Can the Wings Remain Ageless (Central Division Preview)

The Central division has been ruled by two teams in the past years with the rest of the teams looking up. Last year however there was a new team that became the underdog story as the Nashville Predators took the second spot. The Predators were balanced by some gritty performances and were supported by the Stanley Cup Hangover. The Chicago Blackhawks were the 2009-10 season champions breaking one of the longest Stanley Cup drought since the NHL. Last year the Blackhawks suffered from the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and had a bad season but still managed to make the playoffs. That was as far as they would go through with a gutted team after free agency the Hawks were eliminated in the postseason and lost their chance to repeat. Meanwhile the as the Predators and Hawks made the playoffs the bottom teams continued to suffer as the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets failed to make the playoffs yet again. The Blues and the Jackets are two teams that have struggled in the past and continue to do so in a tough division. Of course the Central is ruled by the all mighty Detroit Red Wings who seem to be ageless. With a team full of almost all veterans the Red Wings seem to never feel their age and continue to win the Central and make a solid run at the Stanley Cup. The Wings could not live up to the hype last year as they made a good run but lost in the second round. The Central is a tough division and could be undergoing some changes after the season with the addition of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL. If it is the last time all of these teams compete in the same division the title race should be a good memory as improved teams look to finally knock off the Wings.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last year the Hawks had a big weight over them as they looked to repeat as the Stanley Cup Champions. During the offseason the hope seemed to pour away as the Hawks continued to lose top players as they could not sign all the required players after they began asking for bigger contracts. The losses contributed to a poor season but the Hawks did make the playoffs just barely as they took the 8th spot by 2 points. The Blackhawks faced a familiar foe in the Vancouver Canucks but could not repeat their performance and lost in 7 games to the eventual Western Conference Champs. The Hawks lost a lot of their toughness through free agency and it proved to be the missing link in their attempt to repeat as champions. For the 2011-12 season the Hawks hope that they have added enough grit to return to the Stanley Cup again this year.

The Blackhawks are a team that is based on a solid base of players that are leaned on for leadership and for production power. Evander Kane and Jonathan Toews are this base of the Blackhawks as they are the main contributors to the offence. The skill in the lineup is unquestionable with Kane, Toews, and Patrick Sharpe providing great goals off of great plays. The biggest concern last year was the loss of the physical Dustin Byfuglien that took away their biggest presence on the ice. This year they will be attempting to replace this presence with a rash of signings that will look to toughen up the team. On offence Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers were signed to bolster the fourth line and add this strength and intimidation to a team that lacked it last year. Carcillo and Mayers will also provide offence every now and then which is now needed in a fourth line. The Offence looks to be just as skilled as they have always been but will have a physical ability that was a major missing piece in their title defence last year. On defence the Hawks were looking for another good pair of shutdown defenceman to add to an already strong defensive corps. The D will remain solid as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will make up the top pair with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy making up the second pair. The big additions will be the third pair in Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell who will add a thrid shut down pair but will also give a little bit of intimidation s both are known to drop the gloves. The defence for the Hawks will be a solid one and should provide some good support for the fast offence that will not provide a tremendous amount of support when they are flying down the ice. The defence will be protecting a good, but not great, goalie in Corey Crawford who will enter his second year as the goalie for the Hawks. Crawford played above himself in last year’s playoffs and looks to improve on his performance last year. The Hawks believe that Crawford is the future of goaltending in Chicago and he has not given them a reason to doubt that assumption. The Blackhawks will remain one of the most exciting offensive teams in the NHL but have been able to add some toughness to their lineup. This toughness was a key part to their playoff run in 2009-2010 when they won the Stanley cup and with its return the Hawks could make a very big run to the Cup finals this year.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Columbus Blue Jackets have not been very good since entering the league as they have depended on their own system to provide them with wins. This strategy has not worked as Rick Nash seems to be the only good player in Columbus and has been overlooked due to his team. Nash is one of the best players in the league but does not get much support and this was proven in the Jackets performance last year. The Jackets suffered from a lack of almost everything with a shaky goalie, one offensive talent, and a porous defence. The Jackets finished in last spot in the division and avoided the bottom of the league barely. This year the Jackets looked to fix things quickly and finally make some moves that could bring them to the playoffs.

The Blue Jackets were a big mover in the free agent market as they looked to fix their issues and make an impact in the Central division. The first move was to try to give Rick Nash a partner to play with. This came after Philadelphia released some of their best players and Columbus picked up Jeff Carter. Jeff Carter will sit in the top line at centre with Nash on his side as Nash will finally have a good player to compliment him on the line. Of course the biggest issue for the pair will be that both Carter and Nash are shooters and will need R.J Umberger to become the passer on the line and get it to them. With Nash and Carter on the same line they will both look to shoot first. Both are also physical players and may be able to get the garbage goals in front of the net after the shot is taken. The rest of the offence is the same as the Blue Jackets will try to lean on Andrew Brunette and rookie Ryan Johansen to provide secondary scoring. The top line will be the focus of the Jackets as the rest of the offence does not look to have the ability to consistently provide the scoring they may need. On defence the Jackets gave some more support to Nash with the signing of James Wisniewski who has great offensive talent for a defenceman. Wisniewski will be paired with Fedor Tyutin who will need to step up to make up for the lack of support Wisniewski might provide. Wisniewski is not known as a great defender and Tyutin will need to make up for that. The rest of the defence is shaky but the addition of Radek Martinek may help that out. The defence might be a weakness again for the Blue Jackets as they do not have a true shut down defender that can dominate a top line in the NHL. This is bad news for the goalie as Steve Mason will get the top spot again after a less than stellar performance in the last few years. Without a solid backup the Jackets might need to start looking near the trade deadline for a new goalie as Mason has not worked out for them so far. The Blue Jackets went out to the free agent market in order to improve their team but it seems as though they did not make enough improvements to make a run at the division title. The offence will be improved with the addition but they will be in trouble on defence and I wouldn’t expect any big improvements on their performance last year.

Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings have been the class of the division with a slight fall when Chicago beat them out and eventually won the Stanley Cup. They do this with some great veteran presence and few young talents. When they do call someone up the Wings tend to bury a great player in the third line. That is merely meant to work a team like it used to work as young players get time to develop and then become a key part to their season. Last year the Wings continued their philosophy as they continued to rely on an aging group up front while also looking to some of their young prospects to provide support. With the winning formula in place the Red Wings won the Central Division again and moved on to the playoffs. The Wings decidedly beat the Phoenix Coyotes in four games and moved on to a tough series against San Jose. The Wings lost the series in seven games sending the Wings home as they could not make it back to the Finals. This year the Wings have not changed the winning formula but have added some players to provide some more support.

The Red Wings formula does of course lead to one main problem and that is retirement which has struck them again this year. Three players retired this year from the Red Wings and two were staples in the Wings lineup every year. Chris Osgood and Kris Draper decided to hang up the skates along with Mike Modano who had been with the club briefly. This left holes but the team is generally unchanged. On offence the Wings will again depend on one of the best players in the NHL in Pavel Datsyuk who will lead the first line along with Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary. For the secondary scoring the Wings will hope that Justin Abdelkader can improve on his performance last year and have some more discipline to provide some secondary scoring. Abdelkader will most likely play with Henrik Zetterberg and Todd Bertuzzi in a pretty good second line that will also be very defensive minded. Meanwhile behind them Darren Helm, Tomas Holmstrom, and Valtteri Filppula will also provide some secondary scoring. The Wings have a concentration of good two-way players on offence that can also provide a lot of goals. The Wings are generally unchanged on an offence that scored almost as many goals as the league leader, The Vancouver Canucks, and will look to produce the same offence with the same people. On defence the Wings added a few key pieces that will strengthen an already strong defensive team. The Wings will continue to be a defensive presence with Nicklas Lidstrom and Nicklas Kronwall but have added some support in the back-end. With the signing of Ian White and Mike Commodore the Wings will be much more rounded on the blueline. With struggles last year the Wings signings have shown that they know where their weakness is and have addressed this. The biggest questions will come with Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson as the Wings will be watching them carefully to see if they can handle it or if Garnet Exelby will need to be called up in relief. The goaltending of the Wings has lost their longtime fan favorite in Chris Osgood who retired before the season. It will not be a big loss as the Wings have slowly started to give Osgood less starts over the last few years. Now Jimmy Howard will take over the top spot with Ty Conklin as a more than capable backup if Howard struggles. The Wings have the pieces to be strong again but the question continues to rise about their age and if their team can survive a season with little changes. If the Red Wings can continue their output from last year and improve their defence they will have a tough battle for the division. The Wings will make the playoffs again but they may not go far with an older team that might not be able to perform properly late in the season.

Nashville Predators

The Predators were one of the surprise teams last year as they were able to finish second in the central division. The Predators have not been a very successful team much like their division partners the Columbus Blue Jackets but have gained a reputation for being a tough scrappy team. Last year they took this attitude into the playoffs finishing in second place and beating out the defending champion Blackhawks. As the Preds went into the playoffs they fought a tough battle with the Anaheim Ducks that ended with the Predators winning four out of the six games. They moved on to face the Vancouver Canucks who were introduced to the gritty team in six games. The Predators lost the series against the eventual Western Conference Champions but gained a little respect. This year the Predators are looking to improve on this performance and will do it through their system.

The Predators allowed a lot of their veterans go in the offseason as they made room for some of their big contracts and the new blood. The offseason saw a number of familiar faces leave including J.P. Dumont, Matthew Lombardi, and Steve Sullivan all left the offence this offseason and the Preds began to move on. With few signings on offence the Predators will be depending on their young talent to supply a lot of their secondary scoring. The top line will be made up of some good players in Sergei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher, and Martin Erat but there is no true elite sniper on the team. Meanwhile young guns Matt Halishchuk and Cal O’Reilly will be looked at to provide secondary scoring. The Predators offence has been well-balanced as they do not have any superstars but many of their players can score goals. This looks to stay the same this year as the limited additions and hope that their young prospects can perform may lead to another team with multiple goals from multiple people but no one superstar. On defence the Predators lost Cody Franson, Shane O’Brien, and Brett Lebda but have kept their best player in Shea Webber. Webber will be back again and will lead the team in the top defensive pairing with Ryan Suter. The rest of the defence will be led by some young hopefuls in Jonathan Blum and their top prospect in Ryan Ellis. Ellis is one of the top prospects in the NHL after his performances for Canada in the World Junior Championships. Meanwhile Blum will be looked upon to replace the veterans that left as one of the players in a very good prospect system. Both young stars will be leaned on in the last two pairings but there is no doubt that the Preds have one of the best pairs on defence with Webber and Suter. Behind what could be a solid blueline will be one of the best young goalies in the league as Pekka Rinne who, along with Webber, has given some respect to the team from Nashville. Rinne has been a solid backstop for the Predators and has been one of the best players for the Predators. With Rinne at backstop the young defencemen will have some time to develop and find their game as he will be able to make up for their mistakes. The Predators will be a big question this year as they will have an offence that could be powerful but could falter in scoring goals. Their defence his great at the top but might be shaky in the last pairings. With the amount of young players that could be starting for the Preds this year the biggest question is whether or not the youth will be able to live up to their potential or will they be in tough to perform at the top-level. The Predators will not repeat their success of last year as Detroit and The Hawks will fight for the top but they do have a legitimate shot at the playoffs again in 2011-12.

St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues started last season in a surprising way at the Blues were able to get out to their best start in franchise history. Winning 9 of their first 10 games the Blues looked to be starting a turnaround season but it was not to be. After a number of key injuries the Blues began to suffer. The Blues were very inconsistent as they had great win streaks and bad losing streaks in a season that started with so much hope. The big change for the Blues last year was a trade that sent a franchise player to Colorado in exchange for a good power forward and a young defencemen. With the trade sending Erik Johnson to the Avalanche the Blues actually improved as their offence got better with Chris Stewart acting as a good power forward in an offence that appreciated the added toughness and presence around the net. The trade became a positive for the club but it was one of few bright spots last year. The Blues finished in 4th place in the central and 10 points out of the playoffs. This year the Blues made some key additions and will hope that they can stay healthy to make the playoffs this year.

The Blues were active in the free agent market landing some key players that will provide good secondary scoring. The offence added Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Jonathan Cheechoo to an offence that has some good goal scorers already. David Backes and Chris Stewart may play again on the first line as both players turned out very well together with Backes scoring 31 goals and Stewart scoring 15 in 26 games. The addition of Langenbrunner and Cheechoo will provide the Blues with options at right-wing that will add to T.J. Oshie and Stewart. With these additions the Blues will be even stronger on offence. Meanwhile Andy McDonald and Alex Steen will be back to help out their offence that seems to have more weapons than they can deal with. If the offence can stay healthy it should be a pretty powerful squad. Another question will be whether or not Cheechoo will finally perform up to his potential or if he will continue to underachieve. On the back-end of the team the Blues will be looking towards to Barret Jackman to support Alex Pietrangelo who will be looking to fill the big skates of Erik Johnson. Pietrangelo was forced to grow up quickly last year after key injuries and impressed many with his performance. Meanwhile Kevin Shattenkirk proved to be a good trade as he provided some new energy and offence to the defence. Both of these players will need to be supported due to their odffensive tendencies but Baret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo have the ability to provide this defensive support. The Blues made little changes on defence but are hoping that their young defenders continue to develop into good defensive forces and can provide some offence from the blue line. At goalie the Blues will be looking to Jaroslav Halak to recover from a season in which he did not live up to his bidding. Halak was the starter for the first time last year after coming from a system that had two goalies as a starter and the shock of being the true #1 limited Halak last year. The blues are hoping that Halak can get over his mental lapses with another year under his belt and he will need to as his safety net in Ty Conklin is gone. The backup will be a battle between free agent signing Brian Elliott and Ben Bishop who are both not ready to be a number 1 goalie. The Blues have promise this year if they can stay healthy. The Blues were one of the best teams in the league when they were healthy and there is no reason why they cannot be successful this year as well as long as their players stay on the ice. The Blue are not at the level of the top teams in the league but have a very god shot at making the playoffs out of the Central division.


1. Chicago Blackhawks

2. Detroit Red Wings

3. St. Louis Blues

4. Nashville Predators

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

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