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What key questions face Central Division teams?

Tuesday, 01.15.2013 / 3:00 AM / 2012-2013 Season Preview

By NHL.com Staff

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What key questions face Central Division teams?
What questions does each Central Division NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses?

The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. Next up is the Central Division, which is light two world-class defensemen but could still boast four playoff teams.

Blackhawks CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

The Blackhawks put up 101 points last season, good enough to be one of 10 teams in the NHL to crack the century mark. It didn't matter because, for the second straight season since winning the Stanley Cup, they were knocked off in the first round of the playoffs. The good thing for the Hawks is unlike in 2010-11, the season after a summer of being crushed by salary-cap constraints, they feel they know exactly what went wrong last season.

1. Will the goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery be good enough?

Crawford won 30 games last season, but it was a struggle as he allowed three or more goals in 27 of his 57 appearances in the regular season and in five of his six playoff appearances. Instead of building on a strong finish to the 2010-11 season, he went backward with a 2.72 goals-against average, .903 save percentage and zero shutouts in 57 appearances.

Emery wasn't any better with a 2.81 GAA and .900 save percentage in 34 appearances. Crawford was supposed to cement himself as the clear-cut No. 1 in Chicago, but he hasn't done that yet. It appears he'll be given another chance this season to become that guy.

2. Is Patrick Kane going to mature and have a bounce-back season?

Kane's production has tumbled 22 points to a career-low 66 last season since 2009-10, when he had a career-high 88 and capped his season by scoring the Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Kane's image took a major hit in early May when embarrassing pictures of him partying at the University of Wisconsin surfaced. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman told reporters the organization was disappointed in Kane, who apologized for his off-ice behavior. Image problems aside, the Blackhawks simply have to get more out of Kane this season on the ice. They need him to be a superstar again.

3. Will Chicago's special teams be better?

Chicago was 26th on the power play last season at 15.2 percent. It was 27th on the penalty kill at 78.1 percent. The drop in the power play from 2010-11 to 2011-12 was a result of a lack of chemistry between Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Another problem is the Hawks never had a true net-front presence.

The problems on the PK go back further than last season. Chicago's PK has been problematic since it won the Stanley Cup in 2010. Coach Joel Quenneville doesn't believe it is a personnel problem, so it falls on the coaching staff's shoulders to get it fixed.

4. Will Marian Hossa be the same point-per-game player?

The last image the hockey world has of Hossa is not a pleasant one -- sprawled out on the United Center ice after getting run over by Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres in Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. He was diagnosed with a concussion after spending the night in the hospital.

Marian Hossa
Marian Hossa
Right Wing - CHI
GOALS: 29 | ASST: 48 | PTS: 77
SOG: 248 | +/-: 18
Hossa expects to be ready and at full strength for the start of the season. More will be determined in training camp, when Hossa has to hit and be hit, but for now it appears the Blackhawks should have their dominant point-per-game forward back in the lineup.

5. Is Andrew Shaw the real deal?

Shaw was the surprise, feel-good story for the Hawks last season. Chicago's fifth-round pick in 2011 had 23 points in 37 games and started to develop himself as a guy who could become a prized agitator/scorer. He instantly became a fan favorite and media darling in Chicago.

This season, though, Shaw will have to prove the progress and potential he showed last season as a grinder with offensive ability was not a fluke. He will be given a chance to become a key secondary scoring forward for the Blackhawks, and it'll be up to him to grab onto the spot and run with it.

6. Will Joel Quenneville make it through the season?

The coach was the toast of Chicago and the toast of the NHL in 2010 after guiding the franchise to its first Stanley Cup championship since 1961. Now it's fair to say his seat is warming, and a slow start could convince general manager Stan Bowman that a change is needed behind the bench.

Quenneville decided to fire assistant coach Mike Haviland after last season largely because of Chicago's struggles on special teams. For the first time in his tenure as Blackhawks coach, Quenneville has two assistants (Mike Kitchen and Jamie Kompon) he hand-picked. The assumption now is if the Blackhawks don't get out of the gate fast, Quenneville's job could be in jeopardy.

-- Dan Rosen

Blue Jackets COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

A year ago, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson acquired Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Nikita Nikitin and Mark Letestu and made it clear the team was done rebuilding. This summer, it looks as if the rebuilding process has only just begun.

After kicking off 2011-12 with the worst start in franchise history, coach Scott Arniel was replaced by assistant Todd Richards. Months after arriving, Carter was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline, and following their lowest point total (65) since 2003-04, the Jackets finally traded captain Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. With the face of the franchise gone, Columbus faces more question marks than ever.

1. Who will score?

When Carter and Nash gone, R.J. Umberger is now the roster's leading scorer, with 20 goals last season and 143 for his career. While the defense is one of the League's most promising, the lack of a natural goal-scoring threat will be an obstacle the Jackets must overcome.

With Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno all arriving this summer, the potential for goals is in place, although the trio totaled 41 goals in 2011-12. Young forward Cam Atkinson also possesses a goal-scoring pedigree and finished the season with five goals in the final two games.

2. Who gets the "C"?

Drafted with the first pick by the organization in 2002 and named captain in March 2008, Nash has led Columbus both on the ice and off it for the better part of five seasons. But his clear desire for a move away from Columbus – and the ever-present trade rumors throughout the spring – did nothing for team unity. More than ever, a committed captain is needed to refocus the troops and redefine the team's identity.

Currently the longest-tenured Blue Jackets player is Jared Boll. The safe pick would be alternate captain Umberger, who is entering his fifth season in Columbus. From nearby Pittsburgh, Umberger has been a consistent 20-goal, 30-assist performer, although his production dipped last season. Defenseman Jack Johnson, acquired for Carter, is a possibility.

3. What has Columbus done to shore up its special teams?

Last season, the Blue Jackets finished dead last in the League on the penalty kill (76.6 percent) and were 24th in power-play conversion rate (15.5 percent). Nash was once a force on the penalty kill, but had seen less time in shorthanded situations of late.

In the swap with New York, Columbus picked up Dubinsky, a physical presence who was one of the most-used Rangers on the penalty kill. Re-signing Nikita Nikitin was key, as he and Fedor Tyutin should again be the top defense pairing, and the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky adds vital stability in the crease.

4. Can Cam Atkinson maintain his end-of-season form?

As a rookie in 2011-12, the former Boston College standout quickly became a fan favorite when he joined the Jackets for good in late February. An undersized forward -- Atkinson is 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds -- he first turned heads with his highlight-reel shootout winner past Miikka Kiprusoff on March 18. For an encore, Atkinson scored five goals in the final two games of the season, giving hope to an organization desperate for a consistent threat.

Cam Atkinson
Cam Atkinson
Right Wing - CBJ
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 14
SOG: 66 | +/-: 1
By all accounts, "Cam-sanity" will continue to grip Nationwide Arena this season when Atkinson should see time in a top-six role.

5. Will Sergei Bobrovsky blossom or bust?

It was a tale of two seasons for Bobrovsky with the Philadelphia Flyers. As a rookie, he started from Day One and finished with a 28-13-8 record and a 2.59 goals-against average. After a subpar postseason saw him replaced by backup Brian Boucher, the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a 10-year contract and Bobrovsky was relegated to a relief role in 2011-12. He struggled, going 14-10-2 with an .899 save percentage.

Which Bobrovsky will show up for the Blue Jackets? With Steve Mason his only real competition for the No. 1 spot, Bobrovsky should gain confidence as the go-to guy in Columbus. "Bob" also will benefit from an arguably stronger blue line in Columbus than he had down the stretch with the Flyers.

6. Can Todd Richards help Columbus forge a new identity?

While there were plenty of on-ice distractions in 2011-12, Columbus' struggles were due in part to inconsistencies behind the bench. Following the worst start in franchise history – 1-9-1 through 11 games – it was just a matter of time before Scott Arniel lost his job. He was relieved of duties on Jan. 9, with Columbus sporting an 11-25-5 mark.

Richards stepped into the fold, acting as interim coach for the remainder of the season. After leading the Jackets to a respectable 18-21-2 record, the interim tag was lifted for good May 14. The team seemed to find its strengths in the face of adversity over the final three months, and that trend will need to continue in the post-Nash era.

-- Davis Harper

Red Wings DETROIT RED WINGS

For the first time in a long time, the Red Wings are a team at a crossroads. For the first time in 20 seasons they do not have Nicklas Lidstrom, the player coach Mike Babcock referred to as "a security blanket, a guy that just makes you feel good."

They've got high-end talent, a good core of players still in their mid-to-late 20s, and a solid prospect pool. However, there are more questions about the Wings entering this season than there have been in a long time.

1. What can the Red Wings do to fill the void left by Nicklas Lidstrom?

Lidstrom is a once-in-a-generation player. Teams don't replace those guys. Teams can't replace those guys. They leave a void and, really, the rest of the team just has to deal with it and move on.

Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl and Kyle Quincey have to take the next step in their careers -- do what they do best, only do it better than they have before in Detroit. Niklas Kronwall has to go from being second-in-command on the defense to the one in charge, all the while being a mistake-free defender who still delivers those huge hits.

Brendan Smith has to take a huge step in his development to become a top-six NHL defenseman. Ian White, who played primarily with Lidstrom last season, must find consistency with a new partner.

2. Is Jonathan Ericsson ready for a bigger role?

In addition to losing Lidstrom to retirement, the Red Wings lost Brad Stuart to the San Jose Sharks. Ericsson has to step into Stuart's skates and be as reliable and as durable. That means Ericsson is going to have to play more than 20 minutes a game (he's never done it), stay healthy for a full season (he's never done it), and move into a key role on the top PK unit (he's never done it).

Ericsson has shown flashes of brilliance in his NHL career to date. At 28 years old, it's time he takes the next step and becomes the player the Red Wings have long said he could be. He basically has no choice.

3. Can Danny Cleary rebound from a sub-par 2011-12 season?

Cleary is known for being one of the most determined players in the game, but at 33 years old and coming off a tough, injury-plagued season, the Red Wings have to be wondering if he's starting down the wrong side of the hill in his playing career. Cleary had 12 goals and 21 assists in 75 games last season after putting up career-highs in goals (26) and points (46) in 68 games two seasons ago. He was shut out in five Stanley Cup Playoff games last season.

The Red Wings could use 20 or more goals from Cleary again to take some of the pressure off Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Detroit lost Jiri Hudler's 50 points, and instead of hoping that Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner can make up that offense, the Red Wings have to count on Cleary to help bridge the gap. He's certainly capable of getting back to being the player he was two seasons ago.

4. Will Damien Brunner make a name for himself in the NHL?

Brunner, 26, is arguably the biggest wild card on the Red Wings' roster. He can either become a top-six forward and a reliable scorer to replace Hudler's 50 points -- or he could be a one-year bust who returns to Switzerland after the season.

Jonathan Ericsson
Jonathan Ericsson
Defense - DET
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 11
SOG: 63 | +/-: 16
The Red Wings signed Brunner to a one-year, two-way entry-level contract on July 1 based on his success over the past four seasons with EV Zug in the Swiss National League A. Babcock watched Brunner play for Switzerland at the World Championships and left impressed with his skill and his speed, so much so the coach encouraged general manager Ken Holland to take a hard look at Brunner.

5. Are Jan Mursak, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith ready for full-time NHL duty?

The Red Wings have long been touting these four as prospects with potential to become contributors at the NHL level. The time seems right for them to prove why the organization has shown so much belief and patience in them.

Smith, 23, who had seven points in 14 games last season, seems to be a good bet to make the 23-man roster and potentially play on the third defense pair, but the three forwards (Mursak, Nyquist and Tatar) will have to stand out in camp to make the team. Their chances are slim as is because the Red Wings have a glut of forwards.

6. Is Detroit's run for consecutive postseason appearances in jeopardy?

The Red Wings have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 21 straight seasons, the longest current streak in any of the four major professional sports leagues. The past 20 of those playoff berths have come with Lidstrom as a cornerstone defenseman.

The current team, at least on paper, is good enough to keep the streak intact, but there is no denying that for the first time in a long time the Wings are vulnerable. Minnesota got better. Dallas got better. Anaheim could be a threat again. Calgary and Colorado both believe they have improved. There will be plenty of competition for Detroit in the Western Conference.

-- Dan Rosen

Predators NASHVILLE PREDATORS

The Predators have yet to reach the Western Conference Finals since they began play in 1998, and now a key member of the organization will be elsewhere. Ryan Suter, the club's first-round pick from the historic 2003 NHL Draft who averaged 26 1/2 minutes of ice time in 79 games last season, signed a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild. Though the loss of Suter potentially could be devastating, coach Barry Trotz is confident the franchise has the depth to remain competitive.

1. Can the Predators overcome the loss of Ryan Suter?

Suter had 46 points in 79 games and spent roughly half of each contest on the ice. His plus-15 rating ranked second on the club behind his blue line partner, Shea Weber (plus-21). Finding someone to fill the void left by Suter's departure won't be easy, but the Predators are confident young defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are capable.

"Now it's time for someone on the back end, someone young -- Josi, Ellis, [Kevin] Klein -- to step up and play more minutes," Weber said. "I think we've got guys capable of doing that. It's an exciting time. We're a young team, but we're very talented and we're not far away at all."

2. Can anyone on this roster score 20 goals?

The Predators were successful last season because of their ability to keep the puck out of their net -- they allowed 210 goals, ninth-fewest in the League. But with Suter out of the picture, Nashville may need to provide more offense for Pekka Rinne in order to win its fair share of games.

Nashville spread the offense around a season ago (the Predators scored 237 goals, eighth in the NHL), but no one reached 30 goals. Patric Hornqvist was tops with 27 and he was one of two players to score 20 (Mike Fisher had 24). In a 48-game season, having a 20-goal scorer would be an impressive feat.

3. Can Pekka Rinne duplicate his success?

The 29-year-old enjoyed a world-class campaign in 2011-12, winning 43 games and earning a trip to Las Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Now armed with a seven-year, $49 million contract, the pressure on Rinne will be even heavier this season after the club lost Suter to free agency.

It might be both unfair and unrealistic to expect Rinne to duplicate his tremendous numbers from last season (2.39 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, five shutouts), but he'll need to be in the same area code if the Predators are going to continue to keep pace with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

4. Is this the year Mattias Ekholm makes an impact?

He had a rough start to his NHL career and was ultimately returned to Sweden, but the Predators remain very high on this 6-foot-4 defenseman, and rightfully so. With another year of seasoning, Nashville is hopeful the 22-year-old is ready for prime time.

Mattias Ekholm
Mattias Ekholm
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 1 | +/-: -1
And why not? After all, Ekholm -- the Predators' fourth-round choice (No. 102) in 2009 -- was named the Borje Salming Award winner as the Swedish Elite League's top defenseman in 2011-12 after getting nine goals and eight assists in 41 games for Brynas. He has four goals and 14 points in 29 games with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League this season.

5. Is Colin Wilson ready to take the next step?

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound forward reached the 30-point plateau for the second straight season, but Wilson could be capable of more. The Predators' first-round draft pick (No. 7) in 2008 watched a large chunk of the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the press box before finding himself on the top line during Nashville's second-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.

What can sometimes get lost in the shuffle is that Wilson is 22 years old. Teams can never have enough offense, which is why the Predators likely will be counting on more production from the highly capable forward.

6. Can the Predators earn an eighth playoff berth in nine seasons?

Since making it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 2003-04, Nashville has been back every season since with the exception of 2008-09. The challenge of getting back becomes greater without Suter, but the Predators have always found ways to remain competitive. Much of that has to do with consistency -- general manager David Poile and Trotz have been in their respective positions from the beginning of the franchise.

The Predators have prided themselves on a strong defensive game and solid goaltending, and we should expect more of the same in 2012-13 -- even without Suter. After all, Weber, the team's captain and a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season, is signed to be in Music City for another 14 years.

-- Brian Compton

Blues ST. LOUIS BLUES

When a team puts together a 109-point season and has almost its entire roster back for the following season, there aren't too many questions surrounding the club. The Blues ran into the Los Angeles Kings' juggernaut in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and lost in four games, ending a season that was as remarkable as it was surprising. What must the Blues do to get back to the postseason and beyond the second round?

1. How will Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott co-exist this season?

The tandem was one of the most effective in NHL history last season, when it nearly had an even split in starts and combined for a 1.78 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Halak went 26-12-7 in 46 starts and Elliott went 23-10-4 while starting 36 games.

During the postseason, Halak suffered an injury and made just two starts. Elliott took over and was in net for the Blues' four-game sweep at the hands of the Kings. Halak was signed to be the team's No. 1 goaltender and should see a bigger bulk of the work this season, assuming he is healthy. But if he struggles, the Blues have a capable backup in Elliott who can get the job done.

2. How will Vladimir Tarasenko assimilate himself with the Blues?

After four seasons in the KHL, the talented Tarasenko will begin his career in the NHL. The 20-year-old finished tied for eighth in the KHL in scoring last season with 23 goals and 47 points in 54 games after finishing tied for second in points with 11 in seven games as a member of Russia's gold-medal team at the 2011 World Junior Championships.

Coach Ken Hitchock envisions Tarasenko playing somewhere in the top-nine. Whether a player is arriving from Russia, Sweden or the American Hockey League, a rookie's first season in the NHL is rarely an easy one. But if Tarasenko can contribute offensively to a team that had a hard time scoring last year, he'll be a valuable piece to an already solid team.

3. Can Chris Stewart have a bounce-back season?

After two straight 28-goal seasons, Stewart plummeted to 15 goals and 30 points in 79 games. He had two goals in seven playoff games and was a healthy scratch during the postseason.

The Blues gave up franchise defenseman Erik Johnson to land Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the 2011 trade deadline, and Stewart had 15 goals in his first 26 games in St. Louis. Offense was a problem for the Blues last season, and Stewart rediscovering his scoring touch would go a long way toward remedying those woes.

4. Was last year a fluke or a harbinger of things to come?

Let's be honest -- no one thought the Blues were going to finish second the Western Conference last season. Even fewer people thought so when Davis Payne was fired 13 games into the season and replaced with Hitchcock.

Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart
Right Wing - STL
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 30
SOG: 166 | +/-: 1
In the previous six seasons, the Blues never finished higher than third in the Central Division, made just one trip to the postseason and were swept away in four games. Was last season an instance of all the Blues' young players coming into their own all at once? With a solid young defense corps and two top goaltenders, the Blues should contend for a Cup if they can stay healthy.

5. Where will the offense come from this season?

The Blues were 21st in goals last season and decided against bringing in a proven scorer during the offseason. So with almost the same cast in 2012-13, the Blues will be relying on a full season from players who dealt with injuries last season and a resurgent campaign from Stewart.

David Perron (24 games, concussion), Andy McDonald (57 games, concussion, shoulder), and Alex Steen (39 games, concussion) all had extended absences at varying points of the season. Perron, McDonald and Steen combined for 92 points in 125 games, an average of 0.74 points game, which is a big hole in the lineup when they are absent. And Stewart will be counted upon to return to his nearly 30-goal form of the previous two seasons.

6. Can Alex Pietrangelo win the Norris Trophy?

The 22-year-old finished fifth among defenseman with 51 points, the third-most on a Blues' team that had a hard time scoring goals. He averaged 24:43 of ice time, 16tth in the NHL, and was plus-16. Despite his youth, he was routinely matched up against the opposition's top lines.

With Nicklas Lidstrom retired, that's one less obstacle standing in Pietrangelo's way. The King City, Ontario, native also will benefit from a full season in Hitchcock's defensive system. The Norris voting can be based somewhat on reputation, but if Pietrangelo can improve slightly on his offensive numbers without losing his defensive edge, he could be on the short list for the award in June.

-- Dave Lozo

Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres