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Central Division: Even with departures, Blackhawks still favorites

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Chicago Blackhawks: It’s fair to wonder how much will the Blackhawks really miss all the guys they lost over the summer -- if at all?

The Blackhawks hope Marty Turco can carry most of the action between the pipes. (AP)  
The Blackhawks hope Marty Turco can carry most of the action between the pipes. (AP)  
Common sense would dictate the Blackhawks being weakened by a summer that saw them lose seven players who were on the ice when they skated around the Stanley Cup last June. Among the departed were some notable and popular playoff stars including Dustin Byfuglien and goalie Antti Niemi. But what seems to matter most about this team is that the Blackhawks did manage to hang on to the key parts of their lineup.

"That was our goal," GM Stan Bowman said. "Everyone knew what we were going to deal with after the season, but the important thing is that our core guys are back and will be here for a long time."

In Chicago, the core starts with captain and tone-setter Jonathan Toews, snipers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and a couple of forwards who made names for themselves during the playoffs in Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer. Meanwhile Duncan Keith was the Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman last season and teams with Brian Seabrook makes up half of a great shutdown pair, while Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson make up a solid second unit.

So even with so many familiar faces gone, the Blackhawks start the season with their seven best forwards still and to four defensemen still around.

Still it’s going to be tougher to repeat as Central Division champions if Detroit isn’t as banged up as last year, and ultimately to get out of the West. Chicago did bring in veteran forward Fernando Pisani to add some depth and the Blackhawks will have some spots available for the latest products of a farm system that largely developed last season’s Cup champs, but the wild card is how veteran Marty Turco handles himself in goal.

Turco is looking for a chance to resurrect his career after things soured for him in Dallas, and to win his first Stanley Cup. He was so motivated, he took a steep pay cut to join Chicago, but he has to prove he can regain his form. If he does, the team in front of him could help get the big prize.

2010-11 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets: If you're getting the feeling that Columbus really isn't getting anywhere, you're not alone. The Jackets certainly made changes after missing the playoffs for the eighth time in their nine seasons of operation, but to suggest Columbus is any closer to being a postseason qualifier would require a lot more than a leap of faith. Still fourth-year general manager Scott Howson had to try something now that the novelty of a new franchise has worn off in Columbus. Everything there centers around franchise player Rick Nash and hopefully for the Jackets, around goalie Steve Mason as well if he can recover from a disappointing sophomore season. But the supporting cast around them leaves something to be desired.

It could help if Nikita Filatov's return from Russia lives up to the promise and if Derick Brassard stays healthy. Those are two young players the Jackets expect to make impacts, and they'll have to because other than fading veteran Ethan Moreau, the Columbus lineup will be a near mirror of last season.

The biggest change will be behind the bench with a new coaching staff led by rookie Scott Arniel.

Arniel was actually the organization's second choice behind Guy Boucher, another rookie who turned down Columbus for the gig in Tampa.

Detroit Red Wings: Detroit didn’t really rock the boat during the off season despite its earliest playoff exit in three years. One reason of course was that with 40-year-old franchise cornerstone Niklas Lidstrom still around for at least one more year, the Red Wings want to give its veteran crew what might be its last shot for awhile.

Mike Modano, 40, is the newest of veteran players on the Red Wings roster. (Getty Images)  
Mike Modano, 40, is the newest of veteran players on the Red Wings roster. (Getty Images)  
But even if you won’t need a program to tell the players right now, the look on the ice might be a little different. One thing that will take some getting used is seeing Mike Modano wearing Red Wings colors. The 40-year-old Detroit native was signed as a free agent after spending his entire career with the Stars organization, and coach Mike Babcock has him ticketed to be on a two-way type of third line with Jiri Hudler and Dan Cleary.

Babcock is also planning to split up his top defensive pairing, although Lidstrom and Rafalski will still be together on the power play. But Detroit has been using its captain with Niklas Kronwall and Rafalski with Brad Stuart at regular strength, while newcomer Ruslan Salei has generally seen pre-season action with Jonathan Ericsson.

There are still some questions in goal though for Detroit, even though rookie Jimmy Howard did well enough to garner Calder Trophy consideration last season. Babcock has never come across as being totally sold on Howard, although the alternative is again Chris Osgood, who lost the job last season.

Then again Detroit has rarely been done in by its netminding. With Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and now Hudler back from Russia leading the way, the Red Wings still have the look of a big time offense if the players stay healthy. And Detroit doesn’t get hurt along the blue line either when it is at full strength.

That’s the key for the Red Wings. Stay healthy and stay in serious contention.

Nashville Predators: There's no better example in the NHL of a team doing a lot with a little year after year than Nashville. The Predators have been a financially challenged franchise since the day they joined the NHL in 1998, and have dealt with even more difficult problems thanks to scandals involving a couple of their owners over the years.

Yet they have been run by the same general manager and the same coach since Day 1, and have earned the reputation of being one of the league's hardest teams to play against. And that was even before Nashville started making the playoffs on a regular basis.

The Predators have been to five of the last six postseasons, four of them since the lockout, and always with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Last season Nashville was a 100-point team as well and probably won't surprise anyone this time if it does much the same. At the very least you can expect the Predators to fight for a playoff spot again under coach Barry Trotz.

GM David Poile let veterans Jason Arnott, Dan Hamhuis and Dan Ellis go to free agency, but he brought in speedy center Matthew Lombardi and winger Sergei Kostitsyn to help boost an offense that could be better than 18th this time this time around. Patric Hornqvist is coming off a breakout 30-goal season and Martin Erat, Steve Sullivan and David Legwand aren't stone hands around the net.

Nashville's strength though is in the back end, with captain Shea Weber and Ryan Suter as the top unit and Pekka Rinne usually providing Vezina type goaltending behind them, the kind that makes the Predators more competitive than they might otherwise be.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues may have scored the coup of the offseason by trading for goalie Jaroslav Halak and then re-signing him before he became a free agent. The move cost a team with a rich farm system a couple of prospects, but landed it one of last season's top playoff stars, and someone young enough to build around for a long time.

The long term view has been fashionable in St. Louis for the last few years since a new ownership regime took over and began the process of rebuilding the franchise. St. Louis had spent much of the pre-lockout period looking for instant gratification, sacrificing young players for veterans that brought some results, just not fulfilling ones. But under Dave Checketts and John Davidson, the organization has been getting younger and faster and has already seen some of the fruits of its labor.

Just not last season though. The Blues missed the playoffs despite a strong second half, a turnaround that came after rookie Davis Payne was brought up from the minors to replace Andy Murray as coach in January. The brass had been worried that young players development had been stalled, but Payne began coaxing more out of the young players he had known through the system.

So no there is a sense in St. Louis that they are ready to take the next step.

The crop of young forwards in St. Louis is impressive, and includes David Backes, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, all of whom have offensive skill. So does Brad Boyes, who slumped to just 14 goals last season, but he's only 28 years old and averaged nearly 40 goals in his previous two seasons with the Blues.

Meanwhile, the back end has a potential future Norris Trophy winner in Erik Johnson as the anchor. It's a pretty solid collection of young talent that could surprise a lot of people of Halak does what he did in last spring's post season with Montreal.

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