It's that time of year again, folks. Hockey is back, and the faceoff of the 2011-2012 NHL season is only a week away.
With the preseason already beginning to wind down, the ongoing river of "expert" predictions is in full swing. Not to be one left out of the fun, we had to chime in with another set of controversial, fan-angering standings projections.
For the Western Conference (as well as the East), the offseason of '11 was an eventful one. The deaths of three recent or current players dampened the ecstasy over Winnipeg's long-awaited return to the league's fold. Elsewhere, a plethora of trades and signings became the talk of the summer—the dual Minnesota-San Jose swaps, Columbus's addition of Jeff Carter and the Kings' grabs of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.
The quantity of headlines has made the conference even tougher to predict, which is why we're going to go out on a limb more than just once or twice in this predictions. Public opinion aside, this will be the blunt truth—and it might get ugly, at times.
As a warning to hockey fans in the Detroit, Calgary and Nashville (wait, are there really hockey fans there?) areas, we recommend you hit that "minimize" tab now before getting all wound up. All other readers, however, are free to continue...and then chime in with your own criticism in the comments section below.
Note: This article is the complement to our complete Eastern Conference predictions that were published earlier this week.
While we're not humongous fans of Brad Richards, his departure will certainly hurt this Dallas Stars offense that still ranked 17th last season.
Brendan Morrow and Mike Ribiero still have some years left; Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are nice unheralded forwards, too. Nevertheless, the lack of a legitimate third or fourth line will hurt the Stars' goal scoring significantly.
The defense looks iffy, as well, with Stephane Robidas beginning to decline, and the goaltending cast of Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft seem average at best and unlikely to duplicate last year's surprising decency. Although Dallas did get their name out in terms of free agency, signings Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Vernon Fiddler and Sheldon Souray are unlikely to be difference-makers.
Projected Scoring Leader: Loui Eriksson (32G-44A-66P)
Projected Total Points: 70
Although the Flames made a brilliant trade to acquire Lee Stempniak from Phoenix, the Flames didn't do nearly enough this summer to overcome their increasingly alarming aging problem (Calgary has the third-oldest average age in the NHL) and remain in the playoff hunt.
We worry that this team might not know how to win without Jarome Iginla, who's been the club centerpiece for over a decade but has been the subject of many a trade rumor now at age 34. He actually had a rebound campaign in '10-11, scoring 43 times and totaling 86 points, including his career's 1,000th. If he leaves, Calgary's offense will surely struggle, considering they'd have just four players who lit the lamp more than a dozen times last season.
On the blue line, Chris Butler and Scott Hannan will, at best, merely replace the now-departed Robin Regehr and Steve Staios, and the defense can't afford to be too weak with a declining old netminder in Mikka Kiprusoff.
A bottom-five offense would doom the Flames this year, and we're simply afraid that's where they're headed.
Projected Leading Scorer: Jarome Iginla (39G-40A-79P)
Projected Total Points: 75
As it has been every year lately, '11-12 could be another painful season for Alberta hockey fans. Edmonton is slowly building the assets necessary to become contenders in another year or two, but they're too blue at the moment for any postseason push.
Four 22-or-under forwards—top overall picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as well as Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner—are the future of the franchise, and their cause should be aided by newly added Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth. However, with center Andrew Cogliano and power-play defenseman Kurtis Foster gone, even re-emergences from Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff would make the Oilers offense no better than mediocre.
The aforementioned departure of Foster looks like a risky move at the moment, as he was one of the more underrated offensive D-men in the league. Free-agent signings Cam Barker and Andy Sutton solidify the bottom of the unit, but this defense that ranked 28th last season looks even worse than they did.
In the long run, Edmonton has a huge stash of prospects with which to cement the foundation. Conversely, they look extremely weak at all three major points for now.
Projected Leading Scorer: Taylor Hall (32G-29A-61P)
Projected Total Points: 76
The Phoenix Coyotes might just be the toughest team to predict in the NHL. Without star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, this club has lost the identity that made it an oddly formidable opponent in recent years, but they hopefully have retained their continual ability to over-perform and outshine their on-paper expectations.
Overpaid or not, holding on to phenomenal young defenseman Keith Yandle, age 25, was vital for the 'Yotes. He alone makes up for the sad fact that their second-best blueliner (with Ed Jovanovsky now in Florida) is 33-year-old Michal Rozsival. Yandle was amazingly just one point off the team scoring lead—albeit the lowest one in the NHL—in '10-11, and watched his impressive 59-point, plus-12 performance vault him into the All-Star Game.
Elsewhere on the team, though, holes abound. Media-hyped Shane Doan scored just 20 strikes last year, and while the Coyotes had a remarkable 10 players with double-digit goals, two of them—Eric Belanger and Lee Stempniak, who both had 19—are now gone and another, Ray Whitney, is probably too old to repeat. Furthermore, it's hard to know if any of the newcomers Raffi Torres, Daymond Langkow and Boyd Gordon could perhaps join the group.
Phoenix will surely struggle with matchups on defense, and having Mike Smith as a starting goaltender, something he never earned in six years with Dallas and Tampa Bay, doesn't bode well, either. We're going to take the "under" on this squad for now.
Projected Leading Scorer: Lauri Korpikoski (26G-17A-43P)
Projected Total Points: 79
Truthfully, how many headlines have you heard about the Blue Jackets anytime over the past five months? For most, that number is probably one, and it's the story that is making Columbus go 'round this offseason: Jeff Carter.
Will he finally be the superstar center they've been expecting for so long? Will he mesh as perfectly as expected with roster centerpiece Rick Nash? Will he be able to transform another one of their shipload of perpetual underperformers into the third and last first-line puzzle piece?
The Columbus Blue Jackets and fans surely hope the answers are "yes" to those ponderings, for, if it isn't, this team is in a heap of trouble.
Steve Mason looks more inconsistent than ever in goal, and the Jackets' No. 2 option was downgraded this summer from Mathieu Garon to Mark Dekanich. On offense, the club gave up on and shipped off Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Kyle Wilson, Kristian Huselius's injury plague is continuing and you can never tell when Derick Brassard, Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger will suddenly take a step backwards.
Their defense will be fine, especially with James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek now added to the fold, but are unlikely to be the shutdown group needed to make Steve Mason an adequate backstop. The Blue Jackets look poised to slip just short of that eighth seed yet again in '11-12.
Projected Leading Scorer: Rick Nash (40G-33A-73P)
Projected Total Points: 91
We're big fans of the Nashville Predators' new citrus-flavored jersey set debuting this season, but it seems unlikely that a change in color will help out this team of two sides.
The plus side is the defense, where the Preds are arguably the best in the league. Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Pekka Rinne, standing tall at 6'6", is a major asset coming off of his .930 save percentage, second in the NHL, and 2.12 GAA, third in the league, last year.
Keeping the puck from reaching him will a be a sturdy defense headlined by superstar Shea Weber, who was retained for another season through arbitration. The 26-year-old defenseman was fourth on the team in scoring, including six power-play goals, second in blocked shots and first in hits a year ago. Weber is supported by fellow defensemen Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein, but will have to live with a shallower unit than in recent campaigns now that Shane O'Brien (Colorado) and Cody Franson (Toronto) have left.
Though Nashville, as they were last year, remains a top-five team in terms of goals against, they might just cancel out all successes in that department with their miserable offensive cast. Forwards Joel Ward (Washington), Marcel Goc (Florida), Steve Sullivan (Pittsburgh), J-P Dumont (retirement) and Matthew Lombardi (Toronto) were all lost through free agency, and the Preds have few solutions to fill their place. These holes will further crumble Nashville's scoring attack that was still only tied for 21st-best in '10-11.
The Predators will be a bubble team, no doubt, but their lack of explosiveness could cost them a spot as the race heats up in March and April when the going gets rough.
Projected Scoring Leader: Patric Hornqvist (26G-30A-56P)
Projected Total Points: 94
For more on the Predators' struggles throughout the free-agency period, take a glance at this.
Many supporters of the Colorado Avalanche are justifiably upset that the Avalanche chose not to pursue Tomas Vokoun last July as the answer to recent netminding dilemmas, but acquiring Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere is still a major improvement over the old.
Varlamov, though never a full-time starter, is still only 23 and has had relatively good numbers over three partial seasons in the U.S. capital, going 30-13-16 with a .917 save percentage and 2.37 GAA over his career with the Capitals. Albeit a risky move, Varlamov easily has the potential to become a very viable starter, and should also benefit from the experience of his new cohort, Giguere.
The Avs, who actually were a playoff team season before last, also made a variety of other switches throughout the rest of the lineup to add a new spark to this young, skill-laden squad. Jan Hedja of Columbus and Shane O'Brien of Nashville, two underrated blueliners, replace traded John-Michael Liles and retired Adam Foote on D. Meanwhile, Chuck Kobasew and Joakim Lindstrom will fill the roles of Tomas Fleischmann and Phillipe Dupuis in the offensive scheme.
With 2011 first-round picks Gabriel Landeskog and Duncan Seimens hoping to make a difference as soon as possible and other young offensive stars like Matt Duchene (27 goals and 40 assists last year), Paul Stastny (22 goals, 35 assists), David Jones (27 goals, 18 assists) and Ryan O'Reilly (13 goals, 13 assists) boosting the offense, Colorado is teetering on the brink of having another postseason-quality roster yet again.
Projected Scoring Leader: Matt Duchene (35G-51A-86P)
Projected Total Points: 94
For more reading, here is our take on why July transformed Colorado into playoff contenders.
For the Minnesota Wild, the time to finally find the playoffs is right now. If another disappointing season goes into the books, an era will end in St. Paul, and a new long and possibly fruitless rebuilding project will be forced to begin.
Fortunately, a strong summer of moves, a well-meshed roster and an easy schedule will help the Minnesota Wild finally earn that long-awaited berth. Franchise players Brent Burns and Martin Havlat are gone, but an entirely new array of advantages have been brought in.
Former San Jose Sharks Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi infuse experience and talent into the Wild, and both should prosper with larger roles than they've ever had before. They'll join a healthy Guilllame Latendresse, as well as fellow top-six forwards Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak, in the Wild's hard-hitting, under-the-radar offensive group.
Late-blooming goaltender Niklas Backstrom is moving up in age and not getting the press coverage he used to, but is still a player that Minnesota can rely on. He'll be buttressed by a tremendously conservative defense; not one of the Wild's six NHL defensemen scored more than 24 points last year. Marek Zidlicky should function as the power-play quarterback, but cornerstones Greg Zanon and Nick Schultz, up-and-comers Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk and Marco Scandella, and new arrival Mike Lundin fit together as a solid group.
Heading into the upcoming '11-12 season, not a soul dares to call the Wild a playoff team—in fact, ESPN ranks them dead last in the conference in their NHL preview. But don't sleep on Minnesota just yet, because they have the balance to become a dark-horse team in a hurry.
Projected Scoring Leader: Dany Heatley (32G-39A-71P)
Projected Total Points: 95
Age will finally catch up with the Detroit Red Wings this year. The most elderly team in the NHL, with an average age standing at an astounding 30.54, may have experience on their side, but they simply don't have the youthful energy to keep up with up-and-coming finesse teams like Los Angeles (seventh-youngest), St. Louis (ninth-youngest) and Colorado (youngest).
Except for goaltender Jimmy Howard, every single one of the Red Wings' centerpieces has passed his prime age; Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are 30, Johan Franzen is 31, Danny Cleary is 32, Pavel Datsyuk is 33, Tomas Holmstrom is 38 and Niklas Lidstrom is a whopping 41. Age already cost the Wings one star this summer—defenseman Brian Rafalski decided to leave hockey at 37—and will cost them even more as the year goes on.
The production levels have yet to drop for many of these players, which has been the factor keeping Detroit in the elite category despite their ever-looming issue. With another summer of ignorance to this increasingly crucial problem, the Red Wings seem completely unprepared should any injury or underperformance crisis hit.
Furthermore, a weakened defense might also spell trouble for the Red Wings, as increased pressure on Jimmy Howard, something he's yet to deal with, might force a bit too much weather on the 27-year-old. The aforementioned Lidstrom and Kronwall are simply too old to be fully relied upon, and, without Rafalski and Ruslan Salei, third-pairing role players Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson as well as free-agent signings Ian White and Mike Commodore will be forced to handle alarmingly large roles.
All in all, the Red Wings are still one of the cream of the crop on paper, but the quicksand beneath the franchise may be on the verge of giving way.
Projected Scoring Leader: Henrik Zetterberg (23G-55A-78P)
Projected Total Points: 98
Two notable summer additions—Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, ranked the fourth- and first-best, respectively, bargain signings of the offseason by our in-depth formula—added the final pieces to this well-rounded St. Louis Blues club, and transformed them from a streaky dark horse into a legitimate playoff contender.
However, while those two veterans who've managed to retain their scoring touches are nice finishing touches, the cement that holds together this team has been developing for several years...and it all revolves around arguably the best group of top-six forwards in the NHL.
From end to end, it's an extremely unheralded group: David Backes (66 points, 213 hits and a plus-32 last year), Andy McDonald (50 points, 59.3 faceoff percentage and a plus-18), Chris Stewart (53 points, 12 power-play goals and a 17.3 shooting percentage), Patrik Berglund (52 points, 116 hits), Alexander Steen (51 points, two shorthanded goals) and Matt D'Agostini (46 points, five game-winners) all fill valuable niches in the offense. And that's not even including former first-round selection T.J. Oshie.
St. Louis is evidently poised to detonate into a top-five offense in '11-12—in fact, they were already 10th in that regard last year. But what about defense? Well, they certainly can stand up for themselves there, too. Youngsters Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are only a few strides away from becoming the best 25-and-under shutdown duo in the NHL, and new signing Kent Huskins only adds grit to some tough lower-liners such as Barrett Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Roman Polak.
Projected Leading Scorer: David Backes (41G-40A-81P)
Projected Total Points: 99
For a more in-depth look at the Blues' strengths heading into the season opener, read this slideshow.
We only project the San Jose Sharks to slip one point off of last year's total of 105 (see bottom of slide), but increased competition, especially in the brutally competitive Pacific Division, will knock the Sharks out of the home-ice-advantage crowd headed into April 2012.
The Sharks made a smart move exporting uninspired Dany Heatley for a nice return in Martin Havlat, who has the talents to find great chemistry with the team-defining Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton two-headed monster that combined for 143 points, 20 power-play strikes and 12 game-winning goals in '10-11 yet again. Havlat, still only 30, has managed to remain a consistent 50-plus-point player despite a career dampened by poor teams.
The Sharks have a number of options for the second line—like fan favorites Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe, rookie breakout Logan Couture and veteran newcomer Michal Handzus—but do have a weakness on the third line, generally one of the more unheralded weapons of an elite club. If they do have to deal with moving up forwards such as Torrey Mitchell and Benn Ferriero out of the cellar, San Jose's typically rock-solid offense might take a hit.
The defense might be slightly off of par this year as the guard begins to change, with the franchise's well-developed prospects (Jason Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun) taking over for the over-the-hill stars (Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin). Antti Niemi can certainly hold the fort, though; he received surprisingly little media attention despite a strong follow-up campaign after his 2010 Cup victory.
Projected Leading Scorer: Patrick Marleau (36G-38A-74P)
Projected Total Points: 104
It was by luck more than skill that the Anaheim Ducks landed the fourth seed in the Western Conference last year; going into the final night of the regular season, they stood in eighth. But this time around, Anaheim has reason to stay in that position for the second consecutive campaign, for this team, despite their lack of coverage, is really, truly good.
The "good" revolves around the best first line in the NHL—Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. The combined statistics for the trio have been amazing since their unification at the beginning of the '08-09 season. Over 683 total man-games throughout the three seasons, they've totaled up 272 goals, including 43 game-winners, 674 points, including 218 on the power play, and a plus-79 rating. And the oldest of the three is only 26.
Factor in a few more weapons into that arsenal—namely Teemu Selanne, who scored 80 points at age 40 last year and is coming back for more, ex-Oiler Andrew Cogliano, traded to Anaheim this summer, and offensive defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, a 68-point scorer (that's more than Jeff Skinner, Mike Richards and Rick Nash!) a year ago—and the Ducks have compiled a vicious offense on all facets.
Furthermore, Olympic netminder Jonas Hiller is clearly an above-average goalie when healthy, and the additions of Kurtis Foster and Matt Smaby to a defense already headlined by youngsters Cam Fowler, Toni Lydman and the previously praised Visnovsky only make his supporting cast stronger. Any way you look at it, the Anaheim Ducks are a sly dark horse to contend for a Stanley Cup in 2012.
Projected Scoring Leader: Ryan Getzlaf (24G-61A-85P)
Projected Total Points: 105
For the Sedin twins, the time to win is now. With their 31st birthdays happening last week, Daniel and Henrik are as high on the hill as they'll ever be, but still haven't been able to push the Vancouver Canucks all the way to the top.
Although they'll appreciate an easy schedule, as usual, in '11-12, the lack of title contenders in the Northwest Division won't help them once the postseason rolls around again. With doubts floating around after last June's finals meltdown, this season will only bring more questions to answer about the elite legitimacy of this squad.
Is Roberto Luongo capable of winning a Stanley Cup? Well, we're not really sure; he's a fairly impeccable starter most of the time, but his bad performances are very costly. And, if he's not, is Cory Schneider capable of being the new starter for this team? That's tough to call, as well.
Does the rest of the offense have the durability to last for the entirety of a 130-game season? They didn't last year—Mason Raymond, Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Hamhuis, Sami Salo and Mikael Samuelsson were all beat up as the postseason ground on.
Will the second lines hurt the Canucks matchups? Last year, Ryan Kesler and the Sedins were a great top line, totaling 271 points, but the second line is a bit more iffy; Raymond remains injured, Raffi Torres is gone and Mikael Samuelsson, Manny Malhotra and Chris Higgins might not have the skills to deserve a spot there. On defense, the departure of Ehrhoff will require both Alexander Edler and Salo to stay healthy if the 'Nucks want to keep an experienced duo on the second pairing.
Will the concerns trump the overwhelming strong points for Vancouver? We'll just have to see.
Projected Scoring Leader: Daniel Sedin (39G-55A-94P)
Projected Total Points: 105
The 2010-2011 season was merely an anomaly for the Chicago Blackhawks. It won't take long for them to return to the top. In fact, we see them returning to title contention as early as this year.
Almost every category is rock solid for the 'Hawks.
They have top-level talent; Jonathan Teows, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane were the keystones for their '09-10 Cup run and stayed sharp (pun intended) last year, combining for 220 points. They have depth; 11 different players, including nine forwards, all produced more than 35 tallies last season.
They have a shutdown defensive pair; it's simply hard to beat the duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. And they have grit; this entire summer, which was highlighted by the signings of tough-guys Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Andrew Brunette and Sean O'Donnell, was dedicated to establishing it.
The rest of the free-agent additions were mostly focused on defense (Steve Montador and Sami Lepisto were signed along with O'Donnell), which might need some support considering a sophomore slump may be in the books for young goalie Corey Crawford, who really outperformed his billing in his 33-18-6 debut campaign.
Chicago is back. Take our word for it.
Projected Scoring Leader: Patrick Kane (35G-47-82P)
Projected Total Points: 109
We knew the Los Angeles Kings were going to be title contenders a week ago when making our preliminary rankings, for we'd been on that bandwagon from the start. But would they be strong enough to win the Western Conference and perhaps take the Presidents' Trophy into the playoffs? That all depended on Drew Doughty.
Now the debacle is settled, and L.A. is poised to leap over the rest of the competition and grab a spot atop the standings. All the pieces are in place—a newly solidified top six, a world-class first pairing of defense and the best one-two punch of young goaltenders in the NHL.
Former Flyers teammates Mike Richards (a past 80-point scorer) and Simon Gagne (a former 47-goal shooter) will fill out a more-than-respectable upper class of forwards already cemented with Anze Kopitar, the most underrated team scoring leader in the league, Dustin Brown, who had 57 points to go along with the second-most hits in the league last season, Justin Williams, a late-blooming former Cup winner, and Dustin Penner, the biggest mover of the 2011 trade deadline.
Doughty and Jack Johnson, both still under 25 years of age, complement each other beautifully and should be a pair to watch as the focus of the hockey world shifts to the Kings. Alec Martinez and Rob Scuderi aren't to be overlooked, either.
Lastly, Los Angeles is fully set in goal as their Jonathans—starter Quick and backup Bernier—are both capable backstops. Quick is instinctive and, as his name describes, very quick with his pad and glove, but has several other important features, such as an uncanny ability to always win his shootouts (an impeccable 10-0 record in the SO last year).
So, let's recap: What are the Los Angeles Kings actually missing?
Projected Scoring Leader: Anze Kopitar (34G-51A-85P)
Projected Total Points: 112
For our full article on why the Los Angeles Kings are Cup contenders this year, click here.