During the first few seasons following the NHL lockout, the Detroit Red Wings made a mockery out of the Central Division. With the exception of the perennially consistent Nashville Predators, the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets and Blues struggled to establish an identity as a one-headed monster in Detroit grasped the division’s throne year after year.
However, the trend of Motown dominance has been broken, with the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, and the other three teams rising in importance recently. Case in point, over the summer the Blue Jackets rounded out their roster with the additions of Jeff Carter at center and James Wishniewski on defense. In saying that, the time has come for Columbus to make noise in the postseason for the first time in their existence, and give an ailing fan base a reason for excitement.
As well, the Hawks and Blues surrounded their young core with veterans through free agency, without affecting team chemistry.
The additions of Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott will complement the likes of T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Patrik Berglund. After a midseason shakeup that sent Erik Johnson out of town, the Blues have re-established a strong core capable of moving into the Western Conference’s top eight in 2011-12.
In terms of prospects, the Central is sprinkled with a few but don’t present any high profile rookies to watch out for this year. On the other hand, there are a handful of players on the verge of breaking out. One of which is Detroit’s Fabian Brunnstrom. Once heralded as the “next Daniel Alfredsson,” by The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell, Brunnstrom has underwhelmed to this point in his career during stints in Dallas and Toronto.
This time around, he may be rejuvenated playing with the Winged Wheel. Detroit’s management and scouting staff is always on the lookout for hidden gems, one of the main reasons for their consistent success.
Beyond Brunnstrom, in terms of intrigue, is the potentially lethal combination of Rick Nash and Carter in Ohio. Nash finally has the Pavel Datsyuk to his Henrik Zetterberg or Jonathan Toews to his Patrick Kane. For that reason, it will be interesting to see how Carter adapts to Nash’s playing style, and whether he converts to a pass-first mentality instead of shooting first as he did so effectively in Philadelphia.
Despite their improvements towards a better-rounded roster, CBJ will still need Steve Mason to repeat the tremendous play that earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2008-09. Without a solid Mason, Columbus stays stagnant in the Central Division ranks.
As a whole, the Red Wings, in all likelihood, will bring home the divisional crown, and potentially finish first or second in the conference.
With the Blackhawks likely to secure the second spot, Nashville and Columbus will battle for a playoff position as well as bragging rights as the “best of the rest,” while the Blues, at least on paper, are not a bona fide playoff team just yet.
Even though the bulk of the Central Division will have a principle focus of taking down the Red Wings, the storylines run deeper than just the one dominant franchise.