A look at each of the divisional standings continues this week with the Central Division. (Atlantic Division breakdown can be found HERE.) I'll be on holidays until after the Labor Day weekend, but we'll get right back on the horse once I'm finished and cover the final four throughout September.
CENTRAL DIVISION (in predicted order of finish)
Detroit Red Wings
Coming: Dallas Drake, Brian Rafalski
Going: Todd Bertuzzi, Kyle Calder, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider
Why 1st? Because year after year, I anticipate the Wings will take on water, only to see them sail along without incident.
Granted, they're still depending on Dominik Hasek's health Â– mental and physical Â– to keep them afloat, and losing three of their top eight point-getters (Lang, Calder and Schneider) from last season will put more of a strain on Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom to power the offensive engine.
Nevertheless, coach Mike Babcock's emphasis on defensive responsibility from every position will help plug any holes that come his ship's way. And there is no better management group in the league than the one in Detroit. So long as they don't deal for Todd Bertuzzi again, the future remains bright.
St. Louis Blues
Coming: Erik Johnson, Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Hannu Toivonen
Going: Radek Dvorak, Jamie Rivers, Curtis Sanford
Why 2nd? Because, thanks in part to the generosity of the Boston Bruins (who were willing to donate the services of Brad Boyes and, more recently, Toivonen) and the turn-around talents of president John Davidson, the Blues are poised for a return to the post-season.
Now, is their offense going to challenge that of the Senators for best in the business? Hardly. However, coach Andy Murray has a nice combination of skill and sandpaper to work with and he demonstrated last season he can provide his players with the confidence and structure they lacked before he arrived.
I don't believe there will be as much as 10 points of breathing space in the standings between St. Louis and Nashville by the season's conclusion; in the end, at least on paper, the Blues' defense corps (which includes the prized rookie Johnson, Eric Brewer, Jay McKee and Barrett Jackman) gives them the edge.
Coming: Radek Bonk, Greg de Vries, Martin Gelinas, Jed Ortmeyer
Going: Scott Hartnell, Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Vitali Vishnevski, Tomas Vokoun
Why 3rd? Because Bonk, de Vries and Ortmeyer are no more adequate replacements for Kariya, Timonen and Hartnell than Enrique Iglesias would be if Andrea Bocelli needed a breather.
No doubt, coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile will keep the Predators competitive, but the badly-botched ownership saga that took place this summer did enough damage to the roster that a playoff berth is no longer an assurance.
If they are to play past April, the Preds will need goalie Chris Mason to prove himself over a full season (for the first time), as well as continued, significant progress from youngsters such as Shea Weber and Alexander Radulov. That's not an overabundance of Â“ifs,Â” but it isn't Lock City, either.
Coming: Kevyn Adams, Patrick Kane, Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault, Sergei Samsonov, Jack Skille, Jonathan Toews, Andrei Zyuzin
Going: Adrian Aucoin, Jassen Cullimore, Jeff Hamilton, Michal Handzus, Tony Salmelainen, Radim Vrbata
Why 4th? Because when you had the second-worst offense in the league last season (and the ninth-worst defense), adding some B-grade veteran talent and praying your prospects will pan out isn't going to propel you into the playoffs.
One day, if Chicago doesn't follow its traditional pattern of fudging the future and shortchanging its salary structure, the group it has now could very well grow into Stanley Cup contenders. Indeed, being able to boast of Toews, Kane, Tuomo Ruutu, and Skille up front, and Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker on the blueline, gives the few dozen remaining Hawks faithful much to put their faith in.
For now, though, it's going to be another year of tough sledding and Alan Thicke-less growing pains. Even if they do shock the hockey world and make the playoffs, with notorious post-season softies such as Lang, Samsonov and Perreault on board, the Hawks' subsequent first-round performance would make Atlanta's 2007 flameout look heroic by comparison.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Coming: Kris Beech, Derick Brassard, Sheldon Brookbank, Jan Hejda, Jiri Novotny
Going: Bryan Berard, Brian Boucher, Anders Eriksson
Why 5th? Because, although the dismissal of former GM Doug MacLean is addition by subtraction, there's not nearly enough complementary additions nor additional subtractions to warrant dreams of the franchise's first-ever playoff appearance.
Yes, a full season of Ken Hitchcock's tutelage will help Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule round out their games. And yes, new GM Scott Howson won't be fooled into ill-advised trades or signings of the Sergei Fedorov/Anson Carter variety. But 137-year-old Adam Foote remains their best defenseman, and goalie Pascal Leclaire has received more second chances than Steve Howe.
In sum, it's a long way up from where the Jackets finished last year. At this stage, positioning the ladder in the upright position is challenge enough.
Screen Shots will return Sept. 6
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