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Crawford, Helm, Ellis look to make Central impact

by Brian Compton

With the 2012-13 NHL season ready to begin, teams will be scrambling on a nightly basis to earn points and clinch a spot in what is primed to be a wild 48-game race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A condensed schedule means more games in a short amount of time, and teams will be relying on every player on their roster to contribute. takes a closer look at the players who will need to be major factors for Central Division squads:

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks -- Certainly, the Blackhawks have plenty of skill up front to provide offense. But will they have the goaltending necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup? That will be determined by Crawford, who had a 2.72 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage in 57 appearances last season. He struggled in the playoffs, allowing three or more goals five times in an opening-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.

"I would expect him to get back to being that top goalie again," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's looking to recapture that feeling he had."

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Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets -- The Blue Jackets know they need different ways to create offense now that former captain Rick Nash is with the New York Rangers. Enter Foligno, a forward that general manager Scott Howson acquired from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Marc Methot. Armed with a new three-year contract, Foligno, who has scored 29 goals over the past two seasons for the Senators, also will provide grit and a willingness to stick up for his teammates.

"There are going to be some ups and downs, but I'm definitely looking at myself to fill in that offensive role and be a contributor on a nightly basis, and be a solid all-around player," Foligno said when he signed. "It's definitely something I pride myself on and want to be able to do. Hopefully, surrounded by the right guys, I can bring that to the team."

Darren Helm, Detroit Red Wings -- Helm is one of the fastest skaters in the League, and the Red Wings know they need him to be healthy and productive in order to win the division. Last season was proof of that -- they went 42-22-4 with Helm and 6-6-2 without him. Detroit couldn't recover from Helm's lacerated forearm suffered in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals and was quickly eliminated by the Nashville Predators.

"This guy is just one of those Energizer bunnies. He keeps on trucking," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "[Helm] walks in and immediately charges up the room. That's how important he is to our team. You know, sometimes as a coach when you lose a guy, the appreciation for that guy goes up."

Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators -- Much will be expected of the 22-year-old defenseman after Ryan Suter signed a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild this summer. Ellis, Nashville's first-round pick (No. 11) from 2009, was promoted from the American Hockey League last season and had three goals and eight assists in 32 NHL games.

Though Ellis probably won't be asked to play as much as Suter did last season (26:30 per game), he'll more than likely receive an increase from the roughly 15 minutes per game coach Barry Trotz gave him.

"It was nice to kind of get my feet wet and see what it's all about," said Ellis, who went 2-7-9 in 20 games for Milwaukee this season during the work stoppage. "[Last] season ended before we wanted it to, but it was nice to get that experience. I'm looking forward to having a strong camp and contributing more."

Chris Stewart, St. Louis Blues -- The power forward was expected to be a major contributor to the Blues' offense last season, but instead was held to 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) in 79 games. It was a far cry from the 15 goals he scored in 26 games the season prior after being acquired via trade from the Colorado Avalanche in 2011. Can Stewart be that player again? He showed signs overseas during the work stoppage, going 6-14-20 in 15 games for Crimmitschau in Germany.

"When you do struggle a little bit, it starts to get your confidence," Stewart said. "You try to change your game or overcompensate. You can't really worry about it.

"I've got to be the player that I am. I've got to do the things that made me successful this year. I've got to get back to being Chris Stewart, just be me and playing my game. I got myself into this. I'm the only one that can get myself out of it, and I'll do it."


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