NHL Western Conference Preview
15. Phoenix Coyotes
This team finished last in the conference last year, and has done nothing to improve. There's a new GM in town, but he's had little impact.
The Coyotes will be battling Columbus at the bottom of the conference.
Team MVP: Shane Doan
14. Columbus Blue Jackets
Year 1000 of the Blue Jackets' rebuilding.
A decent squad led by Rick Nash, but eight games apiece against Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago will lead to a lot of losses. For Columbus to compete in the West, they'd need career years from Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, and David Vyborny. Fredrik Norrena would also need to play exceptionally well in goal.
Team MVP: Rick Nash
13. Los Angeles Kings
The team took some positive steps in the offseason, signing Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, and Kyle Calder. However, the Kings will be doomed by their situation in goal.
I don't see a team led by Dan Cloutier and Jason LaBarbara making the playoffs in this conference, unless there is a drastic difference in play from a year ago. The defense is young, so the Kings might be ready to go in 2008-09 if they can sign a goalie.
Team MVP: Alex Frolov
12. Chicago Blackhawks
A solid young team, with rookie Patrick Kane probably cracking the lineup. They also have a capable goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Hawks might have made the playoffs last year if Martin Havlat didn't miss 20 games with injury. They did improve in the offseason, picking up All-Star Yanic Perrault—and while they won't quite be strong enough to make the postseason, they're definitely headed in the right direction.
Team MVP: Martin Havlat
11. Nashville Predators
Nashville was a playoff team a year ago, but a miserable offseason will doom them in '08-'09.
Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun, and Paul Kariya are all gone, and Peter Forsberg's future is yet to be determined. Nashville did sign some players to make up the difference, and Chris Mason should be a good starting goalie, but there are too many new pieces to the puzzle.
With all the good teams in the West, I see Nashville on the outside looking in.
Team MVP: Alexander Radulov
10. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers were one game away from winning the Stanley Cup two seasons ago...then finished last in their division a year ago—by 24 points.
Not a good turn of events.
GM Kevin Lowe did some work, signing Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks. New defensemen Joni Pitkanen, Sheldon Souray, and Dick Tarnstrom will overhaul the team both on defense and on the power play.
If the Oilers were in any other division, I'd probably pick them to make the playoffs. However, with 32 of their 82 games against Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary, and Vancouver, I don't see them getting the points.
Team MVP: Ales Hemsky
9. Dallas Stars
Dallas made the playoffs last year, and are not much different personnel-wise.
That's exactly the reason I think they'll fall short this year.
The Stars roster is an aging one, and this will probably be their final run at anything. I for one can't see all these guys staying healthy.
Marty Turco can still get this team to the playoffs—but I'll give the edge to younger, hungrier talent.
Team MVP: Mike Ribeiro
8. St. Louis Blues
This team missed the playoffs by 15 points last season, but was nine games over .500 in the last 54 games of the season under new coach Mike Kitchen.
After trading Keith Tkachuk at the deadline, the Blues quickly signed him as a free agent in the summer. They also signed Paul Kariya, who will contribute offensive assistance and valuable veteran leadership.
A number of young players on the St. Louis roster got experience last season. Lee Stempniak scored 27 goals, then played very well for the United States in the World Championships. Manny Legace will give the team consistency between the pipes if his knees hold up. Erik Johnson will cut his teeth this year, and should have a very bright future.
I expect the Blues to make the playoffs in 2008—and then in many years to follow.
Team MVP: Lee Stempniak
7. Calgary Flames
Calgary made more news in the playoffs last year for their feisty play than their performance against the Red Wings.
Any team with Mike Keenan at the helm will always have a chance to make the postseason—and to make life difficult for whomever they happen to face.
Miikka Kiprusoff is the leader in Calgary, and will always give the Flames a chance to win. Jarome Iginla is back in the fold, and former All-Star Owen Nolan is trying to resurrect his career after not performing well in Phoenix last season.
Despite all the good things this team has going for it, they'll struggle to crack the top six in the conference unless they improve their road record. Four games each in Colorado, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Edmonton will prevent them from finishing any higher than seventh.
Team MVP: Miikka Kiprusoff
6. Minnesota Wild
A playoff team a year ago, the Wild added Todd White and Eric Belanger and lost little.
Niklas Backstrom will become the full-time starting goalie. Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, two of the team's three best offensive players, will both be free agents next summer—and should perform well as they play for new contracts.
Marian Gaborik will have another big year if he can stay healthy, and the team should be in the playoff hunt, with a chance to make a nice run.
Team MVP: Marian Gaborik
5. Anaheim Ducks
This ranking is subject to change if Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne decide to play this season.
The Ducks have plenty of talent, and the signings of Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider will help. However, the loss of their two big guns will cost them more than they want to admit.
If Niedermayer comes back (which could happen during the season), the Ducks may repeat as champions. Without him, they'll make the playoffs, but they won't get back to the Finals.
Team MVP: Jean-Sebastian Giguere
4. Vancouver Canucks
The good news in Vancouver starts between the pipes, where Roberto Luongo had 47 victories a year ago. Beyond that, the defending division champions return their roster almost entirely intact.
The team didn't score as many goals last season as their talent suggests they should have. Still, Luongo's play produced a lot of low-scoring wins.
If the Canucks can start scoring, they'll be a tough to beat come playoff time. I expect them to improve on the 105 points they had a year ago, but not to win the division.
Team MVP: Roberto Luongo
3. Detroit Red Wings
Every year there's a hot new team in the West.
And most of those seasons, the Wings still find a way to dominate the conference.
Detroit did lose Mathieu Schnieder this offseason, but replaced him with Brian Rafalski. Dominik Hasek played ten years younger than his age in '06-'07, and Chris Chelios keeps getting it done. Nicklas Lidstrom is the best defenseman in the league. The Wings' top scorers are young and amazingly talented.
Detroit has won the Central Division six years in a row, and this season should make seven, especially with Nashville having taken a step back. Expect a deep playoff run behind a high-power offense.
Team MVP: Pavel Datsyuk
2. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche made a late run at the playoffs last season, but fell just a bit short.
To rectify the situation, the Avs re-signed Joe Sakic, then inked Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan.
The young guns in Colorado—Marek Svatos, Wojtek Wolski, and Paul Stastny—are ready to explode. The only question mark is in the net.
Jose Theodore and Peter Budaj could each get the job done, but Colorado will have to pick one to develop a rhythm.
Look for the Avalanche to build on the momentum that saw them win 14 of their final 18 games last season.
Team MVP: Paul Stastny
1. San Jose Sharks
This team put up 107 points a year ago, and didn't tinker much with its lineup.
The Sharks let go of Vesa Toskala, making Evgeni Nabokov the number one with no controversy. San Jose also made one of the most intriguing free agent signings in the league by acquiring Jeremy Roenick.
What Roenick will bring to the table remains to be seen, but the talent is already there. Joe Thornton is an MVP candidate who should be hungry to atone for his poor playoff performance. Jonathan Cheechoo will score 40 goals if he stays healthy.
The only question in San Jose is whether the Sharks can finally turn regular season success into postseason results.
Team MVP: Joe Thortnon
Eastern Conference preview coming soon...
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