Centering in on the Central
By Rhys Richards
The Central Division may be in for the tightest race yet in what is likely to become its last season with its current makeup. With realignment being discussed, fans should not be surprised to see the Central Division without the likes of Detroit, Chicago, or Nashville in the 2012-2013 season, if it exists at all. How fitting then that such a competitive conference ends on a high note this coming season.
Central Division fans and regular readers will immediately presume that the Red Wings are the favorites to win the division, which Detroit has done 13 times in the 17 seasons since the old Norris Division became the Central. In fact, since the lockout, only one other team, Chicago, has won the Division when the Blackhawks claimed the title in 2010 and went on to Stanley Cup glory. But presuming that Detroit will take the top spot is ill-advised and may not indicate that the Red Wings are somehow a lesser team.
Since 1999, the Central Division has not been won by fewer than 100 points. Since its inception in 1994, it has only been won by fewer than 100 points two times. That may change this season.
The new NHL is defined by its parity. The extremely fine line between the best and worst team may be most apparent in the Central in 2010-2011. Detroit lost superstar Brian Rafalski and mainstays Chris Osgood and Kris Draper to retirement. Chicago dealt the services of talented, puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell to Florida. All could be significant losses if their replacements do not pan out.
Detroit signed Ian White, Mike Commodore, and Ty Conklin to fill the voids. The Red Wings will also rely on promotion from within from the likes of Jakub Kindl, Jan Mursak, Cory Emmerton, and potentially even up-and-coming bluechip prospects Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith.
Chicago signed Alexander Salak to backup up Corey Crawford and have invited Ray Emery to camp on a tryout to stoke the goalie competition. Chicago also signed the aging but ever consistent Andrew Brunetter to serve as a wing on its top line. Chicago added Steve Montador from Buffalo to fill out its defensive corp and badboys Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to protect its superstars.
While St. Louis did not lose anybody of note, the team did add wily veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who may prove the gel that finally helps the young Blues forward corp of David Backes, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Steen come together as a formidable unit. The Blues also added Scott Nichol to solidify the fourth line.
Columbus traded for superstar Jeff Carter sending the underperforming Jakub Voracek, the 8th overall pick (Sean Couturier), and a 3rd rounder (Nick Cousins) to Philadelphia. The Blue Jackets also won the services of highly-coveted free agent defenseman James Wisniewski. Finally, the team added AHL superstar and more than capable backup goalie Mark Dekanich.
Nashville stood relatively pat with the same team that got past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season, though it did make the curious trade of Cody Franson to Toronto for Brett Lebda. The team added Niclas Bergfors and Jack Hillen no doubt in the hopes that they, like Sergei Kostitsyn last year, produce more in the Preds new unis than they need for their prior teams. Mainstays Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne will return for another season after Weber signed a one-year deal pursuant to an arbitration award of $7.5 million for next season. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents next off-season.
Predicted Central Division Standings:
1. Detroit Red Wings (103 points)
The Good: Although aging, Detroit boasts the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg up front. Their skill and vision combined with the big bodies of Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen and grit of Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Cleary make for a formidable forward group.
The Bad: Jimmy Howard’s 2.79 goals against average and .908 save percentage last season were significantly worse than the season before. If Howard is more the 2009-2010 than the 2010-2011 goalie, he will help the Wings to their 14th division title.
The Potentially Ugly: Brian Rafalski’s retirement leaves a gaping hole on Detroit’s blueline. New addition Ian White is perhaps best suited to attempt to fill that role. Although a lesser passer, White is the righthanded shot the Wings so desperately need. If White does not work out, the Wings could be in trouble as none of Ericsson, Kindl, or Smith appears to be ready for the top powerplay unit and the newl-acquired Commodore was signed for his defensive zone presence. Kronwall is Lidstrom’s heir apparent, but he has played some of his best hockey on the second pairing with Brad Stuart. If the current makeup of the Wings’ defense falters, look for Detroit to make a splash at the Trade Deadline with its largest amount of cap space to work with in several seasons. Do not be surprised if Detroit targets Nashville’s Weber.
2. St. Louis Blues (99 points)
The Good: St. Louis has two of the brightest young defensemen in the game in Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. Both will anchor the Blues’ top powerplay unit. Barrett Jackman and Roman Polak will anchor the second pairing and are excellent shutdown players. Carlo Colaiacovo can provide some offense and will likely see time on the second powerplay unit. Ian Cole, Kent Huskins, and Nikita Nikitin will fight for the remaining playing time.
The Bad: Jaroslav Halak did not have a good debut as a regular starting goaltender. While he posted a decent .910 save percentage and tolerable 2.48 goals against average, he went 27-21-7. Look for Halak to rebound and for the Blues’ success to hinge upon just how much he does.
The Potentially Ugly: Along with the aforementioned young forwards, Andy McDonald logjam at forward. Should David Perron recover from his ongoing concussive symptoms, he will be another body in the mix. In short, the Blues may actually be hurt by their depth if that cannot find the right balance of playing time for their forwards.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (98 points)
The Good: The Blackhawks arguably added by subtracting Brian Campbell, if only because it freed up much needed salary cap space. That allowed the team to take a calculated risk on Brunette, who could prove to be an excellent short-term addition, and re-sign Michael Frolik while keeping another key young player in David Bolland and signing Chicago favorite Patrick Sharp to a long-term deal. Like Detroit, Chicago has some space to be a player at the Trade Deadline.
The Bad: Chicago’s top two offensive and defensive lines rival any others in the Central and arguably the NHL. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Sharp are well rested and will be ready to recapture the glory of two years ago. Brunette could be an excellent veteran presence. Victor Stalberg or Michael Frolik could round out a solid top-six. Beyond that group, Bolland is the only other notable talent. Bryan Bickell has some upside, but Rostislav Olesz, Marcus Kruger, John Scott, and the aforementioned Carcillo and Mayers leave something to be desired. Similarly, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook make an excellent top pairing, but Niklas Hjalmarsson, Sean O’Donnell, Nick Leddy, Sami Lepisto, and Montador signal a lack of offensive instincts behind the top defensive pairing.
The Potentially Ugly: In recent years, the goalie position has been a revolving carousel for the Blackhawks. Antti Niemi led the team to the Stanley Cup but promptly signed in San Jose in the off-season. Crawford played well last season and was awarded with a bigger contract, but his average cap hit of $2.66 million per season over the next three years does not necessarily guarantee a starting role. Keep in mind, this is the team that hid Cristobel Huet’s huge contract overseas when he did not pan out. If Crawford struggles, Chicago may be forced to rely on the highly-touted but inexperienced Salak or the aging Emery with an injury history.
4. Nashville Predators (97 points)
The Good: Perhaps the toughest call in these predictions, Nashville has the best goaltending in the Central Division. The tandem of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback is not only physically imposing, but also adept enough to steal victories in a tight race for another low-scoring Predators team.
The Bad: With Rinne, Weber, and Suter all entering unrestricted free agency next off-season, the small-town Preds will likely have to move at least one at the Trade Deadline if the team expects any return at all. That reality could very well undercut this team’s chances at a higher finish in the Central and a return to the playoffs.
The Undeniably Ugly: Nashville’s corp of forwards may be the weakest in the NHL. Among Mike Fisher, Cal O’Reilly, David Legwand, Blake Geoffrion, and Jerred Smithson, the team does not have a true number one center. Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist are Nashville’s best wingers, but neither will break 60 points. Sergei Kostitsyn has to prove last season was not a fluke. Until he does, he is just another middling player in Nashville’s top six due to the team’s lack of truly top-six talent. Colin Wilson has some upside, but he is young. Jordan Tootoo and Niclas Bergfors may not even make some NHL teams.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (84 points)
The Good: Carter centering Rick Nash and Vaclav Prospal is one excellent top line.
The Bad: Columbus quite simply lacks the depth to compete in the Central Division. Other than RJ Umberger, Antoine Vermette, and Samuel Pahlsson, Columbus is simply too young to compete for the Central Division title. Youngsters Derrick Brassard, Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert, and potentially even Cam Atkinson may be the team’s future, but that future is not 2011-2012. The oft-inconsistent Kristian Huselius could provide some spark when he joins the team after he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle. While the addition of Wisniewski stabilizes a defensive unit that consists of Kris Russell, Fedor Tyutin, Mark Methot, Grant Clitsome, and Radek Martinek, it does not hide the lack of top-four talent on the Columbus blueline.
The Probably Ugly: Steve Mason just has not been the same goalie for two straight seasons since he led the team to its first playoff appearance. Mark Dekanich is good enough to steal the job. Unless one of these goaltenders proves to be a consistent starter in the NHL, the rest of the rest of the Central Division will feast on its one weak team from Columbus.
*Statistics and other information obtained at www.hockeydb.com and www.nhlnumbers.com.
Share your thoughts on the Red Wings and the NHL with Rhys at Twitter:@RREsq. You can also reach me via email at RhysJRichards@gmail.com. Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys.