2008-09 NHL Preview: Western Conference

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2008

Here's the West, read and feedback.

Central Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Detroit Red Wings (50-23-9; 109) – The defending champs come into 2008 with the same loaded squad that won it all this past season, with the addition of the league’s top available free agent in Marian Hossa. What’s not promising for a team that features great forwards such as Zetterberg and Datsyuk, solid veteran defensemen in Lidstrom and Rafalski, and one of the best backstops of the modern era in Osgood? There’s no doubt in my mind, or any hockey expert for that matter, that Detroit is far and away the best team in the West, poised to repeat as champions.

Columbus Blue Jackets (41-32-9; 91) – Finally, you’ve come across my one required surprise pick (usually fails) in any of my previews. Columbus is an up and coming young team and with little resistance from any other team in the Central, could definitely come in second, as no one will touch the Wings. They brought in a load of players, both forwards and defenseman to play with the great Rick Nash, one of the most underrated superstars in the game. Overlooked is the play of young netminder Pascal Leclaire, who led the conference with nine shutouts in 2007-08.

Chicago Blackhawks (39-33-10; 88) – The young Blackhawks come into the season with enormous hype surrounding their talented squad. Kane and Toews are explosive young forwards, and with the additions of Campbell on defense and Huet in net, substantial improvement should be a certainty for the Blackhawks. Many are ready to proclaim Chicago as an instant contender, but it isn’t rational to do so; this team didn’t make the playoffs last year. Look for Chicago to make strides, but not threaten to win it all as they should sneak into this year’s postseason.

Nashville Predators (38-37-7; 83) – Though they’ve made the playoffs the past four years, the Predators’ ten year NHL tenure has not been very noteworthy. Barely sneaking into last year’s playoffs, Barry Trotz’s squad stood pat during the offseason, while other division foes like Columbus and Chicago blew past with new personnel. They have next to nothing in the way of big-name talent or scorers, which doesn’t look promising, but this team has been able to find moderate success in years with low expectations. It should be a down year in Nashville.

St. Louis Blues (34-40-8; 76) – The Blues are another franchise that lacks a talented young forward around which to build their team. Even though their long term situation looks promising for years down the road, there looks to be no promise for a team whose season started with a freak knee injury to their best young defenseman, Erik Johnson. Veterans like Kariya and Tkachuk will probably be dealt at some point this season for younger assets, as the Blues will fall into the depths of both the Central and the Western Conference.

Northwest Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Calgary Flames (47-27-8; 102) – The Northwest is a huge uncertainty and toss-up by the looks of it, but the team with the most star power is the Flames. Their roster looks to be a bit thin, but Iginla is still in his prime, and it’s scary to think that neither Phaneuf nor Kiprusoff has hit his. Their point total has dropped in each of the past three seasons, but there appears no team ready to take a stranglehold of this division as a different team has won it every year since the lockout. If no team gets really hot down the stretch, the Flames should be the frontrunner to win it.

Minnesota Wild (45-30-7; 97) – A team that surprisingly put up 98 points last season on the shoulders of superstar Marian Gaborik and not much else, the same roster should yield similar results in Gaborik’s contract year. They have defense, in addition to a phenomenal young talent in goal (Backstrom), smart veterans, despite the loss of Rolston, and one of the better coaches around in Jacques Lemaire. These elements should result in a definite playoff campaign for one of the West’s more consistent team over the past few seasons. Look for a big season In Minnesota.

Edmonton Oilers (37-34-11; 85) – The Oilers haven’t been very successful since they won the West just a few seasons ago, but there is a definite vibe of hope coming into this seasons surrounding what looks to be a improved Edmonton roster. They finished strong and made a push last year, and after acquiring the likes of Cole and Visnovsky to complement the in-place talent of Cogliano, Gagner, and Souray, they should be able to fight it out until season’s end for the eighth seed in the conference. Goaltending, however, is a concern for MacTavish.

Vancouver Canucks (34-36-12; 80) – The Canucks are in the midst of a major transformation. They could tinker with veterans and stay a mediocre club, or they could start from scratch and enter a complete rebuilding project. I kept them out of the division’s cellar because Luongo is still a tremendous goalie, but scoring will be a woe of all woes for Vancouver, especially without Naslund. One ray of hope for the Canucks is that their team won’t be ravaged with injuries like they were last year. It won’t be pretty for this team this year, despite great goalie play.

Colorado Avalanche (34-37-11; 79) – Taking a look at the roster, this team looks a lot like some other lousy clubs (St. Louis, Florida, etc.), but guys like Hejduk and Stastny help keep this team afloat. The Avs will have to stay healthy and be on their game every night as there is no room for error in this division, especially with their current state. However, they could be sneaky if their goaltending holds up, but with no proven commodity in net, that’s a huge gamble. If they play hard on a consistent basis, they could challenge Edmonton or Chicago for a playoff berth.

Pacific Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Anaheim Ducks (49-27-6; 104) – One of three teams will win the Pacific, and since they’ll all make the playoffs and be legit contenders to win it all, it doesn’t matter much who finishes first. I’ll take the Ducks because of their depth and veteran talent. Giguere has proven what he can do in net, and with top-notch defenders complementing a steady balance of skilled forwards led by Getzlaf, Perry, and Selanne, this perennial contender can take home the Pacific Division title and make the playoffs for a fourth straight time. Is this team still hungry to win? That remains to be seen.

San Jose Sharks (45-27-10; 100) – The Sharks are a lot like the Ducks: veteran stars (Thornton, Cheechoo, Marleau), good defense (Boyle, Blake), great goalie (Nabokov), but their success also depends on the hunger and desire of this team to win once again. The one trait that they do not share with the Ducks is that of having already won a Stanley Cup. They didn’t feel the need to make dramatic changes in the offseason, and that’s probably a good thing for a team that wins year after year, but it’s just a matter of being able to take it to the next level.

Dallas Stars (44-27-11; 99) – Another possible Stanley Cup contender out of the Pacific resides in Dallas. Veteran forwards like Morrow and Richards bring stability to a team that reached the conference finals last year, not to mention the stellar play of goalie Marty Turco. Bringing in Sean Avery has been a plus for teams in the past; I see no reason why his acquisition by the Stars should be any different. Questions are on defense, where Dallas needs a healthy Sergei Zubov to make playoff noise. Dallas has depth at most positions, making it improbable that they will struggle at all.

Phoenix Coyotes (34-38-10; 78) – Undoubtedly a team on the rise under Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes should really be a legitimate contender a year or two from now, because of a talented crop of young players. The acquisition of Olli Jokinen from Florida gives Phoenix a big-name star since the first time since the Roenick days, bringing some excitement about hockey back to the desert. In the short-term, goaltending is still a major concern for the Coyotes, making it very unlikely that they can reach the
playoffs this season.

Los Angeles Kings (27-45-10; 64) – A team that has stockpiled lots of young talent recently seems to be going everywhere but in the right direction since the return of the NHL. This team, led by the solid Anze Kopitar, will take its lumps over the next couple of years as not much stands out in terms of personnel. The Lakers and Dodgers have taken the spotlight away from hockey in Los Angeles, and that is certainly a good thing for a team that will be the worst in the conference and probably among the worst in the NHL.

All Western Conference First Team

C - Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit
W - Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit
W - Jarome Iginla, Calgary
D - Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
D - Dion Phaneuf, Calgary
G - Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Anaheim

All Western Conference Second Team

C - Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim
W - Marian Gaborik, Minnesota
W - Brenden Morrow, Dallas
D - Brian Rafalski, Detroit
D - Brian Campbell, Chicago
G - Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose

All Western Conference Third Team

C - Joe Thornton, San Jose
W - Rick Nash, Columbus
W - Marian Hossa, Detroit
D - Chris Pronger, Anaheim
D - Sheldon Souray, Edmonton
G - Roberto Luongo, Vancouver


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