Four of the five teams in the Central Division tallied at least 100 points last season, and their quality means that they all have a good shot of making the playoffs again. Other than St. Louis, though, all of these teams have some significant questions to answer.
They broke their 49-year Stanley Cup drought in 2010, but what have they done lately? Joel Quenneville remains a passionate coach, and they have talent and depth with Marian Hossa — who says he has recovered from a severe concussion — along with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The goaltending is suspect, though. In fact, despite being mortal enemies of the Vancouver Canucks, Hawks GM Stan Bowman allegedly inquired about netminder Roberto Luongo. Fans of pro hockey in the Windy City bristled at the rumor, but they have to do something between the pipes: Corey Crawford may never develop into the elite puck-stopper they seek, and Ray Emery isn’t dependable either. No significant changes have been made since the lockout, so the way forward looks murky. Their schedule does them no favors either, with two back-to-backs in January, February and March, and four of them in April; a six-game road trip from Jan. 30 to Feb 10, but followed by a seven-game homestand; and a four-game road swing in March. Prediction: Third or fourth in the division, and fifth to seventh in the conference.
Columbus Blue Jackets
In a division which has so many strong teams, someone has to be the doormat: Columbus has filled that role well with lousy trades, mostly bad draft picks and flat-out bad luck — Radek Martinek, Kristian Huselius, Ryan Murray etc. The good news is the hiring of John Davidson as the club’s president to see if he can bring the kind of magic touch he had in improving division-rival St. Louis. There’s not much here other than blueliners Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski and a bunch of second-tier guys on the forward lines (R.J. Umberger, Vinny Prospal, Artem Anisimov etc.). Their schedule is rather crazy — for instance, a 10-game home stretch in March which is broken up by a home-and-home with the Red Wings, but road trips of six games in February, four in March and a six-gamer in April. Prediction: last in the division and the conference.
Detroit Red Wings
Every time the Wings are labeled as “old” and “on the way down,” they find a way to survive and even thrive. The retirements of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom have revived the negative talk, but there’s still plenty of quality with new captain Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, Niklas Kronwall, Ian White and Jimmy Howard, all led by head coach Mike Babcock. The depth is debatable, though, to the point where they’re seriously looking at signing forward Mike Knuble and defenseman Wade Redden. The schedule might be a problem at the end of the season, with four back-to-backs beginning March 31 and a four-game road trip in April which ends in Vancouver. Prediction: Second or third in the division, and third to fifth in the West.
The big question in Nashville is: how will the loss of Ryan Suter impact the team, and especially Shea Weber? The two players provided one of the best defensive tandems in the league, but Suter departed for a big contract in Minnesota. They still have Pekka Rinne in net, but he’ll see more pucks coming his way because there isn’t much to speak of in the Predators’ blueline corps other than Weber. The front lines are not packed with elite talent either, with the likes of Martin Erat, Sergei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher and David Legwand. Their schedule starts unfavorably: after the first two games art home, they embark on a seven-game road trip; another five-gamer happens in March. Prediction: third or fourth in the division, and seventh or eighth in the conference.
St. Louis Blues
Here is the class of the Central Division, and it starts in goal with one of the best tandems east of the Pacific time zone: Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk lead a young defense on the rise, and the youthful talent extends to the forward lines with David Backes, David Perron, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie. That’s a lot of quality for head coach Ken Hitchcock to work with, but they’re also looking around to see if they can add a bit of experience, depth and power-play help: rumors are the club is considering forward Scott Gomez. They have a great schedule, too, with the biggest glitch being a five-game road swing in March; seven of their last eight games are at home. Prediction: First in the division, and top three in the West.