NHL season preview: Can the Central Division send four to the playoffs again?

Will the Blues repeat in 2013? - Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Once a top-heavy division, the Central now boasts three solid contenders, an upstart, and the most cursed franchise in the NHL.

In the late 1990s it was the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, with Detroit always winning the key battles. In the late 2000s it was the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, with each grabbing a Stanley Cup. Now the Central Division boasts four playoff teams and at least three contenders.

So yeah, 2013 should be fun.

Chicago Blackhawks

2011-12 (45-26-11, 4th in Central): How long should a Stanley Cup hangover last before you call your doctor? The Blackhawks followed up their first Cup win with two consecutive first-round exits. The first one was tolerable, a seven-game loss to eventual finalist Vancouver as they exorcised their Chelsea Dagger demons. But last year's was a loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Not good.

(To be fair, Mike Smith -- no, not that Mike Smith -- stood on his head, which is why they say goaltending can be the difference in playoffs.)

Offseason Changes: Almost nothing. They added Sheldon Brookbank and subtracted Sami Lepisto. So this hangover better be done.

Strengths: Coaching, although it's natural for fans to wonder if Joel Quenneville has gone stale. Top-end talent begins with Jonathan Toews and continues with Patrick Kane, who may have grown up and was subjected to experiments at center last season. Marian Hossa is an all-zone asset, assuming he has no ill effects from his playoff concussion. The Hawks like Marcus Kruger, yet they always seem to be hunting for a second-line center, even trying Kane there at times in 2011-12.

Weaknesses: The blueline is supposed to be a strength with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but it's been rocky the past two seasons. You hear Nikla Hjalmarsson's name in trade rumors a lot. Their goaltenders are still Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. (On that note, a weakness that can destabilize that: Coach Q's odd relationship with goalies, that goes back through all three teams of his NHL head coaching career.)

Columbus Blue Jackets

2011-12 (29-46-7, 5th in Central): Is there a more cursed hockey franchise right now than the Blue Jackets? The hockey gods answer with a resounding "no." After a significant offseason investment to improve in 2011, the team saw James Wisniewski become the first example made by Brendan Shanahan's disciplinary regime, with an eight-game suspension. Radek Martinek got concussed so bad he never came back. Star Kristian Huselius suffered a workout injury and never returned, ultimately retiring. Jeff Carter reported for duty but took too long to shake his emo Mike Richards separation anxiety. Rick Nash requested a trade.

Then the 30th-place team lost the draft lottery. Then their consolation prize Ryan Murray suffered a major shoulder injury that erased his 2012-13. Cursed, still.

Offseason Changes: The Blue Jackets had the ridiculous Nash trade demand hang over their head for much of 2012. Scott Howson did not handle it well, but it's also absurd for Nash to demand a trade and also demand that the struggling franchise not disclose that it was its franchise cornerstone who demanded to end the relationship. After several false starts, the Blue Jackets finally found a decent deal by getting Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, prospect Tim Erixon and a first-round pick.

Sergei Bobrovsky was also brought in to help put a merciful end to Steve Mason, and Adrian Aucoin was signed to see if he has anything left. Finally, the Blue Jackets hired John Davidson away from the Blues to bring in a grownup and polished face of the organization. He'll help sell tickets and keep management from doing anything stupid.

Strengths: Well, the prospects. Ryan Johansen will be good. Murray should be great, if his shoulder heals properly. Nikita Nikitin is a quiet but excellent addition to a blueline that should be good in a few years.

Weaknesses: Just about everything, including in goal, where Howson is paying for putting faith in Mason.

Detroit Red Wings

2011-12 (48-28-6, 3rd in Central): The Red Wings used to have the Central all to themselves, but Steve Yzerman retired, Bill Wirtz died, and the division finally woke up. It's not the "Chuck Norris" again, but it's great hockey on any night. The 2011-12 season saw Detroit finish third for the first time in 20 years and get bounced in the first round for just the second time in Mike Babcock's tenure.

Offseason Changes: Nicklas Lidstrom retired. That's all that matters. The Vatican is awaiting confirmation of his three miracles.

Strengths: Coaching is always good under Babcock, and Pavel Datsyuk remains one of the elite two-way players in the game. Henrik Zetterberg continues to provide excellent support at the top of the lineup.

Weaknesses: The decline of the Red Wings has continued to the point that Carlo Colaiacovo is their hot offseason signing. It remains to be seen whether Jonas Gustavsson can salvage his career and provide adequate backup to Jimmy Howard.

Nashville Predators

2011-12 48-26-8, 2nd in Central): After making several changes to show Shea Weber and Ryan Suter they were serious, the Predators, at long last, got over the hump and dumped their longtime nemesis Detroit Red Wings in a humiliating five games. Then they celebrated their advance to the second round by losing to Phoenix in five.

Offseason Changes: Lost Ryan Suter, and almost lost Shea Weber. They also brought back Chris Mason -- sending Anders Lindback to Tampa Bay -- and cut ties with party buddies Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov.

Strengths: Barry Trotz is rock solid and has the support of his GM. This has long made the Predators the most consistent and competitive expansion team, despite their tough division. These days, the play of Pekka Rinne sure helps.

Weaknesses: How will the blueline be after the loss of Suter -- who some argued was even more critical than Weber? How will the offense be after losing skill after their playoff run?

St. Louis Blues

2011-12 (49-22-11, 1st in Central): After years of darkness under alternating disinterested or underfunded owners, the Blues finally saw their rebuild pay off with a division title and entertaining team in 2011-12. Ken Hitchcock paid immediate dividends and has fans and players believing even after the team's feel-good story was steamrolled by the Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Offseason Changes: Jason Arnott was allowed to move on, as was Colaiacovo. Hot Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko was signed and reporting for duty, and Jaden Schwartz provides another possible infusion to the top nine. Otherwise, the Blues stood pat with a very strong team from last year.

Strengths: Hitchcock wouldn't have diddly to work with if the Blues rebuild hadn't provided talent up and down the lineup, but once Hitchcock came in he knew exactly what to do with a roster high on talent but low on delivery. A division title resulted, and the Jennings Trophy won by Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott is frankly as much to do with him as to the men wearing the pads.

Weaknesses: This won't be popular after they set statistical records, but ... the goaltending. It benefits from rather than fuels Hitchcock's team. And that's okay, because they have the talent in front of them to make everyone look great. But don't be surprised if the combo that produced a record-tying 15 shutouts last season regresses a bit.

Predicted order of finish: The top four teams were separated by eight points last season, so this is a fool's errand, but: Blues, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Predators, Blue Jackets.

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