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Western Conference: Central

Oct. 08, 2007
Oct. 08, 2007

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Oct. 8, 2007

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Western Conference: Central

DETROIT REDWINGS

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2007 issue

LAST SEASON50-19-13 (first in West); lost in conference finals to Anaheim

KEY ADDITIONS RWDallas Drake, D Brian Rafalski

KEY LOSSES RW ToddBertuzzi, C Robert Lang, D Mathieu Schneider

If there is anegative to running a perennial Stanley Cup contender, Red Wings G.M. KenHolland has found it. "You get a late start on your tan," Holland saidlast spring, before his team's ouster in the conference finals. It's anacceptable consequence for a team that has made the playoffs every year since1991 and amassed a league-high 11 100-point seasons during that stretch.

Will thepostseason streak continue in 2008? The rub this year is that the team's keycomponents are too old in the back and too small up front. Detroit's threefuture Hall of Famers on the defensive end--goalie Dominik Hasek and bluelinersChris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom--average nearly 42 years in age and at somepoint will begin showing it. The team's biggest forwards last season, ToddBertuzzi and Robert Lang, departed as free agents, leaving 5' 11" PavelDatsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and 6-foot Tomas Holmstrom to create offensewith little protection. "Are we big enough?" Holland asks. "We'veheard that criticism since 2000. In a cap world you can't address everyneed."

The Red Wingsaddressed one by signing free-agent defenseman Brian Rafalski from the Devils.He should step in for the departed Mathieu Schneider on the power play, butDetroit will still need a boost from unproven sources. To that end the RedWings have high hopes for Valtteri Filppula, a smart, two-way Finnish centerentering his second full year, and Igor Grigorenko, a forward who has beenhoning his skills in the Russian Super League.

This Detroit teammay not be as good as those of recent vintage, but it is still the best thedivision has to offer.

NASHVILLEPREDATORS

LAST SEASON51-23-8 (fourth in West); lost in first round to San Jose

KEY ADDITIONS CRadek Bonk, D Greg de Vries, LW Martin Gelinas

KEY LOSSES C PeterForsberg, LW Scott Hartnell, LW Paul Kariya, D Kimmo Timonen, G TomasVokoun

At the NHL draftin June coach Barry Trotz spoke like a man who had just watched his house burndown. "You can sit around and mourn what you no longer have," he saidat the end of a week in which his team shipped 22-goal scorer Scott Hartnelland frontline defenseman Kimmo Timonen to Philadelphia and pricey goaltenderTomas Vokoun to Florida, getting only draft picks in return, "or you canmaximize what's there." With a possible ownership change in the works, G.M.David Poile cut payroll to make the Predators more attractive to prospectivebuyers.

Trotz, the onlycoach the 10-year-old franchise has ever had, deserves better. For most of lastseason he had his entertaining squad fighting for the NHL's best record. Butbecause of the roster purge, that won't happen this year: In addition toHartnell, Timonen and Vokoun, the team also let star forwards Peter Forsbergand Paul Kariya slip away in free agency.

What's left? Startwith centers David Legwand and captain Jason Arnott, who tied for the team leadwith 27 goals. Then add goalie Chris Mason, who finished with the league'ssecond-best save percentage (.925) and made Vokoun expendable. Beyond that,there are few sure things.

ST. LOUISBLUES

LAST SEASON34-35-13 (10th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS LWPaul Kariya, LW Keith Tkachuk

KEY LOSSES RWDallas Drake, RW Radek Dvorak

After Andy Murrayreplaced Mike Kitchen as coach last December, the Blues awoke on the morningsof road games to required reading that had been slipped under their hotel roomdoors: detailed scouting reports that Murray expected them to memorize. Theadded insight helped St. Louis, which had begun the season 7-17-4 underKitchen, catch fire and finish on a 27-18-9 run. "When [Murray] came, thewhole world turned around for our club," says goaltender Manny Legace.

In the off-seasonSt. Louis signed speedy veteran winger Paul Kariya to kick-start the power play(second-worst in the league last season) and invigorate an often anemicoffense. And for the second straight year, the Blues gained by dealing aveteran at the trading deadline and re-signing him as a free agent in thesummer. In 2006 center Doug Weight returned from Carolina; this June it wasgritty forward Keith Tkachuk after two months in Atlanta.

St. Louis is alsoexcited about defenseman Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, whojoins the team after a year at the University of Minnesota. The mix of veteranshoping for one last hurrah and youngsters eager to prove themselves should atleast make the team entertaining, even if the Blues aren't yet playoffcaliber.

CHICAGOBLACKHAWKS

LAST SEASON31-42-9 (13th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS CRobert Lang, LW Sergei Samsonov

KEY LOSSES DAdrian Aucoin, D Jassen Cullimore, C Michal Handzus

Here's the NHL'smost striking irony: A team coached by Denis Savard, one of the most creative,dynamic forwards in the history of the game, is an offensive enigma. Only theOilers scored fewer goals than the Blackhawks' 195 last season, and Chicago waslast in the league on the power play at 11.8%--including just 8.9% at home.

"Thedifference this year," insists G.M. Dale Tallon, "is that we have realassets who can produce and build a long-term future for us." At just 5'10", 163 pounds and 18 years old, right wing Patrick Kane, a skilled scorerand playmaker whom Chicago made the No. 1 pick in the June draft, willneed plenty of seasoning before he becomes a frontline player. Center JonathanToews, a strong two-way forward who was the third pick of the 2006 draft andplayed for the last two seasons at the University of North Dakota, will beready to help the Blackhawks sooner.

So Tallon isright: Chicago is indeed moving in the right direction, but it will take a fewyears to arrive there.

COLUMBUS BLUEJACKETS

LAST SEASON33-42-7 (11th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS DJan Hejda, C Michael Peca

KEY LOSSES D BryanBerard, D Anders Eriksson, C Alexander Svitov

Since thefranchise's first game in October 2000, Columbus has had a league-worst172-258-33-29 record and never made the playoffs. But that hasn't stopped G.M.Scott Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock from trying to establish some pride on theteam. A few weeks ago they installed a large glass case in the hallway ofNationwide Arena that leads from the team's dressing room to the players'lounge, on which notable Blue Jackets' accomplishments--such as Rick Nash'swinning the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer in2003-04--are commemorated.

Hitchcock is adisciplinarian who has never missed the playoffs when he has coached a team fora full season, but Columbus is still a work in progress. Nash has slipped from41 goals to 31 to 27 in the last three years. Center Sergei Fedorov has lookeduninterested playing for a mediocre team. Winger Nikolai Zherdev has yet totranslate his sublime skills into elite play.

Columbus iscounting on three prospects to develop quickly: playmaking center DerickBrassard, the team's first-round pick in 2006; center Gilbert Brulé, its toppick in '05; and Kris Russell, a raw, skilled defenseman listed at 5' 10",160¬†pounds. Their emergence may take a while, but there is plenty of spaceon the board.

MVP

NICKLAS LIDSTROM

D, Red Wings

Watching Lidstrom dive behind bewildered Detroit goalieDominik Hasek to swipe a puck off the goal line in last year's playoffs madeeveryone realize that there is virtually no play he doesn't make when itcounts.

Underrated

DAVID VYBORNY

RW, Blue Jackets

Vyborny fits into Ken Hitchcock's demanding systembecause he is defensively responsible and durable. He led Columbus in assists(48) and points (64) last season and had a +6 rating on a bad team.

On the Verge

LEE STEMPNIAK

RW, Blues

Last season, his second in the league, Stempniak ledthe Blues with 27 goals in less than 15 minutes a game. The Dartmouth gradplays smarter than his 24 years and has a knack for finding open ice.

PIERRE MCGUIRE'S In the Crease

The additions of reliable defenseman Brian Rafalski andhard-hitting forward Dallas Drake will make the Red Wings even tougher to playagainst. Drake will push role players like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby toanother level. . . . If goaltending coach Rick Wamsley can get Hannu Toivonenback to where he should be, the Blues will have an excellent tandem in net withToivonen and Manny Legace. . . . To discount the Predators' offense would be amistake. Alexander Radulov should be among the most dynamic one-on-one playersin the league.

PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGESLONG-TERM PLAN The Wings gave Datsyuk a seven-year, $46.9 million extension in April.THREE PHOTOSDAVID E. KLUTHO (KARIYA, LIDSTROM, STEMPNIAK)PHOTORONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (VYBORNY)FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS