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Red Wings cream of Central crop

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.

2007-08 RECORD: 54-21-7 -- 115 points; first in Central; first in conference; won Stanley Cup

KEY ADDS: Marian Hossa (Pittsburgh), Ty Conklin (Pittsburgh)

KEY LOSSES:Dominik Hasek (retirement), Dallas Drake (retirement), Scotty Bowman (Chicago)

STRENGTHS: The league's most complete roster

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 Brad Stuart and add the summer's most coveted free agent in Hossa...and they managed to ink both at a discount. Coach Mike Babcock now has the luxury of four lines that are as equally adept at scoring as they are at checking, along with the league's deepest defense corps. If that's not enough, the farm is stocked with capable fill-ins, including Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Jonathan Ericsson.

WEAKNESSES: Absence of a consistent deterrent

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 Aaron Downey isn't a major drop-off.

MVP: Nicklas Lidstrom

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.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: NA

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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: A playoff upset

Didn't matter how well they played last season. Until commissioner Gary Bettman physically handed the Cup to Lidstrom, pockets of the Detroit faithful still feared disaster. Can't blame them, considering the team's proclivity for stumbling against inferior playoff opponents in recent years. It would be a shocker if it happened to this group next spring, but memories of first-place finishes followed by early-round losses to Calgary (2004) and Edmonton (2006) are still too fresh to ignore.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Parity has been the fly in the ointment of the past nine champs, each of which failed to repeat despite entering the following season as the favorite. The season will offer its share of frustrations, but these Wings are built for postseason domination. Anything less than another Cup will be an epic failure.

2007-08 RECORD: 40-34-8 -- 88 points, third in Central; tenth in conference; missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: Cristobal Huet (Washington), Brian Campbell (San Jose), Scotty Bowman (Detroit)

KEY LOSSES: Robert Lang (Montreal), Jason Williams (Atlanta), Rene Bourque (Calgary), Yanic Perreault (free agent)

STRENGTHS: Front office

The easy thing would be to point out the dynamic young offense led by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. But under the guidance of Rocky Wirtz, the Hawks have gone from what ESPN a few years back called the "worst-run franchise in pro sports" to one that could be considered a model heading into this season. GM Dale Tallon is proving to be an adept judge of talent while making the most of recent drafts. But the addition of Bowman was Wirtz's masterstroke, bringing the Hawks one of the game's best minds -- and maybe just as important, stealing him away from rival Detroit. Bowman's value -- whether he's scouting, advising on trades, or guiding the coaching staff -- can't be underestimated. As the Hawks mature from laughingstock to playoff contender, Bowman will be a driving force.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of a second-line center

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 Nikolai Khabibulin -- or, more likely, dump his salary to the minors -- Tallon will have the cap room to address it. Word is he's pursuing Washington's Michael Nylander, a slick disher who seems to find easy chemistry wherever he's played. If he fails to land that fish, Tallon might have to rely on Dave Bolland, a 22-year-old with 40 NHL games on his resume.

MVP: Jonathan Toews

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.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Jack Skille

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 Denis Savard with his speed and willingness to bang along the boards

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Martin Havlat

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Hawks are the pick of the pundits to make the leap from also-ran to playoff participant. Can't say I disagree. I don't see them as any threat to the elite teams in the conference, but they look to have all the ingredients in place to claim second in the Central and get their first taste of postseason action since 2002.

2007-08 RECORD: 34-36-12 -- 80 points, fourth in Central; 13th in conference, missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: R.J. Umberger (Philadelphia), Kristian Huselius (Calgary), Fedor Tyutin (NY Rangers), Christian Backman (NY Rangers), Raffi Torres (Edmonton), Mike Commodore (Ottawa)

KEY LOSSES: Nikolai Zherdev (NY Rangers), Dan Fritsche (NY Rangers), Gilbert Brule (Edmonton), Ron Hainsey (Atlanta), Dick Tarnstrom (free agent), Stefan Legein (retirement)

STRENGTHS: The coaching of Ken Hitchcock

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.

WEAKNESSES: The power play

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, Derick Brassard and possibly Nikita Filatov and Jakub Voracek gives them more forward weapons than ever, but still might not be enough to effect an improvement. If Chrstian Backman remains in the quarterback role, those strikers might never see the puck in the opposition end.

MVP: Rick Nash

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.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Derick Brassard, Nikita Filatov, Jakub Voracek

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 Fredrik Modin, who'll offer a ready target for his slick passing skills. Voracek, a 2007 first rounder, almost made the squad last season after a stellar camp. The playmaking winger returned bigger, stronger and ready to chip in where needed. Voracek could start in a checking role, but his natural ability should earn him an eventual promotion to a scoring line. Filatov is a darkhorse to stick for the season because of his defensive deficiencies, but he should get a chance to display the skill set that drew comparisons to Pavel Bure before being sent to juniors.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Jared Boll

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION:

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.

2007-08 RECORD: 41-32-9 -- 91 points, second in Central; eighth in conference, lost in first round to Detroit

KEY ADDS: Patric Hornqvist (Sweden), Ryan Jones (Minnesota)

KEY LOSSES: Alexander Radulov (Russia), Chris Mason (St. Louis), Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota), Martin Gelinas (free agent), Darcy Hordichuk (Vancouver), Jan Hlavac (Sweden)

STRENGTHS: The conference's second-best blueline

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. Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Greg DeVries, Greg Zanon and Ville Koistinen give Nashville three pairs that can be put on the ice in any situation, with each unit offering a post-modern blend of speed, puck skills and physical accountability. Their ability to limit quality chances played a big role in Dan Ellis' remarkable rookie campaign, and will give the Preds a chance to compete on a nightly basis.

WEAKNESSES: The inexperienced goaltending tandem

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 David Poile and pro scout Nick Beverley) and quickly rendered Chris Mason obsolete. But that league-leading .924 save percentage doesn't obscure the fact that hockey's history is littered with rookie sensations who flamed out in Year 2 (Jim Carey or Andrew Raycroft, anyone?). And while Pekka Rinne has three solid AHL seasons on his resume, he's yet to prove he can adapt to the NHL, even in a backup role. The absence of an established veteran anywhere in the system might prove fatal.

MVP: Shea Weber

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.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Patric Hornqvist

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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Ville Koistinen

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Barry Trotz may be the game's most underappreciated coach. His ability to motivate a consistent effort ensures the Preds won't be anyone's pushover. But with so little in the way of reliable offense, they'll be hard-pressed to return to the playoffs.

2007-08 RECORD: 33-36-13, -- 89 points, fifth in Central; 14th in conference; missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: Chris Mason (Nashville), Andy Weaver (Vancouver), Andy Wozniewski (Toronto)

KEY LOSSES:Erik Johnson (season-ending injury), Martin Rucinsky (Czech Republic), Ryan Johnson (Vancouver), Jamal Mayers (Toronto), Hannu Toivonen (Finland)

STRENGTHS: Solid netminding

Since joining the Blues in 2006-07, Manny Legace's been a stabilizing force for a team traveling down the bumpy road of a youth movement. He was particularly solid in the first half OF last season, earning a trip to the All-Star Game for his efforts. But his 66-game workload clearly wore on him as the season wound down. With Mason on hand to lighten the load, the Blues go into this season with a pair vets capable of smoothing over another seven months worth of rough spots.

WEAKNESSES: Special teams

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 andJohnson mean the Blues will be without the two forwards who led the unit. The quality of their minutes will be tough to replace. At least things can't get any worse for a power play that was ranked 30th last season. The Blues were counting on Erik Johnson to play a larger role, but his loss could be countered by the healthy return of sophomore point man Steve Wagner. Rookies Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie may provide some additional options up front, but the Blues seems destined to flounder with the man advantage for at least one more year.

MVPs:Chris Mason and Manny Legace

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 Andy Murray to make a tough but safe lineup decision every night.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie

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 Keith Tkachuk and Brad Boyes, the only 20-goal snipers on last year's squad. That's a lot of pressure on the youngsters, but Oshie (142 points in 129 college games) and Berglund, a dynamic presence at last year's World Juniors, have the offensive chops to earn Calder consideration.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: David Backes

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: If they want to accentuate the positive, St. Louis can promote this season as The World of Tomorrow...Today! Displaying a total commitment to the youth movement, the Blues will suffer through the inevitable growing pains in hopes of speeding up the development of core prospects like Berglund, Oshie, Backes, David Perron, Jonas Junland and possibly Alex Pietrangelo, the promising two-way defender taken fourth overall last June. The plan may make for an ugly record, but it'll be fun to say you caught these guys when it all began.

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