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Players to watch: Central

by Dan Rosen
There are the superstars, and for the most part you know what they are going to do -- provided they stay healthy, of course.

Then, there are the other guys. You can call them unsung if you want, but they are the ones to truly watch, especially early in the season, because while you may not know exactly what to expect from them, their teams win when they excel.

Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago Blackhawks
-- Is he a forward or is he a defenseman? Does it really matter?

Byfuglien, who will likely start the season as a forward, is a key player for the Blackhawks because he can eat up ice time, contribute offensively, play a responsible game on the defensive end and assume the gritty role in front of the net on the power play.

Byfuglien registered 19 goals and 17 assists in 67 games last season, his first full NHL season after playing parts of the previous two, totaling 34 games. The numbers should impress you even more considering he was brought up as a defenseman.

At 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, Byfuglien has the size to become the prototypical power forward in the NHL, one who is nearly impossible to stop on the offensive end and nearly impossible to beat, too.

Look for him in a second-line role with the Hawks this season, but don't be shocked if he takes up some space on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and acts as a protector for the two franchise forwards.

Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings -- The Red Wings rode the “Mule” through the first two rounds of the playoffs last season before injury forced him to miss six games.

He scored 8 goals in the four-game sweep of Colorado and another in Game 1 vs. Dallas before sitting out until Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. The hot streak was an extension of his regular season finish as Franzen had 15 goals in the last 16 games.

He finished the regular season with a career-high 27 goals.

If Franzen drops off this season, he'll be called a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder. That shouldn't happen because Franzen will likely play with either Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, two of the best playmakers in the game. His power-play time will also add to his chances for 30-plus goals.

Franzen scored more than half of his goals (14) on the power play last season.

Jared Boll, Columbus Blue Jackets -- The one thing the Blue Jackets don't want to do is change Boll's game, but they wouldn't mind harnessing it just a little bit so he can become an effective offensive player in his second season.

Boll, who should be ready for training camp despite breaking his hand this summer, had only 10 points as a rookie last season while piling up 226 penalty minutes. The Jackets feel there is a tremendous upside to Boll as an offensive player, but he can only show it if he's on the ice.

If Boll can put some of his aggression toward scoring goals instead of throwing jabs and haymakers, he will most likely turn into the productive forward coach Ken Hitchcock envisions him being.

If he produces in the neighborhood of 10-15 goals and 30-40 points, Columbus' chances of its first-ever postseason appearance go up dramatically. Don't laugh. Those numbers are not that farfetched, at least that's what Hitchcock believes.

Dan Ellis, Nashville Predators -- Some would say the pressure was on Ellis in the playoffs last season when he and the Predators went up against the Detroit Red Wings. Then again, Ellis and his teammates really had nothing to lose in that series considering no one expected them to win.

The pressure is officially on now.

Not only has Ellis been tabbed as the No. 1 in Nashville entering the season, he was awarded that honor with a fresh two-year contract extension at the same time Predators GM David Poile traded his backup to St. Louis.

Chris Mason is backing up Manny Legace now and Pekka Rinne has been promoted from the AHL to be the Predators' backup, but it's Ellis' show in the Music City. He earned it late last season by playing his best hockey down the stretch and into the playoffs, when he stood tall against a barrage of Red Wings' shots.

If Ellis can mask the inexperience in Nashville's net by carrying his strong play from March and April into this season, the Predators just may find their way back into the postseason -- where, once again, very few pundits expect them to wind up.

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