The Central Division: The Powerhouse of The Western Conference
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Blackhawks. Red Wings. Predators. Blues. Blue Jackets. All of the above have their offensive weapons, good goaltending, and some of the best defense in the league. Unfortunately, only one team can win the division.
The defending champs look to defend their division title. They have sustained casualties because of the salary cap, but they soldier on as one of the biggest powerhouses in the league. The Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks still have the best 2 defensive pairs in the league, Hossa, Toews, Kane, Sharp, Brouwer...you get the picture. The new faces of Viktor Stalberg, Fernando Pisani, John Scott, and Marty Turco will help carry some of the burden next year. Even more of the burden is on Jonathan Toews’ shoulders. If the 2010 playoffs were any indication, Toews is ready for a big year. 29 points in 22 playoff games is equal to 108 points in an 82 game schedule. If Kane continues to progress, the duo of Toews and Kane could become the stuff of legend. Like Amonte and Roenick. Think 200 points a year.
Detroit is the obvious contender to challenge Chicago for the division. Detroit still has one of the hardest defenses to play against in the NHL. Rafalski, Lidstrom, Kronwall, and Salei are a deadly combination of offense and defense, speed and grit. Like good wine, Detroit ages magnificently. Datsyuk,Holmstrom, Zetterberg, and Modano are some of the best all around players in the game today, and they all know what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Detroit will be even better than last year. There won’t be 350 man games lost this time around. This year, Detroit is ready for anything. Detroit is looking for another Cup, and they’re packing heat.
Nashville will be pesky. They will be without some top athletes, though. Pivotal players Jason Arnott and Dan Hamhuis are gone. Even with these losses, Nashville’s ship will not sink beneath the waves. The gaps made by the departure of Arnott and Hamhuis have been mended by 6 additions, including Matthew Lombardi, Sergei Kostitsyn, Aaron Johnson and Ryan Parent. These Predators are still great playoff material.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nashville’s goaltending. Pekka Rinne carried the team more often than not last year. I believe 7 shutouts describes it quite bluntly. Pekka will improve further, as long as he retains his starting goalie position. He is one of the many reasons why Nashville will be a playoff threat for a second straight year.
St. Louis is looking for redemption. They missed the dance by a scant 5 points. A win here, a shootout win there, and the Blues get to play the San Jose Sharks in Round 1. This year, the Blues may get to do just that. Playoff hero Jaroslav Halak and depth player Vladimir Sobotka packed their bags to make their way to the Gateway City to start a new season for the Blues. Other than that, the Blues haven’t made any changes. They haven’t needed to. Scoring 90 points is very respectable, and with an upgrade in the goalie position, the point production will improve. A playoff threat indeed.
The Blue Jackets will be in the basement of the division again. Having said that, they will improve. The 79 points the Jackets earned isn’t horrid, but it’s not raising eyebrows either. It’s a building block. If all goes well, Steve Mason’s sophomore jinx won’t carry over into his junior year. Rick Nash’s performance, like every year, will be the fulcrum of the entire Blue Jackets team. Moreover, Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius, RJ Umberger, and Jakub Voracek are all major assets of the Blue Jackets, all of them scoring more than 15 goals. It wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. Nowhere near enough. Nevertheless, there is hope.
Columbus can make it again if they can do two things: sign defensemen, and add one more big scorer. Eric Belanger and Mike Mottau can annex another 15 goals and stop 10 from passing Steve Mason. Then add another 10 goals that Ethan Moreau will score next year. On top of that, add another 10 goals for Nikita Filatov breaking into the league full-time. The difference will easily show.
For Columbus, 28 games were decided by one goal. Another 12 were decided in the shootout. Those games account for half of the entire season right there. Change 9 of those losses into wins because of another 35 added goals, add 14 points to the building block of 79, and that’s 93 points. That’s going from mediocre to playoff contender.
My prediction: Blackhawks win the division by one point. 107 points for Chicago, 106 for Detroit, 99 points for Nashville, 96 points for St. Louis, and 88 points for Columbus. It averages out to 49.8 wins. That’s an average of just 1 more win per team than the 2008-09 season, where all teams scored in a range of 88 to 112. It is possible. It will happen. The Central Division will be one to be reckoned with.
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