Four years ago, the Central Division was considered to be the weakest division in hockey. Thanks in part to Chicago’s revival, it’s now one of the strongest. For the upcoming 2011-12 season, the Central will once again be deep. Who is the favorite and/or team to beat in the division?
Right now, there are two teams that stand above the rest: Detroit and Chicago. Mike Babcock’s Red Wings are annually the favorite to win the division, but the Blackhawks, who won the Central in 2009-10, have closed that gap. Nashville is always in the picture, but can’t get over the top. St. Louis hasn’t competed for the division crown in years, while Columbus never has.
The Red Wings, for the most part, stood pat this summer. Now-retired Brian Rafalski was essentially replaced by free agent-signee Ian White. The aging core is once again a year older, but still has enough left in the tank to do some damage in the Western Conference. Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are as dangerous as they were five years ago.
Chicago actually improved. GM Stan Bowman has not gotten enough credit for the job he’s down since taking over. This summer was just the latest example. Though Brian Campbell’s puck-moving ability will be missed, Andrew Brunette and Steve Montador were signed to add experience and grit to a team that played without a lot of that last season. With a well-rounded roster and no Cup hangover to worry about, the ‘Hawks look primed to bounce back.
Following the most memorable season in franchise history, GM David Poile and the Predators have had an underwhelming off-season. Between seeing five players from the playoff roster exit stage left, the RFA offer sheet fiasco and Shea Weber’s negotiation needing arbitration, it hasn’t been an ideal series of events for Poile. However, this young team can never be counted out as they possess the best defense/goaltending combo in the division.
Believe it or not, the Blues aren’t too far behind. They were looking just fine are one month last year, then things fell apart. Jaroslav Halak, when on his game, is tough to beat. David Backes and Chris Stewart are the best one-two punch in the NHL when it comes to power forwards. Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner add depth and experience. Overall, the team is as ready as ever to be a playoff contender.
I don’t think Columbus will ever be the ‘team to beat’ or ‘favorite’ in the Central. With that said, this could be the best roster, on paper, they’ve ever assembled. Getting Jeff Carter was huge for Rick Nash and company; the same goes for James Wisniewski, who, despite being overpaid, will help an anemic power play. The worry lies in goal, which could keep them from cracking the West’s top eight.
So who’s the team to beat in the Central? It has to be Detroit, right? They have won the division in 13 of the previous 17 seasons. It doesn’t get much more dominant than that. While they still hold the ‘team to beat’ claim, the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions are right there, too.
The Blackhawks are in store for a big year and their fourth consecutive playoff appearance. Which, in my mind, is why Joel Quenneville’s bunch is the favorite in 2011-12 to win the division. The right pieces are in place for them to make another run at the Cup.
If the Preds could ever find a 30-40 goal-scorer, they’d crash Detroit and Chicago’s party. Barry Trotz believes his team is on the verge of Cup contention, but as of now, they may not have the horses to emerge as the division winner.
In short, the Wings are still the team to beat in the Central. Yet, the ‘Hawks could find themselves on top of the division by season’s end.
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