2011-12 Central Division Preview
Expect the Blackhawks to be fully recovered from their Stanley Cup hangover
The Red Wings may still be old, but they're still going to be a western force
St. Louis has been a promising young team for years and will finally deliver
Teams are listed in order of predicted finish.
*Denotes playoff pick
2010-11: 47-25-10, 104 points, first in Central
FRESH FACES: Ty Conklin (St. Louis), Ian White (San Jose), Mike Commodore (Columbus), Fabian Brunnstrom (Toronto)
OTHER PLACES: Mike Modano (retired), Chris Osgood (retired), Kris Draper (retired), Brian Rafalski (retired), Derek Meech (Winnipeg)
STORYLINE: Yes, they're still old. No, they haven't gotten past the second round of the playoffs for two straight seasons. Yet, they're ultimately going to be a force. The Wings saw a raft of retirements over the summer, including one (Brian Rafalski) that was unexpected and will hurt going forward. But as always, GM Ken Holland made a shrewd move or two, signing Ian White and Mike Commodore to bolster the blueline. Up front, there are no significant changes to a group that averaged 3.13 goals per game, second-best in the league.
Pavel Datsyuk remains probably the best two-way center in the game. Henrik Zetterberg averaged a point per game and scored 10 power play goas last season and remains a terror with the man advantage.Then there's the wondrous Nick Lidstrom, who returns at age 41 to lead the defense after an 82-game, 62-point season. Lidstrom is also coming off the first minus season of his career (-2), however, and Detroit finished 23rd overall in average goals-allowed (2.89) per game.
MVP: Pavel Datsyuk. Injuries limited him to 56 games last season, but he still put up 59 points plus 15 more in 11 playoff matches. You just can't get the puck away from Datsyuk, who never skates in a straight line for more than, oh, half a foot. He is 33 now, but it's not hard to imagine several more good seasons ahead.
KID TO WATCH: Brendan Smith. The Wings remain a tough club to crack for rookies, with GM Ken Holland preferring to give them plenty of minor-league seasoning before a promotion. So while Smith may start the season in Grand Rapids (AHL), the first-round pick from 2007 figures to be the first call-up should injuries strike the defense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Daniel Cleary. He's coming off a career-high 26-goal season and could play on the first line at right wing with Datsyuk. His absence from the second period on in Game 7 of the second round against San Jose -- after a collision with teammate Jiri Hudler -- really hurt the Wings in what turned out to be a 3-2 loss. Healthy again, there's no reason to think Cleary can't get to the 30-goal level.
BOTTOM LINE: After the retirements of Rafalski, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood and Mike Modano, we might feel a bit better about the Wings' Cup chances if a bit more youth were injected into the roster. While White and Commodore are decent veterans to help replace Rafalski, there's something of a mercenary feel to them. It would be more helpful if Detroit started to grow some better D-men on its own farm. But as long as the Wings still have all that offense on the ice, and all that mystique off of it, there's always a chance for a new banner in Hockeytown.
2010-11: 44-29-9-94 points, second in Central
FRESH FACES: Ray Emery (Anaheim), Andrew Brunette (Minnesota), Daniel Carcillo (Philadelphia), Jamal Mayers (San Jose), Steve Montador (Buffalo), Sean O'Donnell (Philadelphia)
OTHER PLACES: Brian Campbell (Florida), Troy Brouwer (Washington), Tomas Kopecky (Florida), Jake Dowell (Dallas)
STORYLINE: They had their Cup, then they had their hangover. Now is supposed to be the time of renewed thirst to drink from the chalice again. Can it happen? It sure can, especially if the Blackhawks come out with the kind of spark that nearly turned last spring's 3-0 first-round series deficit against eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver into a Game 7 thriller. (Just as they seemed to have gotten that championship swagger back, Alex Burrows ended it all with his OT goal on Corey Crawford.) Maybe it was just the lesson they needed going forward: no shortcuts.
Last season, the Hawks seemed to coast far too long before they got serious. Expect a more committed, focused group from the opening-night drop of the puck this time. With marquee talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith still on hand, the Hawks should play beyond April.
MVP: Jonathan Toews. A disappointing playoffs numbers-wise no doubt ate at the perfectionist captain. He did score the goal that put Chicago into OT in Game 7 against Vancouver, but otherwise didn't produce as usual. Expect a hungrier heart of the Hawks.
KID TO WATCH: Ben Smith. After a wave of injuries gave him a chance to play late in the season, Smith did some good things when the games mattered most. Included were three goals in the seven-game series with the Canucks. The stocky winger should get another opportunity once he recovers from that huge hit in a Sept. 30 preseason game that got Detroit's Brendan Smith suspended.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Patrick Kane. He had offseason wrist surgery and was still wearing a cast into mid-September, but is sure he'll be fine for opening night. There are some who feel that Kane underachieved a little like the rest of his team last season, but he still put up 27 goals and 73 points in 73 games. His production on the power play needs to get back to previous levels, however; he had five PP goals last season, down from the 13 and 9 of the previous two seasons.
BOTTOM LINE: Count me in as one who believes this will be the classic rebound year. Chicago goes into the 2011-12 campaign with more confidence in its goaltending situation than it had last year when Marty Turco was initially the starter. Corey Crawford's reputation took a big jump with his play against Vancouver, and most believe he's the man of the future between Chicago's pipes. There is still tons of firepower up front with Kane, Toews, Sharp and Marian Hossa, and veteran Andrew Brunette was a nice pickup who should help the power play. If all goes well, the Cup could be back in the Windy City after a one-year detour to Beantown.
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2010-11: 44-27-11, 99 points, second in Central
FRESH FACES: Niclas Bergfors (Florida), Zack Stortini (Edmonton)
OTHER PLACES: Joel Ward (Washington), Cody Franson (Toronto), Steve Sullivan (Pittsburgh), Matthew Lombardi (Toronto), Marcel Goc (Florida), Shane O'Brien (Colorado)
STORYLINE: One of former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock's most common observations about teams was: the hardest thing of all is getting from being a pretty good team that can make the playoffs to one that is a Stanley Cup finalist. By winning a postseason series for the first time in their history, the Predators showed last spring that they can do more than just make the playoffs. But can they take the next step or two? With one of the top goalies (Pekka Rinne) and two of the top defensemen (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter) in the conference, it's possible, but one still wonders where the goals will come from.
Coach Barry Trotz's team finished 22nd in goals per game (2.60) last season, but allowed just 2.32 and figures to do about the same after failing to add anyone of particular note offensively. Nashville also lost two double-figure goal scorers in Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan. But the defense led by Weber and Suter and Vezina Trophy finalist Rinne -- plus the always resourceful ways of Trotz -- will again make playing Nashville anything but a party.
MVP: Shea Weber. For a while this summer, Predators fans thought he might become a Nashvillain, as contract talks with the team reached the arbitration stage and the sides didn't exactly agree on his value. Management asked the arbitrator to award him $4.5 million per season. Weber's Titan Sports management camp asked for $8.5 million. The arbitrator awarded $7.5 million for a one-year deal, making Weber the highest-paid D-man in the league. The top Norris Trophy candidate claims to harbor no ill will, but you have to wonder. Still, expect the hard-hitting, hard-shooting blueliner to have a big season. Anything under 50 points will be a disappointment.
KID TO WATCH: Ryan Ellis. The 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft, defenseman Ellis had a monster junior season for Windsor (OHL), posting 101 points in 58 games. There are questions about his size (5-10, 186), but not his patience with the puck. Still just 20, he may need one more year of junior seasoning.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Colin Wilson. Preds management believes the third-year center could break out this season, after a solid 16-goal, 34-point campaign. Wilson figures to get more ice time than the 13:17 he averaged last year. The seventh overall pick in 2008, he has good size (6-1, 220) and above-average speed and skill.
BOTTOM LINE: The Predators are going to be as tough to beat as ever. Barry Trotz just does not let his team get out of rhythm too often, and perfect rhythm for Nashville's 13th-year coach means chip-out, chip-in, cycle-down-low, rinse-and-repeat. That's his idea of a hockey symphony, and Trotz appears to have another amenable group to orchestrate.
2010-11: 38-33-11, 87 points, fourth in Central
FRESH FACES: Jason Arnott (Washington), Jamie Langenbrunner (Dallas), Scott Nichol (San Jose), Brian Elliott (Colorado), Kent Huskins (San Jose)
OTHER PLACES: Cam Janssen (New Jersey), Tyson Strachan (Florida)
STORYLINE: Prosperity is just around the corner. The Blues have sounded like President Herbert Hoover in recent years. St. Louis has been thisclose to big things for a while, but has not won a playoff game since 2004, and has missed the postseason in five of the last six years. Even so, there's no shortage of optimism that THIS could be the year the famed Note gets its act together.
We've bought into the "young, promising" storyline one too many times to get overly excited, especially when the Blues' big offseason pickups were players who've clearly seen better days, such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. But we will give them this: they have two of the better young power forwards in the conference in David Backes and Chris Stewart, and Patrik Berglund is a pretty nice second-line center. A return to health and form by the concussed David Perron would be an added bonus.
MVP: David Backes. At 6-3, 225 pounds, he's not only powerful around the boards, he can finish around the net very well. Last season, Backes put up 31 goals, 31 assists and was plus-32. He also had 93 penalty minutes. There's nothing not to like about the 27-year-old Minnesota native, and he could be ready for a real big bust-out season.
KID TO WATCH: Phil McRae. Most of the Blues' top prospects are probably still a year or two away, which means center McRae has the best chance among the rookies to land a spot out of camp. The son of former enforcer Basil McRae was mentored by Keith Tkachuk after being selected by St. Louis in the second round of the 2008 draft and got a 15-game taste of the NHL with the Blues last season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Chris Stewart. After coming from Colorado in the blockbuster trade that sent Erik Johnson to the Avalanche, Stewart put up 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games for the Blues. Added to his totals with the Avs, he scored 28 goals for the second season in a row. At just 23, some believe he could be the next Jarome Iginla. That might be a bit of an unfair comparison, but there's no reason to think that Stewart won't score 40 goals at some point soon.
BOTTOM LINE: This could be a very good team, but as we pointed out earlier, that's been said about a lot of Blues editions that ended up being mediocre. Injuries always seem to hit their big guys hard, but this team has also been searching for the right leadership and chemistry on and off the ice. It has enough offense, a respectable defense and a goalie (Jaroslav Halak) who can take a team far when he gets hot. It's just been, you know, putting it all together that's been the issue. This season, we go out on a limb and say they'll be good enough to at least make the playoffs.
2010-11: 34-35-13 81 points, fifth in Central
FRESH FACES: Jeff Carter (Philadelphia), Vinny Prospal (NY Rangers), James Wisniewski (Montreal), Radek Martinek (NY Islanders)
OTHER PLACES: Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia), Nikita Filatov (Ottawa), Scottie Upshall (Florida), Jan Hejda (Colorado), Mathieu Garon (Tampa Bay), Mike Commodore (Detroit), Sami Lepisto (Chicago)
STORYLINE: It took a while for Jeff Carter to get over the fact that he was going from one of hockey's most lively and fun cities to one of the NHL's most anoymous markets. But the stages of grief seem to have run their course and Carter says he's happy to don a sweater that's tangled up in so much blue it could have been inspired by a famed Bob Dylan verse.
Carter's acquisition was one of the offseason's biggest stories, one that has at least given bored Jackets fans some reason for excitement. After numerous "can't-miss" draft prospect came and missed in Columbus, management went for players who might cost more, but figure to give more immediate results. With at least 33 goals in his last three seasons, Carter is proven, and one's mouth naturally waters at thoughts of him centering for starry left wing Rick Nash and solid R.J. Umberger. With big money (some say, WAY too much money) given to two-way defender James Wisniewski, Jackets brass signaled that it's through being patient.
MVP: Rick Nash. Hard to believe this is his ninth year in the league already. He's still only 27, perhaps not even in his prime yet, and he's done OK, with six seasons of 30 goals or more. Now with Carter probably on his line, a seventh seems a formality. The bigger, more realistic goal: the 50 mark.
KID TO WATCH: Ryan Johansen. With 92 points in 63 games for Portland (WHL) last season, the 19-year-old center looks ready for regular duty with the Jackets. Drafted fourth overall in 2010, Johansen could face durability questions with a 6-3, 190-pound frame, but his talent is unquestioned.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Steve Mason. After two straight mediocre seasons, the pressure's on him to regain the rookie form that took the league by storm in 2008-09. New goalie coach Ian Clark should help, but in the end the Jackets' season will come down to Mason.
BOTTOM LINE: Anaheim proved last season that a team can make the playoffs with one super line, so it's not out of the question that it could happen here with Nash, Carter and Umberger. If rookie Johansen is anything close to being as good as advertised, and if Wisniewski justifies his bucks, the postseason isn't out of the question. If Mason is the leaky goalie of the last two years, though, it won't matter how well all of the others perform.
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