Breaking Down the NHL: Western Conference, Central Division

John Buco@john.bucoCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2009

DETROIT - JUNE 12:  Nicklas Lidstrom #5 of the Detroit Red Wings warms up before playing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The NHL season is almost upon us again. It seems like a couple weeks ago that the Pens knocked off the Red Wings to win their third Stanley Cup. But, here we are again. This time around, many squads have undergone significant changes.

In that light, I am going to break down the NHL, division by division, starting in the West. The Central Division is going to be my starting point, since I am doing this completely arbitrarily and this seems to be the strongest division in all of hockey.

It is inconceivable to think that all five teams in a division can make it to the playoffs, but if it were ever to happen in a given year, the Central Division has the best shot.

You’re looking at two of the finest teams of a year ago (Detroit, Chicago) and two of the upstart surprises (St. Louis, Columbus). Additionally, it is a mistake to discount a Nashville team that missed the playoffs last year for the first time in four years.


Detroit Red Wings

As much as I do not like them, I do respect them, and that is why my division favorite is the Detroit Red Wings. This has nothing to do with their history or legacy since 2000.  They are simply, if narrowly, the best team in the division.

Their top two lines are arguably the best in hockey. If you’re the opposing team and you see Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, and Daniel Cleary across from you, you are in for a game. That does not even account for Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and some of the young guns on this team.

Furthermore, their defense is second to none. Albeit aged, they can still dominate anyone in the league. Nicklas Lidstrom is the anchor of the defense, the team captain, and he is entering a contract year. Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall have proven their mettle. As a matter of fact, I cannot look at the starting six for the Wings and see a name that I have not heard before.

All that said, the biggest problem area for Detroit is in the net. Don’t get me wrong, Chris Osgood is a good goaltender, capable of taking a team deep into the playoffs. He is also going to be 37 in November and is a constant health risk. 

It also seems that Detroit is not fully confident in the young Jimmy Howard. If Osgood goes down or his game goes south, Howard will have to take the net with confidence and guile. Otherwise, Detroit is going to have to go find someone—unless Dominik Hasek is available.

You also cannot discount Detroit’s intangibles. Mike Babcock is always in the Adams Trophy discussion at the end of a season and Detroit’s power play and penalty kill have been in the top 10 in the NHL over the past decade.

Prediction: No reason. Absolutely no reason why Detroit should not make the playoffs.  However, they may not win this division. Which brings me to the team that I would love to see win this division: the Chicago Blackhawks.


Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have a very comparable team to Detroit, both in strengths and weaknesses.

Chicago has one of the three top lines that can hang with Detroit’s big three (we’ll hit others in later editions). Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp are probably the NHL’s best line of youngsters. While Datsyuk and company hold superior experience, this young trio is faster and has less mileage.

Both Toews and Sharp have a good chance to lead the West in scoring in the near future and Kane definitely has a shot to be the one of the great set-up men in the game.

When you talk about Detroit, Zetterberg and Holmstrom always get thrown into the discussion, but the Hawks have an equally potent number of players that include Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and Dustin Byfuglien.

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget perennial 40-goal scorer Marian Hossa, who left Detroit for what looked like a better opportunity in Chicago. I guess you can’t argue with Chicago’s determination to return to the finals, but Hossa has been wrong before (chuckle).

The Blackhawk defense is comparable to Detroit’s in every aspect except defined leadership. Lidstrom is clearly the leader of that squad. Chicago would love to see a leader emerge, but something tells me that it is not going to happen this year. 

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are still young and Brian Campbell has always been better at just being a good defenseman. When he tries to put on the leader skates, his game falls apart (see +/- Buffalo Sabres, circa 2007). The other three are a smattering of talent, none with leadership qualities.

Ironically, the two division favorites have the same problem. The goaltending in Chicago is even more questionable than in Detroit. Cristobal Huet is another good goaltender.  However, he tends to choke in the playoffs and with no experienced relief this year, he will be carrying the load.

Chicago may have to go and get an experienced netminder in December or at the trade deadline to cover the fragility, both physically and mentally, of Huet. J.S. Giguere or Marty Turco may be available at these times, depending on how their respective teams are coming along.

Prediction: Chicago has a real chance to make a run at the division title.  If they do, they may wind up with the best record in the West.  I believe they are going to come up just short, for the above reasons.  A big question mark in goal, coupled with a lack of definitive leadership on defense spells a team falling just short of the Wings. The Hawks should definitely secure the fourth spot if they don’t win the division.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Coming off the first trip to the playoffs in franchise history, the Blue Jackets have lots to be positive about. They boast one of the top and most highly touted goal scorers in the NHL and the reigning Calder trophy winner in goal. That covers two of the three most important facets of their game.

Rick Nash returns as this team’s undisputed captain and leader. He has topped 30 goals four times in his career and posted career marks in assists, points, and plus/minus last year. He finally has a top-line center to feed on in Derick Brassard.

Brassard hit his payday this year to center the Jackets top line. He sits between Nash and Kristian Huselius, poised for a breakout season, provided he stays healthy.  Columbus also hopes that Antoine Vermette and Raffi Torres will reclaim some of what they had in Ottawa and Edmonton, respectively.

It is difficult to imagine R.J. Umberger topping his numbers from last year: career high 26 goals and 234 shots. If he can, Columbus has yet another weapon. Samuel Pahlsson could also be a great surprise pickup.

Then there’s Steve Mason. Who is he, you ask? Oh, he’s just the reigning Calder trophy winner who won 33 games with a 2.29 GAA last year. He also led the NHL with ten shutouts. Yep, that’s one better than a guy named Luongo, and at least three better than guys named Nabokov, Ward, and Brodeur.

Many critics of Mason fear the sophomore slump, but I still think he’ll manage a 30-plus win season. The shutouts will probably drop a bit, but that’s to be expected. He may also be the victim of the Blue Jacket’s glaring issue.

Columbus’ defense leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, their top pair, Mike Commodore and Rostislav Klesla, are mere journeymen who do their job, but nothing more. They do not have a defenseman to quarterback the power play and none of them really have the potential to emerge as a leader.

If they are in the mix come February, which I think they will be, a deadline deal may get done for a quality scoring defenseman. I am not sure who will be available, but it’s hard to believe that the Islanders will be good enough to force Mark Streit to hang around.

Prediction: Columbus has a lot more expectation heading into this season than they have ever had in the history of the organization. A non-playoff performance would be a disappointment. I do not expect them to disappoint. I am putting them in the sixth or seventh slot heading into the post-season, behind San Jose, but ahead of whichever team takes that eighth spot (of the six possible bubble teams).

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis was the feel-good story in the NHL last year.  After a 2008 season riddled by injury, the Blues finished last in the Central division with 79 points.  In 2008-2009, the Blues rallied by way of 92 points and a playoff berth, their first since before the lockout.

Like Columbus, St. Louis has good reason to be optimistic this season. They are also under a much larger microscope from critics and their fans.

Brad Boyes emerged last season as the Blues leading scorer and playmaker. Setting a career mark in assists, points and shots, Boyes also contributed 35 power play points and a ridiculous 11 game-winning goals. His plus/minus was a nasty -20, an area that needs improvement.

The rest of the top line is, at most, respectable. St. Louis gets Paul Kariya back at the start of this season. When he has played at least 69 games in a season, Kariya has averaged 92 points per season. Approaching age 35 this season, Kariya is still a 70-80 point threat if he can play 82 games. He is also 56 points away from the magic 1000.

That makes Boyes and top-line center Andy McDonald both threats to top the 40 and 30 goal marks, respectively.

The Blues second line is nothing to sneeze at either. Ageless Keith Tkachuk is 37 and still flirting with 50 points each season. He topped the 1000 mark last season and his production has consistently dropped, but he is still a scoring threat every time he touches the ice.

Much of that has to do with playmaker T.J. Oshie centering the second line. He had an excellent rookie campaign, posting 25 assists, 36 points, and a plus 11. Those numbers can only improve.

It’s a wonder David Backes managed 31 goals and over 50 points while spending 165 minutes in the sin bin. If he can still be a pest and score at least 25, he’s one of the biggest assets on this team.

The Blues defense has two of the best young defensemen in the league. The two Eric(k)s, Brewer and Johnson, are heading into their prime and are poised to lead this unit. Johnson is coming off a season-ending knee injury, but he should rebound nicely.  2008 first-round pick Alex Pietrangelo is also ready to take the main stage in the NHL.

The Blues have the other Mason. Chris Mason, who a year ago, posted career numbers in wins, minutes and shutouts.  He was respectable in comparison to his counterpart in Columbus and should have another good year with a healthy defense in front of him.

St. Louis is pretty average across the board. They didn’t make any noise in the off-season and their only real additions are the return of Kariya and Johnson.  An emerging superstar is the only way they can separate themselves from the middle pack of West teams.

Prediction: St. Louis should make the playoffs again, somewhere in the bottom half.  They have to avoid injury and Paul Kariya needs to have gas in the tank coming into the playoffs for them to succeed.

Nashville Predators

The Preds find themselves on the outside looking in for the first time since the lockout.  While ownership and relocation problems loom in the upper echelons of the organization, Barry Trotz and David Poile have managed to hold together a cohesive team, capable of producing wins.

Jason Arnott, team captain and scoring leader last season, will have to keep it going as he enters his 18th season in the NHL. The journeyman center will turn 35 in October, yet he managed to tie his career high for goals last season with 33. It is safe to say that the team needs point-per-game production from the aging center.

His wingers are a little sketchy, but Martin Erat has not had less than 49 points in the last five years. He will need to produce this season, along with line mate J.P. Dumont, who has been a perennial underachiever. Steve Sullivan is an interesting study. because while he spent most of last season on the IR, his flashes of brilliance as the season ended pointed to good things to come.

Finally, we look at David Legwand. Legwand has been the face of this franchise, albeit a non-existent one, since he was drafted second overall by the Predators in 1998. Eleven years later, he finds himself in the center of staunch criticism and massive underachievement. He was supposed to be to this team what Rick Nash is for Columbus now. He must have a stellar year in order to make good with the fans, or to up his value at the deadline and head to a team with a shot at the Cup.

Nashville’s top two on defense both had fantastic seasons last year. They will have to build on that this season. Ryan Suter and Shea Weber can stand toe-to-toe with Datsyuk and company, Chicago’s youngsters, and Nash/Brassard, but after them, the depth is pretty thin. The team does have former first-rounder Dan Hamhuis, who has also been disappointing throughout his career.

In net, Pekka Rinne has established himself as the legitimate number one. In his first full season as a starter, Rinne posted 29 wins, a 2.38 GAA, and 7 shutouts.  Those are great numbers for a first season, and he will have to continue that trend to make Nashville competitive. If he can’t, the very capable Dan Ellis is waiting in the wings.

Nashville can make some noise during the season, and I would not be surprised if they are in the hunt for that eighth spot come March, but they need a superstar scorer to even out the playmaking ability of their other top players. Jason Arnott cannot fulfill that role anymore.

Prediction: Nashville will most likely be on the outside looking in again. Their goaltending is on par with St. Louis and Columbus and their defense is top rate.  But the lack of goal scoring will be their undoing. I suspect they will end up in the ninth or tenth slot, just short. Aalthough, a couple wins against Columbus and a couple against the Blues could change the whole picture.

As I said, on the whole, this division just edges out the East’s Atlantic Division as the strongest and toughest division in hockey (thanks to the Islanders).  I would not be surprised if all five of these teams ended up squeezing into the playoffs. I would also not be surprised if only two got in. The bottom three are questionable coming into the season, but I think at least St. Louis and Columbus will pull out return trips.


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