Last year, Christy held a roundtable for the Red Wings bloggers to chime in on different developments in the off-season and other upcoming storylines for the season. Each day a blogger will "host" the discussion at their natural habitat and as many of us as possible will try to answer the questions--gets a bit hard with vacations, school, jobs, etc.
The way it essentially works is I'll ask a question and then the participants answer each question. Let's go ahead and dive right in to it. Oh, and Day 2 will be hosted by George Malik over at Snapshots. We'll link each post here as a fanshot on the main page.
(Note: No answers from Chief from A2Y or Petrella/Discher from TPL)
Focus: The Central Division
1. One of the biggest stories so far this off-season has been the shedding of players left and right for the Blackhawks in order to fit under the salary cap. Does the amount of change they've endured (and still have to) take them out of the driver's seat of the division or are the '09-'10 Stanley Cup winners the top of the division until they're unseated?
George Malik (Snapshots):The Blackhawks essentially lost their secondary scoring and depth forwards up front, as well as a starting goalie who very well could have been a one-season wonder. They're replacing their secondary scorers with up-and-coming youngsters and their goalie with a motivated veteran who isn't necessarily past his prime, and they kept their top line-and-a-half's worth of forwards and all their puck-moving defensemen. That being said, what they don't have is exactly what the Wings lost due to the salary cap, only a bit more extreme--they have no depth. If injuries strike anywhere, the Hawks' margin for error makes the 2009-2010 Wings team look deep, and while their top line-and-a-half's worth of forwards and top four defenders are elite, if a couple of the Hossas and Hjalmarssons get hurt, especially given their lack of cap space, even after dumping Huet, they're in for a world of hurt.
It's gonna be a dogfight given the Hawks' self-confidence more than anything, but the Wings, barring another season's worth of catastrophic injuries, will return to the top of the division because we have three scoring lines with Modano and six defensemen you don't have to worry about thanks to Salei's addition, and there's no way in hell that Osgood could possibly repeat his horrible 09-10 season, so Howard should earn some honest relief.
Tyler Deveraux (The Triple Deke): The way things stand right now, we'd have to endure another nightmare regular season to not win the division. Although, as funny as it has been this summer to watch the Hawks shedding cap weight, I don't think they fall any lower than 3rd place. Right now I'm thinking they'll finish 8-10 points behind the Wings for 2nd. It's always hard to guess the psyche of a defending champion, whether they're going to let up or cling to their spot on top of the mountain, but I'm betting it's something closer to the latter.
Matt Saler (On the Wings): The Hawks still have a good enough core of players to be competitive, but I don't think first place is a foregone conclusion like it was before too far into last season. A lot depends on the bit players they've brought in, as the top players can't carry them all the way. If the bottom half of their roster can't meet the needs of an NHL team, they're in trouble. If they play competently, I think Chicago's out of the driver's seat, but in the car. Barring another injury-plagued season for the Wings, Chicago should be able to compete for second place in the division.
Kyle Kujawa (Babcock's Death Stare): I think they're absolutely out of the running for contenders. I really put them in the mix with Nashville and St. Louis for 2nd in the division -- I really think a healthy Detroit should come out on top. Even more though they're still talented, losing that kind of depth hurts. Detroit essentially lost their entire second line all last season and it showed. You feel secure because you kept your stars, but you don't realize that the players who come out when the stars aren't on the ice just aren't up to snuff. Adding to that, they replaced their goaltending (though I was never sold on Niemi) with the (aging) model of inconsistency. Not to mention the Cup hangover does exist, and it hits young teams worst of all. Honestly, when I see season previews that put them in the midst of the contenders, I just assume they're doing the Hawks a courtesy -- they'll make the playoffs, and depending on how weak the Central is they may even comfortably take the 4th seed, but there's just no way they contend with the top three, which is Detroit, San Jose, and Vancouver in that order.
However, I've seen a fair amount of folks just laughing as Chicago guts their roster and I wish they wouldn't -- through their trades for prospects and their own draft picks (most acquired in these roster-gutting trades), they have 17 1st or 2nd rounders who didn't play regularly for them this past season. To put that into perspective, Detroit has nine (though one is Dick Axelsson) and that's an all-time high since I've started following. That's not to say they have 17 home runs, but they draft fairly well and it seems likely to me that in 4-5 years they'll be just as loaded with young talent the way they were the past two seasons, but hopefully (for them, not for Detroit), they'll have learned a little bit about cap responsibility.
Kris (Snipe Snipe, Dangle Dangle): First let me take a moment to express my feelings about Chicago's summer: BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! Last season was Chicago's one shot at the Cup. They got the job done, and that's very special for them, but this season is going to look different. Sure, they're returning Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Keith, but the thing about the NHL is that you have to have role players too, and as far as I can tell, most of their bottom lines are going to be made up of guys from the minors that we've never heard of, which is fun for me, but not so much for them. This summer, the Hawks have gotten markedly worse while the Wings have improved. Chicago will still be good, but winning the Central won't be a lock for them. Even last season with the injury plague, the Wings managed to close the gap near the end and make the race for the Central respectable. I won't guarantee a division win for the Wings, but I do like their chances.
Chris Hollis: It's hard to see how the Blackhawks will repeat as Central champs after losing so many pieces of their Stanley Cup winning team, but I'm a firm believer that until dethroned, the defending champ is the team to beat the following season. I said the same thing last season about the Red Wings and I'm sticking to my guns again this year. Whether or not I actually believe it this time around is up for debate.
Drew (NOHS): You were trying to bait me with this one, weren't you? Alright..I'll bite. The only possible way to get that awful taste of Chicago winning the Stanley Cup out of my mouth was to watch them completely dismantle the team that got them there. Are they out of the driver seat now? Abso-friggin'-lutely. It's been so nice to be able to brush any Cup-braggin' Hawk fan aside by letting them know how completely screwed they are going forward. Core entact? Show me the last team that won the Cup with 6 quality players and a bunch of scrubs. Sure we could have Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Rafalski, and Lidstrom...but you take away key depth guys like Cleary, Helm, Hudler, Kronwall and Stuart and replace them with career AHL guys and see what would happen. I don't think ANYONE who isn't the Chicago Tribune is going to tell you that Chicago is still the team to beat in the Central. They are the model of un-sustainable success. And it'll be nice to see them back where they belong - 3rd in the Central.
Casey: As mentioned by those above, the Blackhawks have taken incredible cuts to their roster from last year to try and keep things under the cap. I think they're still a very capable and dangerous team but the scoring depth and the chemistry within the roster has dropped off so much I'd find it hard for them to be able to be on the same level that they were last year. They'll still be competitive but I don't think they'll be driving the Central Division this season.
Questions 2-3 after the jump...
2. Nashville looked like a serious contender last season until their power play flopped in the postseason. They haven't changed their roster all that much from last year's edition so are they a major threat to win the division crown?
Malik: The Predators are always a dark horse simply because they play so well against their Central Division opponents and have a very good goalie in Pekka Rinne and the usual cast of characters in David Legwand, Martin Erat, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Patric Hornqvist, and an added Matthew Lombardi and Sergei Kostitsyn, and Barry Trotz always has the Preds unbelievably techically prepared for their bouts with Detroit and Chicago, but they can't quite keep up with either team, especially having lost Dan Hamhuis' services.
Tyler: I won't ever seriously fear Nashville until they do something worthwhile. Like win a playoff series. They very well might finish 2nd in the Central but they still aren't within a sniff of the Wings.
Saler: I wouldn't call them a threat to win the division, but I think they could be runner up. Trotz is too good a regular season coach to not capitalize on the Hawks' inevitable slippage. It'll at least be a fight.
Kyle: I think so. I don't like looking at him, but No Neck Barry Trotz is a tremendous coach, and Nashville is the one team in the division who's coach actually makes them better. They're not as talented as St. Louis, and certainly nowhere near Chicago, but I expect they'll be in the running with them all year. They didn't make many moves last season, but most of the biggest parts of their roster are pretty young and are coming into their prime. I honestly believe Detroit will take the crown, but Nashville could surprise. If only they spent more money, I think they're one big acquisition away from being a legitimate contending team.. but they seem pretty contend playing second fiddle (get it?) to Detroit.
Kris: No. I don't see Nashville as much of a threat to do anything except abuse my eardrums. I don't think they have the depth to compete in the postseason and make a serious run. The need several more pieces before they're contenders.
Hollis: I just don't see it happening this year. Nashville hasn't made a ton of moves to better their roster this offseason, and along the way watched guys like Jason Arnott and Dennis Grebeshkov leave town. That said, they did add Matthew Lombardi and have guys like Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat who are capable of putting up some points, but it's hard to see them making a strong run at the division with a lineup that doesn't sport a ton of depth across all four lines.
Drew: Is Nashville a major threat to win the division? No. Are they going to continue to be a pain in the ass? Yes. Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league - he will always be tough to play against. With guys like Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on the blue line and Pekka Rinne in the net, Nashville will continue to be tough defensively. However, they don't have the offensive fire power to be a real threat in the West. I'm guessing they'll be battling with Chicago for 3rd place in the division...and let's hope they can put up a better fight than they did in the play-offs last year.
Casey: I don't think Nashville will win the Central but I do think they'll give it a good run. They're a solid team with a rising stud in net and a good defense in front. If they're able to create a more consistent scoring threat they could be very dangerous but I think they're still one piece away from the puzzle being completed. Barry Trotz is a hell of coach and will keep them in the hunt and it actually may come down to how the rest of the division fares throughout the season.
Malik: The Blues are probably a dark horse candidate because T.J. Oshie, David Backes, David Perron, Brad Boyes and Erik Johnson took steps forward in a healthier year for a team that's very familiar with the injury bug, and Halak most certainly upgrades their goaltending significantly over Chris Mason, and like the Predators, they play damn well against their fellows in the Central Division, but I don't see them settling for higher than second place if the Blackhawks absolutely collapse. They just don't have the depth on defense to move the puck to their forwards (Carlo Colaiacovo's pretty darn good and Eric Brewer and Barrett Jackman are underrated, but they're not exactly elite) fast enough, and it's going to be very interesting to see whether coach Davis Payne can hold up over the long haul.
In the end it's Detroit versus Chicago, and the Hawks are gonna get hurt somewhere and lose ground.
Tyler: Last year I felt like I had a better grasp on the Central outlook than this year. I'm banking on the BJ's coming up last, but 2-4 could end up any which way. Halak won't be as rock solid as he was in the playoffs, because that's physically impossible. So to answer the question: Hey, look over there (points).
Saler: I see the Blues getting into the playoffs this year, but I'm not convinced it'll be due to Halak. I'm not ready to consider him a stone-cold top-tier goalie based on one playoff run. He's going to be in a tough division and a tough conference. The youth and energy on the rest of the Blues are what will get them back in the post-season, not strictly Halak.
Kyle: Halak is a definite upgrade to Mason in net, and I thought Mason was a pretty good goalie. Even more than Nashville, I think St. Louis has their young players in big roles already and it's just the matter of them finding their own niches in the next two or three years. They have a very well-rounded roster and they're pretty deep at all positions, but again, what separates them from Detroit and last year's Chicago is that they just don't have too many proven entities on the top of their depth chart. And in a way, while I like Halak more, Mason is the more proven guy. He's started for a number of years and you know you're going to get a reliable but not spectacular goalie. Halak was behind Price for most if his time in Montreal, and never took the starting job despite Price's best efforts to give it away. He had a playoff for the ages, but I don't think I need to delve into the list of goalies who have had one great playoff and not done anything else. Especially with a big contract, Halak is a candidate for that. If he can pull it together though, he makes St. Louis a dangerous 7th or 8th seed for anybody.
Kris: I think adding Halak does give the Blues a boost, but there's no guarantee that he'll have the kind of season that he did last year. A lot of his success was due to getting hot at the perfect time, and his big challenge will be trying to maintain that momentum throughout the whole season. There's no doubt that he single-handedly look out two of the top teams in the East during the playoffs, but the Western Conference is a different story. He'll no longer have the benefit of playing most of his games against Leastern Conference teams that couldn't hope to compete in the West. Halak's presence is enough to keep the Blues on my radar, but I don't think they'll be going far.
Hollis: I'm not convinced that Halak is the piece that puts the Blues over the edge. Is he a good goaltender? Yes. But if we've learned anything from last season, it's that a solid defense and scoring punch can make even the most overrated goaltender look great. Now, I'm not saying that's the case with Halak, but if the Blues are going to win the division this year, he's going to have to replicate his playoff performance over an 82 game season. If he does, then the Blues will be in the thick of the race.
Drew: St. Louis is my pick for #2 in the Central Division this year. They have a lot of young talent and bringing a gamer like Halak on board means they're going to be even more annoying when they play Detroit. While Nashville stayed idle and Chicago completely imploded, I'm expecting St. Louis to slide in and surprise a few people. Now I could be wrong, and I'd be happy if I am - but I think with guys like Erik Johnson, Patrick Berglund, and TJ Oshie with another year under the belt, St. Louis may just be the team that gives Detroit the most trouble with the getting Central Division crown.
Casey: Like others have mentioned before St. Louis has a lot of good young talent. However, I don't know if Halak is necessarily what will get them over the hump. Now, if he has an incredible year and goes on to win the Vezina and Hart Trophy, I'll admit I was wrong. I think he'll be good but it's more than just the goalie to win (see: Vokoun, Panthers) and I'm not quite sure St. Louis is there yet.