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The Puck Stops Here

Predictions: Central Division

My predictions continue today with the Central Division.  You can find my predictions for the Northwest Division here and the Pacific Division here

As always, predictions are a best guess at the future.  When unpredicted trades, injuries, slumps, streaks etc. occur, these predictions will be wrong.  It is always fun to look back at the end of the season and see how close I got to what actually occurs.

1. Chicago Blackhawks - The danger of picking the defending Stanley Cup champions to repeat as division champions is that there may be a Stanley Cup hangover, as players on the Blackhawks had a shorter summer than most teams and this may be seen less preparation for games and possibly in a higher injury rate.  One of the big stories of the summer has been the dismantling of the Stanley Cup champions.  Gone is about half of the roster than won the cup, but most of the more important core players remain.  Chicago is gambling that an investment is a talented core of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa will keep winning despite to loss of Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, John Madden and others.  Both goalies from 2009/10 are gone in Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet.  How well will they carry on?  I am not betting on another Stanley Cup, but there is still a good core with some talented young players who are still improving.  Their goaltending was never a strength in their cup run and it won’t be this year under Marty Turco, but it likely won’t be much worse (if it is worse at all).  I think this team still has what it takes to win their division.

2. Detroit Red Wings - The Wings are the contenders to catch the Blackhawks if the Hawks cannot win this division, but they do not seem to be moving in the right direction either.  Detroit has a talented but aging core in Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Pavel Dastyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  Many of their supporting cast is aging as well.  Players like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary have probably seen better days and may show statistical declines.  Last year Detroit showed that they can still be a very good team when they are healthy, but the runs of good health tend to become fewer in number and further apart as teams age.  Nicklas Lidstrom is forty years old and if he starts to show his age, this team could be in some trouble.  One of the bright spots last year was the emergence of Jimmy Howard, who could have been rookie of the year.  The problem is he is likely going to decline.  In his four AHL seasons, Howard never looked like he would have the NHL success he showed last year.  As an older rookie, he doesn’t have the upside of a younger player.  I think Detroit will be a formidable opponent who, if healthy, could have a strong playoff run, but i don’t think they can bounce back to the top of their division as they continue to age.

3. Nashville Predators - Nashville is always struggling against salary concerns, but has been able to keep themselves above water with some smart personnel moves.  Their biggest strength is their pair of star defencemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, two players who deserve much more publicity than they receive in Nashville.  Pekka Rinne is a solid goalie, who benefits from the defensive talent in front of him, but he does not have a proven backup at this point.  I imagine Nashville will find a replacement level backup before the season ends.  At forward Patric Hornqvist, Martin Erat and Steve Sullivan are solid, but unspectacular.  I expect that Nashville’s defence will be tough to play against and probably strong enough to keep the team in the playoffs, but this team is not a serious contender for a big playoff run.

4. St Louis Blues - The big acquisition in St Louis was Montreal’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak.  He is a good goalie, but probably not a significant upgrade from Chris Mason, who was their number one goalie last season and has moved on to Atlanta.  Their defence lacks any serious star players.  There is hope that former first overall pick Eric Johnson might make the leap forward to that level, but he hasn’t yet.  Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer are other key defencemen.  Their forward unit is rebuilding.  Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are not returning.  Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, TJ Oshie and David Backes will attempt to carry the load at forward, but none are likely to score at all star or even point per game level.  St Louis is a team that has some financial issues to face this year, but strong goaltending will likely keep the bottom from falling out. 

5. Columbus Blue Jackets - Columbus struggled last year when the bottom fell out.  2009 rookie sensation Steve Mason struggled in his sophomore NHL season.  I bet he bounces back somewhat and proves to be a solid NHL goalie in the future.  Columbus’s team defence is not as well organized now that Ken Hitchcock is out as head coach.  This too led to a higher goals against.  A defence built around Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda and Rotislav Klesla isn’t going to scare anybody.  Even with a bounce back year for Mason, I imagine Columbus’s goals against could swell.  Rick Nash is the top Columbus scorer, as he has been for years, but he struggles to be a point per game player.  Maybe a better group of linemates would help.  Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Jakub Voracek are the best forwards in Nash’s supporting cast.  In the salary capped era, there are no more elite teams and there are no more really bad teams.  In the West Conference, I think Columbus has the best shot at being the weakest of the teams this year, but even they have some players to get excited about.

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Comments

EDJ's avatar

Another “Red Wings are too old, younger teams will show them up” prediction. Moving in the right direction? It’s at the point where the Red Wings can speak of decadeS of success and people have yet to realize that the Red Wings do not follow trends; they make their own. The Red Wings will always be an older team, because they let prospects develop for longer, making a higher average age and primes that are later in players’ careers.

But even considering this, core players are always aging, just as all of us age each year. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still in their primes according to general convention, both between 27 and 32 years. Holmstrom had a better year last year even with injuries to teammates and to Holmstrom, while Johan Franzen is also in his prime and healed from his injury. Older players who have shown decline such as Bertuzzi and Modano are taking lesser roles and aren’t expected to do what they did in their heydays. Cleary fought off groin injuries that prevented him from walking up the stairs and is now healed and faster than ever. With the longer off-season players have healed from injuries they were playing through last season.

Jimmy Howard can decline. He doesn’t need to stand on his head every game with an improved offense (Franzen, Hudler, Modano) and a defense that will bail him out. Howard plays about as well as his defense plays, and this year we will have Kronwall as well as Salei, instead of Meech and Lebda playing on the second defense pairing every night with Stuart. Howard plays a sound, consistent positional game that will not change from last year.

The Red Wings have more depth than last year, more depth to battle through injuries, and definitely more depth than the Blackhawks.

Posted by EDJ on 09/30/10 at 03:09 AM ET

CaptNorris5's avatar

How about this

1) Detroit Red Wings: Despite having lost a great deal of man games to several significant injuries to key players, the Wings still managed to finish with over 100 points for the season. Considering the absurd nature of the overwhelming majority of those injuries, they’re unlikely to happen again. A person of lesser intellect may look at the age of some of the players and attribute it to these injuries - but that would be ridiculous. In fact, the older players remained relatively intact, and the injuries to those who found themselves on the trainers table were the type that even a sprightly young 18 year old would suffer. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing to indicate that the Detroit core that dominated the last 21 games of the season last year are not in the prime of their careers. Sure, Lidstrom isn’t a lock to win the Norris like he was in years past, but only a complete fuching buffoon who hasn’t bothered to watch the guy play would make an assertion like he’s on his way out, and his usefulness has waned. Further, this team has only gotten deeper, and better. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Mike Modano give the Wings a third line that will be a legitimate threat to score every night. They’re still coached by one of the best in the entire league, and have tremendous depth at every position. Unlike last year’s champs, their roster hasn’t been depleted to the point that their stars will have to play absurd minutes every night just to remain competitive. Look for the Wings to do what the Wings do - kick the shit out of everyone they meet.

Posted by CaptNorris5 from The Winged Wheel, stuck in Chicago on 09/30/10 at 04:08 AM ET

Avatar

Not that anyone else needs to rush to the Red Wings defence here, but that preview really overlooks anything the Wings have done this summer. In terms of improving their depth, I think Detroit have done better than any other team around, but there’s no mention of Hudler or Salei. Comparing their third line to the Canucks’ equivalent is somewhat worrying as a Canucks fan, though we’ll see how that situation changes at the trade deadline. What on earth is the difference between San Jose (core players Thornton (31), Marleau (31), Heatley (29) and Boyle (34), and who you accuse of downgrading in net) and Detroit (core players Datsyuk (32), Zetterberg (29), Franzen (30) and Lidstrom (40 - but, thanks to his cerebral style, a young 40), with far far better depth and a goalie who, at 26, is hardly about to collapse into old age), that makes one ‘about as good a team as can be assembled under the cap’, and the other an aging team that can’t beat the one-line Blackhawks?

Posted by fcjbencard on 09/30/10 at 09:49 AM ET

redxblack's avatar

I love that people keep predicting Detroit’s decline, waiting for it to happen. Watch a Griffins game sometime. Detroit’s AHL team could compete against about half the Eastern Conference, but you won’t see those guys in the NHL until they’re “old rookies”

Another facepalm moment reading TPSH.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 09/30/10 at 09:57 AM ET

Wings_Fan_In_KC's avatar

Chicago to repeat?  Are you serious? 

You must be buying the “they still have their core” argument.

The core might get them to the playoffs but their grit/role players are ALL gone and you don’t win WCF crowns or Stanley Cups without grit/role players.

The Blackhawks have no depth, son.

Posted by Wings_Fan_In_KC from ...somewhere southwest of The Motor City... on 09/30/10 at 11:02 AM ET

Flashtastick56's avatar

What on earth is the difference between San Jose (core players Thornton (31), Marleau (31), Heatley (29) and Boyle (34), and who you accuse of downgrading in net) and Detroit (core players Datsyuk (32), Zetterberg (29), Franzen (30) and Lidstrom (40 - but, thanks to his cerebral style, a young 40), with far far better depth and a goalie who, at 26, is hardly about to collapse into old age), that makes one ‘about as good a team as can be assembled under the cap’, and the other an aging team that can’t beat the one-line Blackhawks?

Nailed it.

I’ll believe in a Red Wings decline when Lidstrom decides to hang ‘em up…only because there’s no way you can just replace the guy.  But even when that happens, it probably won’t be much of a decline or a very long one because of the system they play and the intelligence of the front office.

Posted by Flashtastick56 from Meriden, CT on 09/30/10 at 11:38 AM ET

Nathan's avatar

I’ve got no problem with people picking against my team, but hasn’t it been proven time and time again that the age argument has little to no merit?

Or are you just writing this opinion hoping that it finally comes true this year and you’ll be right?

I think there are some valid reasons to be concerned as a Wings fan, but the age argument is most definitely not one of them. It’s stale, it has been done by everyone every year for 10 years, and yet it has never been correct.

How about focusing on Jimmy Howard’s thus far poor preseason and Chris Osgood’s unreliability for the better part of the last two years? How about focusing on how the depth of their defense goes from “deep” to “shallow” all based on the performance of one player in Ericsson?

These are the two weak spots I’d focus on if I were writing something about the Wings’ deficiencies. Age is not one of them, and never has been. It’s just a tired, lazy argument.

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 09/30/10 at 12:12 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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