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Central Division

State of the Central Division (First Edition)

Each week, talented bloggers with team-specific daily blogs will write a short synopsis on the state of the team that they follow.  Every week, one of the six NHL divisions will be featured on Illegal Curve, with the cycle continuing in order throughout the remainder of the season.

This week, we are focusing on the Central Division.  Teams are appearing in the same order as they currently sit in the standings.

1. Detroit Red Wings–From William of Abel to Yzerman:

The fun topic of discussion over the first quarter of the season for the mainstream hockey writers?  Hangovers and the possibility of one in Detroit.  The idea, on the surface is laughable.  Second best record in the West and third overall.  Goal scoring is up and will be even better once Tomas Holmstrom returns to the lineup after his latest back ailment.  The same core of players who won it all less than six months ago is back together, with a healthy dose of Hossa to complement them.

So, it would be easy to say that a Stanley Cup hangover is far from a concern.  Not true.  It’s a significant worry because while the Wings can, and do, score seemingly at will?  The defense and goaltending have
been mediocre, at best.  Chris Osgood’s save percentage?  .881 and 40th in the league. Just two weeks ago, the Wings were giving up greater than 30 shots per game.  That’s down to around 26 now.

The greatest indicator of a painful, almost intolerable, hangover?  Up to Monday’s win over Anaheim, the Wings hadn’t beaten a real quality opponent all season.  Pittsburgh, San Jose, Anaheim, Montreal and
Boston: Detroit’s lost to them all.

A grade for the first quarter?  I’d say a C.  Do I expect improvement? Absolutely.  It will be gradual, but that’s cool with us.

2. Chicago Blackhawks–From Matthew of Second City Hockey:

After just missing the playoffs by only 3 points last year, it was no secret coming into this fall that it was going to be a big year for the Blackhawks.  The Hawks were constantly in the news over the summer by signing free-agents, holding fan conventions, getting the Winter Classic or some other such nonesense.  Hockey was relevant again in Chicago for more than just the die-hard fans and change was on the way.  Toews was given the C to wear on his sweater, Kane added some muscle, Campbell was going to finally give the Hawks a solid power play, Khabby was going to go… well… somewhere (Russia?) so the front office would be able to sign a 2nd line center and Savard, one of the greatest players to ever wear the Indian head sweater, was going to lead Chicago back to the playoffs. 

Only not all of that really happened – following a weak training camp and a slow start Savvy was shown the door after only 4 games.  Khabibulin stuck around longer than anyone has expected – and even more shockingly has been the best goalie the Hawks have after Huet continues to disappoint.  That’s not to say it’s all been bad in Chicago.  While Campbell might not be playing as well as some have hoped, our power play has improved and he seems to make anyone he’s paired with on the blue line better.  Kane is still an unbelievable player and even though our new Captain took a while to get his first goal I don’t think there are any concerns over Toews’ play.  A quarter of the way in and the Hawks are sitting in the bottom half of playoff spots in the West and second in the Central.  If the Hawks can continue to play well I wouldn’t be surprised to see them move up to about the 5th spot in the West at best – no one holds any false hopes of taking the division lead from Detroit. 

Quenneville has taken control of the team in a way that Savard never could/would and isn’t afraid to make his point (see the benching of Sharp and Kane after dumb penalties in a game against the Coyotes).  Quenneville’s biggest concern now has to be getting the team to play a full 60 minutes of hockey every game and getting on the board first to control the tempo of the game.  The Hawks have shown they can skate with the best in the league (two close games against the Sharks) but have also shown they can really mail it in (the last game against the Kings).  If Q can get some consistency out of the team they could be very dangerous.  And if the front office can ever figure out how to fix the cap situation rather than explore other ridiculous ventures then this team might be able to hope for more in this year than just the first round.

3. Nashville Predators–From Dirk of On the Forecheck:

Despite the offseason defection of Alexander Radulov, the scandalous downfall of Boots Del Biaggio, and the incessant din of Canadian media outlets which want to see them become the Hamilton Blackberries,  the Nashville Predators are in the thick of the playoff chase once again.  Just like last season, if they’re going to make it there, it will take a whole-team effort driven by the steady guidance of Barry Trotz and David Poile.

As far as big names go, the best story in Nashville so far is the emergence of Shea Weber as a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman.  Each year there are a dozen or so young blueliners around the league who, fans hope, will step up their game and validate long-held predictions of dominance.  To actually see Weber come out of the gates like he has is a real treat for Predators fans.  Not to be overlooked, J.P. Dumont has continued to increase his offensive production (his points-per-game has improved every season since 2002-3), and is now a legitimate top-line winger and team leader.  Jason Arnott is near the point-a-game pace, and leads the Preds with 13 goals.  Besides those three, Martin Erat (7G, 10A) and Ryan Suter (3G, 11A) are the other scoring threats who are also off to solid starts.

Since the Preds are at least scoring at a moderate pace, the key to team success will come from defense and goaltending.  After a lousy start to the season, both of those aspects have improved, as witnessed by two shutouts in the last week alone; a 1-0 shootout loss to St. Louis, and a 2-0 victory in Buffalo.  Dan Ellis in particular has settled in between the pipes, while backup Pekka Rinne has varied between outstanding (4-0 record in 6 starts) and awful (2 of those starts ended in him being pulled in the 1st period), and needs to improve his consistency.  All in all, the Predators have weathered a rough early schedule (15 road games out of the first 24) and come out of it in playoff position, and without any major injury issues to speak of.  Looking ahead, one can expect a shakeout among the depth players as rookies Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Jones, and Antti Pihlstrom vie for playing time, and there’s also the (faint, but hopeful) chance that Steve Sullivan might actually return to the ice this season.  If that indeed happens, it would be the first piece of surprisingly good news Predators fans have received in quite a while, and will be well worth the wait.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets–From Bethany of Bethany’s Hockey Rants:

The best way to describe the Blue Jackets season so far is interesting.  Suspensions, injuries, and some interesting photographs have haunted us this season.  Michael Peca was suspended at the beginning of the season and Jared Boll also received a suspension.  Pascal Leclaire, Rusty Klesla, Raffi Torres, Derek Dorsett, and Jared Boll have all spent time on the injured reserve.  Thankfully our rookies have stepped up to the plate, and have been able to handle the load.

The Jackets are in the midst of a goaltender controversy.  Steve Mason has stolen the number one position while Leclaire is forced to sit on the bench and think about his injuries and his lackluster performances.  Fredrik Norrena has had it worse, he is forced to sit in the press box and look on while Mason grows into the number one spot.  Steve Mason is 6-2-1, Norrena and Leclaire combine for a 5-8-2. 

The forwards are doing a great job.  The Jackets are 11th in goals for the NHL for goals for.  That is definitely not something that could have been said about the Jackets of recent years.  We may still lack that number one center but Derick Brassard has been, arguably our best player.  In fact, any line that he is on, it’s going to succeed.  He has spent time on the top line, but the majority of the season he has been on the Goat Line, which has been by far the best line for the Jackets.  RJ Umberger took a while to come on, but he is on fire and is a solid forward, he still has issues with his faceoffs, but they are getting better as time goes on.  Of course you can’t talk about the forwards without mentioning Rick Nash. 

Our defense have struggled quite a bit, but now they are finally starting to gel and get that chemistry.  Marc Methot has been great for the Blue Jackets, he was not expected to make the team out of training camp.  Christian Backman has been a bust, he was brought in to help with the power play, he hasn’t really helped.  The Blue Jackets have the worst power play in the league right now, and their penalty kill isn’t that spectacular either.  They are doing everything in their power to improve them, but so far it hasn’t helped.  There are going to have to be some trades made to improve the special teams.

5. St. Louis Blues–From Kathy of

So, what’s up in St. Louis besides the Gateway Arch? If you’re a fan of the Blues, it may look like nothing but doom and gloom. They’re currently sitting at 14th in the Western Conference with a record of 10-11-2 after 23 games. This certainly isn’t sitting well with the Bluenote faithful. Even the casual fan could look at this roster on paper and agree that they deserve a better fate right now. But, I’m not here for a pity party and these guys aren’t either. After all they’ve been through so far, they should be happy that they aren’t dead last in the West.

They came storming out into the preseason. They wanted to push away the label of being pushovers. And once they got going, they WENT. Their power play was on FIRE. Longtime veteran Keith Tkachuk was scoring goals. Power play goals. NHL newcomers Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund were looking solid as expected. Paul Kariya, Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald were suddenly making nightly appearances on the score sheet. Second-year standout David Perron was passing the puck for a change. 2008 All-Star goaltender Manny Legace was having a great camp compared to years past and former Nashville Predator Chris Mason was there to back him up in case of a hiccup or two.

Oh boy, would the Blues have been thankful for hiccups. What they got instead was something they probably never could have EVER predicted.

The man most consider the Blues’ future on the blue line, Erik Johnson, was injured in a freak accident when stepping out of a golf cart on a team bonding trip late in preseason. I don’t know how you tear your ACL and MCL by getting out of a golf cart, but this guy did it. That snowballed into an avalanche of injuries from there on out. It was like handing out gifts at Christmas. Except these gifts shouldn’t be wished upon your worst enemy. Remember the pink bunny suit that Ralphie got in the movie, “A Christmas Story?” I’m sure the Blues would’ve rather been asked to skate around in that than deal with all the stuff that followed. There was an “upper-body injury” to Pietrangelo. An appendectomy for Mason. A hip-flexor injury for Legace after he…slipped on a carpet. Yes, that’s no joke either. If that wasn’t bad enough, more injuries were handed out to Kariya, Berglund and McDonald. At one point, their entire top line was out. They had half of their AHL affiliate from Peoria playing for them. The fact that they even managed to win two or three games with half an AHL squad was beyond me.

Fast-forward to present. It’s not ALL bad. A bright spot has been their special teams. Their power play ranks 4th in the league at 24.1%. Their penalty kill ranks 6th at 86.5%. Mason has long since returned and has been a force in net. Oshie and Berglund are close to returning, as is Kariya. Legace has slipped…once again no pun intended…a bit, but will hopefully be motivated to regain his form with Mason pushing for that starting spot. Some have said that maybe there’s a goaltending controversy these days. Maybe there is. But it’s good controversy. And right now, the Blues are just barely hanging onto the season. They’re keeping it close, just like in most of their games lately. We’ll see what happens when all of these guys come back…it’s hard to taunt an injured dog.

Illegal Curve wants to thank the above bloggers for taking the time to write their pieces for our first State of the Division post.  If you haven’t already, take a look at their respective blogs.  All of them are extremely well done and informative.