The 2013 NHL regular season should mostly consist of games within a club’s division. Division play has always been extremely important, but this year it may be even more significant because of the shortened schedule. Like I stated in a previous piece, teams will likely play their respective division rivals five times. This means that almost half of the Blues’ schedule will be against Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and Columbus. Last campaign, St. Louis played these four teams a total of 24 times (out of 82 games), which is a little more than a fourth of the schedule. Divisional games are going to be of the utmost importance in 2013. Here’s my preview (in order from my predicted first to my predicted last place finisher) for one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL, the Central Division.
The Blues are coming off their best season in franchise history; they obtained a record of 49-22-11 in 2012. The club came one goal short of the modern day record for goals allowed in a season (they gave up 165 goals, which accounted for a team GAA of 1.89). With a condensed schedule, St. Louis should be in better shape than most teams, because of their young roster and the fact that they have two starting caliber goaltenders ready to go.
The big question for the Blues is whether or not they can repeat last season’s success. I think they will. The club seems excited to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, and if they simply play as good as they did in 2012, 2013 will be a successful campaign. Look for St. Louis to be a top seed in the Western Conference. Also look for David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and David Perron to have big years. Can they go deeper into the postseason though?
Prediction: 29-15-4 (62 points) It’s the Blues’ turn to dominate the Western Conference.
Chicago has the best offense in the Central Division; with players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp they should possess the top offense, which scored 2.94 goals per game in 2012. Scoring has never been a problem for the Blackhawks, but the club has had its fair share of struggles preventing goals. The club allowed 2.82 goals per contest last season, which was ranked 22nd in the league.
Ultimately Chicago’s future success boils down to goaltender Corey Crawford. The 28-year-old starter, won 30 games last year, but had a mediocre 2.72 GAA and .903 SV%. The season before last, Crawford had better numbers (2.30 GAA, .917 SV%). If number 50 is subpar this season, a good amount of pressure will be on backup Ray Emery. Emery had similar numbers to Crawford last season, earning a 2.81 GAA and a .900 SV% in 34 games. Defensively, the Hawks aren’t very deep after Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Whatever happens, we are guaranteed a lot of goals.
Prediction: 26-15-7 (59 points) The Blackhawks are still good, but not as good as their 2010 team that won the Cup.
The Predators are similar to the St. Louis Blues in that they score goals by committee. The Predators had ten players get into the double digits for goals scored last season. Perhaps more impressive though, seven Nashville players scored 40 points in the 2013 campaign. Led by all-star goaltender Pekka Rinne, Nashville had the second best record (48-26-8) in the Central Division last year.
The offseason saw the team lose defensemen Ryan Suter to free agency. With that loss, Nashville currently sees itself with five NHL ready d-men. That may be the only foreseeable problem with this club. Head coach Barry Trotz is entering his 14th year coaching the Predators. He has always been able to get the absolute most out of his players. Expect the Predators to compete as they always do.
Prediction: 25-17-6 (56 points) Nashville should stay with Chicago for most of the season, but they don’t have an explosive enough offense to keep pace with the Hawks.
For once, the Red Wings are not the top dogs of the Central Division. Still, it’s really hard to rule Detroit out, because it’s Detroit. Last season the club earned 102 points, which was good for fifth place in the Western Conference. The main problem may be the loss of long time blueliner Nicklas Lidstrom. Without Lidstrom, Detroit lacks defensive depth. They did pick up former Blue Carlo Colaiacovo over the summer, but we all know how prone to injuries he is.
Jimmy Howard has turned into an elite starting goalie. Last season he won 35 games and earned a 2.13 GAA and a .920 SV%. Pavel Datsyuk is considered by some, to be the best overall player in the NHL. Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg will also contribute offensively for a team that scored 2.92 GPG last season. Still, Howard is still somewhat unproven, as he only started 57 games last year. Datsyuk, Franzen, and Zetterberg are also entering the tail-end of their careers.
Prediction: 24-20-4 (52 points) Detroit will still be over .500, but their rule of the Central Division is coming to an end.
The Blue Jackets are the bottom feeders of the Central Division, and after losing Rick Nash during the off-season, things aren’t going to get better any time soon. Columbus was a league-worst 29-46-7 last year.
The most potential on the club’s roster may be at the defensive position. James Wisniewski earned 27 points last season with minimal playing time (48 games played), Nikita Nikitin led defensemen in points with 32 (7G, 25A) in 54 games, and the team also traded for former first round pick Jack Johnson before last season’s trade deadline. After winning the rookie of the year award in 2009, Steve Mason‘s numbers have consistently gone down. Last year he saw backup Curtis Sanford play in 36 contests (Mason played in 46). RJ Umberger is the only returning 20 goal scorer from last season.
Prediction: 18-24-6 (42 points) Columbus won’t make the playoffs, but their record won’t be as bad as it was last season. Let’s not forget that John Davidson is now with the Blue Jackets. This won’t make an immediate impact, but in a few seasons this team should start winning.