R.J. Umberger tries to create a scoring chance from his knees against Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
THN pre-season prediction: 4th in West
Scoring leaders: Patrick Sharp, 44; Jonathan Toews, 36; Patrick Kane, 34.
Key stat: Despite the off-season losses, last year’s No. 16-ranked power play recently overtook Vancouver as the most efficient this season at 24.4 percent.
Biggest surprise: After dumping players and salary in the summer, players such as 2004 second-rounder Bryan Bickell have stepped to the fore. His 24 points in 42 games is a slightly better pace than he was on in the American League last season.
Biggest disappointment: Maybe too much was expected out of free agent acquisition Marty Turco, but the veteran was signed with the intention of being the team’s No. 1 goalie. His 3.02 GAA and .899 SP suggest otherwise.
What to expect: Without salary cap space to work with, fine-tuning via trade is likely out of the question. But the Hawks, winners of eight of their past 12, have come out on top in some key contests lately and goalie Corey Crawford has confidently taken over the top job. The West is a logjam that will come down to the wire, but a year after winning the Cup, this young team has more experience and know-how than some others and should be able to navigate their way into the top eight.
THN pre-season prediction: 14th in West
Scoring leaders: Rick Nash, 35; R.J. Umberger, 29; Derick Brassard, 26.
Key stat: Only Central team with a sub-.500 record against the division (3-6-1).
Biggest surprise: That none of their young players have upped their production. There’s no questioning Rick Nash is the team’s leader, but he needs some reliable scoring help to deflect some of the opponents’ focus. Derick Brassard is seeing only slight improvement, while Jakub Voracek is steady on last season’s pace. Nikita Filatov is back in the minors after going scoreless in seven games. When will they step up?
Biggest disappointment: After such a stellar rookie season, the pressure, fair or not, has been heavy on Steve Mason. His numbers fell off in his sophomore season and while it could initially be written off as a jinx, his GAA is currently well above three and his save percentage just below .900, a trend that’s becoming worrisome. Mathieu Garon has been getting most of the starts lately.
What to expect: The Jackets are 13-18-3 against the West and 7-2-0 against the East, so they must find a way to start winning inside the conference or else they’ll fall out of the post-season race quick, if they’re not already too far out. With a home-and-home against Detroit Jan. 14 and 15, the Jackets need to find a way to topple their nemesis and get back to their early-season form. If not, it’ll be another lottery pick and GM Scott Howson may not be the one deciding who to select. This team has needed a reliable puck-moving defenseman forever, but have to be careful not to move any important young pieces to get one. Look for John Moore, the 21st overall pick from 2009, to get a look in the second half.
THN pre-season prediction: 3rd in West
Scoring leaders: Henrik Zetterberg, 49; Nicklas Lidstrom, 41; Pavel Datsyuk, 39.
Key stat: Have blocked the fewest amount of shots in the Western Conference (489).
Biggest surprise: Is there really anything surprising about this team anymore? Is the surprise the fact they’re still challenging for the best record in the league even as their best players continue to age? Is it Nicklas Lidstrom running along at nearly a point-per-game pace, gunning for another Norris Trophy that he’d receive after his 41st birthday? Is it the fact injuries to Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary, Mike Modano, Kris Draper and more haven’t slowed down this juggernaut at all? Nope. There just aren’t any surprises with this team anymore; the Winged Wheel just keeps on truckin’.
Biggest disappointment: There’s no question it’s Jiri Hudler. Brought back after a year in Kontinental League exile, Hudler was supposed to add scoring depth. But, with only 12 points in 38 games, the Czech native has been a healthy scratch a few times. With six points in his past eight games there’s hope he’s turning it around, but to this point, he hasn’t brought to the table what he was supposed to.
What to expect: Another serious run at the Cup. Don’t listen to anyone who says this team is too old and that you have to be young to win the championship in today’s NHL. After Anaheim won the Cup you had to be tough with some fighters; after Detroit won, you had to have experience and dominate puck possession; after Pittsburgh won, you had to go far and lose before you could win; and after Chicago won, you had to lean on your youthful exuberance. The formula seems to change every year and to bet against this tried-and-true, well-oiled machine because last year’s champs lived by a different mantra is folly.
THN pre-season prediction: 10th in West
Scoring leaders: Shea Weber, 26; Patric Hornqvist, 23; Sergei Kostitsyn, 23.
Key stat: The 26th-ranked power play (14.5 percent) is in direct contrast to an 86 percent penalty kill that is third in the league and best in the West, 1.3 percent higher than second-place Vancouver.
Biggest surprise: Lots of things are surprising about this team, but it’s nice to see Colin Wilson quietly having a strong season. Fourth in team scoring with 11 goals and 22 points in 43 games, the sophomore is 17th on Nashville in TOI, averaging 13:52 per game. Through November, Wilson had seen more than 16:00 in a game only twice, but has crossed that mark seven times since, so coach Barry Trotz is starting to trust him more. Honorable mention goes to the injured Cal O’Reilly.
Biggest disappointment: Upon arriving in Nashville in 2006, J-P Dumont enjoyed two seasons where his points production rose, but after seeing his totals fall for two seasons, the numbers are coming down even further this time. The 32-year-old is seeing less than 13:00 of ice per night and with only four goals and 11 points, is on pace for his lowest output since 2000.
What to expect: The unexpected. Nashville continues to defy all logic and Trotz’ coaching continues to be underappreciated by everyone outside Tennessee. Without much offense to speak of, the Preds would do well to acquire a veteran forward at the deadline. Though this team watches what it spends, GM David Poile is shrewd and has pulled off big in-season deals before (think Peter Forsberg and Steve Sullivan). Word to the wise: don’t underestimate this team just because you don’t recognize many of the names on the roster. Nashville will hang around to the very end and work on getting over the post-season hump by winning their first playoff round in franchise history.
THN pre-season prediction: 6th in West
Scoring leaders: David Backes, 35; Alex Steen, 31; Brad Boyes, 25.
Key stat: The Blues had the lowest shots-against per game for a while and currently sit fifth in that category, which flies directly in the face of the fact their .688 winning percentage when being outshot is third-best in the league and tops in the Western Conference.
Biggest surprise: Again, a number of surprises on this team, but the play of Matt D’Agostini is particularly impressive. He played 40 games for the Montreal Canadiens last season and posted four points. So the Habs had seen him at the NHL level and decided to exchange him to the Blues for Aaron Palushaj, who is still in the AHL and not posting the numbers D’Agostini once did there. D’Agostini, a sixth-rounder from 2005, could hit 20 goals this year and has twice as many markers as the guy he was traded for – plus he’s playing in the better circuit.
Biggest disappointment: Much like the Islanders – but not on as big a scale – injuries have conspired against the Blues. The team’s top two scorers from last season, T.J. Oshie and Andy McDonald, have combined for 38 games this season, while David Perron, who had seen his goal production go up in each of his first three NHL seasons, is out with a concussion. There’s no question having these players in the lineup would dramatically change the fortunes of this hot-and-cold team.
What to expect: With tons of salary cap space, the Blues may go shopping for some veteran help up front to try and improve the league’s 19th-ranked offense, but they would likely target an expiring contract. RFAs Oshie, D’Agostini, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund will have to be taken care of, though if the Blues decide to let UFA Eric Brewer go, increasing payroll for next season is less of a concern. Much of the team’s early-season success was due to Jaroslav Halak’s play, but he has cooled and has allowed three or more goals in eight of his past 11 games – a stretch that’s seen him go 4-6 with one no decision. There’s still lots to play out in the tight Western Conference, but whatever happens, expect the Blues to be in the thick of things right into April.
THN Puck Panel – Breaking down the Southeast and Central Divisions
EDITOR: Mark Gougeon | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
THN's mid-season reports will run two a day from Jan. 12-14.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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