2013 Stanley Cup Road Map for NHL Western Conference

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIFebruary 5, 2013

2013 Stanley Cup Road Map for NHL Western Conference

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    In ordinary seasons, the first NHL Stanley Cup forecasts are put out before the first regular-season game. My original prediction to win the Western Conference was the St. Louis Blues, but too little was known to make my opinions worth sharing.

    Because of the NHL lockout, there were no preseason games and even training camp was very short. There was no time to evaluate how young talent would perform vs. offseason expectations and how well veterans maintained their performance level.

    More weight is thus applied to early games. Not only are they a better barometer than how a team looks "on paper" but each game is over 70 percent more of the season in 2013 than with a full schedule.

    Most teams have now played as many games as they would have in the preseason. In all, the Western Conference has played 64 of 360 scheduled contests, or 17.8 percent—about the same percentage that should have been completed by the 2012 Presidential Election.

    The NHL can now fill the void left behind by the passing of the Super Bowl with 12 weeks of hockey. The shortened season makes every week more intense.

    It is the perfect storm: A small enough time period remains of the season to build excitement, the sample size is large enough to get a feel and it is still early enough that anything can happen. Just looking at the Western Conference, a few questions spring to mind after the early-season action.

    How well will the quick-starting Anaheim  Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues hold up?

    Are the struggles of the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes going to derail the chances for financially-strapped franchises?

    Does a disappointing start by the Los Angeles Kings mean anything? Will the Detroit Red Wings miss their first playoffs in two decades?

    The following slides predict seeds and results for each round of the playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Finals with the predicted winner of the lightly traveled teams out east...

St. Louis Blues over Colorado Avalanche

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    Ken Hitchcock won the Jack Adams award for NHL coach of the year in 2012. He has won a Stanley Cup (officially, anyway) because he knows how to get his teams playing well defensively.

    However, his young St. Louis Blues could not manage any fight beyond the first round of last year's playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche have the speed to match the Blues and are a team generally good at blocking shots—a premium trait in the playoffs. They also have enough scoring forwards to stay in games.

    But the Blues have them in experience and do everything the Avs do just a bit better. That indicates a five-game series.

San Jose Sharks over Anaheim Ducks

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    The San Jose Sharks won the President's Trophy in 2009, but lost in the first round to their Pacific Division rival Anaheim Ducks in six games during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Much of the core for each team remains. That could give Anaheim a mental edge, San Jose a revenge motivation or do nothing at all.

    Player and coach execution will decide this series, not intangibles.

    Anaheim's shot blocking has been difficult on San Jose over the past two seasons. They have more scoring depth, still have a star-studded core of forwards and probably a better goalie.

    What they lack is San Jose's back end. If it ever gets healthy, the blue line will have two All-Stars, two of the best second-pair defenders in the NHL (hopefully one each paired with an All-Star) and four very capable third-pair defencemen.

    The Western Conference has been dominated by the blue line since before the turn of the millennium. The Sharks are also more desperate, having their very legacy on the line as well as many jobs if the team loses in the first round.

    How about this for a specific prediction: San Jose drops the first and third games, sparking sky is falling talk about the inability of a team with three conference finals appearances in nine years to win playoff series. But as the series develops, so does their ability to beat the defence.

    A match between division rivals always favours the underdog because of how well they know how to deal with the more accomplished team. The talent margin is narrow enough to mean this one likely goes seven games.

Vancouver Canucks over Minnesota Wild

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    Adding the free-agent prizes at forward (Zach Parise), blue line (Ryan Suter) and from overseas (Mikael Granlund) will tend to make a team stronger. The Minnesota Wild took that new direction after wasting a strong start in 2011-12.

    Outside of Suter, they lack top-end defencemen. But they are responsible in their own end and their goaltending is good enough to compensate. This year they should have three lines that can score. By playoff time that should come together.

    The Vancouver Canucks are good enough to take the Northwest Division and have better blue line talent past the first spot and more playoff experience. But they are playing a formidable division rival and some of their playoff experience has been bad.

    They could also have a goalie controversy or be relying on one with little playoff success (but with a better team in front factoring in what is obtained in return for Roberto Luongo). At best, they have two guys capable of stealing a game but none I would pick to get four wins in seven games against a good team with a better goalie. 

    This series goes the distance, and it may come down to how hard one fights. That means loyalty and chemistry that develops from a long relationship. It does not mean hired guns (albeit playing close to home) playing for an owner who then tried to cap their long contracts he agreed upon to five years.

Los Angeles Kings over Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Los Angeles Kings may have started slowly, but they were white hot last spring and are almost exactly the same unit. They have top-end and depth talent in all three units (forwards, blue line, goalie).

    Depth is the main problem for the Chicago Blackhawks. As the season wanes, they will find it harder to succeed leaning heavily on their top two lines and pairs. More work may result in more injuries to players they cannot replace who will be out for larger portions of the season because it is condensed.

    Chicago will be motivated to get back to the top of the mountain, while also possessing a better record and top-end talent. But L.A. has the better goalie and the depth it takes to endure this season and win in May...another series that goes the distance.

St. Louis Blues over Los Angeles Kings

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    With either two goalies capable of winning a Stanley Cup or by trading one to add skating talent, the St. Louis Blues will finish with the best record in the NHL. (Most likely, they keep both because there is no controversy as of now and having two goalies is valuable with the condensed schedule.)

    Either way, the Los Angeles Kings should be better in net. They won this series handily last spring en route to taking winning the Holy Grail of Hockey. That is more than enough to compensate for the Blues having home-ice advantage (historically more meaningful after the first round).

    What they cannot compensate for is the Blues being the only Western Conference team to play fewer than seven games in the first round. Whatever goalie is in net is likely to be more rested than Jonathan Quick, too.

    Add the hunger in for the team that did not win the series or Cup last year, and it forecasts a series they can battle their way to victory in.

San Jose Sharks over Vacnouver Canucks

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    Before a regular-season victory in 2013, the San Jose Sharks had won just three of the last 13 games (one in a shootout) against the Vancouver Canucks. The only time they met in the Stanley Cup playoffs was in 2011—right in the middle of that stretch of Canadian dominance.

    The Sharks are better prepared to deal with the Canucks this year.

    They have the better blue line and better goalie and are playing a team with questions rather than battling the one that looked better than the rest of the Western Conference two years ago. The Sharks will be significantly less traveled in the regular and postseasons and should have home-ice advantage.

    San Jose gets revenge on another team in another series that has a chance to go the distance.

St. Louis Blues over San Jose Sharks

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    The San Jose Sharks will have the chance to even the score with three of the last four teams that eliminated them in the Stanley Cup playoffs when they face the St. Louis Blues. But that will be one more hill than they can climb.

    The Sharks will have played at least one more game on significantly older bodies. Their better top-end talent will be overwhelmed by the speed and depth of the Blues. It is unlikely home ice will play much of a role, but only because this series will not go seven games.

St. Louis Blues over Buffalo Sabres

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    I know the Buffalo Sabres are a really out there pick for the Eastern Conference. They did not make the playoffs last season, did not make a lot of changes and are not burning it up so far this season.

    The New York Rangers are a team that will barely be gelled by May because of the roster shakeup and shortened season. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers have questions on their back ends.

    Only one other team is in their league, and it is not Buffalo. But hard feelings certainly remain about Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, widely regarded as the hardest of the hard-line owners during the NHL lockout, and that could take just a tiny amount of fight from them.

    Those deficiencies for the favourites makes for a fertile ground for upsets. As long as Lindy Ruff does not overuse Ryan Miller, he should have enough left to carry this team to an upset or two.

    But for the record, history shows a coin flip would be about as accurate as my Eastern Conference picks. The thing is, it does not matter who wins that conference because the better teams are out west again. The winner in the east will be by default and the travel will be less imbalanced this season than most.

    Whoever they face, the St. Louis Blues take Lord Stanley's Cup in six games, give or take a game.