The Central is a division where one colossus -- the defending Stanley Cup champions -- towers above a group of young, scrappy and ultimately deficient challengers. While it will take a monumental upset to knock the Red Wings off their perch, it will be interesting to watch the Blackhawks continue their rise while the Jackets, Predators and Blues take their lumps in their battle for maturity, respectability and a playoff berth.
Unlike many recent champs, the Wings didn't have to deal with holes created by defecting free agents. Instead, the franchise's reputation helped it hold on to UFA defenseman
The presence of a cruiserweight capable of playing a regular shift and creating some space for the rainmakers would improve the mix, but an intermittent dose of
Safe to say that after winning his third consecutive Norris Trophy -- and sixth in the last seven seasons -- Lidstrom stands firmly among the greatest defenders of all-time. At 38, his game shows no signs of deterioration. In fact, since assuming the captaincy in 2006-07, Lidstrom's play seems even more self-assured. While the Wings boast a half-dozen superstars, it's the calm, cool Swede who keeps the team at an even keel and focused on the prize.
With a roster full of battle-tested veterans, talented prospects like wingers Leino and Helm and defender Ericsson will have to bide their time in Grand Rapids, waiting for the inevitable injury before they get a sniff in Detroit. All three players figure in the team's long-term plans, but they're unlikely to make an impact this season.
Didn't matter how well they played last season. Until commissioner
The easy thing would be to point out the dynamic young offense led by
The decision to dump Lang on the Habs spoke loudly of the Hawks' frustration with his inconsistent play, but it left them with a major hole up front. If a deal can be worked out to move
No disrespect to Kane, but if Toews hadn't spent 16 games on the shelf with a sprained knee, he would have run away with the Calder. Entering this season in full health, with 10 pounds of new muscle and the C on his chest, he's poised to assert himself as one of the game's most exciting players. Totals of 40 goals and 80 points might seem like lofty aspirations, but those are the kind of numbers Toews needs to put up to help power the Hawks to the postseason.
The seventh overall pick in 2005 struggled in his brief call-up to the Hawks last season, but displayed his power forward potential with 16 goals and 50 points in 59 games with Rockford of the AHL. He made the case for a full-time promotion with a solid training camp, catching the attention of coach
What could possibly shock Hawks fans more than a healthy season out of the habitually sidelined winger? Havlat's posted 100 points in his last 109 games...but that covers a span of three injury-abbreviated seasons. He enters this one a question mark after March surgery on his left shoulder that delayed his training camp debut. But he's due to play at least 70 games this season, helping provide the secondary scoring that will be critical to Chicago's playoff aspirations.
There are nights when three hours of filibustering congressmen offer more compelling viewing than a well-executed Hitchcock game plan. But the former Cup-winner in Dallas places little value on entertainment. By demanding three-zone accountability, Hitchcock has built a reputation as someone who can maximize the talent at hand, and that trait is critical to any hopes for success in Columbus. His teams win with defense (they ranked eighth in 2007-08) and should be just as miserly this season.
Hitchcock's style requires that his teams capitalize on an opponent's mistakes. A power play that ranked 26th last year gives a good indication of why the Jackets failed to keep up with the pack in the West, The addition of Umberger, Huselius,
That highlight reel goal he scored against Phoenix last January may be all that most fans remember, but 2007-08 was a breakthrough campaign for Nash. Not only did he set career highs in assists (31), points (69) and shots (329), he began giving Hitchcock the sort of consistent two-way play the coach demands from his offensive centerpiece. While those responsibilities may prevent him from becoming the 100-point man he might be somewhere else, Nash has more to offer. A 40-40-80 season is in the cards for the captain.
Few jobs are guaranteed on a team that's never made the playoffs, so it won't be a surprise to see as many as three fresh faces in the opening night lineup. Brassard, the sixth overall pick in 2006, is penciled in as the No. 2 center. He'll play alongside veteran
As a rookie last season, he racked up a league-leading 28 fighting majors and provided a rambunctious presence along the boards. It was an emotion-driven performance that's easy to call upon as a rookie, but not so easy as a sophomore. It wouldn't surprise to see him spend more time in the press box -- or the minors -- than in the lineup.
You can see the incremental improvements, but will they be enough to end the streak of no postseason appearances at seven? Don't count on it. You know Hitchcock will keep them competitive, but there won't be enough room at the playoff table for the Blue Jackets...again.
There isn't a defensive unit that belongs in the same conversation as Detroit's top six, but these Predators aren't that far removed.
At first glance, the shortage of dependable offensive firepower might seem to be Nashville's prevailing deficiency, especially with the loss of Radulov and his anticipated 30-goal contribution. But the bigger flaw in this roster could lie in a netminding duo with a total of 46 NHL appearances. Ellis was one of last season's unlikeliest sensations. Cast off by Dallas, he signed in Nashville as the backup (another brilliant display of talent evaluation by GM
The team's highest-paid defender is about to earn his keep. Coming off an injury-shortened third season, Weber will be highly motivated to prove his good health and that he's worth the three-year, $13.5 million extension he signed this summer. Look for him to play a larger role on the power play -- with his booming one-timer and elite passing skills, 40-50 points isn't unreasonable -- and establish himself as the team's most consistent physical force in his own end.
The 21-year-old winger has scored 41 goals over the past two seasons -- an admirable total in the defensive-minded Swedish league. His ability to play a responsible two-way game will earn him a regular role in Nashville, but his touch around the net is what the Preds desperately need. He'll get every chance to play on one of the top two lines, meaning a 20-goal, 50-point season is a possibility.
His 48-game tryout last season demonstrated enough potential that Zidlicky was deemed expendable, but Koistien's game will have to take a giant leap in order to fill the veteran's skates. If he can slide onto the first power play unit, Koistinen could chew up 20-plus minutes and chip in with 40 points.
Since joining the Blues in 2006-07,
The NHL's seventh-best penalty kill was a source of pride last season, but they'll be in tough to repeat that success. The defections of free agents Mayers and
Mason, the former Nashville starter, signed a two-year deal worth $6 over the summer. That's a pretty hefty tab for a backup, and one he'll be motivated to live up to. Expect him to regain the form he flashed two years ago for the Preds and force coach
Erik Johnson was a no-brainer when the Blues had the first overall pick in 2006, but the scouting staff demonstrated its chops when it tabbed Berglund 26th (2006) and Oshie 24th (2005). In time, the duo could prove to be as important to this team's future as Kane and Toews are to Chicago's. This season, they'll be counted on to provide the secondary scoring to support
After scoring just 13 goals last season, Backes was the surprise subject of a summer offer sheet from the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues quickly matched, recognizing that the young power forward has the potential to double his goal total this season. Expect 25 and 150 penalty minutes as he amps up his aggressive inclinations.