Yesterday, it was the Atlantic Division. Today, it the only other division to boast 4 of 5 teams over 100 points. The Western Conference's toughest division projects to be plenty tough in 2013.
Not as tough, mind you. The division says goodbye to some major players in Rick Nash, Ryan Suter, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Tomas Holmstrom.
Still, even with the departures, if any one of these teams takes a major freefall, it would be a complete shock. (And that includes the Blue Jackets, although that's primarily because they can't get that much worse, can they?) Folks have been predicting regressions for the Red Wings and Predators for a few years now, and they always find a way to stay in the mix. The Chicago Blackhawks are some strong goaltending away from a turnaround, and they had over 100 points last year. The St. Louis Blues haven't changed a bit. And even the Columbus Blue Jackets will likely be better than people think, although they will once again be the punching bag of the division.
So who will emerge on top? After the jump, our team-by-team look at the Central Divison.
St. Louis Blues
Last Year’s Record: 49-22-11 (109 pts)
Coach: Ken Hitchcock
Pre-Lockout Preview: "There's no reason to believe that the Blues and Hitchcock will regress, especially with the rest of the Central Division facing some adversity (goodbye, Misters Lidstrom and Suter). They'll still need another veteran defenseman and a veteran winger to get over the hump and challenge for the Cup, but the window is wide open for this group."
What’s Changed: Highly-rated prospect Vladimir Tarasenko has followed the locked-out NHLers back from Russia and will likely get a look with Alex Steen and Andy McDonald.
Pivotal Player: David Backes. The big centre stepped up in a big way for the Blues last season by taking away the centre of the ice and shutting down the star pivots of the Western Conference night after night. He needs to continue winning these battles if the Blues hope to continue winning.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, who are used to splitting time in the St. Louis crease. In this condensed schedule, the fact that the Blues can rotate through their goalies and keep both fresh is a big boon.
Last Year’s Record: 45-26-11 (101 pts)
Coach: Joel Quenneville
Pre-Lockout Preview: "This is a playoff team, no doubt; but the seeding and their chances for a Cup will be determined by the rest of the division and by how aggressively Bowman decides to address problems at center and between the pipes."
What’s Changed: Patrick Kane did some serious damage in Switzerland, and Marian Hossa is no longer experiencing concussion symptoms after the Raffi Torres hit that ended his season.
Pivotal Player: Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks' netminder was such an issue for the team last season that Chicago has been rumoured to be one of the teams in the Roberto Luongo sweepstakes. They probably aren't, but the team's issue the past few seasons has been in goal, and if this team hopes to get back into that first-tier of contender, they need something near elite goaltending this season.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Hossa. As mentioned, the Chicago forward ended last season with a trip to the hospital, and he wasn't cleared by the Blackhawks' doctors until November. But, lucky for him, the lockout means he didn't miss a game, and he was afforded a little extra time to get right.
Detroit Red Wings
Last Year’s Record: 48-28-6 (102 pts)
Coach: Mike Babcock
Pre-Lockout Preview: "Despite the loss of Lidstrom and the fact that the Central Division offers tough competition, the Red Wings should be a playoff team —but the margin between the 4/5 game and on the bubble in a competitive Western Conference will again be slim. The leadership is just too strong to envision this team falling off the playoff map yet. But Holland still needs to use that available cap space to improve the back end."
What’s Changed: Nicklas Lidstrom stayed retired, Tomas Holmstrom retired, Pavel Datsyuk played in the KHL All-Star Game, and Henrik Zetterberg was named the captain.
Pivotal Player: Niklas Kronwall. With Lidstrom moving on and a massive hole remaining on the Red Wings' blueline, Kronwall will be called on to be a first-pairing guy. The success of the 2013 Red Wings is based largely on how Kronwall manages to answer this call.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Well, there's a lot of old people on this team, so... the whole team? But we'll give Jimmy Howard the nod. The Red Wings' goaltender has averaged 61 starts the past 3 seasons. Now it's literally impossible for him to get more than 48!
Last Year’s Record: 48-26-8 (104 pts)
Coach: Barry Trotz
Pre-Lockout Preview: "The Predators success last year was a little baffling at times. They were out-possessed regularly, which is typically a mark of a bad team. They were the only team in the NHL to finish in the top 10 while averaging fewer shots than they allowed. Frankly, they were due for a fall all year, and it just never came. One major reason: they still had the best defensive pairing in the NHL. Now they don't, and in a league with insane parity, that could be enough to drop them to ninth."
What’s Changed: Pekka Rinne hurt his groin in the KHL and then got better. The Predators claimed Richard "The Answer" Clune off waivers.
Pivotal Player: Can it be anyone but Shea Weber? Divorced from Ryan Suter, thus dissolving the best defence pairing in the NHL, Weber will have to finally have his Norris-winning season if the Predators want to return to the playoffs.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Rinne will see the bulk of the starts, but even if he starts all 48 games, that's still 4 fewer than his least busy season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Year’s Record: 29-46-7 (65 pts)
Coach: Todd Richards
Pre-Lockout Preview: "Rebuild might be putting it kindly. But there are some pieces in place on defense; and like we said, it could be a tenacious group up front. Are they the worst team in the conference on paper? Probably. Will they be a pushover? They'll compete every night."
What’s Changed: Derick Brassard pissed off his Austrian lockout team by saying he'd stay and then going home. First-rounder Ryan Murray tore his shoulder and successfully underwent surgery.
Pivotal Player: Brandon Dubinsky. Arguably the biggest name coming back from the Rangers in the Rick Nash trade, this is Dubinsky's opportunity to show he can be a major part of a core after the Rangers decided he wasn't. If Dubinsky winds up blending in as a depth player, the Blue Jackets' struggles will be even worse than expected. But if he can seize the opportunity to step up and lead the team at both ends of the ice, Columbus might be able to stay out of the basement.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: James Wisniewski, who only played 48 games last season due to injuries and suspensions. The Blue Jacket has had the opportunity to get completely healthy thanks to the extended offseason. If he can stay on the ice, he's bound to make the powerplay better.
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