Friday, 10 August 2012

Central Division Preview

Last season the Central Division was the most competitive in the West, with 4 out of the 5 teams finishing in the top 6 in the conference.  With a few star caliber players leaving the division don't expect a repeat result, but that doesn't mean there won't be a fight for the division crown up until the end of the regular season. Here is how I think things will end up:

Chicago Blackhawks

2011/2012 Rank: 6

Offseason Moves:
In - Sheldon Brookban
Out - Sean O'Donnell, Sami Lepisto

With a relatively unchanged lineup heading into next season, the Blackhawks will be relying on the continued development of young players like Nick Leddy and Andrew Shaw if they hope to improve in the standings.  After two playoff years in which they suffered some devastating OT losses,  the team needs to bounce back from the heart break.  The disappointing part for Blackhawks fans is that I feel if they made it past their first round opponents they would have had a great shot to make the finals. This leads to what has been their downfall - goaltending.

 Corey Crawford has shown he can make the timely saves and come up big when needed, but there is another side to his play that has let in some very soft and deflating goals for his team. Although they won the Cup with some pretty inconsistent goaltending, it makes the players in front of him lose confidence and it shows up in their play. Despite their goaltending woes, the Blackhawks are still a very formidable team that can boast the best top 6 overall players of any team in the league (Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp, Keith & Seabrook - I dare you to come up with a better one!). With this kind of quality on both sides of the puck, it is unacceptable that the team had the 26th & 27th overall powerplay and penalty kill, respectively. Even if these stats improve only to league average, it should lead to a few more wins for the 'Hawks next year.

Why they'll make it - Too much talent to miss, players play to their ability

Why they'll miss - Goaltending fails them, Toews & Hossa concussion woes continue

Columbus Blue Jackets

2011/2012 Rank: 15 (30th in the league)

Offseason Moves:
In - Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon,  Adrian Aucoin, Sergei Bobrovsky,  Nick Foligno, Ryan Murray (maybe)
Out - Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Marc Methot

A last place overall finish usually leads to drastic moves in the offseason, and for the Blue Jackets it was no different. They have plenty of player turnover heading into next season, but  all signs point a club will not improve much (if at all) on their finish last year. The big news was obviously the trade that saw the face of their franchise head to the New York Rangers for an unspectacular return.  When you trade Rick Nash - one of the best power forwards in the game (albeit overrated) you should get more than, at best, 2 second liners and a top 4 defenseman (who has played under 20 NHL games).

While it upgrades the Jackets' depth, I never like moving quality for quantity when you don't get an impact player as part of the package. It saddens me to say that this trade combined with their poor drafting in the top 10 in recent years will keep the team in the depths of the league. It seems that Mason will never bounce back in goal, and Sergei Bobrovsky is not the solution. While they have nice depth on D, Jack Johnson as a #1 is also worrying. In a strong central division, the Jackets will continue to be a bottom feeder.

Why they'll make it  - Bobrovsky/Mason provide consistent and solid goaltending, forwards mesh and all exceed expectations

Why they'll miss - Weak goaltending, poor offense

Detroit Red Wings

2011/2012 Rank: 5

Offseason Moves: 
In - Jordin Tootoo, Mikael Samuelsson, Gustav Nyquist, Damien Brunner
Out - Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Holmstrom

 The Wings have lost one of the greatest defenseman of all time in Nik Lidstrom this offseason, and it he is impossible to replace. Although over the last few years his role has been reduced slightly, the 7 time Norris winner was still one of the best in the game even in the twilight of his career. Detroit also lostthe steady and consistent Stuart on the back end, which means they will need some of their veteran defense to step up and replace those lost minutes. Nicklas Kronwall, Ian white, Kyle Quincey and  will have to go from their usual roles as number 3 & 4 D men to 1 & 2s; something that does not bode well for the Wings' defensive ability. Promising rookie Brenden Smith will also be relied upon to have an immediate impact on the blue line. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that Wings are rumoured to be interested in adding Jay Bouwmeester to their lineup.

While he would be a definite upgrade, the Flames would be looking to add a top 6 centerman in Valtteri Filppula, which would hurt and already mediocre offense. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are still premier players in the league, but are passed their prime and only getting older and an injury to either of these two will spell trouble for the Wings. After that, the Wings do not have many established forwards to carry the offense (outside of Franzen) and will be relying on rookies like Brunner and Nyquist to step up. After being the epitome of success for the better part of two decades in the league, I expect the Red Wings to just fall short of the playoffs this season - hey, it had to happen sometime!

Why they'll make it - Babcock gets the most out of his players, rookies all exceed expectations

Why they'll miss - Lack of talent on defense, significant injury to Datsyuk or Zetterberg

Nashville Predators

2011/2012 Rank: 4

Offseason Moves:
In - Paul Gaustad, Brian McGrattan
Out - Alexander Radulov, Ryan Suter, Andrei Kostitsyn

After beating the Red Wings in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Predators were favorites heading into round two versus the Coyotes. Unfortunately for them, Mike Smith continued his hot play and the Yotes'  ousted them in 5 games. This was beginning of their offseason woes. The enigmatic  but supremely talented Alexander Radulov returned to the KHL after re-joining the team late in the season. As if losing one star player wasn't enough, they also lost a key part of what was the best defensive pairing in the league in Ryan Suter to the Wild. With no significant upgrades thus far, expect the Predators to slide in the standings from their finish last year. Similar to goaltending in Philadelphia, the Preds have continually lacked a dynamic offensive force up front and will be relying on forwards from all four lines to contribute on any given night. It is time for Colin Wilson to make the next step in his development and show he was worth 7th overall selection in the 2008 draft.

Even with the loss of Suter, the Predators have always been a defensive factory and have a wealth of young talent highlighted by Jonathon Blum, Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi. While the Predators lack in offensive flare, they remain one of the toughest teams to play against because Barry Trotz remains one of the best coaches in the game. Add in Pekka Rinne, a top 3 goalie in the league, and I still have Nashville sitting in a playoff position.

Why they'll make it - Strong defense and goaltending, will win those 1 goal games

Why they'll miss - Lack of offense will have them fall just short

St. Louis Blues

2011/2012 Rank: 2 (2 points from President's Trophy)

Offseason Moves:
In - Vladimir Tarasenko
Out - Jason Arnott, Kent Huskins, Carlo Colaiacovo

The Blues were the surprise team of the 2011/2012 NHL season, all thanks to Jack Adams winning coach Ken Hitchcock. His defensive system single handily vaulted the Blues from 13th in the West to the top of the standings in the final 65 games of the season.  Going into the season they were my dark horse team to do well, but I don't think anyone could have predicted just how well they finished the year - goes to show the effect good coaching can have on a young team. The Blues are relatively unchanged heading into next year, which should mean another successful season. On the back end, they are anchored by emerging star and future Norris contender Alex Pietrangelo and another young stud in Kevin Shattenkirk.

They have multiple offensive options up front that include David Perron, Andy McDonald, Patrick Berglund as well as T.J. Oshie, Chris Stewart and captain David Backes that can hurt you on the ice and the scoreboard. Add in talented rookies like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues are a team with 3 lines that can score which will give opponents fits night in and out. Although they are strong at every position, I think Brian Elliott's season was a statistical anomaly that he will not be able to replicate. Good news for the Blues is that  they still have Halak as their starter. 

Why they'll make it - Impressive talent and depth throughout their lineup, strong coaching

Why they'll miss - Injury bug bites, and injury prone players like Perron, McDonald and Halak all go down for a significant amount of time

Final Predictions

The standings in the Central Division will go:

St. Louis

With the top 3 making the playoffs, and a very tight race for the title between the Hawks and Blues.