Central Division Preview

Central Division Preview

Central Division Preview
By Judd Hall

Detroit ran away with the Central Division again last year en route to the Stanley Cup. Yet they had issues against up and coming divisional foes with a 17-12-3 mark. Will that trend continue into the new season or will the Red Wings show the youngsters how much growing up they still have left to do?

Detroit Red Wings

You normally expect a team coming off a championship to lose a little bit of that edge they had the year before. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Hockeytown after picking up the biggest free agent, Marian Hossa. The former Penguin will be installed in a top line that includes Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, which tallied 92 and 97 points respectively for the 2007-2008 season.

The Red Wings also picked up netminder Ty Conklin to fill the backup role as he did so well in Pittsburgh. That should give Chris Osgood a little breathing room now that he’s the No. 1 guy between the pipes for Detroit.

Chicago Blackhawks

You have to go back to the early 90s to find this much excitement for hockey in the Windy City. Chicago finished last year just three points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. And they’re expecting a marked improvement this year now after Patrick Kane and Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Toews had phenomenal rookie campaigns. Now they’re going to get some help on the attack in the back of ice with the addition of rearguard Brian Campbell.
   
The Blackhawks sought stability in their goaltending situation and got it by signing Cristobal Huet. What this signing gave Chicago was the ability to place Nikolai Khabibulin on waivers. Although there is a real chance they’ll have to eat the remaining $13.5 Million on his contract.

Nashville Predators

The Predators return much of the core from last year’s playoff squad with backup goalie Chris Mason being the only major defector. Some off ice issues could play a factor with the club this season as minority owner Boots Del Biaggio ran into a little trouble with the FBI and promising forward Alex Radulov signed with the new Kontinental Hockey League in Russia while still being under contract in Nashville.

Those issues just mean that Barry Trotz will have to rally his troops into play the same speed driven, gritty brand of hockey that has gotten the Preds four straight playoff appearances. Nashville will need a solid effort from David Legwand and Steve Sullivan, who both missed parts of last season.

Luckily for the Preds, should get some scoring punch from blueliners Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. That trio will also be in charge of making sure that they protect the latest star of the Nashville goalie factory, Dan Ellis. The young netminder led the league in save percentage last season, but had Mason pushing him. Can he keep up the pace knowing he’ll be the uncontested No. 1?

Columbus Blue Jackets

The natives are getting restless in Columbus and GM Scott Howson knows it from the declining attendance for a club that has yet to make the playoffs. Gone is the enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev and attacker Gilbert Brule. In their place is Philadelphia playoff hero (and Ohio State alum) R.J. Umberger, Raffi Torres and Kristian Huselius. All three have something to prove and fall well within the mid-market budget the Jackets are under. The bar is relatively low here for success since the Blue Jackets scored the second fewest goals in the league a year ago.

The Jackets upgraded their defense as well by bringing veteran rearguard Mike Commodore and bully Christian Backman. Howson was also able to lock up netminder Pascal Leclaire in a three-year deal that will give stability that the team and fans so richly deserve.

St. Louis Blues

The biggest question for the Blues this year is which version of the club we’ll see: the team that surged to a 22-14-5 start or the one that stumbled to the finish line with an 11-22-8 record?

Not much was done on the personnel front outside of signing former Preds netminder Chris Mason. That silence in the front office should end soon enough as defenseman Erik Johnson was lost for the year after tearing his ACL completely and partially tearing his MCL in a golf cart accident while playing with teammates.

Outside of finding a blueliner to step up for Johnson, head coach Andy Murray must find a way to improve St. Louis’ special teams play. The Blues converted just 14.1 percent of their power play chances, which was worst in the NHL

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