The St. Louis Blues – The Central Division is probably the strongest all-around division in the Western Conference, and the Blues are a big reason why. A big, physical, gritty team, the Blues will benefit heavily from the shortened season just like the New York Rangers will. Featuring forwards David Backes and Chris Stewart, the Blues can really grind down low in the offensive zone. But the most impressive part of the Blues’ game (aside from their goaltending tandem) is their defense. Anchored by 22-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues are in good shape to play lockdown defense again this year. The young d-man put up 51 points last season and has consistently improved in the scoring department over the last couple of years. But the Blues’ goaltending is their most impressive suit. St. Louis boasts two star goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott who are both fantastic. In 38 games, Elliott posted a 1.56 GAA, with a .940 SV%, just unreal numbers. Combine that with a 1.97 GAA and a .926 SV% from Halak in 46 games, and you have the best tandem of goalies maybe in the history of the league. In a short season where the schedule will be compact, a goalie tandem is exactly what can save you for a playoff run, and that’s exactly what the Blues have.
Photo Credit: UPI/Bill Greenblatt
The Chicago Blackhawks – Despite finishing fourth in the division last season, the Blackhawks still put up 101 points. I believe that Chicago will build on their season from last year, barring one key player’s improvement: Corey Crawford. The 28-year old had a steady drop in production last year, posting a 2.72 GAA after having a 2.30 GAA the year before. If Crawford can straighten himself out, the Blackhawks can become heavy favorites for not only the division, but the conference as well. Chicago also has many things to be excited about. First of all, their top pair is the best pair of defensemen in the division, in my mind. With Ryan Suter leaving for Minnesota, the pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook blows away the competition. Seabrook had a +21 rating last season, while Keith had a +15 rating. Factor in the offensive explosiveness of the Blackhawks’ offense, and you have a team with insane potential. Chicago boasts four offensive stars in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa. Hossa totaled 77 points last season, while Kane had 66. Sharp had 69 points (on 33 goals) and Toews had 57. The offensive firepower of these four should be enough to carry the team in a shortened season.
The Nashville Predators – Although Nashville lost defenseman Ryan Suter to the Wild, they still have a Norris-trophy candidate in Shea Weber on the blue line. The Predators front office made a smart move retaining the face of their franchise by matching Philadelphia’s offer sheet they submitted over the offseason. Nashville has a good defense, and they certainly have a star in net. Pekka Rinne has been a Vezina trophy nominee for the past two seasons, and consistency is his game. Last season, Rinne posted a 2.39 GAA with a .923 SV% in 73 games(!) with 5 shutouts for the Predators last season. The shortened season should come as a relief for both Rinne and the Predators organization, so Rinne doesn’t have to play in so many games. The question, as is for many teams, will be the offense. Top center David Legwand only put up 53 points last year, and they are going to need more production from him to make a statement. The same goes for winger Sergei Kostitsyn, who only put up 43 points. If Patrick Hornqvist can build on his 27 goals from last year, it would be a breath of fresh air for Nashville fans. Having only one other player score over 20 goals last season (Mike Fisher), the Predators need to find their scoring touch this year.
The Detroit Red Wings – The shortened season might save the legs of the Red Wings’ skaters, but the fact of the matter is that the Red Wings aren’t getting any younger. Their top line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen are 34, 32, and 33-years-old, respectively. Luckily, the three skaters put up more than 56 points last season. The name of the game for the Red Wings this year will be secondary scoring. Only one other player scored more than 50 points last season, and that was Valterri Filppula. The Wings are going to need points from more players to keep pace with the teams at the top of the division. Defensively, the team has an aging, but solid group with Ian White (28), Niklas Kronwall (31), and Jonathan Ericsson (28) leading the way. Experience will be key in this sprint of a season, but there comes a point where age will catch up to the legs of these skaters. The Red Wings will also be missing out on the 2013 Winter Classic, which they were scheduled to play in this past New Year’s Day.
Photo Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
The Columbus Blue Jackets – Currently, the last place finisher in the entire league last season is in worse shape this year now than they were at the end of last season. Star winger Rick Nash has been dealt to the Rangers for a mediocre return of centers Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, defensive prospect Tim Erixon, and a first round pick. Dubinsky is already slated to become the first line winger on the depth chart, but he was really nothing more than a role player on a growing Rangers team. Combine this with the fact that Erixon may not be ready for the NHL game, and the Blue Jackets are not in very good shape. What they do have is a very good defensive group in front of Erixon, featuring James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson, but again, the Jackets need goals. Gone is Nash who led the team with 30 goals, and in steps the new leading scorer from last year: R.J. Umberger, who only scored 20. Columbus is certainly headed in the right direction with the youth of their team, but I cannot see any situation in which the Blue Jackets do not finish in last in a very competitive Central Division.