Fearless Western Conference Predictions 2.0

Last year, I began my foray into the prognostication of the Western Conference.

Good thing I kept my day job.

Although I did nail both the rise of the Los Angeles Kings and the imminent decline of the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars, I did not foresee the collapse of both Edmonton Oilers and the cataclysmic downfall of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Aside from those two blunders, I did generally predict the outcome of the rest of the Western Conference.

So, with great humility, I offer my Western Conference predictions for the 2010-11 season. Rather than rank the projected finishes, I classify my predictions in three categories:  The Ins – those teams who should make the playoffs easily, barring a major injury or two; The Tweeners – those teams that are on the cusp and could possibly make the post-season; and the Outs – those teams who are positioning themselves for nothing more than a lottery pick, or for a major overhaul.

With that, here are my predictions:

The Ins:

Detroit Red Wings – A consensus pick for a return to playoff glory, the Red Wings should rebound on the basic premise that given the massive injury bug that bit them, particularly through the early part of the season, having the team healthy to start the season along with the continued development of young goaltending phenom Jimmy Howard should make them a strong contender for the President’s Trophy.

Vancouver Canucks – This team has all the makings of a Stanley Cup contender.  The ‘Nucks possess a healthy scoring arsenal in the Sedins, Alex Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson, a world-class goalie in Roberto Luongo, a stout defensive corps and a grittiness that should serve them well come playoff time. The burning question is whether Luongo can finally get the playoff monkey off of his back.

Chicago Blackhawks – I wouldn’t buy into the doomsday scenario so many prognosticators have spelled out for the defending Stanley Cup champions, at least during the regular season.  However the downfall of their massive purge of role players – Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel – secondary scoring – Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd – and the game of “arbitration chicken” with Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi will bite them as a potential early-round upset victim. Marty Turco will have to also expel his playoff demons for the ‘Hawks to have any chance to repeat as champions.

Los Angeles Kings – Sure it felt great to predict their impending rise as a NHL power; however, given the masterful job the organization has done in systemically building the team from the back end, it wasn’t that hard to predict. An interesting battle will ensue with the goaltenders – Jonathan Quick and former No. 1 pick Jonathan Bernier – and the uncertainty of that battle could be the only thing keeping the Kings from taking the big step into an elite NHL team.

San Jose Sharks – The question is never whether the Sharks can be a President’s Trophy contender or whether they possess a formidable squad, the question is whether they can finally live up to the expectations and challenges come playoff time. If Joe Thornton can exercise his playoff demons and if Niemi can make the Blackhawks regret ever letting him go, then perhaps the Sharks can finally make the HP Pavilion faithful dreams come true. This year may be as great an opportunity as they will ever have.

St. Louis Blues – This is this year’s version of last year’s LA Kings – watch out for this team!  Rather than how the organization has been buil, the major move that will bring the Blues into the playoff picture was to acquire Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens. Bringing the Habs’ playoff hero to the Blues and bringing up former first round pick Alex Pietrangelo to their NHL squad should make the Blues a team to contend with, both during the regular season and particularly in the playoffs.  The prevailing question is whether they possess enough offensive arsenal to join the Western Conference’s elite teams.

Phoenix Coyotes – OK, no one really saw this one coming, so their predicted downfall from pundits may be a case of saving face.  However, when you possess a stellar coach like Dave Tippett, a goaltending force like Ilya Bryzgalov and a team with a solid defensive corps, the downfall shouldn’t be such that they shouldn’t return to the playoffs.  Their Achilles Heel may be their overall lack of scoring punch, unless the likes of Kyle Turris can recognize the potential that the former third overall draft pick possesses.

The Tweeners:

Colorado Avalanche – This was definitely one that everyone got wrong, so this prediction, like the Coyotes, might also be a case of saving face when casting their potential fortunes for this season. While there are parallels between last season’s success and the upcoming season, the Avs are different in that they have a lot more first-year players, a highly-touted goalie that was just waiting for his chance to start in Craig Anderson and a coach who’s already implemented a more successful, up-tempo system in Joe Sacco.  While I anticipate a bit of a lull, I don’t anticipate as much of one as most others.

Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks missed the playoffs for the first time in quite a while, finishing 11th in the Western Conference.  Add to that the trade of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer’s retirement and the transition to younger personnel, particularly in their defensive corps, have many calling for a continued slide.  However, when you have their stout first-line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf, as well as a top-notch goalie in Jonas Hiller, you will always be in the mix.  What may hurt their playoff chances is their now-weakened defensive unit, hanging on the hope that Luca Sbisa and rookie defenseman Cam Fowler can produce and mitigate these concerns.

Nashville Predators – Yes, the loss of Dan Hamhuis really hurts the defense. But, for a team already used to continued defections, they are used to it.  So long as the Preds have the combination of head coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile they can never be counted out.  Add to that one of the NHL’s top all-around defensemen in Shea Weber and the very dependable goaltender in Pekka Rinne, the Preds will be in the playoff hunt/mix, come season’s end. While the Preds have never really been used to a premier group of forwards, if Matthew Lombardi can fit the bill as their No. 1 center, they can once again be expected to return to the Playoffs.

The Outs:

Minnesota Wild – As mentioned last year, this is a team who appears asymmetric.  After years of employing Jaques Lemaire’s slow-paced, trapping system which many believed stifled high-gear forwards such as Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, they switched to the more up-tempo, puck-possession system employed by so many teams in the NHL. The only problem was that high-flying forwards as the aforementioned left the Wild, leaving new head coach Todd Richards without the necessary resources to make the new system work. While Guillaume Latendresse was a pleasant surprise and Mikko Koivu registered 70 points last season, Marty Havlat was a disappointment. So, for the Wild to succeed, they will need a more productive season from Havlat and a healthy Brent Burns.

Calgary Flames – As I was quoted as saying in a power ranking comment during their mid-season funk, “Flame Off”.  This is a team who may be destined for a fall from grace, much like the Avs did during the 2008-09 season. The reason is quite simple:  Going ‘Retro’ doesn’t work. Bringing back the likes of Oli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay might sound like “bringing the band back together”, but an rapidly-aging team without much in their developmental system would appear to be a recipe for disaster. What may hold this team together is a big season from Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff and particularly the underperforming Jay Bouwmeester.

Columbus Blue Jackets – The good news is that the Blue Jackets retained basically the same unit as last season, so a lack of continuity for once should not be an issue. And that’s the bad news – they have the same basic team as the one who suffered a huge setback from the expectations that making the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history bring. Gone is future Hall Of Fame head coach Ken Hitchcock, who was believed to have stifled their young talent. Enter Scott Arniel, a coach who adheres to an up-tempo system. The only problem may be the lack of the horses necessary to make the system work. The success or failure of the Blue Jackets will rise or fall with the performance of goaltender Steve Mason, who suffered from a horrific sophomore season. If Mason can approach the Calder Trophy form of 2008-09, they may have a chance, but that is a lot to pin on one player.

Dallas Stars – This will be a transition year for Big D. The two “faces of the franchise” — Turco and Mike Modano — have departed and the team is trying to adapt to the more up-tempo system Marc Crawford was brought in to utilize. The Stars do not possess the type of offensive firepower necessary to leverage that system, a somewhat familiar theme that Minnesota struggled, and Columbus may also struggle with. For the Stars to be in consideration for the postseason they will need a lot to go their way, namely a return to health for Brenden Morrow and for Kari Lehtonen to be healthy and effective in filling in for the departed Turco.

Edmonton Oilers – The good news in an otherwise disastrous season was their drafting with the first overall pick in the 2010 entry draft Taylor Hall.  Hall will bring an exciting playmaking ability, particularly when teamed with Jordan Eberle. But the return to health of both Ales Hemsky and Nikolai Khabibulin will really help begin the Oilers return to respectability. But, unless the two youngsters both perform to a level worthy of Calder Trophy consideration, the Oil may be in for a long season.

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