The thing about NHL these days is that there are many good teams. This is what makes making these predictions a bit difficult. The Western Conference is no different from the Eastern, which I reviewed earlier this week. We have lots of teams that have improved over the off-season and this makes it hard to decide who gets in to the playoffs and who stays out. I really like what Dallas did and it was really hard not to place them in the playoffs. The Wild to me has a bit more going on for it. The biggest risks I took are with the San Jose and Predators in my opinion. The Sharks to me can be much better and Brad Stuart will improve the defensive core. But let us take a deep dive and hope you agree.
15) Columbus Blue Jackets
Let’s face it, this team is not winning many games this season. I like some of the young talent that this team has (Atkinson, Johansen, Murray, Erixon), but they will not go anywhere without proper goaltending. I know Mason lost 15 pounds and looks in the best shape of his life, but this is not enough to deter me from thinking he will not be good enough. I truly root for him to make a solid comeback and stop all of this negative criticism that is thrown his way. Bobrovsky is on the case, but the case is too much to handle. This will be an interesting tandem to watch. The Blue Jackets also suffer from the same issue as do the Islanders. Both teams are in the strongest division in hockey. Look for another last place finish from this unlucky franchise.
This team has no offense. No offense and poor defense equals disaster. The bright side is that an injection of young offensive players could change all of this. Bartschi, Cervenka, and T.J. Brodie can make instant impact. The addition of Hudler is a nice one, be it an expensive one, but it will play out different than expected. He is being paid as a 60-point guy, but will be a 50 point pace guy at best. Cammalleri could have a career year playing with Tanguay and Iginla, but that is wishful thinking (playing all of 48 games would be a good start). The thing is that the Northwest division is not the toughest in the NHL – besides Vancouver you do not have a really dominant team. This team should be better then 12th place, Kiprusoff is still top notch, but I am sliding them to finish under Colorado and Minnesota nonetheless.
13) Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks struggled last year and the problem is very clear. The teams’ highest scorer was also the oldest forward in the NHL. There is no doubt that Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan all underperformed, but it is staggering by what the rest of the team managed to do as well. This team had only one other player, beside the big four, who scored more than 30 points last season and this year it does not look any better. I know they had a wonderful run in the second half of the season, and Hiller has a new, cool mask. I do not see this team improving without some young talent and the fact that Bobby Ryan is clearly not all that happy to be in Anaheim spells doom (despite his admission of how stupid it was to ask for a trade). Look for an up and down season, but in the end this team will have a hard time competing in a tough Pacific division.
12) Colorado Avalanche
I like this team. I like it a lot. Love Landeskog and love O’Reilly (Let us hope he signs). The thing about this team is that the two of its best young players greatly underperformed last year. Duchene and Stastny both were huge disappointments last year and they still finished seven points out of the 8th spot in the West. O’Reilly was the highest scorer on the team and he may be slotted as the 3rd center on the team. Insane! The addition of P.A. Parenteau cant hurt. He should fit in very well on the line with Duchene and hopefully help him break 60 points. There are obvious question marks on this team and I will list some of them. David Jones, Milan Hejduk, Varlamov, Erik Johnson, and Ryan Wilson will have to be better, and I’m sure they can be. I think that they stall a bit here, but will stay competitive. The problem with young guys is that it is hard to peg them. Will they be able to put up points on consistent basis or will they take a step back? I have them being competitive, but just like the Flames, not enough here to break into the top eight.
You might disagree, but hear me out. The thing is that they do have lots of young talent that will probably come together to score many goals, however, the young kids have not learned how to back-check properly yet. The defense itself is not a top tier unit either. The Schultz saga ended and there was/is much hype, but he is yet to play one game, so who knows (Even though he is destroying AHL). I like for Dubnyk to take over the number one duties in net for the Oilers. Having said that, Khabibulin is known to play his best hockey in his contract year, so there might be some healthy competition in net and that is never a bad thing. The thing is, as I write this I find it hard to believe that I am putting the Oilers to finish this low. I feel that this “new” NHL favors younger and faster players and this team has a surplus of them. There is just something that screams “not ready” about the youngsters though. We need for Hall and RNH to play 82 games (the defensive unit needs to stay healthy, too) before we can move this team up the standings. Sports Illustrated has ranked them 3rd in the West.
10) Dallas Stars
When you do these predictions and you look in detail at these teams you almost go, “Wait, why am I putting them so low?” You take a peak at the teams that are left and you go “Ahh, that’s why!” The fact is that the stars have improved. Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, and Jagr are great additions. Some may joke that Dallas is now the retirement home or that Joe Newendyuk is collecting players that played in the same decade as he did. What some will not care to admit is that this team offense should be top-notch. The PP should improve the most, because last year the PP was dead last. Benn and Loui will put up 70 plus points and with Roy playing on a new team, we could see him return to a point-per-game player (not likely, but less likely things have happened). This team struggled scoring goals last year and shouldn’t struggle anymore. Lehtonen will be solid in net, but the big D is a BIG question mark for this team. Goligoski needs to stay healthy and provide a bit more offense, while the rest of the defensive group needs to find a better footing. A better powerplay could help them beat out Sharks and Phoenix, but only with elite goaltending will they make the playoffs.
9) Phoenix Coyotes
I had a hard time placing Dallas under the Coyotes in the standings. I also had a hard time placing Coyotes out of the playoffs. Why? Well because Dave Tippet, that’s why. He has done some magic in the desert, but I think he will run out of pixie dust this year. Smith, under Tippet and Burke, turned into a top tier goalie on a team that was being held together by some spit and Kleenex. The reality is that this team is undervalued every year (this year being no different), but to me this year is when they do miss the playoffs. Even with Shane Doan coming back and Steve Sullivan coming in to add some offense, I do not see them scoring enough goals to make the playoffs. Ynadle and Ekman-Larsson will provide offense from the back-end and will have to now more than ever, still, the top six just feels “meh” compared to a team like Dallas. Tippet will get more out of this team than people expect, but the desert will be dry come April.
8) Minnesota Wild
It seems ages ago since we were all holding our breath and waiting to see where Parise and Suter would end up after July 1st. It was pretty shocking that both went to one place for more money than about 12 franchises’ total value according to Forbes (98 million each while Wild total value was listed at 213 million). This was, and still is, very interesting and exciting bits and pieces for the hockey crazy Minnesota. Does this solve the drastic issues up front for the Wild? Well yes and no. For one the real catalyst for the offensive unit is Mikko Koivu (The Wild were 27 – 20 with him in the lineup and 8-16 without him). The Wild truly go as he goes and what Suter and Parise will offer should be a compliment to his efforts. The powerplay should improve from 27th in the league last year and they should score more than 177 goals (that is only two goals per game for mathematically challenged). What also works for the Wild is that they should be better than the Flames, Colorado, and Edmonton. Those extra wins should be enough to grab the 8th spot in the West.
7) Detroit Red Wings
There were two teams in the West that lost a top defenceman on their team – the Red Wings and Predators. To me the impact will be felt by the Red Wings much more than by the Predators. We know that no one can replace “number five” (I feel terrible just for comparing him to Suter.. I’m really not) and Kenny Holland did not even bother. Instead he is using his well-seasoned young guns to fill in the depth chart on the back end. Datsyuk and Zetterberg will still carry the load and push 70 point pace and maybe 80 point pace if they stay healthy and play 48 games, but the condensed season could take its toll on the two aging stars. Losing Hudler was not a big deal because Filppula and Zetterberg were the starts on that line last year. Samuelsson should replace Hudler and match his numbers, while giving Detroit another PP pivot on the blue line. Brendan Smith will be a good addition on the blue line, while Jakub Kindl is not as bad as most Wing fans would have you believe. Kronwall will step up and as most fantasy guides will tell you he performs very well when Lindstrom (be it very rarely) sat out due to injury. Howard will back stop this team into the playoffs, but without some better than expected years from Franzen, Nyquist, and it will be interesting to see how Damien Brunner plays out, do not expect another Cup run.
6) Nashville Predators
Yeah, 6th in the West, and yes, I still remember that the Predators are without Suter. Like some minorities in the NHL universe, I stray to the thought that Nashville will be fine without Suter. Weber is locked in and he makes a difference. The most important piece of the Predators team is of course Barry Trotz. While the Red Wings rely on scoring lots of goals, Barry Trotz has instilled a tight defensive game that relies on extremely good goaltending of Pekka Rinne with tight back checking. System hockey makes it easier to fill the roster holes that arise due to the free agency. This is why the Predators will not suffer much. Just look at their PP last year and tell me how that powerplay (oozing with superstars) was better than Chicago’s? They have a solid chance for a good playoff run and shown last year that they are willing to add depth at the trade deadline. Look for a solid finish and lots of frustrating games for the Wings fans.
5) Chicago Blackhawks
26th in PP, 27th in PK, and 22nd in goals against. Those stats would make you assume this team finished somewhere near the bottom in the standings, right? Well this team is that good to overcome these terrible numbers. This is why I think that they will only be better this year. There is no way with Keith at the point, Toews at center, and Kane and Sharp, that you do not have a good PP unit. Oh, and Hossa is completely healthy and apparently is in the best shape of his career, thanks to the lockout he had plenty of time to heal up after he suffered a concussion during the playoffs. So expect these numbers to be a bit better. Crawford will be better, too. He had an awful year and just could not get it going, but look for him to rebound. Extra powerplay goals will definitely help him win more games and get more confidence. So while the Central division is highly competitive, naturally this will hurt the overall standings, I do not see this team faltering as much as they did last year.
4) San Jose Sharks
The Sharks just did not score as many goals as they should have. I would expect with the talent they have upfront, to be in the top ten in team scoring this season. The 29th PK will also improve. Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Couture, Pavelski, and Clowe is a big time top-6. The PP will keep on rocking with Burns and Boyle on the blue line and maybe a few adjustments to boot. The addition of Brad Stuart will solidify the top-4 defensive core. The goaltending could get better, but Greiss and Niemi will put up solid numbers that can improve with better penalty kill. This team under-performed last year, just as Chicago, but the Pacific is not as tough as the Central and those extra wins will push them up to 4th place.
3) St. Louis Blues
Who else could win the Central division? My biggest question mark here is the goaltending. Can Elliot and Halak continue such dominance in net? The fact is that the Blues did not score that many goals and that number can only go up, way up. Oshie should flirt with 60 points pace if not more, and so should Perron. While a healthy Andy McDonald showed what he can do in the playoffs, I would expect him to finally play an entire season albeit a shortened one. Backes is a rock and lots of NHL players will attest to this after having tried to hit him, or especially those who have been hit by him. I really hope to see Tarasenko play for the Blues as well, as he has reported to the camp and is practicing with the team. With solid coaching and extremely balanced four-line attack, with some very dynamic players who know how to back check, you are looking at another Central division title.
2) Los Angeles Kings
Yes, the champs are that good and they will be that good this year again. No scoring woes and no cup hangover. Well there will be hangovers to be had, but I am sure by the time the season starts they have had enough Tylenol and Naked: Green Machines to get back to hockey shape thanks to the prolonged lockout. Was it just me or did it seem like the entire team was just drinking 24/7 after winning the cup? I digress. Let’s get back to this year. Carter and Richards got their bro-mance back and this is good news for all of the brand new LA Kings fans. Scoring did not exactly come in buckets to LA last year. 29th in goals scored is not how they were expected to finish last year and surely did not look like a team that struggled to score during the playoffs. Quick will continue his dominance and help solidify his starting position for the USA Olympics squad. What could go wrong? Well, not much except maybe a few weeks without Anze Kopitar at the start of the season, but plenty of leadership and a blue line that is only getting better, look for a great season that may not end in a President Trophy due to a better Pacific Division.
1) Vancouver Canucks
Who else? The Division is weak enough to nick some points and get that 1st overall spot. I do not think they will grab as many points as the NY Rangers and will not win the President Trophy this year. The question mark for this team is who will be in net at the beginning of the season. Luongo or Schneider? Whoever it is, it will not matter. Both are solid and if Luongo is moved for some quality assets, the roster could only improve. The time to win is now, so I would expect the Luongo deal yield some assets that can provide immediate impact. The roster has not changed much but it does not need to. I love the addition of Jason Garrison. His boom stick will be very important during the playoffs. Why? Well 0-14 in their first 3 games versus the Kings. You cannot win without a good powerplay and the importance of a good PP is amplified during the playoffs. I think they remedy this, but look for more of the same from this team. The twins put up consistent points and this team cruses to another dominant season. What else can be said?
For those who did not see my Eastern Conference predictions, I suggest you have a look to see the one BIG surprise I have finishing near the bottom! Also, have a look at my column, “NHL Happy Hour“, to see how some hockey players can be compared with vodka. Finally, please follow me on Twitter for timely and helpful NHL related tweets – @LastWordOnNHL. Cheers!