This is the fourth year in which I’ve offered predictions as to how the Western Conference will sort out although it’s the first year I’ve done so with a shortened National Hockey League (NHL) season. And it’s those variables of a 48-game versus the traditional 82-game season that makes traditional predictions much trickier: a condensed schedule, player conditioning, injuries sustained in another league (i.e. KHL) and the urgency to get off to a fast start.
Like last year’s predictions, I will assess the specific finish of each team in the 15-team conference. While this changed method is subject to more error, when it comes to the NHL and its playoffs, your seeding/position doesn’t matter. With that, here are my predictions (in ascending order, from 1st to 15th):
1) St. Louis Blues – This once consistently underachieving team stunned the Western Conference by finishing 2nd in the standings, buoyed by the arrival of Ken Hitchcock, which garnered Hitchcock the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s top coach. The goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot were buoyed by Hitchcock’s defense-first, two-way system which, to a goalie, is ‘chicken soup for the soul’ with Elliot posting the lowest Goals Against Average (GAA) and Save Percentage (Save %) in the NHL. While this team wasn’t a goal-scoring juggernaut, having finished 21st in the NHL in scoring goals, they should be bolstered by the arrivals of Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ty Rattie. If there are any questions, they may be in whether Hitchcock’s relentless style could eventually wear on the Blues, particularly if they struggle out of the gate or become beset by injuries. But the gritty Blues appear to have embraced an ‘all in’ philosophy in playing for Hitchcock so it then becomes a matter of whether they can take the next step in the playoffs.
2) Vancouver Canucks – There’s no question the ‘Nucks are a talented team, one capable of competing in the Stanley Cup finals as they did in 2011. The prevailing question is whether Roberto Luongo will remain with the organization, much less be a part of any playoff push. The Luongo trade rumors were one of the hottest topics during the summer and it’s now intensified even more now that the NHL’s lockout has ended with the likes of the Philadelphia Flyers showing great interest in the once-elite goalie. It’s become readily apparent that Cory Schneider is now Vancouver’s ‘go to’ goalie carried the workload during the second half of the regular season and replaced Luongo in their 1st round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings after Luongo struggled during the first few games. A for the offense, the Sedin twins lead the assault and are complemented by Ryan Kessler, Alex Burrows and David Booth, particularly if Booth can regain his goal-scoring touch as he did in 2008-2009. The acquisition of Jason Garrison should bolster an already solid blueline corps.
3) Los Angeles Kings – The reigning Stanley Cup champions took its faithful on one of the more dynamic swings of fortunes, going from an underachieving team, one who narrowly qualified for the playoffs, to a very good to great to a team who is now a part of Stanley Cup lore. The Kings they possess a potent mix of balanced frontline talent in Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, captain Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, acquired in a trade from Columbus, thus rejoining former Flyers teammates Mike Richards and Simon Gagne and Dustin Penner. The Kings blueline is one of the best in the NHL with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov, Rob Scuderi and Alec Martinez. Although the Kings puzzled even their own followers with their struggles in ‘lighting the lamp’, given their apparent firepower, they do possess one of the NHL’s top netminders with Jonathan Quick and backup Jonathan Bernier should Quick encounter issues after having off-season back surgery. The prevailing question is whether the Kings can avoid the dreaded ‘Stanley Cup hangover’ that has hindered every team in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings were the last team who were able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, back in 1998.
4) Minnesota Wild – Normally, a team who makes two changes to their roster doesn’t merit such a seismic rise in the rankings or standings, but in the case of the Wild, those two particular acquisitions were seismic in and of themselves. Acquiring two elite, northern USA-born and raised stars like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter make the Wild instantly competitive in the brutal Western Conference, but combining the pair with a stellar blueline, an elite goalie tandem in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding and an elite corps of homegrown talent in Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund, along with solid stalwarts like Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Devin Setoguchi and you have the makings of a team who could be a serious Stanley Cup contender. What will be interesting is how quickly the Wild get through the ‘Hello, My Name Is’ phase as well as the health of Harding who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in November.
5) San Jose Sharks – While the Sharks disappointed a bit in 2011-2012, particularly in the playoffs, they do possess a solid unit of veteran talent in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Brett Burns and a solid supporting cast in Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe. They also added Brad Stuart and Adam Burish to provide grit and sandpaper. They also have a solid if unspectacular goalie tandem in Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss. The questions with the Sharks aren’t as much with whether they’ll qualify for the playoffs, they lie with whether this veteran team will ever advance to the Stanley Cup finals. The window of opportunity may be closing, or it may be closing, soon.
6) Nashville Predators – We’ve heard the same story every year: the Preds have had another defection of elite players, they don’t score enough goals, their downfall is inevitable. But, for the past seven of eight seasons, the Preds qualify for the playoffs and were able to advance into the 2nd round of the playoffs after dispatching of the Detroit Red Wings, four games to one. Yes, the Preds did lose elite defenseman Ryan Suter to free agency, but, before you consider counting them out for the playoffs, they do have this going for them: arguably one of the top goalies in the NHL in Pekka Rinne, one of the top defensemen in the NHL in Shea Weber, what’s become quietly one of the NHL’s top scoring teams – the Preds finished in the top 10 in scoring, last season – as well as most of their forward line cast. Add to that no one develops the blueline like Preds General Manager (GM) David Poile, not to mention the probable ascent of many of their young prospects in Ryan Ellis, Jonathan Blum and 2008 1st round pick Colin Wilson and you have a team who most likely will qualify for the playoffs, once again.
7) Chicago Blackhawks – While the Blackhawks, for the first time in quite a long time, had a very little turnover in its roster and while they continue to possess an elite cadre of talent, the ‘Hawks have one glaring issue: huge question marks in goal. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery don’t exactly conjure up images of Patrick Roy or Bernie Parent. There are also questions marks with the health of Marian Hossa who was concussed after a flagrant blow to the head/cheap shot by the Phoenix Coyotes Raffi Torres as well as Patrick Sharp. One other question is whether Patrick Kane will ever live up to the elite status heaped on him while drafted 1st overall in 2007 as Kane has topped 73 points in a season only once in his career, that being during the Stanley Cup championship season of 2009-2010 in which he registered 88 points. Their blueline, while solid, is also a bit undersized and comes at quite a price tag so the likes of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith will have to step their efforts up for the ‘Hawks to contend in post-season play.
8) Detroit Red Wings – Let me preface this by professing my awe for how the Detroit Red Wings run their organization. Led by GM Ken Holland, they are the blueprint for how to build and maintain an elite team in this age of NHL parity. However, as is often the case with an aging, cap-bloated team, a downfall is inevitable. And while the Red Wings possess elite forwards in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and have one of the emerging great goalies in Jimmy Howard, they have lost, over the past two seasons, the likes of Niklas Lidstrom, the greatest defenseman of his time, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart. Losing so many elite and generational players like these on their blueline will have a devastating effect on their Stanley Cup title aspirations. To ask prospect Brendan Smith, Kyle Quincey and Niklas Kronwall to replace those players is a lot to ask for, but I know better than to ever count this organization out.
9) Phoenix Coyotes – I admit to have erred in assessing the fortunes of the Coyotes for the past two seasons. I should have not underestimated the coaching prowess of head coach Dave Tippett and his gritty, defense-first style, nor should I have underestimated the greatness of goaltending coach Sean Burke. Their ability to resurrect goalie Mike Smith from goaltending purgatory was nothing short of amazing. The ‘Yotes also possess some of the great young defensemen in Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and prospects David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley. However, losing the ageless wonder, Ray Whitney, to free agency, will impact such a scoring-starved team greatly. However, much like Detroit, I have learned to not buy into the perceived ‘gloom and doom’ scenario most pundits have cast for the ‘Desert Dogs.
10) Dallas Stars – The Stars were another team for which I have believed a precipitous downfall was inevitable and, once again, while they didn’t qualify for the playoffs in any of the past four seasons, they sure made the race quite interesting right to the very last few days of the regular season. This season, however, the Stars have made some savvy moves to bolster their playoff fortunes in acquiring veteran scorers in Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy to add to their group of solid, young talent in Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Alex Goligoski. Kari Lehtonen appears to have finally shook off the injury bug and has now fulfilled the promise of the NHL’s 2nd overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft to become a workhorse starting goaltender. If the 40-plus duo of Jagr and Whitney can continue to defy Father Time, the Stars could surprise in the Western Conference playoff race.
11) Anaheim Ducks – Last season, a horrid start was almost salvaged with the arrival of coach Bruce Boudreau from the Washington Capitals; however, rumors of trading any or all of the Ducks’ Big Three line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf as well as the return from vertigo of goaltender Jonas Hiller had the most impact on their falling short of the playoffs. Rumors continue to swirl regarding Bobby Ryan, so if the Ducks do decide to trade their star young winger, perhaps garnering some blueline help, younger scoring support or a solid goalie could help their cause both now and in the future. Their blueline does not even closely resemble the days of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer and the supporting blueline pairings. There supporting lines are aged – Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne – or haven’t quite lived up to the promise – Kyle Palmieri and Andrew Cogliano.
12) Colorado Avalanche – Although the Avs hung in the Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff race, there were aspects of the team that were greatly disappointing, aspects that if not occurring, could have resulted in their making the playoffs, last season. While a healthy Ryan O’Reilly was a pleasant surprise and the emergence of Calder Trophy recipient Gabriel Landeskog certainly helped, the struggles of elite, young forwards Paul Stasnty and particularly Matt Duchene, who plummeted from 67 points to 28 points, although a knee injury and high ankle sprain may have hampered his usual scoring proclivity. Large concerns also remain with their goaltending, with oft-injured goaltender Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere backing him up. But, for the Avs to ascend among the Western Conference ranks, they will need Erik Johnson to become the elite defenseman that was once worthy of the 1st overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
13) Edmonton Oilers – While perhaps no team in the NHL possesses the young firepower the Oilers have in their forward lines, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and 1st overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Nail Yakupov, the Oilers have continued to struggle to escape winning the NHL Draft Lottery, albeit doing so this past season via winning the lottery draw. What holds the Oilers back is a lack of a sturdy, defensively-adept blueline and mediocre goaltending with Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk. The Oilers also struck gold in the Justin Schultz sweepstakes, nabbing the elite collegiate defenseman during the Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing period, Schultz is more of an offensive defenseman, so the Oilers have to hope that oft-injured Ryan Whitney can shake off the injury bug that has plagued him and hurt the Oilers chances the past few seasons.
14) Calgary Flames – The Flames, long-considered a perennial ‘bubble’ team, good enough to be in contention for one of the last Western Conference playoff spots but often coming up short, have seen their constant the ‘future is now’ philosophy now come back to haunt them. As their development system is arguably the NHL’s worst, with few beyond Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund in their development system to support their aging stars in team captain Jarome Iginla and one of the NHL’s greatest workhorses in goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff. The return of Michael Cammalleri and the acquisition of Jiri Hudler via free agency should help, this appears to be a team for whom the clock may have finally struck midnight.
15) Columbus Blue Jackets – for the Columbus Blue Jackets, this season can only get better, it certainly can’t get any worse. GM Scott Howson’s off-season decisions backfired at every turn, from acquiring sniper Jeff Carter, who expressed from the get-go that he didn’t want to go to Columbus and obtaining via free agency, defenseman James Wisniewski. Wisniewski began the season with a suspension after a baffling head shot to Minnesota Wild Cal Clutterbuck, garnering Wisniewski an 8-game suspension to start the season, then dealing with injuries thereafter. It also saw a fan protest, asking for the removal of Howson and team president Mike Priest, trading away their only star, the beloved Rick Nash to the New York Rangers and even losing the draft lottery to the Oilers after owning the NHL’s most futile record. The arrival of former St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations John Davidson should create stability and the Blue Jackets should be a scrappier bunch, but with questionable goaltending and a lack of offensive punch, it should make for a long shortened season in Ohio’s capital.