Burning Central Division questions

JEFF FRANK, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:19 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- With training camps opening Sept. 12, there is no better time than the present to begin asking the single-most important question for each of the 30 NHL teams.

The first of six installments begins in the Western Conference, with the Central Division. Let's jump right into the fray with quite possibly the number one question of the entire league: Can Marty Turco effectively replace Antti Niemi and lead the Blackhawks back to the Stanley Cup Finals?

Turco comes to Chicago on the cheap after spending nine seasons in Dallas. The Ontario native has seen his skills decline in recent years to the point where he is not even considered one of the elite goaltenders in the league. In fact, one could argue the change in style of play since the lockout has highlighted his gargantuan failures.

Prior to 2005, Turco's career goals-against average stood at 1.91. Since then, it is more than one half-goal higher at 2.53. In addition, his overall save percentage has dropped dramatically since the lockout, from .922 down to .905.

It is true the defence in front of him this season will be a thousand times better than the one that skated in Dallas, but that fact was lost on Cristobal Huet, who came into Chicago with a career .918 save percentage and couldn't hold down the number-one spot in either of his two seasons as a Hawk.

It is also interesting to note that Kari Lehtonen recorded a 2.81 GAA and a .911 save percentage for Dallas after playing in only four minor league games the entire year. Meanwhile, Turco's 2.72 and .913 numbers were extremely similar even though he was healthy for most of the season, save for missing three games with the flu.

The Blackhawks, forced to cut ties with Niemi due to salary cap restrictions, could find themselves in a similar situation as last year if Turco struggles, so do not be shocked if backup Corey Crawford winds up leading the reigning champions back into the playoffs.

CAN JIMMY HOWARD DUPLICATE HIS 2009-10 CAMPAIGN?

Detroit is poised to bring the Stanley Cup back to Hockeytown after a two-year drought. All the pieces are in place offensively as well as defensively. However, one area must remain strong, and that's between the pipes.

Jimmy Howard was spectacular during the regular season, allowing four goals or more just 11 times in 63 games. Unfortunately, the 26-year-old could not find his groove in the playoffs, giving up four or more six times in only 12 starts.

With Chris Osgood as his backup, Howard will once again get the bulk of the starts to prove his first full season (37 wins, 2.26 GAA, .924 save percentage) was not a fluke. His development will decide Detroit's fate once the postseason begins.

WILL NASHVILLE IMPROVE ENOUGH DEFENSIVELY?

Dan Hamhuis was a major contributor to the Predators defence for six solid seasons. The defenceman will now ply his trade with the Vancouver Canucks after signing a six-year deal this past July 1.

Nashville relied heavily on its top four defencemen more so than any other team in the league, as all four ranked in the top 50 players in terms of even- strength minutes. The loss of Hamhuis could have a ripple effect on the rest of the unit, particularly since only Ryan Parent was brought in as a replacement.

Furthermore, restricted free agent Cody Franson remains unsigned. If the second-year defenceman and the team fail to reach an agreement on a new deal, it could be a long season for the Predators.

CAN THE BLUES REJUVENATE THEIR OFFENCE?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Blues' season will not revolve around newcomer Jaroslav Halak. The goaltender that lifted the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals should have little problems adapting to the new conference considering he holds a 12-4 lifetime record against the West.

The main question concerning St. Louis comes from an offence that struggled to find the back of the net. Only four Western Conference teams scored fewer goals than the Blues and all four failed to make the postseason.

Not only did the forwards combine for just 192 goals, but nine of the top 12 produced a lower goals-per-game mark than the year before. Moreover, Brad Boyes and David Backes could not even reach half of their 67 goal total from 2008-09, picking up only 31 goals a season ago.

One problem is the lack of a true puck-carrying defenceman outside of Erik Johnson. If Alex Pietrangelo is ready for full-time duty with the big club, his passing skills will help open up the ice for the young forwards in their quest for more offence.

WILL COLUMBUS IMPROVE ON THE ROAD?

Only one team won fewer road games than the Blue Jackets last season and that was the Edmonton Oilers, who wound up with the worst record in the entire league. Columbus finished the year 12-23-6 away from home, with an abysmal 6-19-5 mark over its final 30 games. The Jackets scored four goals or more just four times over that span after reaching the total six times in their first 11.

Two seasons ago, Columbus reached the playoffs for the first time in team history partly due to its 16-18-7 road mark - the club's finest winning percentage away from home. If the Blue Jackets cannot improve their play on the road, expect another season without a trip to the playoffs.


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