Western Conference

Central Division

(In predicted order of finish)

October 09, 2002

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 51-17-10-4, won Stanley Cup.

Coach: Dave Lewis, first season

Pluses: Still loaded with oldies but goodies such as Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille up front, while the absence of Steve Yzerman (offseason knee surgery) will allow Sergei Fedorov more responsibility. Youngsters Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg prove the Wings are more than just an aging champion. Goalie Curtis Joseph gets his turn to win that elusive Cup.

Minuses: Yzerman isn't expected to return until January. After the brilliant Nicklas Lidstrom, the defense isn't much of a dominant force. Lewis, a former assistant, has to make the switch from player's pal to taskmaster.

St. Louis Blues

Last season: 43-27-8-4, lost to Detroit in conference semis.

Coach: Joel Quenneville, seventh season

Pluses: Lots of snarl with skill, including power forwards Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra and Doug Weight, and supported by Scott Mellanby, Cory Stillman and Dallas Drake. A rebound season is expected out of Weight, who should fit in better after an adjustment year since his trade from Edmonton. Talented youth on the blue line should help buffer the loss of Chris Pronger (knee surgery).

Minuses: Pronger's absence will have a major impact, because it will take more than one defenseman to make up for his rugged 30-plus minutes per night.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 41-27-13-1, lost to St. Louis in first round.

Coach: Brian Sutter, second season

Pluses: Lots of speed up front used by a pesky system. Finally rid of the Tony Amonte contract distraction. Waterbugs Alexei Zhamnov and Steve Sullivan might work well with fellow waterbug Theo Fleury.

Minuses: Amonte, the team's former captain, was replaced by the troublesome Fleury, who may prove to be a risky acquisition for a borderline team that can ill afford his unpredictable tantrums. Goaltending is an alarming situation after Jocelyn Thibault's meltdown in the playoffs.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 28-41-13-0

Coach: Barry Trotz, fifth season

Pluses: Youth continues to develop in centers Denis Arkhipov and David Legwand and wing Scott Hartnell. Defense has skill in Kimmo Timonen and Andy Delmore. Goaltenders Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun are respectable.

Minuses: Unnecessary pressure is on as ownership guaranteed a playoff berth this season with the promise to refund season-ticket holders if the team fails. Not enough depth at forward or experience on the blue line.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 22-47-8-5

Coach: Dave King, third season

Pluses: Vastly improved defense by adding veterans Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance to support impressive youngster Rostislav Klesla. Added to offense with proven point-producer Andrew Cassels.

Minuses: With concerns of a lack of intensity, word out of Columbus is that a slow start could trigger the end of King's coaching tenure. Goaltending is a question mark. Former Patrick Roy understudy Marc Denis hasn't yet emerged as a bona fide No. 1.

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