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Wednesday, September 24, 2008
NHL PREVIEW

By E.J. Hradek

DETROIT RED WINGS Last Season: 54–21–7 Coach: Mike Babcock "IN THE PAST, PEOPLE SAID THE CENTRAL WAS WEAK. WELL, I THINK YOU'RE GOING TO SEE THREE PLAYOFF TEAMS COME OUT OF OUR DIVISION THIS YEAR."

Bad news for the NHL's 29 other teams: The defending champs—who led the league last season in points (115), wins (54), goals-against (2.18), shots per game (34.4), shots against (23.5) and face-off percentage (.533)—might be even better. How? The addition of top FA Marian Hossa (29 goals) amps the league's third-best offense, which already boasts two-way stars Henrik Zetterberg (43 goals) and Pavel Datsyuk (66 assists). On defense, six-time Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom leads a blue line that's flat-out terrific. Good news for the rest of the league: It's been 11 years since a team was able to repeat. Bad news: That team was the Wings.

KEY PROSPECT: Darren Helm, 21, C A future replacement for two-way C Kris Draper, Helm spent most of last season in the AHL. He impressed as a fourth-liner in the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS Last Season: 41–32–9 Coach: Barry Trotz

The money game: After the Preds' fourth straight playoff appearance, GM David Poile again had to juggle his roster to make his dollars work. He did a pretty good job. Poile traded D Marek Zidlicky and G Chris Mason for cap room so he could re-sign breakout G Dan Ellis (.924), C David Legwand (44 points) and cornerstone young D's Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The team got a bad break when talented RW Alex Radulov bolted to the Russian league. He'll be missed on a 27th-ranked PP. The Preds remain good and young, but a fifth consecutive playoff berth isn't a given.

KEY PROSPECT: Cody Franson, 21, D After an impressive debut in the AHL, the strong-skating, offensively gifted, 6'4'', 227-pounder is ready to take the next step. If Trotz gives him the shot, Franson will help QB the PP.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS Last Season: 40–34–8 Coach: Denis Savard

Blackhawks fans are talking playoffs. But hold on: This team has a lot of question marks. Yeah, rookies Patrick Kane (72 points) and Jonathan Toews (54 points) figure to be better in Year 2. But will LW Patrick Sharp score 36 goals again? Can D Duncan Keith have another plus-30 season? Will free agent D Brian Campbell (62 points) live up to his $56.8M deal? And can G's Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin truly coexist? (The answer to all of the above: unlikely.) But the skate-and-gun Hawks will still be fun to watch. There's no question about that.

KEY PROSPECT: Kyle Beach, 18, C The Hawks grabbed this big (6'3'', 203), tough pivot with the 11th overall pick last June. Beach projects as a skater who will create space for Kane and Toews—and Chicago fans will love his, ahem, two-fisted style.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS Last Season: 34–36–12 Coach: Ken Hitchcock

After seven playoff misses, second-year GM Scott Howson decided to shake things up. Gone: former first-rounders Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule and D Ron Hainsey. Signed: F's R.J. Umberger (10 playoff goals) and Kristian Huselius (25 goals). Prospects Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov should have immediate impact on a PP with All-Star Rick Nash (38 goals). But they're prospects—you can't assume they're going to be productive. Columbus must jump-start its offense (29th) and PP (26th) if it's going to shake up the balance of power in the Central, and no one the Jackets have added is up to that job.

KEY PROSPECT: Jakub Voracek, 19, RW The Czech-born wing is a strong skater who sees the ice well and finishes around the net. Scouts love his competitive nature and soft hands.

ST. LOUIS BLUES Last Season: 33–36–13 Coach: Andy Murray

A dismal finish sabotaged their playoff dreams, but the Blues remain committed to their youth movement. Smart. Now the kids need to deliver. And for developing players, that takes time. Are Lee Stempniak (13 goals) and David Backes (ditto) ready to improve their 26th-ranked attack? Are vet Paul Kariya's steadily declining numbers (16 goals, down from 31 two seasons ago) suddenly going to spike upward? Probably not. Still, with a season under his belt, D Erik Johnson should have more impact on the PP, which ranked last in both goals and percentage last season. St. Louis is on the right track, but making the playoffs? For this season, only a dream.

KEY PROSPECT: T.J. Oshie, 19, C Scouts love his excellent puck skills, north-to-south game and work ethic. Expect the playmaker to make the roster out of training camp.