Someone will be noticeably absent from the Central Division this season, as the Detroit Red Wings and NHL enthusiasts everywhere try to get on without Nicklas Lidstrom.
After breaking into the league in 1991-92, Lidstrom carved out one of the greatest careers by an NHL defenseman over his 20 years in Detroit. However, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner announced last spring that he'd be retiring and is now employed as a scout for the Red Wings.
While losing a player as awe inspiring and classy as Lidstrom hurts the game of hockey on the whole, it's safe to say that the Central Division clubs not known as the Red Wings won't miss the man recognized by many as the best European player in the history of the NHL.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2011-12 - (1st place, 109 points); Projected Finish: 1st place
REVIEW: The Blues fired David Payne early last season and all his replacement Ken Hitchcock did was push the team to a 43-15-11 record the rest of the way, leading St. Louis to its first division title since the 1999-2000 season. Still the campaign wound up being a disappointment when the Blues were swept in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
KEY ADDITION: After its surprising 109-point season in 2011-12 the Blues decided to bring back largely the same team as last year rather than taking an aggressive approach to free agency. In lieu of adding talent from outside the organizations, St. Louis could get a big boost from Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, who has made the trip to North America and is ready for his NHL debut. Tarasenko, the 16th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, is coming off an excellent run in the KHL this season, posting 31 points in 31 games for SKA St. Petersburg. Making a seamless jump from the KHL to the NHL could prove difficult for Tarasenko, but the Blues, who do their best work on the defensive end, certainly need any help they can find on offense.
X-FACTOR: Forward Chris Stewart posted consecutive 28-goal seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but he saw his production drop to 15 goals last year in his first full season with the Blues. The former Colorado Avalanche forward has the size and skill to be a menace in front of the net and St. Louis needs him to pick up his production during this shortened season.
PROGNOSIS: The Blues played a stingy brand of hockey under Hitchcock and the plan is to stick to the goaltending platoon of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott that worked so well a season ago. Expect the Blues to have another dominant regular season en route to possibly another division title, but the real test for this team will come in the playoffs, where there is plenty of unfinished business for the franchise.
2011-12 - (4th, 101 pts); Projected Finish - 2nd
REVIEW: Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks have been bounced out in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. Much of the blame for last year's disappointing season was placed at the feet of goaltender Corey Crawford, who took a sizeable step back after a solid rookie season.
KEY ADDITION: The Blackhawks made runs at coveted free agents like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Martin Brodeur but struck out on all three attempts. The lack of a big-time addition may be frustrating for the fans, but more important than making a splash in free agency is the fact that forward Marian Hossa is ready to go after he suffered a severe concussion on a vicious hit by Phoenix's Raffi Torres in last spring's playoffs. Hossa is a supreme two-way talent and Chicago would not be nearly as dangerous if he hadn't been able to make a full recovery. In that regard, the lockout was a good thing for Chicago since Hossa wasn't cleared to play until mid-Decemeber, meaning he'd have missed a huge chunk of the season if it had started on time.
X-FACTOR: Crawford obviously needs to play better after seeing his goals- against average balloon from 2.30 in 2010-11 to 2.72 last season, but winger Patrick Kane is also in desperate need of a comeback season. Kane -- the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 draft -- played in all 82 games in 2011-12 but his 66 points marked a career-low and his 23 goals was his second-worst output after his rookie season tally of 21. Making matters worse for Kane, he was embroiled in an offseason controversy after a rampant display of public drunkeness during an infamous weekend in Madison, Wis. last spring. Add it all up and Kane has more to prove this season than any other Blackhawk.
PROGNOSIS: While Kane is in need of a bounce-back performance, team captain Jonathan Toews is one of the best two-way centerman in the league and his presence on the top line with Patrick Sharp and Hossa is what makes the Blackhawks a threat to return to Stanley Cup glory every year. Expect Chicago to make the postseason for a fifth straight season, although the club's playoff success will probably depend a great deal on how well Crawford responds to adversity.
2011-12 - (2nd, 104 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: Even though Nashville has qualified for the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, last spring was the first year that the club was truly considered a Stanley Cup contender. The Predators seemed to live up to that hype with a first-round victory over Detroit but were brought back to earth in a five-game loss to Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals.
KEY ADDITION: Shea Weber never really went anywhere but the possibility of losing one of the game's best all-around defenseman seemed all too real after he inked a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet with Philadelphia. Having already lost Weber's defensive partner, Ryan Suter, earlier in free agency to Minnesota, the Preds had no choice but to match Philly's offer and retain Weber's services. It's a good thing Weber will be back because it is difficult to picture Nashville as a playoff team without him.
X-FACTOR: With Suter gone, Roman Josi is expected to take on the unenviable task of replacing him as Weber's defensive partner. Weber and Suter grew into arguably the NHL's best defensive pairing during their time in Nashville, so Josi certainly has his work cut out for him. The Swiss blueliner had five goals and 16 points in 52 games as a rookie last season and it would be huge for the Preds if he can manage to improve upon those numbers during this shortened campaign.
PROGNOSIS: Once again head coach Barry Trotz will attempt to do a whole lot with little star-power outside of Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, but at this point it'd be folly to not expect them to qualify for the playoffs. The only problem is Trotz's Preds have never moved past the second round of the postseason and that isn't something likely to change either.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2011-12 - (3rd, 102 pts); Projected Finish - 4th
REVIEW: The Red Wings were playoff participants for the 21st consecutive season last spring, but the club was bounced out in the first round for the first time since the 2005-06 campaign. Combine that disappointing postseason with Lidstrom's retirement and it turned out to be a humbling offseason for a team that's won four Stanley Cup titles since the mid-1990s.
KEY ADDITION: The Red Wings have seen great deal of Jordin Tootoo since he broke into the league with Nashville in 2003-04 and they obviously liked what they saw, luring the pesky forward from the Predators during free agency. With Tomas Holmstrom joining his countryman Lidstrom in retirement somebody will have to provide a bad attitude up front and Tootoo could fit that bill. One thing Tootoo hasn't shown he can do is put the puck in the net like Holmstrom could. Perhaps, Mikael Samuelsson, a former Red Wing who returned to the team via free agency, can help replace the 10-to-20 goals Holmstrom was good for year in and year out.
X-FACTOR: The year before Lidstrom called it a career, another standout Detroit defenseman -- Brian Rafalski -- also announced his retirement. Adding insult to injury, blueliner Brad Stuart also departed in the offseason for free agency, meaning the once-vaunted Detroit defense is in a serious state of flux. That means Niklas Kronwall needs to show he can be a No. 1 defenseman for Detroit even if reaching the lofty precedent set by Lidstrom is an impossibility. Still, Kronwall had 15 goals and 36 points over 82 games last season and the Red Wings could do a lot worse at the top of their defensive rotation
PROGNOSIS: For the first time in a long while the Red Wings are in danger of missing the playoffs -- something that hasn't happened to the club since the 1989-90 campaign. The good news is the team has one of the league's top coaches in Mike Babcock and a couple of superstar forwards in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who will take over as captain for Lidstrom. If nothing else, Detroit will be interesting to watch this year to see how it handles life without one of the greatest players of his generation.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2011-12 - (5th, 65 pts); Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: The Blue Jackets made their one and only postseason appearance in 2008-09 when they were swept by Detroit and the underachieving franchise has finished last in the Central Division in the three seasons since. Trading away Rick Nash -- the longtime face of the franchise -- to the New York Rangers this summer isn't expected to raise expectations. Perhaps hiring John Davidson in October to serve as the Jackets' president of hockey operations can finally get the club on track. Davidson played a big part in building the St. Louis Blues back to respectability in recent years, but he'll have an even tougher task ahead of him in Columbus.
KEY ADDITION: Columbus picked up some solid pieces from the Rangers in the Nash deal, including Brandon Dubinsky, who will join Vinny Prospal and R.J. Umberger as the only current Blue Jackets with 20-goal seasons on their resumes. Dubinsky posted a career-high 24 goals two seasons ago before falling to 10 tallies in 77 games with the Rangers last year. Nash also landed Columbus a promising forward in Artem Anisimov, who posted 16 goals and 36 points for New York in 2011-12.
X-FACTOR: Columbus' lack of success since entering the league over a decade ago has had a great deal to do with the club's trouble finding a suitable goaltender. The latest attempt at getting a backstop to stick is Sergei Bobrovsky, the former Philadelphia Flyers netminder who was acquired for draft picks last summer. Since Steve Mason hasn't been able to get back to the form that won him the Calder Trophy in 2008-09, Bobrovsky is expected to be given every opportunity to win the starting job. The Russian netminder had a strong rookie season for Philadelphia in 2010-11, but posted a weak 3.02 GAA in 29 games for the Flyers last season. Considering the low bar for goaltenders in Columbus the Jackets aren't looking for Bobrovsky to be the second-coming of Jacques Plante, only for him to provide a measure of stability between the pipes.
PROGNOSIS: The Columbus franchise has been in rebuilding mode since its inception and the upcoming campaign is no different. The trend of missing the playoffs is a virtual lock to continue and anything other than a last-place finish in the Central should be considered a rousing success.