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NHL Season Preview: Central Division

Jonathan Toews had 32 goals and 76 points in 80 games last season. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jonathan Toews had 32 goals and 76 points in 80 games last season. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The NHL season gets underway Oct. 6 with three games scheduled. But before the puck drops on another exciting season, we'll take one last look ahead at each of the divisions. Monday we previewd the Atlantic and Pacific and today we look at the Central and Southeast. Be sure to check back Wednesday for the remaining two divisions.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Top three fantasy options: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp.

Key additions: Andrew Brunette, Rostislav Olesz, Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell, Jamal Mayers, Dan Carcillo, Sami Lepisto.

Key departures: Brian Campbell, Jake Dowell, Troy Brouwer, Tomas Kopecky.

Something to prove: When he plays, Dave Bolland is an effective third-liner who is a royal pain in the chuff to opponents and chips in with timely goals in big games. But over the past two seasons, injuries have limited him to just 100 games. Bolland gives the Blackhawks much of their identity, but they have to be able to count on him being healthy.

The big question: Will the additions of character veterans such as Andrew Brunette, Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O’Donnell make the Blackhawks more difficult to play against or just older and slower? Brunette always finds a way to score goals, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Outlook: The Blackhawks went from Stanley Cup juggernaut to small, soft and easy to play against in record time. But the good news is they addressed those shortcomings just as quickly and are poised once again to contend in the Western Conference. Their salary cap and goaltending woes, which gave them just as many headaches as any Stanley Cup hangover, appear to be resolved. And if they can find a way to keep Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook from burning out from too much ice time, they’ll rise again. THN PREDICTION: Third in West.

POLL: Where will the Blackhawks finish?

DETROIT RED WINGS

Top three fantasy options: Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen.

Key additions: Ty Conklin, Ian White, Mike Commodore.

Key departures: Kris Draper, Chris Osgood, Brian Rafalski.

Something to prove: After scoring five goals in a game against Ottawa in February, Johan Franzen scored just two more in his final 27 games of the season and had only a pair in the playoffs. He was slowed by groin and ankle injuries, but Franzen is paid quite handsomely to score goals. Had he not slumped late, he easily would have hit 40.

The big question: Can Nicklas Lidstrom continue to defy nature and tie Bobby Orr by winning his eighth Norris Trophy? If not, will the Wings be able to survive if his game suddenly declines? The way Lidstrom works in the off-season makes the latter a remote chance, but others will ultimately have to step up.

Outlook: Any team with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg down the middle and Lidstrom on defense has an enormous advantage. But unless some of the support players step up, the Red Wings will have a difficult time getting beyond the powers in the Western Conference. Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula need to step it up, particularly in their offensive production and a full healthy season from Datsyuk will go a long way. Jimmy Howard gets his wins, but could be more consistent. THN PREDICTION: Fifth in West.

POLL: Where will the Red Wings finish?

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Top three fantasy options: David Backes, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie.

Key additions: Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Kent Huskins.

Key departures: Ty Conklin, Cam Janssen, Dave Scatchard, Nathan Oystrick.

Something to prove: After coming to the Blues in a trade from Montreal, goalie Jaroslav Halak was anointed the crease savior in St. Louis and while he certainly played well enough, he also displayed a penchant for giving up bad goals at crucial times. Talent is not the question with Halak, but consistency and focus is a concern.

The big question: With David Perron out for the start the season, will his concussion problems force him to miss another campaign and could they rob him of his NHL career? He passed his baseline test, but nobody, including Perron, knows when he’ll be ready to return from a hit that sidelined him last November.

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Outlook: The Blues and the second round of the playoffs haven’t been on speaking terms for nine years. But they could be reunited if the organization’s young players continue to develop and the veterans acquired over the summer are healthy enough to show them the way. The Blues were devastated by injuries last season and you’d have to think there’s no way they’ll be hit with the same vengeance in 2011-12. Goalie Jaroslav Halak would help the cause by being more consistent and tightening up on the soft, spirit-killing goals. THN PREDICTION: Seventh in West.

POLL: Where will the Blues finish?

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Top three fantasy options: Martin Erat, Shea Weber, Patric Hornqvist.

Key additions: Jack Hillen, Niclas Bergfors, Zack Stortini.

Key departures: Joel Ward, Cody Franson, Steve Sullivan, Matthew Lombardi, Marcel Goc, Shane O'Brien.

Something to prove: After scoring 30 goals in 2009-10, Patric Hornqvist had just 21 last season and more importantly, connected for only two in 12 playoff games. The Predators are consistently in the bottom third of the league in offense and that probably won’t change, but they could use more from both Hornqvist and Mike Fisher (who is expected to miss the team's opener).

The big question: Will the Predators produce anything even resembling a point-per-game scorer this season and if so, who could possibly be a candidate? We don’t like their chances given their highest scorers had just 50 points and Niclas Bergfors was the main off-season offensive addition.

Outlook: Coach Barry Trotz will coax his team into the playoffs, because that’s what he always does, but the Predators will provide as much intrigue off the ice as on it this season. Defenseman Ryan Suter and goalie Pekka Rinne are due to become unrestricted free agents next summer and Norris Trophy contender Shea Weber will be restricted, with one more year until he hits UFA status. Can the low-budget Predators sign them all? Conventional wisdom suggests they can’t, so one of the three might be moved by the trade deadline. THN PREDICTION: Eighth in West.

POLL: Where will the Predators finish?

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Top three fantasy options: Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger.

Key additions: James Wisniewski, Radek Martinek, Jeff Carter, Vaclav Prospal.

Key departures: Jakub Voracek, Mathieu Garon, Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, Scottie Upshall, Sami Lepisto, Nikita Filatov.

Something to prove: It might not be fair to pick on a guy who missed more than 40 games with an injury last season, but the problem was Kristian Huselius wasn’t so great in the games he played, posting a very ugly minus-17 in just 39 games. He’ll miss the start of this season too, but it’s imperative he gets back to form when he returns.

The big question: Can Steve Mason recapture the form he displayed as the Calder Trophy winner two seasons ago or will he continue to be plagued by inconsistency? It’s not that Mason was terrible last season, but he set the bar awfully high with his rookie campaign and has taken a step back.

Outlook: The Blue Jackets are bleeding money and losing fans, so building slowly and patiently is out of the question. Thanks to the addition of Jeff Carter, for the first time in his NHL career Rick Nash won’t have to carry the pressure and face the on-ice attention that comes with being the only offensively gifted player on the roster. The Jackets’ offensive output should also emerge from the bottom third of the league. Columbus fans will have to wait until Game No. 9 to see $33 million man James Wisniewski in action because of a pre-season suspension. THN PREDICTION: 12th in West.

POLL: Where will the Blue Jackets finish?

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