Central: Division teams get high grades in 2011-12

By Andrew Sykes

 

Photo: St. Louis Blues' defensemen Alex

Pietrangelo (L) and Kevin Shattenkirk (R) should anchor the team's defensive corps for many years to come (courtesy of Chris Pondy/Icon SMI)

The NHL's Central Division was one of the most competitive divisions all season long so it should be no surprise that four of the five teams were graded highly in their end-of-year report cards. The Columbus Blue Jackets were the only disappointment while Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis all passed with flying colors.

St. Louis Blues, 'A+': After back-to-back disappointing seasons in which the St. Louis Blues failed to qualify for the post-season, this year again started off in underwhelming fashion. Struggling in early October, then head coach David Payne was fired and it looked like the team was heading for a tumultuous campaign.

Enter Ken Hitchcock. The former Cup-winning bench boss was hired to shake things up, and that is exactly what he did, and then some. Hitchcock turned in one of the most impressive coaching displays in recent memory, guiding the Blues to an incredible season that had them in the mix to take home the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top team.

Although they stumbled down the stretch and lost their opportunity to claim home ice throughout the playoffs, the Blues 18-point turnaround from a year ago was one of the great ongoing stories in the league this year. Finishing second in the West and tied for second in the entire NHL standings with 109 points, the Blues were led by Hitchcock’s defensive genius that resulted in his team being the hardest to score against in the league.

Goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak split the time in the crease with both men finishing with a goals-against average below 2.00, while sophomore defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk produced all-star calibre seasons. Up front, the Blues boasted one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL despite dealing with long-term injuries for much of the year.

Nashville Predators, 'A-': The Predators might not have come through with their best season ever, but it was certainly a year to remember in Nashville. Although the team produced the third best season in franchise history, it is this team that may very well have the best chance at reaching the top of the mountain.

The core of the Predators remained intact, meaning that the likes of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne were once again the three players driving the bus. Although the team appeared to be lacking depth heading into the year, a large group of young players like Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, Matt Halischuk, Gabriel Bourque and Roman Josi all played key roles in making sure the Predators remained an elite squad.

There was then the trade deadline which General Manager David Poile used to improve the club’s playoff chances by adding three players who fit the mold of impact playoff performers. Towering defenseman Hal Gill, checking center Paul Gaustad and scoring winger Andrei Kostitsyn were acquired at the deadline to further add to the team’s depth. Poile also turned heads when he was able to lure star Russian forward Alexander Radulov back from the KHL, giving his team the game-breaking forward they have been missing in the past.

With all-world goalie Pekka Rinne backstopping them, the Predators have long been a dangerous team, but this seems to be their most well-rounded roster yet, and a major threat to win the big prize.

Chicago Blackhawks, 'B+': After a disappointing defense of their Stanley Cup triumph a year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks responded with a better season in 2011-2012.

High on top-end talent but low on depth, the Blackhawks received greater contributions from their secondary players this year. The likes of Viktor Stalberg, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw all stepped up offensively for a team that had begun to rely too much on the scoring exploits of their four star forwards — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.

With those four players still the driving force behind much of the team’s success, Chicago made a late season push to improve their seed in the Western Conference but could not overtake division rivals Nashville and Detroit. Their 45 wins and 101 points put them in the upper echelon of the league, but were only good enough for fourth-place in the stacked Central Division, and the sixth-seed in the West.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook once again anchored the club’s blueline, but the duo got some help from rookie Nick Leddy who turned in an excellent season and was one of just two players to play in all 82 games. Goaltending was the biggest question mark for the Blackhawks as both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery struggled with consistency throughout the year.

Detroit Red Wings, 'B+': When you have been the NHL’s model franchise for the last 15 years, it can be hard to meet the expectations that the previous seasons have created. That would be the case for the Detroit Red Wings who had won nine division titles in the last 10 years.

In 2011-2012, however, the Red Wings had a few issues that prevented them from adding another division crown to the mantle. First and foremost was the constant string of injuries that the team dealt with for a majority of their season. On top of lengthy injuries to arguably their two most vital players in Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, the team had numerous injuries to a number of regulars that forced head coach Mike Babcock to make lineup changes on a game-to-game basis.

The second biggest problem for Detroit was their struggles away from the Joe Louis Arena. One of the league’s best teams on home ice, the Red Wings set a new NHL record with 23 straight wins at home, but for whatever reason they often fell flat on the road. A road record of 17-21-3 was without question the main reason why the club finished in third-place in the Central Division and the fifth-seed in the West.

Despite not garnering the regular-season accolades that they have become accustomed to, Detroit as usual will be judged more on their playoff exploits rather than their regular-season performance. They might not have put themselves in the best position for the post-season, but the Red Wings still have the goods to make a lengthy run.

Columbus Blue Jackets, 'F': Coming off the second best season in franchise history, there was some hope that the Blue Jackets would at least be contenders for a playoff spot this year. Those hopes were crushed very early as the club won just seven of their first 24 games en route to becoming the NHL’s worst team.

From the top down the Blue Jackets struggled. Star players underachieved, the defense was weak, and goaltending was non-existent. The off-season acquisition of high-scoring winger Jeff Carter was a complete failure as Carter appeared in just 39 games before being dealt at the trade deadline. In return, the Blue Jackets received defenseman Jack Johnson from Los Angeles and, from that point on, the team began to deliver some consistent hockey.

The end result though was not pretty. With a record of 29-46-7, the Blue Jackets finished last in the NHL standings by a wide margin.

The Blue Jackets obviously has many issues to address in the off-season if they hope to be an improved team by the time training camp rolls around in September. They can get off to a good start in June when they choose second overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.