The Central is historically the division that produces some of the tightest matchups in the entire NHL. Two of the previous five Stanley Cup winners have come from this division. Think tight like a vice. Here’s how it will play out.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (65 points, 30th Overall, 15th in Conference, 5th in Division): If you look at the Columbus roster, you might make a joke that they look like an AHL franchise. Their once sensational goaltender Steve Mason looks lost in net since his sophomore season. Their franchise stud scorer Rick Nash has departed, via trade, and they did not get an equal return. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good players, they aren’t the game changer that Rick Nash was. However, they have started to put together a core of players that could eventually grow into something to turn this franchise around. The most notable addition in the off-season is newly minted team President and director of hockey ops John Davidson. Davidson has spent his last few years turning the St. Louis Blues around, and he guided them to becoming a true contender. His wise leadership could do the same thing in Columbus. He already has some quality players, with young blueliner Jack Johnson. Adding Brandon Dubinsky gives them leadership in the locker room, as well as some edge on the ice. They added Sergei Bobrovsky, who showed that he can be a solid starting goaltender while in Philadelphia, splitting time there with a varying cast of characters. However, the Blue Jackets will not be able to get to the post-season this year. There is hope Blue Jackets fans, just not immediate. (Prediction: 15th in Conference)
4. Nashville Predators (104 points, 5th Overall, 4th in Conference, 2nd in Division, Lost to the Coyotes in the Western Conference Semi-Finals): As the Preds prepare for life after Ryan Suter, Nashville could look to their youth to fill the void. But, the word to keep the Preds in the post season party has to be consistency on all fronts. At times, last season Nashville struggled to put the puck in the net, too often relying on their elite goaltender Pekke Rinne to steal games for them. And there’s also the dominant play of their other star defenseman Shea Weber. Nashville will turn to their youth to fill the voids and produce scoring. Roman Josi, Colin Wilson, and Ryan Ellis will all have to grow up fast if this team is to be successful in 2013. It will be a close race in the Western Conference, as it always is, but close only works in horseshoes and hand grenades. Look for Nashville to miss the playoffs. (Prediction: 12th in Conference)
3. Detroit Red Wings (102 points, 8th Overall, 5th in Conference, 3rd in Division, Lost to Predators in Conference Quarterfinals): If there is one team that will struggle out of the gate to find their legs in this shortened season, it’s the Detroit Red Wings. A shortened season means a shortened training camp, and the older a player gets, the longer it takes them to get back into game shape. The good thing is that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have already been playing, Datsyuk in the KHL, and Zetterberg in the Swiss Elite league. The problem here is that, even as dynamic as those two players are, they will not be able to carry an entire squad. The real question will be whether Swiss import Damien Brunner will be able to keep up the chemistry he built with Zetterberg in Switzerland during the work stoppage. On Defence the he Wings will suffer after the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, and they didn’t even come close to finding anything resembling a replacement. Lidstrom may be irreplaceable, we know that; but the Wings needed to get someone who could fill those minutes, especially with Brad Stuart also leaving. Can the Wings keep the streak of playoff appearances going? This another team in transition, and they need to add a lot of pieces however they can. Look for the Red Wings’ streak of 21 to end, and watch for public suicides in Hockeytown when it happens. (10th in the Conference)
2. Chicago Blackhawks (101 points, 10th Overall, 6th in Conference, 4th in Division, lost to Coyotes in Conference Quarterfinals): The biggest question that remains for the Blackhawks is their goaltending. Two years ago, he almost stole a series from the Stanley Cup Finalist Vancouver Canucks. Last season, his play was at the center of the Blackhawks playoff failure. Which one is the aberration? Crawford will have to prove himself, and it’s believed that he is up to the task. Largely, this team is unchanged. Their depth of the blue-line has produced on of the most stable defense corps in the conference. Look for the Hawks to ride that depth, plus adding a completely healthy Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews to add a ton of scoring punch and be the envy of the league once more. (Prediction: 4th in the Conference)
1. St. Louis Blues (109 points, 3rd Overall, 2nd in Conference, 1st in Division, lost to Kings in Conference Semi-Finals): Everyone saw it. The Blues seemed to be on the verge of something special, and then they met the Mack Truck that was the eventual Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings. It’s a new season, and it gives these young St Louis players another chance to take a run at greatness. All their core players are back, and they even have a possible Calder candidate in Vlad Tarasenko. The biggest question for the Blues is their depth on defense. But, if Brian Elliott can expand on his phenomenal 36 appearance, 1.56 GAA performance, or if Jaroslav Halak improves on his that issue may fade into the background, as this group of youngsters continues to learn as they go. Look for the Blues to find that necessary next level to get deep into the post season. (Prediction: 1st in Conference)
To Read my other previews:
Click here for the the Atlantic Division or
Here for the Northeast Division. or
Here for the Southeast Division, or
Here for the Pacific Division or
Here for the Northwest Division
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