2013 NHL Central Division preview

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A fully healthy David Perron will mean more firepower for the Blues, who look ready to rule the division.

A fully healthy David Perron will mean more firepower for the Blues, who look ready to rule the division.

St. Louis Blues

Power Rankings | Milestones | Northwest | Pacific | Southeast | Atlantic | NortheastHACKEL: Short season will challenge NHL coaches | MUIR: Wild year on way

Coach: Ken Hitchcock 2011-12 record: 49-22-11, 2nd in West, lost to Kings in second round Vital signs (stat ranking): goals-for (22nd), goals-against (1st), power play (T-19th), penalty kill (7th), PIM (4th) Notable adds: RW Vladimir TarasenkoNotable losses: D Carlo ColaiacovoTeam roster

Outlook: Last year marked a turnaround season for the Blues, who are finally reaping the rewards of dismal past years as their high draft picks are beginning to live up to their promise. A November 2011 coaching change led to a wholesale identity shift, and the Hitchcock-led Blues quickly turned into one of the stingiest teams in the league. Backstopped by the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, they allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last season. With a good-and-getting-better defense corps led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis doesn't need explosive offense to compete, but it will need more from its scoring weapons, like T.J. Oshie and David Backes, to make a long postseason run. If prized prospect rVladimir Tarasenko delivers on his potential, the Blues will be even more dangerous.

Key player:David Perron. A devastating concussion suffered in November 2010 sidelined the 24-year-old winger for more than a year and seriously derailed a promising career arch. He finally returned to the ice last December and picked up where he left off, finishing with 42 points in 57 games, including a season-ending run in which he scored in seven of the team's final 10 games. If his bounce back gives any indication of what a full season at full health might bring, that's good news for Perron and even better news for St. Louis.

Chicago Blackhawks

Coach: Joel Quenneville 2011-12 record: 45-26-11, 6th in West, lost to Coyotes in first round Vital signs: goals-for (T-6th), goals-against (22nd), power play (26th), penalty kill (27th), PIM (21st) Notable adds: D Sheldon Brookbank, D Michal RozsivalNotable losses: D Sami Lepisto Team roster

Outlook: Many of the core pieces of the Hawks' 2010 Stanley Cup team remain in place, but the lingering question in Chicago over the last two years has been whether those players will regain their championship form. After a Norris Trophy-winning season in 2009-10, defenseman Duncan Keith has seen his numbers slide, as has Cup-winning-goal scorer Patrick Kane. And goaltending, which didn't seem to be a make-it-or-break-it issue in 2010 with Antti Niemi in net, has become a sore spot. Corey Crawford has put up middling numbers as a starter (2.51 GAA and .910 save percentage in two seasons). The Blackhawks still have enviable depth up front, and scoring won't be a problem, but keeping the puck out of their own net will have to be their main priority. Last season, the Blackhawks were the only Western Conference playoff team to allow more than 210 goals, and they cleared that mark by mid-March. Their penalty kill was among the league's worst, and surprisingly, so was their power play, which was one of the best in 2010-11. There's cap room and roster depth to maneuver, and with division rivals Detroit and Nashville expected to take a step back, Chicago could find itself in solid position by season's end.

Key player:Viktor Stalberg. Last season's team sorely missed having a big-bodied net-front presence in the mold of Troy Brouwer or Dustin Byfuglien to screen goalies and cash in on rebounds. Looking back, it seemed like that hole was a main reason why the power play sputtered so much. But Stalberg could be the answer. At 6'-3" and 210 pounds, he's built more like Brouwer than Byfuglien (well, to be fair, no one in the NHL is built quite like Big Buff), but has high-end speed. The 26-year-old winger showed promise with 43 points last season, while averaging just 14 minutes of ice time per game. He's a threat in open ice, but will need to round out his game with and without the puck to earn top six minutes from Quenneville. So during the lockout, Stalberg returned to his native Sweden to continue to develop; he scored 12 points in 11 games for Frolunda and another eight in 14 games for Moscow Oblast Atlant of the KHL. Blackhawks fans will hope those numbers translate to the NHL.

Detroit Red Wings

Coach: Mike Babcock 2011-12 record: 48-28-6, 5th in West, lost to Predators in first round Vital signs: goals-for (T-6th), goals-against (6th), power play (22nd), penalty kill (18th), PIM (29th) Notable adds: RW Damien Brunner, D Carlo Colaiacovo, RW Jordin Tootoo, G Jonas Gustavsson, RW Mikael SamuelssonNotable losses: D Nicklas Lidstrom, F Jiri Hudler, D Brad StuartTeam roster

Outlook: After 20 seasons, seven Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups, the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom finally ended his illustrious career on May 31, 2012, a day that will forever be remembered as the end of an era in Red Wings history. The retirement of that once-in-a-generation player will undoubtedly set Detroit back as it will have to replace an irreplaceable defenseman. GM Ken Holland tried during the off-season to land free agent Ryan Suter, a very good though not Lidstrom-caliber blueliner, but came up empty-handed, so the Red Wings will have to use the pieces they already have and hope a committee can make up for their loss. It's a tall order, but if there is an organization that can do it, it would be Detroit, which hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990 and retains one of the best front offices and coaching staffs in the business. The experienced, skillful forward corps, headlined by Henrik Zetterberg, the team's leading scorer for the last three years, and the often-magical Pavel Datsyuk, will have to carry the team. But both are into their 30s, as is most of the lineup, and though they haven't shown many signs of slowing, there is the fear that this might be the year it happens. Goalie Jimmy Howard, at the infantile age of 28, is coming off a solid season (35 wins, 2.13 GAA and .920 save percentage), but will need to shoulder an even larger burden.

Key player:Niklas Kronwall. With Lidstrom's departure (not to mention Brian Rafalski's retirement in 2011), the blueline has undergone massive change. And so the 31-year-old Kronwall becomes the elder statesman of Detroit's defense and an integral part of the team's stability. A battering ram on the blueline, Kronwall has also shown 50-point potential (he scored 51 in 2008-09), but his biggest responsibility will be helping mold a vastly weakened defense.

Nashville Predators

Coach: Barry Trotz 2011-12 record: 48-26-8, 4th in West, lost to Coyotes in second round Vital signs: goals-for (8th), goals-against (T-9th), power play (1st), penalty kill (10th), PIM (30th) Notable adds: G Chris Mason, D Scott HannanNotable losses: D Ryan Suter, G Anders Lindback, F Alexander Radulov, F Andrei Kostitsyn, D Francis Bouillion Team roster

Outlook: Last season seemed to have an air of desperation in Nashville. Whether it was signing goalie Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49-million contract, an out of character move for the always fiscally responsible GM David Poile, or the warm reception of prodigal son Alex Radulov, if only as a springtime rental, there was the sense that the Predators' window for success might be closing and closing fast. After all, their top two defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, were facing free agency and a considerable pay raise at the end of the campaign. The Preds were unlikely to retain both on their budget. So when Suter found greener pastures in Minnesota to the tune of 13 years and $98 million on July 4, retaining Weber became the team's only priority. Well, Philadelphia sped things along two weeks later, signing the hulking defenseman to an offer sheet worth $110 million over 14 years. Maddeningly, the Preds had to match. So while they kept their captain, it didn't come without a cost. Nashville lost skillful scorers like Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, and now has less money acquire offensive depth. That said, the Preds have long been able to succeed without a go-to scorer. Their last 70-point players were Jason Arnott and J.P Dumont in 2007-08, and since 2005-06, they've had just two 30-goal scorers. Last year, Nashville hummed along with the fourth best offense in the conference, scoring by committee. So there is reason to believe the Preds can find success with what they have now, as long as Weber and Rinne prove to be worth every penny.

Key player: Martin Erat. The 31-year-old veteran enjoyed a career season last year, notching 58 points in 71 games alongside Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn. After 10 years in Nashville, Erat has finally seemed to find stable and reliable partners on the ice, teammates who can finish what the winger can start with his creativity and skillful hands. The trio produced more than a quarter of Nashville's goals, and their established chemistry should carry over.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Coach: Todd Richards 2011-12 record: 29-46-7, 15th in the West, did not make playoffs Vital signs: goals-for (28th), goals-against (28th), power play (24th), penalty kill (30th), PIM (7th) Notable adds: F Artem Anisimov, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Adrian Aucoin, C Brandon Dubinsky, F Nick Foligno, D Tim ErixonNotable losses: C Rick Nash, F Antoine Vermette, D Marc Methot, D Aaron JohnsonTeam roster

Outlook: Last year, the Jackets probably should have ditched their motto "Join the Battle" in favor of Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." It took the team 18 days to get its first win as it cobbled together the worst October since the Capitals in 2003-04. New high-profile forward Jeff Carter, turned into a hobbled and disgruntled bust on a season-long search for a one-way ticket out of Ohio. (He was mercifully granted his wish and went on to win the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles.) And by the dawn of 2012, their old high-profile forward, Rick Nash, in the second year of an eight-year contract, was looking for a way out as well. (He eventually was dealt to the Rangers during the off-season.) The Jackets ranked in the top 10 in man-games lost, dealing with injuries to key players like defensemen Marc Methot and James Wisniewski and forward Kristian Huselius. In the process, they seemed to find new ways of losing. Finishing with the worst record in the league, Columbus still lost the draft lottery to Edmonton, which selected first for the third straight year (taking Nail Yakupov). The Jackets chose defenseman Ryan Murray second overall and he's been sidelined for six months after shoulder surgery. All that woe brings us to 2013, when Columbus, minus the high-end skill of players like Carter and Nash, will be lucky to move out of the NHL's basement. The Nash trade brought some serviceable parts, and the Jackets signed Philadelphia's backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but there isn't nearly enough here to give fans much hope. This team will be difficult to play against, thanks to its roster full of grit (Columbus had the third most fighting majors last season), but it needs corresponding skill to make anything of this season.

Key player: Jack Johnson. The third overall pick of 2005, the 25-year-old defenseman came to Columbus in the Carter trade and will have to be the backbone of a middling backline group. Johnson has all-world potential -- he won the silver medal with Team USA at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver -- and early indications suggest he is a leader-in-waiting. During his brief stint in Columbus last year, he finished 21 games with a better point-per-game average (.667) and plus/minus rating (+5) than he had in any season in Los Angeles.

Central's biggest surprise (for better or worse)

The Blackhawks will trade Patrick Kane. To be clear, I have absolutely no inside information on this, only a hunch that if the Blackhawks take an early slide and are desperately searching for size or a considerable upgrade in goal, the 24-year-old forward would serve as mighty trade bait.

Central breakout player

Gustav Nyquist, Red Wings. Detroit has long been able to find talent abroad and cultivate mid- to low-round draft picks into stars. This 21-year-old forward could be the next in line. He has looked comfortable skating alongside stars like Pavel Datsyuk, and if he can develop some chemistry with the Red Wings' big players, he will see a big bump up from the seven points he notched in 18 games last season. He shared the team lead in points for Detroit's AHL affiliate last season, and led the Griffins with 35 points in 34 games during the lockout.

Central's unsung hero

Mike Fisher, Predators: He doesn't stand out in any particular way, but since moving to Nashville last February, the 32-year-old center has been music to the Predators' ears. He isn't a dynamic scorer or a Selke-worthy pivot, nor does he level opponents with highlight hits, but Fisher is one of the most well-rounded players in the league. He averaged 19:17 of ice time per game last season, logging minutes on the power play and the penalty kill while leading the team with seven game-winning goals. Meanwhile, he gets more attention for his marriage (to country star Carrie Underwood) than his game.

Hottest seat in the division

Scott Howson, Columbus. In October, the anemic Jackets brought in John Davidson, ex-president of the Blues, to oversee hockey operation. It was, in essence, a demotion for the GM, who now has to answer directly to Davidson about club decisions. Given the disastrous nature of the last three seasons (four coaches, not one but two high-profile players demanding out, 65-points last year), expect the leash on Howson to be short. \n

Cool fact

Four out of the five Central teams finished with more than 100 points last season, the first time a single division has so dominated the Western Conference. Similarly, the Atlantic Division commanded the East.