Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Central Division

Well, here we are. The Eastern Conference is down and just three divisions and the playoff picture are left to go, so let’s delve into the Western Conference picture, shall we?

The Western Conference has been the more competitive of the two conferences in term of depth over the last few seasons and this season should be no different. The core of this depth has come from the Central division. Last season, three of the five teams made the playoffs, while one more was on the bubble and there’s no doubt that there’s at four teams that could be challenging for the playoffs this season.

So let’s get started.

Chicago Blackhawks – There is no doubt that the Blackhawks are going to be a much, much different team than the one that won the Stanley Cup last season.

Gone are role players like Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien who have been replaced by Fernando Pisani and a handful of players who have been developing in Rockford. This is both troubling for Blackhawks fans and intriguing as well. Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell will finally get their chance in the big leagues, as will Viktor Stalberg.

The good news for their forward corps, however, is that returning are their core players like Toews, Hossa, Kane and Sharp. With those players to guide their incoming youngsters, the Hawks should still be in good hands next season.

On defense, the team has added big defenseman John Scott who will add some toughness in the absence of Ben Eager. While the contract of Niklas Hjalmarsson may be questionable, there’s no doubt that their top-four are as good as any in the league and the potential addition of Nick Leddy to the group is encouraging indeed.

Their biggest question lies between the pipes. With the decision to walk away from Antti Niemi and sign Marty Turco, the ‘Hawks have also made a statement that they are confident that it was not the young Finn who led them to the promised land.

While Turco’s record in big games is more than questionable, there is no doubt that he has both the drive to succeed, as well as the talent to be a successful goaltender in Chicago.

Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets find themselves in a precarious position.

They are just one season removed from their first playoff appearance in team history, yet there is an air of uncertainty surrounding this team that is undeniable. In fact, questions are abounding when it comes to the Jackets.

Is Steve Mason a true franchise goaltender? Can Nikita Filatov find himself in the NHL? Can Rick Nash truly be dominant player without a top center?

If the answer to two of the three of those questions is yes, then you could very well see the Stanley Cup Playoffs return to Ohio.

The problem is, however, is that there is no certainty that the answer to any of these three questions is yes.

Mason started to find his game again at the end of the season, while Filatov may find himself much more suited to the style of Scott Arneil than of Ken Hitchcock, but the fact remains that Nash does not have that one player on his line that can complement him and help him become the dominant player that we saw in the Olympics.

The addition of Ethan Moreau makes the team tougher to play against, to be sure, but it does nothing to help their top-six forwards.

Unfortunately for Jackets fans, it would appear that this team is again going to be on the outside looking in unless things turn around very, very quickly. There are significant needs that the team has that were not addressed in either the draft or free agency, most notably help on defense. These needs must be addressed before the team can take any significant steps forward so, they may be looking at another lottery pick.

Detroit Red Wings – So, how do the Detroit Red Wings follow up an admittedly disappointing season?

Well, how about signing a future hall-of-famer, a gritty defenseman and getting back one of their top young players from the KHL?

Their forward corps now have Jiri Hudler back in the fold as well as newcomer Mike Modano, who will serve as a depth center and also get some powerplay time, most likely. But on top of that, they will have a healthy and rested forward unit that is one of the most potent in the NHL.

Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom will be back healthy and the return of Hudler will likely spell a resurgence for the team’s two superstars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and that can only mean bad things for the rest of the league.

On defense, Ruslan Salei joins an already solid defensive unit and will provide them with some added grit. He, along with Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall will ensure that opposing forwards keep their heads up.

Led, once again, by Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings blueline will be one of the toughest to play against in the league and Salei’s hardnosed style will only add to that and their defense should only solidify Jimmy Howard’s place in net with the squad.

Howard had a breakout season with the Wings last year and the Calder Trophy nominee unseated Chris Osgood in the starting role. He held the Wings together through the injuries last season and was the sole reason that the team was able to not only make the playoffs but claw their way as far up as they did. Howard will have a lot to prove in order to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump but he is in the best situation possible to be able to do so.

When you look at the Wings, they are a team that is poised and ready to be a competitive team in the Stanley Cup race once again and could easily find themselves as the frontrunner to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals again.

Nashville Predators – To be perfectly honest, Nashville is like the bad cold of the Central Division. When it comes down to it, there’s no reason they should be there but you simply can’t get rid of them.

The Preds are about $13 million under the salary cap heading into this season with 15 forwards under contract, but just five defensemen and one goaltender. As always, however, it should be expected that those positions will be filled from within.

Chet Pickard will likely get a good, long look as the team’s back up goaltender while it could be expected that Ryan Ellis or Cody Franson will get a look as the team’s sixth and seventh defensemen.

But overall, this is a Predators team that is looking like they could match up very well with the rest of the division.

Matthew Lombardi joins an underrated forward unit and Colin Wilson will find himself in an increased role as well, after the departure of Jason Arnott. The top six, while not flashy, are both reliable and clutch and their young players of Wilson and Patric Hornqvist are continuing to improve. Throw in the addition of Sergei Kostitsyn, who will have a renewed lease on life after a change of scenery, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow former-Montreal Canadiens underachiever, Guillaume Latendresse and some solid role players like Joel Ward and Jerred Smithson round out the group.

On defense, they still have their solid top-two of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. These two will anchor a defensive unit that could use some work, but is very promising.

With veteran Francis Boullion, youngsters Ryan Parent (who is looking for a new lease on life in Nashville as well) and Kevin Klein will round out a defensive unit that will look much different by the time the season starts.

In net, they have Pekka Rinne, who will look to improve on a pedestrian season last year. Without Dan Ellis looking over his shoulders, however, the starting job is Rinne’s to lose and the team’s hope is that the certainty of his job will elevate his play.

The Predators are likely going to be a bubble team this year, as they have been the past few seasons, but that shouldn’t be a problem for a team that is used to that tag being saddled on them.

St. Louis Blues – Last season was admittedly disappointing for the Blues, who had come in with high hopes of contending, or at least winning a playoff series.

The young Blues team faltered early on and, after the firing of Andy Murray and hiring of Davis Payne, began to find the fire that had made them a force to be reckoned with in the West.

This season will be one of change for the Blues, though it shouldn’t make them any less deadly. Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk are both gone, leading to a youth movement for the team. This will lead to increased ice time for players like David Perron, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, all of whom will look to improve on their performances from last season.

The fate of the Blues likely lies in how these four perform. With the subtractions of Tkachuk and Kariya, their forward unit is significantly younger and has lost two of their more prominent leaders. That means that these four, as well as players like Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald will have to step up and fill the void both in leadership and in point production if this team is to be successful.

On the back end, the team has their potent young duo of Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo (who will likely finally crack the lineup for good this season). These two will be the cornerstones of a defensive unit that is as offensively talented as it is gritty, making for a potent combination.

Behind this defensive unit is the hero of the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak. Halak proved in the playoffs that he is capable of bearing the load of a franchise and is really the first solid goaltender that the team has had in a few years. Behind him will be perennial solid back up, Ty Conklin, who will fill in admirably when needed and the duo will provide one of the more solid goaltending tandems in the West.

There is no doubt that the Blues are a bubble team, but there’s no doubt that Davis Payne has this team playing the way that he wants them to and heading in the right direction.

Predictions

1) Detroit Red Wings
2) Chicago Blackhawks
3) Nashville Predators
4) St. Louis Blues
5) Columbus Blue Jackets

It breaks down like this. The Red Wings and Blackhawks will most likely be back in the playoffs this season. As with the last couple seasons, one of the last spots in the West could be determined by who finishes third or fourth in the division, lending hope to Predators and Blues fans. Finally, Columbus will find themselves looking at the lottery once again; however, their future continues to look up under Scott Howson.

Up Next: The Northwest Division

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.