- St. Louis
- St. Louis
The top pick in the Central Division is a pretty easy one, but after that the team's could wind up any which way and it wouldn't be a surprise. Perhaps more than any division in the league, goaltending will determine where these teams wind up come playoff time. As it turns out, I have them finishing the same as last year.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings are the clear frontrunner. They bring back every key player except Dominik Hasek, who retired but lost his No. 1 job to Chris Osgood in the postseason anyway, and added the dynamic Marian Hossa to the mix for the season. That's scary. Still, one has to question whether Osgood can hold up as the team's top goalie all season, and backup Ty Conklin, while spectacular in relief for Pittsburgh last year, is prone to a mistake from time to time. The Wings still have Jimmy Howard as well, so there is a security net.
I'm going to stick my neck out here and say the neckless Barry Trotz will again perform his magic on the Predators. While likely losing Alexander Radulov to the Kontinental Hockey league is a huge blow, Nashville still has J-P Dumont and Jason Arnott to lead the charge up front. The Preds may also have the best collection of young d-men in the league, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. But the key will be whether or not Dan Ellis can build on his surprising 2007-08 campaign and be a legitimate No. 1. With Chris Mason — and his big contract — shipped to division rival St. Louis, Ellis will have to carry the load. Rookie Pekka Rinne is the backup, and while he is highly regarded, it's tough to expect him to carry Nashville to the postseason if Ellis falters.
The upstart Blackhawks are the talk of the league. They're loaded with young stars, two starting goalies and new No. 1 blueliner Brian Campbell. Still, to me, something doesn't feel right about this team. There's top-end talent up front, but can we really expect 36 goals from Patrick Sharp again? Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will surely build on their rookie years, but questions about Martin Havlat's glass body, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien's upside, and Robert Lang's 37-year-old legs make me pause. Campbell was overpaid, but he'll be an asset on a blueline that includes some bright talents like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker. Finally, it would seem like an asset to have to No. 1 goalies, but will Nikolai Khabibulin's lame duck status become a distraction? And if he's shipped out, can Cristobal Huet carry the torch on his own?
Columbus would be competing for second in the division if they had a center to go with Rick Nash. R.J. Umberger is a nice player, but he's not a top-line center on a playoff contender. I like the grit and determination on the roster. Bringing back Mike Peca and adding Mike Commodore were smart moves. Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek (and maybe Nikita Filatov) could make a run at the Calder — and if they do, expect Columbus to finally turn the corner and really contend for a playoff spot. Like Ellis in Nashville, though, can one really count on Pascal Leclaire to carry a team to the playoffs? If they can make it, it might prove to be coach Ken Hitchcock's best coaching job ever.
The Blues are going to bring back about the same team that saw them go 33-36-13 last year, and while the youngsters will be a year older, the veterans (Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk) will be, too. President of Hockey Operations John Davidson is committed to rebuilding, even if it means more bad seasons in St. Louis. The addition of Mason to back up Manny Legace is an upgrade (though a pricey one), and the future looks mighty bright, especially on defense with Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo in the fold. But the Blues are still a couple years away from competing in the Western Conference.
As Cory already said, I doubt anyone will pick against the Red Wings in this division. I think that Chris Osgood will show his age in net at some point, but when the defense allows fewer than 20 shots on goal game after game, just how great does the goalie really need to be? Hossa is a wonderful addition and the Wings will be an offensive dynamo when they need to be. Mike Babcock seems to be a serious bloke and should be able to keep everyone focused. Detroit will win the Central Division crown once again.
I see things a little bit differently than Cory does the rest of the way.
The Chicago Blackhawks only missed the playoffs by 3 points last year. Does anyone think that they won't be better this year than they were last? The youngsters are a year older and wiser, they added Brian Campbell, and the goaltending should be solid, (even if Khabilbulin is sent packing). Martin Havlat will be joined by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp, and Robert Lang up front. Even after Havlat gets injured, that's still a handful. Campbell will have plenty of help on the blueline with Cam Barker, Brent Sopel, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith. Mark it down, the 'Hawks are a playoff team.
I look for the Columbus Blue Jackets to finish third while making a solid run for the playoffs. Too bad they will come up just short. Pascal Leclaire proved to be a reliable netminder last season. He'll need to repeat because his defense is unproven in front of him. Mike Commodore is a good man, but a number one pairing guy he is not. Christian Backman is also good, but will he be good enough to take on the opponents top players night after night? Rick Nash will have some help up front from vets Freddy Modin, RJ Umberger, Kristian Huselius, and Mike Peca. I like Raffi Torres as the energy guy. Ken Hitchcock is one of the top coaches in the league and should get the most out of this group. Again, the team doesn't look like gangbusters on paper, but they should be solid and could surprise.
Speaking of Columbus, how did the Hurricanes let this guy go? Born in Charlotte and a co-captain for the Plymouth Whalers? This dude had Carolina Hurricanes written all over him.
In my opinion, St. Louis has four of the best defensemen in the entire league. The foursome of Jay McKee, Eric Brewer, Erik Johnson, and former Calder winner, Barret Jackman take a backseat to no other grouping. Combine those players with the tough duo of Chris Mason and Manny Legace in net, and the Blues should have a chance to win or tie almost every game. While Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya have seen better days, Andy McDonald, Dan Hinote, Lee Stempniak, and Brad Boyes are all solid players. Let's not fool ourselves, these guys are long-shots to make the playoffs, but I think they are a notch above Nashville.
I'm picking Nashville to take a nose-dive and finish last in the division. Not only did they lose Radulov while getting nothing in return, the older guys (Arnott and Dumont) are a year older and a year slower. The Preds have some of the best young defensemen in the league in Suter, Hamhuis, and Weber, but where will the goals come from? Legwand and Erat are pretty good, but not in the same class as other forwards in the division. Will Dan Ellis be a one year wonder? It wouldn't be the first time that a team traded away a vet, (Mason), to make room for a promising youngster, (Ellis), only to have said promising youngster disappoint.
I see that Bubba has been sucked into the Blackhawks publicity vortex. I hope he doesn't believe the hype surrounding the Lightning's dreadful offseason, too. Don't get me wrong, Chicago is an up-and-coming squad, but they're third line isn't going to scare anyone (Ladd - David Bolland - Craig Adams) and there are even questions marks on the second line. Lang is old, Havlat (like Bubba said) is always hurt. Who fills the void if these guys go down? I like the D, and they have two above-average guys in net, but forward depth and coaching (Denis Savard hasn't proven anything yet) are issues.
I can see Columbus maybe getting into third, and agree they're not quite a playoff team yet. I again look to center, though. What's it going to take for GM Scott Howson to realize Rick Nash needs to be playing with an elite, puck-distributing pivot? And don't count the Canes out of the Jared Boll running just yet — he is just 22!
I, too, like St. Louis' blueline, but clearly not as much as you. Erik Johnson is a star-in-the-making, for sure. But Brewer has never played up to his enormous potential, Barrett Jackman's injury woes are sure to crop again, and Jay McKee has been exposed as a good — not great — defensive defenseman. This is a defense with the potential to be really, really good. But there are too many factors that could easily derail it for my liking. Legace and Mason are OK goalie, but both would have a hard time starting elsewhere. Just look at their pasts.
So, all that on the table, I don't see how you plop the Preds all the way at the bottom. Does losing Radulov hurt? Of course. But Arnott's age (33) doesn't concern me and Dumont (30) is still in his prime. Yes, the idea of riding Dan Ellis should worry Nashville fans. But if he can be the goalie he was last year, David Poile has a steal for this year and next at a cap hit of $1.75 million a year. In conclusion, I can prove Nashville will be OK without Radulov. There'll be no one to knock Arnott out of a playoff series with a knee-crunching celebration without him.
"Blackhawks Publicity Vortex"? I didn't know there was such a thing! These things I do know. The Hawks earned 88 points last year, just three behind the Preds and the elusive final playoff spot. They have Brian Campbell now. They added Huet. If they trade Khabibulin, they will get some other help in return. Their youngsters should be better with a year of experience under their belts. This team is better than last year's team and is playoff bound, vortex or not! *L*
I think we pretty much agree on Columbus. It's not a bad team, but not quite good enough.
Perhaps, I should take a step back from my strong words concerning the St. Louis blueline. They certainly won't score many points, but I will stick to my guns about them being the top grouping of four, "defensive" defensemen out there. What's wrong with Legace and Mason's past? Legace has a lifetime GAA of 2.31 and save percentage of .914. Mason has a lifetime GAA of 2.61 and save percentage of .913. Two years ago he posted a SV% of .925 with Nashville. Not too shabby. This team will be tough to score on, period.
Last but not least, Nashville. As you mentioned in your first paragraph regarding Chicago, I just don't have a good feeling about this team. I realize that I am predicting a big drop-off from previous years, but I'm guessing that these players will be fighting off-ice pressures as well as on-ice. Failing to advance in the playoffs, yet again, has to affect the mental state of this team. The defense is young and dynamic, no question, but the goaltending is unproven. The offense is questionable. I really think that St. Louis has a better team than these guys. The proof will be in the proverbial pudding.
Anyone else have an opinion?