2011-12 NHL Playoffs Predictions: Western Conference Seeds
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The NHL All-Star break is upon us. It is another checkpoint in the season that is ideal to gaze into our collective crystal balls and predict how the season will turn out.
This is particularly challenging in the Western Conference, where the top six teams are within two games of one another. Adding to the difficulty, four of those teams are in the Central Division.
Translation: A single point could separate someone from a division title and a sixth seed.
Even though home ice seems to mean little in winning playoffs games, it means a lot to earn it. No team has won the Stanley Cup from lower than a fourth seed since the fifth-seeded New Jersey Devils in 1995.
So who will earn those all-important division titles out west? Who will be the other home ice team?
(Check out my companion piece on The Hockey Beat for more about the NHL Pacific Division. You can also see how these compare to my preseason predictions—though seven of the eight teams are the same, only the three division winners are in the same seeds.)
8. Minnesota Wild
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After earning a predictable 10 points in their first 10 games, the Minnesota Wild heated up. Two five-game winning streaks were followed by two-game losing streaks to put them at 30 points in 24 games.
Then they went on an absolute tear, winning seven straight. Since then, it has been all downhill: They lost their next eight and 15 of their next 17, earning just eight points total in that stretch.
But they have won two in a row entering the All-Star break to stay a game ahead of the Dallas Stars and 1.5 points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche. On paper, neither of those teams is better than Minnesota.
Minnesota rarely makes any waves at the trade deadline, but they will likely add a veteran on the blue line to enhance their defensive style. The young Avs are unlikely to make any drastic moves to improve now because their focus is on the future.
The Stars have ownership issues that impede their ability to take on additional payroll, and play in a slightly tougher division. They also play a couple more games away from home down the stretch than the Wild, who barely cling to the last playoff spot thanks to their goaltending.
7. Los Angeles Kings
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Since Darryl Sutter took over for them behind the bench, the Los Angeles Kings are 9-2-6 (.706). But it is too little, too late for making a run at a top spot in the conference—six teams are on pace for at least 104 points.
L.A. would need to play more than 10 percentage points better than that to leapfrog any of them. They will make a move for some scoring, but that does not seem to matter: They did that last season and during the summer without results.
Still, they possess one of the best blue lines back-stopped by one of best goalies in the world. This gives them the lowest goals allowed average in the Western Conference.
Thus, they remain who they have been for some time: A great defensive team that is offensively challenged, and a low seed who will challenge you, but fall short in the first round.
6. St. Louis Blues
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The St. Louis Blues have been near the pinnacle of the NHL since they turned over starting goaltender duties to Brian Elliot. As a Wisconsin Badger fan, I have known of his championship-calibre promise for some time.
Yet there is a reason he is the only NHL All-Star with a two-way contract. St. Louis was not even sure he would be their backup, much less expect him to man their most important position.
Neither did anyone else in the league, or he would have gotten a full NHL contract somewhere.
He has proven that many people wrong, but it still a small sampling of play. One has to wonder if he can continue to prove that many people this wrong—my guess is he comes down to Earth a bit. He may even be exposed a little in the All-Star game.
He will continue to hold down the top spot over big-money free agent Jaroslav Halak, but cease to play like a Vezina Finalist. The Blues have plenty of talent in front of him, but are in the odd position of having enough veterans to not need to add to them, and enough young talent that they will not want to give up to win immediately.
Thus, in a tough division and with plenty of road games left on their schedule, St. Louis barely clears 100 points and holds off the L.A. Kings for the sixth seed.
5. Nashville Predators
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Even while Pekka Rinne was playing beneath his capacity, the Nashville Predators were hanging on a playoff spot. Now that he has turned things around enough to have a .925 save percentage and 2.36 GAA for the season, they are contending for the title of the Western Conference's toughest division.
With two of the league's best defenders and one of its best goalies, they do not need many studs up front. They play a disciplined game and work harder than any team in the league.
Unfortunately, they have to maintain the smallest payroll in the league. They are unlikely to make any significant moves at the trade deadline, and that will put them at a disadvantage with every other team competing for a division title. They also have two more road games than home games remaining.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
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The Chicago Blackhawks were a frequent pick to win not only their division, but the Stanley Cup in 2012. They currently hold the sixth-best record in the NHL, but if you look deeper, there is trouble brewing.
They have 20 road games left compared to just 12 at home. They have a plus-18 goal differential, good for only third in their division. They have the third-worst penalty kill in the league and are barely top-10 in five-on-five play.
And if Corey Crawford goes down, they are in trouble. Same goes for either of their two elite players on the blue line or four elite forwards—they do not have the depth they have had in previous seasons.
However, they know this, and no longer have the cap issues that would prevent them from making moves. They are in the middle of the league in payroll and will add some depth. They have six players worthy of the All-Star game and know how to get things done enough to earn home ice in the first round.
3. Detroit Red Wings
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The Detroit Red Wings have been amazing this season in achieving the best record in the Western Conference. They have played more games on the road than at home, where they have lost out on just five possible points all season.
But they are old. Players, coaches and fans may be tired of hearing that, but not as tired as they will be by the end of the season. They will not be able to hold onto the top seed in the conference's toughest division.
Still, they have enough of a margin within the division to afford a slight lag. They are more than a game up on the Chicago Blackhawks and have a much more favourable schedule. They will also be able to make a move (perhaps even get younger) by the deadline to bolster their chances.
Perhaps no team is as efficient and prepared for the tedium of the regular season, and all of that spells another Central Division title.
2. San Jose Sharks
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Right now, the San Jose Sharks have just the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. However, it is good enough to lead a division that was historically good last season.
And it will get better. True, only three teams currently in the playoffs have more of their remaining games on the road, but that is partially because no team in the league has played fewer games overall than the Sharks.
Those extra games in hand should allow them to make up ground on the rest of the conference even with a few more of them being on the road.
Meanwhile, the Sharks' offensive struggles have primarily been since Martin Havlat—inconsistent as he was—went down with a knee injury. At that time, they were near the top of the league in scoring with a 3.13 GSA; they are scoring 2.43 since.
They are expecting to get him, Ryane Clowe (five games missed) and Brent Burns (one) back shortly after the All-Star break. And they have the cap room to add any talent they need, with goaltending and role-players—both young and veteran—to burn.
That, coupled with their dominance over the Detroit Red Wings (14 wins in last 20 games), whom they are chasing for a higher seed, spells a fifth consecutive top-two seed in the Western Conference.
1. Vancouver Canucks
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The Vancouver Canucks have one of the top payrolls in the league for a reason: They have arguably the best forwards in the game, a deep and talented blue line, a perennial Vezina Trophy Finalist in net and one of the best backups in the NHL.
Early in the season, they were suffering from a Stanley Cup losing hangover. They were having trouble scoring and Roberto Luongo looked like he might have been permanently knocked down a peg by his struggles in last year's finals.
Those days are over. They have the league's best power play, the seventh-best penalty kill and are sixth in five-on-five scoring ratio. They have surged to the the fourth best scoring average and seventh best defence in the league.
Now they can ride a soft division to the best record in the Western Conference if not the NHL. Even if the Calgary Flames or Colorado Avalanche can make the playoffs from the Northwest Division, it would almost certainly be at the expense of the faltering Minnesota Wild. With Edmonton's injuries, lack of depth and youth, they are destined to be in the bottom five in the NHL.
If that was not enough, Vancouver has three more games remaining at home than on the road to make the path to the top all the easier. They have already won the season series with the San Jose Sharks, and are tied with Detroit with one at home and one at Joe Louis Arena to go.
Their comparative youth and easy schedule will enable them to make up that one game deficit with Detroit and then some in the standings. While they do not have the cap space to trade for more talent without giving any up, they may be able to upgrade a role-player or two if need be.