NHL season preview – Central division

 

Maybe the best division in hockey right now.  The poor Columbus Blue Jackets, not only are they awful but they’ve now got 4 beasts to put up with.  Big year for the Blues last year, but any of these teams are still capable of winning this division.  If the Hawks get some goaltending they’ll be right back to being a cup threat.  The Wings need to rebuild their defense but they’re still the Wings.  The Preds will need some of their young D to develop quickley, but Trotz always gets the max out of his guys.  Great division and it should be interesting to follow.

 

1. pietrSt. Louis Blues – It was about freakin time this team finished their rebuild!  They just about went from CBA to CBA rebuilding this team and at the start of last season it looked like they would.  But they brought in Ken Hitchcock just in time to not only get them over the hump and into the playoffs, but they took a very competitive Central division and nearly took home the President’s Trophy.  They knocked off the Sharks rather easily in last year’s playoffs, but got a bit exposed by L.A. in the 2nd round.  Hitch’s system makes average goaltenders look good and good goaltenders look great but in the playoffs that stuff ususally gets revealed.

I have the Blues getting top spot in the conference.  This was far and away the best team in the league from December on.  They really don’t have a flaw, but when playoff time rolls around they really need Jaroslav Halak to be healthy this time to go anywhere.  Elliot is the goaltender who is average that looks good playing for Hitch.  Halak is good and looks great.  Add to that Halak has done it in the playoffs before with Montreal in 2010.  For the regular season however the goaltending will be just fine.  Also they have Jake Allen who will likely get his shot next year.  Both Halak and Elliot have 2 years left on their deals, I would guess that 1 will be dealt prior to next season so this could be an audition for both guys.

I’m a very large fan of Alex Pietrangelo.  This kid is great at both ends of the ice and is just so smooth.  In my mind he is on par with Drew Doughty right now.  And I love what they have surrounding their horse too.  Kevin Shattenkirk is a great number 2.  He can fly, brings a lot of offense and he showed last season that he can do that while sticking with the system.  Barret Jackman is that tough vet who can still be used in a shutdown role.  His game is more suited for the old NHL, but he can still be very effective.  They could stand to add another guy back there, I know rumors were out that they were looking hard in the summer for one, but the blueline is very solid the way it is.

Up front they don’t score a ton, but again that’s a product of Hitch’s system.  They don’t have an offensive star but they can roll 4 lines at you regularly.  Jaden Schwartz should have benefited greatly from the half season he spent in Peoria, although he only put up 19 points in 33 games.  Vladimir Tarasenko has been playing against men now for years in the KHL, but I’m sure the smaller ice and North American life style will be an adjustment for him.  Both kids have potential to be offensive stars, but Hitch isn’t known for being a guy that develops offensive stars.

David Backes is Ryan Kesler without the BS.  One of the best 2 way centres in the game, he’s physical and he is a great leader.  You don’t see him diving, you don’t see him bitching and moaning out there, and you don’t see him skating by the opposing bench after scoring acting like a jack ass (can you tell I’m not big on Kesler’s act?)  He plays the game the right way and I have heard that Hitch has said “he is a coaches dream”.  Having said all of that, he would be much better served being the 2nd line centre.  Doug Armstrong could stand to package some of their youth up for a legit 1st line centre which could take this team to the next level.  They’re good down the middle, but not great.

I have become a fan of Hitchcock as a coach over the years, mainly because I took off my fan goggles and put on my objectivity goggles.  His teams are boring, but he gets the most out of what he has.  It helps coaches like him and Tippett that clutch and grab has been creeping back into the game, especially last season when concussions started to be a real worry.  But he is one of the smartest coaches in the game and he is a grinder much like Bill Belicheck or Andy Reid in the NFL.  This team is in good hands, although it’s been proven that Hitch has a shelf life.

More will be expected of this team come playoff time if they do indeed finish 1st in the West.  I don’t believe they’re ready for a deep playoff run, but finishing with the division crown and 1st in the West is well within their reach.  And they have a lot of cap space and assets to really load up come the trade deadline.

 

2. 88-19Chicago Blackhawks – The 2010 Stanley Cup seemed like a distant memory as the Blackhawks went down in 6 to the Coyotes last spring.  Mike Smith was incredible, but it really seemed like they lost their edge.  Corey Crawford was abysmal to say the least in the series, which was a dramatic change from his heroics against the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.  They really didn’t do anything to change this roster in the off season, so it’s the usual suspects looking to get the Hawks back to contender status for this season.

If there is one glarring hole on this roster it’s the 2nd line centre spot.  I’m a huge Dave Bolland fan, but he’s much more of a 3rd line centre than a 2nd line guy.  They’ve tried using Patrick Kane in the middle but while he has good chemistry with Marian Hossa, he’s much more comfortable on the wing.  Joel Quenneville doesn’t like using Patrick Sharp in that spot for some reason.  I guess he feels Sharp’s game is better on the wing than at centre, but the Hawks seem to play better when they’re running Toews, Sharp and Bolland down the middle.  They need an answer, mine would be to package prospect Mark McNeill with a pick and another prospect and see if it can fetch you that player.

Other than that the forward group is loaded.  Some good young players will be in some key roles for them this season like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes.  Also I would expect a pretty good season out of Victor Stalberg.  He’s always been a guy with a lot of talent, and he is a UFA this summer so he has a chance to really cash in being a 6’3, 205 guy that can fly.

The defense as always is anchored by Keith and Seabrook.  It’s one of the top pairings in the game, but after them it gets sketchy.  I have no clue why Stan Bowman brought in Johnny Oduya last season, and even less of a clue as to why he re-signed him after a dreadful playoffs.  I know you want puck movers Stan, but the reason the position is called DEFENSEman is because you’re expected to play at least some DEFENSE.  There are some good young d-men on this roster like Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen, but both guys are still growing.  Just like that 2nd line centre spot, they could stand to package up one of those guys and bring in a guy who is more established.

I am pretty surprised they haven’t upgraded their goaltending, but then again we are only a year removed from believing Corey Crawford was one of the games best young goaltenders.  They’ll give him the first half of this shortened season I believe.  If he isn’t performing, they’ll need to look for someone else.  If he can’t step up then that makes 3 pretty big holes in the lineup and they don’t have enough trade bait to fill all of those holes.  Could be tough for Bowman between now and the trade deadline.

The hot rumor after last season was that Joel Quenneville was waiting to get fired.  He wanted out, but he wanted to be fired.  Of course it never happened.  I would guess coach Q is on a very short leash this season.  But he has been a great coach in this league for years, so I can’t see it happening with a roster that is so talented.  They’re a threat to win the division and to be contenders.  But there definitely is a lot of potential there for things to go completely off the rails.

 

3. Montreal Canadiens v Detroit Red WingsDetroit Red Wings – The big question heading into this season, people are asking “will this be the year?”  It’s so tough to say because this team has lost guys before but they have such a winning culture, such great leadership, such great coaching that could offset the loses of Lidstrom, Stuart, and Holmstrom (they’ll easily replace Hudler).  I think it’s safe to say expectations haven’t been this low in Detroit since the early 90’s, but it’s still a lot higher expectations than most of the league has.

It’s not so much about what they’ve lost for me, it’s what they still have.  Mike Babcock in my opinion is the best coach in the game.  He’s won both ways.  He took a talentless team to game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2003, boring us all to death the entire time.  Then 5 years later, he lead a loaded team to the cup that played a very fluid, up tempo game.  I said it about Hitchcock and it’s true for Babcock as well, he is a grinder much like a Bill Belicheck.  You won’t catch Babcock smiling much, nor should a coach be smiling much.  He’s as serious as a heart attack, and he will figure out the best system for the group of players he has.

The Wings also still have one of the best 1-2 punches down the middle in the league in Datsyuk and Zetterberg.  Both men are incredibly talented, both are among the best 2 way centres in hockey, both are extremely experienced, and both have been playing during the lockout.  To complement these 2 they have big wingers who skate well, like Johan Franzen.  Damien Brunner tore it up with Henrik Zetterberg during the lockout and big things are expected of the Swiss winger in his first NHL season.  He isn’t one of those wingers that has nice size, but he has great skill and wheels.  He is more than capable of replacing Jiri Hudler.  And if he can’t, Gustav Nyquist has been playing great in the AHL this season and is ready to see some time on the big club.

Everyone knows the big flaw this team is facing is on the blueline.  Already hit on it a bit, but let’s take a “glass half full” approach that nobody else is.  Both Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl should be ready for big roles on this club after years in the AHL.  Kindl got 55 games in last season but only got 14:03 minutes a night.  The Wings hate rushing their players, especially their d-men (of course to them rushing a player is only getting 3 seasons of AHL hockey).  But they’re going to have to give these 2 in particular a chance.

Kyle Quincey, Ian White, and Jonathan Ericsson are serviceable, but I would be stunned if they all of a sudden become guys that can be quality 2, 3 or 4 d-men on a playoff team.  White has played well for the Wings, but he’s been playing a role he is comfortable in.  Same with Nik Kronwall who now has to be the number 1.  They might be able to step up, we’ve seen the Wings get more out of less before, but it’s a very tall task.

And then you have Jimmy Howard in net who has been great in the regular season but come up small in big spots come playoff time.  Some might say “that’s the total opposite of Chris Osgood”.  Well, at the end of his career yes.  But in 96, 97, 99, 2000, and 2001 Osgood was that guy.  He won the cup in 98, but people looked at the Wings winning inspite of Osgood being their starting goaltender.  I believe Howard will be challenged this season by Jonas Gustavsson.  This is a classic Red Wing reclammation project.  Big talent, played in a system and city that wasn’t goaltender friendly.  If Howard goes down with an injury I could really see the Monster stealing the starting gig.

Some have this team finally missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.  I just can’t count them out.  I don’t think this group as it is are contenders, but they’ll get in the dance.  Babcock is too good, Datsyuk and Zetterberg are too good, the blueline isn’t great but it’s good enough, and the goaltending is solid.  Again, it’s not about what they’ve lost, it’s what they still have and if Ken Holland could work his magic before the trade deadline and upgrade their defense they might be right back among the elite in the league.

 

4. 72569_Wild_Predators_Hockey-400x300Nashville Predators – It wasn’t an easy off season for Predators GM David Poile.  He lost Ryan Suter, he nearly lost Shea Weber, he already was losing Alex Radulov, but he did get a new deal done with Mike Fisher and I think I speak for ALL hockey fans that we like that….and more so we like that Fisher’s “deal” with Mrs. Fisher A.K.A. Carrie Underwood has yet to expire!

Contrary to what some will have you believe, it doesn’t all start in net with Pekka Rinne.  It starts with Barry Trotz who is one of the top coaches in the game.  They’re not as boring of a team as the Blues or Coyotes, they have a forecheck.  But it’s not by any means fire wagon hockey either.  He always gets so much out of his players, and he along with David Poile have built a pretty good thing in Music City.

AFTER Trotz, Rinne is the guy for this franchise and he has developed into quite a goaltender.  He’s huge, and he’s athletic.  Also, he was a horse last season which allowed them to move Anders Lindback to Tampa.  He is that goaltender that can simply carry a team much like Mikka Kipprusoff has done in Calgary or Henrik Lundqvist in New York.  This will be the first year of his new 7 year deal and while it’s definitely not a cheap cap hit at 7 mil per, I believe it’s worth it.

Luckily for Rinne he will still have Shea Weber leading the protection in front of him….for this year anyway.  We will see how this season goes but I don’t think anyone in hockey is going to be surprised if Weber asks for a trade after this season if things don’t go that well.  He kept his mouth shut when he originally signed that offersheet in July, but his agent didn’t really hide the fact that they wanted out.  That is now 2 summer’s in a row where Weber had a run in of sorts with David Poile.  Probably fair to say they didn’t want Poile to match the offersheet last summer, and the summer before that in arbitration Poile low balled them badly (I believe he claimed Weber was only worth 4 mil for the 1 season).  Weber always puts on a brave face in the media and claims he’s happy and understands its a buisness, but I have my doubts that is actually the case.

The big issue for the Preds will be finding someone to replace Ryan Suter.  It will start with Roman Josi as far as Weber’s D partner.  Josi was a 2nd round pick in 2008.  He looked real good in 52 games last season once he was called up, but it was in a limited role.  He has all the tools to be as good as Suter, but only time will tell if he can reach that level.  Ryan Ellis is more likely to join Weber on the PP.  I have my doubts if Ellis can ever be anything more than a PP specialist in this league, but he should be great at that.  The kid they could really use stepping up is Jonathan Blum, but he is such a disaster in his own zone that it will be tough for him to crack a Barry Trotz lineup that way.

Up front they may have lost Radulov, but he didn’t bring much to the table anyway.  I didn’t like what Poile did at last year’s trade deadline.  People praised him for him, but I thought it was trying to fit square pegs into round holes with guys like Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn.  So I don’t think now losing those 2 will affect them.  They have 2 way centres that win draws, and wingers that aren’t affraid to go to tough area’s on the ice and have a lot of speed.  Nothing flashy, but they always find a way to score goals….at least enough to get wins.

I believe David Poile gets overrated as a GM, yet I still believe organization wide it is one of the best run franchise’s in the league.  Losing Ryan Suter won’t be the blow that so many people believe it will be.  I believe they’re getting in the playoffs again this season and they’ll be a tough out once there.  But again, I won’t be shocked if they get dealt a devestating blow this off season with Weber asking to be dealt.

 

5. jackColumbus Blue Jackets – I had a tough time trying to come up with a picture to go with this team!  This team literally has no face of their franchise.  That won’t help ticket sales, neither will the lockout.  Things look pretty bleek in Columbus, but they do have some building blocks in place and if their 9 fans can gut out one more season, things could look extremely promising starting next season.

I don’t know how he might pull it off because I really believe he and Jay Feaster are battling right now to win the moniker of “worst GM in the league”, but Scott Howson actually might be doing a nice rebuild.  They’ve done a nice job building the blueline, an area where this team has never been strong.  Jack Johnson will be the anchor, and he himself will get a chance to grow some more.  Johnson has the talent to be a legit number 1 d-man, but to this point he has just been too erratic.  He just turned 26 on Sunday, so he’s really only entering his prime in the next year or two.

Tim Erixon, John Moore, David Savard, and of course when he’s back next season Ryan Murray will give them a pretty good start to rebuilding the rest of this defense.  None of those first 3 really stand out as a guy that could be a stud, but I believe they’ll all be regulars with 2 of the 3 being at least 2nd pairing guys.  The Murray injury hurts, but I’m sure he’ll be back strong to start next season.

If I was a Columbus fan (like so many are world wide), I would be drooling at the thought of getting another centre like McKinnon, Barkov or Monahan in the draft.  If they were to draft 1 of those 3 to join Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner down the middle, it wouldn’t be long until they’re one of the best teams in the middle.  It would be 3 kids that have size, can skate, and play a 200 foot game which is a coaches dream to have at centre.

I guess just for this season you could say they have depth up front, but the way some of the pieces will have to fit is just head scratching.  It’s almost like Howson just got 12 forwards rather than actually trying to figure out how they would fit.  Hey!  That’s kind of what Jay Feaster did too….the war for the worst continues….  They have a quite a bit of gritty guys that should get playing time, but nobody close in this forward group to a guy that can carry an offense.  It’s pretty awful.

The good news in net is that Steve Mason apparently came into camp 15 pounds lighter so that’s positive.  It’s also positive that now with Sergei Bobrovsky getting more starts we will get to hear Jay Onrait say “BOBROVSKY!!”  Although Jay is now on holidays for a while so we will have to wait.  This team hasn’t had great goaltending outside of Steve Mason’s rookie season (in Hitchcock’s system…surprise surprise), and it is vital that 1 of these 2 develop into a serviceable starter because Oscar Dansk is still a long way’s away.

Other than what they could be in 2 or 3 years I really don’t know what else positive I can say about this team, and even then I don’t trust Scott Howson to keep it all together.  This has become the worst franchise in the league, and they would need a lot of guys overachieving to get out of the basement in the Western conference.  Expect 15th in the West, likely 30th overall.

 

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