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Assessing the Central Division’s off-season

Six weeks from now, NHL training camps could be opening (if a new CBA is reached, then hockey will be on the horizon as scheduled). Regardless, the fact that hockey is around the corner is both a scary and delightful thought.

We already know what the Predators have done this summer, but what about the rest of the Central Division? With the dog days of summer well under way, here is a look at how the Predators’ four divisional foes have fared this off-season:

Chicago Blackhawks

Additions: Sheldon Brookbank
Subtractions: Andrew Brunette*, Sami Lepisto, Brendan Morrison*, Sean O’Donnell*

What has been done: The Blackhawks’ roster doesn’t look much different than it did at the end of last season. Gone are aging veterans that failed to make an impact; in comes Brookbank, their lone free agent signee that adds some sandpaper to the blue-line. GM Stan Bowman was said to be interested in top free agents such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Martin Brodeur, but has failed to make any impactful additions this summer.

What needs to be done: With their inactivity for most of this off-season, the Blackhawks still have holes they need to fill if they wish to get back to the level they were at in 2010. Corey Crawford is a big question mark in net, while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane could use another piece to work with up front. They currently have $7.7 million of cap space.

Final word: Like the rest of the division, the Blackhawks did not get better this off-season. Are they still a playoff team? Absolutely. But by no means are they the favorite to grab the divisional reigns from rival St. Louis.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Additions: Artem Anisimov, Adrian Aucoin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, Nick Foligno, Ryan Murray
Subtractions: Darryl Boyce*, Mark Dekanich, Kristian Huselius*, Aaron Johnson, Brett Lebda*, Radek Martinek*, Rick Nash, Curtis Sanford*

What has been done: In terms of movement, Scott Howson has been the most active general manager this summer. He finally unloaded captain Rick Nash to New York, but seemingly settled for a watered-down package. Howson also upgraded his goaltending (kind of) with the acquisition of Sergei Bobrovsky at the draft. Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno add needed depth at forward – but who’s the go-to guy up front?

What needs to be done: A lot, if the Blue Jackets wish to contend for a playoff spot. A goaltending duo of Bobrovsky and Steve Mason is a liability, which is why Howson is trying to obtain Kings backstop Jonathan Bernier.

Final word: Maybe turning the page on Nash will make the rest of the team step up (see: Atlanta post-Kovalchuk), but Columbus has only participated in four playoff games in their history. That won’t change anytime soon.

Detroit Red Wings

Additions: Jonas Gustavsson, Mikael Samuelsson, Jordin Tootoo
Subtractions: Ty Conklin*, Chris Conner, Tomas Holmstrom*, Jiri Hudler, Doug Janik, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart

What has been done: This is one of the worst off-seasons the Red Wings have had in a long time. Mr. Perfect retired, leaving an irreplaceable void on the back end. GM Ken Holland failed to find his Nicklas Lidstrom replacement, much less a replacement for Brad Stuart. Holland did bring back Mikael Samuelsson, but the signing of Jordin Tootoo was a curious one. The jury is still out on Jonas Gustavsson, who was inconsistent and ineffective in his three years in Toronto.

What needs to be done: If Holland can’t hit it big in a trade, all that’s left to be done is to add depth on the blue-line and hope that’s enough to keep the playoff streak going. They should be fine at forward, though Holland would presumably like to add someone of Shane Doan’s caliber to give the offense a boost.

Final word: By NHL standards, the Red Wings would be reloading. By their own standards, the Red Wings could be entering a short-term rebuilding phase as their future is now. Youngsters Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl and Gustav Nyquist will play key roles for them this season and beyond.

St. Louis Blues

Additions: Andrew Murray
Subtractions: Jason Arnott*, Carlo Colaiacovo*, B.J. Crombeen, Kent Huskins*

What has been done: GM Doug Armstrong has spent most of his off-season time re-signing RFAs such as T.J. Oshie and David Perron. Outside of that, Armstrong didn’t need to do much (at least offensively) with rookies Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko ready to burst onto the scene. The Blues will likely skate a very similar roster to the one they ended the season with.

What needs to be done: One thing the Blues would like to do before the season is bulk up the defense with a veteran of some sort. They have been in multiple trade rumors regarding a top-four defenseman, while Carlo Colaiacovo hit the open market and remains unsigned. A defenseman may be the only thing left on Armstrong’s checklist.

Final word: As long as the Blues continue to buy what Ken Hitchcock is selling, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. Today, they are the slight favorite for the division crown, but the possibility of a letdown following an unexpectedly great season is there.

Note: * – Denotes current unrestricted free agent

Final thoughts as it pertains to the Preds

As crazy as it may sound, following the losses of Ryan Suter and Alexander Radulov (among others), the Predators are right there in the Central Division title hunt. Here’s why:

– They were there all of last season even without the services of Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad, who will both enter their first full season with the Predators here in 2012-13. Couple that with the maturation of the youngsters, and an argument can be made that the Predators are a better team now than they were a year ago heading into training camp.

– Obviously, the loss of Suter will hurt. The loss of Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, in all likelihood, won’t. The Predators were 37-19-7 (.643 point percentage) before either entered the lineup, 11-7-1 (.605) thereafter and 4-4 in the playoffs when they were in the lineup.

– Nashville possesses the best defenseman and goaltender in the division, and they are surrounded with complimentary parts that are either (a) experienced or (b) young and getting better.

– The rest of the Central Division failed to improve, which has to be a small victory for David Poile after what has been a roller coaster summer to this point.

St. Louis and Chicago stood pat and each has question marks. Can the Blues repeat their remarkable 109-point season? Is the Blackhawks’ goaltending sufficient enough to compete for the division? Meanwhile, Detroit took a step back with the combination of Lidstrom’s retirement and striking out on the top free agents, namely Suter and Parise.

– If the season were to start today, the Predators – who still have money to spend – may be the second-best team in the Central. However, as it stands here on August 8th, it will once again be a four-horse race to determine who will win the West’s most competitive division.

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