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As always, the NHL summer was an eventful one, with the rich becoming richer, and the poor becoming poorer, at least for the most part.  Every team made at least one move on the ice, while several others made moves off the ice.  Over the next week, I will examine each team’s movement (players primarily) to see who really improved, who got worse, and who stayed pretty much where they were.  Today, part 4 of 6, the Central Division:

Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Conference: Western
Division: Central
Points (Rk): 79(9)

In: Scott Nichol, Ville Nieminen, Deron Quint, Tuomo Ruutu 

Out: Mike Eastwood, Chris Simon, Louie Debrusk, Todd Gill, Bob Probert, Casey Hankinson, Matt Henderson, Mike Peluso, Mike Souza, Sami Helenius, Kent Huskins, Andrei Nikolishin

Comments: Much to the chagrin of many Blackhawk fans, the team has done little to improve the team so far this offseason. Fortunately for these fans, the team hasn’t got much worse either. With the team staying the same for the most part, the same concerns as last season will remain. The biggest concern for Chicago is goal scoring. Chicago had just two players surpass the 20 goal mark, those being Steve Sullivan and Eric Daze. After those two, goals become a concern. Team captain Alexei Zhamnov is more a playmaker than a goalscorer, as is Kyle Calder. Tyler Arnason is expected to reach the 20 goal plateau this season, but after that, there’s no one left to fill the void. Expect Igor Radulov and Tuomo Ruutu to play an important role with the team this season. On defence, there is also some concern, as currently, the team’s top 4 are Jon Klemm, Alex Karpotsev, Steve Poapst and Steve McCarthy. To address this, the team signed veteran d-man Deron Quint, who should end up seeing 16-18 minutes per game. In goal, the team will have Jocelyn Thibault back, who’s good for 55-70 games.  He will be backed up by rookie Michael Leighton this season.

Next Steps: Two words: Theoren Fleury. His 6-month suspension ends in early October, and no one knows what will be done with him after that. If the team elects to keep him, it’s another top-6 forward for a team who doesn’t have much depth at the forward position. However, if the Hawks release him, they will need to find a player to replace him. The team needs to decide what they’re going to do with him soon, before this issue takes to the media.

Grade: C

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
Conference: Western
Division: Central
Points (Rk): 69(15)

In: Todd Marchant, Trevor Letowski, Mark Hartigan, Fred Brathwaite, Darryl Sydor, Alexander Gusjkov, Todd Rohloff, Dan Fritsche

Out: Ray Whitney, Blake Bellefeuille, Mathieu Darche, Matt Davidson, Jean-Francois Labbe, Jamie Allison, Radim Bicanek, Jonathan Schill, Darren Van Impe, Daniel Watson, Mike Sillinger, Petr Tenkrat

Comments: The Blue Jackets have been quite busy so far, most notably in signing free agent Todd Marchant to a 5 year contract plus an option. However, in doing so, they were forced to let leading scorer Ray Whitney jump ship and sign with the Detroit Red Wings. However, the team has improved its depth, particularly at centre, adding Marchant, Trevor Letowski and Mark Hartigan, while losing only Mike Sillinger in the process. Columbus has also improved its’ defence corps, adding proven veteran Darryl Sydor in the Sillinger trade. The team also filled a void in goal, signing Fred Brathwaite to replace the departed J-F Labbe. Columbus has a solid group of proven veterans and rising stars in their forward ranks, such as Marchant, Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson joining improving youngsters Rick Nash, David Vyborny and Lasse Pirjeta. Expect Espen Knutsen to have a rebound season after missing most of last year due to injury.  Columbus has also signed 2nd rounder Dan Fritsche, who likely will play on the 4th line while he develops.  On defence, Sydor joins veterans Luke Richardson , Jaroslav Spacek and Scott Lachance, as well as youngsters Rostislav Klesla , J-L Grand-Pierre and Derrick Walser. In goal, the team is set with Brathwaite as well as incumbent starter Marc Denis, who continues to improve each season.

Next Steps: Currently, there isn’t a major need for this team, management and fans continue to wait patiently as this team improves by the season. However, another defenceman would be quite beneficial for the club, as goals against was a tremendous problem last year. Sydor will help, but only to a small extent.

Grade: B

Team: Detroit Red Wings
Conference: Western
Division: Central
Points (Rk): 110(2)

In: Derian Hatcher, Jamie Rivers, Ray Whitney, Dominik Hasek, Kevin Miller, Anders Myrvold

Out: Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Bryan Adams, Patrick Boileau, Derek King, Eddy Campbell, Jesse Wallin, Adam Deleeuw, Tim Verbeek

Comments: After last year’s disastrous 1st round exit to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Anaheim, the Red Wings have undergone some changes this summer, the most notable (and controversial) being the re-acquistion of Dominik Hasek. This move spells the end of the Cujo era in Hockeytown, unless GM Ken Holland believes it’s wise to spend $16 million on goalies alone. The team has solidified its defence corps with the signing of Derian Hatcher, and have added to its depth in bringing in Jamie Rivers. The team also re-signed Jason Woolley, keeping him part of the team for another season. Detroit has taken a hit on offence, losing both Sergei Fedorov and Luc Robitaille to free agency, replacing the two with just Ray Whitney. However, the continued improvement of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jason Williams will compensate for the loss of Fedorov/Robitaille. Add to that the continued contributions from proven veterans Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman, and Detroit’s offence isn’t as weak as many think it is. The Red Wings, bar none, have the best defence corps in the entire league, led by Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom. They also have Hatcher, Mathieu Schneider, Woolley, Chris Chelios, Mathieu Dandenault, as well as youngster Jiri Fischer, who returns from the IR for the 2003-04 campaign. In goal, the Wings are led by Hasek, with Curtis Joseph currently as the backup, although he is expected to be traded in order to allow Manny Legace to remain with the team.

Next Steps: As mentioned above, GM Ken Holland needs to find a taker for current $8 million backup netminder Curtis Joseph. However, he has a no-trade clause, so getting rid of him will not be an easy task. Another looming concern for the team is the lack of youngsters in the organization to replace the many aging veterans the team currently possesses. Besides Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Williams and Jiri Hudler, there are currently no prospects in the organization that are close to being NHL ready.  (Note:  Forward Igor Grigorenko is NHL-ready, however his status since his injury is uncertain.)

Grade: B

Team: Nashville Predators
Conference: Western
Division: Central
Points (Rk): 74(13)

In: Benjamin Simon, Ray Schultz, Jim McKenzie, Curtis Murphy, Mike Farrell, Chris Mason, Wade Brookbank, Jamie Allison, Mathieu Darche, Jordin Tootoo

Out: Brent Gilchrist, Bill Houlder, Bryan Lundbohm, Cale Hulse, Oleg Petrov, Reid Simpson, Erik Anderson, Jason Beckett, Jere Karalahti, Cameron Mann, Denis Pederson, Domenic Pittis, Todd Warriner, Clarke Wilm, Vitali Yachmenev, Peter Smrek, Alexander Ryazantsev, Karlis Skrastins, Andy Delmore

Comments: Predators management maintains that the team is improving yearly, although the results may suggest otherwise. It was another setback last season, as the team failed to make the playoffs in their 5th year of existence, so the team was forced to pay a significant amount of money to their season ticket holders to refund the increase in ticket prices, as part of a preseason promise to make the playoffs. Now, there’s complications with the arena lease, which is also costing the team some money. Player wise, it seems there is a setback as well, as veterans Brent Gilchrist, Bill Houlder, Cale Hulse, Oleg Petrov, Jere Karalahti, Denis Pederson, Vitali Yachmenev, Karlis Skrastins and Andy Delmore are all gone, and the team has signed nobody to replace them. It looks as if the youngsters will get a good look this season, both on offence and defence. The Predators scored the fewest goals in the Western Conference, and losing the above certainly doesn’t help that cause. However, leading scorer David Legwand missed 18 games due to injury last season, 20-goal scorer Andreas Johansson missed 26, and Scott Walker missed 22. If all remain healthy, they should be able to make up for the offence lost by all the departees. Denis Arkhipov, Scott Hartnell and Rem Murray all need to improve on last year’s numbers, and Adam Hall, Martin Erat and Vernon Fiddler need to continue to develop, or it will likely be another year at the bottom in terms of goals scored for the Preds. Expect Jordin Tootoo, Scottie Upshall and Darren Haydar to see lots of time with the big club this season. On defence, 4 of last years regulars are gone, with only Kimmo Timonen and Jason York remaining in the organization. Youngsters Adam Eaton, Tomas Kloucek, Dan Hamhuis and Marek Zidilicky are expected to round out a certainly inexperienced top-6, although management hasn’t ruled out the possibility of bringing in a veteran defenceman, possibly Houlder, who currently was negotiating with the team, although talks have gone downhill recently. In goal, the team has Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, who performed marvelously after the team dealt away Mike Dunham. Who will be the backup is anyone’s guess. The team re-signed Wade Flaherty at season’s end, but they also have youngsters Jan Lasak and Brian Finley in the organization; both played for Nashville during the season as well. Currently, the frontrunner is Lasak, although that could change come playoff time.

Next Steps: There are a couple of needs for the Preds, the first and most pressing concern being a need of a veteran defenceman (or 2 or 3). It would be a disaster if the team goes into the season with 3 rookies and a sophomore patrolling the blueline. The other is to get some more offence, although rookies Upshall, Haydar, and to a lesser extent, Tootoo could alleviate some of the problems.

Grade: D

Team: St. Louis Blues
Conference: Western
Division: Central
Points (Rk): 99(5)

In: Mike Danton, Levente Szuper, Jeff Heerema

Out: Rich Pilon, Shjon Podein, Martin Rucinsky, Steve Dubinsky, Daniel Corso, Robert Davis, Jason Dawe, Cory Stillman, Tyson Nash, Valeri Bure, Fred Brathwaite

Comments: The Blues have cleaned house after a very strange year in which 7 goalies were used, 2 flu bugs were encountered and a variety of weird injuries were suffered. 5 regular forwards are out, with only Mike Danton (who hasn’t played since around December) to replace them. For the first time in several years, the amount of depth on this team is being questioned. The team still has Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra and Doug Weight to lead the way, but there is a significant drop-off after that. Also returning are sophomores Petr Cajanek and Eric Boguniecki, who will be expected to repeat last year’s numbers. Veterans Dallas Drake and Scott Mellanby are also back and give this team 2 decent scoring lines. A couple of rookies will have a chance to crack the lineup, Jeff Heerema and the last player to score a regular season goal on Patrick Roy, Peter Sejna. The team’s defence will improve immensely simply with the return of Chris Pronger. The ageless Al MacInnis is also back, as is Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman. Alex Khavanov, Bryce Salvador and Jeff Finley round out the top-6. There will be a battle for the 7th and final spot, between rookie Matt Walker and the player with the longest current goalless streak, Christian Laflamme. Both have to clear waivers this season, so expect them to give Walker a shot for now. In goal, there are 2 solid goalies in Chris Osgood and Brent Johnson. Both are capable of being the number 1, however both are also quite inconsistent. Both goalies have also stated that they won’t settle for being the backup, so St. Louis’ training camp will be very interesting.

Next Steps: There are no current pressing needs for the Blues, although a problem is likely about to surface. Brent Johnson, the current backup, it expected by some to request a trade sometime in the near future, which may cause some dissension in the dressing room. If St. Louis decides to deal one of the goalies, they should look to acquire a solid two-way forward, especially if Heerema and Sejna aren’t ready and/or Cajanek and Boguniecki have setbacks.

Grade: C-