Chicago Sun-Times

NHL Central Division preview

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Just how good is the Central Division? With the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, the division is the class of the Western Conference, having two of the past three Stanley Cup champions.

And it's deep. Two seasons ago, four of the division's five teams made the playoffs: the Red Wings, Hawks, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. That can happen again this year.

Here's a look at the Central, in predicted order of finish:

DETROIT RED WINGS

Last season: 44-24-14, 102 points, 5th in the West

Top returning scorers: C Pavel Datsyuk (80 games, 27 goals, 70 points in 2009-10), LW Henrik Zetterberg (74-23-70), D Nicklas Lidstrom (82-9-49), LW Tomas Holmstrom (68-25-45), RW Todd Bertuzzi (82-18-44).

Key additions: Mike Modano (Dallas Stars) signed as a free agent. Jiri Hudler, 23-goal scorer in 2008-09, returned from Russia.

Key departures: None.

Back check: Detroit is a team of elder statesmen and injuries took a toll on them last year. But they still managed to surpass the 100-point plateau. The Red Wings are as deep and talented as the Hawks. The Red Wings had the best power play in the division last year.

Key questions: Is this season the last hooray for this current group of Red Wings? Will goalie Jimmy Howard have a sophomore slump?


BLACKHAWKS

Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, 2nd in the West

Top returning scorers: RW Patrick Kane (82 games, 30 goals, 88 points in 2009-10), D Duncan Keith (82-14-69), C Jonathan Toews (76-25-68), C Patrick Sharp (82-25-66), RW Marian Hossa (57-24-51).

Key additions: Goalie Marty Turco (Stars) and winger Fernando Pisani (Edmonton Oilers) will be counted on the most among the eight new Hawks on the opening-night roster.

Key departures: Replacing LW/D Dustin Byfuglien (Atlanta Thrashers), D Brent Sopel (Thrashers), LW Andrew Ladd (Thrashers), C John Madden (Minnesota Wild) and G Antti Niemi (San Jose Sharks) won't be easy.

Back check: The Hawks won a division title last year for the first time since capturing the old Norris crown in 1992-93. As the defending champs, the Hawks can expect the best from every opponent. The Hawks' top five in points and goals scored return from last year. Six of their seven defensemen also come back from last year's Stanley Cup finals.

Key questions: Will the Hawks regret saying goodbye to Niemi? Are the offseason losses too much for the Hawks to overcome?


NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Last season: 47-29-6, 100 points, 7th in the West

Top returning scorers: LW Steve Sullivan (82 games, 17 goals, 51 points in 2009-10), RW Patric Hornqvist (80-30-51), RW Martin Erat (74-21-49), RW J-P Dumont (74-17-45), D Shea Weber (78-16-43).

Key additions: C Matthew Lombardi had 19 goals and 53 points for the Phoenix Coyotes last season. Shane O'Brien (Vancouver Canucks) will bring toughness to the blue line.

Key departures: Former captain C Jason Arnott (New Jersey Devils), D Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver Canucks) and G Dan Ellis (Tampa Bay Lightning) will all be missed.

Back check: Nashville has a good mix of veterans and young players. Weber was named captain, ushering in a new era for the Predators. Weber and Ryan Suter are a top-of-a-line defensive paring. Pekka Rinne is an underrated goalie, who nearly outplayed Niemi in the first round last postseason. The Predators had a .651 winning percentage in one-goal games last year, trailing only Phoenix.

Key question: If leading-scorer Hornqvist played the entire first round, would the Hawks have eliminated the Preds last year in the first round?


ST. LOUIS BLUES

Last season: 40-32-10, 90 points, 9th in the West

Top returning scorers: C Andy McDonald (79 games, 24 goals, 57 points in 2009-10), RW David Backes (79-17-48), C T.J. Oshie (76-18-48), C Alexander Steen (68-24-47), LW David Perron (82-20-47).

Key addition: Goalie Jaroslav Halak backstopped the Montreal Canadians in last year's unexpected playoff run. The 25-year-old signed a four-year deal with the Blues in July.

Key departures: LW Paul Kariya is sitting out the season with post-concussion syndrome, while C Keith Tkachuk retired. G Chris Mason (Florida Panthers) started 61 games last year for the Blues.

Back check: The Blues are a young team that loves to be physical. With Halak in goal, they are a sleeper team in the Western Conference. Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in 2006, is on the verge of becoming an elite defenseman. The Blues had the league's best penalty kill last season. Offensive consistency is key.

Key questions: Can the Blues score enough to contend with the Hawks, Red Wings and Predators? Will Halak have a letdown after last year's success?


COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Last season: 32-35-15, 79 points, 14th in the West

Top returning scorers:
RW Rick Nash (76 games, 33 goals, 67 points in 2009-10), C Antoine Vermette (82-27-65), LW Kristian Huselius (74-23-63), LW R.J. Umberger (82-23-55), RW Jakub Voracek (81-16-50).

Key addition: Scott Arniel takes over behind the bench for the Blue Jackets.

Key departure:
The only notable loss was Raffi Torres (Vancouver Canucks), who played 60 games for Columbus before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres.

Back check: Columbus sits at the bottom of the Central Division and the Western Conference. Nash is the force behind all things Columbus. But does he have enough help? Voracek, the seventh overall pick in 2007, could be in line for a big season. A rebound season by goalie Steve Mason, the 2009 Calder Trophy, will be important. Columbus allowed a division-worst 3.04 goals per game last year.

Key question: Was changing the head coach enough to prevent the Blue Jackets from sitting out during the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons?

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Adam L. Jahns is a native Chicagoan hailing from the Far Northwest Side. Jahns has been with the Sun-Times for more than four years, covering the Hawks, Bears, Cubs, Sox and high schools.

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This page contains a single entry by Adam L. Jahns published on October 7, 2010 1:21 AM.

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