NHL Central Division 2008-2009: Where Will the Surprises Come From?

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NHL Central Division 2008-2009: Where Will the Surprises Come From?

So far we've gotten through two divisions—the Northwest and the Southeast—in my journey to preview all thirty NHL teams.

I figured that next up would be the Central division, however before I get to that, I've been asked to write a separate article on the Central division.

So as I thought more and more about it, although it spoils a few surprises, I figured, "Hey...why not do a preview of your preview?"

So that's what we're doing. The preview of the preview of the Central division. Hope you enjoy (look for the Central division articles to start either later tonight or tomorrow).

 

Look back through history, and see if you can tell me the last time the Detroit Red Wings weren’t the Central division champions.

You’d have to go back all the way to the 1999-2000 season, when the Red Wings finished second to the St. Louis Blues with 48 wins. Yeah…48 wins. What a terrible second-place finish that was.

Going back even further in time to the 1993-94 season, the Red Wings have been a model of consistency: In 14 and a half seasons (or 15, depending on how you look at 1994-95) the Red Wings have finished out of first place only three times: 1996-97, 1997-98, and the aforementioned 1999-2000. And in those two years when they finished second? They won the Stanley Cup.

Of the past seven seasons, the Red Wings have had the fewest losses in the NHL four times, culminating in a 16-loss season in 2005-06.

Granted this has led to more than a few surprises—and a few championships—come playoff time, but there’s one thing you can’t escape: The Detroit Red Wings will dominate the regular season. There’s no surprise there.

But that doesn’t mean we’re in for a season without surprises. There’s always that dark horse team that comes from nowhere to swipe that final spot in the playoffs, or that surprise player who scores 40 goals, but still gets no notoriety.

Last year, it’s fair to say that the biggest surprises were the Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Toews/Kane, and Brad Boyes.

This year? Well, at least one of those things will stay the same.

In an interview I did with Predators’ scout Jason Bukala a few weeks ago, when I asked him how the team would do, he told me:

“The ‘prognosticators’ have a history of underestimating our team before the season begins. We will be better than people think.”

He’s right too. After five seasons of bouncing back and forth between third and fourth in the division and missing the playoffs, the Predators beat out the Edmonton Oilers for the final playoff spot in 2003-04. Following the lockout, the Preds had back-to-back 100-point seasons, surprising more than a few people along the way.

Last season it was more of the same: After saying goodbye to Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun, and Paul Kariya, no one thought the Preds would be in the playoff picture.

Now it’s the moves that Columbus and Chicago made in the offseason that have most (including me) thinking that the Predators will fall within the division.

Columbus upgraded up front by adding R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius, and Raffi Torres to a lineup already featuring Rick Nash. They shored up their defense by adding Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman and so long as Pascal Leclaire can remain healthy, Columbus seems to be a dangerous team entering the season.

The same can be said for Chicago who, along with holdovers Patrick Kane, Jonathon Toews, and Duncan Keith, worked to strengthen their goaltending situation by adding Cristobal Huet (although it remains to be seen what will be done with Nikolai Khabibulin). They also added their puck-moving defenseman in Brian Campbell.

The team that’s been overshadowed by the Detroit Red Wings for so long in the division is now even further south on the map, but that’s just where they like it.

Columbus and Chicago aren’t used to expectations. Nashville is comfortable without having any. The ‘Hawks and Jackets are loaded with young, explosive talent. The Preds are just a hard-working team that refuses to get wrapped up in any hype, and quite literally take it “one game at a time.”

Don’t be surprised if the Nashville Predators are fighting to hold on to that eighth playoff spot come April.

While the Predators are surprising, the St. Louis Blues could feature some surprises of their own.

The Blues, much like the Predators, are the beneficiaries of playing in a division where a lot of stock is being put in the three teams ahead of them. While Toews and Kane will be expected to repeat their outstanding rookie years, and Nash and Umberger will be expected to forge immediate success, St. Louis is free to develop a roster of fresh, exciting young players.

Marek Schwarz, the young Czechoslovakian goalie, could benefit from the diverted attention.

While there’s no spot for him as either a starter or a backup on the roster at the beginning of this season—NHL vets Chris Mason and Manny Legace are ahead of him on the depth chart—it could be sooner rather than later before Schwarz sees NHL action once again.

Although he got the call briefly last season (two games played, 0-1) and was largely unimpressive (7.20 goals-against average and a .647 save percentage), both Mason and Legace are concerns for the Blues. Legace has played through knee problems the past two seasons, while Mason was plagued by ineffective stretches last season, losing seven in a row at the beginning of the season and suffering through a nine-game winless streak in late-February through to March.

The other factor at play is that both goalies are in contract years, meaning that if teams come calling looking to add depth to their goaltending situations around the trade deadline (or sooner), Schwarz could see consistent ice time with the Blues and may be able to put a little something special together.

The other two players that the Blues have could rival the success of Kane and Toews last season. If you haven’t heard of T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, you may want to check out St. Louis’ depth chart.

While Lars Ellers seems to be a few years away from regular NHL action, word out of St. Louis is that the Blues feel Oshie and Berglund are ready for the NHL now.

While Oshie is a shorter player who relies on his abilities and attitude to carry him, he’s been able to consistently put up strong numbers at the collegiate level with the Fighting Sioux. As for tasting success, how does three straight Frozen Four appearances sound?

Berglund seems to be the polar opposite of Oshie. He’s tall and has the natural ability to control a game. He can score just as easily as he can pass the puck, and he could develop into a top-line wonder for the Blues. If they’re teamed up this season, then the Blues may have their own dynamic duo on their hands.

A few years ago, most scoffed at the competition that the Detroit Red Wings faced every season: Chicago, Nashville, Columbus, and St. Louis? To most, that seems to be an easy division title.

Starting this season, however, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing: The Preds are always dangerous, the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks seem ready to turn the corner, and St. Louis is building one of the best defenses in the game, anchored by Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Johnson.

Enjoy this while it lasts, Detroit.

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. You can also see all of his previous work in his archives.

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