Here comes the Western Conference preview, look below at my East predictions for the preamble and methodology to this madness.
1. Detroit Red Wings
I could start my justification for this pick by being the 4,361st person to write that the Stanley Cup champs lost no one yet added Marian Hossa, but I think you all know that. This is not a prediction saying the Wings will win another Cup, which I don’t think they will, but they will most definitely finish the regular season first in the West. The biggest reason for this is their strength of competition, which in the Central Division is pretty weak. The scary thought about Detroit is that guys like Henrik Zetterburg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula are still getting better, while guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Tomas Holmstrom and Hossa are holding firm. This team is scary on paper, and that coach ain’t too shabby either.
2. San Jose Sharks
The addition of Dan Boyle in San Jose to replace Brian Campbell is an upgrade in my mind, but the biggest reason I think the Sharks might even compete with the Wings for the Conference crown is what they accomplished last year without certain players. Patrick Marleau was essentially MIA all season, turning up in post-game stat reports only because of his plus-minus figure always landing in the red. Ryan Clowe was injured most of the season, opened the playoffs on a tear, and then slumped towards the end. He could become an impact player this year. Jonathan Cheechoo undergoing a second straight year with a decrease in production is concerning, but I think he’ll bounce back from his horrible 37 point output last season, but not back to the 56-goal guy of 2006. They have arguably the best goalie and best centre in the league, and even if you don’t think Evgeni Nabokov and Joe Thornton merit those titles, they’re at least in the discussion. The arrival of a bright, new coach in Todd McLellan should pay big dividends for this club.
3. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are in this spot largely because no one else in the Northwest Division seems to me like they have what it takes to beat this rising team. The Oilers probably won’t run away with the division, but another year of development for their young guys means the team will likely improve as the season wears on, just like last year. Edmonton enters play this season with a 25-15-2 record in the calendar year of 2008, which projects out to about a 102-point season. That probably won’t happen this year, but I think 97 points will be enough to win this division. The Oilers need a lot of things to fall into place, like half their roster avoiding a sophomore slump, Sheldon Souray avoiding body contact, Mathieu Garon avoiding a huge crash back to earth and Shawn Horcoff being fully recovered from his shoulder injury. Craig MacTavish is a heck of a coach, and he’s got some horses in his stable this year.
4. Anaheim Ducks
I’m not a big Brian Burke fan, but he’s managed to maintain a pretty competitive club despite painting himself into a salary cap corner the past couple of seasons because he allowed Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne to sit around for half of last season. The loss of Mathieu Schneider will be felt, but with a top three of Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, I don’t think the defence will pose too many problems. But depth up front will. No team should ever count on Brendan Morrison playing a full season, and if anyone should know that it’s Burke. The first line of Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Perry and Chris Kunitz is a load, and the checking line of Rob Niedermayer, Samuel Pahlsson and Travis Moen is probably the league’s best. But otherwise, there’s not much there, even with Selanne for a full season. The combination of the big three on defence and the Michelin Man, Jean-Francois Giguere between the pipes should allow the Ducks to host a playoff series and remain within shouting distance of the Sharks.
5. Dallas Stars
The Stars, to me, are tough to pin down. The only big offseason acquisitions were Sean Avery and Fabian Brunnstrom, largely because the team was pretty darned good last year. But when you look at their roster, I can’t help but wonder how it is they were that good. Mike Ribeiro’s blossomed playing alongside Brenden Morrow (which is, by the way, why he never would have played like this in Montreal. Morrow’s style suits him perfectly, and Montreal has never had anything close to a Morrow in its lineup), Marty Turco is still an above average goalie, but otherwise it seems to me like the Stars use smoke and mirrors every year to win. But they do it consistently, so Dave Tippett must be doing something right. The success of Brad Richards after a less than stellar year is key here. The Stars were 40-22-5 when they acquired Richards at the deadline, with a six-point lead on Anaheim and an 11-point lead on the Sharks. They then went 5-8-2 in their final 15 games, finishing 11 points behind San Jose and six behind Anaheim.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
There are six middle-range teams fighting for the last three spots in the playoffs, and I think the ‘Hawks will be the best of the rest. I can’t see Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews slowing down, adding Cristobal Huet shores up the goaltending (though he’s no saviour), and the addition of Brian Campbell, 29, gives Chicago one of the best group of young defencemen in the league led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Add to that the renewed enthusiasm for hockey in the city, and you have the makings of a special year. Depth at forward is a big issue, one that depends on the highly unlikely chance that Martin Havlat could play the first full season of his career. If he could even play 70 games, which he hasn’t done since 2002, the ‘Hawks would probably be able to pull away from the middle pack.
7. Minnesota Wild
The line between winning your division and fighting for a playoff spot is just that thin in the Northwest, and the Wild will indeed be fighting for their playoff lives come next April. With the Marian Gaborik contract situation becoming an increasingly present distraction as the trade deadline approaches, the Wild risk having it affect the performance on the ice. The loss of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra was filled by Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan, which is a big cumulative loss. The Wild are hopeful the slack can be picked up by one of several youngsters to make the big club, like Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gillies, but that may be asking too much from a pair of rookies. Stephane Veilleux had a strong camp, but he can’t be the answer either. I still think that with Niklas Backstrom in goal and a strict Jacques Lemaire system in place, Minnesota will make the playoffs. After Pierre-Marc Bouchard last year, this is Mikko Koivu’s year to take off.
8. Nashville Predators
I’m tired of predicting the demise of the Predators, only to have coach Barry Trotz shape his team and have them performing their best when it matters most, in the stretch drive to the playoffs. Last year, the Predators went 23-14-7 from Jan. 1 onward to squeak into the playoffs. The loss of Alexander Radulov stings like no other before him because he wasn’t even a free agent, but I feel the team can ride its improving young defence and the top duo of Jason Arnott and Jean-Pierre Dumont to another skin of their teeth playoff berth.
9. Calgary Flames
It hurts me to make this prediction because of how much I love watching Jarome Iginla play hockey, but I think this team is very questionable on many fronts. If they could throw the Iginla line out there with Dion Phaneuf and whoever he happens to be playing with that week for 60 minutes a night, the Flames could go undefeated. But what will happen to the club when those two superstars aren’t on the ice? Robyn Regehr is a very good defenceman, but none of the other guys on the blue line fit that category. I like Mike Cammalleri, but who else is with him on the second line? And finally, is anyone else as amazed as I am to see that Mike Keenan is still an NHL coach?
10. Phoenix Coyotes
This will become the story of the spring as the young Coyotes and the Great One make a major push for a playoff spot, but they’ll fall short. I see the Coyotes as being this season’s Oilers, with a bunch of talented kids who have nothing to lose going out and trying to prove to the world just how good they are. They’ll get their chance, only it will be in 2009-10.
11. Vancouver Canucks
I really feel for Roberto Luongo. First, he gets drafted by Mike Milbury in Long Island, then he has to play in Florida under the aforementioned Keenan, who does him the favour of shipping him to Vancouver. I don’t want to rush to judgment or anything, but it appears Luongo’s latest GM isn’t much better than the other two guys. Mike Gillis took a team that missed the playoffs and made it worse, adding Demitra to replace Markus Naslund. Granted, Gillis attempted to make the biggest splash of all in trying to land Mats Sundin, but was there no backup plan in place? Now the Canucks go into this season with the same problem the team has had since Luongo’s arrival, a lack of scoring. Maybe Luongo could play the point on the power play as well?
12. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets should be better than last year, and there appears to be some sort of long-term plan in place here, but in the here and now it’s going to be another year out of the playoffs for Rick Nash. At least there are some nice pieces being added for the future, and if the Jackets find an overachiever among promising young forwards Derrick Brassard, Jakub Voracek or even Nikita Filatov, Ken Hitchcock could have this team competing for a playoff spot. GM Scott Howson totally pantsed Glen Sather in grabbing two top-six defencemen for problem child Nikolai Zherdev.
13. Colorado Avalanche
This is a dark time for the Avalanche and it won’t get much better this year. The problems begin in goal, where Peter Budaj is the incumbent and Andrew Raycroft is the backup. Can anyone remember a worse goaltending tandem in recent times? I can’t.
14. Los Angeles Kings
Oh yeah, there is a worse goaltending tandem, and it’s in Los Angeles with Jason LaBarbera leading the way in nets. The Kings are incredibly young, but those young players have a ton of talent and one of these seasons, it will all shine through at once and the Kings will be the surprise of the league. Just not this year.
15. St. Louis Blues
The Blues were already bad with Erik Johnson, but without him they are really horrid. Keith Tkachuk obviously enjoys cashing pay checks more than playing hockey, and Paul Kariya is past the days he can be a team’s source of offence. There are some young players who could emerge here, but not enough.