I complete my look at the Western Conference today with a peek at the Central Division. This division has perhaps the greatest disparity between the top and bottom of all divisions in the league.
Let’s take a look at them before ranking them:
Chicago Black Hawks (Corey Crawford, Ray Emery)
The Hawks won the Cup three seasons ago with what you would call serviceable goaltending from Antii Niemi. Since then, they have tried to get away with the same thing without much result. Crawford has been force-fed the starting job while, in my opinion not really up for the job. However he does have back to back 30 win seasons with solid numbers so he must be doing something right. I am not ready to put him in the upper tier yet. Ray Emery continues a remarkable recovery from a career threatening hip injury and earned himself another year to prove he can still be a consistent backstop (although some would argue he hasn’t ever shown that ability, so it wouldn’t be ‘still’).
The Hawks tandem ranked 22nd in goals against in 2011 – 12.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Sergei Bobrovsky, Steve Mason)
Once the darling of the NHL when he won the Calder trophy as an 18-year old, the last three years have been a nightmare for Steve Mason. Perhaps he was rushed to the NHL or maybe it is just the dysfunctional organization he plays for, but his numbers have been absolutely dreadful. Cue the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a similar if not quite as spectacular entry into the NHL with the Flyers, but fizzled and got shuffled out of the rotation. The starting job in Columbus will be wide open, and you can’t discount Allen York from that battle. Mason and Bobrovsky are 24 & 23 years old respectively, and both have seen highs and lows already. Neither one is entering the season on a high, and if one of them doesn’t grab the bull by the horns it will be another playoff-less season in Ohio.
Columbus ranked 28th in goals against last season.
Detroit Red Wings (Jimmy Howard, Jonas Gustavsson)
Since Jimmy Howard inherited the starting role from Chris Osgood, he has played three full seasons. He has never won fewer than 35 games. Whether it was the player or the team’s system that brought success has come into question, since even Osgood had Hall of Fame caliber numbers in Detroit. Well, now perhaps some of those questions will be answered as the Wings begin life without Niklas Lidstrom, one of the top three defensemen of all time. While Howard is a pretty sure thing as the starter, newly inked backup Gustavsson brings huge question marks. Brought in to Toronto with much hype, he failed to deliver on (perhaps grossly unfair) expectations. Maybe “The Monster” will be allowed to play his style of game that made him such a hot commodity as a free agent, instead of being forced to play a style that didn’t suit him, as seemed to be the case in Leafland. Either way, pencil Howard in for 35 wins and let the Monster chips fall where they may.
Detroit allowed the 7th fewest goals last year.
Nashville Predators (Pekka Rinne, Chris Mason)
Rinne is without a doubt one of the top 5 netminder in the league, but that will be put to the test this season as he plays behind a very inexperienced defense. His pedigree is good, and although there may be some growing pains, Rinne should be there to bail his mates out more often than not. Mason comes full circle after stops in St. Louis and Atlanta/Winnipeg, returning to the franchise he saw his first NHL action with. Mason is on the down side of his career and will not push Rinne for playing time. Rinne has shown he is capable of starting 70+ games anyway, so Mason might be a suitable backup content to be a support player for his teammates.
The Preds were ranked 8th (tied) in goals against in 2011 – 12.
St. Louis Blues (Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak)
The biggest surprise of the league last year might have been the emergence of Brian Elliott. Left for dead by two teams the previous season, many people were surprised to see him get a one way contract with the Blues. The gamble paid off big time for both player and team, as Elliott not only made the team, but passed incumbent Halak on the depth chart but led the league in GAA and SP. Halak wasn’t too shabby either, as both posted sub 2.00 GAAs and better than.925 SPs. And don’t expect much to change in Ken Hitchcock system that stresses responsible play in your own end. This will likely continue to be a platoon situation, playing the hot hand in most cases. Why fix what isn’t broken?
Obviously the Blues ranked first in goals against last season.
So having seen the players involved, how would you rank them? Here is my ranking:
5. Columbus Blue Jackets – A lot to prove for both goalies.
4. Chicago Black Hawks – Can Crawford be an elite starter, that is the question.
3. Nashville Predators – Rinne vs Howard a wash, give monster’s potential the edge over Mason’s experience.
2. Detroit Red Wings – See above
1. St. Louis Blues – While they might not put up quite the same phenomenal stats, the system makes them successful.
To be honest, you could rank the top three in any order and not please anyone. Rinne is probably the best goalie in the division, but has a heavy workload and if an injury strikes, the Press might be in tough, moreso than the other two top contenders.
Tomorrow I hit the Eastern Conference, starting with the Southeast Division.