Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Central Division

After previewing the Pacific yesterday, today we turn our heads to the Central, a division where all five teams could be seen as having realistic post-season aspirations.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Andrew Brunette - Dave Bolland - Marian Hossa
Michael Frolik - Rostislav Olesz - Bryan Bickell
Daniel Carcillo - Ben Smith - Viktor Stalberg

Brent Seabrook - Duncan Keith
Niklas Hjalmarsson - Steve Montador
Sami Lepisto - Nick Leddy

Corey Crawford
Alexander Salak

The Blackhawks got deeper over the summer with a number of veteran roleplayer signings like Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo, Steve Montador, and Sami Lepisto, enabled by the trading of Brian Campbell. Up front, the team has plenty of offensive firepower but lacks depth at the center position. In the projected line-up above, both newly acquired Rostislav Olesz (who will feel some pressure to put up a good year as his career appears to be sputtering) and surprising youngster Ben Smith are natural wingers, but might be pressed into duty down the middle depending on the club's final moves. Either that or the team may opt for a more balanced roster by moving Patrick Sharp off of a top line and back into a center role where he is equally at ease.

On defense, the duo of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith is one of the best in the league, equally as good in their own end as they are in supporting the rush. Look for former first round selection Nick Leddy to break out as a solid NHL d-man as a 20 year old this year after getting in 46 games with the Hawks last season, straight out of college.

While I'm not personally 100% sold on Corey Crawford as a top notch starting goaltender, he will certainly be given the chance to prove me wrong, as though Alexander Salak has shown quite a bit of potential, he is much less proven than Crawford. Of course, both may find themselves out of the starting spotlight if training camp invitee Ray Emery shows he is healthy enough to earn a contract.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Vaclav Prospal - Jeff Carter - Rick Nash
R.J. Umberger - Antoine Vermette - Derick Brassard
Matt Calvert - Ryan Johansen - Kristian Huselius
Derek Dorsett - Samuel Pahlsson - Jared Boll

Marc Methot - James Wisniewski
Fedor Tyutin - Radek Martinek
Kris Russell - Grant Clitsome

Steve Mason
Mark Dekanich

The Jackets are a very deep offensive team bolstered by big ticket off-season moves on which many felt they overpaid. If Chicago has a lack of centers, they should look no further for a trade partner than Columbus, as 5 of the team's top 6 forwards (everyone but Rick Nash) are natural C's. Winger Kristian Huselius will be sidelined to start the season, but the money freed up allowed the club to sign Vaclav Prospal to a reasonable contract, and he should be a perfect set-up man for Nash and Jeff Carter. No disrespect to Carter, but I think it will be fun to monitor who has more points at year's end between him and Jakub Voracek - the player sent to the Philadelphia Flyers along with a first round selection for Carter. Big things are expected from rookie Ryan Johansen, who will be well insulated thanks to the club's depth, and may play alongside 21-year old Matt Calvert who is looking like a complete steal as a 5th round pick in 2008.

Columbus took a huge gamble in handing a very large contract to former Canadien James Wisniewski this summer, one that many consider the off-season's worst deal. The Wizz provided valuable service to Montreal, though, and Marc Methot seems like an ideal partner for him being a reliable no-nonsense defense-first type.

In goal, it looks like the team will give Mark Dekanich a shot at an NHL job after his dominance in the American League, but ultimately a big part of Columbus's fate will rest on starter Steve Mason's ability to bounce back after two subpar years.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Valtteri Filppula - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Johan Franzen - Hernik Zetterberg - Tomas Holmstrom
Patrick Eaves - Jiri Hudler - Daniel Cleary
Drew Miller - Darren Helm - Justin Abdelkader

Nicklas Lidstrom - Brad Stuart
Ian White - Niklas Kronwall
Mike Commodore - Jonathan Ericsson

Jimmy Howard
Ty Conklin

The Red Wings are perennial contenders, though for a change, they were quite quiet this summer, leaving the team with more cap space than they've had at any point in recent memory. Offensively, the team looks just like that which was bounced from the playoffs, but one could make a strong case that they were as good as any other club remaining had the injury bug not stricken many of their stars. Pavel Datsyuk is arguably the best all-around player in the league, and the team makes good use of big body wingers like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, and Todd Bertuzzi - the type of players Habs fans have been craving for years. The club was supposedly in on Jaromir Jagr until the final hours, which means they may still look to bring in some additional scoring punch, particularly with an aging group of wingers.

While the offense looks the same, Detroit had some holes to fill on defense after the surprising retirement of Brian Rafalski. With Rafalski contributing at both ends of the rink, Ken Holland looked to two players to fill the roles - Ian White for the powerplay, and Mike Commodore for his defensive game. As per usual with the Wings, both were signed for good value, perhaps a reason why the team wasn't more active on other players with many receiving far more than they are worth in a shallow market. A big question for the team will be how much longer Nicklas Lidstrom decides to play, as there is no heir apparent for his very large skates to fill.

In goal, Jimmy Howard showed to be a reasonable starter last year, though Detroit's puck control game tends to limit shots on net better than most, offering support for whoever is between the pipes. The retired Chris Osgood was replaced by Ty Conklin, a suitable back-up but not one who will take the team far if pressed into service.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Martin Erat - Mike Fisher - Sergei Kostitsyn
Blake Geoffrion - Colin Wilson - Patric Hornqvist
Cal O'Reilly - David Legwand - Jordin Tootoo
Niclas Bergfors - Nick Spaling - Jerred Smithson

Shea Weber - Ryan Suter
Francis Bouillon - Jonathan Blum
Kevin Klein - Jack Hillen

Pekka Rinne
Anders Lindback

Every season I predict a drop-off for the Predators, and yet every year they manage to prove me wrong. Do I just severely underrate them? Is it all Barry Trotz's coaching? I will again suggest that a few key losses and no real additions will mean that the Preds miss the playoffs in 2011-12, but that's not to say they can't make it interesting. Mike Fisher was a big ticket addition prior to last season's trade deadline, and a big part of his role will be mentoring Colin Wilson into the top 6 center that he projects to be. 6'1" winger Blake Geoffrion (grandson of Habs legend Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion)had a great rookie season at the pro level, putting up 37 points in 45 AHL games and adding 8 points (including 6 goals) in 20 with the Preds, something he hopes to build on in the coming year. Certainly a good candidate if your pool obliges you to take a rookie (he's still Calder eligible). This could be former first round pick Niclas Bergfors's last chance to prove he belongs in the NHL, as he joines his third club in the past year and will have to battle for ice time.

If Geoffrion has legitimate Calder aspirations up front, Jonathan Blum might be one of the league's best rookie rearguards, rounding out a top 4 anchored by the newly re-signed Shea Weber and the pending UFA Ryan Suter. With a lack of star presence at forward, Weber's offense from the blueline is key to Nashville's success.

Pekka Rinne proved last season that he is amongst the most solid netminders in the game, while Anders Lindback showed he is more than capable of stepping in when called upon - perhaps a future asset for the team to move to add some scoring. But will a Weber-led defense in front of Rinne be sufficient for the team to make the West's top 8? It looks like it will be a tall order.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
David Backes - Patrick Berglund - Chris Stewart
David Perron - Andy McDonald - T.J. Oshie
Matt D'Agostini - Jason Arnott - Alexander Steen
B.J. Crombeen - Vladimir Sobotka - Jamie Langenbrunner

Barret Jackman - Alex Pietrangelo
Roman Polak - Kevin Shattenkirk
Carol Colaiacovo - Ian Cole

Jaroslav Halak
Brian Elliott

The Blue look like an up and coming exciting young team ready to do some damage. Offensively, bringing in veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner on one year deals makes the forward group exceptionally deep and nicely surrounds the younger players. Chris Stewart was on a torrid pace after being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche, scoring 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games, while Andy McDonald quietly produced another 50 point season despite injuries limiting him to only 58 games. McDonald isn't the only one hoping for better health, as 23 year old David Perron scored 7 points in the only 10 games he was able to play last season. With a bit of luck, it is far from unreasonable for this team to have 7 or 8 50-point scorers, a testament to how dangerous the offense is.

The trade of Erik Johnson will be felt on defense, though his offensive production is easily replaced (and even surpassed) by the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk in that same deal. As a rookie last season, Shattenkirk scored an impressive 43 points - 5 more than Montreal's P.K. Subban - to lead all freshman blueliners. Ian Cole is another young d-man who will be entering his first full season at the NHL level, making for a great young core along with Shattenkirk and of course top pairing stalwart Alex Pietrangelo.

In nets, Jaroslav Halak will have to shake off a season of injuries and inconsistencies to prove that he is capable of shouldering the load as a full-time #1. He shows flashes of looking like a dominant goaltender, but has yet to show the endurance to carry it over a full year. Still, he adds to a group that the Blues hope to keep together for a while and may not be far off from contender status.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Low seed playoff team.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow we preview our first Canadian teams as we hit the Northwest Division!

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