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Here's how I see them shaking out, in order of predicted finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 51-21-10, 112 points, first in Central
FRESH FACES: Todd Bertuzzi (Calgary), Jason Williams (Columbus), Patrick Eaves (Boston)
OTHER PLACES: Marian Hossa (Chicago), Mikael Samuelsson (Vancouver), Jiri Hudler (Russia), Ty Conklin (St. Louis)
STORYLINE: After successive runs to the final, the Red Wings have every right to slip into a deep Cup coma and slide through the opening months of the schedule. But here's the thing: the loss of valuable contributors like Hossa, Hudler and Samuelsson should have a recharging effect on the roster, thanks to an influx of youth that is chomping at the bit to prove it belongs. Familiar faces like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino finally will get their chance at full-time employment in Detroit, and their speed and enthusiasm should be a shot in the arm for the been-there, done-that Wings.
While they're working that trio into the lineup, the Wings also need to address a precipitous decline in team defense. Ranked first overall in 2007-08, they dropped to 20th last season. Part of that can be attributed to the struggles of Chris Osgood, but Detroit equally was done in by a lack of defensive focus. As long as this is addressed before the playoffs start, they could make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
MVP: Nick Lidstrom. Closing in on 40 and entering what could be his final season in Detroit, Lidstrom appears to have lost little, if anything, from his sublime game. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Wings take a less-is-more approach with the veteran. His ice time was cut by almost two minutes last season and he appeared stronger for it as the playoffs ground into June. With another deep run possible, Lidstrom should see a further reduction in duty, but not so much as to take him out of contention for the Norris.
KID TO WATCH: Ville Leino. The Wings aren't likely to fully recover the 90-plus goals that departed via free agency, but Leino should do his part to soften the blow. The 2008 Player of the Year in Finland excelled in a 13-game tryout last season, scoring five goals and nine points while fitting in flawlessly with Mike Babcock's puck possession scheme. He'll be asked to chip in 20-25 from a third line perch alongside Valtteri Filppula and Williams.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Chris Osgood and Jimmy Howard. That didn't take long. After buying himself a break from constant criticism with his spectacular playoff performance, Osgood is back in the crosshairs...though it's not entirely his fault. With Ty Conklin defecting to the Blues, the understudy role falls into the lap of the largely inexperienced Howard. The youngster is being tasked with a 20 to 25 game workload -- which is reasonable for a backup, but a challenge for a rookie. If he's not up to the task, Osgood may be overextended. At least both netminders should see some benefit from an increased defensive effort that's sure to be in place after last season's lackadaisical approach.
BOTTOM LINE: I've learned my lesson: until further notice, it defies logic to underestimate the Red Wings. A slow start is almost inevitable, but they'll claw their way to the top in time to secure a ninth consecutive Central crown.
2008-09 RECORD: 46-24-12, 104 points, second in Central
FRESH FACES: GM Stan Bowman, Marian Hossa (Detroit), John Madden (New Jersey), Tomas Kopecky (Detroit)
OTHER PLACES: Martin Havlat (Minnesota), Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton), Samuel Pahlsson (Columbus), Matt Walker (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: It's hard to remember a season of such promise followed by a summer of such absolute chaos. In the months following the Hawks' first conference final appearance since 1995, they've been staggered by the Patrick Kane cab incident, the botched handling of several qualifying offers, the firing of popular GM Dale Tallon, the discovery that prize acquisition Hossa would be sidelined until December by shoulder trauma, and the knee injury that will keep Adam Burish out for six months. And it won't be long before the pending free agency of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith has everyone calculating escapes from what looks to be an impossible salary cap trap. The talent is there for another deep run, but the confluence of events makes you wonder if a set-back isn't in the cards.
MVP: Jonathan Toews. That C stitched to his chest appeared too heavy a burden for the 20-year-old at the start of last season. Pushing himself too hard to lead by example, he went without a goal in his first 12 games and had just four through his first 22 contests. But after being reminded by coach Joel Quenneville to concentrate on the little things, Toews game rounded into form. He finished with 34 tallies and established himself as an elite two-way center capable of setting the tone for a game. Don't think that's escaped the attention of Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman.
KID TO WATCH: Jack Skille. After paying his dues in Rockford, the grinding winger is about to get his chance as a result of Burish's injury...as long as the lower body injury he suffered himself on Wednesday night doesn't get in the way. Skille's not a significant offensive threat, but his speed and tireless board work would make him a useful depth player.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cristobal Huet. The departure of Nikolai Khabibulin left the talented but inconsistent Huet as Chicago's undisputed No. 1 keeper. That's cold comfort to fans who remember his deflating performance in Game 4 of the Red Wings series. With neither Corey Crawford nor Antti Niemi capable of pushing him for ice time, it'll be up to Huet to both seize the position and cement his grip with the sort of reliable net work that will allow his young teammates the confidence to play their own games.
BOTTOM LINE: There are plenty of doomsayers in Chicago saying that the playoffs are anything but a foregone conclusion. Don't believe 'em. Barring a complete meltdown by Huet, the Hawks should thrive on the backs of a tough, smart defense and a deep, dangerous group of forwards.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-31-10, 92 points, fourth in Central
FRESH FACES: Samuel Pahlsson (Chicago), Mathieu Garon (Pittsburgh), Anton Stralman (Toronto, Calgary)
OTHER PLACES:Jason Williams (Detroit), Manny Malhotra (San Jose), Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Philadelphia), Wade Dubielewicz (Minnesota), Mike Peca (free agent), Christian Backman (Florida), Chris Gratton (free agent), Jiri Novotny (free agent)
STORYLINE: Getting throttled in four by the Red Wings probably wasn't how the Jackets pictured their first-ever playoff experience, but it was a step this young franchise had to make. After a relatively quiet summer, the onus falls directly on the team's youth to keep moving in the right direction. Steve Mason, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov were all pressed into action last season for lack of a better alternative. Now that they've proven they can play, they need to show they can lead.
MVP: Steve Mason. Lost in all the talk of a potential sophomore slump for last season's Calder-winner is the physical and emotional carnage he had to fight through to craft that memorable campaign. Mason was sidelined to start the season after knee surgery, battled through a bout with mono, lost his coach, Clint Malarchuk, and was ridden too hard down the stretch. After all that, this season should be a breeze. He's unlikely to match his 2008-09 numbers with the highly competent Garon on hand to soak up some starts, but Mason should do enough to cement his burgeoning reputation as an elite goalie.
KID TO WATCH: John Moore. Now that they've shored up the center ice position, the team's most pressing need is a competent, puck-moving defenseman. Or maybe, that was their most pressing need. Moore, the team's first-round pick (21st overall) was expected to make a brief appearance at camp, but the play of the smooth-skating, quick-thinking blueliner has him in the mix for this season. It's always a risk to throw an 18-year-old to the wolves, but Moore's on-ice maturity and ability to quickly assimilate new lessons will force the Jackets to re-consider what's best for his development.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Derick Brassard. If not for a shoulder injury suffered in an early season fight against Dallas' James Neal, the Jackets might have had a pair of Calder finalists. The big, skilled center had 10 goals and 25 points in just 31 games, hinting at the kind of production he's capable of this season now that he'll line up alongside Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius on Columbus' top line.
BOTTOM LINE: There are no free passes in the West, so the Jackets should hold off on printing those playoff tickets until the young guns prove their mettle.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-31-10, 92 points, third in Central
FRESH FACES: Ty Conklin (Detroit), Darryl Sydor (Dallas), Barry Tallackson (New Jersey), Derek Armstrong (Los Angeles)
OTHER PLACES: Jeff Woywitka (Dallas), Manny Legace (Atlanta), Jay McKee (Pittsburgh)
STORYLINE: Alright, let's see what the Blues can do without one hand tied behind their backs. That had to be the way it felt at times in St. Louis, with key contributors Erik Johnson, Paul Kariya, Andy MacDonald, Eric Brewer and Jay McKee sidelined for extended periods last season. But youngsters like Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Carlo Colaiacovo responded to the added responsibilities. Now back to full health (well, nearly -- the unenviably fragile Brewer remains on IR) -- they look to be a deeper squad and better for the experience. There are still problem areas -- the Blues top forwards were inexcusably brutal five-on-five last year -- but expectations are justifiably high for an extended run this spring.
MVP: Andy Murray. It's impossible to imagine the Blues achieving as much as they did last season without the skillful tutelage of Murray, who pulled the team off the Western Conference floor and guided them to a sixth-place finish. His resurrection of the power play was equally remarkable: 30th overall in 2007-08, it finished in eighth last season, and he managed this with key personnel like Johnson and Kariya on the shelf. The league recognized his success by voting him one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award. The team showed its own appreciation last week by extending his contract through next season.
KID TO WATCH: Alex Pietrangelo: With five spots allotted to veterans, there are just two up for grabs on the blueline. One likely goes to Sydor. The other could go to the fourth overall pick from 2008. Pietrangelo looked overmatched in eight games with the Blues last season, but years spent back in junior allowed him to re-establish himself. The 19-year-old has impressed in camp with his transition skills and savvier defensive postures. Another nine-game stint is likely. After that, it's up to him.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Erik Johnson. A summer spent clear of golf carts has Johnson back to full strength and scheduled to resume his position as the Blues' top defender. Now it's just a matter of getting the gum out of the works. In the early going, he looked like a player who'd been out of action for a year, but the transitional skills and poise that made him the first overall pick in 2006 is starting to come back. Once he gets his timing down, look for Johnson to play a key role on St. Louis' special teams, both of which were top-10 last season without his help.
BOTTOM LINE: With Conklin shoring up the net and Johnson and Kariya in good health, these Blues should be a step better than last year's club. A return to the postseason, and maybe even a series win, is a fair bet.
2008-09 RECORD: 40-34-8, 88 points, fifth in Central
FRESH FACES: Marcel Goc (San Jose), Ben Guite (Colorado), Peter Olvecky (Minnesota Wild), Ben Eaves (Finland)
OTHER PLACES: Ville Koistinen (Florida), Jed Ortmeyer (San Jose), Scott Nichol (San Jose), Greg Zanon (Minnesota), Vernon Fiddler (Phoenix), Radek Bonk (Russia), Antti Pihlstrom (Sweden)
STORYLINE: Why were the Preds the only Central team to miss the playoffs last season? The stats tell the tale: armed with rubber sticks, they finished 24th in total offense and 26th on the power play. So how does GM David Poile address this glaring deficiency? With a quartet of barrel-scraping signings sure to bolster the firepower of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals. To their credit, the Preds were involved down to the wire in the Phil Kessel sweepstakes, but this isn't hand grenades and close doesn't count. They can ask for more from David Legwand, Martin Erat and the like, but until they bolster their pocket change payroll, the Preds are relegated to the role of the feisty bottom feeders of the division.
MVP: Shea Weber. With so little pop up front, any chance for success the Predators have comes from the sturdy blueline. Weber enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2008-09, setting career highs in goals, assists, points, penalty minutes and time on ice, and as the team breaks in younger players to replace Koistinen and Zanon, he'll be called on to play an even larger role. Look for Weber to assert himself as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate this season.
KID TO WATCH: Colin Wilson. After nearly making the cut last fall, the brawny center returned to Boston University and proceeded to tear up the NCAA, finishing second in scoring and leading the Terriers to the national championship. He was penciled in as the third line center, but his chances to start the season in Nashville dimmed slightly when he suffered a groin injury last week. He could be assigned to rehab in Milwaukee, but any stint in the minors would likely be brief. The Preds don't have any better options and Wilson needs time to prove himself at this level before Jason Arnott tests free agency at the end of next season.
KID TO WATCH 2: Mark Santorelli. Preds fans have been teased before by high-scoring preseason performances (Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Jones come to mind), so perhaps it's best to tap the brakes before anointing the 23-year-old as the answer to their second-line prayers. Still, it's hard not to get excited about a kid whose 23 goals and 70 points led Milwaukee last season, and who has been the team's most dangerous sniper in camp.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Pekka Rinne. After a week of studying patterns at school, my kindergartner caught on to the one that's plagued the Preds: they can't get consecutive solid seasons out of their starting goalie. Each of the past three years has seen the backup usurp the job by midseason, then fail to hold onto the starting spot the following year...and it's beginning to look like Rinne might fall into the same trap. Last season's MVP has looked terrible in camp. He gave up three goals on eight shots against Atlanta on Wednesday, leaving him with a .777 save percentage through his first three appearances. Panic time? Not quite, but considering how Rinne was all that stood between the Preds and a top-five pick last year, there could be some white knuckles in Nashville.
BOTTOM LINE: Barry Trotz will earn a moral victory by squeezing every last drop of blood out of the stone-handed Preds, but there simply isn't enough talent on this team to keep pace in the intensely competitive Central. Just one word of advice to GM Poile: use next summer's first rounder on a forward. Please.
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