It'll be some tough going for the Blues this season with the Red Wings and Predators in their division, but there's still a very good chance that St. Louis can still make the playoffs.
It's always interesting to glance at the overall salary cap chart on CapGeek.com. So many people assume that spending equals wins, and it did in 2010 for the Chicago Blackhawks. That's not always the case, so it's interesting to begin research for a Central Division preview by glancing it over. It's pretty indicative of what teams wanted to stand pat, which teams wanted to go for a new direction - and which teams wanted to retool so much that they've decided to spend goo-gobs of money for success. Does my preview (and ranking predictions) follow the ol' cap chart? To the chagrin of some Blue Jackets fans, no.
1. Detroit Red Wings: 2010-2011 Record: 47-25-10; 104 Pts. | 1st In Central, 3rd in Western Conference | Salary Spent 2011-2012: $58,454,545
New Arrivals: Mike Commodore; Ty Conklin; Ian White; Fabian Brunnstrom
Key Departures: Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper; Derek Meech; Mike Modano; Ruslan Salei (sadly killed in this month's Lokomotiv plane crash)
I might be a Blues fan, but I'm also totally aware of the powerhouse that Detroit is. It doesn't matter who the lose, who they add - they're a top tier team. None of the additions or subtractions this year matter as long as they have Niklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk out there, with Mike Babcock behind the bench. They could bring up the entire Grand Rapids Griffins team - heck, they could bring up their guys on the Toledo Walleyes - and with those three guys in the lineup and Babcock behind the bench, they'd make the playoffs. Laugh all you want at the Amway jokes (and I will... oh, yes, I will) but these guys are always good. Slow starts mean nothing - it's how you finish the season. Detroit finishes strong every season, and they will again. They haven't missed the playoffs since 1989. You can hate them, but keep those four championships they've won since 1990 in the back of your mind. They're not a team you ever take lightly.
2. Nashville Predators: 2010-2011 Record: 44-27-11; 99 Pts. | 2nd in Central, 5th in Western Conference | Salary Spent 2011-2012: $50,100,000
New Arrivals: Niclas Bergfors; Kyle Wilson; Zach Stortini
Key Departures: Joel Ward; Steve Sullivan; Marcel Goc; JP Dumont; Cody Franson
Sure, they lost a lot of notable players, but players who had off seasons last year. Franson had 8 goals in 80 games last year. Dumont dropped to 10 goals and nine assists from 17 goals and 28 assists the season before. Goc scored nine goals in an injury ridden 51 game season that somehow or another earned him a 3 year, $5.1 million deal with the Florida Panthers. Steve Sullivan only played half of the year. You should be getting the point here - much like Detroit, the subtractions aren't earth shattering. Neither are the additions, unless you can get Niclas Bergfors to play consistently for you. One of the best rookies in 2009-2010, Bergfors came to Atlanta in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade and promptly replaced Kovy's goalscoring. The next season, under coach Craig Ramsay, Bergfors saw his ice time dwindle amid fan complaints of a lack of try, so he was sent to the Florida Panthers for Radek Dvorak, where he also did not try.
If coach and magic man Barry Trotz can get Sergei Kostitsyn can have a 50 point year, then Bergfors - who has a higher skillset - should flourish in Nashville. Patience is what's needed with Bergfors, and there is no other organization with more patience and more ability to get blood out of a stone than Nashville.
3. St. Louis Blues: 2010-2011 Record: 38-33-11; 87 Pts. | 4th in Central, 11th in Western Conference | Salary Spent 2011-2012: $51,904,166
New Arrivals: Jason Arnott; Jamie Langenbrunner; Jonathan Cheechoo; Brian Elliott; Scott Nichol; Kent Huskins
Key Departures: Ty Conklin; Cam Janssen
I'll cover the Blues more once the line-up gets set and the season gets ready to start, but that 9-3-1 start last season was no fluke. Injury free Blues means some tough competition for the rest of the NHL, especially with TJ Oshie, Andy McDonald, and Barret Jackman healthy. The addition of veterans Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Kent Huskins should give the team some more even-ness if the drudgery of playing 82 games a year starts to lead to injury issues for about the 20th season in a row (it seems). It's pretty much assumed that injuries and AHL call-ups out of necessity did the Blues in a bit last year. When games weren't going their way, they got into a funk that the youth just didn't know how to snap out of.
This season, especially with David Backes as captain, there's so much LEADERSHIP! in the locker room that the team'll probably have to take alternate bus routes to avoid Pierre McGuire stalking them on road trips.
4. Chicago Blackhawks: 2010-2011 Record: 44-29-9; 97 Pts. | 3rd In Central, 8th in Western Conference | Salary Spent 2011-2012: $60,884,294
New Arrivals: Steve Montador; Daniel Carcillo; Jamal Mayers; Sami Lepisto; Andrew Brunette
Key Departures: Brian Campbell; Marty Turco; Troy Brouwer; Tomas Kopecky; Jake Dowell; Chris Campoli
The Hawks aren't down here this low because I dislike them. They're down here this low because they're frankly underwhelming. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Marian Hossa are an outstanding core, and coach Joel Quenneville is by far one of the best in the game. The rest of the tea is fairly either young, or not enough to put the Blackhawks over the top. They had a better team last year and very nearly missed the playoffs on the last day of the season.
Daniel Carcillo is more than likely going to take more stupid penalties or get into more fights than do anything else - while he can occasionally be offensive in more than one way, he's a game changer in the bad way. Former Blue Jamal Mayers is a bruiser with a ton of heart, and Andrew Brunette is a really good depth guy. Guys like that are on Stanley Cup winning teams all of the time, but the rest of the pieces - especially a bit of a question mark in goal - aren't there. Corey Crawford played fine last year, but a .917 SV% might need to improve a tiny bit to make sure that the Hawks are in the top eight come April.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 2010-2011 Record: 34-35-13; 81 Pts. | 5th in Central, 13th in Western Conference | Salary Spent 2011-2012: $59,973,976
New Arrivals: Jeff Carter; James Wisniewski; Vinny Prospal; Curtis Sanford; Aaron Johnson; Cody Bass; Radek Martinek
Key Departures: Mike Commodore; Jakub Voracek; Jan Hejda; Mathieu Garon; Sami Lepisto; Ethan Moreau; Nikita Filatov
You see how high their cap hit is all of a sudden? You can thank those first two names on the "new arrivals" list for adding a bit more to the payroll. Jeff Carter'll be making $5,272,727 this year, and James Wisniewski will be making $5,500,000. That's an awful lot of cash for someone who is best known for his simulation of oral sex - but watch out. He's a 50 point defenseman, and the best one that Columbus has.
And that's the problem. You have Rick Nash. You have Jeff Carter. You've got Vinny Prospal and R.J. Umberger. And then you have Steve Mason in net. It's been a while since a goaltender has gone from Calder winner and Vezina nominee to atrocious, but Steve Mason accomplished that his last two seasons. He's the last line of defense, and he's been hung out to dry by Columbus' porous defense as well as his own hangups. If he doesn't rebound into the franchise goaltender that the Blue Jackets hoped that he'd be, they're going to have a problem. The team's improved, but everything's hit or miss. That's not the best position for this franchise to be in.