St. Louis Blues

It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.

What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.

The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were, (I know, I know), and The series price betting lines were taken from

Western Conference
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks are the Presidents’ Trophy winners for a second consecutive season, and return to the playoffs after last season’s highly scrutinized loss in the 107th game. They were always going to be favorites as a #1 seed, but the L.A. Kings really don’t match up all that well with Vancouver.
L.A. game is based on defensive prowess and superb goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who will certainly be in Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina this summer. But, contrary to popular belief, the Canucks are an excellent defensive team as well. And they have speed!
While the Kings’ D is properly lauded for being the second stingiest in the league, the Canucks only allowed 19 more goals this season than L.A., which placed Vancouver fourth in the league in total defense.
And contrary to the widespread mob mentality, Roberto Luongo is just fine. I wrote all about that before the trade deadline, so I won’t go over the same numbers. But people need to get over that brain cramp in 2007. Seriously. Or, at least hold Luongo to the same standards to which every other goalie is held.

Both Daniel Sedin and Jeff Carter are expected to be ready for their respective teams, so the injury excuse isn’t one that we can use for either team yet.
Everyone will be and is talking about how it is just a matter of time before Cory Schneider rips the starting spot from Luongo. I disagree. I don’t think Schneider will see more than one game of the five that will be played, and I think that one is going to be simply to keep him fresh and because the Canucks will be taking care of business.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 28-7 VAN; Series price: VAN (-225) LAK (+185); What Won’t Happen: L.A. winning this series, Roberto Luongo losing his starting job.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks
I really thought more people would be calling for the Sharks to win this one. After all, they have more playoff experience and perhaps the freedom of starting as a lower seed this time around. I thought the betting line would be close to even, allowing for wise guys to make a killing on the Blues as the disrespected-yet-clearly-better team.
That didn’t happen, as the Blues are getting more respect than I figured a hockey team from St. Louis could in what might as well be their first go-round.
The experts had the Blues over the Sharks at a 25-10 clip, and the betting line was an unforgiving -165 for St. Louis.
Photo found here
Halak & Backes: Two of my fantasy studs. They’re also on my fantasy hockey team.

Here’s why I love the Blues.
First, there seems to be this common perception that all of a sudden the playoffs will expose the Blues’ limitations and lack of experience, and that the veteran Sharks took the regular season off but will be fully focused now that it counts. The problem with this logic is that St. Louis plays a playoff style of hockey in the regular season. Why in the world would they be unfit to continue to succeed with this playoff style in the playoffs?
The Blues led the league in defense by a wide margin. Isn’t that old, mindless cliché about the hot goalie supposed to be regurgitated a thousand times by now? Well if so, here we have the best defensive team in the NHL backstopped by the guy who grabbed his crappy 8 seed by the scruff of the neck and dragged them past at-the-time still hot young thing Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh. The lazy saying was made for matchups like this. Throw in a possibly healthy peripheral league leader in Brian Elliott, and the Blues should be able to continue to lock everyone down just like they have for the last six months.
Speaking of goalies, isn’t everybody talking about how Antti Niemi is iffy and the worst goalie to ever win a Cup and blah blah blah? If all that is true, and you’re needing to match up with the best defensive team in hockey, wouldn’t it follow that San Jose is not good enough to out defend St. Louis?
The Sharks’ were tied for 6th best in goals allowed in the Western Conference, which allowed them to be +18 in goal differential, as compared to the Blues’ +45. And remember, that’s +45 and the best goals allowed total whilst playing in a division that far outscores the one that San Jose plays in.
The bottom line is, as much as I respect the possibility that the Sharks learn and put it all together, I just prefer the roster and playing style of the Blues, especially if the team I like more has home ice advantage.
It should be noted that of the underdogs, San Jose has the third-lowest payout on the moneyline, making this series the third most likely to yield an upset according to the sportsbooks.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 25-10 STL; Series price: STL (-165) SJ (+145); What Won’t Happen: St. Louis is unable to exact their playing style now that it’s the playoffs, Anyone in 4, Anyone in 7.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks
I’m impressed with both the “experts” and the lines makers for recognizing just how good this series is set up to be.
This is another instance of the home seed having a lower point total but benefitting from geography, but readers know I have overvalued the Coyotes players for a while. I may have picked them to beat Detroit last year. I’m too lazy to check, but if I didn’t take Phoenix, I at least took them to lose in 7. That looked laughable last year, as Phoenix was the only team to get swept in the opening round.
But here we are again, and I still love Phoenix’s makeup. The roster gets made fun of, and everyone uses words like “toughness” in the same go-to way that NFL draft experts talk about college players that have a “motor,” or NBA draft talking heads refer to every white guy’s athleticism as “sneaky.”
These are the freaking playoffs. The NHL playoffs. This is hockey, and at the highest level. Every single team is going to have multiple instances and examples of “toughness.”
What everyone is really saying is, “We don’t think Phoenix is very talented.” Well, that’s cool. Let me ask you this: what would be the narrative about 35-goal scorer Radim Vrbata if he played on the east coast and/or had a North American-sounding name? I’ll tell you what word wouldn’t be used to describe his offensive output: “sneaky.” Alas, he plays his home games in Phoenix, and therefore is an overachiever, just like the rest of them.
The dichotomy in net couldn’t be more distinct. Mike Smith placed in the top eight in every relevant goaltending category this season. Corey Crawford was in the thirties in peripherals amongst qualifying netminders, and led the line for a team that completed exactly zero shutouts this season. 0-for-82. That might prove to be irrelevant, as either Chicago could pick the best time to start shutting people out, or they may just win the series without needing any bagels. But as of right now, the individual seasons for the young goalies Smith and Crawford went in very different directions.
And as much as I love Chicago’s offensive prowess from the blue line, Keith Yandle led all defensemen in this series in points, while second-year stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 13 goals were tops. Those guys play for Phoenix, and I think you’ll find their games to be anything but “sneaky.”
I love this matchup for a lot of reasons. The less respected, more defensively reliant team has home ice. The offensively explosive, recent Cup champions find themselves about to embark on a battle that will be every bit as physically demanding as the one they found themselves in with Vancouver last year. Of the eight western playoff teams, Phoenix (+12) and Chicago (+10) have the lowest goal differentials (but for very different reasons). This is a contrast of styles and accomplishments that is about as interesting as a first-round series can yield. The picks and lines on this one reflect that.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 20-15 CHI; Series price: PHX (+115) CHI (-135); What Won’t Happen: Chicago walks through this one, you don’t remember Phoenix center Martin Hanzal’s name when it’s all over.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
Alright, so what’s up with this one. Not surprisingly, the books have this as a pick ‘em at the moment. I can see why. One one hand, we have a somewhat recent champion with most of the same players in key positions. On the other hand, we have a team that is all-in for the title right now and has home ice. The consensus seems to be that this series is a candidate for going the distance.
What’s stunning is the consensus that once this one gets to a seventh game that the Predators will win. Nashville won in the experts’ books by a whopping 29-6 count. So, almost everybody likes the Preds to win the series. Yet, nearly everyone likes them to do so in exactly seven games. I’ve never seen a bigger example of playing it safe. Pick the home team, but take it in seven.
Amongst the twelve ESPN “experts,” only one has Detroit to win the series (Linda Cohn, in 6 games). So, how many of the remaining eleven, all of whom picked the Predators, took Smashville to win it in exactly seven games? How about ELEVEN. That’s right — eleven out of eleven.
This says a few things. First, it’s a close call. Second, nobody wants to take Detroit over Nashville, despite the books and the length-of-series projections admitting that the series is essentially a pick ‘em. And third, nobody likes Nashville to close out the series at Joe Louis Arena. Smart call, I would say.
The whole “what won’t happen” idea for these analyses basically came from my belief that while my Red Wings may win and they may lose, they sure as hell aren’t getting eliminated at home. It would seem that ESPN agrees with me. Not sure what that says about me… Come to think of it… shit.
Quick Reference: Experts’ picks: 29-6 NSH; Series price: NSH (-110) DET (-110); What Won’t Happen: Predators in 4 or 6.
Thanks for reading; we’ll be back to do this again for the conference semifinals.

WIth a half dozen or so games to go for most teams, the playoffs are starting to take shape. Although many possibilities still exist, what would be the most interesting first-round matchups that appear as likely as not to fall into place?
Eastern Conference
New York Rangers – If NYR wins the #1 seed, the obvious opponent from a perspective of intrigue is the Washington Capitals. The intrastate argument can be made for a Rangers – Sabres series, but the recent history exists between the Rangers and Caps. The last two times the Rangers have made the playoffs, their season has ended in first-round defeats in the home-seeded Capitals’ building.
Prior to their memorable second-round series with eventual champion Pittsburgh, the #2 seed Capitals had to survive a seven-game series with Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. New York fell behind 3-1 in the series before forcing the seventh game. This was a feat they could not duplicate last year, when they dropped that road elimination Game 5 in Washington as the #8 seed. If this matchup is to happen, it would be the Rangers who would have home ice and possibly even the Presidents’ Trophy.

If NYR is caught by Pittsburgh, the almost certain first-round pairing would be with Philadelphia in the 4-5 series. That would be a high-profile intradivisional matchup that might have HBO reconsidering its decision to not renew 24/7. The possibility exists for a Rangers – Devils series, but Philly would have to tank it to allow New Jersey to make up a six-point gap with only six games to play.
Boston Bruins – I’ve never taken the “Boston better be careful or they’ll drop the division” talk seriously, and I’m willing to assume that Boston is going to place into the #2 seed in the east. Of all the teams they could face in the first round, I think the most interesting series might be against New Jersey, who sits only two points ahead of Ottawa for the sixth spot. Some would argue that Ottawa or Buffalo are the best opponents for Boston because of the divisional aspect, but I would much rather see a contest between similar-minded teams with very contrasting expectations and recent playoff showings.
Florida Panthers – It’s going to be hard to argue that the Florida series will be interesting no matter who they face simply because nobody cares about hockey in Florida. But if we’re going to pit them against any potential #6 seed, I would personally love to see them face Ottawa. These two teams finished 13th and 15th in the Eastern Conference last season, respectively. But the manner in which they would get to this potential 3-6 matchup is very different.
Florida went out and overspent last summer just to reach the salary cap floor, and had been targeting July 2011 as the month in which the franchise would be able to begin to turn the whole thing around. So far, nobody can argue with the results.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Ottawa was supposed to be in rebuilding mode. Filip Kuba was supposed to have been dangled in February and shipped off to a playoff contender for yet more young talent and/or draft picks. Everyone of consequence besides Spezza and Anderson were either really old or really young. Alex Auld was the backup goalie.
But the Sens’ veterans ran the show, the rookies were solid and Craig Anderson was nothing if not reliable. Number 41 is never going to be the most consistent tender in the league, but dare I say consistency isn’t really the thing a “crap team” needs in net. Teams that are supposed to suck often have a decent enough, consistent goalie who always faces more shots than his counterpart and usually puts up a respectable 2.60 – 2.75 GAA while getting no goal support. This leads to a good amount of one-goal losses and not enough points in the standings.
A goalie like Anderson, however, is going to miss a lot of fairways and make some double bogeys. But when he’s feeling it, that same top-of-the-crease, gambler attitude is going to steal some games as well. And at the end of the year, that inconsistent style might lead to more wins and overtime/shootout losses, along with some more blowout losses. This leads to more points in the standings, and a better shot at playoff qualification.
Throw in the “goalie against his old team” thing with Anderson against the Panthers (which almost nobody knows or thinks about), and the idea that nobody takes either Ottawa or Florida seriously as eastern conference contenders, and what’s not to like about #3 Florida against #6 Ottawa? At least that leaves more “big boy” series for the rest of you.
Pittsburgh Penguins – This is obvious. If the red-hot, playoff favorite Penguins finish behind New York and get the #4 seed, everyone will want (and almost certainly get) the no holds barred Pennsylvania state title series against the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. It is entirely possible that the Flyers catch the Pens and get home ice for this series.
If Pittsburgh ends up grabbing the top seed, as most people have felt that they will for a few weeks now, the glaringly obvious NHL wet dream is that Washington finishes in 8th. You don’t need a lecture on the hype that would surround another Pittsburgh – Washington series.
Philadelphia Flyers – The revamped Flyers are probably going to finish third in the Atlantic and get the #5 seed, although the #4 is certainly within reach, and other than the location of a potential seventh game, it doesn’t really matter. The Flyers are probably going to face whoever doesn’t win the division, and whether it’s Pittsburgh or New York, the rivalry exists and doesn’t need manufacturing. The east’s 4-5 series should be one to watch.
I’ve laid out my desired opponents for New Jersey, Ottawa and Washington, and I think Buffalo would be happy to play anyone. I don’t really see a jaw-dropping opponent for the Sabres that would place in the east’s top two, although that’s not to say a series involving Buffalo would be boring.
Western Conference
St. Louis Blues – The Blues are closing in on a rather unforeseen division title and possible Presidents’ Trophy, and their 147 goals allowed this season are best in the league by a laughable margin. St. Louis’ most gimmicky opponent out of the 7 or 8 hole would be Colorado based simply on last year’s trade, but regular readers know what I think of the Avalanche’s front office and general leadership. Because of this void in direction and the fact that Colorado has only four games left to play and are already trailing the 8th spot, I don’t see the Avs getting in.
This would leave the Blues list of potential opponents as the entire Pacific Division with Anaheim swapped out for Calgary. As much as I love the Red Mile and the passion of the Flames’ fans, and as cool as it would be to see what San Jose could do with a #8 by their names (just think, Washington and San Jose as the EIGHT seeds), the most interesting opponent for the Blues from a style of play standpoint might be the Los Angeles Kings.
Sure, it might be a snoozer for the scoreboard operator, but I think the irony of this series would be worth at least five games. Just think, there’s this midwestern squad that doesn’t spend to anywhere near the salary cap, but has figured out a way to master the exact style of play that the team from Hollywood has been trying to play for some time now. Both teams fired their head coaches during the season, but only the small, red-state Blues have seen the kind of ludicrous uptick in results that followed.
Unlike most pundits, I do not think an early exit is inevitable for St. Louis. On top of that, I think the Blues match up with the Kings very well — much in the same manner the ’08 Red Wings did with the Penguins. Similar systems and styles of play, but one team just seems to be doing it better. Despite the studliness of Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick and the ability of most fans to name more skaters for L.A. than for Dallas or Phoenix, I believe the Blues should actually welcome a first-round series with the Kings, lest they go up against an offense that can actually hurt them.
Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are either going to get the #1 or #2 seed, and since I think the top six are already determined, I’m not going to waste time dreaming up another first-round series against Chicago. Vancouver’s potential opponents are pretty much the same as those for St. Louis, and of those teams I’d like to see the Canucks face the Dallas Stars.
Dallas is a quiet team that nobody feels they need to pay attention to, but a series with the Canucks would be akin to a #13 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament finally getting on TV. Nobody knows your players’ names until you start canning threes and D’ing up on a team that everybody assumed would advance to the next weekend. It happens every year, and a highlight series with the desperate Canucks might be what it takes to get trending topics in North America like “Jamie Benn” or “Lehtonen.” Dallas has a roster that clearly is highlighted on the blue line, but aren’t those the types of teams that are able to surprise higher seeds in the playoffs?
There’s always the possibility that San Jose slides back into the 7th or 8th seed, and this would make for the highest profile opponent that Vancouver could face in mid-April, but forgive me for not being all that excited to see another shockingly short series between these two.
San Jose Sharks – Chicago. Chicago. My kind of matchup.
This can only happen if San Jose wins the division and Chicago completes its BlackSawks plan of diving for the 6th seed, which looks to be fully operational, but there is absolutely no opponent that would be more salacious for the rest of us third parties.

Gary Bettman’s search history: 2012 Sharks – Blackhawks first round + British accent

Yes, we all want the Sharks to fail and finish ninth or something, but in the interest of eyeballs, a San Jose – Chicago series in the 3-6 matchup is another one of those “NHL google images Kate Beckinsale” type scenarios. Let’s get it done. Plus, one of them has to lose!
Nashville Predators – It looks for all the world like the Chicago BlackSawks are going to win the race to the bottom for the 6th seed, and so we’re left with the near certainty of a Nashville – Detroit series in the first round. This is cool, although as a Red Wings fan it’s a bit depressing. There is the whole contrast of styles thing, as well as the contrast of urgency. Detroit did next to nothing transactionally all year despite having all of this extra cap space that team owner Mike Ilitch dumped right into the pie hole of Prince Fielder. Nashville, meanwhile, went out and paid a crazy price at the trade deadline for Paul Gaustad, must have made Alex Radulov some sort of offer he couldn’t refuse to get him back over from Russia a couple weeks ago, threw the cash at goalie Pekka Rinne and hope to be able to do the same for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
The Preds are coming off their first playoff series win in 2011 and are clearly gunning for the Cup right now. The Red Wings look more like an organization that is owned by an 82 year-old man who has already won four Stanley Cups and has that one last thing to do before he dies: get his baseball team a world series title. Look at the change in salary expenditures and policy and tell me I’m wrong.
Detroit Red Wings – Again, it looks like Detroit is going to lose the race to the top to St. Louis and the race to the bottom to Chicago, and will be stuck in the undesirable 4-5 series against Nashville. A series win would get the “see, we’re up there with the best and the struggles were only due to injury” bandwagon up and rolling, while a series loss would kinda, sorta disgrace Nick Lidstrom’s final year. And make no mistake about it, if the Red Wings lose in the first round after two consecutive second-round exits and failing to bring in any personnel help despite having a considerable amount of salary cap space for the first time in years, I highly doubt GM Ken Holland will be able to convince Lidstrom that the team is close enough to a Stanley Cup to warrant another year of unrelenting work. But then, I don’t think or live like Nick Lidstrom. Unfortunately.
Chicago Blackhawks – There’s that dream matchup with San Jose for the rest of us that I mentioned earlier, but I’ll tell you who Chicago shouldn’t want to play: the Dallas Stars. I’m not necessarily calling for a Dallas “upset” over Chicago at this moment, but come April 9th I might be.
The Hawks obviously are hoping for the return of captain Jonathan Toews, and therefore should want to delay any headlining matchups as long as possible. But what seems easier from a physicality perspective: playing San Jose or playing Dallas or Phoenix? To me the answer is obvious, and the Hawks seem like a team that needs to be kicked into gear anyway. Dallas or Phoenix just might lull Chicago to sleep. There’s no way anyone sleeps through a series with San Jose.
So Chicago, San Jose, let’s just see it already.
The Most Interesting (Possible) First Round in the World
Eastern Conference
#1 Pittsburgh v. #8 Washington
#2 Boston v. #7 New Jersey
#3 Florida v. #6 Ottawa
#4 N.Y. Rangers v. #5 Philadelphia
Western Conference
#1 St. Louis v. #8 Los Angeles / Calgary (L.A. for style, Calgary for fandom)
#2 Vancouver v. #7 Dallas
#3 San Jose v. #6 Chicago
#4 Nashville v. #5 Detroit
Apologies to fans of Buffalo and Phoenix, as well as L.A. and Calgary for only putting them halfway into the playoffs. I don’t apologize to any other team, because I don’t believe any other team can get to the playoffs. Except of course the Leafs…

While my summer declaration that the NHL’s Central Division was the strongest from top to bottom has been decimated by Columbus’ awful season, the other eighty percent of the division have far outperformed even my biased expectations.
As far as point percentage goes, which paint a clearer picture of the true “standings,” the top four in the Central are all in the top six of the Western Conference.

St. Louis
San Jose
Los Angeles
What does this Central Division 50+ game dominance mean? Well, very little, if we’re honest. There still will be an 8-team playoff for the right to not touch the Campbell Bowl and play the champion of the other conference for the Stanley Cup. But one thing to at least acknowledge is that if this lopsidedness continues through the 82nd game, the way the playoffs are seeded will force at least one mistimed intra-divisional quarterfinal series.
If the playoffs started today, Nashville would have to travel to St. Louis in the first round, despite the fact that the two teams place third and fourth in the conference, respectively. This is of course because Vancouver and San Jose, as division winners, are guaranteed top three seeds. I have no beef with this, and I’m not unaware that it may be the Central champ that ends up as the 3 seed. Just pointing out that the 4th place team would be on the road, and the 3rd place team would have to face a team they may have some argument for avoiding.

Defense Wins Championships?

One surprising thing to me about the order of these teams is that Chicago is bringing it up the rear, largely thanks to the fact that they’ve been taking it there every time they score less than three goals in a game. Jesse Rogers pointed this out some time ago, but as of today the Blackhawks have won only one game in regulation when scoring less than three goals. And that one game was against the Kings, where a 2-1 score is sort of like a 3-2 or 4-3 game given L.A.’s penchant for keeping the flow nonexistent.
A response to the above stat is that Chicago has the 4th best offense in the league, and therefore don’t need to win a lot of 1-0 or 2-1 games. But the fact is the Hawks are 4th in the league with 3.1 goals per game, which makes failing to tally thrice just a below average game. In the playoffs, prolific offenses tend to have to find other ways to win games that are shrunk by the better opponents and heightened intensity. I’m not saying Chicago can’t win the Cup, but they almost certainly will have to win more than one game by a score of 2-1 or even 1-0. Haven’t been able to do that so far through 53 games against the entire league. We’ll see if they can do it in less than 30 against only the best.
In an All-Star Game of Front Offices, the Central Division Would Mercy Rule Everyone Else

The stat that impresses me the most about these four teams is the one in which they’re not that prolific: player salaries.
Despite placing first, third, fourth and sixth in the west in points taken per game, if the standings were determined by blowing through cap space, only one of these central giants would even make the playoffs.
Amongst on Western Conference teams, Chicago’s payroll ranks eighth; Detroit comes in ninth; St. Louis eleventh; Nashville thirteenth. Their on-ice success may not be in total contrast with their thriftiness — as information has moved us all closer to being general managers (in our daydreams), we may have overvalued the correlation between dollars spent on players and wins.
To both comment further on the distinction that we should all make between the two paper figures and pile on Columbus, it is actually the Blue Jackets who lead the Central Division in salary cap hit this year. The Jackets have spent the fourth most on player personnel in the Western Conference, ahead of such Stanley Cup contenders as San Jose, Boston, the New York Rangers and of course, the rest of their divisional brethren.
The reward for the conservatism of Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago? The freedom to buy this month in the trade market, for one. The ability to sign the cream of the free agent crop this summer, for two. In Nashville’s case, the latter seems more urgent, as it is their players who count for two of the premier names in the upcoming FA pool (Shea Weber & Ryan Suter). Detroit and Chicago figure to be immediately much more concerned with the former effect, as there can be only one Stanley Cup champion each year, and after all, there is only one Ales Hemsky (or Travis Moen, or…).
St. Louis is a little harder to figure out, as they are in that awkward position of being better than their name. Call it punching above their weight, quote Shakespeare or The Departed, the point is: the Blues are a contender right now, but may not be in the financial condition yet to go out and make splashes. Time will tell, but I expect the Blues to go forward with mostly the same players that have been the best team in the NHL since the hiring of head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Before the other three teams get involved in a loaded NHL Tuesday, the Red Wings travel to Glendale for a game against the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at 8 p.m. EST on NBC Sports Network. Detroit has eliminated Phoenix in the first round of the last two playoffs, and will try to improve upon their 15-14-1 road record this season.

The Central Division should be the most competitive from top to bottom in the entire NHL in 2011-12. Two teams from the Central made the second round of last year’s playoffs, another won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and the other two teams did so much to try to improve their squads this year that it’s hard to pick any team to finish fifth. It’s nearly impossible for every team in any division to make the playoffs, but I don’t feel that any specific team from the Central has any real excuses not to qualify this year. There are only five playoff spots given to non-division winners, and with the existence of the Pacific Division teams it’s hard to see four of the five spots going to the Central, but I would bet that nobody in the Central finishes lower than 11th in the west this year.

I think a return to playoff success is in line for the Central as well. Last season was the first since 2005-06 that the Central Division was not represented in the western conference finals. With the Blackhawks, Red Wings and Predators all pushing for certainly nothing less than a league final four appearance coupled with the Vancouver Canucks having to deal with getting their teeth kicked in to close the last campaign, I would be somewhat stunned if we had another western conference final that was contested only in the pacific time zone.

Regarding the regular season in the Central, let’s see what we’ve got.

1st: Chicago Blackhawks 2010-11: 97 points, 3rd in division

Tuco Ramirez has a classic line in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that he delivers from the comfort of a bubble bath after having just shot an intruder who had finally tracked Tuco down and was reveling in the poetry of his impending redemption. The bit player rambles on about how he lost his right arm thanks to Tuco, that he had been looking for him for eight months, and how he was now going to shoot the Ugly dead in his bathtub with the gunman’s left hand. But the hardened fugitive survives again, this time because he was bathing with his gun in one hand. After the screened shot ends the rambler, Tuco rises, shoots one last time, and calmly professes, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

I have a feeling we are all going to look back on 2010-11 as the season when the Chicago Blackhawks were in the bathtub. All of these western conference teams had their chance to shoot. The Canucks got to the Finals after squeaking by the weakened Hawks, but they couldn’t consolidate that into a Stanley Cup. The Red Wings and Predators finished 1-2 in the division but couldn’t get past either Vancouver or San Jose in the conference semifinals. Well, the soapy, sudsy shots have been fired in the forms of a roster that has trimmed some of the salary fat off, while also adding a couple contributors to a young team that is one year older and not complacent in the least. The season will tell whether the Blackhawks are able to stand up out of the water and fire the finishing shots on the rest of the division, conference and league.

It wasn’t all benefits and no losses, however, as Brian Campbell was shipped off through the Hawks’ pipeline to the Florida Panthers. Some insane Chicago fans who either don’t watch hockey or don’t care to think critically took to the internet after the trade to blast Campbell and insinuate that the Blackhawks were better off without him. That’s not true on any level, but the Hawks needed to do something to improve their cap space going forward in order to comfortably sign versatile forward Patrick Sharp to an extension. Campbell is entering the fourth year of an eight-year deal that sees him cost his club $7.14 million a season, which is a number that also contributed to the wrath of some lesser-thinking fans who disguise themselves as fantasy GMs. Not surprisingly, the Sharp extension has now been finalized and goes for five more seasons beyond the current one.

But losing Campbell is something that Chicago can overcome thanks to three key factors. First, their goaltender appears to be a rock. Corey Crawford will enter only his second NHL season (he’s played in five separate seasons, but only saw time in eight total games prior to last year), but he’s shown all the signs of a great one. His 2.30 GAA as a rookie tells us most of what we need to know (that was paired with a .917 save %).

Second, Chicago’s bottom four defensemen aren’t asked to do nearly as much as their counterparts on other teams, thanks to the fact that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook skate nearly half of the game (Keith had an ATOI of 26:53; Seabrook’s was 24:23). Campbell skated the third most time on the entire team last year, so he will have to be replaced, but the Hawks have the luxury of being able to do that by committee, rather than needing to plug an unprepared guy in for 23 minutes when he’s used to skating 19. If not for Keith and Seabrook chewing up game time, there would be almost no way to avoid overplaying the other defensemen, and that would probably be detrimental to Chicago’s goals allowed total and possibly to the players’ developments.

The third reason losing Campbell is okay is that Chicago scores a ton of goals. They placed fourth in the NHL last year in scoring, and that was with Sharp missing eight games, Patrick Kane missing nine, and Marian Hossa and Campbell each missing 17. Sure, injuries happen, but the Blackhawks were able to outscore everyone in the west except Vancouver and Detroit despite missing these key offensive players and having to completely rebuild the team chemistry after losing forwards Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and more following the Stanley Cup victory. And that says nothing of having a rookie netminder.

This season’s version of that offense should be just as murderous, if not more so. Kane, Sharp and Hossa are all indisputably star scorers, and they’ll now be joined up front by left wing Andrew Brunette, who seems like a Blackhawks player before ever donning the jersey. Brunette has given his teams relatively consistent production since becoming an NHL regular in 1998-99, and his goal and point totals have ranged from decent to very good, with a peak offensive season in 2006-07 with Colorado in which Brunette had 27 goals and 56 assists (both career highs). Brunette has missed only two games in the previous eight seasons, and as a 38 year-old this season, brings some more veteran leadership to a team that already knows what it can do after winning the Cup just 14 months ago.

But the Chicago forwards all pale in comparison as hockey players to captain Jonathan Toews. The 23 year-old center has won everything there is to win in hockey, save I suppose for a regular season MVP award, which is something that probably doesn’t mean too much to most hockey players anyway given that it is an individual award that is largely based on certain dynamics that are out of most players’ control. Besides, Toews has won individual awards at the highest level anyway: the Conn Smythe Trophy as NHL playoff MVP and being named Best Forward at the Olympics, both in 2010. Following gold medals at the 2007 World Championships and 2010 Olympic Games, that 2010 Stanley Cup made Toews the youngest player to ever enter the Triple Gold Club (surpassing Peter Forsberg). But awards and trophies don’t always tell the whole story, and if you haven’t had the chance to watch and focus on Toews as a hockey player, you probably should. He’s certainly one of the best in the league, and his leadership and production are really the beginning to what puts Chicago on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders. While Toews should have his running mate Kane on his right side, many assume it will be Brunette who is the first-line left wing this season.

Playing on the left side of second-line center Sharp could be Viktor Stalberg, although most of Chicago’s left wings seem like third-liners on most teams. But Stalberg had periods of impact last year, and it is very hard for anyone to fail playing alongside Sharp and Hossa. Below the top six are a lot of guys that you wouldn’t want to cross in any situation. The Blackhawks added tough guys in Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to play on the fourth line, and bring back Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland to presumably skate on the third line. Playing regularly should be rookie right wing Ben Smith, who scored three goals against Vancouver in the playoffs last year, including that big OT winner in Game 6 over an anchored-at-the-stomach Roberto Luongo. The last piece of the puzzle is right wing Michael Frolik, who unsurprisingly was acquired from Florida last year (remember the pipeline) and has speed to burn. Frolik is listed as Chicago’s third right wing, but that’s mainly because the top two (Kane and Hossa) are unassailable. If the Hawks were really looking to maximize scoring on the top two lines they could try to move Frolik to left wing and have him take Stalberg’s spot on the second line, but ask the New Jersey Devils how trying to change players’ positions in the name of stacking top lines works out.

The defense certainly will miss Campbell, but they did acquire Steve Montador from Buffalo, who should skate with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the second pairing. If anyone needs to step their game up in the absence of Campbell it is Hjalmarsson, who has had about as many excuses made for him as has Tim Tebow. Hjalmarsson’s skill is there, which is not as big as his hitting presence but still needs to translate to some more benefits for Chicago. Hjalmarsson’s defense has come into question somewhat frequently, but he did post a plus-13 last season to give him a plus-24 for his young NHL career. Also expected to play on Chicago’s blue line are Nick Leddy and Sami Lepisto. Leddy was the 16th overall pick in the 2009 entry draft by his hometown Minnesota Wild, who then traded Leddy’s rights to Chicago in exchange for defenseman Cam Barker. Many people within USA Hockey have had the 20 year-old Leddy pegged as potentially one of America’s best defensemen for a few years now. The Hawks also have John Scott at their disposal, who can be counted on for about two penalty minutes per game, which means another tough guy to inflict punishment on opponents when necessary. Scott played 40 regular season games as well as four playoff games for the Hawks last year, which were needed after Vancouver injured Seabrook.

There aren’t many question marks for the Blackhawks in net this year, and don’t figure to be for quite a long time. Corey Crawford came good last year in his long-awaited rookie season, and in doing so vindicated Blackhawks brass after it cut ties with 2010 Cup winner Antti Niemi. Crawford can be counted upon to be in the top 15 in both main peripheral statistics, with the potential to be near the top in either or both. Crawford will likely be backed up this season by 24 year-old Alexander Salak, who came over with Frolik from Florida this February.

2nd: Detroit Red Wings 104 points, 1st in division

Looking at Detroit’s offense, it would be easy to peg them to repeat as division champs. I considered doing so, and I think that the divisional race will go back and forth with respect to each slot, but at the end of 82 games I expect that the Blackhawks should finish slightly ahead of the Red Wings.

As a Wings fan, I could say that we’ll be injured as always, but that’s a cop out and ignores the fact that every team goes through injuries. What I really think will hurt the Wings is their inability to keep the puck out of the net consistently. While Detroit averaged just slightly more goals per game than Chicago last year, the Red Wings allowed way too many goals. Sure, they won the division anyway, but giving up 2.89 per game doesn’t usually cut it in the long term. Detroit was 23rd in the NHL in goals allowed, while Chicago was 12th. Both teams lost one big time defenseman; Chicago lost Campbell to Florida, while Detroit lost Brian Rafalski to retirement. The possibility of allowing even more than 2.89 goals per game is there for Detroit this year, but they must find a way to bring that number down if they are to outlast the Blackhawks in the Central this year.

Up front, the Red Wings are as talented as any team in the league. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have heard all the superlatives, have been nicknamed the Eurotwins, and have led the team in scoring one way or the other in every season since the lockout. Barring injuries to both players, nothing will change this season. Datsyuk and Zetterberg can be counted on to score around a point a game, and place in the top 15 in league scoring assuming they play the requisite games by avoiding injury. Skating with them is often times Tomas Holmstrom, who has been the best crease worker of his era and has four Stanley Cup victories to show for it.

The second line usually changes over the season (as it does with most teams), but based on age and recent results it can be assumed that Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula should get the start alongside Johan “The Mule” Franzen. There’s no need to evaluate Franzen’s game, other than to say that the Red Wings desperately need him to be able to play when it counts. Cleary gets a lot of credit for working hard, and I think sometimes that leads talking heads to say that he is more offensively talented than our eyes tell us he is. Cleary frequently has pucks jump on him, and sometimes looks a little too excited, but it’s hard to really criticize a player who has played his role well and had success on the team in recent years. Filppula is in my mind a more talented offensive player than Cleary, but with seemingly less consistency. I blasted Filppula during the playoffs for thinking he was Pavel Datsyuk, but then he came out and actually showed why he acts like a talented offensive player: because at his best, he is. Filppula hunkered down and played very good, responsible hockey in the comeback attempt against San Jose, and if he can channel that and turn it into consistency, then I expect he should be able to stick in the top six and finally come good on what most Wings fans have been waiting for.

The third line is arguably more of a scoring line than the second, given the right centerman. Todd Bertuzzi has been a dream for the Red Wings in his second stint with the team, which started in 2009-10. In these past two years, Bertuzzi has given the Red Wings 89 points in 163 regular season games, while turning it up for 17 points in 23 playoff games in the two series each against Phoenix (wins) and San Jose (losses). At 36, Bertuzzi is more effective playing third-line minutes, but when he does play he’s not that much of a subtraction from the Bertuzzi who lit up the NHL from 2001-03 before the Steve Moore incident derailed his career for a while. He’s certainly not the same player, but the Red Wings wouldn’t trade him and his less than $2 million cap hit for any third-line winger in the league.

Bertuzzi’s other wingman will probably be Jiri Hudler, whose game is different from Filppula’s but comes with many of the same disappointing lack of consistency soundbites. Hudler returned to Detroit last year after a season in the KHL, and the drop off couldn’t have been more obvious. Hudler left the NHL following three successful seasons with Detroit, the latter two of which ended with Stanley Cup Finals against Pittsburgh. Hudler was key in the 2008 championship by notching 14 playoff points, and he followed that up with a career-best 57 points in the 2008-09 regular season. Hudler was solid, with 12 points in the playoffs in that losing effort to the Penguins in ’09. But last year Hudler regressed, scoring just 37 points in 73 regular season games before commonly being scratched in the team’s playoff games. When he did get to play, he didn’t play overly responsible hockey, and was dogged on national television in Game 4 against San Jose when he let Dan Boyle glide right past his back and deposit an easy one. Hudler still may have something left to improve, as he is still only 27, but without some returns to his pre-KHL days, Hudler will remain a disappointment on the Red Wings roster.

The third-line center (arguably second-line center) should be Darren Helm. The man is not just a fan favorite, but also is one of the few Red Wings forwards who isn’t afraid to smash an opposing player anywhere on the rink (legally, at that). Helm has scored eight playoff goals in his limited playing time, and it feels like all of them have been big. He twice played more playoff games than regular season games in a campaign, and centered the fourth line during the Red Wings’ 2008 Cup championship. Also in the mix at center is Justin Abdelkader, who plays something of a similar style to Helm, although without quite the success and production in any area of the game.

The final regular wingers are expected to be Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves. Miller was a  college teammate of Abdelkader for one season at Michigan State, and is the brother of Sabres’ goalie Ryan Miller. Eaves has the asset of speed, and can create scoring opportunities when he gets room to use that speed. Also worth following are Cory Emmerton, Tomas Tatar and Jan Mursak, who each had one goal for the big club in limited time last season.

On defense, the Red Wings desperately needed captain Nicklas Lidstrom to return for another year, and they got that wish on June 20 when the Swede declared that he was ready to sign another one-year contract. Lidstrom won his seventh Norris Trophy last season, and should have at least a crack at tying Bobby Orr’s record of eight this season. I wouldn’t expect him to win it, but only because it’s usually dumb to bet on one player against the entire field. Regardless of subjective acclaim, Lidstrom will anchor Detroit’s defense once again this year, but will have to do so without the help of the retired Rafalski. The Red Wings’ second-best defenseman is probably now Niklas Kronwall, who while also Swedish, plays a style more similar to one of Lidstrom’s former running mates, Vladimir Konstantinov, than Lidstrom himself. Kronwall can more than contribute offensively, but he is best known for his bone-crunching hits. Brad Stuart could (maybe) be considered a poor man’s Kronwall, although Stuart’s hit totals are higher than his perceived hitting prowess. Stuart blocks a lot of shots as well, but won’t contribute nearly the offense that Kronwall should. Stuart can be expected to score in the low 20s as far as points, and will need to skate around his total for last year of 21:31 per game.

Playing with Stuart could be new addition Ian White, who shoots right and provides more offensive help than Stuart does. White comes over from San Jose, who no longer had need of his services after acquiring Brent Burns from Minnesota. White’s pairing with Stuart makes sense, and makes for an acceptable although not world-beating second pairing.

The rest of the defenders will be anchored by Jonathan Ericsson, who signed a new three-year deal with the Red Wings in July and now has to play with consistency that has so far escaped his game. Ericsson turned in some solid games against San Jose in the ’11 playoffs, and the Wings need more of that and less of his turning the puck over style that has plagued him for most of his short Red Wings career. Ericsson has been expected to be something of an offensive contributor, although the stats have not yet matched up with that expectation, as his 15-point effort last year was his career high.

Playing with Ericsson should be new signing Mike Commodore, who has been known more for his jersey number fake controversy than his potential impact on the team. But it should be noted that Commodore’s status on the Red Wings’ third defensive pairing allows them the time to decide on prospect Brendan Smith. Without Commodore signing this year for pennies on the Blue Jackets’ dollar, the Wings would have had to go find someone else or just be prepared to roll with Smith. A 2011-12 pairing of Ericsson and Smith could be the stuff of many a highlight reel, just not in favor of the Wings. Another D man who could potentially rip that sixth spot is Jakub Kindl, who played 48 games for the Wings last year. Kindl and Smith were first-round picks in separate summers for the Red Wings; Kindl went 19th overall in 2005, while Smith went 27th in 2007. The Red Wings can certainly be considered to have some depth on defense, but the question will be how effective the new top four will be coming off a pretty bad defensive season and dealing with the loss of Rafalski.

Detroit can’t be completely certain what they have in goaltender Jimmy Howard, but he has been a workhorse over the past two seasons and has shown the fight and push-back necessary to be a winner in the Motor City. The greatest statistical goalie in the history of Hockey East’s Maine Black Bears, Howard was so impressive in his rookie season in 2009-10 that he earned nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy. But his numbers went considerably in the wrong direction last season, save his won-lost record and games played totals, which were nearly identical. A 2.26 GAA became a 2.79, and a stout .924 save % was followed up with a pedestrian .908, which was good for 31st among qualifying goalies in the NHL. Goaltenders can’t solely be to blame for peripheral numbers, but the fact remains that Detroit needs to keep the puck out of the net more consistently, and although I think Howard is doing fine and at times great, he needs to find a way to do more throughout the season if the Wings are going to win the Central this year. But then again, winning the Central isn’t truly their goal (or Chicago’s), and everyone knows that.

3rd: Nashville Predators 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division

The dichotomy between Central rivals Detroit and Nashville couldn’t be much more stark. While the Red Wings rely on scoring in the top three in the entire league to earn its points and advance in the playoffs, Nashville tries to accomplish its goals by not allowing any. The Predators had the league’s 2nd best defense last year, but countered that with an offense that finished tied for 21st in scoring. While they finished higher than Chicago last year and got to the exact same point that Detroit did, I wonder about Nashville’s ability to sustain the effectiveness of their playing style moving forward. This year should be another to build upon for “Predators hockey,” but their system is heavily reliant on three guys: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne — all of which are free agents at the end of this season.

Weber and Suter make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and set the tone for the rest of the blue liners as far as playing what coach Barry Trotz has referred to as “Predators hockey.” They are both under contract for this season after Weber’s huge arbitration win, but one has to wonder if harmony will remain through the trade deadline and beyond. After all, the Preds are amongst the league’s lowest payrolls despite having what seems like a pretty committed fan base. Their attendance totals were below average last season, but not by a whole lot. Whatever the reason for Nashville’s low payroll this season, it makes me wonder if they can convince all three of their star players to commit their careers to a franchise that they might not be sure about.

I think Suter may prove to be the hottest trade deadline player next February, but if that’s the case then either he has given Nashville indications that he will not re-sign, or the Predators probably aren’t finishing in the top three of the Central. Assuming he and Weber do play the full season with the Preds, it’s hard to call for a big fall from this team. Their forwards look mediocre and their blue line depth is a little questionable now, but this team plays a style that gets points out of games, and that makes playoffs.

Beyond the top pairing on defense, Nashville could really use American kids Jonathan Blum and Blake Geoffrion to take the next step and become regular full-time NHLers this season. I think that should be expected to come true, as each guy played in every playoff game for Nashville this spring. Aside from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Blum and hometown Geoffrion of Brentwood, the Preds have a solid hitter / blocker in Kevin Klein, who plays something of a similar game to Detroit’s Brad Stuart. Klein will never be talked about on Versus, but if you pay attention you’ll see that he is exactly a fit for the Predators’ style of play. Nashville also has Jack Hillen on the roster, who comes over after three years with the Islanders.

The Predators’ forwards are questionable as far as NHL averages go, but that’s why they were below average in goals scored last season, and that suited them just fine. Center Mike Fisher was a big acquisition for Nashville last season. Fisher was traded from Ottawa, which prompted at least one radio station in Canada’s capital to ban the playing of songs by Fisher’s wife and former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Joining Fisher on the top six should be wingers Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn and Niclas Bergfors. Centering the second line will be Predator lifer David Legwand. Nashville will need younger players like Matt Halischuk and Colin Wilson to become regulars and join forwards like Jordin Tootoo, Cal O’Reilly, Nick Spaling and possibly Jerred Smithson on the lower lines of the Nashville offense.

In net is Rinne, who was a finalist for the Vezina last year and had peripherals in the top three in the league (second in save percentage). He lost out on the Vezina to Tim Thomas, and was bounced from the playoffs by the other finalist, Roberto Luongo. But Rinne has been as good as they get recently, and at 28 is entering his prime. I can see hardly any situation in which Rinne is traded this season, but the Preds have to find a way to lock the Finnish goaltender down for many years to come. Assuming he has another very good year, Rinne will have suitors if he becomes UFA next July 1, so Nashville knows they would be best off to make something happen before next summer comes. Backing up Rinne is fellow giant Anders Lindback, who was solid with a .915 save percentage in 22 appearances for Nashville in his debut season last year.

The Predators have set their sights high this year after winning the franchise’s first playoff series in April over the Anaheim Ducks. But I really see more possibility for a move down than a move up, as St. Louis and Columbus have rosters that aren’t giving anything up to Nashville, while Chicago and Detroit look a head above. I think the status quo would be a third-place finish for the Preds in 2011-12, but would warn that a fall to fourth would be more likely than a repeat of second. They have their work cut out for them, both on the ice and in the front office.

4th: St. Louis Blues 2010-11: 87 points, 4th in division

By this point, my Blue Jackets readers are considering death threats, but I’m leaning in favor of St. Louis to finish ahead of Columbus this season by a slim margin. Again, I think the Central is the best division this season from top to bottom, and the Blues and Jackets are both hoping to avoid that bottom, but a higher percentage of me likes St. Louis this year than Columbus.

The reason I have the Blues and Jackets as the bottom two in the division again this year starts in net. I’m not saying that Jaroslav Halak and Steve Mason are the two worst starters in the division, but given that I like Chicago and Detroit very much, and I don’t think either Halak or Mason can compare with Rinne right now, I have to assume these teams finish in these spots. Halak came over from Montreal following that dreamlike playoff run in 2010, but he fell off in his first season with the Blues, and now enters the second season of a four-year deal trying to prove that he wasn’t a mistake. His $3.75 million cap hit demands stats that are better than his 30th-best .910 save percentage, although it should be noted that his 2.48 goals against average was good for 15th in the league and the Blues overall goals allowed figure was a middle-of-the-road 9th in the western conference. But like Howard in Detroit, Halak needs to find a way to get a little bit more out of his play this season. He certainly wasn’t awful, but the Blues could use an increase of just a couple spots in overall defense. If they get that, I think the playoffs are certainly a legitimate goal for this club in 2011-12.

St. Louis’ playing style could be referred to as ugly at times, but that might be easier to say coming from people who don’t actually watch this team that’s stuck in the middle of the continent and usually the standings. I think the Blues are certainly going to have to rely on some grit given that their best forwards, David Backes and Chris Stewart, play a rough style. Adding elderly forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to the third line can only help to give the Blues more skill, leadership and quiet toughness. Arnott and Langenbrunner have something of a funny history, as they were traded for one another back in 2002 in the deal that gave New Jersey another Cup in ’03 and set Dallas back quite a bit. Langenbrunner was shipped from Dallas along with current Stars’ GM Joe Nieuwendyk to the Devils for Arnott and Randy McKay. Remember that Dallas won the Cup in 1999 and lost in the Finals to New Jersey in 2000. Arnott and Langenbrunner also started last season together with the Devils, before that ship needed to start being blown up. The pair should be able to give the Blues a third line that is actually formidable, assuming they are able to stay on the ice.

Joining Backes and Stewart in the top six should be Andy McDonald, Matt D’Agostini, T.J. Oshie and second-line center Patrik Berglund. Backes has been a fantasy dream in recent years as he does absolutely everything that they keep stats for. Stewart came over from Colorado in the trade that Peter Stastny said “destroyed the [Avalanche].” He’s a very Backes-like player, except with possibly more offensive skill. Berglund emerged in the second half of last season as a real up-and-comer, scoring 52 points in his third NHL season. The 6’4” Swede seems to have figured out how to use his frame to push things forward, which fits him in nicely with Backes, Stewart and the entire Blues offensive identity. Oshie is coming off yet another injury-riddled season. He’s only managed 58+ games in one of his three NHL seasons thus far. If he isn’t ready to play like a second-line winger, expect Alex Steen to jump in. Steen was third on the team in scoring last season behind Backes and Berglund, despite missing 10 games.

The fourth line should consist of newly-acquired tough center Scott Nichol and wingers Vladimir Sobotka and B.J. Crombeen. Sobotka spent some time riding the Berglund train last season before the center was moved up on the line chart. Crombeen led the Blues in penalty minutes last season.

The St. Louis defense will be led by Alex Pietrangelo, who led the Blues in assists last year and becomes the de facto #1 defenseman after the team traded away Erik Johnson (to “destroy the Avalanche”) and former captain Eric Brewer (to almost send Tampa Bay to the Finals). Barret Jackman and Roman Polak are both defensive defensemen who are counted on for hits and technical defense more than offensive contributions. Carlo Colaiacovo can chip in on the offense, but averaged only 18:08 per game last year. Kevin Shattenkirk is possibly the Blues defenseman with the most upside, at least after Pietrangelo, but he is entering only his second NHL season after spending three years with Boston University. Shattenkirk was another part of the trade that brought Stewart to St. Louis. Kent Huskins and Nikita Nikitin should battle it out for the final spot, and each should see a fair amount of games.

Brian Elliott was acquired by the Blues to backup Halak. Elliott isn’t much of a shift from last year’s backup, Ty Conklin, who is now back with Detroit. Halak will need to bring that save percentage up from .910 to around .917 to give the Blues a chance to meet those defensive goals and return to the postseason.

A lot of the talk last year was about how injured the Blues were, and the talk wasn’t wrong. I certainly understand a team getting the injury bug, but at the same time it’s proven foolish to assume that the same team will magically avoid injuries the following season. The Blues will need to do so in order to challenge for the playoffs, but if they do lose a lot of man games, I would suspect a fifth place finish may be in order. Best of luck to them.

5th: Columbus Blue Jackets 2010-11: 81 points, 5th in division

Oh, the hate mail. I even asked my brother his order of finish last night, and he did not have Columbus in last this year. The Jackets dropped tons of salary on Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, and all the talk is about how Rick Nash finally has a center and the Jackets’ goal is nothing short of returning to the playoffs. Fan interest should be on the rise now that the team appears to have finally moved into the aggressive stage its young existence. I wouldn’t expect the spending to stop now, but as it stands I still think this team needs some work on the lower end, and I don’t know if anyone feels completely confident in unassailable starting goaltender Steve Mason.

I’m not sure what kind of monarch contract Mason’s been given, but it seems as if the Jackets are trying to create an image of a rock solid goalie the way Diddy used to try to make real-life pop groups out of average people with no real charisma. Then again, he kind of succeeded, at least for a while, and so maybe there is hope for Mason. He had a fantastic rookie season in 2008-09 that saw him win the Calder Memorial Trophy. But Mason has followed that rookie of the year season with two consistently bad campaigns. His save percentage has been .901 in each of the last two seasons, and the goals against numbers have been 3.05 and 3.03. As always, it’s worth pointing out that GAA is dependent upon the skaters in front of you, but another season of allowing three every time out has to be viewed as a problem. Mason is only 23 years old and has a lot of life ahead of him to either grow or stall, but he needs to show improvement if I’m to believe that he can be an above average starter in the future. But really, who cares what I think. It’s the wins and losses that matter.

Up front, Nash and Carter will be joined on the top six by the likes of R.J. Umberger and three more centers in Derick Brassard, Antoine Vermette and Vinny Prospal. In fact, if the latter three all make up the second line, I would expect that line to lead the league in getting tossed out of the faceoff circle, since nobody but another center would take the original guy’s place. Might lead to some solid faceoff winning percentages, which could lead to an extra goal here and there. This is the most dangerous the Jackets top six has been since I can remember, but they’ll need all of them to actually produce and live up to potential.

The bottom six doesn’t knock my socks off like the Blues’ third line has the potential to do. Columbus sports Samuel Pahlsson and Derek MacKenzie at center, with tough guys Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll to their right. Matt Calvert and Maxim Mayorov could round out the left wings. Mayorov is one of Columbus’ young hopes, along with center Ryan Johansen. Both should be given every shot to be a regular this year. It should be noted that Columbus will at some point get winger Kristian Huselius back after surgery on his chest. Huselius isn’t a strong forward, but he is quick and has good hands, and at his best would be expected to play on the Jackets’ top two lines. It may take him a while after coming back to knock any of the top six down, and so perhaps Huselius ends up being the guy to make Columbus’ third line a threat. If not him, then probably the guy he replaces.

Despite adding Wisniewski, I think there still have to be some question marks on the Columbus blue line. They let Jan Hejda and Anton Stralman go, and added Radek Martinek from the Islanders. Fedor Tyutin is probably in line for another season of top-line minutes, while Grant Clitsome should be ready for his first full-time NHL season at the age of 26. Marc Methot and Kris Russell can be expected to join Wisniewski, Tyutin, Martinek and Clitsome on the Jackets’ list of opening night defensemen, with Methot playing more time than Russell. The wild card here is John Moore, who was a first round pick in 2009. Moore tallied 24 points last season with AHL Springfield, but was a cringeworthy minus-27. I don’t know enough about Moore’s game specifically, but the last thing the Jackets need in a season of trying to change the team’s image and mentality is to bring in a rookie who is going to directly lead to pucks getting behind Steve Mason.

All in all, the Jackets are right to believe they have a shot at the playoffs this season. But to me, everything has to go right for them. They have to avoid injuries because they aren’t very deep. Mason has to bring it back closer to neutral. Carter has to give Columbus everything he’s supposed to, and he has to find a way to bring Nash’s production up to the level of an elite winger in the league. The talent is there, but Nash has always had the excuse of not having a real top-line center. I’m not sure he does even now, but everybody else is, so let’s see it. While I love the passion that Jackets fans are showing and the response the front office has given, I think that for this specific season too much is still in doubt. Part of building a team is just that — building. It will take time, and I think Columbus knows that. The franchise is moving in the right direction, and certainly should set the goal at nothing less than fourth in the division because that is without question attainable. But right now when I look at the rosters and numbers, more of me favors the Blues than the Blue Jackets over an 82-game season.

So there you have it, the sixth and final installment of Premature NHL Prognostication. I hope you got something out of it, and I appreciate the readership. Now, let’s all get this crap out of our heads and prepare for some real games that will be played out everywhere but on paper.