NHL Preview: 2008-09
Western Conference: Central
Detroit Red Wings
The Wings won the Presidents' Trophy with a robust 115 points and were so dominant that they led the NHL in most shots taken per game (34.4) and in fewest shots allowed (23.5), outshooting opponents in 71 of 82 games. They skated with skill, backchecked, blocked shots, led the league in face-off percentage (53.3) and played with discipline: They took the league's fewest fighting majors (21), did not incur a game misconduct and were called for just two bench minors (all but one other team had at least six).
There's no drop-off in sight. Detroit returns 244 of its 252 goals from last season and added All-Star winger Marian Hossa, the off-season's most coveted free agent. "We have guys on our third line who could be on the first line with most teams," says veteran forward Kirk Maltby. The team also goes nine deep on the back line and still has Osgood, who has quietly amassed the highest winning percentage (.631) of any goalie with at least 350 wins.
Now that Dominik Hasek is gone (to retirement, again), Osgood has the starting job to himself; free-agent signee Ty Conklin will give him the occasional breather. The abundance of talent at other positions, however, means that, as captain Nicklas Lidstrom points out, "We will have a lot of competition for ice time this season." With the Red Wings likely to have the weak Central all but wrapped up by Christmas, that may be the club's most compelling competition until the playoffs.
The Blackhawks will televise all 82 of their games for the first time this season, and despite only one playoff appearance in 10 years, they'll have something to show their fans. "There is a buzz throughout the city [about us]," says defenseman James Wisniewski. "A couple of years ago people didn't know there was a hockey team here."
The future is not only bright -- it has arrived. Twenty-year-old center Jonathan Toews (above, 24 goals, 30 assists) and 19-year-old right wing Patrick Kane (21, 51) had stellar rookie seasons, and the addition of mobile defenseman Brian Campbell strengthens Chicago's attack at even strength and on the power play. The Blackhawks even brought in legendary hockey mind Scotty Bowman, whose son Stan is the team's assistant G.M., as an adviser. "From the start of last year to now seems like a total 180," says Kane.
Some pieces are in place for a Stanley Cup run down the road -- Chicago last won it in 1961 -- and a visit to next spring's playoffs would be an important first step.
After reaching the postseason for four straight seasons, the Predators have vital concerns that jeopardize their streak.
1) Can goalie Dan Ellis, 28, a longtime minor leaguer who impressed as a rookie last year (23 wins, 2.34 goals-against average, league-best .924 save percentage) and performed well in a first-round playoff loss to Detroit, handle a full-time load? Ellis has played in 45 NHL games; his backup, Pekka Rinne, has appeared in three.
2) Can the team overcome the stunning departure of 26-goal scorer Alexander Radulov (he skipped out on his Nashville contract for richer paydays back home in Russia) and injuries to forwards Steve Sullivan (bad back) and Jed Ortmeyer (blood clot), both of whom are out indefinitely? To do so it will need increased scoring from forwards Jason Arnott (above, 28 goals last year) and J.P. Dumont (29) and a successful transition into the league for 21-year-old Patric Hornqvist, who starred in Sweden.
It's all a bit too much to ask. Nashville's playoff streak is nearing an end.
Columbus Blue Jackets
No team was as weak up the middle as the Blue Jackets last season: Manny Malhotra led their centers with 11 goals. That explains why Columbus traded for 6' 2", 215-pound R.J. Umberger, who scored 10 times in 17 playoff games for the Flyers last spring. Nor were many teams more tepid on overall offense than the Blue Jackets, whose 190 goals were last in the conference. That explains the signing of free-agent winger Kristian Huselius, a five-time 20-goal scorer who averaged 30 over the past two seasons in Calgary.
That pair, along with ever dangerous forward Rick Nash -- he scored 38 goals while playing 2,286 shifts last season, most among NHL forwards -- give Columbus some punch. The team lacks depth, though, as well as a strong point man for its power play. Goalie Pascal Leclaire, who had nine shutouts and went all season without allowing a shorthanded goal, should again steal more than his share of games. But this eight-year-old franchise has never made the postseason, and it doesn't look like a club that's about to start now.
St. Louis Blues
The strain caused by the Blues' anemic offense -- 26th in the NHL with 202 goals, last in the power play at 14.1% -- took its toll on goalie Manny Legace in 2007–08. When he faded down the stretch, the team's playoff hopes went with him. The addition of backup Chris Mason will lighten Legace's load (he played 28 straight games at one point in the second half), but the offense is no better.
Perhaps left wing Paul Kariya, 33, can rebound after a dreadful 16-goal season in which he was a –10. St. Louis, however, can't expect winger Brad Boyes to duplicate his career season of 43 goals.
While rookie forwards Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, first-round draft picks in 2006 and '05, respectively, should have an impact this season, that upbeat note pales next to this downer: Core young defenseman Erik Johnson tore ligaments in his right knee at a golf outing last month and most likely will miss the season. After a strong start last year (16-9-1) the Blues have fallen. And for now, they can't get up.
-- Brian Cazeneuve
The Detroit defenseman is an amazing +378 in his career, including +40 last season when he won his sixth Norris Trophy. The team captain is essential on offense (70 points in 2007-08) and on defense; the Red Wings were 2-3-1 when he was out of the lineup.
On the Spot: Martin Havlat The Chicago winger played only 35 games last season because of shoulder and groin injuries, and he hasn't appeared in more than 65 games in a season since 2003-04. Havlat must be healthy, and at his point-a-game best, to take heat off the team's young guns.
On the Verge: R.J. Umberger
He's reunited in Columbus with coach Ken Hitchcock, for whom he had a career-best 20 goals as a Flyers rookie in 2005-06. Stuck on Philly's third line last year, the 26-year-old center should get lots of ice time and easily exceed that career high.
Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
As if the Red Wings weren't loaded enough, young energy players Darren Helm and Tomas Kopecky have just begun to come into their own.... The glue guy on Chicago is forward Patrick Sharp, who scores (36 goals last season), kills penalties and plays responsible defense.... Columbus forward Fredrik Modin, coming off an injury-wrecked season (six goals in 23 games), still has one of the heaviest shots in hockey.... Nashville has underrated young defenders, led by Shea Weber, the Dion Phaneuf of the south.... With Erik Johnson out, Eric Brewer must carry St. Louis's back line.
NHL Truth & Rumors