Fantasy Hockey Preview: Potential in the Central

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This is part 5 of 6:

Part 1Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks

Part 2Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers

Part 4Boston BruinsBuffalo SabresMontreal CanadiensToronto Maple LeafsOttawa Senators

Part 5St Louis BluesNashville PredatorsDetroit Red WingsColumbus Blue JacketsChicago Blackhawks

Part 6: New Jersey DevilsNew York RangersNew York IslandersPhiladelphia FlyersPittsburgh Penguins

Jonathan Toews Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are 2 of the toughest forwards to play against (Icon SMI)

What makes a strong division?  Is it solid goaltending, balanced scoring or stingy defense?

How about all of the above?  The Central Division sent four teams to the playoffs last season, including four teams that finished in the top-10 of the NHL overall standings.  Clearly, the Central Division has a lot to offer fantasy hockey team owners.

With much surprise, though, the Central may be taking a step back from its usual assertive dominance in the regular season.  With the Red Wings losing shoe-in Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement , top NHL defenseman Ryan Suter boarding a plane from Nashville to Minnesota and Columbus trading away Captain Rick Nash, there are some question marks that appeared this summer for some teams.

For other teams, criticism remains from last season.  Can Corey Crawford settle down and be the #1 guy in net for the Blackhawks?  Will the Blues rebound from their playoff struggles?

This is where these five teams will be looking to their brightest and best to lead them over struggles and problems.

Using The Hockey Writers’ 10-10-5 system, we will take a look at the best players at each position in the Central Division.  Argue with the results if you want, but these are original projections calculated with precise mathematical formulas.  It is up to each of these players, as well as the others left off the list, to prove what they bring to each club.

Top 10 Forwards

1. Pavel Datsyuk (DET): 28-51-79, 27, 4, 20:17, 201 Down

2. Patrick Kane (CHI): 28-51-79, 23, 5, 20:22, 264 Up

3. Jonathan Toews (CHI): 33-44-77, 23, 5, 21:13, 237 Up

4. Henrik Zetterberg (DET): 24-53-77, 23, 5, 20:13, 307 Up

5. Marian Hossa (CHI): 32-44-76, 19, 3, 20:01, 264 Down

6. Patrick Sharp (CHI): 33-41-74, 22, 6, 20:03, 290 Down

7. Andy McDonald (STL): 28-38-66, 23, 5, 18:59, 221 Down

8. Johan Franzen (DET): 31-30-61, 19, 6, 18:31, 251 Up

9. Alex Steen (STL): 27-31-58, 14, 6, 19:09, 243 Down

10. David Backes (STL): 25-32-57, 14, 4, 20:34, 206 Up

*- (The numbers are as follows: Goals, assists, points, PP points, GWG, ATOI, Up/Down)

For those of you who have missed the previous division previews, up/down is an honest statistic chosen by the writer that best exemplifies his/her feelings toward the projections.  Up means that I feel the player could go above and beyond what was calculated and down means these expectations may not be reached.

Andy McDonald Blues
Andy McDonald has not had a healthy season since 2009-10 (Icon SMI)

There is a lot of information to take in here.  Keep in mind, this is a pure representation of a full 82-game season; this does not take into account the looming lockout, player injuries or player suspensions.  When considering this, the players that pop-out are Andy McDonald, Johan Franzen and Alex Steen.  All three of these players have had significant injuries in the recent past and have not been able to put up numbers like the ones shown.  If McDonald, for example, puts up 66 points this season, it would be his highest totals since he scored 78 points with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07.

Something else that may skew these numbers is the fact that the Blues have adopted a very defense-first system since Ken Hitchcock became the head coach last season.  The process in finding these numbers included the players’ past few years and each Blue listed had not played in such a defensive style before 2011-12.

Obviously, the battle for top forward in the Central will be duked out between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, who offer the most firepower in the division.  The top-6 forward unit for each team rivals any other team in the entire NHL.  If Pavel Datsyuk can stay healthy, he could be one of the top-10 scorers again in the NHL at the ripe age of 34.  But Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane look to be the heavy favorites when it comes to a dynamic 1-2 punch this season.

The sleeper team in all of this is the Nashville Predators.  Despite losing Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov this summer, the Predators can still deliver some timely goal-scorers.  Forwards Craig Smith and Colin Wilson have proven themselves to be vital members of the Predators offense and could round out a silent-but-deadly top-6 that includes Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher, David Legwand and Martin Erat.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are as much a wildcard guess as anyone.  After trading away Nash and removing any identity the franchise had, it is time for the rebuild to begin.  The two acquired in the trade, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, could really click well with their new teammates but judging this is as easy as knowing how long a coach will last in New Jersey.

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Top 10 Defensemen

1. Duncan Keith (CHI): 9-45-54, 18, 1, 26:54, 189 Down

2. Shea Weber (NAS): 18-31-49, 21, 3, 26:57, 244 Up

3. James Wisniewski (CBJ): 9-39-48, 22, 2, 24:55, 173 Down

4. Alex Pietrangelo (STL): 12-35-47, 19, 4, 25:42, 180 Up

5. Kevin Shattenkirk (STL): 10-35-45, 18, 2, 22:22, 154 Up

6. Jack Johnson (CBJ): 9-31-40, 20, 2, 24:27, 155 Down

7. Brent Seabrook (CHI): 8-32-40, 11, 3, 24:56, 145 Down

8. Niklas Kronwall (DET): 14-25-39, 14, 3, 24:07, 135 Up

9. Ian White (DET): 8-25-33, 9, 0, 23:50, 175 Up

10. Ryan Ellis (NAS): 12-20-32, 17, 2, 19:20, 173 Down

*- (The numbers are as follows: Goals, assists, points, PP points, GWG, ATOI, Up/Down)

For quite some time, the Central Division has been known as having some of the toughest defenses in the league.  After all, the James Norris Trophy Winner (league’s best defenseman) has been from the Central Division 10 of the last 13 seasons.  You can thank Nicklas Lidstrom for 7 of those.

Duncan Keith is one of the smoothest skating defensemen in the NHL (THW/Pam Rodriguez)

The Central also provides many solid puck-moving defensemen.  There are none better than the top-two on this list:  Duncan Keith and Shea Weber.  Both of these skaters are very active in their team’s overall offensive strategies and really help dictate the play.

Nipping at their heels are the two young defensemen for the Blues.  Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are the personification of their team’s offense.  Both are very quick with their sticks and can get the puck to a streaking forward with the best of them.  As long as their team performs half as well as they did last season, the +/- rating for these two would be a very valuable asset to your fantasy team.

This is the strong suit for the Jackets.  James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson look to be the top-two defensemen.  Both players are gifted passers and can offer some stinginess in front of their team’s net, offering some penalty minutes to any fantasy team.  While Johnson may be the better defenseman, Wisniewski will be the one relied on to earn the team some power-play goals.

Detroit, for the first time in history, may be a step behind the Blue Jackets in one aspect of the game; the clear-cut #1 defenseman may not be figured out just yet.  Niklas Kronwall is a heavy hitter with great defensive instincts, but he fits in his role well as a #2 or #3 guy.  He, along with Ian White and Jonathan Ericsson, will have to really push himself to be among the elite defensemen in the Central.

The shocker that most will see is the young man sitting at #10: Ryan Ellis of the Predators.  After only playing in 32 games as a rookie last season, Ellis will be stepping into training camp with high expectations.  Suter is out of the picture in Nashville and the team will need someone who can carry the puck out of the zone.  Head Coach Barry Trotz will likely be looking in Ellis’ direction to be the quarterback on the second unit of the power-play as well.  After all, Ellis did accumulate 101 points in 58 games with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL in 2010-11.

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Top 5 Goaltenders

1. Brian Elliott (STL): 40, 22-10-6, 6, 2.06, .932 Down

2. Pekka Rinne (NAS): 65, 36-19-8, 6, 2.35, .921 Up

3. Jaroslav Halak (STL): 44, 24-14-6, 6, 2.29, .920 Up

4. Jimmy Howard (DET):  61, 37-17-7, 4, 2.39, .917 Up

5. Corey Crawford (CHI): 57, 32-18-7, 2, 2.69, .912 Down

*- (Our numbers go in order. Games played, wins, losses, OT losses, shutouts, Goals Against Average, save percentage, and up/down)

Pekka Rinne
Pekka Rinne is a 2-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy (Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE)

The Blues goaltending tandem of Elliott and Halak proved to be one of the best stories of 2011-12.  They tied the modern-day record of 15 shutouts for a team and were the backbone of the Blues’ success.  It is unlikely that these two can write a storybook season for a second time in a row, but they will arguably be the best goaltending duo yet again.  Both of these guys are a very smart choice for your roster but be warned: they will not accrue as many games played if you choose to have just one of them on your roster.

For my money, Pekka Rinne is the best goaltender in the Western Conference.  His defense is still strong enough to carry him along if he has an off night and he is fully capable of playing around 60-65 games.  He strives in late-game action and can be counted on for a solid save percentage and GAA.

Columbus’ goaltending situation improved this summer with the acquisition of Sergei Bobrovsky, but his split duties the past two seasons still make one wonder if the Blue Jackets have structurally sound net-minding.  Steve Mason has been in a downward-spiral since his rookie season and will likely see more of a backup role behind Bobrovsky in 2012-13.

That will do it for the preview of the fantasy preview of the Central Divison.  Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for all unique fantasy previews of each division.