2011-2012 NHL Season: Predicting the Central Division Standings
Predictions are a tricky business.
An 82-game season is a lot to try and pin down based on various factors, and a lot of unforeseen events and intangibles come into play on a nightly basis.
As we've seen through the last few seasons, major injuries can have a large impact on the way a team is able to compete and maintain a position among the Top 8 in either Conference.
While the Penguins of 2010-2011 will be remembered for continuing to battle for the division lead sans their two top centers, the St. Louis Blues will just as soon forget their year, derailed by untimely injuries to top players.
And the hot and cold streaks are polarizing.
Look no further than the New Jersey Devils from last season. After an awful—I mean really awful—first half of the season, the team nearly hot-streaked their way to a playoff spot in the East.
Both runs were miraculous. And both show how one eight-or-nine-game slide can do a lot of damage to a season.
The Central Division is one of the best and toughest in hockey.
Barring injuries, all five teams have the makeup and pieces needed to make it to the big dance.
The Pacific Division almost turned the trick last year. This season, the Central could do the same thing.
Placing fifth in the Central doesn't make you a bad hockey team. It just means you're playing against recent Cup Champions like Chicago and Detroit quite a bit, and have to contend with their numbers for placement.
One big trade (that works) or one big injury to a key player can change everything.
But this is how I see the Central shaking down as the teams stand right now.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
It's no secret that I am a big fan of what the Blue Jackets have done this offseason.
They picked up the No. 1 center they've lacked ever since they drafted Rick Nash, and James Wisniewski is really going to help move the play up-ice in a smoother fashion.
Their defense is a touch underrated in my mind, and Columbus has some young guys there that could turn out to be some good players.
Grant Clitsome, Marc Methot and Kris Russel are all solid second and third pairing guys, and adding Wis to the mix makes them better.
Looking at their forward group, there is a lot more to like.
Nash and Jeff Carter could possibly turn into one of the more lethal combinations in the League if the Jackets can find them a decent passing winger.
Kristian Huselius could have filled that role and was on the road to recovery after having hip surgery during the offseason.
But an unfortunate weight-lifting injury has put him back on the shelf until at least December.
Still, with the top line mostly intact, R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard all give Columbus some options to play with moving forward.
The biggest strike against the team, and the factor that has them finishing in fifth place again in my mind, is their goaltending situation.
Steve Mason absolutely must return to form if this team is to make any noise in the Central Division.
The signing of top AHL net-minder Mark Dekanich puts a little pressure on Mason, and Dekanich could find himself in the starting role if Mason struggles early.
If Columbus is given a chance to win on a nightly basis by their goaltender, they could climb as high as third in the Division.
But, as it stands now, I don't think that Mason has shown that he has what it takes to do that on a consistent basis.
The moves for Carter and Wisniewski were huge steps in the right direction. And I believe that this is a team that is finally showing some progress.
They can still make their way into the playoffs—but it all rests on Mason for now.
4. Nashville Predators
Having the Nashville Predators sink back down to fourth place in the Division after a strong showing last season may raise some eyebrows.
They finished second—ahead of the Defending Cup Champs in Chicago—in the Central, and went on to win their first ever playoff round before losing to the Canucks in the second round.
Overall, it was a bit of a banner year for the Preds.
Them dropping down a few spots isn't a matter of the team regressing. I just really like the three teams that I think will finish ahead of them.
The fourth spot in the Division could very well end up making the playoffs, and I certainly think that Nashville is a playoff-quality team.
Pekka Rinne is one of the top net-minders in the League and keeps the Predators is nearly every game they play. That can't be overlooked.
I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest if this team managed to finish as high as second in the Division again.
Nashville had a quiet offseason for the most part, which was expected.
They locked up blue-line stud Shea Weber, and he returns to anchor one of the best top-two pairings in the NHL, along with Ryan Suter.
The offense will still be a score-by-committee approach.
The Predators will hope that the newly acquired Niclas Bergfors can offset some of the offense that they lost when Joel Ward left town, but outside of that change, the forward group remains largely intact.
3. St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are my non-Red Wings crush heading into this season.
Just like they were last year, when I picked them to go to the Finals out of the West. Granted, that was 10 games into the year, and they were playing some outstanding puck.
Then the injury bug hit—and we're not talking about the Islanders losing Rick DiPietro either.
According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Blues had the ninth-most men/games lost to injury.
Only two players suited up in all 82 games in St. Louis, and some of their big guns missed large chunks of time.
And, by some of their big guns, I mean nearly all of them missed large chunks of time.
David Perron was looking to have a breakout year before he was sidelined for all but 10 games last season, and other impact players such as T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald, Barret Jackman and Brad Boyes all missed significant portions of the season.
There was a lot of lost offense to overcome, which the Blues couldn't do by the season's end.
The injury bug isn't likely to strike in consecutive seasons, and there is a lot to like about this squad heading into the new year.
Getting all of those players back and healthy will be a huge plus for the team, but the addition of Chris Stewart for the final part of the season will pay off in a huge way.
The Blues are big up front and have a number of players that take up a lot of space, but have very soft hands and top-end ability in the O-zone.
David Backes will try to build on his career year, where he posted 62 points and was an impressive plus-32 for the year.
Perron will look to stay healthy and begin to cash in on his considerable talents.
Ditto for T.J. Oshie, who will be looking to quickly put the 2010-2011 season in the rear-view. And Matt D'Agostini has a lot of buzz surrounding his play heading into next year.
Jaroslav Halak wasn't bad last season, posting a 27-21 record.
His save percentage and GAA are a little off, but he's the goaltender of the future in St. Louis. My gut tells me that Halak will have a better statistical year as the team in front of him stays healthy, and scores goals at a better clip.
Add in the additions of veteran, Cup Ring-bearing forwards in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, and this looks like a team with a great core that is ready to take a step forward.
I think that will happen this year, and the Blues will make the playoffs as the third seed in the Central.
2. Detroit Red Wings
I think the battle for the top spot in the Central Division will be one of the things to keep an eye on for the upcoming season.
This is going to be a close one between the Red Wings and Blackhawks—I wouldn't be surprised if the Central crown came down to the final game of the season, when the two teams meet for game number 82.
Now there's a good story line.
The Red Wings will try to make onlookers forget that offensive dynamo and puck-moving mastermind Brian Rafalski suddenly retired during the offseason, and Nicklas Lidstrom will continue drinking from the fountain of youth, which he clearly found five or six years ago.
And I refuse to be the guy that calls for No. 5's play to slip. It's just not going to happen.
Detroit has the same core in place that they have for the last several seasons.
Pavel Datsyuk is still going to dazzle. Based on what we saw in the playoffs, this could finally be the season a Red Wing gets some love for the Hart Trophy—but I won't be holding my breath.
Henrik Zetterberg needs to find some way to stay healthy.
The team can overcome his absence, and has proven that by this point. But a healthy Zetterberg makes the Wings a much more dangerous, dynamic, smooth-skating team that is tough to match up against line-for-line.
Johan Franzen should just keep the calendar on his cell phone set to April all season long.
The Mule needs to be more of an impact player on a more consistent basis. He put up 55 points last season, but I'm pretty sure he did that in something like 5 games, in which he scored 11 points in each contest.
Several other players need to take steps forward this season for Detroit to ratchet up their Cup-contender-ness.
Valtteri Filppula was impressive in spots during the second round against the Sharks, and will need to continue with that whole not-making-terrible-choices-with-the-puck thing he had going on.
(Insert negative Jiri Hudler comments here.)
Niklas Kronwall needs to show that he is prepared to be the guy in Detroit once Lidstrom finally retires.
The addition of Ian White will help shore up the blue line a bit, and Mike Commodore will add some toughness.
I think they'll fall five points shy (tops) of Chicago for the top spot in the Central, not because of any shortcomings on the team or any regression that they made since last year. I just don't see Chicago caving in two years in a row—and I really like the additions the 'Hawks made this offseason.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
There won't be any chemistry issues keeping Chicago down this year.
Their defense of the Stanley Cup was mired early after the team had to trade away several key players due to the Salary Cap. But don't look for that to be an issue again this season.
The 'Hawks made some of the better, cheaper, more under-the-radar moves of the offseason by adding power-play specialist Andrew Brunette, sandpaper winger Jamal Mayers and super-pest Daniel Carcillo.
In other words, the uber-talented forward group in Chicago just got a hell of a lot harder to play against.
They got a little slower with these deals, but they had plenty of speed to burn. As a Wings fan, I'm not looking forward to the first trip to the United Center.
Or any of the trips, for that matter.
Outside of those additions, this is still a team that possess several all-world talents.
Duncan Keith still anchors a solid blue line. Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews are still electric forwards. Marian Hossa, when healthy, is still an elite NHL forward, and Corey Crawford appears to be the real deal.
With all the youth, talent, and added toughness, I would have a hard time giving the Central to any other team.
I think this team is going to be incredibly motivated to rebound from a bit of an off-year.
And when this level of talent meets honest determination, it generally leads to outstanding results.
Winning the Central crown won't be a cakewalk for the squad by any means, and it'll be a hard fought battle.
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