Central camp preview: Slimmer champs face challengers

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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So what can they do for an encore?

No really, what can the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks do for an encore after losing seven players from the lineup that clinched hockey's biggest prize? It's not a trick question, just one that, like the thick, humid air, hung around all summer while Chicago was using a scalpel on its roster and losing several clutch performers.

The Blackhawks lost a lot of players, but key guys like Jonathan Toews remain from a team that lifted the Cup. (Getty Images)  
The Blackhawks lost a lot of players, but key guys like Jonathan Toews remain from a team that lifted the Cup. (Getty Images)  
Theoretically, those salary-driven departures should hurt the Blackhawks' chances of becoming the NHL's first repeat Cup winner in a decade because team chemistry, we're told, is generally critical to success. And the young, brash Blackhawks seemed to have plenty of it during their magical run last season.

Of course, they had a fair amount of talent too, the bulk of which, including seven top forwards and the four top defensemen, remains. And it will be joined by a new goalie who is a pretty good and not-too-old veteran eager for a fresh start.

So while the sense that a big hole has been created in the dressing room was probably inevitable, the reality is that Chicago heads toward training camp looking not so much stripped down but more like a leaner version of the team that won it all just a few months earlier. The Blackhawks had to say goodbye to some good and popular players who made contributions during the team's superb postseason, but the core group is intact. That means they still have as much elite talent as anyone in the league.

This is a salary-capped world, after all, and that allows only so many high-priced players to stay around. In Chicago, the group includes captain Jonathan Toews, who baseball types would describe as a five-tool player, the electrifying Patrick Kane, 30-goal types Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and postseason breakout playerss Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer. Meanwhile Duncan Keith was the NHL's top defenseman last season and makes up half of a great shutdown pair with partner Brent Seabrook, while Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson are no slouches as a second unit. If Marty Turco has any kind of rebound season in goal after escaping the nightmare Dallas became, there's no reason Chicago can't challenge for another Cup.

But first the Blackhawks will have to get through a tougher Central Division. Chicago ended Detroit's eight-year stranglehold on the division flag, helped by an inordinate amount of injuries that left the Red Wings on the playoff bubble as late as the Olympic break. Once healthy, and despite long runs to the Finals for the two previous seasons, Detroit had a remarkable 16-2-3 finish to break the 100-point mark for the 10th time in a row and get to the second round of the playoffs before running out of gas against San Jose.

Detroit wasn't very active during the offseason, in large part because there won't be any major rebuilding effort while 40-year-old franchise cornerstone Nicklas Lidstrom is still around. But in the meantime, the Red Wings did make some notable moves bringing a Lidstrom age-contemporary, future Hall of Famer Mike Modano, in to finish his career at home and bringing back gifted forward Jiri Hudler from Russia's KHL.

Equally important, Detroit isn't starting the new season with goaltending concerns after rookie Jimmy Howard did well enough to garner Calder Trophy consideration. And the longer offseason can't help but be a boon to a team that isn't as old as generally perceived, but has enough important players that are getting up in years to create a sense of urgency.

There's probably less of a sense of urgency in Nashville now that the ownership shares of fraudster William "Boots" Del Biaggio have been transferred. The Predators are almost entirely in the hands of local owners, but there isn't necessarily much more money to spend for an organization that continues to enjoy modest success on the ice despite its frugal ways.

The Predators were a 100-point team last season despite having one of the league's lowest payrolls, and might have upset Chicago in the playoffs' first round if not for a brain cramp at a pivotal point by one of its top players. And Nashville will be near the bottom in salaries again this season, which is why captain Jason Arnott, veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis and goalie Dan Ellis are no longer around.

But Nashville did hang on to Patric Hornqvist, who came out of nowhere to lead the team with 30 goals last season, and the Predators added speedster Matthew Lombardi and Sergei Kostitsyn up front and defenseman Ryan Parent.

The upshot is that Nashville will be a little younger than it was last season, though not as young as the Blues. St. Louis has been in a youth movement during much of the post-lockout years, and even though it seemed to stall last season until Davis Payne replaced Andy Murray as coach after New Year's, the organization has not changed courses.

This season key youngsters like Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, who took big steps forward last season, will be asked for more now that veterans Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya and Chris Mason are no longer around. Especially since St. Louis pulled off one of the offseason's stunning trades by getting Montreal's playoff hero, goalie Jaroslav Halak, for prospects.

Columbus, though, had no such luck and might be hard pressed to rebound from a disastrous season. The Blue Jackets have a new coaching staff led by rookie Scott Arniel, and captain Rick Nash is a world-class player, but Ethan Moreau was the biggest offseason addition and not the kind to change anyone's fortunes.

But the Blue Jackets do have some talent and can be a lot more competitive if goalie Steve Mason plays the way he did as a rookie two years ago. Columbus is still likely to be looking up at everyone in the division when things are said and done.

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