2013 Central Division Preview

Better late than never, right? The Central should be fun to watch this year, headed by the explosive Blackhawks and more cerebral, methodical Blues. Detroit should not be taken lightly either, though Nashville looks to be in for a down year and Columbus is, well, Columbus.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

 

Chicago enjoyed a fairly good regular season in 2011-12; their 101 points meant a sixth place finish in the competitive Western Conference. The end result, however, was another disappointing first round exit, this time at the hands of the Coyotes. The Blackhawks dominated in terms of puck possession, but Mike Smith stole the series for Phoenix and Chicago has yet to win a playoff series since winning the Cup in 2010.

Even still, it’s a good time to be a Blackhawks fan. At forward, Chicago boasts a number of elite offensive weapons, including household names like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. Two-way pivot Dave Bolland is also talented, and playing between Kane and Sharp, he could be in line for a big season. Viktor Stalberg should again provide reliable secondary scoring, and if Andrew Shaw can build from an impressive rookie season, Chicago’s forward corps will be even more difficult to contain. With their offensive talent, 20-year-old Brandon Saad will not be under much pressure to score in buckets, though he has the potential to do so, as well as the opportunity: he’s been playing alongside Toews and Hossa so far this season. What’s more, Chicago’s forwards are not lacking in depth. Gritty Bryan Bickell can soak up hard minutes and has more offensive skill than his point total last year (24) suggests. Michael Frolik has untapped potential and should rebound to some degree from a forgettable 2011-12 campaign. Daniel Carcillo makes it easy for people to dismiss him as a run-of-the-mill goon, but he would be able to hold an NHL job even without his skills as an instigator. Young Marcus Kruger has shown potential to be a two-way factor, and while veteran grinder Jamal Mayers is well past his prime, he’s probably a good guy to have in the locker room.

Chicago’s blue line isn’t quite on par with their forward group, but they’re a fine unit. Recent Norris winner Duncan Keith and partner Brent Seabrook give coach Joel Quenneville a pairing he can comfortably deploy in any situation. Nick Leddy is emerging as a dynamic offensive weapon in the transition game and Niklas Hjalmarsson, though not gifted offensively, is a defensive stud. Of these four, Keith is the oldest at 29 years; if the front office can find themselves some cap space, the Hawks could have a talented, balanced blue line for years to come. This core is complemented nicely by several veterans, such as Johnny Oduya, who can still contribute although he is overpaid; he’ll count $3.83 million against the cap through 2015, and could be a buyout candidate when some of his more valuable teammates hit free agency. Steve Montador can still contribute as well, but he has yet to play this season due to concussion issues and his contract is another unfriendly long-term deal the Hawks will have to address at some point. The sixth blue line slot has been occupied by offseason FA addition Michal Rozsival, with Sheldon Brookbank stepping in while the former deals with minor injuries. At this point, both are depth options at best, which is fine considering neither will be asked to do too much.

Of course, goaltending remains Chicago’s only significant question mark. With the talent at forward and defense, the front office has very little money left over to spend on goaltending. Thus they’ve had to rely on Corey Crawford, who has shown flashes of talent but not the mental focus needed to sustain the consistency that separates good goalies from great ones. There are a couple of reasons for optimism in the Windy City, however. One, statistical trends suggest Crawford should bounce back from his performance last season, which was, to say the least, bad. Secondly, foregoing a pricey elite goalie and paying less for merely good goaltending, while using the savings to lock up talented skaters, is a winning strategy. Just ask Detroit GM Ken Holland.

In other words, if Crawford (and back-up Ray Emery) can give Chicago merely adequate goaltending, the Blackhawks can contend for the Stanley Cup.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

 

There’s not much need to discuss how bad Columbus was last season (last in the league) or how incompetent the front office has been (despite the high draft picks that come with constant futility, the franchise does not boast a particularly impressive prospect pool). As this season begins, the question is not whether the Jackets will be bad, but just how bad they’ll be after trading longtime franchise player Rick Nash to the Rangers.

In that trade, the forward group was joined by Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Both have the talent to contribute offensively, and Dubinsky is a definite asset defensively as well. However, neither are first line material. In fact, with Nash gone, the team doesn’t have any real upper-tier forwards whatsoever. At the very least, the Jackets do have a few forwards who would be good second line players on a better team; this group includes veterans Vinny Prospal and R.J.Umberger and former Senator Nick Foligno. Talented prospect Ryan Johansen has played on the first line so far this season and he has considerable potential. Cam Atkinson, another youngster, doesn’t have Johansen’s talent but could contribute in a top six role this season. Derick Brassard can no longer be considered a prospect, but has a good deal of untapped potential. The forward group is rounded out by an uninspiring mix of spare parts, grinders, and tough guys, including Jared Boll, Mark Letestu, and Derek Dorsett.

There are some pieces to work with on the blue line, most notably Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, who form a solid two-way pairing. The Jackets would probably be best served utilizing this duo as their top pair, but that role has been given to the one-dimensional Jack Johnson, acquired for Jeff Carter last season, and the talented but overpaid James Wisniewski. Johnson is a nice addition on the power play, and Wisniewski would be a great complementary piece on a contending team (salary aside), but ideally neither would be asked to play a leading role. 39-year-old veteran Adrian Aucoin is no longer the dual threat asset he once was, but he can still do his job in his own end of the rink and could help mentor the team’s younger players, including his partner John Moore, who has yet to distinguish himself in any way in the NHL. With some of the everyday defensemen dealing with minor injuries, prospect Tim Erixon (acquired in the Nash trade) will get a chance to showcase his skills. If he performs well enough, he could hammer down an NHL job on a roster lacking in talent.

Sergei Bobrovsky was brought in during the offseason and so far seems to have taken the starting job from the ever-disappointing Steve Mason. Both will see their fair share of starts, although neither is the solution, especially considering the rest of the roster; how much of a difference could even a great goalie possibly make?

Columbus’s forward corps boasts some skill, but no top-tier talent, and there’s not nearly enough depth to succeed at the score-by-committee approach to which the roster would otherwise be suited. There are a few good options on the blue line, but again, not nearly enough. Neither Bobrovsky or Mason are skilled enough to carry this team, and it’s doubtful that any netminder would be. Columbus’s modest but passionate fan base is in for another rough year.

 

Detroit Red Wings

 

Lately, many hockey fans have been quick to claim that Detroit’s dominance is coming to an end. Heading into this season, it hasn’t been uncommon to hear predictions that the Wings’ historic playoff streak will come to an end this year. It’s easy to understand; Detroit didn’t look all that great in their five game quarterfinals loss against Nashville last season, future first ballot Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom has retired, as has the crease-crashing Tomas Holmstrom, and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are a year older. But will the Wings be as bad as some are expecting?

The forward corps is still talented: Datsyuk and Zetterberg, while past their physical prime, are still a nightmare to play against in any of the three zones on the ice, and they are complemented by smart veterans capable of controlling puck possession, such as Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelsson, and Darren Helm, though Helm has barely played this season due to injury. Todd Bertuzzi is still difficult to play against, and while Valtteri Filppula doesn’t have the puck possession skills of some of his teammates, he should contribute offensively, though perhaps not at the same pace as last season, a breakout campaign for the Finland native. The one Detroit forward to watch, however, will be Damien Brunner, an undrafted FA acquisition who has been dominating the top Swiss league for the last few years. So far this season, he seems to be adjusting to the North American game rapidly, playing on the top line and generating boatloads of shots. Brunner figures to be one of the more valuable waiver acquisitions in fantasy hockey, but he’ll be even more valuable to the Wings. Of course, he’s not the only talented youngster knocking on Detroit’s door; highly touted prospect Gustav Nyquist figures to play several games this season. The Wings’ forward depth is adequate, with Dan Cleary being the best of the bunch. Other depth options are Patrick Eaves, Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller, and Cory Emmerton. If these guys can contribute, particularly Emmerton, the most untested of the bunch, Detroit’s forward group will be very difficult to handle.

With Lidstrom gone, the defense is much more of a question mark than the forward corps. Immensely talented prospect Brendan Smith and the solid though unspectacular Kyle Quincey have formed the top pairing so far this year. Smith has had plenty of time to develop in the NHL, as Detroit is known for their patience with prospects, and depending on the rate that he adjusts to the big leagues, the pairing could be an effective one. Then there is Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall is known for his bone-crunching hits, his shot blocking, and his ability to contribute offensively; if he could develop the puck possession skills to match his other talents, he’d be a good first-pair option, but he’s nice to have on the roster as is. Ericsson is a stay-at-home defenseman who, oddly, doesn’t block a lot of shots. He’s probably overpaid, and more suited to a depth role, but Detroit could do worse. Veteran FA addition Kent Huskins gives the Wings another defense-oriented depth option, and Jakub Kindl has shown flashes of competence. But there’s not much proven high-end talent or depth on Detroit’s blue line, meaning injuries to this group could be very problematic; in fact, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo have already fallen to the injury bug. White looked very good playing alongside Lidstrom last season, and Colaiacovo looked good playing beside Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis. The ideal situation would be that each defeats the notion that their success was due to their partners on the blue line, but the organization would be content if both players can get healthy soon. Undrafted prospect Brian Lashoff has played several games this season, and although he has some potential, the front office would likely prefer that he continue to develop in the AHL. Overall, Detroit’s blue line is far from the worst in the league, but it’s not an elite group either, and if the defensemen can stay healthy it will go a long way toward keeping the postseason streak alive.

The reliable though not elite Jimmy Howard is in for a heavy workload between the pipes this season, a contract year for him. One expects that his next contract won’t be as much of a bargain as his current $2.25 million cap hit. The backup slot will be manned by, seemingly, whoever can stay healthy: Jonas Gustavsson is working through minor injuries and Joey MacDonald is dealing with a back injury. Tom McCollum could see some time on the roster if neither can get, and stay, healthy. Regardless, it won’t make much of a difference at the end of the day, unless the injury bug spreads to Howard.

It’s hard to make a case for Detroit as the favorite to win the division, but don’t sleep on the Wings: they’re a talented team, and if guys like Brunner and Smith can succeed in the roles they’ve been given, Detroit shouldn’t have much trouble making the playoffs.

 

Nashville Predators

 

2011-12 was a pretty solid season for the Preds, who finished with 104 points and handily defeated Detroit in five games in round one, only to lose to Phoenix in five games in the semifinals. The Predators are a bit of an unknown quantity this season; it remains to be seen how good a team they’ll be, particularly after losing Ryan Suter through free agency.

Nashville boasts several good forwards, but no great ones. Martin Erat, David Legwand and Mike Fisher are all effective two-way players, and they’re complemented nicely by more offense-oriented guys like Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Kostitsyn, neither of whom are defensive liabilities themselves; unfortunately, Hornqvist, Nashville’s best goal scorer, is going to be out for a few weeks with a knee injury. In terms of depth, the Preds have valuable assets like young Gabriel Bourque, who displayed both grit and offensive talent as a rookie last season. Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Matt Halischuk are three more youngsters that have shown the ability to contribute secondary offense, and Nick Spaling and veteran Paul Gaustad are adequate in their defensive roles. Brandon Yip, however, has not contributed much since his solid rookie year with Colorado, which is looking more and more like a fluke. Jordin Tootoo now plays for rival Detroit, leaving Brian McGrattan as the team’s go-to goon; this isn’t an improvement, however, as McGrattan, unlike Tootoo, doesn’t have many ways to contribute outside of pugilism. The real concern for Nashville’s forwards, aside from the lack of elite players, is regression to the mean: last season the team enjoyed a likely unsustainable 10.3% shooting percentage. Even had the Preds retained the puck-moving skills of Suter, regression would have been expected. In other words, don’t bet on Nashville to score goals at quite the same pace they did last year.

Shea Weber, of course, is the team’s most noteworthy skater, and though he is elite, hockey fans should keep an eye on how he performs without Suter to shoulder some of the load. The fact is, Nashville’s blue line does not inspire confidence aside from Weber. Kevin Klein carries his weight, but isn’t spectacular. Roman Josi is young and has the potential to be a good two-way presence, but at this point he’s still an unproven commodity. Ryan Ellis, more of a puck-mover, is also young, talented, and unproven. Hal Gill is still Hal Gill: a massive stay-at-home type who is reliable in his own zone but doesn’t provide much to the transition game. Newcomer Scott Hannan plays a very similar game. Jonathon Blum has been the reserve defenseman so far this year; he’s shown considerable skill at shot blocking, but struggles with coverage and has yet to tap into his offensive potential.

Pekka Rinne, coming off of two consecutive Vezina nominations, will mind Nashville’s net, and assuming he stays healthy, the Preds will have little to worry about in the goaltending department. Chris Mason returns to Nashville to serve as Rinne’s backup after Anders Lindback’s trade to Tampa Bay.

Nashville isn’t a contender this year, but they do have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot. Considering the question marks both offensively and defensively, the team will need some of the younger talent to step up and contribute. Failing that, the roster’s deficiencies will likely be too much for the team to overcome.

 

St. Louis Blues

 

St. Louis begins the 2013 season with high expectations after turning heads last year; after a slow start, coach Davis Payne was relieved of his duties and replaced with Ken Hitchcock, at which point the team caught fire and won the Central. The Blues quickly eliminated the Sharks in five games in round one, only to be swept out of the playoffs by Jonathan Quick and the red-hot Kings. Nonetheless, the Blues are emerging as a contender thanks to a roster full of talented, versatile players.

Among those talented and versatile players are names like T.J. Oshie, David Perron, and Selke nominee David Backes; the three form a line capable of generating offense and dominating possession despite playing brutally tough minutes against the opponents’ best lines. The trio’s ability to soak up the hard minutes makes things a little easier for savvy veterans Andy McDonald and Alex Steen on the second line, which includes dynamic rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, an early favorite for the Calder. In Patrik Berglund, the Blues have yet another forward who can contribute in all three zones. Berglund typically plays with Chris Stewart, who had been building a reputation as one of the game’s better power forwards before last season, during which he took a big step backward; he will be looking to rebound this year, as will Matt D’Agostini, who saw his point totals plummet last season after surprisingly scoring 21 goals in 2010-11. The forward corps is rounded out by two gritty, defensive types in Scott Nichol and Vladimir Sobotka (though the latter has a good bit of offensive potential as well), otherwise-unremarkable pugilist Ryan Reaves, and aging veteran Jamie Langenbrunner, of whom the team shouldn’t expect anything greater than fourth line contributions at this point. Finally, the roster also includes talented rookie Jaden Schwartz; hopefully Hitchcock will be able to find a role in which Schwartz can contribute in a depth scoring capacity, but that will be tricky considering the talent on the roster. Either way, if Schwartz and Tarasenko both meet their potential, the Blues’ forward lines will present a frightening matchup for opponents for many years.

Talent-wise, there isn’t much of a drop off between the team’s forwards and the defensemen. The top dog is the immensely talented Alex Pietrangelo, an elite player who excels in virtually every aspect of the game and plays heavy minutes in all situations. Young Kevin Shattenkirk is also outstanding offensively, and though he isn’t as much of a defensive asset as Pietrangelo, he is not a liability, either. Defensive stalwart Barret Jackman doesn’t have the offensive talent to carry the transition game, but he is one of the league’s better stay-at-home types. Roman Polak is a slightly poorer man’s version of Jackman. Kris Russell, acquired from Columbus in exchange for Nikita Nikitin last year, leans more toward the offensive side of the game, though he hasn’t yet been able to translate his potential to performance. Ian Cole is a fairly unremarkable young player who can serve passably in a depth role. The signing of Wade Redden adds a wild card to the mix; his AHL exile was ended after the Rangers bought out his contract with the new compliance buyout. Redden is certainly not the player he was in Ottawa, but the signing isn’t a huge gamble. Whatever contributions Redden makes will be a bonus to an already great team.

In net, the Blues will keep rolling with the platoon of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Halak is probably the better option, given his greater pedigree; before Elliott’s breakout season last year, his performance ranged from mediocre to bad over the course of a few years in Ottawa and a brief stop in Colorado. Granted, this St. Louis team is much more goalie-friendly than the teams on which Elliott has played previously.

The Blues are an excellent team, and though it all depends on where the chips fall over the course of the season, St. Louis should be considered a contender thanks to their abundance of talented, versatile, and intelligent players that fit Hitchcock’s system perfectly.

 

Projected Standings

 

1. Chicago
2. St. Louis
3. Detroit
4. Nashville
5. Columbus

Chicago and St. Louis are the clear favorites, and Detroit should be a playoff team. But the going will be tough for Nashville, and Columbus figures to finish in the cellar again.