An early-season coaching change sparked the St. Louis Blues to their first postseason appearance since 2009, as Ken Hitchcock's club won a division that saw four of its five teams earn at least 100 points.
Indeed, it was a surprising achievement for the Blues, who have drafted well in recent years and appear to have several good years ahead. Led by general manager Doug Armstrong and Director of Amateur Scouting Bill Armstrong, the Blues have collected a tremendous amount of young talent.
With Nicklas Lidstrom announcing his retirement, things could change drastically in the Central -- a division Detroit has owned for much of the last two decades. Not only did St. Louis shock the hockey world in 2011-12, but Nashville and Chicago also continued to win their fair share of games. The Predators ousted the Red Wings in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Blues defeated San Jose before being eliminated by the Stanley Cup-bound Los Angeles Kings.
St. Louis still owns the rights to several of its key components. Alex Pietrangelo, one of the top young defensemen in the sport, has another season on his current deal before becoming a restricted free agent. David Backes, the team captain, is under contract for another four seasons. Backes tied for the club lead with 54 points last season with T.J. Oshie, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, as will talented winger David Perron.
Nashville and Detroit, however, will likely have different looks next season. Preds defenseman Ryan Suter is one of the biggest prizes on the market this summer and could receive an offer from the Red Wings to replace Lidstrom as the latter's No. 1 defenseman. Nashville has also decided to part ways with Russian winger Alexander Radulov, while forwards Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom could leave Motown as free agents.
Meanwhile, the team set to undergo the biggest makeover this summer is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The consensus seems to be that captain Rick Nash's days in Ohio are numbered, as the sniper could be dealt during next weekend's draft in Pittsburgh. Columbus GM Scott Howson is believed to be seeking two NHL players and two prospects for Nash, who has scored 289 goals in nine seasons with the Blue Jackets.
Here is a look at the five Central Division teams as they prepare for the draft.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
(No. 2 overall)
Nothing went right in Columbus last season. Not only did the Blue Jackets fail to even come close to meeting big expectations after spending a lot of money last summer, but they even lost the draft lottery and will pick second instead of first. That means Columbus will likely miss out on Nail Yakupov, who would have been a fitting replacement for Nash should the latter be traded.
A horrific start (11-25-5) cost coach Scott Arniel his job, but things did get a bit better under Todd Richards. Columbus went 18-21-2 the rest of the way, which was good enough for Howson to rid Richards of the interim tag. Still, the Blue Jackets have yet to win a playoff game in franchise history, a dubious fact they hope to change in 2013.
Strengths: Derick Brassard was one of the few bright spots, as the 24-year-old center enjoyed his second straight 40-point campaign. Barring a trade for another scoring pivot, Brassard will likely be the club's No. 1 center next season. He'll likely skate alongside RJ Umberger, who finished fourth on the Blue Jackets with 40 points (20 goals, 20 assists) in 2011-12.
Brassard won't be the only young, talented center in Columbus -- 19-year-old Ryan Johansen will be entering his second season with the club after tallying 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) as a rookie.
Weaknesses: For whatever reason, Steve Mason has never been able to even come close to duplicating his rookie season back in 2008-09, when he won 33 games while posting a 2.29 goals-against average. Mason is coming off his third straight disappointing season, as his GAA ballooned to 3.39 while his save percentage fell to .894. He has one season remaining on his current contract. Defense was also a problem for Columbus, but the late-season acquisition of Jack Johnson from Los Angeles should help veterans Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski.
Biggest need: Truth be told, there are holes everywhere, but the Blue Jackets need help between the pipes. While they won't use the No. 2 pick on a goalie, expect the Blue Jackets to select one early Saturday.
(No. 18 overall)
They ended a 49-year Cup drought in 2010, but things haven't been so great since. For the second straight year, the Blackhawks were sent home during the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and tension is starting to brew in the Windy City. Mike Haviland, who was well-liked by the players, was fired as assistant coach. Joel Quenneville has yet to name a replacement, but one has to think the head coach can't afford to get off to a slow start in 2012-13.
The players that were supposed to score last season did just that -- Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews all had at least 20 goals. But Corey Crawford battled inconsistency in goal, as he finished the season with a 2.72 GAA and .903 save percentage, and Duncan Keith had just four goals in 74 games. While the Blackhawks appeared to have more talent on paper, they weren't able to get past the Phoenix Coyotes in the opening round of the playoffs.
Strengths: Chicago boasts plenty of firepower, and Toews is easily one of the best young leaders in the game. Combine that with one of the top defensive pairings in the League (Keith and Brent Seabrook), and Chicago will unquestionably be competitive again in 2012-13.
Weaknesses: Much like the situation in Columbus, the Blackhawks need to decide if Crawford is the long-term No. 1 goaltender. A second-round pick in 2003, he is still only 27 and could have a bounce-back season, but even Crawford has to know that he could be on a short leash if he is unable to consistently help the Blackhawks win games.
Biggest need: Special teams. The Blackhawks struggled in 2011-12 both on the power play (26th in the League at 15.2 percent) and penalty kill (27th, 78.1 percent). Look for GM Stan Bowman to eye solid two-way players at the draft.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
(No. 25 overall)
The Blues returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a three-year hiatus and managed to oust the San Jose Sharks in the opening round. Now, Doug Armstrong's club needs to find a way to take the next step. Ken Hitchcock gets to run his first training camp as Blues coach after replacing Davis Payne in early November and has to be excited by the amount of young talent.
Alex Pietrangelo led the club in ice time (24:43 per game) while racking up 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) and a plus-16 rating. He's not the only exciting young blueliner in St. Louis, though -- Kevin Shattenkirk had 43 points and was a plus-20 in 81 games. Combine the Blues' young blue line with their goaltending -- Brian Elliott led the League with a 1.56 GAA, while Jaroslav Halak finished fifth at 1.97 -- and the Blues might simply need another scorer or two to truly become one of the elite teams in the NHL.
Strengths: Elliott was arguably the most amazing story in the League last season. He struggled mightily in Ottawa in 2010-11 and was dealt to Colorado, where the pucks continued to find their way past him. But things changed drastically in St. Louis, where he forced his way into the starting lineup with his stellar play. He and Halak became one of the strongest tandems in the League.
Weaknesses: With Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner set to become unrestricted free agents, the Blues could be looking to add a veteran or two this summer to help accelerate the maturation process. That being said, goal scoring is always at a premium, so look for the Blues to try to land themselves a talented forward late in the first round.
Biggest need: Finding another winger to skate alongside the likes of Backes or Patrik Berglund. While nobody can deny Perron's ability, he has a concussion history and has experienced some difficulty staying healthy.
DETROIT RED WINGS
(No. 49 overall; traded first-round pick to Tampa Bay)
It's been one disappointment after another in Detroit the past few months. The Red Wings' season ended prematurely in April when they were eliminated in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Nashville Predators. Then, future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom decided that he was going to retire after 20 seasons in the NHL. And most recently, Brad Stuart's rights were traded to the San Jose Sharks in a move that all but meets Stuart's desire to return to the West Coast.
More changes are likely coming as forwards Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom are set to become unrestricted free agents. It's a safe bet that the Red Wings will be major players in the Ryan Suter sweepstakes, but they'll also need someone to fill the void left by Stuart.
Strengths: Jimmy Howard has emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the League. Detroit's second-round pick from 2003 has won at least 35 games in each of the last three seasons and posted a career-best 2.12 GAA in 2011-12. While there will be some question marks up front if Hudler and Holmstrom play elsewhere next season, the Wings still possess several weapons including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
2012 NHL DRAFT
The best-ever draft picks, from 1 to 30By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
Who was the best-ever No. 1 draft pick? What about the best fourth pick? Or the 18th? NHL.com weighs in with our opinion of the best ever, No. 1 to No. 30. READ MORE ›
Weaknesses: It could be filled as early as July 1 should Suter sign with Detroit, but, for now, Lidstrom's retirement leaves a huge hole on the blue line. Of course, Niklas Kronwall has become one of the better two-way defensemen in the sport, but the Wings will desperately need Suter's skating and playmaking ability to help fill the void. With Stuart also gone, Detroit will have to depend even more on the likes of Jonathan Ericsson and Ian White.
Biggest need: Wings GM Ken Holland has taken the forward route with his first pick in each of the last three years, but this is supposed to be a defense-heavy draft. While it's highly unlikely that anyone selected in the second round will be NHL-ready next season, it sure wouldn't hurt if the Wings could land themselves a solid two-way blueliner at No. 49.
(No. 66 overall from Toronto via Los Angeles; traded first-round pick to Buffalo)
Considering how GM David Poile was chasing a championship at the trade deadline, Nashville's season certainly didn't end as planned. After dealing his first- and second-round picks for Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill -- combined with the return of Alexander Radulov from the KHL -- some believed the Preds could at least reach the Stanley Cup Final. Instead, they were beaten at their own game by the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round of the playoffs.
Now, changes are under way. Poile has already stated that Radulov won't be back next season, and it is unknown if he will be able to convince Suter to stay in Nashville. The world-class defenseman has expressed his desire to stay with the Preds, but there is no doubt he will receive several offers when the market opens July 1. Don't forget Poile is also trying to sign Shea Weber to a long-term deal, as his captain is set to become a restricted free agent.
Strengths: While the Preds have yet to reach a conference final in the history of their franchise, they are consistently finding ways to win hockey games. This past season was certainly no different, as the Preds racked up 48 wins and 104 points. A large portion of their success has to do with their goaltending, as Pekka Rinne was in net for 43 of the club's 48 wins.
Weaknesses: With Suter, Gaustad, Jordin Tootoo and Andrei Kostitsyn all set to become unrestricted free agents, Poile has some work to do. He may have to correct those issues with a checkbook this summer, as Nashville doesn't have a selection until the third round (No. 66).
Biggest need: While their all-hands-on-deck approach has allowed them to enjoy some success, the Predators could use a sniper. Some thought Radulov would have provided that in the playoffs, but the Russian winger had only one goal in eight postseason contests. And with no picks in the first two rounds, the chances of the Preds finding a top goal-scorer in Pittsburgh this weekend are slim.