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Despite the Bruins taking home the Stanley Cup last year, there is little doubt in my mind that the Western Conference is far and away the better, more competitive conference in the National Hockey League.

Within that conference, the central division remains the hardest dog fight in the entire league. Of the five teams in the central, four can lay claim to legitimate contenders for the playoffs, and one, Columbus, could be if goalie Steve Mason can revert back to rookie form.

Here is a preview of the central division, in order of my predicted finish.

2011-2012 NHL Hockey Tickets


This team is aging, but I think they have one last run in them. Lest we forget, we all thought Detroit was over the hill in 2002, but that team won it all on the backs of old goats Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, et al. This team still features Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the forward lines, and Niclas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall on defense. The big question here is, can Jimmy Howard become an elite goaltender?

STRENGTHS: Experience, leadership, offense

WEAKNESSES: Age, goaltending


If the Red Wings are on the decline, the Blackhawks are ascending. This team is stocked with young talent, starting with Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews. The defense is in solid hands with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, though a return to form for Keith would go a long way in helping the Hawks. It appears as though the goaltending situation is in the hands of young Cory Crawford. He had a solid rookie season, but we have seen that before. He hold the key to this team potentially winning another Stanley Cup. This team also got more physical at the behest of coach Joel Quenville. Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo will bring the grit here.

STRENGHTS: Speed, youth, forwards

WEAKNESSES: Goaltending, depth


I think very soon, the central division will be a dog fight between St. Louis and Chicago. Both are young and improving teams. For the Blues, the youth movement is starting to pay dividends. They feature young stars Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk, and David Perron. Perron is set to rejoin the team after battling severe post-concussion syndrome effects. He will take a while in getting back, but it is still good news. If Jaroslav Halak can show the same form he did for Montreal in the 2009-2010 season, the Blues will make the playoffs as, at worst, the sixth seed in the conference, maybe even the fifth. The defense is solid, so long as everyone stays healthy, and that is the big if for this team. They added Jason Arnott, Scott Nichol, Kent Huskins and Jaime Langenbrunner to help in case injuries become a factor. But Pietrangelo is a future Norris Trophy winner and Shattenkirk will be an all-star.

STRENGTHS: Youth, speed, offense, forward depth

WEAKNESS: Goaltending consistency, defensive depth, penalty kill


In its existence, this team has never been known as an offensive juggernaut. That remains the case today. Quick, tell me a prime offensive forward for this team. No one, right? Exactly. This team remains defense first, and for good reason. They feature probably the best one-two defensive combination in the league in Shea Webber and Ryan Suter. Either player would be welcomed lovingly by any other team in the league. While Weber wears the C for this team, the real leader is all-world goaltender Pekka Rinne. Despite Tim Thomas’ great performance last year, I think Rinne got hosed out of the Vezina Trophy. Simply put, Rinne is one of the three best goaltenders in the NHL. On any given night, he can be the best in the NHL. If the Predators could ever build an offense around these three players, especially Rinne, they would be a Cup contender.

STRENGTHS: Goaltending, defense

WEAKNESSES: Offense, offense, offense


This team has a pretty significant makeover, adding all-star center Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal, and James Wisniewski. Wisniewski will be out the first few games with a suspension, but he brings offensive legitimacy to the Jacket’s defense. The big question is, will either Carter or Prospal form a good partnership with captain and team star Rick Nash. Nash finally has some offensive support and could have a monster year. However, this team still has to ask, aside from Carter, Prospal and Nash, where is the offense? That is not the biggest question, or even the second biggest. The second biggest is, after Wisniewski, where is the defense? Fedor Tyutin is a serviceable defenseman, but aside from him, the rest of the defensive six for Columbus is threadbare. This team cannot expect to compete with no-names on the backline. The biggest question for the Jackets is, who is Steve Mason? Is he the goaltender from his rookie year, where he was next to unbeatable, or is he a piece of Swiss cheese? He has been maddeningly inconsistent, and Jackets fans are nearing the end of their patience.

STRENGHTS: Better offense, leadership

WEAKNESSES: Offense still not great, defensive depth, inconsistent goaltending, forward depth, special teams

Whats Your Verdict?