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Central Division, 2007.

By gallagher

It's time for me to put the proverbial dick on the proverbial chopping block and make some non-proverbial predictions about the new hockey year. First, I want to put my credentials out there for all to see. For one, I have virtually no credentials. I'm just a fan, like you. I just love my team too much and hate everyone else's a bit too much more. I have no inside information. I have no scouts. I have a season ticket and the NHL Center Ice package. So when I'm wrong, I'll hide behind that. When I'm right, I'm going to flaunt that. So, you've been warned.

First off, I want to pat myself on the back for being one of the few to call the Blues' last place finish last season. Whazzah? You say. That's right, I say. I pat myself on the back for being right, even when I hoped I'd be wrong. And I pat myself on the back because revisionist historians be damned, I was the only person I read or saw that knew that was coming. That's right, feel free to double check me, but no one, and I mean NO ONE thought the Blues would be that bad.

Which leads me to my next lead-in point, which is that pre-season prognosticators are completely got-damn lazy. All they can do is look at last season (i.e. the Red Wings winning the Presidents Trophy again last year), factor in new players and their histories (i.e. the Wings signing washed up and brittle Dominik Hasek, who has played more than 40 games only twice since 1999), ignore the loss of key components (i.e. Steve Yzerman, the team's glue, who also scored 34 points in just 61 games last season and/or Brendan Shanahan, who had 81 points and led the team with 40 goals last season) and then digitally regurgitate last season's standings, give or take. Take, for example, oh, hell any old list, like TSN.ca's pre-season power rankings which show, unbelieveably, the Red Wings in the top spot.

Christ. That is freaking lazy.

On top of that, look who is rated dead-last.

Even lazier. The Blues will not win the Cup this year. But they aren't finishing dead-last, either. Shame on you lazy-asses. Shame.

So, I'm putting all of that crap behind me and I'm getting out the aforementioned proverbial chopping block. Get ready, because you're not going to believe what the crystal ball is showing me.

2007 Central Division

1st Place - Nashville Predators.
I picked these guys to finish in the top spot last year and missed, so I'm saying that I was just off a tiddle. This team has a full compliment of scorers up front, especially with Steve Sullivan and a rejuvenated Paul Kariya, power forward Scott Hartnell and solid UFA add JP Dumont, the Preds are finally dangerous consistantly. If centers Jason Arnott and David Legwand can contribute to levels expected, this team gets even worse. In fact, they even have a great scorer in Alexander Radulov, who was a casualty of the Preds' depth chart riches, waiting in the wings in the AHL. How good is AHL Radulov? He'd be playing on the Blues' top line with Tkachuk.

The Preds' defense is nasty and they can move the puck. They're also among the youngest in the league, with Dan Hamhuis, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter all contributing and all under 23 years old. Add in Euro offensive studs and tongue twisters Kimmo Timmonen and Marek Zidlicky and they get even better.

Tomas Vokoun is the wall in net, and barring some sort of season-ending blood clot disease in his pelvic region that normally only affects females taking him down (again), he should be able to carry this team for long stretches, if necessary.

These guys are a Central Division lock. What they do after that is the difference between them being remembered like last year's Buffalo (good, young, mobile) and last year's Carolina (good, young, mobile, made key adds, Champions).

2nd Place - Columbus Blue Jackets
Shocked to see them here? You should be. These guys have never made the playoffs and have always been terrible. Even last season, when they started to look good, injuries and bad luck derailed them. For the first time, they have depth, solid veterans in the right places and guys ready to break out.

A healthy Rick Nash could go on a rampage in the new NHL, while Sergei Fedorov has plenty of experience and reasons to continue to lay waste to the other teams in the division. Nik Zherdev has finally signed and should continue to improve on his every-year increase of NHL point totals. Add in potential rookie of the year, Gilbert Brule, UFA signee Anson carter, veteran scorer Fred Modin and the BJs finally have 2+ lines of dangerous players. Push Manny Malhotra and Dan Fritsche to the lower lines instead of the top, subtract my least favorite player Jan "The Sham" Hrdina, Jody Shelley and the long list of AHL-talent players that have occupied the lower lines of the BJs roster and this offense is finally built like an NHL list of forwards.

Defensively, the Jackets look to Adam Foote to set the tone and teach the youngsters, while Bryan Berard and his one good eye add veteran leadership to the offensive-minded defenders. The BJ's blueline is no longer a porous mess anchored by Rusty Klesla, but is now a formidable group that includes a good player named Rusty Klesla. This group is finally for real.

Casting off a goalie that the Colorado Avalanche cast off five years ago, the Jackets traded away Marc "not like penis" Denis this summer, opening the bench gate for former 4th overall pick Pascal Leclaire to be the franchise goalie they wanted when they picked him in 2001. By all reports, he has played up to the task thusfar, and based on the experiences of Cam Ward and Ryan Miller last year, I have no reason to believe that Leclaire can't lead this team to the playoffs as a newly-minted No. 1.

Of course, if the BJs fail to finish 2nd in the division, I'll be blaming it on the goalie, as will most of the fans in Ohio. I hope the kid likes pressure.

3rd Place - St. Louis Blues.
Yeah, that's right.

I did a big piece here about this team's improvement already, so I won't rehash it, but let me synopsize it for you:

Bill Guerin has a lot to prove and is motivated to do it.
Eric Brewer has a lot to prove and is out from under the shadow of "traded for Pronger" this year.
Keith Tkachuk has a lot to prove after last year and is motivated to do it.
Manny Legace has a lot to prove after his ouster from Detroit and is motivated to do so.
Barret Jackman has a lot to prove after last year and seems motivated to do it.
Mike Kitchen has a lot to prove and he'd better be motivated to do it.
Peter Cajanek and Martin Ruchinsky and Radek Dvorak and... should I stop now? Ok, I will.

Bottom line: I always like a team or organization or company that is like the Land of Misfit Toys from that Christmas special. When I was in the Marines, I joined an LAR unit after coming from another unit that I was very unhappy to be with. When I joined the new crew, my new boss told me that I had just signed up for a tour on the Land of Misfit Toys. We all were cast-offs from elsewhere and we all had something to prove. We all put that chip on our shoulders and you know what? We kicked ass.

And you know what else? I think this present group of hockey players who inhabit the NHL's Land of Misfit Toys are going to kick some ass, too.

Never overlook a man's pride, and these guys are professional athletes with a lot of pride - broken pride after last year - and reasons to prove to their peers and fans that they are among the world's best. I won't overlook them, and I won't count them out this year, either.

4th Place - Detroit Red Wings.
When was the last time the Wings finished fourth or worse in their division? 1990, when they finished 5th in the Norris and out of the playoffs. So, this must be a crazy prediction, right? Probably. But here's what I'm thinking:

Yzerman: Him being gone is a bigger factor than anyone can imagine. Plus, that guy, being a Wing, really bugs me. So, of course his retirement means that the Wings will tailspin. It makes his legacy even greater, thus bugging me even more. I'll be honest - I hate that guy and I'm tired of hearing what a great captain he was. If his mere absence makes this team miss the playoffs, then he is the greatest captain of them all. therefore burning my ass even more.

Ironically, him finally being gone makes this team finally suck, which somehow makes him even better, which somehow makes me wrong about him and therefore hate him even more. Do you see why I can't sleep at night?

Shanahan: 40 goals last year and 81 points in 82 games. That prick is getting better the closer he gets to retiring. It's not like the Wings just lost out on Brett Hull in his last year - Shanahan is still dangerous and hard as nails. The Wings don't have anyone who can replace him in any capacity: leadership, scoring, grittiness.

Datsyuk and Zetterberg: Softer than a pair of Euros who lost their gritty veteran scoring winger to a New York Ranger offer sheet. Oh wait... did I just compare them to themselves? Despite that, my point is that these two no longer have anyone to pass to other than each other. Playing on separate lines they will remain crazy good and silly-slick, but I expect their productivity to drop off this year as the quality of their playmayes has dropped off.

Jason Williams: I hope you enjoyed last year, because that was your career year.

Nicklas Lidstrom: Welcome to the captaincy. Also, welcome to a new era of Red Wings futility. I mean hockey.

The dream is over. When the Wings depth chart includes names like Lebda and Kopecky, the page has turned.

Hockeytown is dead.

5th Place - Chicago Blackhawks.
I'm not just doing this because Blues fans hate the Blackhawks. I'm doing this because I just suffered through the Hawks season this summer; also known as the St. Louis Cardinals' season. The Blackhawks have added Nik Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin, Martin Havlat and old friend Michal Handzus through free agency (Khabi and Aucoin) and trade (Havlat and Handzus) over the last two years. While lazy-ass pundits think that's an improvement, they fail to realize that it's just not enough.

Subtract Eric Daze and 80% of Tuomo Ruutu to injury this year. Now you're left with the 2006 Cardinals:

Nik Khabibilin stars as: Chris Carpenter. He's effective and he's simple. He works hard every time out, but when the supporting cast can't get it done, he can't always do it himself. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they can play him almost every game. In the end, he's but one of two shining jewels in the dilapidated crown of Chicago hockey.

Martin Havlat stars as: Albert Pujols. The guy who makes the big play and delivers the highlights. Just like Pujols, Havlat can make plays just when your team needs him to do it, but he has so few people around him that can help offensively, he starts to feel like it's up to him to save the day again. That works a lot more in baseball than it does in hockey, though.

Adrian Aucoin stars as: Scott Rolen. The star player who then sufers the big injury. Even if Aucoin comes back as well as Rolen did, he'll never be a truly dominant force on the blueline. A good, solid guy on the corner of the PP, Aucoin is a great player, but not as a difference maker at this point.

Michal Handzus stars as: Jim Edmonds. The consummate two-way player, Handzus' defense isn't as tenacious as it was just a couple years ago, nor is his offense as gearsome as it once was back in the day of the cycling slovaks. Unlike the Cards, the Hawks came in a day late on Handzus' best days. Edmonds may be washed up, but at least the Redbird fans got to see some of his best plays, too. Handzus is no more a 1st line player than Lubos Bartecko is an NHL player anymore.

Everyone else stars as: everyone else. The Blackhawks, in typically Bill Wirtzian fashion, are trying to win on the cheap. To ask Patrick Sharp to become a 30-goal scorer is like asking David Eckstein to stay healthy and productive over 162 games. Asking Duncan Keith to become a responsible and effective #2 defenseman is like asking Juan Encarnacion to be a solid fielding right fielder who hits consistently for power. It could happen, but it just isn't going to happen.

In the end, this team is all about Havlat and Khabibulin, and the two cannot carry them any farther than a #3 draft pick come next June.

The Rest Of The Mess.
I don't proclaim to know everything about every team at this point (gimme a couple weeks, though, and I'll at least proclaim it), but I do know a few teams that will be good and a few that won't.

New York Rangers. Shanahan and Jagr make it good. Youth and grit make it gooder.
New York Islanders. Land of the crazy contracts and crazy ownership makes it bad. A goalie as GM? Doesn't everyone know they all have a screw loose?
Pittsburgh Penguins. Exciting? Yes. Bad? Also yes.
Carolina Hurricanes. Only one roster player who didn't win a Cup last year. Plus, their two best players (Cam Ward and Eric Staal) are their youngest. That's good.
Tampa Bay Lightning. Was that Stanley Cup just two seasons ago? Oh yeah, that was also three years ago. They're not good enough any more.
Washington Caps. Ovechkin is worth watching their games. Not much else is. Ba-Bad.
Colorado Avalanche. Years of sucky Quebec Nordiques teams stockpiling good players has finally run it's course. These guys are on the downturn. Poor Quenneville gets to helm two sinking ships in a row. Hopefully they do something stupid like firing him....
San Jose Sharks. Anything better than having four dangerous lines? Well, some veteran leadership could help. Maybe they can get Owen Nolan back if the Coyotes struggle.
Phoenix Coyotes. Much better this year. But better doesn't necessarily mean good yet.
Anaheim Ducks. The name sort of change is better. The team is scary good on paper. I just have the weird feeling that the paper Ducks play better than the on-ice Ducks.

So there you have it. Controversial enough for you?