The Chicago Blackhawks took over the Central Division crown last season and used it to help win the Stanley Cup. But a strong finish showed the Detroit Red Wings aren't quite ready to be pushed aside.
|The Blues' recent acquisition of goalie Jaroslav Halak makes them younger and more talented. (AP)|
St. Louis slipped back, but the Blues have a lot of young talent and seemed to right themselves after Davis Payne took over behind the bench at mid-season. What about the Columbus Blue Jackets? Well, they have a new rookie coach and not much else.
Here's a snapshot of what the teams have done since the season end.
Chicago Blackhawks: The champagne-soaked clothes hadn't come back from the dry cleaners before the Blackhawks started the dismantling process forced upon them by the salary cap limit. Since the draft, Chicago has moved out five regulars from its Stanley Cup lineup and a sixth might leave for an offer sheet. And there are still eight more roster spots to fill. More salary dumps have to come because the Blackhawks have only 14 players on the roster and goalie Antti Niemi has filed for arbitration. Chicago's core is still there with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and a few other key players under long term deals, but the Blackhawks seemed destined to find that getting to the top is easier than staying there. Heading: Sideways
Detroit Red Wings: It was easy to think their great era had ended during a miserable first half. But Detroit's aging lineup was so decimated by injuries, the Wings were lucky to even be hanging around. But they did and managed to put together a great finish that actually had the Blackhawks hearing footsteps at the end. Truth is, though, the Red Wings aren't getting any younger and they haven't done anything to hide the grey so far in the offseason. Their experience means something, obviously, and the talent is there, although the time for it as assembled is running short. Detroit does have some cap space and a few roster spaces to fill, and may end up using some of it to bring Mike Modano back to his home town. Heading: Down
Nashville Predators: No one has talked about relocation since the season ended, which is a good thing in Nashville. If nothing else, it lets the Predators muddle along as they always have, keeping a tight grip on the purse strings while maintaining a stable organization and collecting just enough talent to challenge, and sometimes make the playoffs. It's not a recipe for big success, but survival is success for this franchise. And that requires staying competitive within a budget, which meant Nashville couldn't keep defenseman Dan Hamhuis, captain Jason Arnott or goalie Dan Ellis. But the Predators did make a great free-agent signing by landing speedy center Matthew Lombardi, talented, but inconsistent forward Sergei Kostitsyn came in a trade. And if Nashville ever decides to spend a few dollars, it has plenty of room. Heading: Sideways
St. Louis Blues: The Blues are expecting several members of their talented young group to step up big next season. Veterans Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are gone and St. Louis has a self-imposed budget that will keep its spending close to the salary floor, so there hasn't been and likely won't be an infusion of big-name talent this summer. But the Blues have drafted very well over the last few seasons and have done a good job integrating talents like T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and Erik Johnson. The plan now is to let them continue making the kind of progress they did when the coaching change was made. But St. Louis needs those players to speed up their development curve because it made a big investment in its goaltending by trading for and signing Jaroslav Halak. Heading: Up
Columbus Blue Jackets: Think about this. A minor league coach looking for his first NHL job gets an offer and turns it down. What does that tell you about the state of the Columbus Blue Jackets? Their first choice as coach decided to wait for something better for his first job. It tells you there is still a lot of fixing to do for an organization that has had a top 10 draft pick, often in the top six, in all but one season since being born in 2000. Problem is Columbus really got it right only once when it had the first pick and grabbed Rick Nash. He's the essence of the team fall back coach Scott Arniel inherits in his first NHL job. Columbus' only offseason move of note has been to claim Oilers discard Ethan Moreau off waivers. Then again, Columbus isn't a destination of choice among NHLers. Maybe if goalie Steve Mason plays like his rookie of the year season instead of last season's slumping sophomore, it could be. Heading: Down