Western Conference Predictions
Who am I to disagree with Sports Illustrated? There is a rationale out there that Calgary is the logical choice to win the Western Conference because they’ve maintained the same team that went to game seven of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, but that’s not really accurate. Gone are Ville Niiminen, Oleg Sapyrkin, Craig Conroy, Martin Gelinas, Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman, and in their place, are Daymond Langkow, Darren McCarty, Tony Amonte, and Roman Hamrlik, as well as the addition of rookie blueliner Dion Pheneauf. Is it an upgrade? I think so, but we’ll find out soon enough. Either way, re-upping Jarome Iginla and Miikko Kiprusoff was a step in the right direction for a franchise that seemed to be eternally losing players, and assures that they’ll be competitive for years to come. They’ll need secondary scoring from guys like Chris Simon, Steven Reinprecht, and Chuck Kobasew in order to ease the pressure on Iginla’s top line. This team will unquestionably challenge for the top, and in a conference that is a toss up, I’m guessing finish right there.
2. San Jose Sharks
I’m going with the Sharks next because of the top Western teams, they lost the least amount. Vincent Damphousse’s departure will hurt, sure, but he was probably on his last legs anyway, Alexander Korolyuk will soon find out his success was a product of the team he was on, and Mike Rathje, though a solid defenceman, was not worth nearly as much to this team as his new contract in Philly indicates. And for this organization, losing pieces has never been an issue because they always appear to be capable of plugging in a new prospect, whether it’s Nils Ekman or Niko Dimitrakos. This year, it appears to be rookie Milan Michalek. A fantastic coach and a ton of cap room to add players as the year goes on ensures the Sharks will be successful.
3. Nashville Predators
I was going to say this would be my first controversial pick, but I saw on TSN’s preview show last night that they are collectively selecting the Preds to win their division as well. Nashville made their dent into the free agent market by signing Paul Kariya, a player who most feel will benefit greatly from the newly enforced rules. Dropped into a team that was already on the rise and full of players ready to fulfill their potential, and an organization that stresses more team play than maybe any other in the league, and you have the recipe to create a contender. Their defence has, quietly, become among the best in the league, with Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen leading the way, and adding Danny Markov from the ‘Canes only makes it that much better. Expect a massive year from Tomas Voukon, as he solidifies himself as an elite NHL goalie.
4. Vancouver Canucks
A lot of eyes will be on Vancouver this year for no other reason than the return of Todd Bertuzzi, but expect the team to be both good and exciting enough to make headlines on their own merits. The big line will continue to light it up, and it looks as if the finally have some second line scoring in the Sedins and Anson Carter. Canuck fans seem to be worried about their defence, having lost Brent Sopel and Marek Malik, which in turns means perennial 6th defenceman Brent Allen assumes a larger role, but they’ll have enough scoring to overcome it most nights. It is do or die for Dan Cloutier, as he has to either prove he’s able to be a consistent number one goalie or the franchise has to look elsewhere. Some have commented that this will be this group’s last kick at the can, and that if they fail to reach the levels expected of them (meaning, past the second round), they will be dismantled. If so, then it’ll be interesting to see if the core answers the bell knowing it’s now or never.
5. Detroit Red Wings
Once obvious choices to be penciled in a top the Western Conference, the Wings have been as hard hit as any team by the new cap era. Once able to sign whoever they wanted at whatever price it took, they’ve now had to rethink their team building approach. Gone are the years when they will be dominant, but there is still enough talent on board to keep them in the mix. Most expect Pavel Datsyuk to have a breakthrough, superstar coronation season, and the veteran group they have will bring the young players they’re depending on for next year along. One more year of Steve Yzerman can only be good, as he’ll be able to go out on the right way and not due to a lockout. Their goaltending looks to be a major sore spot, but I think Chris Osgood and Manny Legace will be able to rise to the occasion/
6. Colorado Avalanche
If the Wings were the hardest hit by the cap, maybe their rival the Av’s are second on that list. Losing Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote can’t be spun as anything but a negative, and regardless of what Pierre Lacroix says, Pierre Turgeon and Patrice Brisebois are not adequate replacements. They still have Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Alex Tanguay, and Milan Hejduk, so don’t cry too hard for the fans in Colorado, but it will be a struggle. Even since St. Patrick called it a career, they’ve been unstable between the pipes, and going into this season, I can’t see why anyone would feel differently about David Aebischer. Getting rid of the ultra-unqualified Tony Granato and replacing him with a coach’s coach in Joel Quenneville was a tremendous move for the franchise, and their defence is still good enough from 1-6 that they’ll be a playoff team.
7. Anaheim Mighty Ducks
While everyone was talking about Forsberg to Philly, Hossa to Atlanta, Heatley to Ottawa, or Khabibulin to the Blackhawks, you could make the case that the best acquistion made by any team wasn’t a player move, but rather the Ducks bringing Brian Burke into the fold as their new GM. Having proven himself capable of turning destitute franchise around in Vancouver, why expect Burke to do anything less than that in Southern California? And he didn’t waste any time improving his team, adding the bell of the free agent ball in Scott Niedermayer, as well a veteran with something to prove in Teemu Selanne. After going to the seventh game of the finals in 2003, they disappointed the hockey world by revealing themselves to be flukes by not even cracking the playoffs last year. Much of the talent is still there from their Cup run, including Conn Smythe winner J.S. Giguere in nets, who they’ll need a big year from if they are to bounce back, so the tools are there for a competitor.
8. Edmonton Oilers
For years, we heard from Kevin Lowe and the seemingly endless stream of Oilers ownership group members the spiel about “if only there was a level playing field…” Well, now we have one. So it’s time for Lowe to throw the excuses to the aside and prove the worth of both he as a GM and the talent he’s assembled. To his credit, he wasted no time in making major moves that excited the fanbase and, for the first time in a decade, put Stanley Cup discussions back in Edmonton. But were those transactions enough to make the Oilers the contenders everyone in that city now expects them to be? No. They’ll be a better team (adding Chris Pronger will do that for ya), but there are still enough holes to leave them out of the West’s upper echelon. The big one is, not surprisingly, between the pipes. Though he played well on the international level, Ty Conklin has yet to prove himself to be an NHL starter, and they don’t exactly have a back-up who’s proven he can step in and play when called upon. The hope that they have enough scoring to overcome this is, I think, incorrect, because while they have a lot of good, 20 goal caliber forwards, they lack real gamebreakers.
9. Dallas Stars
Dallas hockey fans have often been spared venom when Canadian hockey fans complain about poor southern hockey markets, because we always see sold out buildings in the Big D. But they inherited a pretty good team. If they fall as drastically as I project, will they come out with such enthusiasm? If nothing else, it’ll be a test to how much Dallas really likes hockey, or if they just like winning. They’ve had a lot of turnover, and much of the talent that remains is old and could be past their expiration date. Marty Turco will have to stand on his head for them to win on most nights, and with a depleted, subpar defence in front of him, it’s not a task I think he’ll be able to sustain long enough for the Stars to squeak into the playoffs.
10. Columbus Blue Jackers
Doug McLean proved himself to be a buyer this offseason, adding veterans Adam Foote and Bryan Berard to anchor a defence that has been their obvious weakness for years, but whatever success this team will have depends on whether or not Rick Nash can repeat his ’03-’04 performance as a top scorer and if Nikolai Zherdev is the real deal and is truly on the cusp of becoming a major NHL force. Columbus has become on the league’s best new markets, with fan support as high as any U.S. city, and this year looks to finally be the one that sees the team give them something to cheer for. If not, I imagine McLean’s run in the ‘Bus will come to an end, as he’s been given every opportunity to create a competitor and will have failed on all accounts.
11. Chicago Blackhawks
It’s ironic that the year Hawks owner Bill Wertz decided to break the bank, open his wallet, and spend on free agents occurred at the same time as when spending was kept to a cap. Still, fans of the team had reason to be excited to see the arrival of so many impact players. Any time a team adds a goalie the quality of Nikolai Khabibulin they improves their chances, but goaltending wasn’t the reason this time slipped to become one of the league’s worst. The signing of Adrian Aucoin, though not as newsworthy, may end up being more beneficial to Chicago as he gives them a defenceman capable of logging huge minutes and quarterbacking the powerplay. Their young core, consisting of guys like Tuomo Ruutu, Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder, will have to mix with all the veterans they’ve added. They’ll be greatly improved, and won’t be out of as many games as they were last season, but they’re still not a playoff team to me.
12. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have been penciled in as the club most hurt by the new league rules reform, and even though I don’t think they’ll be as bad off as some others do, largely because their team, on paper, is a good enough skating team to play in the world, it will not allow them to be as competitive as they previously were. Much of the new mandates from the league take coaching out of the game, and for a team so dependent on their bench boss winning games for them, that will affect them. One has to wonder how long their rotating goalie system will last, and if they have enough scoring to be able to keep up in a time when everyone expects goals to be up. There are guys on their roster who have been labeled as possible big scorers, but they’ll need someone, whether it’s newcomer Brian Rolston or longtime a Wild like Wes Walz, to step up.
13. Los Angeles Kings
Even though they made a lot of noise by adding the boisterous Jeremy Roenick and perpetual top scorer Pavol Demitra, the Kings have more holes in their line-up than Swiss cheese. Like a lot of teams, the most glaring is in the position you least want issues to exist in. Can Mathieu Garon be a starter? No one really knows, and the team in front of him isn’t talented enough for them to be able to get by on average goaltending. Their defence, lead by Mattias Norstrom, is slightly underrated, but I’m not sure they have enough offense to compensate for the poor goaltending they’ll get. They also seem to have a curse that brings neverending serious injuries to the team on them, and unlike previous years, there’s no longer the depth to overcome it.
14. Phoenix Coyotes
I guess this expresses what kind of chances I’m giving the Great One behind the bench. It’s a shame, really, because I’d like him to be successful, but I don’t see this experiment ending well. They did make a lot of moves to try and bolster their roster, but a lot of them seem to be based on name recognition and not any on ice issues. Getting Brett Hull on your team is a good way to get some press, but I’m very skeptical about whether or not he still has his game, and guys like Petr Nedved and Curtis Joseph might not be far behind. A few of their other moves, like Mike Ricci and Sean O’Donnell, were positive, but they’re still not the guys who will be the core of this team.
15. St. Louis Blues
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. St. Louis currently holds the NHL record for most consecutive playoff appearances with 25, but it will end this season. Previously among the league’s biggest spenders, St. Louis has hit rock bottom largely due to a transition period in ownership that saw them unable to buyout their big contracts, and thus, hinder their ability to sign significant players. The losses of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis will force youngsters Barrett Jackman, Eric Brewer and Christian Backman to carry a heavy load, their forward group, beyond the fatcats Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk is very poor, and Patrick Lalime will be their starting goalie. Enough said, right?
I’m picking Ottawa over Calgary in 6 to win the Cup. But some might say I have a bias.