It is no real secret that teams in the western conference were very active during the free agent frenzy so far this off-season. With big names trading hands and pulling up their roots to make new homes around the league it poses an interesting question. What does the central division look like so far on paper? Who has had the best off season thus far and who will most likely come out on top of the dog pile when all is said and done? Sit back, Grab a cold drink, and let me take you on a tour of the Central Division as it lines up to date.
Whenever you think of the central division your mind as a hockey fan turns your attention north and east in comparison to the rest of the division. Yes, I am referring to that city where Octopi and some red tire with wings on it reigns supreme. The Detroit Redwings have been a dominate competitive team for over a decade now. With the likes of Scotty Bowman at the helm who gave way to Mike Babcock the wings have been a playoff bound well oiled machine. Since 1995 the wings have nabbed 4 presidents trophies and 4 stanley cups. Anchored by their Captain Nik Lidstrom, Detroit looks to be a contender as it has been in years past. With the addition of Mike Commodore, Ian White and the resigning of Jonathan Ericsson to a 3 year deal the loss of Brian Rafalski does not appear to be a factor for them. Detroit plays a very skill heavy game with tons of crisp clean passing and plays that just make you shake your head in disbelief. With a continued solid stable ownership in Mike llitch and a crafty and very smart GM Ken Holland running the show Detroit will once again give teams fits this season. The one thing that strikes me about Detroit at the current position is their lack of forward depth. This season they signed veteran back up goalie Ty Conklin to a one year deal as well as resigning back up goalie Joey Macdonald. Last season key Injuries to the likes of Jimmy Howard and Pavel Datsyuk threaten to derail their season. But, in true Detroit RedWing fashion the team pulled through and made a run into the playoffs landing the third seed in the western conference just one point shy of the San Jose Sharks. If the injury bug creeps back in and bites more then one or two of Detroit’s top 9 ( more so top 6) they may be in for a very long year.
Once you have shaken off the Redwings the next place down the line you probably would hear most fans around the NHL babbling about would have to be Chicago. The Hawks after winning the cup in 2010 had problems with cap space and the ability to resign some big names from that cup winning team most notably Dustin Byfuglien. This off-season the Black Hawks have been very busy. GM Stan Bowman has made it clear that he wants this team to not only have the finesse to be able to put the puck in the net but Bowman also wants to have two lines that are able to check and be physical taking the game to the other team and turning up the heat in terms of physicality. For just that role Bowman signed Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, and Daniel Carcillo all to one year contracts. The team has gotten more gritty and Bowman is excited to be able to bring that style of play to his team. The Hawks were also looking to replace Defenseman Chris Campoli as it was clear that he wanted to test the free agent market and not agree to terms that the Hawks had laid out for him. With Corey Crawford in net the hawks have the capability to yet again have a very solid season. When Corey is on his game he is one of the best net minders in the bigs. That being said.. last season Crawford had his ups and downs as a rookie. Corey will have to be consistent for Chicago this year if they hope to keep pace with the ever tightening Western Conference and Central Division to be specific. Listed currently on the roster as the back up gaol tender to Corey Crawford is 24 year old Czech Born Alexander Salak. Salak had two NHL appearances with the Florida Panthers in the 2008-2009 season which resulted in 6 ga and an 0-1 record. Last season Salak played for the AHL Rochester Americans where he played 48 games. Alexander put up a respectable 29-14 record with a SV% of .910 and a GAA of 2.89. If I were the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks I would be very concerned with handing the back up duty to this young man. He needs more time in the AHL to bring his game up to the level of an NHL back up tender. The current situation in net leads to some major questions for Chicago if Crawford goes down for any amount of time at all. Fans in ChiTown should probably feel a bit uneasy about this going into 2011-2012… I know I would be….
Ok hockey fans… Take a sip of your drink and lets take a little jaunt out east to the city of Columbus Ohio. It seems that The Blue Jackets this offseason have tried the addition by subtraction method coupled with a few tarot card readings and some fancy cloak and dagger maneuvers… OK, who am I kidding, Adding Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski will NOT save the sinking ship in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are paper thin at Defense and with a huge question mark in the net in Steve Mason the Jackets are in a very peculiar position. Where will the scoring come for out side of Jeff Carter and Rick Nash? both players are not known for any type of overly physical play and the two alone do not posses enough talent to allow Columbus to be a team that uses skill and finesse to out wit and out play their opponent. With a lack of the aforementioned abilities it then comes down to can they grind out hard enough to beat teams with a blue collar work ethic. Loosing the likes of Jakub Voracek who in the last three season since his first round selection in the 2007 NHL Entry draft has played in no less then 80 games and played with a fire and tenacity in his game. Carter may have scored 30+ goals in his last three seasons but that was on a very talented Philly team with talent all around him. The Jackets recently signed Vinny Prospal in hopes of shoring up some depth at the forward position. With Jan Hejda leaving Columbus and James Wysnuski coming in the defense for Columbus has taken to a different path. Get younger and hope that the group of Dmen around Wisniewski can grown and become a cohesive unit. I am skeptical that this will happen but I have been wrong before and only time will tell if GM Scott Howson has made moves that have truly bettered his team or just sufficed as moves to make it seem as though the cash strapped team is making leap and bound changes. Coming in at 24th on the goals for stat league wide it is apparent that if Columbus wants to compete for a playoff spot they are going to have to find a way to put the puck in the net more often. Columbus fans… With a shaky net minder an unproven back up goalie and a anemic offense it may turn out to be a very long winter in Ohio this season.
With the looming NHL realignment coming in the 2012-2013 The Nashville Predators have some questions to answer in the coming year. Do they want to move to the eastern conference? Can they some how figure out a way to resign Captain Shea Weber? O, annnd can they also find a scoring forward that can help them on a nightly basis score more goals?To address one question lets look at Nashville’s ability to score goals. Not unlike our beloved St. Louis Blues the Nashville Predators rely heavily on a physical and tough game. the Preds grind out their wins with hard work and determination on the boards and a never quit attitude on the puck especially around the net. The loss of Joel Ward from this team will certainly take its toll on the ability to stand in front of the net and get those dirty goals that he is so very good at making happen. With that said, Nashville is one of the leagues best at drafting players and working them up through the system allowing them to grow and develop. The farm in the Ville is stacked with some very promising scoring talent that is not to far from making its way to the NHL. Kids like Michael Latta and Taylor Beck who are up and coming Power Forward type players. This past season while playing for Guelph Storm of the OHL Latta planted 42 goals and a total of 95 points on the season. Beck was able to tally 34 goals and a total of 89 points on the season. With young talent such as Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Colin Wilson ready to take on another NHL season the scoring woes of this team may be coming to the twilight of their existence. Do I think these kids will catapult the Preds into the top 5-10 in goals for… Probably not this season.. Will they get there soon.. I would like to think so. The second question I would like to address is whether or not they will be able to resign Veteran Dman and Captain Shea Weber. According to various fan based web sites the 100+ mph slap shot giant is looking for a short term deal with the preds and that is something that is leaving a bitter taste in GM David Poile’s mouth. Poile is one of, if not the smartest GM in the league. A deal should be struck with Shea if at all possible. The health of the farm system speaks for itself when you look at how many good to great Defenseman they have drafted as well as goal tending. Shea Weber is the anchor of the Nashville Locker room. To let him walk away at this point without a clear successor to take over his roll as leader of this young team would be a travesty. When times are tough and the chips are down you can bet that Shea put this team on his back and helped carry them to their first playoff series victory in franchise history. Another piece to Nashville’s puzzle is Pekka Rinne. Rinne is one of the elite goal tenders in the league at this point. Nashville would not have made it as far this past season if it was not for the outstanding play of the Finnish net minder. Pekka posted an insane .930 SV% during the regular season with a GAA of 2.12 which was one of the best in the entire league this past season. With Anders Lindback as his back up who posted a .915 SV% and a GAA of 2.60 over 16 games the Preds are set at the back stopper position for the season. Looking at your screen you are probably wondering… OK, we have address these questions.. Now, How about that realignment question… It has been said from the front office of the NHL that the realignment will not be a small nor simple shift of a team or two. Indications are that there will be a big jumble up mixer when they set off to do the deed. Instead of doing the simple thing of moving Nashville to the South East, Winnipeg to the Central like they should have done Bettmann and his possey are gearing up to change the whole thing. There truly at this point is no great answer to give you on where I think the Preds will end up but if I had to give you an answer I think they will land in a Division with the Florida Teams and Carolina along with Washington and maybbbbe either Columbus or Jersey. The fans in Nashville have a lot to be happy about even if Poile didn’t go out and spend every last cent they have!
Cross the Mississippi River stands an Arch. The gateway to the west… The City that is at the Crossroads of an entire nation…. Where people raise their families on strong Midwestern values of hard work, respect, and Generosity toward others. This is the home where for 40 + years fans have religiously flocked to St. Louis to cheer on their beloved Blues. Through Hard times and bad years the faithful kept the lamps burning brightly along the old Mississip… A tradition of Hard working, Community Loving, Hockey Passionate men have planted the seed in this city and this region. Rich hockey culture can be seen at many local rinks in and around the St. Louis Bi-State area. It is this very base that the men who step out on to that Scott Trade Center ice draw their strength from. 19,150 screaming, cheering, adoring fans pack the house night after night hoping to somehow give a small piece of themselves to the players and elevate their game, to push them to a victory. That is where I begin my outlook on our St. Louis Blues. Of course my opening act streams with bias ideations that somehow this town truly is the best hockey city in the country. Well you would be right. Annnd now for the facts to back up my gush of blue blood bias flattery.
The St. Louis Blues come to camp in September with a bit of a twist in their undies. You see, This team sat and watched playoff hockey from home for 4 of the past 5 seasons since the lock out. A taste in their mouth that is not going over well at all. Blues Centermen David Backes and most notable candidate for Captain was asked what he thought of watching playoff hockey from home and his response was not far from my own. It SUCKS! GM Doug Armstrong has made it very clear this off-season that the team is moving into a position that the time to win is now. Not keep rebuilding or pushing off until next season when o yea we will be better then toils in most peoples heads as a redundant excuse that we have all used for years. The Blues made a very huge trade in February of 2011 that set the ground work and the precedence for the direction this team was going to go in. That direction was plane and simple. Win. Win with better goals scoring ability.. Win with harder working players and players who want and desire to better themselves. To send a very clear message to every single member of this team that if you do not produce or carry your weight you will be put on the block and dealt. Doug Armstrong has put together a roster that is filled from top to bottom with a competitive spirit. Come time for camp in September it has already been said that if you want to play on this team you are going to have to put forth the effort and earn it. The blues last season after acquiring the services of Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk sky rocketed to 10th in goals scored for the regular season. Chris Stewart in only 26 games netted 15 goals and 8 assists catapulting him to one of the blues most deadly scoring machines. Let us take a look at the possible line combinations that the blues might roll out on opening night come October. The top line should lead off this Perron(If Healthy)- Berglund- Stewart followed up by AMac-Backes-D’Ags followed up by Oshie-Arnott-Steen and finished up with Porter/Grachev- Sabotka/Nichol- Langenbrunner/ Crombeen.. If Perron is not healthy then I would line em up something like this.. Steen-Berglund-Stewart AMac-Backes-D’Ags Oshie- Arnott- Langenbrunner Porter/Grachev- Nichol/Sabotka- Crombeen/Reaves The defensive parings can be a bit more tricky for this team. There really is no stand out LH Dman that can play on the top line with Pietrangelo and eat up the type of minutes that this kid is going to get. That being said I would bet the blues and Davis Payne roll out something like this. Jackman/Colaiacovo-Petro Jackman/Colaiacovo- Polak Huskins/Nikitin- Shattenkirk. I could see Nikitin playing with Polak at some points as well as Huskins. This set up gives the blues three very solid lines not only in terms of ability to score but those are three lines that are on most nights very good at coming back on the back check. Also blues fans, Don’t let that fourth line fool you. They will do just fine at pushing the puck into the oppositions end and using some gritty in your face play to keep it there. I am calling it right now that the player who will have the most dominate season this year will be none other then our own Patrik Berglund. With a proper line mate in Chris Stewart, Berglund started to move himself up the mountain in terms of reaching his skill potential. With a great showing at the IIHA World Hockey Championships for team Sweden number 21 will be lurking on the ice this season and he is ready to tear things up. It would not surprise me in the least to see him net 70+ points this season. It is clear that the front office wanted to add depth to the club after last seasons whopping (approximately) 285 man games lost to injuries. When the injury bug comes calling this year the blues will be in much better shape to shuffle more experienced players into those roles until the injured player can return. It is inevitable that injuries will occur during the season. I just hope along with all the other blues fans out there that the bug passes us by more often this season. With a potential 40 goal scorer in Chris Stewart, Several 30+ goal potential scorers in Amac, Perron, Backes, and Berglund followed by several 20+ goal scoring potential scorers in Steen, Oshie, D’Agostini and Arnott the fans of St. Louis should be smiling from ear to ear with what Amry has been able to put together. One more piece to the Blues Jigsaw puzzle will most undoubtedly have to be the play of Jaroslav Halak. At times last season Jaro was as dominant of a goaltender as you could find in the NHL. Then there were some nights when you just shook your head as the most silly of shots or softy goals seem to elude him. With a healthy and well conditioned Halak in net this team has a very good shot at being a team that finishes some where in the 5-8 range in the western conference. With Elliot and Bishop fighting it out in camp for the back up spot it will put pressure on them to be at their very best when camp opens its doors in September. Goaltending can steal you those few games that come april mean a lot in this ever strengthening western conference. In my humble opinion the balance of this season does not lie on the forwards as they will put up sufficient offense. The questions for this team will be can its Defensive core remain healthy and shut other teams down in their own zone? Annnd Will Halak become that steady number 1 net minder that Army sees in him? The games must be played in order to truly answer all of the questions and summations that I have placed into your lap. I have a good feeling about this blues team for this season. If we can secure a solid owner who is willing to invest in the team and give them the tools they need to make a true dynasty the fans of this great team will be rewarded for years of patients. So, Until that night in October when we are all shoulder to shoulder Screaming LET’S GO BLUESSSSS I say sit back and enjoy the ride!