After The 2010 Winter Olympics: NHL Western Conference Sprints to The End

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After The 2010 Winter Olympics: NHL Western Conference Sprints to The End
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The gold medal hockey game is scheduled for Feb. 28. Even VANOC should be able to keep that on schedule.

On March 1, Detroit flies to Colorado to play the Avalanche and the last quarter of the NHL schedule gets underway.

Teams will have three more days before the trade deadline to make a deal once the Olympic trade hiatus is over. They are in earnest at this point in the season and almost always give you all the effort they can manage at this time of year as they struggle to make the playoffs or improve their playoff position.

This is a quick look at where I see teams in the National Hockey Leagues Western Conference standing and where I see them going between the end of the Olympics and playoff time.

 

San Jose

San Jose is currently leading the West by a couple points over Chicago. They were arguably the toughest defensive team in the league last year, giving up the fewest shots on goal in the regular season. This year they've sunk to 23rd giving up more then an extra four shots per game on goal.

Nabokov has stepped up and last year's mediocre save percentage has improved dramatically. His .928 save percentage puts him fourth in the league among the goalies who have played at least a third of their teams minutes. The offense has plumped up because of the addition of Heatley and they're second only to Washington in goals.

Historically, San Jose has begun to fade as other teams start to gear up for the playoffs and they haven't been able find that faster gear. If Nabokov wears out as the season progresses and after his time at the Olympics, I'd expect the Sharks with their weaker defense to start giving up a few more goals.

This is a great Sharks team.

They had a great streak in January where they crushed possible playoff teams Calgary, LA, Anaheim, and Buffalo in six nights. Still, I think Chicago will overtake them before the end of the year. I don't expect any deadline deals for what is a very good team. Once they get their first line and top defensemen back from the Olympics, I think this team might be a little tired as well.

I have no faith that this team with this goalie will do anything in the playoffs.


Chicago

Chicago is perhaps the deepest talent team in the league.

Unfortunately they needed to make a deal for a real goalie last summer. They're cap confined and still need to make a move if they're serious about winning a cup.

This team has so much talent, that I can't imagine they'll have much trouble in what's left of the regular season despite having Seabrook, Keith, Toews, Kane, and Hossa all slated to play at the Olympics.

I see them breezing by San Jose and perhaps even winning the President's Trophy as they gear up for a deep playoff run. With Huet in nets, I don't believe they can win a cup.

When he's good he's sharp.

When he falls apart, he's the most demoralizing goalie to play with in the NHL.


Vancouver

Vancouver will come back from the Olympics still in the center of their 14-game road trip.

They managed to go 4-4 in the easy part of the trip through such Eastern powerhouses as Montreal, Toronto, Florida and Boston. They will come back to the West to face Columbus,Detroit,Chicago,Nashville,Colorado, and Phoenix—all desperate teams trying to make the playoffs.

Vancouver is currently tied with Colorado and I can't see them holding off the Avalanche while on the road.

The Sedins, Kesler, Luongo, Sami Salo, and Demitra are all expected to play key roles on their Olympic teams and may come back to Vancouver tired or even injured. The Avalanche, on the other hand, have Petr Budaj who'll probably be the back-up goalie for Slovakia and Stasny who will star for the US.

Other than that, their ward of injured players gets two weeks to heal up and the youngsters who have carried so much of the load gets that time to rest and recover for the stretch drive. I think the Avalanche will go from being last in the West last year to winning the Northwest division this year.

That's an organization that knows how to rebuild. 

 

Phoenix

Phoenix currently sits fourth in the West, and eleven points ahead of ninth place Detroit and Dallas. I hate to jinx them, but I don't think it's possible for them to miss the playoffs.

They've finally started drawing fans in Phoenix. Bryzgalov looks to start for the Russians in the Olympics. Phoenix's biggest fear has to be he'll get hurt.

They've been weak offensively all year and middle of the road offensively. The mostly veteran lineup should get them in to the playoffs though probably in seventh or eighth. I don't see this group going anywhere once they make the playoffs.

 

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is finally reaping the rewards of the young talent they've drafted over the last few years.

A defense lead by Drew Doughty and Stanley Cup champion Rob Scuderi has them third in the league in shots against. Jack Johnson's talent is apparent but his defensive play still needs work. Jonathon Quick has been good enough in nets for them and earned himself a trip to Vancouver.

The offense is lead by the phenomenal Anze Kopitar. Ryan Smyth's veteran presence has worked well on this young LA team. I see them passing Phoenix and Vancouver and being a very dangerous first round opponent from the four/five slot.


Nashville

Nashville is currently in seventh, only three points into a playoff spot.

They've done well to be second in what is still the toughest division in hockey. The core of this team is still their three young defenders Hamhuis, and Olympians Suter and Weber.

The goaltending that was top notch last year has slipped a bit and this Nashville lineup always seems to have trouble scoring. Hornquist and Erat look to perhaps score 30 this year. The rest of this veteran, fragile lineup could end up in the emergency ward at the drop of a pin.

I don't think this group can hang on to a playoff spot. Look for them to be passed by the Red Wings and maybe even Anaheim and St Louis. 


Calgary

Calgary was challenging for first in the weak Northwest division a month ago.

They need that high seed for any hope of success in the playoffs. A crushing defeat at the hands of San Jose followed by losses to Chicago and St Louis precipitated the trade of core team member Dion Phaneuf to Toronto for role players. Disappointing center Olli Jokinen then was traded for Chris Higgins and Alex Kotalik again at the end of January.

Since those deals were done, the Flames have been 3-3-1. The defense for the Flames this year has been comparable to what they managed last, the goaltending from Kiprusoff has been great so far(.925 sv pct).

The offense though has been weak and Kiprusoff has been known to burnout under the workload. Throw in trying to drag Finland into another gold medal game, and the Flames may be expecting too much from their keeper.

I'm afraid the Flames are also destined to fade out of the playoff picture in the last 20 games. Iginla has had a nice start in the Olympics anyway.   

 

Detroit

Detroit is one point out of a playoff spot and despite their win one/lose one pattern, I don't see them missing the playoffs.

Last year's best offensive team is tied for fifth worst in goals scored with the Islanders. The Leafs have scored three more goals than the Red Wings have so far this year. Jimmy Howard has taken the starting job with a vengeance and a .927 save percentage. I have to believe the return of Franzen has got to help the Detroit offense.

The team veterans are all expected to play crucial roles on their national teams during the Olympics. The veteran defenders have struggled with injuries and Rafalski, Lidstrom, and Kronwall may skate into March a little tired.

I still think this Detroit team passes Calgary, Nashville, Phoenix, and perhaps even Vancouver to secure a reasonable seed. If Jimmy Howard can play in the playoffs, their experience should make them a dangerous first round opponent especially if they draw the NW division champ.

 

Dallas

Dallas has an identical record to Detroit.

It's identical in every way. Yet  psychologically they seem worlds apart.

All the Dallas rumours seem to concentrate on the Stars dumping first string goalie Marty Turco and veteran ex-captain Mike Modano. Those moves perhaps make some sort of long-term sense, but really a team a point out of the playoffs that moves their number one goalie, doesn't want to make the playoffs.

The Stars have been much better offensively and much worse defensively than Detroit. The direction they take is predicated on what, if any, deadline deals they make. They are lead by a group of still young to very young offensive players in Ericksson, Ribeiro, Richards, and Neal.

An upgrade to their cost-effective defense or to their goaltending that they seem to have lost faith in, would help. Olympic checker Brendan Morrow is still competing. This team could be another dangerous playoff opponent but I'm afraid they're not going to make it in. 

 

Anaheim

Anaheim were last year's playoff darlings upsetting San Jose and taking Detroit to seven games.

The loss of Pronger and Beauchemin and the natural aging of Scott Niedermayer has left them as a team that gives up the third most shots on goal in the league. Slow footed Ryan Whitney and James Wiesnewski have not been able to fill the skates of the departed defenseman. That's left Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller in a shooting gallery.

The team has a median amount of goals. They dumped JS Gigeures contract on the Leafs for some secondary offense from Jason Blake and back up goaltending from Toskala.

I still think the top two lines on this Duck team will drag them into the playoffs. 

 

St. Louis

St Louis is four points out of the playoffs and I believe they or Minnesota might still sneak back in to that lost playoff slot.

St Louis has a defense anchored by US Olympian Eric Johnson and yet they're giving up way more shots on goal than they did last year. Chris Mason's numbers seem to have suffered as a result. The team has veterans Kariya, Tkachuk and Macdonald healthy this year, but that seems to have stifled the offensive chemistry of last year's young scorers Backes, Berglund, and Boyes.

A trade of one of the veterans,especially the older Kariya or Tkachuk, could add talent or prospects and St Louis seems to have enough on the roster to replace their offense.

I like St Louis to sneak back in to the playoffs again and then lose in four to Chicago or San Jose.


Minnesota

Minnesota has had a horrible season to date.

Nick Backstrom has lost 22 percentage points off of last year's save percentage. Last year, the historically tight Wild defense gave up a lot of shots on goal per game. This year, however, they've tightened it up again and are fifth best in the league. The 171 goals for them is still very mediocre, but not approaching their nearly league worst total of last year. 

This team seems to be closer to achieving balance than any Wild team in recent memory.

Still if your leading scorer after three quarters of the season has been played is Guillame Latendresse with 20 goals, your team has issues. I'm looking for Backstrom's numbers to improve for the stretch run. I still don't think it'll be quite enough to ensure a Wild playoff appearance.

Desperate teams in search of a goalie might pay highly in talent or picks for back-up Josh Harding. 

 

Columbus

Columbus isn't going to make the playoffs.

The sophomore jinx bit Steve Mason hard and got Ken Hitchcock fired. Last year's shut-out leader seems at times to have regained his composure but he'll need to be back all the way and full time for Columbus to challenge for and in the playoffs.

Still, this Columbus team has some excellent young building blocks. Hopefully they can coax young Nikita Filatov back from Russia to help invigorate a second scoring line.

The Jackets desperately need a first line offensive center. Trading for one moves them along quicker. Perhaps they can trade one of the surfeit of checkers they possess. Drafting one is trickier and takes longer.

If this team makes the right long-term moves at the trade deadline and in the offseason, I can see them emulating Colorado and being a troublesome playoff team next year. 


Edmonton

Edmonton is another team that had a disastrous season and needs to find a first line center to play with Hemsky.They keep doing what they're doing and they might have Taylor Hall for their first line.

This team has a surplus of expensive power play quarterbacks. No team needs four players who can do that job. One of them, Souray or Vishnovsky, needs to be dealt for talent and or picks.

Edmonton also needs a quality young goaltender who can make the big club quick enough to be mentored by Khabibulin. The need for a first line center and first string goalie probably means Edmonton is out of the playoffs for a couple years.

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