by PuckStopsHere on 10/02/11 at 03:37 PM ET
1. Chicago Blackhawks - This is a team with a very good core of Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It is possible that any of this group could post career best seasons. If they still had the depth of their 2010 Stanley Cup winner, this team would be the favorite this year. The loss of depth moves the a few steps back as a Stanley Cup contender, but they still have a good team. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are very good depth forwards. Dave Bolland provides a very good defensive game, but they don’t have the depth to be the top team in hockey. On defence, Brent Seabrook is a very good partner for Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson is counted upon to give a good season. Corey Crawford is a solid goalie, but he has shown little reason to believe he can be a great one. This team will rely on all star seasons from Keith, Toews and Kane and they should get them. It is strong enough to win the division and a couple years ago had the depth that they could have been Stanley Cup favorites.
2. Detroit Red Wings - It will be interesting to see the state of their defence. Niklas Lidstrom may have won the Norris Trophy last year but it was by far his weakest Norris performance and was won to some degree on the nostalgia vote. Some writers even suggested he should retire at the end of last year. He returns at age 41. His partner Brian Rafalski did retire. Niklas Kronwall and Ian White will have to pick up a lot of the slack. Let’s hope they are capable. At forward, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have been two of the top forwards in the league for several years, but with both into their thirties, I doubt they will post career years. Much of the top forward depth in Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi and Tomas Holmstrom are also aging. Valtteri Filppula is the top forward under 30 and he scored 39 points last year. Jimmy Howard is a solid but unspectacular starting goalie. This team has seen better years. They have enough talent to be a good team, but they years at the top have passed with this group. Mike Babcock is a very good coach who will keep them competitive, but i think Chicago will have moved well past them by the end of the year.
3. Nashville Predators - The one-two punch of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter is the best defensive pairing in the league. That alone will keep the Predators in contention. Kevin Klein provides some depth, but this defence will thrive on the play of their top two. Pekka Rinne had a career best season last year behind that defence. I suspect he is somewhat a product of the defence and is unlikely to repeat his numbers, but he should post solid ones. Nashville has never had a big offence. Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat led the team last year with 50 points each. Patric Hornqvist and David Legwand provide solid depth. Mike Fisher is a solid defensive forward. Barry Trotz will keep this team a top defensive force. They lack the offence to make a Stanley Cup run, but they won’t be easy to play against and should be a playoff team.
4. St Louis Blues - A big season from goaltender Jaroslav Halak would go a long way toward propelling this team upward in the standings. His first year with the Blues was solid but unspectacular. More is expected. Chris Stewart could take over as their offensive star. This young power forward was acquired via trade from Colorado and has potential to dominate games. David Backes led the team in scoring last year and played a solid defensive game as well. Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald provide depth. This group has been unspectacular in the past, but the potential is there. Alex Pietrangelo is a good young defenceman who could take a big step forward. Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk provide some depth. There are a lot of pieces here that look like they are ready to take a step forward in the standings this year. If that happens it probably makes the Blues a playoff team.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets - This team should have trouble keeping the puck out of their net. Steve Mason is the starting goalie and he has had trouble following up his Calder Trophy season. There is no proven backup in the system. Their top defencemen look like they will be Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski. That doesn’t inspire confidence. They have some offensive players with ability. Rick Nash and newly acquired Jeff Carter can score. RJ Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Kristian Huselius supply some depth. In a tough division where four teams could be above average Columbus is the odd man out. They should finish well back of a playoff berth.
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