Summer preview: Central Division - LA Kings Insider

Last week, we took a division-by-division look at the Eastern Conference, in terms of what each team faces this summer heading into next season. Now it’s the Western Conference’s turn, starting with the Central Division. Here’s how the teams finished this season, followed by a look at their summer outlooks…

1. Detroit Red Wings, 104 points (3rd in Western Conference)
2. Nashville Predators, 99 points (5th in Western Conference)
3. Chicago Blackhawks, 97 points (8th in Western Conference)
4. St. Louis Blues, 87 points (11th in Western Conference)
5. Columbus Blue Jackets, 81 points (13th in Western Conference)

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Hanging around?: After a difficult summer of 2010, the Blackhawks appear to have put the worst of their salary-cap woes behind them. The entire core of the defense is intact, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, as is emerging goalie Corey Crawford. Chicago is also in good shape up front, with top-six forwards — including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa — under contract, although Patrick Sharp looms as a huge unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012.
Saying goodbye?: Depth centers Ryan Johnson and Tomas Kopecky are unrestricted free agents. They’re not difficult to replace, but the one thing the Blackhawks lacked this season was that third- and fourth-line grit, and that’s still an issue going into this summer. The other question is in goal. How much confidence do the Blackhawks have in Crawford, and who will back him up. Marty Turco is an unrestricted free agent, and Alec Richards was only average in the AHL this season.
Draft card: The Blackhawks’ minds might be eased a bit if they had a strong goalie prospect in the system, but they don’t. The good news is that the Blackhawks are fairly deep on defense, with Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen leading the way. Leddy played more than half of this season in the NHL and, at age 20, is making good progress. Jeremy Morin, a strong forward prospect, also got a taste of the NHL, with two goals in nine games.
(Restricted free agents: Evan Brophey, C; Troy Brouwer, LW; Chris Campoli, D; Brian Connelly, D; Nathan Davis, C; Jake Dowell, C; Michael Frolik, LW; Robert Klinkhammer, LW; Mathis Olimb, C; Alec Richards, G; Viktor Stalberg, LW; Ivan Vishnevskiy, D.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Jassen Cullimore, D; Garnet Exelby, D; Jordan Hendry, D; Ryan Johnson, C; Tomas Kopecky, RW; Fernando Pisani, RW; Jeff Taffe, F; Hannu Toivonen, G; Marty Turco, G.)

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Hanging around?: Well, at least they’ve got Steve Nash. The Blue Jackets finished 12th in the Western Conference in both goals scored and goals allowed, so it’s difficult to get too excited about anything they’ve got coming back. R.J. Umberger did score 25 goals and Kristian Huselius, when healthy, is a 20-goal threat as well. Columbus has goalie Steve Mason for two more seasons, but Mason had a 3.03 goals-against average this season and has been unable to recapture his early magic.
Saying goodbye?: The Blue Jackets have only 10 of their regular 20 players under contract for next season. They will be able to shore up their defense by re-signing restricted free agents Sami Lepisto, Marc Methot and Anton Stralman, but what do they do with RFA forward Jakub Voracek, who has been something of an enigma in Columbus? Mathieu Garon is also an unrestricted free agent in goal, and had given the Blue Jackets some solid games behind Mason.
Draft card: The near future could be rough for the Blue Jackets, but they do have a deep and balanced group of prospects. Ryan Johansen, a center, is only 18 but put up 40 goals in the Western Hockey League this season. Nikita Filatov remains intriguing but has yet to make an impact in the NHL. Columbus would be more secure if it had a top-flight prospect in goal. Allen York got better in every season at the NCAA level. Can he be a surprise breakthrough one day?
(Restricted free agents: Mike Blunden, RW; Nick Holden, D; Petr Kalus, RW; Tomas Kana, C; Sami Lepisto, D; Marc Methot, D; Michael Ratchuk, D; Anton Stralman, D; Jakub Voracek, RW; Gustaf Wesslau, G.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Chris Clark, RW; Grant Clitsome, D; Trevor Frischmon, C; Mathieu Garon, G; Ben Guite, C; Jan Hejda, D; David Leneveu, G; Greg Moore, RW; Ethan Moreau, LW; Andrew Murray, C; Craig Rivet, D; Jonathan Sigalet, D; Trevor Smith, LW; Scottie Upshall, RW; Kyle Wilson, C.)

DETROIT RED WINGS
Hanging around?: Does anything ever bother these guys? The Red Wings never seem to develop any holes in their lineup. Their talented top six — Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi — is all set, as is Tomas Holmstrom and others. Brad Stuart, Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Kronwall are set on defense, as is goalie Jimmy Howard. That, alone, would be enough to form the core of a playoff team.
Saying goodbye?: All eyes and ears in Detroit this summer will be on Nicklas Lidstrom, who is mulling whether to return next season, at age 41. Detroit has already lost veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski to retirement, and Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei are unrestricted free agents. If the Red Wings have a potential hole, it’s on defense. Goalies Joey MacDonald and Chris Osgood are also UFAs, which might leave Jimmy Howard without an experienced backup.
Draft card: There isn’t likely to be much immediate help on defense from inside the system. Brendan Smith is a top prospect on defense but just completely only his first pro season after three years at the University of Wisconsin. Many of the Red Wings’ top prospects are centers, so perhaps there will be some movement to the wings, given that the Red Wings have centers Datsyuk, Filppula, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm at the NHL level.
(Restricted free agents: Dick Axelsson, LW; Jordan Owens, LW; Francis Pare, C; Jordan Pearce, G; Logan Pyett, D.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Kris Draper, LW; Patrick Eaves, RW; Jonathan Ericsson, D; Ilari Filppula, F; Sergei Kolosov, D; Nicklas Lidstrom, D; Joey MacDonald, G; Derek Meech, D; Drew Miller, LW; Mike Modano, C; Chris Osgood, G; Ruslan Salei, D; Jamie Tardif, RW.)

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Hanging around?: The strength of this group is in the back end, and with its tenacity up front, and that’s unlikely to be significantly changed this summer. Other than veteran banger Shane O’Brien, the Predators have the ability to bring back their defense intact, as well as breakthrough goalie Pekka Rinne and solid backup Anders Lindback. Up front, midseason acquisition Mike Fisher returns, as does 20-goal scorer Patric Hornqvist and center David Legwand.
Saying goodbye?: Does it matter? This organization shuffles players in and out, and it seems as though they all get on board with coach Barry Trotz’s system and win. The biggest storyline figures to be the Predators’ ability to lock up restricted free agent defenseman Shea Weber. He’s a franchise cornerstone and, arguably, the one player they can’t afford to lose. Up front, Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward and Marcel Goc are due to be UFAs, so Nashville might have some holes to fill.
Draft card: Nashville’s prospect list reflects its NHL-level philosophy. As ranked by the Hockey’s Future website, four of the Predators’ top six prospects are defensemen. No surprise there. Southern California product Jonathan Blum got a nice 23-game taste of the NHL and looked to have good potential — he scored a goal against the Kings — and up front, Nashville’s best hope might be winger Taylor Beck, who finished his junior career with a 42-goal season in the OHL.
(Restricted free agents: Mark Dekanich, G; Dan Gendur, RW; Matt Halischuk, RW; Linus Klasen, LW; Sergei Kostitsyn, RW; Teemu Laakso, D; Chris Mueller, F; Cal O’Reilly, G; Mark Santorelli, LW; Nick Spaling, C; Andreas Thuresson, RW; Shea Weber, D.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Steve Begin, C; Wade Belak, F; Marcel Goc, C; Aaron Johnson, D; Grant Lewis, D; Jamie Lundmark, C; Shane O’Brien, D; Brett Palin, D; Steve Sullivan, C; Joel Ward, RW; Kelsey Wilson, LW.)

ST. LOUIS BLUES
Hanging around?: The Blues were average this season, both in terms of goals scored and goals allowed, so it’s difficult to know what to make of this group. Here’s the good news: the defense is young and has room to improve, and the Blues might have found a keeper in goalie Jaroslav Halak. Up front, Chris Stewart was a monster after his midseason trade to St. Louis, and is heading into a contract year, and the Blues will hope for bounce-back seasons from forwards David Perron and Andy McDonald.
Saying goodbye?: This is a team with ownership questions, so how much will be spent this summer? The back end is in solid shape, but up front, among the top 12, the Blues have three unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents. The latter category is the more notable, as the Blues need to figure out their long-term plans for T.J. Oshie and Matt D’Agostini. Ty Conklin is also a UFA, so the Blues will need to identify a backup for Halak, who played 57 games this season.
Draft card: The Blues are also deep and balanced and appear to be building in an admirable way. There’s excitement about 19-year-old forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who has been playing in the KHL, as well as with last year’s first-round pick, Jaden Schwartz, who had 17 goals in 30 games at Colorado College. In goal, Jake Allen had a strong season in the AHL. Is he ready to step up and play 20 games behind Halak at the NHL level?
(Restricted free agents: Ben Bishop, G; B.J. Crombeen, RW; Matt D’Agostini, RW; Nicholas Drazenovic, C; T.J. Hensick, C; Nikita Nikitin, D; T.J. Oshie, C; Roman Polak, D; Ryan Reaves, RW; Vladimir Sobotka, C.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Dean Arsene, D; Ty Conklin, G; Adam Cracknell, RW; Cam Janssen, F; Graham Mink, RW; Nathan Oystrick, D; Chris Porter, LW; Dave Scatchard, C; Dave Spina, RW; Tyson Stachan, D.)