Central Division Wrap-Up

We're just over a 1 week since free agency began, and there has been a lot of player movement within and out of the Western Conference. The Wings have been quietly active, taking care of their in-house free agents such as Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and Jonathan Ericsson before turning to the market to try and replace Brian Rafalski and his offense from the blue line. The Wings hope that signing Ian White from the Sharks and Mike Commodore from the Blue Jackets will bring some stability to a defense corps that has been a weak link for the past couple of years.

While the Wings have improved over last year (at least within the first week of free agency), what's been going on with the rest of the West? These are the teams that will be fighting tooth-and-nail with the Wings for playoff positioning and for the right to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Finals next year. While it's still early, most of the quality free agents have been scooped up, and we thought it might be a good idea to see how the other teams have fared so far in this offseason.

Follow the jump as we take a look at the other four teams in the Central.

For those that are familiar with the Wrap-Up during the season, we'll be looking at how each team did in the draft along with any player transactions made since the season ended to today.

Chicago Blackhawks:
Draft:
The Hawks had 11 picks in this year's draft, including 2 in the first round. They selected Mark McNeill, a center who played his junior in Prince Albert with the 18th pick, and then selected Philip Danault with the 26th selection, a pick they acquired from Washington in exchange for Troy Brouwer. By all accounts the Hawks did well to re-stock a farm system that could use the help.
Trades: Hoo-boy were the Hawks busy on this front. At the draft, they send Brouwer, a guy who was close to cracking the Top-6 but never quite was able to conribute consistently (think the Canadian version of Filppula) to Washington for the #26 pick. Then the Hawks unloaded the contract we all thought was un-unloadable (it's a word, trust me) when he swapped the $7 million man Brian Campbell to Dale Tallon's salary-strapped Florida Panthers in exchange for Rostislav Olesz. To counter this, the Hawks traded for the rights to Steve Montador from the Sabres and were able to ink him to a 4-year deal.
Free Agents: The Hawks have their core intact, so the signings they made were done to add depth to a lineup that was sorely lacking it last year. To that end, the Hawks brought in Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O'Donnell. They also re-signed their starting goalie in Corey Crawford. The Hawks did lose Jake Dowell to Dallas and in a move that only his mother could love, Tomas Kopecky signed a 4-year, $12M contract with the aforementioned Panthers.
The Skinny: The Hawks are not necessarily better, but they're not worse either. With their top 6 forwards and top pair of defensemen still in their prime, Chicago was simply looking to add complementary pieces that will get them back to the Stanley Cup Finals. They will be tougher to score against, but the loss of Campbell is going to hurt their power play as they will miss his outlet passes, even if he was the most overpaid defenseman in the NHL (sorry, Ericsson haters).

Nashville Predators
Draft:
What do you do when you have a Vezina-candidate in net and no first round pick? If you answered "take a goalie in the second round", then you're as smart as David Poile. The Predators apparently believe that too many goalies is a dumb thing, and took Swedish goaltender Magnus Hellberg with their first pick, having traded their first round pick to Ottawa in the Carrie Underwood trade. The Preds had an ok draft, but insiders aren't sure their's a legitimate superstar among the bunch at this time.
Trades: Again, Poile made us all wonder why he was nominated for that GM of the Year Award when he sent Cody Franson, a promsing young defenseman and Matthew Lombardi to the Maple Leafs for Robert Slaney and Brett......Le.......bda. I understand that the Preds are now free from the albtatross that is Lombardi's contract, but purposefully bringing Brett Lebda in to your dressing room should be grounds for immediate psychiatric evaluation. They did another move that involved trading a guy for another guy, but no one cares except those guy's family.
Free Agents: The Predators have never been a team that has spent a lot of money on free agents, but they really put themselves in a pickle when there was a potential snafu involving their RFAs. However, they were able to avoid any major catastrophes by signing all of them including Sergei Kostitsyn. It remains to be seen whether he will become a UFA or not, but he's the one forward the Preds want to bring back. They signed former first-round pick Niklas Bergfors from New Jersey, but they lost Joel Ward to the Capitals and Steve Sullivan to the Penguins. The biggest issue facing Nashville continues to be whether they can get Shea Weber locked up long-term. The club elected to go to arbitration with Weber so that no one could sign him to an offer sheet, but it remains to be seen whether they can get something worked out or not.
The Skinny: The Predators have always been known for having stingy defense and great goaltending, but lacked forward depth. Then they went out and allowed one of their better bottom-6 forwards to walk for nothing, and haven't signed anyone to replace him at this time. If they can't get Weber signed to a long-term deal, this could be a very long season for Preds fans.

St. Louis Blues
Draft:
Despite not having a first round pick this draft, the Blues were able to draft 3 players in the first 2 rounds. The Blues opted to go with size and scoring, taking four forwards. They surprised a lot of people by taking Jordan Binnington, the Most Outstanding Goalie from the 2011 Memorial Cup. Overall, the Blues draft was nothing spectacular, but they have some players that should be disappointing their fans in no time.
Free Agents: The Blues have been pretty quiet so far on the free agent front, choosing to work on getting T.J. Oshie signed while they sort out their ownership and figure out who is going to be signing the paychecks. Oshie was brought back on a 1-year deal that a lot of commentators feel is a reflection of his off-ice behaviour. St. Louis signed AHL-stalwart Brett Sterling (a former Chicago Wolves player that I saw a lot of when he was playing here), but he's likely to stay in the AHL or play third/fourth line minutes if he makes the team. The two big signings were Jamie Langenbruner and Jason Arnott, brought in to provide some leadership to a young team and prove that the Blues management believes it's 2001.
The Skinny: Nothing is really going to happen with the Blues until they have an owner in place. They'll make the nice moves like signing Langenbruner and Arnott, but those are not moves that signify the team is quite ready to make the jump to contender status. The Blues have a decent young core, but nothing the Blues have done in the last 2 weeks have shown they are going to challenge for a division crown just yet. Naturally, this is not going to make anyone around here shed any tears.

Columbus Blue Jackets
Draft:
The Blue Jackets were slated to have the number 8 pick and ensure they were getting a quality prospect, but chose to deal that pick to Philadephia in the Paul Holmgren Insanity Sale in exchange for Jeff Carter. They also sent their third round pick, but got that back when they traded Nikita Filatov to Ottawa. The BJ's have always had issues at center, and they looked to the draft to start stocking the cupboard. In all, they took 3 centers out of their 6 picks, including Boone Jenner, a player projected to go mid-to-late in the first round but was still available at #37. Like the Blues, the BJs did not have a spectacular draft, but time will tell if they picked any NHL players.
Free Agents: As Wing fans are aware, the BJs scored one of the biggest free agents of the offseason when they locked up James Wisniewski to a 6-year deal. It's my opinion that they overpaid for a guy that has only 2 solid offensive seasons under his belt, but he's going to make Columbus better, which should be an indictment of every defenseman on the Blue Jackets prior to July 1. Beyond that, the only other signing of any note was bringing back Marc Methot. The big moves the Jackets made were the trade for Carter to finally give them a legitimate #1 center and the shipping out of the enigma known as Filatov.
The Skinny: Scott Howson served notice to the rest of the Central that they are going to do everything in their power to stop being the punching bag for the rest of the division. The trade for Carter and signing of Wisniewski is a clear indication that they are trying to win now, but there's no depth on this team yet. The BJs will be better, but until they do something to solidify their goaltending, they will once again be looking up at the other 4 teams in the Central.

Coming soon: the Northwest Division.

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