NHL preview: Central Division

ST. LOUIS BLUES
2011-12 Record: 49-22-11 (2nd place). Defeated San Jose (4-1) in Western Conference quarterfinals. Lost to Los Angeles (4-0) in Western Conference semifinals.
Additions: D Jeff Woywitka, F Andrew Murray, D Tyler Chorney
Subtractions: F B.J. Crombeen
Where We Last Left Off: Alex Pietrangelo continued to blossom into one of the league’s most well rounded defensemen, the dual-headed monster of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott allowed the fewest goals in the league, and a St. Louis team committed to defense and a heavy forecheck bought in under new coach Ken Hitchcock, displaying one of the best work ethics in the league. After finishing two points behind Vancouver for the President’s Trophy, they were swept in the second round by the Cup-winning Kings.
2012-13 Outlook: Very rarely has this been said: The St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup contenders. Finally tasting the fruit of its development in 2011-12, 17 different players recorded double figures in points. It took only 54 points to lead this team in scoring as captain and greasy goal creator David Backes and shootout magician T.J. Oshie tied for the team lead. With Alex Steen and the difficult-to-move-off-the-puck Patrik Berglund slotting as likely second and third line centers, this is another team deep down the middle of the ice. There’s a lot of offensive potential in 21-year-old rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, who first appeared in the KHL at 16 and was a point-a-game player for SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout. Ditto for former Colorado College star Jaden Schwartz (minus the KHL part), who scored on the first two shots he took in the NHL last March. This may be the most defensively-attuned group of forwards in the NHL, a focused rotation that attacks in waves of forechecking and purpose under head coach Ken Hitchcock. Pietrangelo provides the biggest impact defensively and, with Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Tyler Myers, is part of an extraordinary crop of defensemen drafted in 2008. Kevin Shattenkirk broke out offensively a season ago and is the other big name on a well-rounded blue line that includes the weathered veteran toughness of Barrett Jackman. St. Louis still boasts a very young core, which should temper thoughts of regression back toward the pack of mid-tier Western Conference playoff teams. We’re also not always sold on goaltending platoons in the playoffs – Elliott became overexposed when Halak went down with an injury in the first round – though the two should still find a good groove during the regular season. The Blues’ 165 goals against from a season ago was one goal off the 2003-04 New Jersey Devils’ record for fewest allowed in an 82-game season. Though they’ll be hard pressed to match such stifling defensive success, an increase in offensive production should keep St. Louis amongst the Western Conference’s elite teams and will challenge its long-held history of finding little postseason success.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
2011-12 Record: 45-26-11 (6th place). Lost to Phoenix (4-2) in Western Conference quarterfinals.
Additions: D Sheldon Brookbank
Subtractions: D Sami Lepisto
Where We Last Left Off: Chicago lost three games in overtime en route to a six-game series defeat to Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs. Marian Hossa was viciously concussed when he was the target of a Raffi Torres missile launch, and goalie Corey Crawford didn’t prove himself as the capable starter of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The power play mysteriously drooped to 26th in the league.
2012-13 Outlook: Virtually everybody returns, and that’s a pretty good thing for a Blackhawks team whose degree of improvement is linked tightly to that of Corey Crawford. His sophomore NHL campaign was a dud, and without any improvement in goal, this is just a team with a bunch of pretty offensive pieces. But what pretty offensive pieces they have! Aside from the finesse, stickhandling and finishing ability of Patrick Kane, and the honest, character-driven, all-zone fundamental excellence of Jonathan Toews, how about Patrick Sharp, who chimed in with 33 goals and 69 points? Or scoring leader Marian Hossa, whose speed and playmaking made this an exciting team to watch on most nights? Dave Bolland is the exact type of third-line center this team needs, and there are some sandpaper-laced veterans (Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo) and AHL up-and-comers that make the depth lines difficult to play against. There are plenty of puck-moving, offensive types on the blue line, headlined by the former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and the reliable, versatile Brent Seabrook. Johnny Oduya skates well and is strong at advancing the puck quickly, while Sheldon Brookbank is a tough-as-nails, but slow defender. He’s more likely to slot in a 5/6 role. Nick Leddy made occasional mistakes but graded out well in his first extended NHL action, recording three goals and 37 points over all 82 games. There’s plenty of excitement over his continued development, which could be a significant asset to this organization. The Blackhawks could add a touch more size and stay-at-home smarts to their back end. There aren’t a lot of questions with this Chicago team, but there is one big one: How will Crawford rebound from last year? If the answer is “Very well. He took a major step forward,” then the Blackhawks are Cup contenders. If it’s “So-so. The jury’s still out,” they’re likely to find an upgrade and at worst will fall to second or third place in the Central.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
2011-12 Record: 48-26-8 (4th place). Defeated Chicago (4-2) in Western Conference quarterfinals. Lost to Phoenix (4-1) in Western Conference semifinals.
Additions: D Scott Hannan, G Chris Mason, G Sebastien Caron, D Mike Moore
Subtractions: D Ryan Suter, F Andrei Kostitsyn, F Alexander Radulov, D Francis Bouillon, G Anders Lindback, F Kyle Wilson
Where We Last Left Off: Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn got caught in past curfew, and Nashville managed just three goals against Mike Smith and the Coyotes over the series’ final three games — which the duo was suspended for.
2012-13 Outlook: A model of patience and continuity in this topsy-turvy world of 2013, the Nashville Predators have impressively averaged 99.7 points per season since the 2004-05 work stoppage. Fourteen seasons into the co-tenured reign of general manager David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz, Nashville – along with Buffalo – is a refreshing example of consistency during an era in which hockey operations figures have notoriously short shelf lives. The Preds enter 2013 as a team propelled by committee scoring. Thirteen different forwards reached double figures in points, led by the remarkably consistent Martin Erat, who has recorded between 49 and 57 points in each of the last eight seasons. Patric Hornqvist has 78 goals over the last three seasons and is one of a handful of defensively responsible forwards, along with Mike Fisher, David Legwand and Paul Gaustad. The Preds boasted a lethal power play a season ago, and having defenseman Ryan Ellis around for a full year should stem some of the production vacated by Ryan Suter’s departure for Minnesota. Shea Weber is among the first names mentioned in the discussion of the best defensemen in the sport. His poise and comfort in every last square inch of the ice was valuable enough for Nashville to match Philadelphia’s 14-year, $110-million dollar offer sheet, which includes $27 million of salary and signing bonuses in the first full calendar year. Instead of Suter, he’s likely to skate with Roman Josi, a shifty skater who maintained his conditioning in his native Switzerland with SC Bern during the lockout. Kevin Klein has a strong first pass out of the zone and is capable of absorbing extra ice time, while the Preds are hoping they can get something out of Jonathon Blum, a largely hyped first-round pick who raised eyebrows in an earlier NHL stint but never at all felt comfortable in 2011-12 before being reassigned to the AHL after 33 games. Pekka Rinne is a workhorse who was nominated for the Vezina Trophy in each of the last two seasons. He faced more shots than any other goaltender in 2011-12. The Predators reached 100 points four times since the 2004-05 lockout, but the window for this team is not quite as open as it once was. They’re not as good as they were with Suter in the lineup, but the Preds shouldn’t fall below the playoff threshold. There are systems and a culture in place to squeeze every last drop of talent out of the roster. Still, a third straight trip to the second round would appear unlikely for a team that has some heavy defensive minutes to designate.

DETROIT RED WINGS
2011-12 Record: 48-28-6 (5th place). Lost to Nashville (4-1) in Western Conference quarterfinals.
Additions: F Mikael Samuelsson, F Jordin Tootoo, G Jonas Gustavson, F Damien Brunner
Subtractions: D Nicklas Lidstrom, D Brad Stuart, F Jiri Hudler
Where We Last Left Off: In the 21 consecutive seasons of Detroit playoff hockey, they lost in the first round for only the sixth time as the Nashville Predators cooly dispatched them in five games. Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom and netfront stalwart Tomas Holmstrom retired, raising some questions that aren’t usually raised of Red Wings hockey.
2012-13 Outlook: The cold, barren landscape of life without Nicklas Lidstrom stretches out on the horizon for a Detroit squad that is no longer the dominant force in the Central Division. How well a weakened-but-still-capable defense performs in his absence will go a long way toward determining whether the Wings are a mid-level playoff team or a team battling to remain on the playoff bubble. There is no concern up front – this is one of the deepest offensive units in the league, led by Pavel Datsyuk, perhaps the NHL’s most dynamic two-way player, and Henrik Zetterberg, who hasn’t recorded fewer than 68 points in any season since the canceled season of 2004-05. Second-line center Valtteri Filppula recorded career highs of 23 goals and 66 points and is part of a diverse group of centers that includes defensive wiz Darren Helm. Mikael Samuelsson turned 36 in December and battled injuries with Florida and Vancouver last season but is the type of player that should fit in well in Detroit and contribute on the power play. Fellow free agent signee Jordin Tootoo adds a competitive element and will surely manage a few minutes of controversial attention for his fiery play. All the forwards will be asked to heighten their defensive awareness – something that comes naturally for the gifted Datsyuk and the lightning-quick Helm – as the Wings continue to evaluate and inevitably add pieces to a slightly underhanded defensive corps. Niklas Kronwall has recently raised his point totals and his power play comfort alongside the thunderous open ice hits he’s capable of delivering, and is a worthy top-tier defenseman. After playing for three teams in 2010-11, Ian White found comfort on Detroit’s blue line last year, posting career-highs across the board and an impressive plus-23. He’ll need to be just as good this year. Up-and-comer Brendan Smith passed his 14-game test last season and is ready to step in and inherit important minutes after two-plus seasons of developing into one of the AHL’s best defenseman. Former University of Wisconsin teammate Justin Schultz of Edmonton may be the more likely rookie of the year candidate, but Smith could very well be in the mix. One mark of a championship team is that it doesn’t roll Kyle Quincey out for 22 or 23 minutes per game and expect to win championships. Unfortunately for the Red Wings, there aren’t a ton of other options, and Quincey should be given a wide array of opportunities after signing a two-year extension in the offseason. Jimmy Howard found himself on the outside of the Vezina Trophy discussion despite a career-best 2.13 goals against average and .920 save percentage and will experience a slight regression of those numbers with Lidstrom gone. If Detroit can find defensive consistency and improve its uncharacteristically poor special teams play from a year ago, it will still have the pieces to make an outside run at the Central Division. Still, it’s too hard to see the Wings as anything but on a decline, and the variation of this team’s projection trends lower, rather than higher, in the standings. Detroit, which hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1989-90, is likely looking at a sixth-to-tenth-place finish.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2011-12 Record: 29-46-7 (15th place)
Additions: F Brandon Dubinsky, F Artem Anisimov, F Nick Foligno, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Tim Erixon, D Adrian Aucoin
Subtractions: F Rick Nash, G Curtis Sanford, D Marc Methot, D Aaron Johnson, F Alexandre Giroux, F Dane Byers
Where We Last Left Off: Please believe us. Columbus was actually pretty good down the stretch last year, winning 11 of its final 19 games. They won five of six to end the season with wins over playoff-bound Detroit, Florida and St. Louis in games 77, 78 and 79. Unfortunately, they lost games 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 and were out of the playoff hunt two weeks into the season.
2012-13 Outlook: This is better team than they are given credit for, and despite the loss of Rick Nash, Columbus is still in the process of trending upwards toward a playoff berth. It won’t come this year, but there are several reasons why they’ll be an interesting team to watch. While there’s no elite scorer amongst the ranks, there’s better scoring depth and a collection of players with standout drive and compete levels. Brandon Dubinsky is a strong secondary scorer with character and a nasty streak who will be asked to provide first line-type minutes. He’ll likely be complemented by Artem Anisimov and R.J. Umberger, who dropped 17 points off his 2010-11 scoring pace last season. Derick Brassard was also slightly off his totals and will compete with fellow former top-10 pick Ryan Johansen – a major breakout candidate, if everything clicks – for the role of second-line center. It’s a role likely to be won by Brassard originally, but one the Blue Jackets would like to see eventually captured by Johansen, who is among the most naturally skilled players on the roster. Nick Foligno and Mark Letestu add depth scoring with some grit, while Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll round out the team’s grinding capabilities. There is some strength on defense here, even if Ryan Murray, the second overall pick in the draft, will miss the season with shoulder surgery due to a collision in junior hockey suffered during the lockout. Jack Johnson is the dynamic force of this unit, a thoroughbred capable of advancing the puck, activating the team’s offensive capabilities and blasting away from the point. We were afraid he’d try to do too much as “the guy” in Columbus, but he posted an impressive 14 points and plus-5 rating in his 21 games after being traded away by the Kings and was a major factor in the team’s late season turnaround. The veteran of 364 NHL games is a career minus-85, a statistic that will continue to tumble as Columbus returns to respectability. Nikita Nikitin was shockingly good after coming over from St. Louis, tallying 32 points in 54 games, while James Wisniewski needs to stay on the ice as much as possible. After his eight-game suspension to begin the season, he was effective in his team-leading 24:47 average ice time. Though overwhelmed with the Rangers at the start of last season, Tim Erixon has been excellent in his two AHL stints, recording 55 points in 85 games, and should be ready to grow into worthy minutes. There are problems in net. Steve Mason has regressed horribly since his Calder Trophy-winning season of 2008-09, while Sergei Bobrovsky will offer less of a balance than the reliable Curtis Sanford a season ago. The Blue Jackets aren’t likely to continue their impressive late-season run, though they’ll be a pain for their opponents on a nightly basis. The Central Division has weakened somewhat, but Columbus is still the unquestioned favorite to finish in last place by a wide margin. Brighter days lie ahead in Ohio’s capital, and the 2013 season will start to provide a view into how close they actually are.