NHL Season Preview and Predictions: An in-Depth Look at the Central Division

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IJanuary 17, 2013

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 22:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Black Hawks skates after a loose puck in a game against the Detroit Red Wings on January 22, 2011 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The Hawks defeated the Wings 4-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Central Division was the only one in the Western Conference to send four teams to the playoffs last season, and there's a strong chance that this will happen again.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues will all challenge for a playoff spot in the lockout-shortened season, while the Columbus Blue Jackets will continue to improve.

None of the four teams that made the playoffs from the Central Division in 2011-12 reached the conference finals, so everyone will have something to prove entering this season.

This division also hasn't sent fewer than three teams to the playoffs since the 2007-08 season.

Let's look at an in-depth preview of the Central, which should be the most exciting and competitive division in the Western Conference during the 2012-13 season.

2011-12 Standings

St. Louis Blues 49 22
Nashville Predators 48
Detroit Red Wings 48
Chicago Blackhawks 45
Columbus Blue Jackets 29

Projected Order of Finish for 2012-13

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Chicago Blackhawks
  3. Detroit Red Wings
  4. Nashville Predators
  5. Columbus Blue Jackets

St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues finished with 109 points and their first division title since 2000 last season, just one year after finishing in fourth place with 87 points.

General manager Doug Armstrong, who was rewarded with a five-year contract extension on Wednesday, has brought most of last year's team back for this season. Notable moves were additions to the roster, with top prospects Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko ready to impress as rookies.

Just like last season, the Blues' success will be determined by the performance of their defense and goaltending, which is common for any team coached by Ken Hitchcock. St. Louis led the NHL in GAA in 2011-12 and could easily do it again.

Getting swept in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings will be a positive experience for the Blues. It showed them how difficult it is to win in the playoffs, and they will take what they learned in that series and use it to help them succeed in 2013.

Player to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko

Top prospect Vladimir Tarasenko will likely start the season on the team's third line and will add some strength and goal scoring to the Blues lineup.

The 21-year-old Russian forward scored 14 points with 17 assists in 31 games during the lockout for St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL.

Tarasenko has impressive speed, great hands and fantastic offensive awareness. Even though he's an offensive talent, Tarasenko shouldn't have too much trouble fitting into the defensive-minded system that the Blues thrive in.

He should also be a Calder Trophy candidate.

Player Under the Most Pressure: Brian Elliott

Brian Elliott's success was one of the best stories in the NHL last season. He was signed to a two-way contract in 2011 and was not expected to be a major part of the Blues' success, especially since the team already had a legitimate No. 1 goalie in Jaroslav Halak.

Elliott's regular-season success had him in the Vezina Trophy conversation for much of the season, but his high level of performance ended in the playoffs.

He played all four games of the Blues' second-round series loss to the Kings and lost each game with a lackluster .849 save percentage.

Halak cannot play 35-plus games in a shortened 48-game season, so Elliott will play quite a bit in 2013 and will be under pressure to succeed on a consistent basis.

Biggest Weakness: Goal Scoring

The Blues were one of three teams to finish 20th or worse in goals scored last season and still make the playoffs.

Good defense and goaltending are the most important parts of any championship team, but without enough scoring depth, it's incredibly tough to win the Stanley Cup.

The additions of Tarasenko and Schwartz will help the Blues offense improve this season, but if top-six forwards such as T.J. Oshie and David Perron don't play at a high level, St. Louis might not have enough scoring to reach the Cup Final.

Expectation: Reach the Conference Finals

The Blues are a popular pick to win the Western Conference this season, but given the team's lack of playoff experience, reaching the West Finals would be a successful season for St. Louis.

Do the Blues have enough talent and depth to win the Stanley Cup? Yes, they most certainly do. In fact, the Blues are arguably the deepest team in the NHL.

The goal for St. Louis is to build on last year's success and make a deeper playoff run. This is a team that will contend for many years, and there is no reason to expect a Stanley Cup championship this season. However, not reaching the conference finals would be a failure.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks had another disappointing season in 2011-12, but expectations are still very high coming into this year.

Chicago has been defeated in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row, but with a healthy roster going into 2013, fans won't tolerate another first-round exit.

The Blackhawks will score a lot of goals and have enough defensive depth to win games, but will their goaltenders perform at a high level? That's the biggest question mark for Chicago heading into the season.

Player to Watch: Patrick Kane

Just a few years ago, Patrick Kane was a star forward who teams could build an entire offense around, but two straight seasons of failing to live up to expectations have made 2013 a very important year in his career.

Somebody with the offensive talent Kane has should be, at the minimum, a 30-goal scorer and a 70-plus point player over the course of a full season (82-game schedule).

Kane will come into this season with a chip on his shoulder, and it will be exciting to watch him prove the doubters wrong and have a bounce-back year.

Player Under the Most Pressure: Corey Crawford

As the starting goaltender of a Stanley Cup contender that is coming off a disappointing season, Corey Crawford is going to be under a massive amount of pressure this year.

He was one of the primary reasons why Chicago lost to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the playoffs last season. Crawford was also 1-3 in overtime games during that series.

If Crawford doesn't improve this season, the Blackhawks may be forced to find a new starting goaltender in the summer. This team is good enough to win a championship if the goaltending is strong.

Biggest Weakness: Goaltending

Since Crawford will get plenty of rest this season because the Blackhawks will play 48 games in just 99 days, backup goaltender Ray Emery will get a number of opportunities to impress the coaching staff.

Unfortunately for Chicago, the Crawford/Emery duo is arguably the worst among all the playoff contenders in the league this season.

The Blackhawks ranked 22nd in GAA a year ago and also finished 27th in penalty killing. For the team to defend better and improve on special teams, the goaltending must improve.

Expectation: Reach the Western Conference Finals

The Blackhawks could win the Stanley Cup, but it would be unfair to expect a team with Crawford and Emery between the pipes to win a championship.

Chicago will not have more success this season than it did last year if the special teams don't improve. The team's power play was the fifth-worst in the league, and the penalty-killing unit was the fourth-worst in the NHL. It's hard to win a championship when you perform this poorly on special teams.

The Blackhawks will be a top contender in the Western Conference this season but will only go as far as Crawford and Emery take them.

Detroit Red Wings

A new era is beginning in Detroit after Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement. Jiri Hudler and Brad Stuart decided not to re-sign in the summer and joined Western Conference rivals instead, and no big stars were brought in to replace any of them.

Despite losing these key players, the Red Wings will once again be a very tough team to beat. They have a tremendous top-six forward group with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula, giving head coach Mike Babcock three reliable point-producers.

Even though Babcock doesn't have the amount of talent or depth he would like on defense, there's a lot of experience on the blue line.

The Red Wings are still good enough to make the playoffs and advance to the second round.

Player to Watch: Brendan Smith

With just one legitimate top-four defenseman currently on the roster (Niklas Kronwall), top prospect Brendan Smith will earn a lot of playing time this season. He will likely play an important role on the special teams too.

Smith's offensive production will be a big part of the Detroit offense because replacing players such as Lidstrom and Stuart, who combined for 55 points last season, won't be easy.

The 20-year-old defenseman scored five goals with 15 assists in 32 games for the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins during the lockout.

If there is one player who Red Wings fans should watch closely and monitor his development, it's Smith.

Player Under the Most Pressure: Jimmy Howard

Losing two of his three best defensemen presents a new challenge for Jimmy Howard, who has been one of the most consistent goaltenders in the NHL over the last three seasons.

Howard has won 35 or more games and has played in 53 or more games for three straight years, and for the Red Wings to make the playoffs in 2013, they need their No. 1 goalie to play at a high level on a consistent basis.

His save percentage and GAA improved last season, so there's no reason to believe that the 28-year-old star will fail to get better in 2013.

Howard is also playing for a new contract because he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 5. If he plays well this season after losing two important parts of his defense, Howard will do very well in free agency.

Biggest Weakness: Lack of Top-Tier Talent on Blue Line

Niklas Kronwall is a great player, but he cannot be relied on to have a career year as the team's No. 1 defenseman when he's never played in this kind of role during his Red Wings career.

Babcock needs another player to step up and become a legitimate top-two or top-four defenseman this season.

Two players who will be expected to take this step in their developments are Smith and Kyle Quincey, who is entering his first full season in Detroit.

The lack of star talent on the Red Wings blue line will be a bigger concern than its lack of depth this year.

Expectation: Make the Playoffs

People who are expecting that the Red Wings to no longer be contenders in the Western Conference and that their 21-year playoff streak is going to end will be disappointed this season.

Teams with the goaltending, scoring and coaching talent that the Red Wings have rarely miss the playoffs. The experience this team has will help it overcome any type of adversity that will create challenges in 2013.

The Red Wings are good enough to finish anywhere from fifth to eighth in the West this season.

Nashville Predators

Beginning with the team's second-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in last year's playoffs, the last eight months haven't been filled with much good news for Nashville Predators fans.

Not only did the Predators lose star defenseman Ryan Suter in free agency, they also traded promising young backup goaltender Anders Lindback to the Tampa Bay Lightning and had to match a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet that captain Shea Weber signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer.

Despite all of that, the Predators will be one of the teams contending for the final few playoff spots in the Western Conference this season because they have a No. 1 goaltender and a deep blue line even after Suter's departure.

Player to Watch: Shea Weber

It will be interesting to see how Shea Weber's level of performance will change with Suter no longer playing alongside him.

Adjusting to a new defense partner isn't an easy thing to do, especially if Weber is paired with a young player who doesn't have a lot of NHL experience.

As the only legitimate top-four defenseman on the Predators' roster, Weber will need to play better than he ever has to help the team reach the playoffs again.

Player Under the Most Pressure: Pekka Rinne

Rinne has been one of the league's best and most consistent goaltenders over the last four seasons, but with a key member of his defense gone, the pressure on the 30-year-old star this season will be even higher than it was last year.

Due to the team's lack of scoring depth and a reliable backup goaltender, Rinne will need to play like a Vezina Trophy finalist again for the Predators to have any chance of earning a playoff spot.

Biggest Weakness: Scoring Depth

Losing Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov in the summer has hurt the Predators' scoring depth, and the lack of an elite forward could be a problem for Nashville this season.

The team won't be able to rely on its goaltending and defense as much as it did last season when Suter and Lindback were on the roster.

The Predators had no 60-point players or 30-goal scorers last season, and since general manager David Poile did not add any top-six caliber forwards in the offseason, Nashville will likely struggle to score goals in 2013.

Expectation: Contend for the Playoffs

The Predators will not be an easy team to score on with Rinne between the pipes, but when backup goaltender Chris Mason is in the net, the team could struggle. Mason's record over the last two seasons is 21-20-4, and his career playoff record is 1-8.

Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the NHL and will find ways to help his team win games.

While Nashville doesn't have the top-six talent or defensive depth needed to win in the playoffs, it's likely that they will remain in the playoff race all season.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The 2011-12 season was arguably the worst in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise. A year that started with so much promise after the the Jeff Carter trade and James Wisniewski signing quickly turned into a disaster once the puck dropped.

Columbus finished with the worst record in the NHL last year but weren't lucky enough to win the draft lottery. They got the second overall pick and drafted defenseman Ryan Murray, who is out of the season after having shoulder surgery.

The biggest Blue Jackets moment over the last year was the trade of superstar Rick Nash, who had been the face of the franchise since the team drafted him in 2002.

With lots of young talent, especially on the blue line, the Blue Jackets are in the midst of a rebuild, and the 2012-13 season will be an important part of that process.

Player to Watch: Sergei Bobrovsky

The Blue Jackets acquired former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in June, and he will likely begin the season as the team's No. 1 goaltender.

Bobrovsky played in 29 games for the Flyers last season and had a record of 14-10-2. He also started the 2012 Winter Classic.

Columbus' biggest weakness since the franchise began has been goaltending, and with Bobrovsky entering his first season with the team, the Blue Jackets are hoping he can gave them some stability at the most important position in the sport.

It will be interesting to see how the 24-year-old performs in a larger role than he had in Philadelphia.

Player Under the Most Pressure: James Wisniewski

After signing a six-year, $33 million contract last summer, James Wisniewski was expected to be a top offensive defenseman that would provide scoring to the team's blue line on a consistent basis.

Instead, Wisniewski was a disappointment. He scored 27 points in 48 games and once again proved that he's not a durable player. The 28-year-old veteran has never played a full season in the NHL.

If Wisniewski fails to perform at a high level this year, especially offensively, the Blue Jackets may decide to use one of their two buyouts on him this summer.

Biggest Weakness: Goaltending

The Blue Jackets' GAA has gotten worse in each of the last two seasons, and Columbus' struggles at the goaltender position also contributed to the team having the worst penalty kill in the NHL last year.

There is no way that the Blue Jackets can contend for a playoff spot in the near future if their goaltending does not drastically improve.

Expectation: Most Important Young Players Improve

Nobody expects the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs for the second time in team history this year, but the team's young players have to improve for this season to be a success.

The development of young players is the most important objective for a team in a rebuild.


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