No long flights in the early rounds of the playoffs for aircraft weary veterans, regular visits from new divisional neighbours at the Joe, the prospect of playing every team in the NHL at least once, and a rejuvenated playoff format that features conference champions squaring off in the third round… how does that sound? Forget it. NHL realignment was simply one more broken promise to stalwart hockey fans in a long line of squabbles between the league and its players.
So, when the millionaires vs. billionaires CBA battle draws to a close (likely some time closer to Christmas than Halloween) the customary Central Division race will commence once more. Here is how I see the division breaking down:
Detroit Red Wings
More questions than answers surround the Red Wings after a disappointing off-season. Chiefly, how in the world will they fill the giant hole on the blue line? A strong goaltending tandem of Howard and Gustavsson will help to ease the transition on the backend with life after Lidstrom and the basic nucleus of the team remains intact (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Kronwall). But, Red Wing youth must emerge if Detroit hopes to stay relevant in a competitive Central Division.
Key Additions: F Samuelsson, F Brunner, G Gustavsson, F Tootoo, D Colaiacovo
Key Departures: D Stuart, F Hudler, some guy named Lidstrom
Needs To Step Up: D Quincey, D Ericsson, D Kindl, D Smith, must mature quickly for the Wings to reach the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season. Brendan Smith has the most upside and will be given a plethora of opportunities to assert himself as a budding superstar D-man on a team desperately in search of one.
X Factor: Red Wings Defense. Everyone knows that it will be impossible to replace Lidstrom. Instead, it will take a collective effort from the Detroit defense as a whole to protect their net and contribute offensively.
Coming off a somewhat surprising first round defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes the Blackhawks will be hungry to regain the stranglehold they had on the Central Division during their 2010 Stanley Cup run. The Hawks have an impressive group of forwards that will serve to maintain their status as a force to be reckoned with.
Key Additions: D Brookbank,
Key Departures: D O’Donnell, F Brunette, F Morrison
Needs To Step Up: F Kane. For a player of his skill level 23 goals and 43 assists was considered a disappointing regular season. Add in the fact that Kane scored exactly zero goals in 6 playoff games and followed that up with an embarrassing off-season marred by snapshots of his drunken tomfoolery. For the Hawks and Kane’s sake he better start the season off on the right foot.
X Factor: G Corey Crawford. Goaltending remains a huge question mark for the Blackhawks. They reportedly were so desperate to upgrade this position that they expressed an interest in attaining archenemy Roberto Luongo’s services. Crawford doesn’t have to be great, but he needs to be better.
St. Louis Blues
The defending Central Division champion Blues are looking to pick up where they left off last season when they finished only two points behind the President’s Trophy winning Canucks. Although the Blues lack a player with true star power, they are a deep, young, talented, and well-coached team that should compete for top spot in the Central yet again.
Key Additions: D Woywitka, F Tarasenko, F Schwartz
Key Departures: F Arnott, D Colaiacovo
Needs To Step Up: F Stewart. When the Blues acquired Chris Stewart from the Avalanche they thought they would see an immediate impact from a player who scored 28 goals in his sophomore season. However, Stewart has struggled in his first two seasons with St. Louis and they are eager for him to fulfill his potential as a dominant NHL power forward.
X Factor: F Tarasenko. 20 year-old Russian sniper Vladimir Tarasenko the Blues 1st round selection in the 2010 draft has the skillset to cure the Blues scoring woes. If he can step into the St. Louis lineup and put up Landeskog, Hall, or Nugent-Hopkins type numbers the Blues will be favoured to repeat as Central champs.
The only team with a more frustrating off-season than the Red Wings might be the Predators. GM David Poile was visibly distraught in a press conference discussing the departure of his former star defenseman Ryan Suter. However, the Predators avoided a complete organizational meltdown when they matched the offer sheet the Flyers put on the table for Shea Weber. With Weber back in the fold, the Alexander Radulov experiment canned, and Barry Trotz behind the bench, don’t be surprised to still see Nashville battling for a playoff position once again.
Key Additions: G Mason
Key Departures: D Suter, F Tootoo, F Radulov, D Bouillon, F Andre Kostitsyn
Needs To Step Up: D Ellis. In his last year as a standout junior player with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League Ryan Ellis was a + 24 defenseman who netted 101 points in 58 games. Ellis has the talent to become the second best defenseman on the Predators and the sooner the better for GM David Poile who has likely had plenty of sleepless nights since parting with Suter.
X Factor: G Rinne. If Pekka Rinne can be a wall in the net like he was the majority of last season this will help in softening the blow of losing Suter. The Preds will go as far as Rinne’s broad shoulders and long legs can take them.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Perennial all-star Rick Nash finally got his wish and was dealt from the Buckeye State to the bright lights of Broadway. Nash’s exodus paves the way for a new generation of Blue Jackets (Johnson, Anisimov, Dubinsky) to step into the limelight. This will not be a seamless transition and expect the Jackets to be Central bottom feeders once again.
Key Additions: F Anisimov, F Dubinsky, F Foligno D Aucoin, G Bobrovsky, D Erixon
Key Departures: F Nash, D Methot, D Aaron Johnson
Needs To Step Up: G Mason. Goaltender Steve Mason’s Calder Trophy rookie season is but a distant memory. Unlike a team such as Chicago, the Jackets don’t have the luxury of having the firepower to make up for abysmal goaltending. For Columbus to even have a sniff at loosening their tag as perpetual cellar dwellers Mason must return to his freshman form.
X Factor: D Johnson. This is Jack Johnson’s team now and he has the reigns of an organization desperately in search of a leader.
Central Division Prediction:
1. St. Louis Blues as we stand now are the deepest team in the division and are front runners to repeat as champs of the central.
2. Chicago Blackhawks have as much offensive artillery as any team in the league and will have the Blues looking over their shoulders throughout the season.
3. Detroit Red Wings will overcome the loss of another superstar (just as they did when Yzerman retired in 2006) to make the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season on the strength of their reliable goaltending, flourishing youth, and money to spend on a couple of key acquisitions at the trade deadline.
4. Nashville Predators still have a quality defense, an exceptional coach, and great goaltending that will keep them in the playoff hunt.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets will have a galvanized locker room in the post Rick Nash era that will see them move out of the NHL basement. However, their improvement won’t be enough to move them out of the basement in a difficult Central Division.