NHL Season Preview: Central Division

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It’s that time of year again!!! The air is getting colder, and the sweaters are coming out.  The hockey sweaters that is.  From now until Opening Day of the NHL 2010 season, look out for new division previews, new in depth team outlooks, and big predictions and prognostications of the glorious season to come.  Today, we take a look at the Central Division, the Chicago Blackhawks and what to expect this season.

2010-2011 NHL SEASON INFORMATION EXTRAPOLATION

By: Bryan Vickroy

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1. Chicago Blackhawks

2009-10 Record:  52-22-8       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Patrick Kane, RW (30-58-88)

Offense

For a team who had to let so many people go, they seem to replenish instantly from within.  Very few of the holes were plugged with imports, and most of the call ups already possess NHL scoring abilities.  Kane, Sharp, and the rest of the Hawks will be a target this year and can expect a harder go of it every night.

Defense

Overall, the best unit of blue liners in the game.  Duncan Keith is the reigning winner of the Norris Trophy, the Stanley Cup, and an Olympic gold medal.  While the contracts are big, they play up to their dollar amounts most of the time.  The top 4 are all shutdown players, and also score at a higher rate than most forwards.  Beyond them in the depth chart it doesn’t matter.  These four own the ice time.

Goalies

Marty Turco was brought in to fill the net after the Hawks decided not to give Antti Niemi arbitration.  While Turco has been steady in Dallas, he’s never been spectacular.  He won’t need to do much more in Chicago though.  Cristobal Huet will be the backup, unless his salary space is needed and he gets sent down to the AHL.

Top Player:  Patrick Kane, RW.  The Stanley Cup’s bodyguard for the summer it seemed, Kane is ready to rock again this year, and even improve, if possible.  Look for huge point totals this year, and a continued rise of Kane into the Crosby/Ovechkin stratosphere.

Breakout Star:  Viktor Stalberg, LW.  Stalberg was traded from Toronto and will get a shot to play right away with all the openings that became available.  He was a stone cold sniper in college at Vermont, and almost took the team to Frozen Four glory by himself.  Look for him and his wicked wrister to bring Chelsea Dagger across the airwaves.

Outlook

While its hard not to expect some type of Cup hangover after the partying and purging of contracts, the Blackhawks still have the talent and depth to stay at the top of the NHL this season.  The core is intact and ready to make more magic.  Best case scenario has a repeat performance, and another championship not by the Cubs.  Worst case has the last year catching up to them and falling a bit in the playoff standings.

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2. Detroit Red Wings

2009-10 Record:  44-24-14     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Pavel Datsyuk, C (27-43-70)

Offense

The deepest, most dangerous, mesmerizing offensive force in the game right now.  They can score with any move of the puck, and usually do.  Last year saw injuries cripple the offensive juices early, but health brought the goal scoring back.  Look for more of the high scoring affairs of old in Motown.

Defense

The ageless Nicklas Lidstrom continues to be the rock in Detroit Rock City.  He and Brian Rafalski shut it down like Drake, and score just as often.  The men behind them are tough, hard nosed, and aggressive in both ends.  Sometimes get caught pinching or making rushes, and give up the puck in the opposite direction.

Goalies

Jimmy Howard was ridiculously old for a rookie last year, but played like a veteran of the same age.  He took command of the job from the ageless Chris Osgood, and never gave it back.  While his play is usually stellar, the lack of action he sees sometimes gets him into trouble.  Osgood will be trying to collect the last four wins to 400, but hasn’t won a game in almost a calendar year.

Top Player:  Pavel Datsyuk, C.

Breakout Star:  Patrick Eaves, RW.  Eaves is the son of Wisconsin hockey coach Mike Eaves, and it shows in the younger one’s game.  He is a superb two way player who will contribute in all facets of the game.  While he won’t get the playing time of some other players, he will eventually become the new wave that takes over the dynasty.

Outlook

The Red Wings finally got some rest during the summer, and hope that it will help heal this group of battered veterans.  If they stay healthy, like they were after the Olympic break, they are nearly unbeatable.  If they struggle, the West is very deep and has been catching up to them.  Best case has the Wings closing down Joe Louis Arena with another Stanley Cup.  Worst case has them sliding again and becoming merely just another playoff team.

3. St. Louis Blues

2009-10 Record:  40-32-10     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Andy McDonald, LW (24-33-57)

Offense

The Blues possess the weapons of a bonafide playoff contender.  The key is getting them all to perform and function properly.  If they can get the likely production from all their lines, they will be in for a good season.  If they struggle to score goals, they must keep their composure and not show their youth.

Defense

This group is big, strong, and can move the puck.  They aren’t the fastest group, but will contribute on the rush or by bombarding from the blue line.  The dangerous Al McInnis is tutoring these kids to rip the slap shot like it’s 1980 again.  They also had the best penalty kill in the league last year.

Goalies

The Blues pulled the trigger on a deal for Jaroslav Halak, and now he will hope to carry over his playoff magic to the banks of the Mississippi.  He will be the undisputed starter in St. Louis, and should look even stronger with a better cast around him.  Lifer backup Ty Conklin will perform admirably in, well, backup.

Top Player:  David Backes, C.  Backes is big, strong, and knows how to score.  He will throw his body around, and punish you at both ends.  After beating you down, he use his speed to crash the net and score.  Has a bright future in the STL.

Breakout Star:  Erik Johnson, D.  Johnson came back from a knee injury looking good last year, but still shaky.  An Olympic experience and hot play down the stretch proved that Johnson is back to the skills that made him a #1 overall pick.  Look for him to rack up the points this season.

Outlook

While the Blues missed the playoffs last season, they showed that all the pieces are there for a revival of hockey in St. Louis.  Their young talent is gelling, and ready to produce on the national stage.  Best case has the Blues battling for a division crown with the heavyweights, while worst case has them struggling to get it together again, and missing out on the playoffs once more.

4. Nashville Predators

2009-10 Record:  47-29-6       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Patric Hornqvist, RW (30-21-51)

Offense

There never seems to be a true offensive weapon in Nashville, but the pieces are supposedly there.  Under production, injuries, and slumps affected the output of this team.  They will win close games, but they aren’t the type of team that can trade goals back and forth through three periods, maybe not even a full period.

Defense

Nashville has Olympic quality blue liners paired together to form one of the best and youngest tandems in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.  Beyond that pair, the Predators lack a lot of real talent or skill.  They are very strong in their own end, although their stats spiked a bit last season in the wrong direction.  Look for them to get back to shutdown, one goal hockey games.

Goalies

Pekka Rinne will be the Predators (nearly) only goalie in net.  He is always strong, especially down the stretch run.  The key will be no to over work him in making too many saves.  If he needs a breather, or God forbid is injured, Mark Dekanich or Chet Pickard will fill in.

Top Player:  Steve Sullivan, LW.  Sullivan is like quicksilver on the ice, bouncing around the ice at warp speed.  If he gets the puck in open space, he’s gone.  Look out for him cycling on the power play as well.

Breakout Star:  Colin Wilson, C.  Wilson was a start at Boston University, and is showing the same flair in his brief stint with the big club last  year.  Look for him to get more opportunities to score for this team that always is in need of an offensive threat.

Outlook

Nashville is one of the steadiest teams in the league, and will challenge every game, every night.  They know how to get to the playoffs, they just don’t know how to win there.  They need to step up their production in the offensive end if they want to make it deeper.  Best case has the Preds finally advancing to the second round of the playoffs.  Worst case has them stumble, or a Rinne injury, and falling into the bottom of the pack.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

2009-10 Record:  32-35-15     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Rick Nash, LW (33-34-67)

Offense

While Rick Nash does all the heavy lifting, other around him are starting to show signs of life.  Columbus may finally have more than one player who can find the back of the net.  While they will always struggle to score goals at even strength, they tend to find a way to make something happen on special teams.

Defense

This group is young, and for the most part, home grown.  Unfortunately, they also tend to stay home too much, and aren’t the greatest skaters overall.  This causes problems in starting a forecheck, and getting back to defend.  Their weakness handicaps the team at times, and limits what they can do offensively.

Goalies

Steven Mason went from rookie of the year two seasons ago, to stumbling badly and dropping both statistically and in confidence.  Mason looks to bounce back this year, work perhaps a little lighter load, and get his game back to the Vezina quality he displayed.  Mathieu Garon will get the rest of the duty when Mase is out.

Top Player:  Rick Nash, LW.  Nash has quietly become one of the most reliable scorers in the game.  He is strong at both ends of the ice, and has shown he’s a winner while playing for Team Canada.  Just needs help around him to fully become a dominant scorer.

Breakout Star:  Kris Russell, D.  While not overly big, Russell is quick and can move the puck up the ice.  Just as likely to dish an assist as he is to finish the puck himself.  One of the few players on the team who had a positive +/- last season for the Jackets.

Outlook

The Blue Jackets will always take a back seat until at least January 1st, thanks to THE Ohio State Buckeyes.  However, the Blue Jackets are steadily developing into a strong group of players.  Unfortunately they also reside in possibly the toughest division in the league.  Best case has Columbus reaching for their second playoff berth, while worst case has the Blue Jackets blue and possibly holding the #1 pick.

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Bryan Vickroy has an addiction to hockey, and is willing to partake in all its forms.  He is skating extra shifts this season, covering the Minnesota Wild, the NHL, and NCAA hockey all year long.  Look for new articles throughout the week.  He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bryanvickroy/ If you’d prefer to speak in more than 140 characters at a time to him, he can be reached at bryan.vickroy@gmail.com

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