Hawks paying the price of success
There have been changes aplenty in the Central Division, but no team has gone through an extreme makeover like the Cup-winning Blackhawks. Needless to say, their dominance might be short-lived.
Has a Stanley Cup winner ever had to strip away so much of its championship roster as quickly as the Blackhawks have this summer? The team parted ways with No. 1 goaltender Antti Niemi and signed veteran Marty Turco. In all, the Hawks have lost eight players from their Stanley Cup-championship team. But thanks to shrewd drafting and trading by former GM Dale Tallon and successor Stan Bowman, Chicago still has a great stock of young talent in the pipeline, many of whom will get a chance to shine this coming season. In spite of the overhaul, we're still guessing this is a team that should once again challenge for top spot in the Western Conference.
The Wings put aside calamitous injuries to key personnel to make the playoffs and advance to the second round last spring and look to return to Cup contender status this year with the return of talented forward Jiri Hudler after a year in Russia. The only other significant new face is longtime Dallas/Minnesota star Mike Modano, who was on the Wings' radar for some time. Otherwise, GM Ken Holland hopes ridding the injury bug will be enough for the well-coached, talented Wings to get back on top. Rookie of the year nominee Jimmy Howard will have to prove his first season wasn't a flash-in-the-pan performance in goal, and the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom returns for at least one more run at a Cup, suggesting that no one should ever take these Wings lightly.
Veterans Keith Tkachuk (retired) and Paul Kariya (unsigned unrestricted free agent) won't be back in the Blues' fold, which means some of the young offensive talent St. Louis has stockpiled in recent years, including T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund will have to step to the forefront if the Blues are going to get back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The acquisition of former Montreal playoff hero Jaroslav Halak should give the Blues an upgrade between the pipes, but will it be enough in a tough conference? Look for former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson to take a big step forward on the blue line.
Every year we wonder how the Predators will score enough goals to be a playoff team, and every year they defy skeptics by being in the mix. The Preds, who have qualified for the postseason in five of the past six playoff years, actually provided the sternest test for Cup-winning Chicago in the first round, falling in six games. Captain Jason Arnott, who never seemed to manage to deliver the goods when it mattered, has returned to New Jersey, and one of the Predators' top three defensemen, Dan Hamhuis, is in Vancouver, so things don't get any easier for the cash-strapped Predators. Unlikely scoring sensation Patric Hornqvist will have to repeat his performance of a year ago (30 goals to lead the team), while Pekka Rinne will have to prove GM David Poile made the right choice in goal by signing Rinne ahead of Dan Ellis, who is now in Tampa.
New coach Scott Arniel will have his hands full guiding the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs after they bottomed out early last year, costing former coach Ken Hitchcock his job. There's not much in the way of new blood outside of the addition of veteran winger Ethan Moreau, who struggled the past couple of years in Edmonton. Is Antoine Vermette (27 goals) the long sought-after No. 1 center for Rick Nash? Regardless of the answer to that question, the Blue Jackets remain thin down the middle. Netminder Steve Mason needs his head in the right place this season if the Blue Jackets are to be in the mix.