On the surface, things look familiar around the Central Division heading into training camp because the Nashville Predators haven't gone anywhere. Not yet anyway.
|After spending last season with Atlanta, Keith Tkachuk is back with St. Louis. (Getty Images)|
And the changes will impact the rest of the division as much as it affects the team itself.
"Obviously they've lost some real top, top players, but they've got young great players too," Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "There's no reason to think Nashville isn't going to competing for the most points in our division."
If so, the Predators will be fighting it out with the talented Red Wings, who captured the Central Division flag last season with 113 points, three more than Nashville. Detroit heads into the new season having made a major change to its back end with the addition of Brian Rafalski to replace the departed Mathieu Schneider, but the lineup is fundamentally the same as it was last year and still clearly the class of the division.
Even so, points will be harder to come in the Central Division, because the also-rans have done some upgrading, a process that began midway through last season when the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets all changed coaches.
The Blues, who have a respectable group of defensemen that will be aided nicely if Jay McKee stays healthy this season, reaped the most immediate results after Andy Murray took over behind the bench. They finished the season 27-18-9 under his direction, and they've improved their offense by signing Paul Kariya and bringing back Keith Tkachuk.
Meanwhile, Chicago has gone through a bigger lineup transition by bringing in veteran forwards Robert Lang, Sergei Samsonov and Yanic Perreault, but the real cause for optimism in the Windy City these days is due to the young talent that has been assembled by the team in the past few drafts.
The Blackhawks, already with an impressive group of young defensemen, took Buffalo native Patrick Kane with the first overall pick in June and have Jonathan Toews, the third pick in 2006, both of whom will be in the lineup when the season starts and ready to make their presence felt.
"We like the mixture of young players we have," Chicago GM Dale Tallon said. "It's a very difficult division, but we've bridged the gap with some veteran signings in the off-season and we feel can compete with anybody."
That's not really the case in Columbus, where Hitchcock gets to impose his brand of discipline from the outset of the season on a franchise that has been best known for its country-club type atmosphere. The Blue Jackets are entering a new era with rookie Scott Howson taking over from Doug MacLean as general manager, and with veteran Michael Peca arriving to provide the kind of on-ice leadership that has been lacking since the franchise debuted in 2000.
Columbus will benefit if aging Sergei Fedorov, a future Hall of Famer, has the kind of inspired season many players do in the final year of a contract, but there are still too many holes in the lineup for the Jackets to be much of a factor. They should be a much tougher team to play against, which in itself would represent a significant step for the organization.