NHL Western Conference Preview
The Western Conference will look very similar to the Eastern Conference towards the end of the season. There are a couple of teams that fell short of the playoffs last season that might make a run at the eighth seed again. The last few games of the season will be very interesting. So with no further ado, here is what the Western Conference will look like at the season’s completion.
1. Detroit Red Wings
How does a 115-point, Stanley-Cup-champion-powerhouse get even better? Add someone who helped the team they beat in the finals get there. Marian Hossa, although getting more money than this writer thinks he’s worth, will be a great fit on this amazingly-talented Detroit team.
Dominik Hasek’s retirement will not affect the Red Wings one bit. The addition of goalie Ty Conklin was a great choice by management, as he proved this past season that he is a more-than-reliable backup.
They also have the best defense in the NHL. Detroit’s biggest concern going into the new season is whether or not the post-Cup “hangover” will affect the team’s determination—doubtful.
2. Anaheim Ducks
There are no more questions or doubts within the Ducks’ organization. Uncertainties of whether or not players will return have been dealt with and the Ducks will respond this season.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was overlooked by many last season, but “Jiggy” put up some great numbers. He finished the season with a .922 save percentage and a 2.12 goals against average in just 58 games.
Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer are the only defensive pairing in the NHL that will give Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski a run for their money. Assuming that Pronger does not have another “Chris Simon-like” urge, then the Ducks will be atop the extremely competitive Pacific Division.
3. Minnesota Wild
They might not be worthy of a three-seed, but no team in northwest is really worthy of a three-seed—the Wild just have the best team in the northwest. Minnesota lost two of their top four scorers in the offseason, not a great way to go into the next season.
There is also lots of confusion as to whether Marian Gaborik will be around after this season. But the Wild still have one of the best goalies in the NHL in Niklas Backstrom and a great young backup in Josh Harding.
The Wild’s defense is a great blend of youth and experience with tons of scoring power. Brent Burns had a great fourth year in the NHL finishing with 43 points while playing in all 82 games—look for the young defenseman to improve upon those numbers this season.
4. San Jose Sharks
They will certainly give Anaheim a run for their money in the Pacific division. The reason they might not win the division is due to a couple of factors. Evgeni Nabakov might not be as good this year—more than likely, he will not be. The same defense in not in front of him.
Losing Brian Campbell, even though he was only in San Jose for roughly 30 games, is a big loss. The Sharks were 16-2-2 in 20 regular season games with Campbell in the lineup. Dan Boyle is a good attempt at a replacement, but Campbell could play both offense and defense, whereas Boyle was -29 last year with Tampa Bay.
Also, Jonathan Cheechoo needs to “show up” this year if the Sharks want to win the Pacific.
5. Dallas Stars
Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow showed their leadership in the playoffs and the Stars put up a valiant effort against the Red Wings in the Conference Finals—those two should put up monstrous numbers this year.
Dallas also boasts a very strong defense which has won many games for the team in the past couple of season. Stephane Robidas found his form in the playoffs, scoring 11 points in 18 games. Dallas is hoping that this will production will carry over into the regular season.
If Marty Turco improves upon his numbers from last season, and everyone stays healthy, Dallas could just as easily win the conference, let alone the Pacific Division.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
Hosting the second annual Winter Classic isn’t the only thing Blackhawks’ fans should be excited about. The line of Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews is not only one of the youngest lines in hockey, but one of the most-talented.
Adding Brian Campbell to a defense that already has a bright future—Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook—means that Chicago will have just a good an defense as they do an offense.
Oh, they also added All-Star goalie Cristobal Huet, and they still have Nikolai Khabibulin as a backup. Youthful scoring combined with experience in net will have the Blackhawks flying high come playoff time.
7. Vancouver Canucks
The seventh seed is where the fight for the last couple of playoffs spots begins. Several departures and several additions leave the Canucks in an interesting spot.
Pavol Demitra will take a good amount of pressure off of the Sedin twins, which will in turn allow them to produce more than they did last season. Demitra will also have to score a significant amount more than he did last season to make the difference that Vancouver needs. He is coming off his worst goal-scoring season in over ten years.
Let's not forget who is in net for the Canucks. Roberto Luongo still put up some great numbers last year—a .917 save percentage and a 2.38 goals against average—regardless of falling four points short of the playoffs.
8. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers did not lose any major players, which is always a great start for any team. Adding left-winger Erik Cole to the mix should make for a solid first line.
The Oilers were also hit hard with the injury bug last season—they had four starters who missed more than 25 games, including defenseman Sheldon Souray. Sourary played a measly 26 games and never got into the groove he did back in the 2006-07 season.
Ales Hemsky is going to have to do some serious scoring this year to help Edmonton get into the playoffs. Look for him to become at least a 25-goal-scorer this season. Assuming the injury bug doesn’t visit Edmonton as much as it did last season, the Oilers should find themselves in the playoffs.
9. Calgary Flames
In Calgary, it will all come down to whether or not Miikka Kiprusoff has a better season. Kiprusoff put up the worst numbers in his four-year career with Calgary.
The main reason that the Flames may find themselves looking in on the playoffs is the amount of scoring they lost. Losing Krisitian Huselius and Alex Tanguay was huge. I am not sure if picking up Mike Cammalleri will make up the difference, especially since he’ll be playing on their top line with MVP candidate Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow.
The one thing on Calgary’s side is that they have their core of Dion Phaneuf, Kiprusoff, and Iginla—but will it be enough?
10. Nashville Predators
There are too many “what if's” for me to put Nashville in the playoffs. Martin Erat just got a lovely contract extension because Nashville believes his scoring will go up, but “what if” it doesn’t?
Dan Ellis put up the best numbers of his career last year—but he has only played one season, and “what if” the numbers go down a little?
Shea Weber is expected to bounce back after an injury-plagued season and lead the defense, but “what if” his injuries come back into play? The “what if” concept can be used for just about any team, but it fits right into Nashville’s lineup like another player. Hopefully “what if” will have a good season for the Preds.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets still don’t have the center that they want for Rick Nash, but R.J. Umberger may suffice, and adding Kristian Huselius will help take a little pressure off of Nash.
Pascal Leclaire is coming off an amazing season and will be the number one goalie to start the season. “Third string” goalie, Steve Mason, will be waiting in Syracuse for a potential call-up this season. Look for him to replace the ever-inconsistent Fredrik Norrena as the permanent backup. Mason put up great numbers in the OHL last season.
Columbus also strengthened its blue line tremendously, but it might not be enough for a late-season playoff push.
12. Phoenix Coyotes
There is no doubt that the Coyotes are headed in the right direction. Picking up Olli Jokinen was a great move for a team that certainly could use the scoring.
Ilya Bryzgalov certainly had a good year, but the defense in front of him didn’t do its job. Losing Keith Ballard on defense does not help this team who needs gritty defensemen like him in the lineup.
If Phoenix wants to make the playoffs this season, Ed Jovanovski will have to lend a helping hand defensively, as he did offensively last season. This team almost looks like they are ready for the playoffs, but almost isn’t enough. They have a great talent in the minors, so look forward to the future Coyotes’ fans, just not this season.
13. Colorado Avalanche
A possible return for Joe Sakic has been mentioned, but is unlikely—and that’s really all Colorado should be excited for.
The Avalanche’s first line of Ryan Smyth, Milan Hejduk, and Paul Statsny is an excellent first line, and they will produce. However, there is too much inconsistency in the rest of the lines to get this team into the playoffs.
John-Michael Liles is a solid defender, but he will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders to take his game to the next level. He produced 31 points last season in 81 games, but he will have to reach at least 45 points this season if Colorado wants to come close to the playoffs.
Andrew Raycroft is an awful backup goalie and hasn’t put up any close to decent numbers since his rookie campaign. Peter Budaj will not be able to handle the net by himself, which means Colorado is in for one long season.
14. St. Louis Blues
Brad Boyes had a great goal-scoring year last season, and will need to keep it up if the Blues want to make any kind of noise.
Even though he is coming off a bad season, picking up goalie Chris Mason was definitely a step in the right direction. He can play 50-55 games and give the rest to backup Manny Legace. If the goalie-combo puts up decent numbers, then St. Louis might be able to crawl up the conference standings.
In his first full season, Erik Johnson produced good numbers. If he improves at the expected rate, then the Blues will have a very bright future—but give it a couple more seasons.
15. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are a very young team and still have much to learn. Jason LaBarbera was good last season, but was inconsistent at times and with a goals-against average of 3.00, gave away a lot of wins.
Anze Kopitar is becoming a lethal scorer, but has to learn how to play on both sides of the ice.
Teddy Purcell and Brian Boyle will both see more time in the NHL this season after playing last season with the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL. Purcell has a great shot and was named MVP at last year’s AHL All-Star game. The potential is definitely there, but it needs a few more seasons to develop.
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