Four of the five teams in the Central Division recorded at least 100 points in 2011-12, as well as at least 45 victories. The Central also boasts the most coveted defenseman on the free agent market, with 27-year-old Ryan Suter set to receive a hefty raise after putting up 46 points and a plus-15 rating for the Nashville Predators this past season. Their division rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, are expected to be among many bidders for his services.
2012 FREE AGENCY
Free agency previews (by division)With free agency opening Sunday at noon ET, NHL.com takes a look at the needs of all 30 teams -- division by division -- as well as the Top 10 free agents in each division:
Though Nicklas Lidstrom has decided to hang up the blades after a Hall of Fame-caliber career in Detroit, the Central is expected to again feature fierce competition. And we won't have to wait until next season for things to intensify -- the five general managers will battle each other trying to shape their rosters when the free agent market opens.
Here is a roster-building cheat sheet for the Central Division teams. The salary cap figures come from Capgeek.com and are based on the $70.2 million salary cap that teams will be operating under come July 1:
ST. LOUIS BLUES
(109 points, 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Western Conference)
Wants: A goal scorer, depth defensemen
Means: $27,437,501 in cap space with 19 players already signed
Targets: The Blues are set to lose several veterans, including Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott. With that in mind, it's possible general manager Doug Armstrong will kick the tires on Shane Doan. The Phoenix Coyotes captain reached 300 career goals this past season, so he would bring both leadership and offense. The Blues scored 210 goals in 2011-12, second-fewest in the division.
St. Louis also is expected to lose defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins, who are slated to become unrestricted free agents. Though the Blues aren't expected to be in the Suter sweepstakes, they likely will look to add a veteran blueliner when the market opens July 1. Alex Pietrangelo, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak will continue to log big minutes.
(104 points, 2nd in Central Division, 4th in Western Conference)
Needs: Goals, defense
Wants: A goal scorer, a top-pair defenseman
Means: $35,295,833 in cap space with 14 players already signed
Nashville could also lose veteran Hal Gill on its blue line, along with hulking center Paul Gaustad and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo. All four are valuable assets and likely will receive offers from other clubs if they make it to July 1.
Should Gaustad and Gill leave via free agency, it will come at a hefty price for the Predators. Poile surrendered a first- and second-round pick in this year's NHL Draft to acquire them as rentals at the trade deadline.
DETROIT RED WINGS
(102 points, 3rd in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference)
Needs: Defense, scoring depth
Wants: A top-pair defenseman
Means: $24,032,955 in cap space with 19 players already signed
Targets: It is believed Red Wings GM Ken Holland will look at Devils captain Zach Parise, but Detroit's biggest need is to at least attempt to replace the void left by former captain Lidstrom. The defenseman led the team this past season in ice time per game (23:46) and boasted a plus-21 rating. With that in mind, there's a good chance Detroit will push heavily for Suter, who could thrive skating with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. More importantly, a defense pairing of Suter and Niklas Kronwall could make life miserable for opponents on a nightly basis.
Holland likely will try to land a forward or two -- Detroit could enter next season without Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom. Hudler, an unrestricted free agent, is coming off a solid campaign; he tallied 25 goals and 25 assists in 81 games. Holmstrom reportedly is contemplating retirement, but has yet to reach a decision.
(101 points, 4th in Central Division, 6th in Western Conference)
Wants: Goaltending depth
Means: $8,134,872 in cap space with 23 players already signed
Targets: With so many players on the roster locked up for 2012-13, don't expect Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman to be very busy on July 1. If Chicago shakes up its roster this summer, it more likely will happen via trade.
The Blackhawks suffered from instability this past season, particularly between the pipes. Corey Crawford struggled at times and finished with a 2.72 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. Ray Emery, who is signed through next season, had a 2.81 GAA and .900 save percentage in 34 appearances. Crawford is still the No. 1 heading into next season, but don't be surprised if Bowman looks to acquire someone to push him during training camp.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
(65 points, 5th in Central Division, 15th in Western Conference)
Needs: Goals, defensive depth, leadership
Wants: Goal scorers, depth defensemen
Means: $16,416,191 in cap space with 21 players already signed
Targets: The Blue Jackets struggled out of the gate in 2011-12 and never really recovered, finishing with the worst record in the League. Things were so rotten they even lost the draft lottery to Edmonton. Columbus did land a potential franchise defenseman at the draft, however, selecting Ryan Murray at No. 2. Still, there is plenty of work to do.
The biggest question entering the summer for Columbus revolves around its captain. Will GM Scott Howson find a new home for Rick Nash, or will the power forward remain a Blue Jacket? A Nash trade might help Howson fill multiple holes. However, the GM has indicated he might not be able to find the right deal, which could make things a bit awkward for both parties heading into training camp.
Steve Mason struggled again the past season, when the 24-year-old netminder finished with a 3.39 GAA and .894 save percentage. That prompted Howson to acquire Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers last week, so Columbus isn't expected to try to sign a goaltender when the market opens.
Columbus has more than $16 million committed to its top four defensemen: James Wisniewski ($5.5 million), Fedor Tyutin ($4.5 million), Jack Johnson ($4.35 million) and Marc Methot ($3 million). John Moore, the club's first-round pick in 2009, likely takes up another spot on the blue line, but Howson will look for more help considering his club allowed 262 goals in 2011-12, third-most in the League.
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