When you are talking about the NHL’s Central Division, you might be talking about the toughest division in hockey. You’ve got two likely Stanley Cup contenders, a team on the upswing who just added a really good goalie, a perennial playoff team, and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For a team coming off winning the Stanley Cup, it has not been a joyous offseason for the Blackhawks. Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Antti Niemi are among the salary cap casualties that are no longer with the organization. However, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith are all still around, with plenty of talent to support them. Plus, veteran netminder Marty Turco has stepped into Niemi’s shoes (or skates, I suppose) and he still has something left in the tank. They might not be as stacked as last season, but a championship repeat is plausible to be sure.
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I may have joked about Columbus earlier, but that isn’t to say the Blue Jackets couldn’t surprise people this season. Rick Nash has never really had much talent around him, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the best players in the league. Ken Hitchcock is gone, and that’s one of the reasons promising young player Nikita Filatov is back from the KHL to try and boost this team’s offense. That being said, Columbus’ hopes really rest on the shoulders of goaltender Steve Mason. Two seasons ago, he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Last season, he was one of the worst goalies in the NHL. Which Mason shows up this season? Therein lies Columbus’ future.
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Detroit, meanwhile, made a strong run late last season after spending a lot of the year fighting for a playoff spot, and ended up getting the fifth seed and a first round playoff win followed by a quick ousting from San Jose. The reason for their struggles? Injuries. If they have better fortune this year, they should be back to being the Red Wings team we’ve known for the past decade plus. Pavel Dastyuk is one of the best two way players in the league, Nick Lidstrom is still an elite defenseman, and Johan Franzen could score 50 goals. Plus, Michigan native Mike Modano has joined the team as a veteran presence for some depth. If Jimmy Howard is up to the task in net, the Wings could be hoisting another Cup.
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Every year Nashville seems to be overlooked, yet more often than not they make the playoffs. They don’t inspire much on offense, but Pekka Rinne is a good goalie and Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are two of the best blueliners in the league. The Predators on paper don’t have the looks of a playoff team, but that has certainly been said before to no avail. Still, if Patrick Hornqvist can’t repeat his 30 goal performance from last season, where are the goals going to come from?
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The St. Louis Blues made a big splash this offseason by adding Jaroslav Halak after his tremendous run in last season’s playoffs. However, goaltending wasn’t really their problem last year; their underperforming young players were. Guys like David Backes, David Perron, and Patrick Berglund need to pick it up this season if the Blues want to make the postseason, especially since the likes of Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk aren’t around anymore. Fortunately, at the very least former first overall pick Erik Johnson is there to patrol the blueline. He might be on the verge of joining the game’s elite defensemen.
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