2011-12 NHL Preview: Central Division

Detroit Red Wings

2010-11 Result: 47-25-10, 104 points; 1st in Central, 3rd in West; Lost in Conference Semi-finals to San Jose in seven games

Who’s in: G Ty Conklin, RW Chris Conner, D Mike Commodore, D Garnet Exelby, D Ian White

Who’s out: C Kris Draper, D Derek Meech, G Chris Osgood, D Brian Rafalski, C Mike Modano, D Ruslan Salei

Big question: Can goalie Jimmy Howard take his game to the next level?

Outlook: It is difficult to decide what is more remarkable, that the Red Wings haven’t missed the post-season since 1990, or that the ageless Nick Lidstrom took home his seventh Norris Trophy last season at age 41. There is no reason to believe Detroit won’t be in the thick of things in the West this year with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Lidstrom returning as the core. But it will be interesting to see how the team copes with the loss of Brian Rafalski on the back-end, and his 20 minutes of ice time per game.

Howard will be looking to prove he can backstop the Wings beyond the second round of the playoffs, where Detroit has fallen in back-to-back campaigns. Both his goals-against average and save percentage tumbled in his sophomore season, and he will need to rebound considerably if the Wings are to be a Stanley Cup threat. Ian White will get the nod as a defensive partner for Lidstrom and will be relied on heavily by coach Mike Babcock, who’ll be looking for White to provide stability and some offence from the blue-line.

Chicago Blackhawks

2010-11 Result: 44-29-9, 97 points; 3rd in Central, 8th in West; Lost in Conference Quarter-finals to Vancouver Canucks in seven games

Who’s in: D Steve Montador, RW Jamal Mayers, D Sean O’Donnell, LW Andrew Brunette, LW Dan Carcillo, D Sami Lepisto

Who’s out: D Brian Campbell, C Jake Dowell, G Marty Turco

Big question: Is sophomore goalie Corey Crawford the answer between the pipes?

Outlook: The Hawks were forced to re-tool their lineup after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009-10 in order to get under the NHL’s prohibitive salary cap. Last season, Chicago backed into the playoffs, and was ultimately dumped after giving the top-ranked Canucks a scare in the opening round. Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will once again headline one of the league’s top offensive units. The defence isn’t too shabby either, with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook shutting down the opposition nightly.

The loss of Brian Campbell didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows due to his staggering salary, but Chicago fans should be aware that his +28 was tops for the team last season. Former Minnesota draft choice Nick Leddy will step into Campbell’s role, including ample time on the power play. The Blackhawks have a realistic shot at bettering their 2010-11 season, as Crawford takes full control in the crease. Joel Quennville stuck with Marty Turco, and his pedestrian .897 save percentage for too long last year, and it ultimately cost them at shot at a higher seed.

 

Nashville Predators

2010-11 Result: 44-27-11, 99 points; 2nd in Central, 5th in West; Lost in Conference Semi-finals to Vancouver Cancucks in six games

Who’s in: RW Nicholas Bergfors, C Brodie Dupont, D Jack Hillen, C Robert Slaney, D Tyler Sloan, RW Zack Stortini

Who’s out: J.P. Dumont, D Cody Franson, C Marcel Goc, D Aaron Johnson, C Matthew Lombardi, D Shane O’Brien, LW Steve Sullivan, RW Andreas Thuresson, RW Joel Ward, D Brett Lebda

Big question: Can the youngsters fill the void left by a pack of departed veterans?

Outlook: Shea Weber was awarded a record-setting $7.5-million US contract through arbitration, and the Norris Trophy nominee will need to play up to his price tag in order for the Preds to repeat last season’s success. Nashville doesn’t have the offensive firepower to blow opponents away, and again will rely on sound goaltending and defence to get the job done. Last season they ranked 21st in goals per game (2.60), and third in goals against per contest (2.32.).

Last season’s point leader Martin Erat will lead the charge up front, but the club will again feature mainly a goal-by-committee approach. Ryan Suter and Weber present a formidable duo on defence, while Jonathon Blum, in his first full season, will clog up the minutes left by Cody Franson, gone to Toronto. Pending unrestricted free agent Pekka Rinne will need to be just as good in goal, if not better than 2010-11, if the Preds are planning on returning to the playoffs.

 

St. Louis Blues

2010-11 Result: 38-33-11, 87 points; 4th in Central, 11th in West

Who’s in: C Jason Arnott, C Evgeny Grachev, C Scott Nichol, LW Brett Sterling, RW Jonathan Cheechoo, RW Jamie Langenbrunner, D Kent Huskins, D Danny Syvret, G Brian Elliot

Who’s out: D Dean Arsene, D Nathan Oystrick, D Tyson Strachan, RW Cam Janssen, G Ty Conklin

Big question: Can captain David Backes repeat or surpass his 31-goal performance from a year ago?

Outlook: There were high hopes for St. Louis heading into 2010-11, but key injuries to David Perron, Andy McDonald and T.J. Oshie derailed those plans. A full season from those three, along with Chris Stewart, acquired from Colorado for former No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson, give the Blues reason for optimism. However, scoring was not the club’s biggest concern last season, as the Blues ranked 10th in the league with 2.88 goals per game.

When goalie Jaroslav Halak was acquired from Montreal, the Blues believed they were getting a difference maker – a player who could take them to the next level. Last year, Halak at times played the part of saviour, but on other nights, came up the goat.  In order for St. Louis to crack the playoffs for the first time in three years, their goaltender will need to bring his save percentage back towards the .924 he posted in 2009-10 with Montreal, and away from the .910 figure he slumped to a season ago.

Veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner must help stabilize the team’s young core, and Patrick Berglund should continue to provide a spark to the power play, where he led the team with eight goals.

Columbus Blue Jackets

2010-11 Result: 34-35-13, 81 points; 5th in Central, 13th in West

Who’s in: C Cody Bass, C Jeff Carter, LW Alexandre Giroux, D Aaron Johnson, D Radek Martinek, LW Vaclav Prospal, C Ryan Russell, G Curtis Sanford, D James Wisniewski

Who’s out: RW Mike Blunden, D Mike Commodore, LW Nikita Filatov, G Mathieu Garon, D Jan Hejda, D Sami Lepisto, C Andrew Murray, RW Scottie Upshall, RW Jakub Voracek

Big question: Will Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski be enough to revive the punchless offence?

Outlook: A talented farm pool, headlined by 2010 fourth-overall pick Ryan Johnsen, provides optimism for a franchise that is still yet to win a post-season game. But how much longer are Columbus fans willing to wait for success? Bringing in Carter from Philadelphia and Wisniewski from Montreal will lighten the load on all-star Rick Nash, but several other forwards will need to elevate their games in order to compete in the West. Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and RJ Umberger will need to expand on their point totals from last season if the Jackets are to journey up the standings this time around.

If goaltender Steve Mason is anything, it is an enigma. In 2008-09, Mason appeared to be the No. 1 netminder the Jackets were desperate for, winning 33 games and posting a sterling 2.29 goals-against average en route to the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Since then, the wheels have fallen off the bus, as Mason has failed to register a GAA under three since. Simply put, without a tangible improvement from its goaltender, Columbus will be in tough nightly versus the division’s top dogs.

Keep an eye out for Johansen, who has made the opening-night lineup, and could play an integral role at the centre position for Columbus.


LISTEN: Rory Barrs provides his predictions for the Central Division