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THN.com Blog: Central Division preview

Can the Blackhawks end the Red Wings' run of Central Division titles? (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Can the Blackhawks end the Red Wings' run of Central Division titles? (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
THN Prediction: Second in Western Conference

Key additions:
Marian Hossa, RW; Tomas Kopecky, LW; John Madden, C
Key departures: Martin Havlat, RW; Nikolai Khabibulin, G; Sammy Pahlsson, C; Matt Walker, D

Young teams that breakthrough generally take a step back the following season – even the Penguins were rough around the edges to start last year – so don’t expect the Hawks to smoothly sail through a season of only good stories and overall improvement.

The departure of Stanley Cup-winning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is perhaps the transaction that will have the most impact, as full-time duty now falls to Cristobal Huet – a goalie once considered to be so anti-clutch, Montreal GM Bob Gainey traded him when the team was a Cup contender.

In an attempt to counteract a potential calamity in net, two defensively sound forwards, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden, were added to a team that was eighth in shots-against last season. Marian Hossa, brought into replace Martin Havlat’s production, won’t be available until December as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Chicago will be among the league’s best if they are able to cope with hiccups along the way.

DETROIT RED WINGS
THN Prediction: Fourth


Key additions:
Todd Bertuzzi, LW; Patrick Eaves, RW; Jason Williams, RW
Key departures: Chris Chelios, D; Ty Conklin, G; Marian Hossa, RW; Jiri Hudler, RW; Tomas Kopecky, LW; Mikael Samuelsson, RW

Make no mistake, the Red Wings are still the team to beat here, but there’s no hiding the fact they lost three of their top six goal-scorers, a backup goalie who kept the team afloat when Chris Osgood couldn’t stay consistent and another forward who’s defensive play on the depth lines shouldn’t be underrated or undercut.

Not to mention the fact two of those players signed with divisional rival Chicago.

However, the Wings still have a couple of the best players on the planet, a power forward who continues to get better at age 29, a system that has proven time and again to be a winner and a defense corps that is the best – or at least, among the best – in the league.

As always Osgood will be at the center of attention, as his regular season last year was horrific. Instead of having proven backup Ty Conklin as a safety net this year, unproven and inconsistent Jimmy Howard provides the secondary goaltending.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
THN Prediction: Eighth

Key additions: Mathieu Garon, G; Sammy Pahlsson, C; Anton Stralman, D
Key departures: Christian Backman, D; Manny Malhotra, C; Michael Peca, C; Jason Williams, RW

Like the Hawks, Columbus’ batch of young potential that broke through to the playoffs last year epitomizes a division that is quickly becoming the league’s toughest.

For Columbus to build on the franchise’s first playoff appearance, rookie of the year Steve Mason has to play up to a level approaching what he accomplished last season. Although asking or expecting him to post another 10 shutouts is unfair, the Jackets were third best in shots-against last season and coach Ken Hitchcock is renowned for his defense-first mentality.

To take some of the pressure off Mason, the Jackets absolutely have to improve on the league’s worst power play. Since they failed to add a reliable man-advantage quarterback, the responsibility falls on Rick Nash and the cast of 20-something offensive weapons the Blue Jackets will go to battle with up front.

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The Western Conference has improved around them, with non-playoff teams Dallas, Edmonton and Los Angeles all expected to be better, so adding full seasons from Nikita Filatov and Derick Brassard to the already-talented mix should help keep the young franchise in the post-season.

ST. LOUIS BLUES
THN Prediction: Ninth

Key additions: Ty Conklin, G; Darryl Sydor, D
Key departures: Jay McKee, D; Jeff Woywitka, D

A strong finish to last season elevated the Blues into a surprise playoff position, where they were completely outmatched by the Vancouver Canucks. And while it doesn’t seem as though the Blues did much to improve in the off-season, a closer look reveals a team that will be in the hunt until the bitter end again.

Paul Kariya, who was limited to 11 games last season with a hip injury and 2006 first-overall pick Erik Johnson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, are two free, key additions who will play huge roles on the team.

Having Kariya on the front lines evenly fills out the Blues’ top three units with a vast amount of scoring potential, while Johnson’s return to the blueline – which was one of the best last season in limiting shots against – will improve them both defensively and offensively.

Goalie Chris Mason’s play down the stretch was the difference between playoff season and golf season for the Blues last year, but the last time he entered the season as a No. 1, Mason faltered in Nashville and ended up losing the job.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
THN Prediction: 10th

Key additions: None
Key departures: Radek Bonk, C; Greg de Vries, D; Vern Fiddler, LW; Ville Koistinen, D; Scott Nichol, C; Greg Zanon, D

Because of financial constraints, the Predators couldn’t go spending on the free agent market and are left largely unimproved over the team that finished 10th in the West last season.

Not that it’s a lost cause, though, because the Predators only missed the playoffs by three points and have a fair amount of internal talent to keep the team competitive.

Aside from their underrated defense led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, goalie Pekka Rinne provides enough reasons to believe in this team. Following in the footsteps of Nashville goalies before him, Rinne stepped to the fore as a backup and eventually usurped Dan Ellis. His rookie season was perhaps the least recognized of all, but he was top 10 in the league in shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage. Given Nashville’s history in goal, expect him to do much of the same this time around.

But no matter how well Rinne or the defense plays, Nashville isn’t going anywhere if they can’t improve on the 24th-best offense from a year ago.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.

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