To open the Western Conference, I honour the champions from last season: The CENTRAL DIVISION. ---------------------------------
Detroit Red Wings:
What is there to say? They have been lauded endlessly since destroying the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final, lost no one of significance and gained Marion Hossa: they took a great thing and made it better (like undressing the Mona Lisa, or loading beer and strippers onto Noahs Ark). The only reasonable assumption is that they will be on par with their achievements last year -- a championship standard that is difficult to live up to. With a target squarely on their already-battled-worn backs I would not be surprised to see the injury bug sweep through the team. The subjective nature of that aside, Zetterberg, Datsuk, Hossa, Holmstrom, Frazen, Lidstrom, Rafalski and insert All Star here will make others look stupid on-the-regular throughout the season and well into the playoffs. Repeat? Ask me when they get to the dance.
2008 Record: 54-21-7, 1st Central
'09 Projection: 49-25-8, 1st Central
-- are the sweet heart team in the Western Conference this year. Look for them to sweep hockey fans off of their feet (straight onto the band wagon) much the same way Washington did last season, minus the AO-like dominance from their young snipers. Kane, Toews and Sharp carried the offense last year on a Blackhawks team that missed the playoffs by a slim margin (which may be accounted for by exuberant rookies playing too hungover on the road, something veteran piss-tank Robert Lang surely advised them on in the off-season). They added free-agent Brian Campbell to an already stacked offensively-adept blue line (Keith, Seabrook). Apparently trending upwards and due for a playoff appearance there remains some problems capable of grounding their expectations: Will Pat Sharp back up his shockingly productive season of '08 similarly in '09? How will they get rid of Knabiboulin and his 6.75mil contract so that newly-signed free-agent Christobal Huet can call the team his own? Whether or not they materialize into a threat this season is debatable, but their future is very positive as indicated by the willingness of Scotty Bowman to leave Detriot for Chi Town. This is a playoff team, but they need to iron out a few things before they can win it all.
2008 Record: 40-34-8, 2nd Central
'09 Projection: 42-30-10, 2nd Central
-- should prepare themselves to be usurped by Chicago as the 2nd-best team in the Detriot-dominated division. While they're at it, might as well err on the side of caution and be ready for numerous Western conference teams to fly past them having made zero notable moves in the off-season. Naturally I know headlines are not correlated to performance, but an offense with the punch of a Jaleel White circa 1995 is. With 2/3's of their second line doubtful (Alex Radulov set to play in Russia, Steve Sullivan's back doesn't work anymore) the Pred's need Arnott, Dumont, Erat and Legwand to produce over what most reasonable prognosticators will expect. Their saving grace will be their strong defense (Suter, Hamhuis, Weber) which will regrettably be without offensively-gifted Martin Zidlicky (gone to Minnesota). In support of their admirable cast of blue-liners is emerging goaltending star Dan Ellis (fantasy alert?). He was stellar during both the regular season (23-10-3, 6SO, 2.34GAA, .924%) and the playoffs (.938% over 6 games). Should he continue to demonstrate this type of consistency and reliability Nashville will be sniffing around the bottom of the playoff rankings in lieu of spiralling down the shit can.
2008 Record: 41-32-9, 2nd Central
'09 Projection: 39-34-9 3rd Central
Columbus Blue Jackets
-- are not only competing for their first-ever playoff appearance in '09, but are also in contention for the most numerous roster changes. They finally said goodbye to frustrating forward Nik Zherdev (who as an aside is still held in high regard by Doug MacLean. It's hard for your draft picks to live up to Gretzky when they play like Valari Bure, Dougie. Welcome to radio). Also wearing other threads are Hainsey, Brule and Dan Fritsche all of whom will contribute on their new clubs, albeit to varying degrees with Hainsey purportedly the most promising for the otherwise burning-tires-and-skunks-awful Atlanta Thrashers. Their top line is respectable (Nash - Umberger - Huselius), but everything between them and goaltender Pascal Leclaire is unimpressive. With Raffi Torres on the second line, Mike Commodore playing top 2 minutes its looks like the Battle of Fallen Timbers all over again.
2008 Record: 34-36-12, 4th Central
'09 Projection: 36-34-12, 4th Central
St. Louis Blues
-- John Davidson is viewed as a miracle worker by some given the resurgence of the team during his tenure (est. June 2006). However, their on-ice successes have much more to do with the brilliance of Brad Boyes and his 43-gino career-year. His partner-in-crime is sneaky point-producer Andy MacDonald who shares his habit of making plays and setting up tap-ins with their aging linemate (Paul 'if only prime wasn't so far away' Kariya). This will be another rung up the rebuilding latter for the hockey team in Mizzou, so we might get to see a lot of promising young talent, but only for 82 games or less.
2008 Record: 33-36-13, 5th Central
'09 Projection: 35-35-12, 5th Central