NHL Central Division 2009-10: Review and Preview

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NHL Central Division 2009-10: Review and Preview
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Central Division

 

Last but not least is what was the best division in hockey last year. Chicago stepped forward to be among the league's elite last year.

 

St Louis and Columbus made the playoffs. Only Nashville was on the outside looking in last year and they made it close.

 

It will be tough for this competitive division to produce four playoff teams again next year, but I’ll almost guarantee three.

 

 

 

Detroit Red Wings

 

Detroit had another great year finishing third overall in the NHL and making it to the Stanley Cup finals for the second year in a row. They were outdueled in the final by a younger, hungrier Pittsburgh Penguin team, but they're back to try again.

 

Detroit has been the exception to the rule that you need first-class goaltending to win in the NHL playoffs. Osgood had a horrible regular season. Ty Conklin, playing almost half of his team's minutes, had a better statistical year then Osgood did.

 

The career journeyman Osgood seemed to gather himself for the playoffs and behind that stellar defense made very few mistakes. Goaltending in the end wasn’t the reason they lost.

 

Jimmy Howard, the young back-up, doesn’t look ready for the NHL. Detroit will have to address their goaltending woes soon, but right now at $1.4 million a year Osgood provides competent cheap veteran goaltending.

 

Detroit doesn’t have the cap room to seek an expensive free agent, but perhaps they could make a deal for someone else’s reasonably priced goalie. Josh Harding in Minnesota or Martin Biron from the Islanders would represent an upgrade in nets.

 

The defense has long considered one of the best in hockey. They gave up the second fewest shots on goal in the league last year. The big three, Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall are perhaps the three best puck movers in the game.

 

Jonathon Ericsson seems to be a first-rate puck mover. Lebda is another fast defenseman and Lilja is good. Their hitter Stuart is starting to wear down and they could probably use another young shut-down guy in the mix.

 

This defense is still one of the best in the league. Lidstrom at 39 is approaching retirement age. Chelios needs to retire.

 

Detroit scored 295 goals last year to lead the league. From that line-up they lost Hudler who has signed with the KHL and Samuelsson who has gone to Vancouver.

 

The core of the offense is locked up long term with Datsyuk under contract for another five years at $6.7 million a year, Zetterburg for 12 years at $6 million a year, and Franzen for 11 years for almost four million a year.

 

For the next five years, barring injury, Detroit should score.

 

If the NHL takes off financially again then, these contracts will seem bargains by the end.

 

If the NHL has huge economic problems and contracts, they’ll be millstones hung around the team's neck.

 

Detroit has given the NHL and Detroit a vote of confidence in troubled times. Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams have been brought in to provide secondary scoring. Tomas Holmstrom had problems in the playoffs and may be replaced by Bertuzzi if he can no longer compete at an elite level.

 

The aging checkers McCarty and Draper are going to have to be replaced eventually. Patrick Eaves was picked up cheap to perhaps bring some offense in a checking role.

 

Dan Cleary, Darren Helm, Leino, Filpulla, and Abdelkader will all be looked to for offensive depth. I don’t think Detroit will lead the league in scoring again this year.

 

Detroit has cap problems. Having Hudler go to the KHL for two years while they retain his NHL rights is probably a god-send. They can get him again in two years for today’s price and won’t have to pay him in the interim.

 

I believe Detroit can win the President's trophy this year. I see them certainly finishing first in the west. They need to address their cap issues and their goaltending problems. Winning with Osgood in nets is like doing it with one hand tied behind your back. 

 

 

 

Chicago Blackhawks

 

Chicago made a huge leap forward last year. They had the third-best record in the west and finished fourth.

 

They handled their two Northwest opponents Vancouver and Calgary in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They couldn’t match Detroit in the Western final but they had a great playoff run for such a young team.

 

Cristobel Huet was brought in last year to replace the older Nikolai Khabibulin. Huet has had success in a tandem situation, but when his workload or the pressure gets to be too much, he’s had a tendency to wilt.

 

He lost the regular season job to Khabibulin who was in a contract year. Huet, I believe, needs a veteran goalie to share the load with. He hasn’t done well when it’s only him.

 

Chicago, to go anywhere in the playoffs, will need to bring in another goalie before the year's end. 

 

The defense is a young talented group of puck movers. Seabrook and Keith seem to be the smooth skating shut-down guys and Cam Barker showed moments of offensive creativity that suggest power play quarterback may be his destiny.

 

The expensive Brian Campbell is still a great offensive defenseman. When you’re making over $7 million a year people notice those defensive lapses more, though. Chicago’s cap problems probably have them wishing they could move Campbell and his contract.

 

Hjalmarsson is another strong skating defenseman. Sopel is approaching the end of a so-so career, but with so many youngsters, it’s nice to have somebody over 30 on the blueline.

 

The Blackhawks scored 264 goals last year. They and/or Washington will probably lead the league this year.

 

They picked up veteran Marian Hossa to be their offensive leader. He’s coming off shoulder surgery and should be ready to go in mid November. Martin Havlat was left to sign with Minnesota.

 

Top end young talents Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews are both in the year before they become restricted free agents. Look for them to explode this year after blooming last.

 

Old timers John Madden and Tomas Kopecky have been brought in to form a shut down line.

 

There’s a zoo of young talent in this Chicago line-up looking to move forward. Patrick Sharp has already established himself.

 

Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, Colin Fraser, and Adam Burrish are all capable of making a contribution. Look for the talented Jack Skille to make the team.

 

This team made it on talent last year. Look for them to add their winning experience to the mix. I see Chicago being a closer second in the Central but perhaps also finishing second in the West.

 

They’ll still be the fourth seed in the playoffs but I think this year if they get someone to play with Huet, they’ll make the Stanley Cup finals.

 

 

 

St Louis Blues

 

St Louis made the playoffs last year for the first time since the lock-out. They lost quickly to the Vancouver Canucks.

 

Chris Mason had a top ten year for St Louis. He had the ninth best goals against average among goalies who played at least a third of their team's minutes. His save percentage was 12th best in the same group of 43 goalies.

 

Legace had a bad year as a back-up in St Louis (.885 save percentage, 3.18 GAA). St. Louis brought in Detroit back-up Ty Conklin and he’ll be an upgrade.

 

Injuries were the story last year in St Louis starting with Eric Johnson blowing a knee in a golf cart accident.

 

Eric Brewer followed that up with back problems and two operations. He’s starting this year on the injured list after pre-season arthroscopic surgery but he’s expected back soon.

 

Johnson, if he manages to stay healthy, will represent a huge grade on the blue-line for St. Louis. The big youngster is nasty and can move and shoot.

 

Pietreangelo should make the team this year and the first-round pick will be another upgrade.

 

The physical Jackman, Colaiacovo and Weaver should round out what will be a good defense. They lost youngster Woywitka to Dallas and slowing veteran McKee to Pittsburgh.

 

Before Kariya and McDonald got hurt, St. Louis with Brad Boyes had three point-a-game players. They’ll have another shot at it this year.

 

The talented Peron and budding power forward Backes should both step forward this year. Patrick Berglund at 20 played like a veteran providing 2/3 of a point a game. That’s sure to increase.

 

Veteran power forward Keith Tkachuk is still providing a useful offensive contribution and he’s tough as nails. Throw in spirited youngster TJ Oshie, and St Louis boasts an offense that could feature eight 20-goal scorers. Maybe even former first round pick Alex Steen will flourish in St. Louis?

 

It’s going to be a tough year in the Central division. I think this young St. Louis team will make the playoffs. I like them to press Chicago and perhaps pass San Jose, finishing fifth in the west, third again in the central. This should be a tough playoff team.

 

 

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

 

Columbus made the playoffs for the first time in their history. Their defensive system and goaltending couldn’t handle Detroit’s offensive depth and they were swept in the first round. 

 

The goaltending was the cornerstone of this young franchise. Steve Mason pushed past the previous year's standout goalie, Pascal Leclaire, when the latter got injured. He led the league in shut-outs with 10 last year.

 

Leclaire had nine the year before. When they had Leclaire, Norrena and Mason, they had three of the best young goalies in hockey. Leclaire was traded to Ottawa for a speedy checker. Norrena is now in Europe.

 

They’ve brought in career veteran back up Mathieu Garon to help the youngster out. Really though the organizations fate is on young Steve Mason’s shoulders.

 

His .916 save percentage (11th of 43 goalies), 2.29 GAA (second) and 10 shut-outs (first) suggest he’s up to it. He played 75 percent of his team's minutes last year. Garon might let him scale back to playing two-thirds of the team's games.                              

Hitchcock’s defensive system was very successful last year. They gave up the third fewest shots on goal in the league at 27.8 shots per game.

 

Tyutin provides some offensive ability and is solid as is Jan Hejda. Klesla and Russell provide some speed on the back end.

 

Big Old Mike Commodore is tough and spirited but cannot skate well. He’s a defensive liability if he plays too much. The minutes he gives you are physical and inspiring and every team needs that.

 

Marc Methot is probably the sixth defenseman. Columbus needs a first-rate offensive defenseman. Unfortunately I don’t think Marc Andre Bergeron is Ken Hitchcock’s kind of guy.

 

The offense was the weak link last year with 226 goals scored. That’s a very middle of the road number. Rick Nash one of the best power forwards in the league was a big part of that.

 

Derek Brassard was the youngster who centered the first line before he got hurt. If the offensively skilled youngster plays the season he could get a point a game.

 

Offensively, talented veteran Kristian Huselius rounds out the proven scorers.

 

There are a couple of highly talented youngsters who should contribute to the Columbus offense this year. I’d expect Jacob Voracek and Nikita Filatov to provide offense form the second line.

 

Columbus has collected a group of former checkers to fill out their line-up. RJ Umberger has some offensive skills to go with that defensively responsible resume. His -10 has to have been a disappointment.

 

Vermette, the former Ottawa checker, is quick and seems to be expected to provide offense. His career suggests he’s a half a point a game player at best. Sami Pahlsson was also signed in the off-season. He only brings defense.

 

Jason Chimera is another veteran with a checking resume. Raffi Torres and Fred Modin seem to have reached the end of the road as effective offensive players in the NHL. They can still bring talent depth and experience to a fourth line.

 

I see Columbus having trouble competing in the amped Central division. Their defense should be solid and their checking should be unprecedented.

 

Unfortunately I think they won’t be able to score enough to stay with the high-flying Wings, Hawks and Blues. I see them slipping to 10th behind Minnesota and LA.

 

A first-rate offensive center suddenly makes this team a ton better and gives you a skilled second youth line of Brassard, Filatov, and Voracek.

 

Columbus has over 10 million in cap room to work with. They may pick up some skilled bargains at the end of this year. 

 

 

 

Nashville Predators

 

Nashville has perennially been the second-best team in the Central. Last year, they were passed by Chicago, St Louis and Columbus. They still only finished three points out of a playoff spot.

 

Despite the fact that Nashville seems to go with a new starting goalie every year they always seem to be great. Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, and Pekka Renne has been the succession. All these goalies seem very talented and do well after they move on.

 

Rinne and Ellis provide a very good duo and perhaps one of them can be moved for more offensive talent later in the season. Young, talented Chet Pickard waits in the wings.

 

The defense is anchored by three of the best young defensemen in hockey. Dan Hamhuis is the veteran at 28. He’s a hard skater and plays solid mistake free defense.

 

Shea Weber has the offensive skills and physical ability to dominate in both zones. He is probably going to be one of Team Canada’s defensemen in the upcoming Olympics.

 

Ryan Suter will be playing for the US in the same games and again brings size and skill to the game. Francois Bouillon a fair veteran defenseman has been signed a free agent for depth.

 

Kevin Klein will probably be a third pair defenseman on this team. Wade Belak is really not much of a defenseman any more. He can fight a little and provide a physical element. 

 

Waiting in the wings is tiny first-round pick Ryan Ellis. The talented youngster will be a first-rate NHL power play quarterback. Quick and skilled, he should be the fourth defenseman in this line-up in a couple of years.

 

Nashville has suffered through a steady drain of talented players. General Manager David Poile has managed to keep the cupboard stocked. Eventually, though, the talent runs out.

 

Leading scorers Arnott and Dumont are pushing past their prime and will be susceptible to injury going forward. Steve Sullivan has returned from some debilitating back problems. He was able to provide a big boost last year and if healthy he should provide a skilled 2/3 of a point a game.

 

Unfortunately at his age (36) and with his history his career could end at any moment. David Legwand and the speedy Martin Erat provide good second-line talent. Nashville is missing the one big star on offense.

 

Alexander Radulov was looking to become that before he ran off to Russia. Colin Wilson is the best looking young prospect on the farm and may make the big club.

 

Nashville like Columbus has cap room. Their defense is great but skinny and their goaltending is just great. Scoring was a problem last year as they ranked with the Rangers on offense.

 

Steve Sullivan may boost things a bit but I can’t see the offense improving enough to let them compete in the Central.

 

I see Nashville finishing last again in the central and ahead of only Phoenix in the West. They’ve got a core but need to add some young scorers and more depth on defense. 

 

2008-09 Central Division Final Standings              2009-10 Central Division Prediction

1/Detroit (2)            112                                           1/Detroit (1)                  112

2/Chicago (4)          104                                           2/Chicago (4)                108

3/St Louis (6)           92                                           3/St Louis  (5)               100

4/Columbus (7)         92                                           4/Columbus (10)             88

5/Nashville  (10)       88                                            5/Nashville  (14)            78

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