The Central was one of the most cutthroat divisions in the Western Conference, if not the entire NHL in 2009-10.
Leading the pack is the consistently competitive Detroit Red Wings and the defending cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
While not on the same level as Chicago or Detroit, the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are young and energetic clubs on the rise, with the Columbus Blue Jackets looking to rebound from a derailed season.
With proven winners and potential-laden squads, the Central should once again be a haven for playoff-bound teams.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2009-10 Record: 44-24-5-9, 102 points, 5th in Western Conference, 2nd in Central
Key additions: Mike Modano, Ruslan Salei, Jiri Hudler
Key departures: Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja, Jason Williams
On the rise: Valtteri Filppula
The Red Wings’ brass had high hopes for Filppula a season ago, but injuries slowed down what was supposed to be his breakout year.
He will be giving another chance to perform as he begins the season centring the second line between Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen.
On the hot seat: Jonathan Ericsson
Considering he was a ninth-round draft pick, expectations for the 6-foot-4 defencemen aren’t unreasonable.
But with an aging defensive core, the Wings will need Ericsson to prove he can play a bigger role as some of the veterans edge closer to their NHL expiry date.
Big question: Can the Red Wings maintain the pace and success they have established over the past decade with an aging core?
Outlook: Despite getting older in the off-season with the additions of Modano and Salei, the Wings are still an elite team and should be among the top clubs in the Western Conference come season’s end.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard will need to avoid a sophomore slump after an impressive rookie campaign. An injury or set back this season could be catastrophic as Chris Osgood and journeyman Joey MacDonald are not the best insurance policies in goal.
The Wings still remain one of the deepest teams in the league with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Franzen leading the charge up front and Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall manning the point.
With the depth and skill of this team, it would take significant injuries to derail the powerful Red Wings.
Prediction: 1st in Central Division, 100+ points
2009-10 record: 52-22-2-6, 112 points, 2nd in Western Conference, 1st in Central
Key additions: G Marty Turco, F Viktor Stalberg
Key departures: F Dustin Byfuglien, F Andrew Ladd, F Kris Versteeg, G Antti Niemi, F John Madden, D Brent Sopel, F Adam Burish, F Ben Eager
On the rise: F Dave Bolland
Bolland played an integral role for the Stanley Cup champions and should carry that momentum into this year.
He only played 39 games in 2009-10 due to a back injury, and if healthy could be in for a big offensive year.
On the hot seat: Viktor Stalberg
The biggest piece coming back in the Kris Versteeg deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs will need to take a step forward in his development for a team that looks significantly different from the one that won the Cup.
Chicago is also fairly thin on left wing and will need all it can get from the second-year forward.
Big question: Can the Hawks replicate last year’s success despite losing eight regulars from their lineup?
Outlook: The Hawks erased a 49-year Stanley Cup drought with a memorable run. But faced with salary cap trouble, GM Stan Bowman was forced to unload contracts and valuable members of his championship club.
Fortunately for Hawks’ faithful, they still boast a young and exciting core highlighted by captain Jonathan Toews, playoff hero Patrick Kane, Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith along with Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook.
Although they lost Niemi, Bowman brought in 35-year-old Marty Turco to fill the void.
Chicago seems destined for a slight falloff this year, but it still has a highly skilled group of forwards, the best defenceman in the league (Keith) and a proven goalie between the pipes.
Prediction: 2nd in Central Division, 90-100 points
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2009-10 record: 40-32-5-5, 90 points, 9th in Western Conference, 4th in Central
Key additions: G Jaroslav Halak
Key departures: F Paul Kariya, G Chris Mason, F Keith Tkachuk, D Darryl Sydor
On the rise: D Erik Johnson
The first overall pick from 2006 should be poised for a big season after putting up a 10-goal, 39-point campaign last year.
He will be relied upon for big minutes in all situations and is the key if the young Blues plan on participating in the post-season.
On the hot seat: F T.J. Oshie
There is no denying Oshie’s tremendous skill and upside, and that is precisely why he will need a big season.
He will need to build on a career-year as the Blues look poised and ready to legitimately challenge for a playoff spot.
Big question: Will St. Louis make it back to the playoffs?
Outlook: The Achilles heel over the past few years has been the Blues’ strength in goal. But after swooping in and trading for Montreal Canadiens playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis officially has a No. 1 goaltender.
It still remains to be seen if Halak can handle the rigors of a full season, having played in a career-high 45 games last year.
The Blues will also need their young core to take it to the next level, as they are rich in potential talent both up front and on the blue-line.
It will also be interesting to keep an eye on new head coach Davis Payne, who served as the bench boss for the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League last year.
Ultimately, the arrival of Halak along with the continued improvement of their youngsters should be enough to get the Blues back in the playoff hunt despite the ultra-competitiveness of the division.
Prediction: 3rd in Central Division, 90-95 points
2009-10 record: 47-29-2-4, 100 points, 7th in Western Conference, 3rd in Central
Key additions: F Sergei Kostitsyn, F Matthew Lombardi, D Ryan Parent
Key departures: F Jason Arnott, D Denis Grebeshkov, G Ryan Ellis
On the rise: F Colin Wilson
The second-year forward and former seventh overall pick will get a fulltime shot with the big club this year after splitting time with the Predators and AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals in 2009-10.
Wilson is a powerful skater with good puck-protection skills and has good hockey sense for a young player. With increased ice time and another year under his belt, he should be a big part of Nashville’s offence.
On the hot seat: F Sergei Kostitsyn
After struggling in Montreal and wilting under the pressure of a hockey-crazed market, Kostitsyn could benefit from a change of scenery.
If he can get his head on straight, the highly skilled winger could be in for a big year. But if he fails to buy into head coach Barry Trotz’ system, another trip minors will be in order.
Big question: Will the Predators repeat the success of a year ago?
Outlook: Despite a run-of-the-mill group of players, the Predators seem to find a way to win. They put up a 100-point season last year without a legitimate scoring threat (Steve Sullivan and Patric Hornqvist each had a team-high 51 points).
Regardless of the lack of firepower up front, the Preds should be a worthy opponent once again. Pekka Rinne provides a steady presence in goal and Shea Weber continues to develop as one of the best defenders in the league.
They should have no problem keeping the puck out of the net, and with the additions of Kostitsyn and Lombardi, the attack should be better this time around as well.
With Trotz behind the bench it’s hard to discount the Predators.
Predictions: 4th in Central, 90-100 points
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2009-10 record: 32-35-5-10, 79 points, 14th in Western Conference, 5th in Central
Key additions: F Ethan Moreau
Key departures: None
On the rise: F Derick Brassard
Besides Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger—both converted wingers—the Blue Jackets are visibly thin down the middle.
Brassard, the Jackets’ sixth overall pick in 2006, is undeniably skilled and has the tools to become a premier playmaking centre, but struggled after coming back form surgery last season.
With a clean bill of health, Brassard should continue to develop into the team’s top centre.
On the hot seat: G Steve Mason
Mason won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 2008-09 but struggled miserably last year.
If the Jackets are to crawl out of the Western Conference basement, Mason will need to regain his Calder form.
Outlook: The Jackets weren’t very active in the off-season and will return a similar team in 2010-11.
The biggest changes came behind the bench where Scott Arniel, the four-year head coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, was promoted to the NHL. He will be joined by Windsor Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner, who will try to bring his Ontario Hockey League success to the pro stage.
Much like the Blues, the Jackets are an intriguing team because of their young makeup.
Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov, Brassard and potential rookies John Moore and Ryan Johansen all have the potential to be impact players in this league.
But they will need to produce, as Rick Nash simply can’t be the lone gun on offence.
If the young players continue to prove they belong and the veterans provide primary scoring, the Jackets should improve upon a disastrous year.
In the end, the success of this franchise rides on the back of its young netminder. If he reverts back to the play of his rookie season, there is no reason Columbus can’t compete for a playoff spot.
But if he continues to struggle it could be another long year in Ohio’s capital.