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Central Division

Red Wings remain aloft while Blues make noise

Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2007 7:07PM; Updated: Thursday September 27, 2007 4:40PM
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By Scott Wraight, SI.com

Other previews: Pacific | Northwest | Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast

Central Division
Detroit Red Wings
2006-07: 50-19-13, 1st in Western Conference
Style: Ninety percent of the time, it's a puck-possession approach, but the Wings adapt to chip-and-chase against certain teams.
Strengths: Experience and firepower on the blue line has always been a strong suit. GM Ken Holland has put together another solid mix of young talent and productive veterans.
Weaknesses: Once you get past the top line, there isn't a lot of offense in the cupboard -- unless a couple of up-and-comers come to the fore. Another need: grit on defense. In the tough West, rearguards who aren't afraid to drop the gloves can't hurt.
MVP: Nicklas Lidstrom (left). He's 37, but you wouldn't know it by the way he plays and his solid numbers. He'll continue to log big minutes and QB the power play, making him possibly Motown's most valuable asset.
Don't count on: Tomas Holmstrom. Detroit's garbage man camps out in front of the net and pounces. That worked for a career-high 30 goals last season, but it won't now. He'll still chip in with 15-18, but more teams are suiting up behemoths to cancel out guys like Homer.
Kid to watch: Niklas Kronwall. The 2000 first-rounder, slowed last season by injuries, is now a possible top-four blueliner. Even if he begins the season on the third line, he remains a big part of the Wings' future on the blue line.
Overview: If the Wings don't coast to another Central Division crown, it'll be a major fluke. As long as a certain 42-year-old netminder can remain upright, Detroit is still one of the NHL's elite teams.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
St. Louis Blues
2006-07: 34-35-13, 10th in Western Conference
Style: Revamped squad has a lot of speed, but coach Andy Murray believes in defensive responsibilities, so the Blues may use a form of neutral-zone trap.
Strengths: They may have one of the best defenses in the conference. Rookie Erik Johnson and return of Jay McKee make for solid top six. Goaltending's a plus. Manny Legace (60-23-8 the last two seasons in Detroit and St. Louis) is still a No. 1.
Weaknesses: They added Paul Kariya and brought back Keith Tkachuk, but is there enough punch beyond the top line? Only if youngsters Lee Stempniak and David Backes deliver. Special teams last season were hardly special, but at least the PK will be improved with shot-blocker extraordinaire McKee in the mix.
MVP: Legace (left). He didn't get much help, but the 34-year-old managed a solid 2.59 GAA last season and seemed to excel under Murray. If the Blues are to sniff the playoff race, they'll depend heavily on him.
Don't count on: Doug Weight. The veteran will likely center the No. 2 line. He led Blues forwards with 18:17 of ice per game and needs 56 points to reach 1,000 -- not easy for this 36-year-old.
Kid to watch: Johnson. Great sxpectations for The Next Chris Pronger, their blueliner of the future. He probably won't log huge minutes, but he'll have veteran leadership to call upon.
Overview: If, a big if, the Blues can get secondary scoring, a healthy Legace and punch from the rear guard, the eighth spot in the West is possible. More realistic: this young core is still a season away.
Summer Report Card: Offseaon moves and analysis
Nashville Predators
2006-07: 51-23-8, 4th in Western Conference
Style: Run-and-gun -- with an aggressive forecheck, but not the same extent as last season, which got them into penalty trouble.
Strengths: A solid cast of young blueliners led by Marek Zidlicky and 22-year-old Shea Weber. Without last season's firepower, it'll be up to the defense to keep the Preds in the playoff hunt. Grit and physicality up front is another plus.
Weaknesses: Not enough depth. Who will quarterback the power play with Kimmo Timonen now in Philly? Will goalie Chris Mason rise to the occasion now that he's the man?
MVP: Alexander Radulov (left). The future of the franchise may rest on the shoulders of this 21-year-old. More responsibility and ice time will come his way -- and he should respond with 60-65 points.
Don't count on: Martin Gelinas. He'll probably play a lot on the checking line. With Steve Sullivan out for three months, coach Barry Trotz will want more production from the 37-year-old, but it won't happen.
Kid to watch: Weber. In his first NHL season, he finished in the top 30 among blueliners with 40 points. With an expanded role, he should take his game to the next level (60-65). He also brings a physical side (team-leading 165 hits) that teammates love.
Overview: The Preds have lost some big names, but remain one of the NHL's better-coached teams and have a reliable D -- two variables that will make them a tough matchup any night. They should be able to stay in the hunt all season.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Chicago Blackhawks
2006-07: 31-42-9, 12th in Western Conference
Style: With young, quick players at their disposal, the Blackhawks may go with run-and-gun and a dash of aggressive forechecking.
Strengths: Depth down the middle with Jonathan Toews, Robert Lang and Tuomo Ruutu. A wealth of top-notch prospects. In addition to Toews, Patrick Kane and Jack Skille Hawks have four blueliners under age 24.
Weaknesses: Physicality is a must in the rough West. This team is not physical. Another issue: no true No. 1 defenseman, though either Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook may turn out to be one by the end of the season.
MVP: Martin Havlat (left). When he's on the ice, the offense is legit. Despite playing just 56 games last season, he still led the team with 25 goals and 57 points. If they can only find him some legit linemates, he'd easily return to the 65-point plateau.
Don't count on: Lang. If he's on Havlat's line, his output should increase substantially. Even so, the 36-year-old is the definition of floater -- always on the fringe, avoiding contact while looking for a rebound or a passing lane. He put up 52 points last season, but I don't see that happening again.
Kid to watch: Toews. If you're not familiar with the name, you will be by the end of December. Toews will probably be stationed on the second line and is a complete player, terrific with the puck.
Overview: Chicago is loaded with skilled prospects -- at all positions. That means the playoffs aren't too far away -- though not this season. But if you're a Blackhawks fan, there's reason for optimism.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Columbus Blue Jackets
2006-07: 33-42-7, 11th in Western Conference
Style: A Ken Hitchcock team is all about defense and trapping. Not exciting, but it got Hitch the Cup with Dallas in 1998-99.
Strengths: Not much to choose from, but the Jackets are big with a fairly solid core. The biggest asset will be a full season under Hitchcock, who brings defensive responsibility to the fore.
Weaknesses: Goaltending. Pascal Leclaire has yet to prove he's a No. 1. He enters the season in good shape, though possibly the NHL's weakest blue line won't help. Sergei Fedorov or Michael Peca, the No. 2 center will be a glaring weakness.
MVP: Rick Nash (left). Hard to believe he's yet to top 60 points in a season. That's what happens without solid linemates. At 23, Nash might be the NHL's most gifted goal-scorer. But if he wants to take his game to the next level, he must play with a more physical edge, taking advantage of his 6-foot-4 frame.
Don't count on: Fedorov. The one-time sniper scored 30 goals -- in the last two seasons combined. His offensive skills have fallen so much that he was relegated to defense at times last season. He'll probably spent much of this one on the third line.
Kid to watch: Gilbert Brule. OK. Last season was a disaster (19 points in 78 games). But the 20-year-old can only go up, right? If he lands a job on the top line with Nash, he'll give the offense a spark.
Overview: The Central isn't exactly a brute, but the Jackets will still bring up the rear. Hitchcock will make them better, but they're still at least two seasons away from sniffing the playoff hunt.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
 

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