The Central Division of the Western Conference consists of five teams that all have playoff potential for this year, however it’s very doubtful that each team lands in the top eight. This division is made up of two original six teams (Chicago and Detroit) and three teams (St. Louis, Nashville, and Columbus) that are all slowly beginning to despise each other. One of the more talented divisions in the conference, each team boasts at least 2 if not more bonafide stars which make each matchup thrilling to watch. The games can either be of the rough and physical style where the two sides beat the pants off each other, or they can be thrills a minute, as the teams best players trade scoring chances. Either way, this is one of my favourite divisions. Let’s take a look at how this will break down for the year.
Chicago Blackhawks: (44-29-9, 97 points) Admittedly, the Blackhawks suffered last season from a Stanley Cup hangover. Players were tired, not interested at times, and played as though they were “owed” something. The Hawks woke up from the “party” a little too late, when they were down three games to none in the first round playoffs against Vancouver. They rallied to take the next three games and force a game seven which went to overtime. A turnover by defenceman Chris Campoli proved costly, and Vancouver celebrated as though they won the cup themselves. It was a heartbreaking loss for the Hawks, who knew deep down that they could have won the series.
Having lost a good portion of their team due to salary cap issues prior to last season, the players that were brought in to take their place just didn’t fit. Or shall we say didn’t get the job done. Now as we enter this season, things are looking quite different in the Windy City, and the outlook is positive as the Blackhawks have rested up, recharged their batteries, and added some fresh blood that makes them the team to beat, not only in the division, but in the conference as well. New additions feature role players such as Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo to add some toughness on the forward lines. Yes Carcillo or Car Bomb as he is affectionately called is a potential hazard, but the Hawks were too soft last year, and he’ll make people think twice about running anyone over. Also added was veteran forward Andrew Brunette, a solid forward who isn’t afraid to do the dirty work in the corners or in front of the net, and has a long history of consistency.
Defensively with the Hawks having traded Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers for Rusty Olesz, they are hoping that young Nick Leddy can help fill those shoes. He’s young and has a ton of talent, and with some tutoring form the current crop of blueliners, he should be just fine. Steve Montador, Sami Lepisto and Sean O’Donnell were added to toughen up the “D” and that will make huge difference. With a fully rested Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa to go along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, the Blackhaws are the team to beat.
Detroit Red Wings: (47-25-10 104 points.) After two consecutive second round defeats you have to wonder if the motor city faithful are beginning to wonder if something’s wrong. Are the Red Wings getting old? Has their time passed them by? Is Jimmy Howard the answer in goal? Seems like they have a bunch of questions to answer as they head into this season. Very little changes were made as Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood retired. Additions include defenceman Ian White and goaltender Ty Conklin who will be on a second tour of duty with the Wings.
Detroit is still a dangerous team when it comes to scoring as they feature a couple dynamic players in Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg who provide the skill. The grit and snarl comes from Todd Bertuzzi, Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary. Regardless of their age, the Red Wings will always be tough to play against. The puck possesion style when working on all cylinders makes it very difficult for the opposition to get into the flow of the game. For some teams this can be worse than the trap simply because you never can get the puck.
While I feel that Detroit is a playoff team, I don’t see them getting past the second around again. I feel that there’s just too much youth and firepower in other places that they won’t be able to get past. Don’t completely count them out, as their experience can be a difference maker, but there won’t be any championships in motor city this season.
The Nashville Predators (44-27-11, 99 points) advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year for the first time in their history. They gave the Vancouver Canucks a good scare for a bit, ultimately not having enough to oust the team from the Pacific Northwest. Barry Trotz, the only coach Nashville has ever known gets the best out of players, or he gets them out of town. Most of the time they buy into what Barry’s teaching however, and are one of the most competitive teams to play against night in and night out.
No big name scorer here, as this team focuses on defence first, grinding you down second, and lulling you to sleep third. I have to admit that it works more often than not. The offence has to come from Mike
Underwood Fisher, Patric Hornqvist and a combination of other players. Nashville’s style is to wear you down and beat you 2-1 or 3-2. If they get into a shooting match however, they usually aren’t able to keep up.
Defensively they feature two of the prominent D men in the game, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Both play a hard nosed style and are the backbone of the team. Weber had a long drawn out contract issue this summer and is signed for one year, and the Predators hope to ultimately sign him to a long term deal before next season begins, rather than go through the pains of negotiating again. Pekka Rinne a big lurking goaltender has a very bright future in front of him. Winning 33 games in 64 starts, I don’t see why he can’t duplicate those numbers this year. Nashville makes the playoffs as either the 7th or 8th seed, but I can’t see them fininshing any higher than that.
St. Louis Blues: (38-33-11 87 points) The Blues are looking to improve on an up and down season following their 2009-2010 performance. A young team that’s on the rise the Blues felt they needed some experience and did themselves a huge favor by adding both Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to their roster. Both players will be a big influence on the ice and in the dressing room. Another hard team to play against, the Blues have been a nasty bunch at times , as they pester you into frustration, and mistakes. David Backes, Patrick Berglund and Andy McDonald are the big guns returning from last season, as is Chris Stewart who came over late in the year. Offensive firepower they have.
Goaltending was to be their strength last season when they acquired Jaroslav Halak. Halak won 27 games in 57 starts, and for the first time was dealing with being the number one guy. He realizes that he has to be mentally stronger and prepared for that task. Ben Bishop a towering 6′ 7″ goaltender will compete with Brian Elliott for the role to be Halak’s backup this season. The defence is one year older, as youngsters Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk have a season under the belt, but injuries to Roman Polak and Barret Jackman pushed more minutes on the youngsters, forcing them to mature a little quicker.
Some pick St. Louis to be in the playoffs. I think they’ll challenge, but I don’t think they have enough to make it this year.
Columbus Blue Jackets: (34-35-13 81 points) Tons of changes in Columbus this off season and for good reason. The fan base is tired of losing ( I hear ya) and the management knows it. Jeff Carter comes to town from the Philadelphia Flyers and finally gives Rick Nash the number one center he’s been so desperate for. Those two along with R.J. Umberger give Columbus it’s most potent top line ever. The balance of the offence will be spread around a number of players such as Antoine Vermette, Derek Brassard, and of course a healthy Krissy Useless.
Steve Mason had a rebound season in his third year after suffereing a sophomore slump, winning 24 games, but is going to be counted on to be even better and more consistent this season. A lot will depend on his defence in front of him. There should be some improvement there with the Wiz leads a virtually unknown bunch of guys with potential, but still an unknown unit.
Playoffs? I don’t think so. Columbus might score more, but they certainly won’t be tight on defence. I don’t see them finishing much higher than 12th.
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