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Central Division: Wings, Blackhawks flying high

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Central Division: Wings, Blackhawks flying high
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The Red Wings will be just fine as long as Pavel Datsyuk is around, but Detroit's depth isn't what it …

The Central Division might be the NHL’s most intriguing grouping. Detroit has been the standard by which all other teams have been measured for the past two decades, but the Red Wings’ best players are on the wrong side of 30 with no real replacements in sight. Chicago has an impressive core of superstars, but today’s NHL is about depth, too, and the Blackhawks have been hollowed out since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. Nashville finally broke through and won a playoff round last spring, but the Predators’ pop-gun offense lost a couple of top-liners, putting even more pressure on the team’s (albeit superb) defense. And Columbus and St. Louis have been non-playoff teams for far too long; both are improving, but the Blues and Blue Jackets remain bubble teams at best. A breakthrough for either club is certainly possible, and would go a long way to reviving their respective fan bases.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Detroit Red Wings*

2. Chicago Blackhawks*

3. St. Louis Blues*

4. Nashville Predators

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. DETROIT RED WINGS

Five Most Important Players

1. Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), D: The Winged Wheel revolves around this legend.

2. Pavel Datsyuk(notes), C: Nobody in the league brings as much to the table as this do-it-all superstar.

3. Henrik Zetterberg(notes), C: Quietly contributes at a point-per-game pace and is great without the puck, then ramps it up in the post-season.

4. Johan Franzen(notes), RW: The Wings are that much scarier when The Mule is on a goal-scoring kick.

5. Danny Cleary(notes), RW: He’s found his niche in Detroit, where he’s a vital piece on both offense and defense.

Best-Case Scenario: Age isn’t an issue, talent rises to the top and the experienced Red Wings take yet another run at the Stanley Cup.

Reality Check: It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jimmy Howard(notes) is the Wings’ weak link, and that’s something you never want to hear about your starting goalie.

2. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Five Most Important Players

1. Jonathan Toews(notes), C: He’s like a nice version of Mark Messier. He doesn’t have the glare and snarl, but he’s got The Captain’s will to win and big-game aptitude.

2. Duncan Keith(notes), D: Chicago’s defensive soul also kick-starts the offense with his fleet skating and heads-up passing.

3. Patrick Kane(notes), RW: A sniper who rises to the occasion and has alarming capacity to beat defenders 1-on-1.

4. Corey Crawford(notes), G: He improved as his rookie season progressed, and the ’Hawks need that trend to continue to entertain any thoughts of playoff success.

5. Marian Hossa(notes), RW: He’s the key to Chicago’s secondary scoring, and is a penalty-killing force.

Best-Case Scenario: The top-end talent overrides any depth concerns and the Blackhawks return to the final for the second time in three seasons.

Reality Check: If there’s an injury to Keith or Brent Seabrook(notes) or a sophomore slump for Crawford, it won’t really matter how many goals the ’Hawks score.

3. ST. LOUIS BLUES

Five Most Important Players

1. Jaroslav Halak(notes), G: More than any other player, St. Louis’ success depends on Halak’s heroics.

2. David Backes(notes), C: The Blues’ version of Ryan Kesler(notes), except he hits harder.

3. Alex Pietrangelo(notes), D: The best defenseman you’ve barely heard of. Move over, Drew Doughty(notes), you’ve got some competition.

4. Chris Stewart(notes), RW: The club’s best winger is a physical force with the hands to score 40.

5. Kevin Shattenkirk(notes), D: Forty-three points as a rookie defenseman; team him up with Pietrangelo and suddenly the Blues’ power play looks potent.

Best-Case Scenario: Home ice in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to the progress of the 20-somethings and the leadership of the 30-somethings.

Reality Check: Almost to a man, the Blues’ stars-in-the-making had career years last season. That’s a tough trend to improve upon.

4. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Five Most Important Players

1. Shea Weber(notes), D: Physically intimidating defensive linchpin has a rocket for a shot and is a fluid skater. Very few players are more vital to their team than Weber is to the Preds.

2. Pekka Rinne(notes), G: Rinne is to Nashville what Martin Brodeur(notes) has been to the Devils. Plus he’s big, athletic and the best is yet to come.

3. Ryan Suter(notes), D: Strong skater and passer, he teams up with Weber to challenge Chicago’s Keith-Seabrook pairing as the top tandem in the league.

4. Colin Wilson(notes), C: Fellow centers David Legwand(notes) and Mike Fisher(notes) will be much more effective if this hulking youngster can handle the first line.

5. Sergei Kostitsyn(notes), LW: Martin Erat(notes) and Patric Hornqvist(notes) are all-around better wingers, but Kostitsyn has to again challenge for the team’s scoring lead.

Best-Case Scenario: The Preds score just enough to make the playoffs, where their familiarity with playing an error-free style allows them to win a round or two.

Reality Check: The goals are too hard to come by, and what if one of the Big 3 (Weber, Suter, Rinne) gets hurt?

5. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Five Most Important Players

1. Rick Nash(notes), RW: A big-bodied power forward with hands like butter (in a good way), and now he’s got some help.

2. Steve Mason(notes), G: If he’s unable to rediscover his rookie form, nothing else the team does really matters that much.

3. Jeff Carter(notes), C: The Jackets need Carter to embrace change, as the talented center goes from a contender in Philadelphia to the Columbus dispatch.

4. James Wisniewski(notes), D: Joins his fifth NHL team since 2009, with Columbus making a $33-million bet that he’ll stick around and spark the power play with his slapshot.

5. Derick Brassard(notes), C: Along with R.J. Umberger(notes), Brassard needs to support the big guns with some timely secondary scoring.

Best-Case Scenario: Carter and Nash monster mash for 80 goals, Mason masks any defensive miscues and the Blue Jackets win their first-ever playoff game.

Reality Check: Mason’s inconsistent, the defense is undersized and unintimidating, and there’s maybe five forwards who can put the puck in the net.

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