Pressing Central Division questions
As training camp commences, we conclude our grand tour of the league's burning questions with a visit to the Central Division.
Detroit Red Wings
Can they just skip ahead to April?
Anything can happen. There are no sure things. The game is played on ice, not paper.
Those are the mantras steeling the mental resolve of 29 NHL teams as they gear up for a new campaign that demands they find a way past the mighty Red Wings in order to make their Cup dreams to come true. And they're right...to an extent. Anything can happen. Look at football's New England Patriots. Favorites heading into the season, they lost quarterback Tom Brady on opening day, a catastrophic injury that brought them back to the pack, at least a little. If it could happen to the Pats, well...
But what separates the defending champions from both New England and the rest of the NHL is depth. No team is better built to withstand that sort of loss than these Wings -- an enviable achievement in the cap age. They are, if anything, deeper and more intimidating than last season, making for yet another Stanley Cup-or-bust year in Detroit. And so, for the Wings, the upcoming regular season is just a formality, an 82-game warm-up that will allow them to try a few things out, make some minor adjustments (like working in top free agent Marian Hossa) and prep themselves for when they play the first match that really matters: round one, game one of the playoffs.
What to do about the two-headed monster in net?
Hoping to build on a sensational turnaround campaign that re-legitimized the franchise in the Chicago market, the Hawks went on a summer spending spree that would make a congressman blush. And not unlike the government, some of their choices succeeded not so much in solving problems, but creating them.
The decision to sign Cristobal Huet, for example. The Hawks clearly wanted an upgrade on incumbent starter Nikolai Khabibulin, who apparently left his Stanley Cup magic in Tampa, and they may have found one. Or not.
Huet, after all, has never won a playoff series and was bested in the first round last spring by Martin Biron. And that came after the contending Canadiens decided they preferred to go with two rookies in net rather than try to re-sign their season-long starter. Huet is likely to be more reliable than the oft-injured Khabibulin, but at 33 years old, his four-year contract is a real leap of faith.
And by signing Huet without addressing the Khabibulin situation, the Hawks now have nearly $12.5 million tied up in net, meaning an average of $6 million is benched every night. The Hawks may look at it as an embarrassment of riches, but it's just a waste of precious cap space. The incumbent is unrestricted after this season, making his $6.75 million hit more palatable to potential suitors, especially as the campaign wears on. But he won't be easy to deal in the short term...and he likely won't be happy to open the bench gate more nights than not. The Hawks have to root for a major injury to befall another team's starter if they hope to get out from under this mess.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Were the sweeping changes enough for a playoff berth?
Give GM Scott Howson credit. He recognized that the mix he inherited was not good enough, and rather than move his food around the plate, he came up with a whole new recipe.
Howson bet heavily that R.J. Umberger's stellar playoff run wasn't a fluke, and that he'll be the center the Jackets have long sought for Rick Nash. Howson traded one talented but enigmatic scorer (Nikolai Zherdev) and brought in another (UFA Kristian Huselius). He added Jiri Novotny and Raffi Torres for a more rambunctious checking line. And he completely revamped the blueline, wildly overspending on free agent Mike Commodore and airlifting Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman in from the Rangers.
Those are a lot of new faces...and not one is a sure thing. But you have to like the look of the mix. For the most part, it's a gritty, straightforward bunch that looks ideally suited to work with coach Ken Hitchcock's system. If they can get anything out of an impressive-looking but unproven group of youngsters, including Derick Brassard, Nikita Filatov, Jakub Voracek and Maxim Mayorov, the Jackets should contend for a postseason spot...but that may be as close as they get in the highly competitive West.
How does the Alexander Radulov situation play out?
At this point, the struggle between the NHL and KHL for the rights to the potentially repentant Russian is no closer to resolution than the battle over Hans Island...or is it? Radulov, the 26-goal winger who bolted from his valid contract with the Preds to sign with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the new Russian league, was widely reported to be wanting out of his new deal in order to return to Nashville. Some are suggesting he's disappointed by the caliber of play. Others, more darkly, hint at pressures that he may be facing from the ever-present Russian mafia. Whatever the cause, he could be back soon...but would the Preds even want him at this point?
If you take GM David Poile at face value, the answer is yes. Of course, Poile has to say that so as not to reduce his bargaining power with this potentially valuable chip. Radulov would be an impactful presence on Nashville's undermanned front lines, but he's also a headache they don't need. If he acts the prodigal son and returns with tail firmly planted between legs, expect him to be moved for some forward help...preferably someone whose last name doesn't end in ov.
St. Louis Blues
Will they get anything out of their special teams?
You have to expect this when you hand the keys to the kids. The rebuilding Blues should be hell on wheels in a couple years, but this season's team bears the distinct aroma of NHL roadkill.
The situation looks particularly bleak where the special teams are concerned. The problems start with a power play that ranked 30th with a paltry 14.1 percent success rate. Although there's plenty of experience up front in Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, both are well past their best-by date. Youngsters T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund could add pep alongside Lee Stempniak and Brad Boyes, but until Erik Johnson matures into the QB role, this unit will struggle.
The penalty-kill was a bright spot last season, the league's seventh best at 84.4 percent, less than a point and a half behind league-leading San Jose. But the odds are stacked against another top-10 finish. Both forwards on the team's first unit are wearing other sweaters this season (UFAs Jamal Mayers and Ryan Johnson signed with the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). The Blues don't have anyone with the speed and experience to fill their skates.