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Central Division, 2006

A good friend of mine is excited about helping with some graphics for the paper and website. Aside from being a long-time friend, the guy also happens to be good, so I'm excited. Got a decent first-run that is shaping up as a decent template. Got copier guys calling me to buy their stuff. So this looks like it'll happen.

Zero percent chance that I'm ready for Blues/Wings on October 6, but Jeffio is doing a grand finale on that day anyway. Probably more like late October before we roll out.

So, I'm motivated. Working stats tonight, and as a "words guy" this'll be a harder go than the rest. Anyway, feeling motivated enough to throw out a pre-season prediction for the Central Division.

In the past, oh, four years, the Central has always been this:

Detroit
St. Louis
Nashville (by default)
Columbus
Chicago
With Chicago and Columbus always in a battle for last.

This year, I think we're going to see something outrageous like this:

Nashville
Detroit
Chicago
Columbus
St. Louis

With Chicago and Columbus battling for the 3-4 spots. Here's why:

Nashville has the most to gain from the rules crackdown and the new NHL. They have always been a quick team, but in the early '00 years, were forced to play trap and defense-first hockey because their goaltending was suspect and their defense was immobile. Now, they have a decent blueline, an unheralded but solid goalie and some slick forwards. I hope that 19-year-old Alex Radulov makes the team, because the kid can play, especially in a wide-open NHL. Adding Paul Kariya could be a boon for both the player and the team, and Steve Sullivan is underrated everywhere he goes. This guy will make people notice him this year.

Detroit, my most-hated team ever, is finally getting old. Unfortunately, they are still good enough to hang around. Old favorite Brendan Shanahan can still score, but not at the level or pace he has for the last 10 years. He's two years away from being on a team for 'character'. Yzerman is Yzerdone. He has reached the 'character guy' stage. Of course, he's a lock to score at least one back-breaker goal against the Note this year. The Wings will also struggle as they feature Chis Osgood in goal again. If we've learned only one thing in the last few years as Blues fans, it's that Osgood at his best is decent, at his worst, a train wreck. In short, the Wings finish second because Lidstrom can still play, Datsyuk and Zetterberg will make players around them better and their elder citizens are just good enough to still be productive on a good team. Columbus and Chicago could shoot past these guys in 2007.

I'm picking Chicago here only because of the signing of Nik Khabibulin and improving their blueline by adding Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore this summer. Unless they get a full season out of Daze and an increase in production from Ruutu, Bell and Calder, these guys could miss the playoffs. Overpaid netminder and all.

Columbus is a team that I'd confidently pick over Chicago except that they have goaltending questionmarks and an injured ankle on Rick Nash. Nash was poised to break out like a prisoner during a power outage until he twisted his ankle. The guy could still be huge this year, but he'll probably not be as good as he could be this season. (I've played with a twisted ankle before, and it affects every thing you do. And yes, I'm every bit as good as Rick Nash and understand everything he is going through. But still, you get my point.) The Jackets will still be exciting, with Nik Zherdev and possibly angry-but-productive Gilbert Brule on the team. Adding Adam Foote and Bryan Berard made their defensive corps 100% better this summer.

And so we come to St. Louis. I'll be the first to say that I hope I'm wrong. I just don't think I am. For the Blues to make it out of the basement, Patrick Lalime will have to play like Patrick Roy and Doug Weight will have to play like Edmonton's Doug Weight, a guy who has made precious few appearances here in the Gateway City. Our man Tkachuk will also have to prove to the NHL that he is still the most feared power wing in the game. Hopefully, this current suspension is fueling a fire in him and he'll turn that against the other teams in the league that are expecting the Blues to roll over and die. In addition, the Blues need career years/resurgent years out of three of these four guys to do any damage this season:

Scott Young
Dean McAmmond
Eric Boguniecki
A rookie (Stempniak, McClement, Rycroft or Sejna) and yes, Rycroft isn't really a rookie and Sejna would have to be re-called from Peoria

Otherwise, fellow Blues fans, we can start following young Phil Kessel and Michael Frolik, who are expected to be the top two draft picks in the summer of 2006.

Tomorrow, I'm either going to run my mouth about the impending sale of our beloved team or about our newest Captain, Dallas Drake.