Red Wings cream of Central crop
The Central is a division where one colossus -- the defending Stanley Cup champions -- towers above a group of young, scrappy and ultimately deficient challengers. While it will take a monumental upset to knock the Red Wings off their perch, it will be interesting to watch the Blackhawks continue their rise while the Jackets, Predators and Blues take their lumps in their battle for maturity, respectability and a playoff berth.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2007-08 RECORD: 54-21-7 -- 115 points; first in Central; first in conference; won Stanley Cup
KEY ADDS: Marian Hossa (Pittsburgh), Ty Conklin (Pittsburgh)
KEY LOSSES: Dominik Hasek (retirement), Dallas Drake (retirement), Scotty Bowman (Chicago)
STRENGTHS: The league's most complete roster
Unlike many recent champs, the Wings didn't have to deal with holes created by defecting free agents. Instead, the franchise's reputation helped it hold on to UFA defenseman Brad Stuart and add the summer's most coveted free agent in Hossa...and they managed to ink both at a discount. Coach Mike Babcock now has the luxury of four lines that are as equally adept at scoring as they are at checking, along with the league's deepest defense corps. If that's not enough, the farm is stocked with capable fill-ins, including Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Jonathan Ericsson.
WEAKNESSES: Absence of a consistent deterrent
The presence of a cruiserweight capable of playing a regular shift and creating some space for the rainmakers would improve the mix, but an intermittent dose of Aaron Downey isn't a major drop-off.
MVP: Nicklas Lidstrom
Safe to say that after winning his third consecutive Norris Trophy -- and sixth in the last seven seasons -- Lidstrom stands firmly among the greatest defenders of all-time. At 38, his game shows no signs of deterioration. In fact, since assuming the captaincy in 2006-07, Lidstrom's play seems even more self-assured. While the Wings boast a half-dozen superstars, it's the calm, cool Swede who keeps the team at an even keel and focused on the prize.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: NA
With a roster full of battle-tested veterans, talented prospects like wingers Leino and Helm and defender Ericsson will have to bide their time in Grand Rapids, waiting for the inevitable injury before they get a sniff in Detroit. All three players figure in the team's long-term plans, but they're unlikely to make an impact this season.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: A playoff upset
Didn't matter how well they played last season. Until commissioner Gary Bettman physically handed the Cup to Lidstrom, pockets of the Detroit faithful still feared disaster. Can't blame them, considering the team's proclivity for stumbling against inferior playoff opponents in recent years. It would be a shocker if it happened to this group next spring, but memories of first-place finishes followed by early-round losses to Calgary (2004) and Edmonton (2006) are still too fresh to ignore.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Parity has been the fly in the ointment of the past nine champs, each of which failed to repeat despite entering the following season as the favorite. The season will offer its share of frustrations, but these Wings are built for postseason domination. Anything less than another Cup will be an epic failure.
2007-08 RECORD: 40-34-8 -- 88 points, third in Central; tenth in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Cristobal Huet (Washington), Brian Campbell (San Jose), Scotty Bowman (Detroit)
KEY LOSSES: Robert Lang (Montreal), Jason Williams (Atlanta), Rene Bourque (Calgary), Yanic Perreault (free agent)
STRENGTHS: Front office
The easy thing would be to point out the dynamic young offense led by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. But under the guidance of Rocky Wirtz, the Hawks have gone from what ESPN a few years back called the "worst-run franchise in pro sports" to one that could be considered a model heading into this season. GM Dale Tallon is proving to be an adept judge of talent while making the most of recent drafts. But the addition of Bowman was Wirtz's masterstroke, bringing the Hawks one of the game's best minds -- and maybe just as important, stealing him away from rival Detroit. Bowman's value -- whether he's scouting, advising on trades, or guiding the coaching staff -- can't be underestimated. As the Hawks mature from laughingstock to playoff contender, Bowman will be a driving force.
WEAKNESSES: Lack of a second-line center
The decision to dump Lang on the Habs spoke loudly of the Hawks' frustration with his inconsistent play, but it left them with a major hole up front. If a deal can be worked out to move Nikolai Khabibulin -- or, more likely, dump his salary to the minors -- Tallon will have the cap room to address it. Word is he's pursuing Washington's Michael Nylander, a slick disher who seems to find easy chemistry wherever he's played. If he fails to land that fish, Tallon might have to rely on Dave Bolland, a 22-year-old with 40 NHL games on his resume.
MVP: Jonathan Toews
No disrespect to Kane, but if Toews hadn't spent 16 games on the shelf with a sprained knee, he would have run away with the Calder. Entering this season in full health, with 10 pounds of new muscle and the C on his chest, he's poised to assert himself as one of the game's most exciting players. Totals of 40 goals and 80 points might seem like lofty aspirations, but those are the kind of numbers Toews needs to put up to help power the Hawks to the postseason.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Jack Skille
The seventh overall pick in 2005 struggled in his brief call-up to the Hawks last season, but displayed his power forward potential with 16 goals and 50 points in 59 games with Rockford of the AHL. He made the case for a full-time promotion with a solid training camp, catching the attention of coach Denis Savard with his speed and willingness to bang along the boards
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Martin Havlat
What could possibly shock Hawks fans more than a healthy season out of the habitually sidelined winger? Havlat's posted 100 points in his last 109 games...but that covers a span of three injury-abbreviated seasons. He enters this one a question mark after March surgery on his left shoulder that delayed his training camp debut. But he's due to play at least 70 games this season, helping provide the secondary scoring that will be critical to Chicago's playoff aspirations.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Hawks are the pick of the pundits to make the leap from also-ran to playoff participant. Can't say I disagree. I don't see them as any threat to the elite teams in the conference, but they look to have all the ingredients in place to claim second in the Central and get their first taste of postseason action since 2002.