After looks at the Nashville Predators roster and some of the possibilities for the Preds during the 2013 NHL season, today it’s prediction time for the rest of the Central Division. Last year the Central produced four playoff teams and along with the Atlantic was one of the two toughest divisions in the entire league. So how will it stack up this year? Here’s my take.
2013 NHL Central Division Predictions
1. St. Louis Blues
Last year’s Blues squad started off a very middle-of-the-road team. Then Ken Hitchcock was brought in to replace Davis Payne after 13 games. His system turned the Blues into a powerhouse characterized by its incredibly stingy defense.
Jaroslav Halak (1.97 GAA, .926 SV%) and Brian Elliott (1.56 GAA, .940 SV%) were one of the most effective goaltending tandems in recent memory. Both won at least 20 games, and together they tied the modern record for shutouts in a single season with 15 over the course of the 82-game season. Elliott also set a new franchise record for the longest consecutive shutout streak at 241 minutes and 33 seconds. The two won the William Jennings Award for fewest goals allowed during the season. They make every game against the Blues a tough one.
The Blues’ offense resembles the Nashville Predators’ in that they don’t have a single stand-out player. Instead they rely on contributions from up and down the lineup. Their attack is led by team captain David Backes and speedy forward David Perron, while their underrated defensive corps features former Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman and 22-year-old rising star Alex Pietrangelo.
St. Louis hasn’t lost any significant players, they have youth on their side, and Ken Hitchcock has returned for another go behind the bench. They will finish 28-12-8 for 64 points, giving the franchise its second consecutive Central Division title – the first back-to-back titles for the team Preds color commentator Terry Crisp played with them in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons.
2. Nashville Predators
Much has been made outside Nashville of the loss of Ryan Suter. But aside from his departure and those of late-season rentals Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, the Nashville roster really hasn’t seen much turnover from the 2011-12 team that went 13-2-0 from late December through the end of January. Not only did the Preds retain team captain and Norris Trophy runner-up Shea Weber, they also signed trade-deadline pickups Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad to new contracts.
That said, there isn’t quite as much organizational depth as there has been in some past seasons. The team will rely on Coach Barry Trotz to wring every possible point out of the Preds, something at which he has proven highly adept in his 14 years in charge of the team. There are also questions about Nashville’s reliance further down the depth chart on younger players. The biggest spotlight will be on Roman Josi, who looks like he’ll be paired with Shea Weber on the top line. Forwards Colin Wilson and Craig Smith will play larger roles this year, as will green defensemen Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis.
The lack of offensive stars hasn’t been much trouble to Nashville in recent years and won’t be again this year. The defensive aspect is the most questionable for Nashville. Between Trotz’s system and the presence in goal of Pekka Rinne (2.39 GAA, .923 SV% last season), the team should respond well to the challenges of the short season. Nashville will finish 27-14-7 for 61 points, just missing out on its first Central Division title.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
A high-flying offense is always a good start toward winning hockey games, and Chicago’s offense flies higher than any other in the Central. In 2011-12 the Hawks got 70-point seasons from captain Jonathan Toews, alternate captain Patrick Sharp, and forward Patrick Kane, plus another 65 points from Marian Hossa after he returned from a concussion. They also sport a few defensemen capable of posting lots of points in Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
The rest of the Hawks’ blueliners are all in their 30s, with the exception of 25-year-old Niklas Hjalmarsson, and are a relative weak link. But goaltending is the real sore spot for this team. At the worst of times, moving back and forth between Corey Crawford (2.72 GAA, .903 SV% last season) and bionic man Ray Emery (2.81, .900) gives the team a slightly schizophrenic quality. That was on display during a stretch last January and February when the team lost eight of nine games, with the losses divided equally between the two goalies. Neither impressed last season and there’s no reason to think that will change dramatically in 2013.
Chicago will be a very streaky team again this year. They’ll win their share of games, but they’ll lose more blowouts in regulation than close games in overtime. In a short season, that’ll cost them precious points and a shot at the Division title. The Hawks will finish 26-15-7 for 59 points.
4. Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings team have seemingly had the same players pencilled into the lineup for the last decade. But roster turnover makes this year’s squad a very different one than the perennial Central Division powerhouse of the past. Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom are both gone, as are Jiri Hudler and Brad Stuart.
There’s reason for Wings fans to believe in their team’s future. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are in their primes, making the team’s top lines dangerous as ever. The organization is high on Swedish forward Gustav Nyquist, who has put up 90 points (35G-55A) in 97 career AHL games for the Grand Rapids Griffins. On the blue line, former 1st round pick Jakub Kindl will be expected to carry a heavier load in his second full year with the team. Starter Jimmy Howard (2.13 GAA, .920 SV% last season) is a solid presence between the pipes, but off-season backup acquisition Jonas Gustavsson didn’t impress in 107 NHL games (2.98 GAA, .902 SV%) for Toronto.
Still coached by Mike Babcock, the Red Wings won’t suddenly become a non-factor in the Central Division overnight. But the fact is that they’ve gotten measurably worse while their competition has gotten measurably better. In another division this Wings team would be good enough to finish in 2nd or 3rd – or in some cases even 1st. But in the competitive Central, they’re going to write this one off as “the lockout season” and move on to the future. Detroit will finish 24-17-7 for 55 points.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
The poor Columbus Blue Jackets. After two last-place seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, they revamped with some high-profile acquisitions and were all set to make a bold step into the future. Then they fell flat, finishing 29-46-7 for just 65 points. The team fell apart, they traded away their top scorer and later their captain, and they went into rebuild mode (again) over the summer.
It’s hard to fathom this year’s Blue Jackets being nearly as bad as they were last season. They made a trade for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has played stellar hockey (1.94 GAA, .932 SV%) for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL during the lockout. They also got Artem Anisimov, another hot KHL hand (12G-18A) during the lockout, in the trade that sent Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. And Jack Johnson, who came over from the Los Angeles Kings in the Jeff Carter trade, will help to anchor a young Columbus defensive corps.
Playing in the Central Division looks like it’ll be another rough assignment for an outgunned Blue Jackets squad. They’ll show more a lot more promise than last year’s train wreck, but they’ll still finish 19-20-9 for 47 points.