Central Division Preview

Featuring the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the always dangerous Detroit Red Wings, the 2010-11 season is heating up to look like a race in which all five teams having at least a punchers chance to reach the playoffs. Here’s an outlook on each team…

Chicago

Having not won a Cup since 1961, the ‘Hawks certainly splurged when the team received their $30,000 rings at a private ceremony earlier this week. However, while the organization splurged on rings, this past summer involved quite the opposite when it came to handling players and finances. Gone from last year’s cup run are John Madden, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Colin Fraser, Andrew Ladd and Cup winning goalie Annti Niemi, all in an effort to get the team under the salary cap.

Despite losing all that, Chicago still is one of the cup favorites and boast the somewhat young and talented core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa. That said, offense should not be an issue for the ‘Hawks this season and their defense is still a solid unit.

The question once again for Chicago is goaltending.

They walked away from Niemi’s new contract allowing him to escape to San Jose and last year’s starter turned backup, Cristobal Huet, has been assigned to the Swiss League to save on cap space. Enter the crease in Chicago Marty Turco. The former Dallas goalie is looking to resurrect his career, and a strong performance this season is essential to Chicago’s playoff and Cup hopes. Turo should expect to play anywhere from 60-70 games this season as backup Corey Crawford is very much untested at the NHL level.

Columbus

Rookie head coach Scott Arniel is inheriting a very difficult situation in Columbus, not only is he taking over a team that has the worst odds according to Vegas to win the Cup, he also has to play a schedule loaded with 3-4 teams (Depending on St. Louis) who should be playoff bound.

The initial talent is there, Rick Nash is a bonafide superstar who could get some support by the return of Nikita Filatov’s return from Russia. But, after that the depth starts to wear thin for the Blue Jackets, a team that needs to start winning to hold on to the fan base that became interested in the young franchise.

Part of winning will come back to how goalie Steve Mason responds after a sophomore season which he struggled. Mason lead Columbus to their first playoff berth in franchise history as a rookie, but without improvement this season he could be headed towards the same career path as fellow Calder Trophy winner and now career backup Andrew Raycroft.

Detroit

Old reliable in this division, the Red Wings for the first time in a while are looking up the standings within their own division. Whether that remains by the end of the season will depend on if Detroit’s aging team can keep pace with a much younger Blackhawks squad on top of the division.

Re-signing Nicklas Lindstrom was big for Detroit, he’s still a top-5 defenseman at 40, and his pairing with Brian Rafalski makes for arguably the best tandem in the division.

At forward the flash of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be joined by Michigan native Mike Modano, who may be playing past his prime. Modano could prove to be more of a ticket sales move then on ice move, as how he copes into Detroit’s system — probably as a third or fourth liner — is something that may prove to be tough for the veteran.

However, the key for this team all goes back to two things:

1. How Jimmy Howard plays in his second season between the pipes and…

2. Can this team stay healthy enough to remain a Central Division superpower?

Nashville

A team that is becoming a reliable bet to the make the playoffs, the Predators always seem to be a tough opponent and coach Barry Trotz has figured out how to run a playoff contender in Nashville.

Bringing in Matthew Lombardi and Sergei Kotitsyn from free agency should boost Nashville’s offense despite the loss of Jason Arnott in the offseason. On the back end Nashville is solid defensively lead by captain Shea Weber and they’re arguably one of the most solid teams in the division between the pipes with Pekka Rinne.

A team that should make the playoffs, but because of the strength at the top of the Central, the Predators are unlikely to be hosting a first round playoff series.

St. Louis

Which Jaroslav Halak will be protecting the net for the Blues this season? That’s the main question on whether or not they make the playoffs.

Halak, who was acquired in a trade with Montreal and then resigned before he became a free agent, has the recent history of leading the Canadiens deep in the playoffs, but he also has a history of not being able to handle a heavy workload. St. Louis’ season hinges on this, if Halak can be the guy we saw beat Chicago 4-1 with a 30-save effort in a preseason game every night, St. Louis could challenge for a playoff spot.

In front of their newly acquired goaltender, St. Louis has a core of young forwards including T.J. Oshie, David Backes and David Perron that could give Halak the goal scoring support he needs. Also, St. Louis will be counting heavily on defensive stalwart Erik Johnson who could be a dark horse candidate for the Norris Trophy.

Overall, it looks like the Central Division is Chicago’s for the taking, but a slip up by the ‘Hawks or ‘Wings could leave the door open for another team to jump into the both the Division and NHL’s elite class.

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