This is the third year in which I’ve offered predictions as to how the Western Conference will sort out. But unlike how I assessed the predicted outcomes in prior seasons by determining who would be in (the playoffs), who would be out of playoff consideration and who would be on the fringe, I’ve modified my predictions by where I believe each team will place, overall.
While this changed method is subject to more error, when it comes to the NHL and its playoffs, your seeding/position doesn’t matter.
With that, here are my predictions (in ascending order, from first to 15th):
1) Vancouver Canucks – While the ‘Nucks collapse in the Stanley Cup finals was a surprise to many, I don’t ascribe to the “Stanley Cup hangover” theory. This team is far too talented to find themselves out of the playoff picture. It also doesn’t hurt that they are in the Northwest Division, arguably the weakest division, on balance, in the NHL. They also possess all of the ingredients of a NHL power: Stellar scoring – both frontline and secondary – with the likes of the Sedins, Ryan Kessler and Alex Burrows.
The Canucks did lose a major offensive force from their blueline in the Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) departure of Christian Ehrhoff. The burning question is whether Roberto Luongo’s disastrous SC finals performance has affected him, going forward.
2) San Jose Sharks – If there was a team who I struggled with placing ahead of the Canucks, it was the Sharks. This team not only continues to exorcise the ghosts of playoffs past, but they’ve made personnel moves which place them in position to perhaps snatch Stanley Cup glory.
The Sharks acquired defenseman Brett Burns and winger Martin Havlat from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, in separate trades. And while losing a premier scorer in Heatley, acquiring a blueline scoring threat in Burns and adding a gritty scorer in Havlat should improve their fortunes, particularly come playoff time.
The only concerns lie with the goaltending, where Antti Neimi was effective, albeit unspectacular and backup Antero Niittymaki is out until December (hip surgery). However, if there was a team to watch for, come playoff time, the Sharks are that team.
3) Los Angeles Kings – While it may not seem logical to place teams from the same division so highly and in such close proximity, the talent levels of these respective California teams warrants it. The Kings are no longer a surprise, rising power in the NHL. Rather, they possess a potent mix of balanced frontline talent in Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Penner and the newly acquired former Flyers Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, a stellar young blueline pair in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson as well as a supporting pairing of young blueline talent in Alec Martinez and Thomas Hickey.
But even when this potent group isn’t ‘lighting the lamp’ with the best of the NHL, they also possess a goaltending tandem in Jonathan Quick and his emerging backup Jonathan Bernier that can shut down opponents. The prevailing question is whether the Kings can avoid the injury bug that struck them right before the playoffs began last season.
4) Chicago Blackhawks – Had it not been for the Dallas Stars losing on the final game of the regular season, the Hawks would have experienced one of the most ignominious embarrassments in the history of the NHL – from defending Stanley Cup champions to missing the Stanley Cup playoffs, altogether. It was primarily due to a failed purge of key role players - Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager – secondary scoring – Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd – and the game of “arbitration chicken” – losing goaltender Antti Neimi to the Sharks.
However, the Hawks have made off-season moves that should help restore the team’s identity by acquiring Andrew Brunette, Steve Montador, Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo. Their top lines – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa - and top pairings – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook - rival some of the best in the NHL. And another year as the Hawks’ starting netminder should help steady any concerns in net as the Marty Turco experiment was an abject failure. Expect this team to rebound with a vengeance.
5) Detroit Red Wings – Any team that possesses the ageless wonder, the greatest defenseman of his generation in Niklas Lidstrom will be in the playoff chase and will always be considered in the conversation for another Stanley Cup title. However, the Wings are the oldest team in the NHL and have been victim of two consecutive second round Stanley Cup playoff eliminations.
While Pavel Datsyuk is still one of the league’s elite players in the league and Henrik Zetterberg continues his solid play, Detroit’s inability to draft and develop the kind of dominant player it used to have a patent on – Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Sergei Federov – signals a trend that their stranglehold as a dynasty may be fading. If players such as Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith can develop near the level of these great Red Wings greats and if goaltender Jimmy Howard can rebound from his sophomore struggles of last season, the Red Wings can mitigate this apparent downward trend of the prior two seasons and silence the naysayers.
6) Anaheim Ducks – The signal for the Ducks downward spiral appeared to begin in losing both elite defensemen Chris Pronger (trade) and Scott Niedermayer (retirement); however, the Ducks defensive corps development – namely, Luca Spisa and Cam Fowler - was a pleasant surprise and their elite top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan rivaled any top line in the NHL. Perry emerged as one of the league’s premier players in capturing the Hart and Rocket Richard trophies and the hopeful return of Getzlaf from injury will help lessen the increased attention Perry will be receiving this season. Teemu Selanne defied aging by doubling his age (40) in point total output (80 points).
The key to the Ducks fortunes will be whether Jonas Hiller returns from his issues with vertigo as Hiller was among the top 5 goaltenders in the NHL and a goaltender capable of stealing games or Stanley Cup playoff series.
7) Nashville Predators – As with every season, skeptics of the Preds will say that their forwards don’t score very much and they continually lose players to Free Agency; however, the Preds perennially possess elite goaltending – Pekka Rinne – great blueline talent – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and emerging blueline stars in Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis – and arguably the premier coach in the NHL in Barry Trotz.
Their forward scoring prospects have improved with the trade deadline acquisition of Mike Fisher, the Free Agent acquisition of Niclas Bergfors and the development of young forwards such as Colin Wilson, Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Kostitsyn and you have a team with enough offensive talent to compete for a playoff spot. Their record of making the playoffs in six of their past seven seasons should erase those who have them pegged for an early golf season.
8) St. Louis Blues – The pundits, including myself – although I don’t consider myself a pundit – had the Blues emerging as one of the NHL teams to watch, last season. However, a slew of injuries to key young players – David Perron, TJ Oshie and Andy McDonald – and Jaroslav Halak’s disappointing inaugural season between the Blues pipes led to an equally disappointing 38-33-10 campaign.
Although the Blues didn’t make much of a splash in the off-season Free Agent frenzy, they have plenty of reasons for optimism in their emerging young forward line talent in David Backes, Patrick Berglund and Chris Stewart - acquired in a trade deadline deal – and their talented first pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
If the Blues can avoid the injury bug that plagued them last season and if Halak can display some of the form he showed in Montreal, particularly in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blues should be a playoff-qualifying team.
9) Columbus Blue Jackets – Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Scott Howson answered the cries of the Blue Jackets faithful by making two impact moves in acquiring sniper Jeff Carter via trade with the Philadelphia Flyers and by obtaining one of the most desired Free Agent targets in defenseman James Wisniewski. The addition of Carter finally provides franchise player Rick Nash with a line mate that should ease their opponents clamping down on the elite power forward. The addition of Wisniewski should resurrect one of the NHL’s most moribund Power Plays, along with the free agent acquisition of Vaclav Prospal – due to an injury to forward Kristian Huselius – and bringing in former Minnesota Wild Head Coach Todd Richards, whose teams were among the top-ranked in power play efficiency.
However, the success or failure of the Blue Jackets rests entirely with goaltender Steve Mason, whose last two seasons of sub-par play seemed a distant memory from his Calder Trophy rookie season of 2008-2009. The closer Mason approximates his rookie season form, the greater the chances the Blue Jackets will have to return to the playoffs from their only appearance in 2008-2009.
10) Calgary Flames – The Flames furious finish to what otherwise was a dismal season caused some optimism; however, as the Flames did very little in the off-season to improve what was an aging team, the prospects for post-season action dwindle in the ever-brutal Western Conference.
They possess one of the elite forwards in the NHL in Jarome Iginla, the NHL’s greatest workhorse in goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff and an emerging young talent in Mikael Backlund. But unless Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester can return to their previous Florida Panthers form, the Flames will do nothing more than hang on the periphery of playoff consideration.
11) Minnesota Wild – The Wild decided to abandon their long-term plan of drafting and developing up-tempo forwards by adopting "the future is now" model – specifically, by acquiring in two separate trades wingers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi of the San Jose Sharks.
However, in doing so, they gave up gritty, dependable forward Martin Havlat in exchange for Heatley and one of their leading scorers in defenseman Brett Burns, albeit for a slew of prospects and Setoguchi. Their fortunes and playoff hopes will depend upon whether Heatley adapts to the more modest Wild tempo and is motivated to play as well as whether Niklas Backstrom can continue to keep the Wild in most games, as goal-scoring will continue to be a struggle.
12) Colorado Avalanche – The Avs can be considered one of the NHL’s true "Dow Jones" teams, alternating between playoff appearances and qualifying for the NHL Draft Lottery. However, the Avs have a slew of young, talented forwards in Paul Stasnty, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and number two overall draft pick Gabriel Landeskog as well as acquiring Erik Johnson at the trade deadline.
The Avs "rolled the dice" in trading away a pair of high draft picks for the young and talented but oft-injured goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The Avs also benefit from being in arguably the weakest division in the NHL, with only one team who qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season in the Vancouver Canucks.
13) Phoenix Coyotes – The Coyotes defied the pundits’ predictions by employing a defense-first mentality to qualify for the playoffs for a second consecutive season. However, they also lost their most valuable asset in the departure of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to Free Agency.
While the ‘Yotes possess a solid blend of veteran talent in Shane Doan and Ray Whitney and young stars in Kyle Turris, Keith Yandle and Mikkel Boedker and one of the NHL’s premier coaches in Dave Tippett, losing Bryzgalov and the looming financial issues and potential departure from the desert that exist will make it very difficult for the ‘Yotes to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
14) Dallas Stars – The Stars were also a team who defied predictions for an imminent downfall by staying in the playoff race until the last game of the regular season. But the Stars accomplished this with one of the premier centers in the NHL in Brad Richards, who departed from the Lone Star state via Free Agency, as well as steady, gritty forward James Neal.
Goaltender Keri Lehtonen shook off the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his NHL career to boost the Stars’ playoff push but his history would suggest repeating a workload of 69 starts would be a tall order, both for Lehtonen and for the Stars’ playoff hopes.
15) Edmonton Oilers – While the Oilers struggled in the standings and with injuries - notably Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney - it also allowed them to add to the most exciting group of young talent seen in the Alberta Province since the glory days of the 80's. No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joins a cadre of dazzling young forwards in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi.
If Khabibulin continues to struggle both with off-ice and on-ice issues, backup Devan Dubnyk’s looks to step in and assume the netminding reigns. While this team may be a few years away from serious contention, this will be one team that teams, especially later in the season, will not want to face.