2009-10 Central Division preview
Infusion of hungry youth will recharge the Red Wings and make up for lost stars
After a chaotic summer, a black cloud lingers over the talented Blackhawks
Kids must carry Jackets, Blues face big expectations, Preds will scrape bottom
Here's how I see them shaking out, in order of predicted finish:
DETROIT RED WINGS
2008-09 RECORD: 51-21-10, 112 points, first in Central
FRESH FACES: Todd Bertuzzi (Calgary), Jason Williams (Columbus), Patrick Eaves (Boston)
OTHER PLACES: Marian Hossa (Chicago), Mikael Samuelsson (Vancouver), Jiri Hudler (Russia), Ty Conklin (St. Louis)
STORYLINE: After successive runs to the final, the Red Wings have every right to slip into a deep Cup coma and slide through the opening months of the schedule. But here's the thing: the loss of valuable contributors like Hossa, Hudler and Samuelsson should have a recharging effect on the roster, thanks to an influx of youth that is chomping at the bit to prove it belongs. Familiar faces like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino finally will get their chance at full-time employment in Detroit, and their speed and enthusiasm should be a shot in the arm for the been-there, done-that Wings.
While they're working that trio into the lineup, the Wings also need to address a precipitous decline in team defense. Ranked first overall in 2007-08, they dropped to 20th last season. Part of that can be attributed to the struggles of Chris Osgood, but Detroit equally was done in by a lack of defensive focus. As long as this is addressed before the playoffs start, they could make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
MVP: Nick Lidstrom. Closing in on 40 and entering what could be his final season in Detroit, Lidstrom appears to have lost little, if anything, from his sublime game. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Wings take a less-is-more approach with the veteran. His ice time was cut by almost two minutes last season and he appeared stronger for it as the playoffs ground into June. With another deep run possible, Lidstrom should see a further reduction in duty, but not so much as to take him out of contention for the Norris.
KID TO WATCH: Ville Leino. The Wings aren't likely to fully recover the 90-plus goals that departed via free agency, but Leino should do his part to soften the blow. The 2008 Player of the Year in Finland excelled in a 13-game tryout last season, scoring five goals and nine points while fitting in flawlessly with Mike Babcock's puck possession scheme. He'll be asked to chip in 20-25 from a third line perch alongside Valtteri Filppula and Williams.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Chris Osgood and Jimmy Howard. That didn't take long. After buying himself a break from constant criticism with his spectacular playoff performance, Osgood is back in the crosshairs...though it's not entirely his fault. With Ty Conklin defecting to the Blues, the understudy role falls into the lap of the largely inexperienced Howard. The youngster is being tasked with a 20 to 25 game workload -- which is reasonable for a backup, but a challenge for a rookie. If he's not up to the task, Osgood may be overextended. At least both netminders should see some benefit from an increased defensive effort that's sure to be in place after last season's lackadaisical approach.
BOTTOM LINE: I've learned my lesson: until further notice, it defies logic to underestimate the Red Wings. A slow start is almost inevitable, but they'll claw their way to the top in time to secure a ninth consecutive Central crown.
2008-09 RECORD: 46-24-12, 104 points, second in Central
FRESH FACES: GM Stan Bowman, Marian Hossa (Detroit), John Madden (New Jersey), Tomas Kopecky (Detroit)
OTHER PLACES: Martin Havlat (Minnesota), Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton), Samuel Pahlsson (Columbus), Matt Walker (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: It's hard to remember a season of such promise followed by a summer of such absolute chaos. In the months following the Hawks' first conference final appearance since 1995, they've been staggered by the Patrick Kane cab incident, the botched handling of several qualifying offers, the firing of popular GM Dale Tallon, the discovery that prize acquisition Hossa would be sidelined until December by shoulder trauma, and the knee injury that will keep Adam Burish out for six months. And it won't be long before the pending free agency of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith has everyone calculating escapes from what looks to be an impossible salary cap trap. The talent is there for another deep run, but the confluence of events makes you wonder if a set-back isn't in the cards.
MVP: Jonathan Toews. That C stitched to his chest appeared too heavy a burden for the 20-year-old at the start of last season. Pushing himself too hard to lead by example, he went without a goal in his first 12 games and had just four through his first 22 contests. But after being reminded by coach Joel Quenneville to concentrate on the little things, Toews game rounded into form. He finished with 34 tallies and established himself as an elite two-way center capable of setting the tone for a game. Don't think that's escaped the attention of Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman.
KID TO WATCH: Jack Skille. After paying his dues in Rockford, the grinding winger is about to get his chance as a result of Burish's injury...as long as the lower body injury he suffered himself on Wednesday night doesn't get in the way. Skille's not a significant offensive threat, but his speed and tireless board work would make him a useful depth player.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cristobal Huet. The departure of Nikolai Khabibulin left the talented but inconsistent Huet as Chicago's undisputed No. 1 keeper. That's cold comfort to fans who remember his deflating performance in Game 4 of the Red Wings series. With neither Corey Crawford nor Antti Niemi capable of pushing him for ice time, it'll be up to Huet to both seize the position and cement his grip with the sort of reliable net work that will allow his young teammates the confidence to play their own games.
BOTTOM LINE: There are plenty of doomsayers in Chicago saying that the playoffs are anything but a foregone conclusion. Don't believe 'em. Barring a complete meltdown by Huet, the Hawks should thrive on the backs of a tough, smart defense and a deep, dangerous group of forwards.
NHL Truth & Rumors