Central

WESTERN CONFERENCE
October 03, 2010

DETROIT

Red Wings

COACH

Mike Babcock (6th season)

LAST SEASON

44-24-14 (5th in West); lost in second round to Sharks

KEY ADDITIONS

RW Jiri Hudler, C Mike Modano, D Ruslan Salei

KEY LOSSES

D Brett Lebda, D Andreas Lilja

FOR A TEAM whose pregame meals could be mistaken for early-bird dinners—Detroit starts the season with eight players 35 or older—it may seem implausible to think time could work in its favor. But after playing more games than any other team over the last four seasons, the Red Wings could only welcome a longer summer break. "We needed it badly," says coach Mike Babcock. "The reality is, the kind of [playoff] runs we had the previous three years, we needed a break to refresh." And to heal.

Beset by injuries all season, most notably to emerging contributors like forwards Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Niklas Kronwall (all 40-point scorers in 2008--09), Detroit wasn't able to field a healthy squad until the Olympic break. Once the season resumed, the Red Wings went on a 16-3-2 tear to secure a playoff spot.

This squad is essentially the same as the '09--10 version, along with some scoring depth that G.M. Ken Holland thought his team lacked last season. In August he landed aging superstar, and Michigan native, Mike Modano, whom the Stars chose not to re-sign after 20 seasons. At 40 Modano isn't the same player he was in his prime, but he still skates like players half his age and will center the Wings' third line with Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler. There are now viable scoring options on every line. "I think we'll be able to come at you in waves," Babcock says.

An ultraexperienced defense (Detroit's top six share 60 NHL seasons among them) will help insulate second-year goalie Jimmy Howard, 26, whose fabulous 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage as a rookie (see, even their rookies are old) earned him Calder consideration and the starter's job.

But questions about the team's rising age (average 30.8 years) will persist. "Experience helps," captain Nicklas Lidstrom, 40, says. "Once you get down to it, age can work to your advantage."

CHICAGO

Blackhawks

COACH

Joel Quenneville (3rd season)

LAST SEASON

52-22-8 (2nd in West); won Stanley Cup

KEY ADDITIONS

RW Fernando Pisani, LW Viktor Stalberg, G Marty Turco

KEY LOSSES

D-RW Dustin Byfuglien, G Antti Niemi, LW Kris Versteeg

A MERE 14 DAYS after lifting the Stanley Cup, general manager Stan Bowman began the careful (and necessary) process of dismantling a championship team. Doomed by a tight salary cap, Chicago had dealt, or allowed to walk away, nine of the players who had helped lift the club to the top of the NHL, including big-bodied scorer Dustin Byfuglien and goaltender Antti Niemi. But one asset Bowman refused to part with was 28-year-old center Patrick Sharp, despite his $3.9 million cap hit.

"He was so instrumental in our playoff run," Chicago winger Patrick Kane says. "He pretty much plays in every situation—power play, penalty kill—and when you see how consistent he was, it's probably better to keep that around."

Sharp (below), who scored a career-high 66 points last season and along with Byfuglien led the Blackhawks with 11 playoff goals, also brings veteran leadership to a team that will skate with an all-rookie fourth line to start the season.

As much turnover as there was in Chicago during the off-season, it may not be the new faces in the room that prove to be the biggest adjustment for the young Blackhawks. Coming down from the high of the most exciting summer of their lives might be harder.

ST. LOUIS

Blues

COACH

Davis Payne (2nd season)

LAST SEASON

40-32-10 (9th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS

C T.J. Hensick, G Jaroslav Halak, C Vladimir Sobotka

KEY LOSSES

LW Paul Kariya, G Chris Mason, LW Keith Tkachuk

EVERY SO OFTEN a team needs to turn the page on its past and start writing a new chapter. For the Blues, who lost veterans Keith Tkachuk to retirement and Paul Kariya to injury (postconcussion syndrome), that time is now. "It's up to our guys who have been waiting patiently and learning as they went"—first-rounders such as forwards T.J. Oshie and David Perron and defenseman Erik Johnson—"to step out of the nest and spread their wings," says coach Davis Payne, who took over at midseason and guided the Blues to a 23-15-4 finish.

In addition to the youngsters St. Louis will look to forwards Brad Boyes (above) and David Backes to rebound from down years and regain their 30-goal form, and for new goalie Jaroslav Halak, last year's playoff revelation with Montreal, to pick up where he left off. At 25, Halak rounds out a group that G.M. Doug Armstrong hopes can grow together and deliver success for years to come.

"With all the high draft picks we had [over the last few years] we'd be foolish not to build around that," Armstrong says.

NASHVILLE

Predators

COACH

Barry Trotz (12th season)

LAST SEASON

47-29-6 (7th in West); lost in first round to Blackhawks

KEY ADDITIONS

LW Sergei Kostitsyn, C Matthew Lombardi, D Ryan Parent

KEY LOSSES

C Jason Arnott, G Dan Ellis, D Dan Hamhuis

WHEN COACH Barry Trotz summoned Shea Weber to Nashville in early July, the 25-year-old defenseman wasn't sure what to expect. "I thought maybe I was in trouble or that I was being traded," he recalls. Far from it.

The 6'4", 234-pound blue line force learned he would be fitted for a C and his defensive partner, slick and under-the-radar talent Ryan Suter, would soon wear an A. As defensive pairings go, Weber and Suter rank among the league's best, even if they are little known outside (or even within) their own market. They are the backbone of a team that has become a postseason regular despite its skeletal payroll (a huge testament to the work and talent of Trotz and G.M. David Poile). Though their playoff success has been limited—Nashville has yet to win a playoff series in five trips—their consistency and steadiness give them a chance. "We don't have the most skilled team in the league every year," says Weber. "But we find a way to play to our system and find ways to win."

The continued development of young talent such as 23-year-old right wing Patric Hornqvist, who shoveled in 30 goals last season, should alleviate the loss of Jason Arnott and once again push the Predators into playoff contention.

COLUMBUS

Blue Jackets

COACH

Scott Arniel (1st season)

LAST SEASON

32-35-15 (14th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS

RW Ben Guite, LW Ethan Moreau

KEY LOSSES

D Milan Jurcina, LW Raffi Torres

FOR THE Blue Jackets, the fall was quick. After making their playoff debut with a franchise-best 92 points in 2008--09, the team stumbled early last year. During a six-week run from November to January, Columbus dug a hole so deep (going 3-14-6, including a brutal stretch of nine straight losses) that it never pulled itself out.

After a Calder Trophy--winning season, goaltender Steve Mason underachieved so mightily that he was yanked from the crease seven times during the season and saw his GAA balloon from 2.29 to 3.06. Defenseman Mike Commodore struggled with injuries throughout the year, and Derick Brassard, who scored 10 goals in just 31 games in '08--09, finished with nine in 79.

"They were really disappointed in themselves," new coach Scott Arniel, who was hired in June, says of his players. "[There's] lots of frustration over how last year went."

Arniel, a former AHL coach of the year in Winnipeg, promises to bring up-tempo, offensive hockey to Ohio—a departure from the Blue Jackets' ultraresponsible style under Ken Hitchcock.

"We're going to have some growing pains," G.M. Scott Howson says. "But we'll go through them together and hopefully work them out and come out better on the other end."

Unfortunately for Howson, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE

The Red Wings have a great blend of veterans and younger players—including 23-year-old center Darren Helm—which should allow coach Mike Babcock to play the up-tempo style he prefers.... The Blackhawks are still going to be tough. The defense, led by Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, will be helped immeasurably by world-class puck-moving goalie Marty Turco.... Watch out for David Perron, one of the Blues' most exciting young forwards, who is among the top stickhandlers in the NHL.... The Blue Jackets' Rick Nash(below) is one of the best pure scorers in the NHL, but after that there are lots of holes. New coach Scott Arniel wants to open things up offensively, which should help left wing, and former first-round pick, Nikita Filatov emerge as a dynamic scorer.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOMENDED WING After missing 55 games with a knee injury last year, Franzen should provide jump to Detroit's aging lineup. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BOYES) PHOTODANNY MURPHY/ICON SMI (OSHIE) PHOTORIC TAPIA/ICON SMI (NASH) 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)