Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Central Division

The Detroit Red Wings are always a threat in the race for the Stanley Cup, and this year won’t be any different. They lost Schneider, but immediately signed a capable defenseman in Rafalski – he should fit in nicely with the likes of Chelios and Lidstrom. The Red Wings still have a nice little trio up front that should give the opposition headaches; it’s hard to believe that Zetterberg, Holmstrom, and Datsyuk were drafted so late in their respective years. And don’t forget Hasek, who proved last season that he’s still got the goods.

I predict that the Red Wings will win their division by a mile, and they might even make it to the Western Conference Finals again. Considering how well they played last season, and how they few changes they made this off-season, expect big things from Detroit.

Now there’s the Nashville Predators. Last season, they played extremely well and probably should have made it to the second round of the playoffs, but San Jose stood in the way. You would expect good things this year, but that won’t happen. The team has been essentially blown apart, with their best players either traded or leaving before disaster strikes. They still have some pretty good players in Hamhuis, Weber, Radulov, and Dumont, but they lost Timonen, Hartnell, Kariya, Forsberg (unless he resigns), and Vokoun.

It seems stupid that the Predators would completely unload their talent when have a winning team, but it has to be in order to (1) not lose as much money this year, and (2) facilitate a move to another market. I think that putting a team in Nashville was a bad idea to begin with because it is simply not a hockey market, and Craig Leipold’s finances seem to agree because he has lost about $70M on this franchise. The average attendance was under 14,000 this past year, and if they can get the same record this coming season, the Preds will be able to break their lease and move out of town. Why not help things along by having a somewhat crappy team? I really don’t think that Nashville will be around for the playoffs this year.

The St. Louis Blues is a team that has fallen on hard times, but I like some of the guys on their team. I haven’t really seen them play as a team, but I watched a number of them play for Team Canada at the World Championships this past summer. Brewer, Jackman, Mayers and McClement really impressed me. They’ll also have some fresh faces on the team, like Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya, and veteran player Tkachuk is back for another go at it.

I don’t know of the Blues will actually make the playoffs this year – I expect them to finish between 9th and 11th in the conference. But who knows? Head Coach Andy Murray is an extremely likeable guy and capable coach (I was uber-impressed with him at Worlds), and he could very well make a huge difference this year and get the team into the post-season.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have never made the playoffs, and they won’t be breaking that trend this year. Longtime GM Doug MacLean got his walking papers this spring because he failed to make the team better, but his replacement Scott Howson hasn’t done anything this summer to better the team either. Maybe he has something up his sleeve, but that sleeve’s looking pretty empty to me. I’d like to see Nash and Zherdev play better hockey (especially the latter). I’d also like to see Voracek play a few games to see how he’ll do after a great year in Halifax, but don’t get me wrong – he’s no Sidney Crosby or Jordan Staal. He very well might get a chance with Columbus, but I expect he’ll be back with the Mooseheads this fall.

Evan Grossman said that the Chicago Blackhawks could be the next “Pittsburgh Penguins” and I tend to agree. Years of poor performances gave them high draft choices, and the Blackhawks are on the upswing as a result. Toews has proven to be a skilled player who can perform under pressure (hello World Juniors ’07). Kane is also an offensive threat, and hopefully his size won’t give him trouble at the NHL level. But it’s not just the rookies that will bring excitement to Chicago: they also have Ruutu, Havlat, Khabibulin, and a number of young defensemen who are looking good. Hopefully Samsonov will regain his Calder Trophy-winning play and not be the disaster we saw in Montreal. Will the Blackhawks make the playoffs this year? Probably not, but they’ll be thisclose.

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