Central Division Preview | Bloggers Q&A

By Jeff Quirin
NHL Hot Stove Associate Editor

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The hockey blogging community is the strongest its ever been and grows daily. From aspiring journalists to devoted fans who all want to share their unique perspectives on their favorite teams and push their material out across the net. Yet, they remain the greatest asset to the NHL with the weakest capitalization. So when opportunity presents itself to engage some of the best around and maybe add one more drop in the “acceptance of bloggers” bucket, I jump on it.

More often than not this will take the form of a Q&A. It’s concise and simple. As Associate Editor I hope to bring more of this style of content throughout the season to expose the readers of NHL Hot Stove to a wide array ideas and hockey points of view they may not have otherwise.

In this season’s first such venture five bloggers covering the five Central Division clubs have answered ten questions relating to the near future of the division.

Bringing the cannon to the party, is Columbus Blue Jackets fan and blogger Martin Poston of the Martini Hockey blog. You can follow him on Twitter: @MartiniHockey.

One of Smashville’s finest scribes, Mark Willoughby of Hockey Independent and The View From 111, has the Nashville Predators covered. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheViewfrom111.

Two of NHL Hot Stove’s own cover the top dogs in the Central. Ryan Hackett with the Chicago Blackhawks and Christina Roberts with the Detroit Red Wings. You can follow Ryan on Twitter: @Hawknut and Christina on Twitter: @Franzenmuth.

Normally I would dish out the thoughts from a St. Louis Blues pov, but for this post Brian Heanchen of Hank’s Sports Blog will take over. You can follow him on Twitter: @Brian_Haenchen

To the questions.

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Question 1. Who is the front runner to win the Central Division? The Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks?

Martin Poston:Red Wings, easily. I’m not among those ready to anoint Chicago as a threat to the throne just yet. Corey Crawford had a breakout season for sure. Whether or not he can continue that success will determine whether the Blackhawks even make the Playoffs this year. And that’s not a given by any means.

Mark Willoughby: The front runner to win the Central is the Detroit Red Wings. The team still has the components to win the division: a solid netminder; sound defense; and forwards that know how to score. That being said, the Wings are going to net their backup goalie to give them some quality starts to spell Jimmy Howard. And as with every team in the division, they will have to stay healthy. A critical injury is all that separates any of the teams from contending and being an also-ran.

Christina Roberts: I’ve got to put in a little bias and say the Red Wings. While we may have lost some key players like Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper, and Chris Osgood, we picked up some pretty good guys like Ian White, Mike Commodore, and Ty Conklin (who was good before when he was on our team). We haven’t lost our core players, and Nick Lidstrom is still playing as good as ever. Chicago was a little shaky last year, especially with Toews having a rough first half, and losing so many guys in the off-season hurt them a lot. I definitely wouldn’t count Chicago out of it, though.

Ryan Hackett: Way to make me sound biased right off the bat here, Jeff. I say it has to be the Blackhawks. They’re as deep as ever, and they added some much-needed toughness. The goaltending situation is solid with Crawford getting a nice extension, and they’ve had a nice long offseason to get healthy and hungry.

Brian Haenchen: Detroit Red Wings. Personally, I’m not sold on the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford showed a lot of potential in his rookie season and I expect him to continue performing at a high level this season. However, the pieces around him are not going to be enough for the Hawks to dethrone the Red Wings.

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Question 2. Between Nashville, St. Louis and Columbus, who has the best chance at unseating the top two and why?

MP: If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never count out Nashville. True, they lost some quality guys (and withstood an arbitration nightmare with Shea Weber) and didn’t add much in Free Agency in terms of marquee talent. However, Barry Trotz has proven to be a coach who can do a lot with less. They might even threaten Detroit in April.

MW: Nashville has the best chance of unseating the Wings as the top team in the Division. The Predators have the best goalie in the Division and one of the best in the NHL. The defense will be replacing a few components on the third and fourth pairing, but although young, these players will be immensely talented. The big question for the Predators is the forward group- more specifically, can they score goals? I think they will be able to do so, at least enough to win. Last season, the Predators went 4-2 against the Wings and were 3-3 against the Blackhawks.

CR: Nashville has always scared me. While St. Louis and Columbus have added components to their rosters, they both still have problems with injuries and until they overcome that, they won’t be scaring the Red Wings anytime soon (minus those handful of games us Wings fans like to block out that were, what, 8-0 and 10-3? Something ridiculous like that). Regardless, I think Nashville is still a force to be reckoned with. And Shea Weber scares me.

RH: Definitely Nashville. Their style of play really gums up the works of the fast, high-scoring offenses of Detroit and Chicago and their first playoff series win has to have them thirsty to get back there.

BH: The Saint Louis Blues have the best chance of those teams to finish among the top 2 in the Central…as long as they can stay healthy. Player to watch: Patrik Berglund. Berglund bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season, scoring a career high in goals. Do not forget about Jaroslav Halak, who will benefit from having that one full season as starting net minder under his belt.

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Question 3. Who made the best and worst off season moves?

MP: Columbus’ top-to-bottom audit of the organization led to a lot of offseason changes, and GM Scott Howson pounced in June with an unprecedented boldness, acquiring Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski via trade, then making the sale with Wiz in the final hours before free agency. It’s hard to call anyone’s offseason the “worst,” but Nashville’s offseason was rough, that was for sure. The team has tended to be frugal in the past, and going to arbitration with Weber burned them badly. However, accepting the huge arbitration award and keeping Shea Weber was about the best move they could make under the circumstances. Chicago didn’t add much more to help themselves, other than an aging forward in Andrew Brunette and a reason for opponents to watch their back when Dan Carcillo is on the ice. Some call it grit. I call it a suspension waiting to happen.

MW: The team that made the best off-season moves in the Division would have to be Columbus Blue Jackets. The addition of Jeff Carter up front and James Wisniewski on the blue line will certainly bolster their roster. Carter will add scoring punch to go along with Rick Nash, which has been desperately needed by the Jackets. The measure of this acquisition will be Carter’s mental approach to playing in Columbus and his presence in the locker room. If both are good, then this move by Scott Howson will be remembered as a turning point for the franchise. If Carter turns out to be a negative in both areas, the trade will also be remembered as a turning point, but not in a good way.

CR: I would have to say Columbus made the best moves. They jumped on opportunities to sign two awesome players: James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter. The worst moves…honestly, you could say the Red Wings. They didn’t make any super spectacular moves like everyone thought they would, what with Rafalski’s salary opening up. That’s not to say their moves were bad, just not as good as everyone else’s.

RH: The best: Columbus. Adding James Wisniewski at the blue line was a bit risky, especially at that salary, but could potentially pay big dividends, but the acquisition of Jeff Carter could finally relieve some of the pressure on Rick Nash. Worst: Nashville. The moves in the Central were altogether good, I just thought the Preds did the least amount of good, and possibly fractured their long-term relationship with defenseman Shea Weber.

BH: By adding Jeff Carter, a player not known for his play-making abilities, and sticking him on a line with Rick Nash, a prolific forward who can do it all, Columbus turned themselves into a serious playoff contender.

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Question 4. By season’s end, which potential one-two punch stands to push Pavel Datsyuk/Henrik Zetterberg for the best in the division: Jeff Carter/Rick Nash, David Backes/Chris Stewart, Patric Hornqvist/Martin Erat or Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane?

MP: Ah, the “one-two punch.” So invaluable to a team. Tough choice here. It’s hard not to go with Toews and Kane. However, Nash and Carter are going to turn some heads this year as the forward lines mesh in Columbus.

MW: Until someone in the division can step up and surpass their production, the best one-two punch in the Division is Toews and Kane. I think they will be again this season.

CR: Toews/Kane is always a good one-two punch that has the potential to give the Euro Twins a run for their money, assuming they both stay healthy. I can see Carter/Nash being absolutely insane, though. Nash is dangerous and giving him someone on his line that will easily complement him.

RH: Again, I’m going to sound like an absolute homer here, but I say it’s Toews & Kane. They have the championship experience and the depth behind them to have career years once again, and barring injury, could be the top duo in not just the division, but the entire NHL.

BH: As much as it pains me to say it, Toews and Kane will push Datsyuk and Zetterberg for the best one-two punch in the division. Those two players are something special.

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Question 5. By season’s end the top starting netminder in the Central will be: Jimmy Howard, Pekka Rinne, Jaroslav Halak, Corey Crawford or Steve Mason?

MP: Howard.

MW: The top starting netminder at the end of the season will once again be Pekka Rinne.

CR: I’d have to go with either Jimmy Howard or Pekka Rinne. Rinne always tends to annoy me when the Wings play against him because he seems to stand on his head and make phenomenal saves. He’s had a few solid years, too, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he were top. But don’t forget that Howard was up for the Calder two years ago with fairly solid numbers. His stats may have taken a slight beating last year in comparison, but he still wound up with the same amount of wins. It’ll be a tough battle for both goaltenders.

RH: I think it’s a two-horse race here between Pekka Rinne and Corey Crawford, with my early vote going to Rinne. If he even approaches the season he had last year, he’s going to take the Predators far.

BH: Jaroslav Halak. That full season as a starting goalie will do wonders for his confidence.

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Question 6. If any of the five head coaches are fired, who will be first and why?

MP: I’m not sure anyone is really on the hot-seat during the season, unless someone has an absolutely  disastrous October/November. If Chicago winds up the odd team out in the Central (which I think will put four teams in this year), then maybe Quenneville.

MW: No Central Division coach will be fired this season.

CR: Either Columbus’s head coach or St. Louis’s. Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, and Barry Trotz’s jobs are all pretty much safe. Neither coach has been around for a super long time, and both are vying for playoff spots. If either team falters too much, I can see a head coach cut from the roster…

RH: Well we can throw out Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville right away, as they’ve cemented their jobs for a few years. No one does more with less than Barry Trotz, so I doubt he’s on the hot seat. That leaves Davis Payne in St. Louis and Scott Arniel in Columbus, and Arniel has only had the job a year, so he’s got a little bit longer of a leash.

BH: I do not think any of the five coaches will be fired.

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Question 7. The Predators will make the playoffs again, if…

MP: …they get off to a hot start at the beginning of the season. After that, they have to keep playing their brand of hockey. Consistency will be the key, especially playing in the Central.

MW: The Predators will make the playoffs if A) they stay healthy and B) their young forwards step up and produce scoring. I’m looking at you, Colin Wilson, Blake Geoffrion, and Nick Spalding.

CR: The Predators will make the playoffs again if they stay healthy and focused.

RH: If Hornqvist can stay healthy and have near a career year and Rinne is a Vezina contender once again. Not necessarily a finalist, but at least in the conversation.

BH: The Predators will make the playoffs again, if Pekka Rinne can match his performance from last season (33 wins in 64 starts, 2.12 GAA).

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Question 8. The Blues will make the playoffs, if…

MP: …Halak gets better in net and steals more games. Also, if aging veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner make the most of their one-year deals and provide leadership and scoring on the ice.

MW: The Blues make the playoffs if they can keep from going into some kind of mental funk that has seemed to plague them over the past few seasons. What’s up with not being able to win in your own barn?

CR: The Blues will make the playoffs if their roster stays healthy. Last year, I had them pegged as sixth in the conference come playoff time. But look at how many of their players went down with injuries and how well they fared once everyone came back.

RH: They either improve their penalty kill or stay out of the box and T.J. Oshie stops acting like Randy Moss and plays up to his enormous potential.

BH: The Blues will make the playoffs again, if they can stay healthy.

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Question 9. The Blue Jackets will make the playoffs, if…

MP: …Steve Mason rediscovers his rookie form, and if Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski deliver in the roles for which the Blue Jackets are paying them so handsomely. The Jackets have the personnel to roll out two threatening scoring lines, and possibly a third.

MW: The Blue Jackets will make the playoffs if Steve Mason returns to form from 2 years ago and if these guys get selective amnesia and forget their rather forgettable history up to this point.

CR: The Blue Jackets will make the playoffs if their expensive purchases over this past off-season pay off. And if Steve Mason has a season similar to his Calder-winning season.

RH: Nash and Carter can both eclipse the 60 -point mark and Mason returns to solid form.

BH: The Blue Jackets will make the playoffs, if the tandem of Jeff Carter and Rick Nash can live up to their lofty expectations.

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Question 10. What will be the final standings in the division?

MP: I’m not kidding, it’s a tough call on this. The Central will put four teams in the Playoffs (all five, if one of the Cali teams in the Pacific falters). The Central Division will reside in the top nine, and if it comes to this, the Blues edge out Chicago: 1. Detroit, 2. Nashville, 3. Columbus, 4. St. Louis, 5. Chicago.

MW: 1. Detroit, 2. Nashville, 3. Chicago, 4. St. Louis, 5. Columbus.

CR: Final standings in the division (this is tough): 1) Red Wings 2) Blackhawks 3) Columbus 4) Nashville 5) St. Louis. I think this will be one of the closest races in recent years.

RH: Chicago, Nashville, Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis (Sorry Jeff…)

BH: 1. Detroit, 2. Nashville, 3. Saint Louis, 4. Columbus, 5. Chicago. I think Detroit will run away with it, but Nashville, Saint Louis, Columbus, and Chicago will all finish within 10-15 points of one another.

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Much has been said. Conclusions to draw?

- The Red Wings and Blackhawks are still the king of the mountain.

- Predators are a scrappy bunch who cannot be left for dead and will push on the top two. Maintaining what they have is the key, besides more goals.

- Won’t believe the Blues can do it till they actually do it.

- Kane and Toews are the top duo not named Datsyuk/Zetterberg.

- Doesn’t seem likely that a coach is fired.

- Goaltending is a significant concern for all five teams.

- Much love for the Carter trade and for Pekka Rinne.

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Not sure when the next Q&A will be, but some ideas are in the works. Have a topic you’d like to see discussed? Contact me via Twitter, @JTQ_1.

Thanks for reading.