NHL 2009 Offseason: Central Division Review (So Far...)

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NHL 2009 Offseason: Central Division Review (So Far...)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As we move throughout the NHL with Bleacher Report's NHL Mid-offseason report cards, we've now come to the Central.

The scary thing about the Central? It's one of the most powerful divisions in the league. Not only were the Nashville Predators just a handful of goals away from having all five teams make it to the playoffs, but there was no conceivable way for their not to be a team in the Stanley Cup final representing the Western Conference not from the Central division.

Pretty stacked eh?

 

Chicago Blackhawks

Blowing into town: From Detroit, Marian Hossa (F-$62.8mil/12 years); From Detroit, Tomas Kopecky (F-$2.4mil/2 years); From New Jersey, John Madden (F-$2.75mil/1 year); From Tampa Bay, Richard Petiot (D-1 year)

Swirling out: To Minnesota, Martin Havlat (F-$30mil/6 years); To Columbus, Sammy Pahlsson (F-$7.95mil/3 years); To Tampa Bay, Matt Walker (D-$6.8mil/4 years); To Edmonton, Nikolai Khabibulin (G-$15mil/4 years)

Your invitation is in the mail

Jack Skille. The once-highly touted top ten pick (Seventh overall in 2005) has his work cut out for him if this is going to be the year he tries to make an impact with the ‘Hawks.

The Hockey Gods are smiling in his favor with the Marian Hossa injury, but with such a dynamic young roster, Skille has to take the bull by the horns the next few years to prove he belongs.

 

So what’s set?

Aside from the curiosity surrounding the Marian Hossa injury, there won’t be much movement surrounding the forwards. The ‘Hawks did a great job of plugging the holes on the lower lines with the addition of John Madden and Tomas Kopecky, both of whom have been a part of winning organizations (Although Kopecky didn’t play a playoff game for the win two years ago, and has only played in12 playoff games the past three years).

Defensively adding Richard Petiot doesn’t mean much, but Chicago already had a strong six anyways, so the defensive depth at an affordable price and a fairly low age (Petiot is 26 years old) is big, especially for a team wanting to go deep into the playoffs.

 

Where do we go from here?

For the ‘Hawks, it’s time to figure out the back-up goalie situation. Although Christobel Huet wasn’t a world beater last season, there were points in time where, when Khabibulin was injured, that he played very well.

Huet is a goalie that seems to thrive when owning the reigns of a starter’s job and not having to share, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago doesn’t have to decide between Corey Crawford, Antti Niemi, or even Joe Fallon for back up duties.

The hard part, is that no one on this list has quantifiable NHL experience (six games between Crawford and Niemi), so an outside verteran presence may still be the best way to go (if it's affordable).

 

Just because I can

At first I was curious as to why Dale Tallon got fired.

Then I found out that, not only did he follow in the footsteps of Lou Lamoriello and flunk “Restricted Free Agent Signing 101” and “July 1st: What it Means to Me”, but Marian Hossa never took a physical before signing his contract.

It doesn’t matter that the ‘Hawks knew about the injury going into the signing—why on Earth is he making $7.9 million the year after his shoulder injury (I’m sure if you moved that $7.9 to, say, year nine he’d be fine with it), and why did this just come out of he blue all of the sudden? Why not simply announce at his signing “We’ve got Hossa, but he’s got a shoulder thing he’ll try to rehab, but might end up needing surgery.”

Again, at least they knew heading in to the whole scenario, but the way it fell out certainly didn’t help Tallon's case.

 

How the team is doing

The Chicago Blackhawks have done a great job this offseason. They’ve complimented their young scorers with a player who, albeit ineffectively, has been to two Stanley Cup finals in two years, so even if that means the ‘Hawks are destined to lose in next year’s final it’s a step further than they got this year.

Aside from that, they were able to quickly amend the situation that would’ve seen some of their most prized young players become free agents, and so long as this team can find a solution for backup goalie (either internally or externally), they’ll be tough to beat in the Central.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

o-HI-o: From Pittsburgh (G-$2.4mil/2-years); From Chicago, Sammy Pahlson (F-$7.95mil/3-years)

Buckin’ Out: To Vancouver, Aaron Rome (D-$550,000/1 year), Assumed to Philadelphia, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (D);

Your invitation is in the mail:

2008/09 Steve Mason. With the way he played last year, all eyes will be on the upstart young goalie to prove that it wasn’t a fluke and that he can be the goalie who set the world on fire last year, year in and year out for his career.

 

So what’s set?

On that note, the goalie picture…finally. For years There was no continuity in Columbus. At first it was supposed to be Marc Denis. Then Pascal Leclaire was supposed to be that savior. Well, it took a while, but Jackets fans are hoping that Mason continues to be the long term solution in their crease.

Other than that, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, RJ Umberger, Kristian Huselius, Jakub Voracek and Antoine Vermette will be providing the top-six scoring threat.

 

Where do we go from here?

Columbus is in a great position all around. They were able to fill in the lower lines and add some grit by bringing in Sammy Pahlsson, and while the defense could use another minute-eater on it, they feature a great blend of experienced defenders and youngsters who’ll be able to grow into that type of role.

The Jackets just need to bring up some of the young guys on the wings and get them some ice time on the third and fourth lines.

 

Just because I can

Did you know that Sammy Pahlsson stopped by Nationwide Arena to make sure people spelled it “Sammy” and not “Sami”?

Neither did I.

 

How the team is doing

The Jackets looked primed for a playoff spot at the beginning of last season, but the biggest problem was the teams in front of them and having to overcome a powerful Central division.

Well, the Jackets were able to do that and make the playoffs, and nothing has changed this year. Everyone is back and ready to go, as the Jackets look to get back to the ice from an unusually quiet offseason.

 

Detroit Red Wings

Rolling In: Andy Delmore (D-AHL); From Montreal, Doug Janik (D-1 year); From Toronto, Kris Newbury/Jeremy Williams (F-1 year);

Au Revoir: To Chicago, Marian Hossa (F-$62.8mil/12 years); To St Louis, Ty Conklin (G-$2.6mil/2 years); To Chicago, Tomas Kopecky (F-$2.4mil/2 years); To Vancouver, Mikael Samuelsson (F-$7.5mil/3 years)

Your invitation is in the mail: Jiri Hudler. The Red Wings are going to retain your rights if you ever smarten up and come back to North America. If not, have fun playing with Pavel Brendl and Valerie Bure.

 

So what’s set?

As always, the Red Wings look to have a lock-down defense once the regular season rolls around. With the way Jonathan Ericsson progressed late in the year last season, the Wings’ rotation of Ericsson, Nik Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kornwall, Brett Lebda, and Brad Stuart may be the least talked about set of six in the league, but they can keep their team in any game.

 

Where do we go from here?

Who backs up Chris Osgood is a big question, but an even bigger question is whether the Wings can find someone to spell Ozzie if he stumbles like last year’s regular season, and not just play periodic goaltender.

The Wings found an angle in Ty Conklin, as Conks was able to keep the Wings’ dynamic offensive attack and outstanding defense in a lot of games, whereas Osgood looked to struggle at points (until he turned it on in the playoffs). Conklin however, is now long gone.

If Osgood doesn’t pull a San Antonio Spurs (You know, cruising on automatic for the regular season and turning it on in the playoffs?) and plays like he did in May/June for the duration of the season and playoffs, then the Wings don’t have anything to worry about. If he does struggle though, the Red Wings have to be confident in Jimmy Howard to pick up the slack.

The Wings could also use a few more scoring forwards to help out their two All-Stars upfront.

 

Just because I can

Talk to Derek Harmsworth about the Detroit Red Wings picking up two former Maple Leafs in Newbury and Williams and you’ll get a man who’s frustrated.

Not because the two are gone, but because they went to Detroit.

Why? Because Detroit is the kind of team that can take a middling prospect who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in one situation, and turn him into a 20-goal, 40-point guy that other teams are willing to overpay in hopes they get the same kind of thing. How else do you explain Mikael Samuelsson getting $7.5 million over three years?

Alright, so $2.5 million per year isn’t going to break the bank, but you know what I mean. All of a sudden, Newbury and Williams may flourish in a town willing to give them a steady chance.

 

How the team is doing

It’s very hard for me to say that Detroit had a productive offseason, because losing a 90-point scorer is a kick in the teeth to anyone.

Then again, losing your “backup” goalie that carried you through most of the regular season stings too.

However, this is Detroit. They still have that defense to help out Howard and Osgood, and Howard is still somewhat of an NHL enigma having only played nine games.

You’ve also got Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the team, so the outlook in Detroit is far from bleak. Very far. Like Africa far.

Their biggest need is to find some more scoring on the open market to help offset those losses on offense and add a little grit while they’re at it. Ken Holland is the NHL’s best General Manager though. If anyone can do it, he can.

Nashville Predators

Play Somethin’ Country: Ben Eaves (F-1 year); Peter Olvecky (F-1 year); Ben Guiter (F-1 year);

Rock’n’Rollin outta Town: To San Jose, Scott Nichol (F-$750,000/1 year); To Florida, Ville Koistinen (D-$2.4mil/2 years); To Phoenix, Vernon Fiddler (F-$2.2mil/2 years), To Minnesota, Greg Zanon (D-$5.8mil/3 years)

Your invitation is in the mail:

Alexander Radulov. Oh wait, you still don’t want to come back? Colin Wilson and Blake Geoffrion are better suited for your spot anyhow. Same with Cal O’Reilly and maybe even Michael and Mark Santorelli.

 

So what’s set?

As always, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of change in regards to the Nashville Predators roster. Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan are back, and with the way that Sullivan produced after his 150 game layoff last year, that may be all of the offensive boost the Preds need, notwithstanding an improvement out of Ward’s career year of 35 points.

Of course there are no questions in between the pipes as Pekka Rinne is back and looking to better his rookie totals, as is his backup Dan Ellis.

Defensively, it’s the same story for the Preds: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis on the back end providing offense, defense, and pacing the power play, while Kevin Klein and Alexander Sulzer (provided he stays healthy all year) will add a great compliment to them.

 

Where do we go from here?

Figuring out who fills out the final spots on the defense is the biggest question. Jonathan Blum and Cody Franson are the leading contenders for those spots, but we may see an unknown come out and blow the doors off their hinges at training camp like Robert Dietrich. Who knows? Even Ryan Ellis may surprise if he an honest opportunity.

The other big question for the Predators is how they fill in up front. Of course Sullivan, J.P. Dumont, Jason Arnott, and a few others have cemented roles on the team, but Wilson and O’Reilly have great shots to stick for the year and guys like Antti Pihlstrom (Who might be signing in Europe next year depending on his contract talks) and Patric Hornqvist could get the opportunity to better their iffy rookie campaigns.

 

Just because I can

Ever since I saw Kellie Pickler, Taylor Swift, and Carrie Underwood cheering on the Predators at home I’ve wanted to move to Nashville. Seriously. People don’t show up in the stands just for a chance to catch a glimpse of them?

And guys, Pickler isn’t dating Jordin Tootoo anymore (Or so the internet has told me). Do mankind proud and stop wasting this opportunity!!

 

How the team is doing

Nashville wasn’t really losing any key pieces to their attack this offseason, as Radek Bonk and Greg deVries were really the biggest names.

As always, the Preds have quietly gone about their business, and with a few low-key signings and replacements from within they hope to be surprisingly competitive once again this season.

St Louis Blues

See you in St Louis: From Detroit, Ty Conklin (G-$2.6mil/2 years);

Other ways to other places: To Pittsburgh, Jay McKee (D-$800,000/1 year); To Dallas, Jeff Woywitka (D-$1.3mil/2 years); 

Your invitation is in the mail

Erik Johnson. The Blues top defensive prospect tore his ACL in a very strange golf cart accident last season, but if he can return and continue his development it’ll be a big addition to the Blues at no additional cost.

The return of Johnson (and possible addition of Alex Pietrangelo) is greats news for the Blues, especially because they lost over 130 games from last year with the exits of McKee (Buyout) and Woywitka (Who also had 18 points).

 

So what’s set?

Like they did with Manny Legace, the St Louis Blues swiped another Detroit backup during the offseason in Ty Conklin.

Until injury problems derailed Legace late in his St Louis career, he had been everything the Blues needed between the pipes. Now with two goalies from other places in the Central (Chris Mason came from Nashville), the Blues have two goalies who work superbly in tandem.

And, if the Boston Bruins run into goalie troubles, the Blues can always ship them Conklin so that he can continue his streak of outdoor games. See? Everyone wins.

 

Where do we go from here?

In the same light that Patrik Berglund was brought up last year, the Blues have a few more youngsters that could see time this year, namely Lars Eller.

The Blues may be looking at a few other youngsters to come into the lineup as well, as Paul Kariya (Who spent most of last year injured) and Keith Tkachuk are both older players and each a year away from free agency.

The Blues are chock full of young defenders so the turnover there can be as slow or as quick as they’d like it to be, but seeing them put stock in a younger netminder (like Ben Bishop) wouldn’t be surprising considering both goalies discussed earlier are 33 years old, and Mason is approaching free agency after this season.

 

Just because I can

Eric Brewer’s status is still up in the air with regards to next season.

The injured Blues captain is still recovering from back surgery but it’s been slower than he and the team likes, so that could be affecting the depth of their team, at least at the beginning of the season.

In other words: There's nothing funny about the Blues, I can only report serious matters.

Oh wait, Erik Johnson fell off a golf cart last year. Yeah...we still laugh.

 

How the team is doing

The Blues were another one of those teams that seemed to be in the middle of the road. They were able to sneak into the playoffs last year with a young, exciting roster, and with the way some of the players stepped up into larger roles, many of the vacancies on the team were filled from within.

The Blues did however address the need of having a reliable backup goalie in the event of injuries berating starter Chris Mason, and they shed the extra weight on defense that was prolonging the development of some of their more promising players.

If the Blues continue their hard-working ways, they’ll soon be establishing another streak of playoff appearances.

 

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile or you can email him at bryanthiel74@hotmail.com. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.

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