Central Division Preview (cont.)
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2007-08 RECORD: 34-36-12 -- 80 points, fourth in Central; 13th in conference, missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: R.J. Umberger (Philadelphia), Kristian Huselius (Calgary), Fedor Tyutin (NY Rangers), Christian Backman (NY Rangers), Raffi Torres (Edmonton), Mike Commodore (Ottawa)
KEY LOSSES: Nikolai Zherdev (NY Rangers), Dan Fritsche (NY Rangers), Gilbert Brule (Edmonton), Ron Hainsey (Atlanta), Dick Tarnstrom (free agent), Stefan Legein (retirement)
STRENGTHS: The coaching of Ken Hitchcock
There are nights when three hours of filibustering congressmen offer more compelling viewing than a well-executed Hitchcock game plan. But the former Cup-winner in Dallas places little value on entertainment. By demanding three-zone accountability, Hitchcock has built a reputation as someone who can maximize the talent at hand, and that trait is critical to any hopes for success in Columbus. His teams win with defense (they ranked eighth in 2007-08) and should be just as miserly this season.
WEAKNESSES: The power play
Hitchcock's style requires that his teams capitalize on an opponent's mistakes. A power play that ranked 26th last year gives a good indication of why the Jackets failed to keep up with the pack in the West, The addition of Umberger, Huselius, Derick Brassard and possibly Nikita Filatov and Jakub Voracek gives them more forward weapons than ever, but still might not be enough to effect an improvement. If Chrstian Backman remains in the quarterback role, those strikers might never see the puck in the opposition end.
MVP: Rick Nash
That highlight reel goal he scored against Phoenix last January may be all that most fans remember, but 2007-08 was a breakthrough campaign for Nash. Not only did he set career highs in assists (31), points (69) and shots (329), he began giving Hitchcock the sort of consistent two-way play the coach demands from his offensive centerpiece. While those responsibilities may prevent him from becoming the 100-point man he might be somewhere else, Nash has more to offer. A 40-40-80 season is in the cards for the captain.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Derick Brassard, Nikita Filatov, Jakub Voracek
Few jobs are guaranteed on a team that's never made the playoffs, so it won't be a surprise to see as many as three fresh faces in the opening night lineup. Brassard, the sixth overall pick in 2006, is penciled in as the No. 2 center. He'll play alongside veteran Fredrik Modin, who'll offer a ready target for his slick passing skills. Voracek, a 2007 first rounder, almost made the squad last season after a stellar camp. The playmaking winger returned bigger, stronger and ready to chip in where needed. Voracek could start in a checking role, but his natural ability should earn him an eventual promotion to a scoring line. Filatov is a darkhorse to stick for the season because of his defensive deficiencies, but he should get a chance to display the skill set that drew comparisons to Pavel Bure before being sent to juniors.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Jared Boll
As a rookie last season, he racked up a league-leading 28 fighting majors and provided a rambunctious presence along the boards. It was an emotion-driven performance that's easy to call upon as a rookie, but not so easy as a sophomore. It wouldn't surprise to see him spend more time in the press box -- or the minors -- than in the lineup.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION:
You can see the incremental improvements, but will they be enough to end the streak of no postseason appearances at seven? Don't count on it. You know Hitchcock will keep them competitive, but there won't be enough room at the playoff table for the Blue Jackets...again.
2007-08 RECORD: 41-32-9 -- 91 points, second in Central; eighth in conference, lost in first round to Detroit
KEY ADDS: Patric Hornqvist (Sweden), Ryan Jones (Minnesota)
KEY LOSSES: Alexander Radulov (Russia), Chris Mason (St. Louis), Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota), Martin Gelinas (free agent), Darcy Hordichuk (Vancouver), Jan Hlavac (Sweden)
STRENGTHS: The conference's second-best blueline
There isn't a defensive unit that belongs in the same conversation as Detroit's top six, but these Predators aren't that far removed. Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Greg DeVries, Greg Zanon and Ville Koistinen give Nashville three pairs that can be put on the ice in any situation, with each unit offering a post-modern blend of speed, puck skills and physical accountability. Their ability to limit quality chances played a big role in Dan Ellis' remarkable rookie campaign, and will give the Preds a chance to compete on a nightly basis.
WEAKNESSES: The inexperienced goaltending tandem
At first glance, the shortage of dependable offensive firepower might seem to be Nashville's prevailing deficiency, especially with the loss of Radulov and his anticipated 30-goal contribution. But the bigger flaw in this roster could lie in a netminding duo with a total of 46 NHL appearances. Ellis was one of last season's unlikeliest sensations. Cast off by Dallas, he signed in Nashville as the backup (another brilliant display of talent evaluation by GM David Poile and pro scout Nick Beverley) and quickly rendered Chris Mason obsolete. But that league-leading .924 save percentage doesn't obscure the fact that hockey's history is littered with rookie sensations who flamed out in Year 2 (Jim Carey or Andrew Raycroft, anyone?). And while Pekka Rinne has three solid AHL seasons on his resume, he's yet to prove he can adapt to the NHL, even in a backup role. The absence of an established veteran anywhere in the system might prove fatal.
MVP: Shea Weber
The team's highest-paid defender is about to earn his keep. Coming off an injury-shortened third season, Weber will be highly motivated to prove his good health and that he's worth the three-year, $13.5 million extension he signed this summer. Look for him to play a larger role on the power play -- with his booming one-timer and elite passing skills, 40-50 points isn't unreasonable -- and establish himself as the team's most consistent physical force in his own end.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Patric Hornqvist
The 21-year-old winger has scored 41 goals over the past two seasons -- an admirable total in the defensive-minded Swedish league. His ability to play a responsible two-way game will earn him a regular role in Nashville, but his touch around the net is what the Preds desperately need. He'll get every chance to play on one of the top two lines, meaning a 20-goal, 50-point season is a possibility.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Ville Koistinen
His 48-game tryout last season demonstrated enough potential that Zidlicky was deemed expendable, but Koistien's game will have to take a giant leap in order to fill the veteran's skates. If he can slide onto the first power play unit, Koistinen could chew up 20-plus minutes and chip in with 40 points.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Barry Trotz may be the game's most underappreciated coach. His ability to motivate a consistent effort ensures the Preds won't be anyone's pushover. But with so little in the way of reliable offense, they'll be hard-pressed to return to the playoffs.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2007-08 RECORD: 33-36-13, -- 89 points, fifth in Central; 14th in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Chris Mason (Nashville), Andy Weaver (Vancouver), Andy Wozniewski (Toronto)
KEY LOSSES: Erik Johnson (season-ending injury), Martin Rucinsky (Czech Republic), Ryan Johnson (Vancouver), Jamal Mayers (Toronto), Hannu Toivonen (Finland)
STRENGTHS: Solid netminding
Since joining the Blues in 2006-07, Manny Legace's been a stabilizing force for a team traveling down the bumpy road of a youth movement. He was particularly solid in the first half OF last season, earning a trip to the All-Star Game for his efforts. But his 66-game workload clearly wore on him as the season wound down. With Mason on hand to lighten the load, the Blues go into this season with a pair vets capable of smoothing over another seven months worth of rough spots.
WEAKNESSES: Special teams
The NHL's seventh-best penalty kill was a source of pride last season, but they'll be in tough to repeat that success. The defections of free agents Mayers and Johnson mean the Blues will be without the two forwards who led the unit. The quality of their minutes will be tough to replace. At least things can't get any worse for a power play that was ranked 30th last season. The Blues were counting on Erik Johnson to play a larger role, but his loss could be countered by the healthy return of sophomore point man Steve Wagner. Rookies Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie may provide some additional options up front, but the Blues seems destined to flounder with the man advantage for at least one more year.
MVPs: Chris Mason and Manny Legace
Mason, the former Nashville starter, signed a two-year deal worth $6 over the summer. That's a pretty hefty tab for a backup, and one he'll be motivated to live up to. Expect him to regain the form he flashed two years ago for the Preds and force coach Andy Murray to make a tough but safe lineup decision every night.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie
Erik Johnson was a no-brainer when the Blues had the first overall pick in 2006, but the scouting staff demonstrated its chops when it tabbed Berglund 26th (2006) and Oshie 24th (2005). In time, the duo could prove to be as important to this team's future as Kane and Toews are to Chicago's. This season, they'll be counted on to provide the secondary scoring to support Keith Tkachuk and Brad Boyes, the only 20-goal snipers on last year's squad. That's a lot of pressure on the youngsters, but Oshie (142 points in 129 college games) and Berglund, a dynamic presence at last year's World Juniors, have the offensive chops to earn Calder consideration.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: David Backes
After scoring just 13 goals last season, Backes was the surprise subject of a summer offer sheet from the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues quickly matched, recognizing that the young power forward has the potential to double his goal total this season. Expect 25 and 150 penalty minutes as he amps up his aggressive inclinations.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: If they want to accentuate the positive, St. Louis can promote this season as The World of Tomorrow...Today! Displaying a total commitment to the youth movement, the Blues will suffer through the inevitable growing pains in hopes of speeding up the development of core prospects like Berglund, Oshie, Backes, David Perron, Jonas Junland and possibly Alex Pietrangelo, the promising two-way defender taken fourth overall last June. The plan may make for an ugly record, but it'll be fun to say you caught these guys when it all began.