around year for the Blues.
The start of the season last year looked promising until Martin Havlat went down with an ankle injury and everything crumbled after that. This team has some talent and if head coach Denis Savard can find the way to best utilize that talent then Chicago may just be a fun team to watch this year. This off season the Blackhawks acquired face off phenom Yanic Perrault and the creative Robert Lang. If Nickolai Khabibulin continues his improvement from last year then Chicago could make life difficult for some other teams. Depth will be an issue this year and if this team gets hit with the injury bug it may be a long season in the windy city.
It's kinda gotta suck being the only team out of 30 never to have been in the playoffs. And it's really gotta suck knowing that that's probably not going to change any time soon. This team did not make very many moves in the off season but one notable move however was signing Michael Peca. Peca makes any team better but he alone will not be enough to bring this team to the next level. If Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev can live up to their potential then this team will be fun to watch but the playoffs are most likely not in the cards this season.
I've never liked the Red Wings and I will try my best to remain objective but no promises. Unfortunately this team remains pretty much stacked. The loss of Schneider was offset by the addition of Brian Rafalski. Detroit's defense this year will again be very mobile and fast led by the 302 time Norris Trophy winning defenceman Nik Lidstrom. (Ok...maybe he hasn't won it 302 times....) The offense, led by youngsters Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and the surprisingly revitalized Dan Cleary (woohoo Belleville shout-out!!) will be insanely good again this year. Worst of all Dominik Hasek will be in goal again so goaltending will not be an issue. The only perceivable knock in this team is age. There will be just as many colostomy bags on the bench as Gatorade bottles but these old fogies have all proven they can play and Detroit will run away with this division yet again.
1. Detroit Red Wings
2. St. Louis
3. Nashville Predators
4. Chicago Blackhawks
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
And Troy copies me once more. I'm going to walk down to the Caribbean and kick his ass...I guess that means I had best go now...
Until next time,