Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Predictions: Central Division

My pre-season NHL predictions are underway. I have already posted my predictions for the Northwest Division and the Pacific Division.

Here is the Central Division:

1. Detroit Red Wings This team is almost a lock to win this division. Not because they are the most dominant team in the NHL, but because they have no talented rivals. Detroit has the best defenceman in the NHL in Nicklas Lidstrom, who along with Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Chelios and Brent Sopel will make a talented defence core. They have a good set of forwards too led by Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom. Dominik Hasek is a top goalie, even at age 42, but he is a serious injury risk given his history of groin problems. Should Hasek stay healthy, Detroit could win the West Conference. If they are stuck with Chris Osgood or Jim Howard in goal for long periods of time, it will be much less likely.

2. Nashville Predators They patiently built a very good team, but then quickly dismantled a good portion of it to reduce payroll to be sold. Gone are Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun and Peter Forsberg. Left behind is an unspectacular, but not awful team. Chris Mason is a good goalie, but it is unclear how he will handle the workload of a bonafide number one goalie. Marek Zidlicky, Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis anchor a still solid defence. Their offence is weakened but still has Jason Arnott, JP Dumont and David Legwand. This team could take the biggest drop (in terms of points) from last season and worse for Nashville fans is likely on its way out of town.

3. St Louis Blues Of the three weak teams last year in this division, this team has the most positive to offer. Paul Kariya, Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk are a talented, although aging, group of talented scorers. Their defence is not bad either with Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman and rookie Erik Johnson. Likely one of Manny Legace or Hannu Toivonen will offer solid, though unspectacular, goaltending. This team is a great example of a team that lacks both weakness and strength.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets Doug MacLean led this team nowhere. They are no closer to the playoffs now than they were when they expanded. Now that he is gone, they might have a chance to grow. Rick Nash is a very talented young player, but is yet to have that huge point scoring season. He is surrounded by David Vyborny, Nikolai Zherdev and Frederik Modin who are solid but unspectacular. Their defence led by Ron Hainsey, Rotislav Klesla and Adam Foote is also unspectacular. The goaltenders Frederik Norrena and Pascal Leclaire have never proven to be great goalies either. Perhaps their biggest strength is coach Ken Hitchcock, who is one of the best in the NHL and will get the most possible from this mediocre crew.

5. Chicago Blackhawks They have been poorly run through the Bill Wirtz years. They lack the top coach of Columbus (Denis Savard has not proven to be anything special as a coach). Their offence is waiting for rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to develop. Until then, they make due with talented but frequently injured Martin Havlat, even more frequently injured Tuomo Ruuttu and aging faceoff man Yanic Perreault. On defence they have a good group of young talents in Duncan Keith, Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook, but no proven gamebreakers. Nikolai Khabibulin has had some good seasons, but not since coming to Chicago (which may be due in part to high shot quality that he faces), but he should be reliable. Chicago should move in the right direction when their young talent is ready, but that may not be this season.

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