Central

October 01, 2006

NashvillePredators

LAST SEASON49-25-8, fourth in West; lost in first round to San Jose
KEY ADDITIONS C Jason Arnott, RW J.P. Dumont, C Josef Vasicek
KEY LOSSES D Mark Eaton, D Danny Markov, D Brendan Witt

AFTER OWNER CraigLeipold opened his checkbook this summer and increased the Predators' payrollby about 30% over last season's, Nashville is finally poised to pass Detroitand lay claim to being the strongboy in the NHL's weakest division. "Acouple of years ago we had one offensive line and two or three defensivelines," says general manager David Poile. "This year I think we canroll out three lines that can really crank it up offensively. All nine of ourtop forwards are capable of scoring at least 20 goals."

Poile had a busyoff-season, signing free-agent forwards Jason Arnott (five years, $22.5million) and J.P. Dumont (two years, $4.5 million) and bringing back defensemanMarek Zidlicky (four years, $13.4 million). Then he gave 30-year-old goalieTomas Vokoun the richest contract in franchise history: a four-year extensionworth $22.8 million that runs through 2010--11. Left wing Paul Kariya (31goals, 54 assists last season) is still the Predators' best offensive player,and the team may get some offensive pop from 20-year-old Alexander Radulov,their 2004 first-round pick who led the Quebec Major Junior League with 152points in 62 games in 2005--06.

Though Nashvilledoes have some uncertainty on the blue line--31-year-old Kimmo Timonen is theonly defenseman with more than two seasons of NHL experience--Vokoun (36-18-0record, .919 save percentage last season) thrives when facing a lot of shots.He and the goal scorers will be ushering in a new era in the Central Divisionthis season.

Detroit RedWings

LAST SEASON58-16-8, first in West; lost in first round to Edmonton
KEY ADDITIONS G Dominik Hasek, G Danny Markov
KEY LOSSES LW Brendan Shanahan, C Steve Yzerman

THE LAST time theRed Wings started a season without Steve Yzerman was 1983--84. In theintervening 23 years they went from being a perennial joke (the Dead Things) tothe NHL's most successful franchise. While Detroit will miss Yzerman, whoretired as the longest-tenured captain in NHL history (20 years), the teamstill has veteran leadership in 44-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios,37-year-old Mathieu Schneider and a dominant 36-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom (box,opposite page). That core will be rejoined by 41-year-old Dominik Hasek, whofive seasons ago backstopped Detroit to the Stanley Cup. Hasek has beentroubled by a chronic groin injury, but is determined to add a final flourishto a career in which he has won six Vezina Trophies and twice been named NHLMVP. (He had a 2.09 goals-against average in 43 games for Ottawa lastseason.)

While the RedWings will rely on experience to keep opponents from scoring, they'll count onfresher legs to put the puck in the net at the other end. Top offensiveperformers Pavel Datsyuk (a team-high 87 points last season) and HenrikZetterberg (39 goals, 46 assists) plus secondary weapons Mikael Samuelsson (23goals) and Jason Williams (21 goals) are all between 26 and 29 years old. Thisis a powerful team, and the win-at-all-costs attitude embodied by Yzermanremains. "Guys played with Steve a long time," says coach Mike Babcock,"and hopefully learned a lot from him."

Columbus BlueJackets

LAST SEASON35-43-4, 13th in West
KEY ADDITIONS LW Fredrik Modin
KEY LOSSES G Marc Denis, D Radoslav Suchy

Though the BlueJackets were a surprising 23-16-2 in the second half of last season, they werenot as formidable as that record suggests and will have a hard time picking upwhere they left off. Beyond 6'4", 215-pound left wing Rick Nash, 22, asuperb talent who led the team with 31 goals despite missing 28 games with kneeand ankle injuries, Columbus is thin offensively--especially given the leftshoulder injury that could sideline Sergei Fedorov until November. The defensewas weakened significantly by the loss of free agent Radoslav Suchy, and No. 1goaltending duties have been turned over to second-year man Pascal Leclaire(3.23 goals-against average in 33 games). This club has not come close toreaching the playoffs in its five-season history, and that won't change thisyear.

ChicagoBlackhawks

LAST SEASON26-43-13, 14th in West
KEY ADDITIONS C Michal Handzus, LW Martin Havlat, C Bryan Smolinski
KEY LOSSES RW Matthew Barnaby

They won't breaktheir trend of missing the playoffs (seven of the last eight seasons), but theBlackhawks could be more fun to watch. Second-year general manager Dale Tallonset out to add speed and skill to a lineup that had the NHL's second-worstoffense last season (2.55 goals per game), and he did so by trading forSenators forwards Martin Havlat (31 goals in 2003--04) and Bryan Smolinski (anable passer). Whether the Blackhawks can contain other teams will dependprimarily upon goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who led Tampa Bay to the StanleyCup in 2003--04 but bombed in his first Windy City season (3.35 goals-againstaverage and .886 save percentage). Tallon was brimming with optimism aftersigning Khabibulin last summer ("The Blackhawks are back!" he said),but this year he's more measured--and realistic. "I'm hopeful we'rebetter," Tallon says, "but you never know until we play."

St. LouisBlues

LAST SEASON21-46-15, 15th in West
KEY ADDITIONS President John Davidson, G Manny Legace, D Jay McKee, C DougWeight
KEY LOSSES RW Scott Young

The Blues' answerto putting up the worst record in the NHL last season and missing the playoffsfor the first time since 1979: hiring longtime NHL broadcaster (and former St.Louis goalie) John Davidson to be team president. The genial Davidson had abusy summer, bringing back veteran center Doug Weight (two years, $7 million),a free agent who won the Cup with Carolina after being traded by the Blues atmidseason, and shoring up the defense by signing Jay McKee (four years, $16million). Davidson also added goalie Manny Legace, who had a good regularseason but was a playoff bust (.884 save percentage in six games) last springfor Detroit.

Davidson inheritsa team that ranked last in the league in goals (197) and counts on aging powerforwards Keith Tkachuk (box, above right) and Bill Guerin, who scored only 13times last season in Dallas and looked overmatched in the Olympics. Handing thereins to a man who had no managerial experience was a bold move that couldeventually pan out. For now, St. Louis fans should prepare for another longyear.

MVP
NICKLAS LIDSTROM
D, Red Wings

The four-time Norris Trophy winner controls the actionwhile on the ice for up to 30 minutes a game. He starts the breakout,quarterbacks the power play and neutralizes the opponent's top forwards. Andwith Steve Yzerman's retirement, Lidstrom should emerge as the team's mostimportant leader.

Overrated
ADRIAN AUCOIN
D, Blackhawks

Expected to be a stalwart on the blue line--as well asan offensive force--the oft-injured Aucoin was minus-13 in 33 games in hisfirst year with the Blackhawks. Another clunker season, and Chicago's $4million-a-year captain will go down as one of the worst signings in franchisehistory.

On the spot
KEITH TKACHUK
LW, Blues

Last season he arrived at camp out of shape, and thenthe new, more open style of play in the NHL made the 34-year-old power forwardlook, at times, like a dinosaur. This year Tkachuk's in better condition, butcan he return to the form that once made him a perennial All-Star?

PHOTOROBERT C. MORA/WIREIMAGE.COMUNDER FIRE Vokoun will get a workout playing behind Nashville's suspect defense. PHOTOJAY LAPRETE/AP (NASH)POWER SHOT If he can stay healthy, Nash could become a 50-goal scorer for Columbus. TWO PHOTOSJEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES (LIDSTROM, AUCOIN) PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (TKACHUK) FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)