With four teams finishing in the top nine in the Western Conference, three accumulating at least 100 points and one winning the Stanley Cup, the Central Division was the best in the NHL last season. There doesn't appear to be any reason to think it will change next season.
Chicago is tinkering with its Stanley Cup roster, trying to get under the salary cap, but still the core remains in place. Detroit looks just fine and Nashville always seems to get the job done despite a tight budget. St. Louis has high hopes and Columbus believes its young players will get better.
Even with all that being said, each team has needs. Here is what we can expect from the five teams in the Central Division when the free agency period begins at noon ET on July 1:Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 52-22-8, Stanley Cup champions
Due to salary cap restrictions, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has been stripping away some of the Stanley Cup roster instead of adding to it. Already he's shipped Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Colin Fraser out of town. The Blackhawks won't be signing John Madden to a new contract and it's likely that Adam Burish also walks.
But the core remains in place (provided they sign restricted free agents Antti Niemi, Niklas Hjalmarsson
and Andrew Ladd to new contracts) for the Hawks to make another Cup run; it's just that they'll have to replace some of these pieces.
They'll mostly be doing it in-house with prospects like Kyle Beach
and Jack Skille. They need another defenseman or two with Sopel gone and Kim Johnsson also likely signing elsewhere, but the Blackhawks don't have the cap space to go out and get one right now. There's talk of them dumping Cristobal Huet into the AHL, but that's just talk at the moment. If it happens -- and it might not until training camp -- the Hawks still likely won't be able to add anyone of significance. Corey Crawford
would come in and be the No. 2 goalie behind Niemi.
If they somehow manage to create enough space, look for the Hawks to add a veteran center or defenseman at a cheap price.Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 44-24-14, lost in conference semifinal
They don't have many needs, but like the Blackhawks, the Red Wings don't have much cap space to operate with either. Also like the Hawks, they have the core in place with the re-signing of Nicklas Lidstrom to a one-year contract and the return of Jiri Hudler from Russia.
If potential UFAs Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja sign elsewhere, the Wings will need at least one more defenseman for depth purposes. But both could re-up in Detroit and Jakub Kindl has been biding his time in the AHL, waiting for an opportunity. Derek Meech also is in place.
Detroit also could use a depth forward or two considering Kirk Maltby and Jason Williams might be leaving, but Justin Abdelkader will fill one of those roles and it's possible that Mattias Ritola makes Detroit his full-time home. Their top-nine is set with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary, Kris Draper and Hudler. Abdelkader, Darren Helm and probably Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and perhaps even Ritola should fill out the forwards. Nashville Predators
Last season: 47-29-6, lost in conference quarterfinal
Since the Predators operate on a budget, it might be difficult to get all they want, but they need replacements for Jason Arnott (traded to New Jersey) and Dan Hamhuis (negotiating rights traded to Philadelphia and then to Pittsburgh).
GM David Poile probably feels he got a replacement for Arnott in the deal with the Devils with the return of Matt Halischuk. He's still unproven, however, and it would be hard for Poile to rely on him having a breakout rookie season. That being said, it might just be something Poile has to do given his tight budget. Inexpensive youngsters like Colin Wilson, Cal O'Reilly and Jerred Smithson also figure to have more significant roles. But don't discount Poile going out and adding to his depth with a veteran forward.
Even with Hamhuis gone, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Francis Bouillon, Kevin Klein, Alexander Sulzer and Ryan Parent remain. It might be time for 2007 first-round pick Jonathon Blum to make his move to Nashville, but a veteran defenseman would be a good add.
Dan Ellis also is leaving town, so the Predators need a backup goalie. It's conceivable the job falls to Mark Dekanich, who has been in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals for two seasons. Again, though, Poile could make a shrewd addition with one of the several lesser name goalies expected to be on the market.St. Louis Blues
Last season: 40-32-10, out of playoffs
With the retirement of Keith Tkachuk and the likely departure of pending UFA Paul Kariya, the Blues could use a veteran forward with leadership ability. Mike Modano anyone?
OK, that's probably a stretch considering Modano isn't sure he's playing next season and didn't list the Blues as a team he would be comfortable going to. He mentioned Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Phoenix in a Dallas Morning News article. Anyway, a veteran forward would be a good get for the Blues, and there are several out there that probably won't cost all that much. If it's a center, that would be even better, but St. Louis at least has high hopes for Vladimir Sobotka, who they got from Boston in exchange for defenseman David Warsofsky. Madden could be an option here, too.
They could use defensive depth, too. St. Louis has Erik Johnson, Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak and the oft-injured Eric Brewer already. You have to think that this is the year '08 first-round pick Alex Pietrangelo finally makes the club on a full-time basis. Still, that leaves some holes with a think defense. If they want to spend, they have some cap room to make a splash. Hamhuis, Paul Martin, Sergei Gonchar, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, Willie Mitchell and Pavel Kubina could all be available at noon ET Thursday. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 32-35-15, out of playoffs
For the umpteenth consecutive season, the Blue Jackets enter the free agency part of the year knowing they need a No. 1 center that will play with captain Rick Nash. But for the umpteenth consecutive season it doesn't appear they are going to make a big play for one.
Columbus was rumored to be linked with Ottawa in a deal that would have sent Jason Spezza to Ohio's capital city, but that was shot down quickly by GM Scott Howson last week. It appears Nash will be centered again by either Antoine Vermette or Derrick Brassard. The Blue Jackets, in fact, have 11 forwards under contract for next season when you count Nikita Filatov, and they plan on bringing back restricted free agent Jared Boll as well. There isn't a lot of room to add there, so outside of maybe a veteran for depth Columbus will likely stay status quo and hope guys like Brassard, Voracek and Filatov continue to develop.
They could use a No. 1 defenseman as well, someone such as a Volchenkov, Martin, Gonchar, etc. But there has been zero speculation that they'll go after one. That doesn't mean they won't, though. Columbus has depth on the blue line with Fedor Tyutin, Kris Russell, Mike Commodore, Rostislav Klesla, Jan Hejda and Marc Methot all returning. It's possible the Jackets wait a year and hope prospects such as John Moore and Cody Goloubef are ready in 2011.Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer