Early in the season, I provided my predictions as to how I believed the Western Conference would pan out. A smart person would have simply chosen not to follow up to determine how accurate their predictions were.
As I am not that type of person (smart), I now provide, at the halfway point of the season, an assessment of how the season has played out, so far.
I will provide a brief synopsis of what I predicted for the respective Western Conference team, how they are currently faring, and what the rest of the season may or may not hold for the team.
With that, here are my assessments:
Detroit Red Wings – Prediction: A consensus pick for a return to playoff glory, mostly due to overall team health and the NHL’s Ponce De Leon, none other than Niklas Lidstrom who has returned to be the premier defenseman of his generation. Current State: The Red Wings are near the top of the Western Conference standings, currently in 2nd place. Future State: The Red Wings should continue to be near or at the top of the Western Conference standings, but their abnormally-early departure during last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, along with Jimmy Howard’s recent struggles with consistency, are the only potential concerns on the horizon.
Vancouver Canucks – Prediction: This team has all the makings of a Stanley Cup contender. The ‘Nucks possess a healthy scoring arsenal, a world-class netminder – Roberto Luongo, a gritty defensive corps and a gritty team. Current State: The Canucks are at the top of the Western Conference standings and have the most points in the NHL. Future state: The Nucks will rise or they will fall depending on whether Luongo can finally get the playoff monkey off of his back, or if they run into a team who presents a style of play that presents a match-up problem.
Chicago Blackhawks – Prediction: That the ‘Hawks regular season performance wouldn’t signal the problems that their mega-purge strategy could potentially bring – rather, those flaws would be exposed, come playoff time. Current State: While the Blackhawks have been playing better as of late, injuries have been the bellwether of regular season disappointments, as the ‘Hawks currently occupy the 7th position in the Western Conference standings. Future State: If the Blackhawks continue to be ‘up and down’ and until they can settle upon a goaltender who they can confidently take into the Stanley Cup playoffs, their issues might be making, rather than making a run, in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings – Prediction: The Kings would continue their impending rise as an NHL power, with only an interesting battle in the net could be the only uncertainty. Current State: A great disappointment. While the Kings are still in the playoff hunt, their recent 3-7-0 slide, of which there have been two, along with the struggles of starting goaltender Jonathan Quick, have their faithful gravely concerned that a repeat appearance may not be in the cards. Future State: The Kings have to find a way to rebound, and soon. There is too much talent for the struggles to continue, but it require improved performance by the entire team.
San Jose Sharks – Prediction: There were few questions about the Sharks’ performance during the regular season. The prevailing question was whether they could finally live up to the expectations and challenges come playoff time. Current State: Along with the LA Kings, the Western Conference’s biggest disappointment. The Sharks have lost six straight games. Future State: They are a team in grave danger of missing the playoffs. If that occurs, expect wholesale changes for next season, with anyone from Antti Niemi – a major bust in net – to even “Jumbo” Joe Thornton.
St. Louis Blues – Prediction: This year’s version of the team to watch out for, if only for their landmark acquisition of Canadiens’ playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. Current State: While the Blues’ remain in playoff contention, injuries – T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Andy McDonald – have been what’s held them back from any emergence to the top of the Western Conference standings. Future State: As it’s uncertain when the aforementioned injured players would return, the Blues will then have to scratch and claw their way into qualifying for the playoffs.
Phoenix Coyotes – Prediction: While perhaps a slight downfall might occur from last season’s most surprising Western Conference team, their core tenants – solid coaching, great goaltending and solid defense – should allow them to return to the playoffs. Current State: While Bryzgalov has been inconsistent and while scoring goals remains a problem, the ‘Yotes continue to surprise most pundits by occupying the 4th overall position in the Western Conference. Future State: Nothing that a surge of some offense couldn’t help; however, while not the sexiest team in the NHL, they appear to have positioned themselves for the playoffs, where hopefully last season’s experience and a playoff-caliber defense can carry them into further playoff rounds.
Colorado Avalanche – Prediction: That the Avs would be in the hunt for this season’s playoff race, with their young corps of speedy, up-tempo players now entering their second season in the NHL and another season with Craig Anderson as their starting netminder. Current State: The Avs are currently occupying the 8th spot in the Western Conference standings. But the big surprise has been the struggles of Anderson, whose performance this season has been a major disappointment. Future State: Until Anderson and Peter Budaj can return to their previous form, the Avs may return to the playoffs, but it will be a struggle.
Anaheim Ducks – Prediction: Although the losses of Chris Pronger (trade) and Scott Niedermayer (retirement) hurt their defensive corps, the Ducks would content due to their stout first-line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf, as well as a top-notch goalie in Jonas Hiller. Current State: While the Ducks have been inconsistent, they currently reside in the 6th position in the Western Conference standings, the injury to Getzlaf has their faithful hoping to hang on until his return. Future State: Contingent upon Getzlaf’s return, the Ducks should remain in the mix for one of the later playoff slots. And if Hiller can get hot, they could provide headaches to whomever they draw in the early playoff rounds.
Nashville Predators – Prediction: That continued defections are something the Preds are used to dealing with, but with the likes of underrated coach Barry Trotz, one of the league’s top defensemen in Shea Weber and a solid goaltending tandem of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback that the Preds would contend for the playoffs. Current State: Once again, the Preds have overachieved and currently occupy the 5th position in the Western Conference standings. Future State: While the Preds will remain in the fight for playoff contention, a lack of overall forward line scoring and talent may result in another early-round playoff exit.
Minnesota Wild – Prediction: The Wild’s asymmetries of system to their talent would keep them from serious playoff contention. Current State: While the Wild are in the playoff mix, their inconsistencies and their overall limited offensive capabilities could limit any aspirations to making the playoffs. Future State: The Wild do possess one of the league’s best netminder’s in Niklas Backstrom as well as one of the more efficient power play units, but until they acquire or develop front-level scoring from their forward lines, they appear to remain on the cusp of, but not in, playoff consideration.
Calgary Flames – Prediction: A fall from grace due to a ill-advised direction of ‘going retro’ and ‘bringing the (old) band back together. Current State: That plan and how it played out resulted in the resignation of General Manager (GM) Darryl Sutter in December, replaced in his duties by former Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster. The Flames currently occupy the 14th position in the Western Conference standings. Future State: To be determined. The Flames may be a case of blowing up the core of the team and rebuilding. What limits this decision is trying to rebuild an aging team with both salary cap issues and a scouting/development system that leaves a lot to be desired.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Prediction: A lack of any significant moves would limit the NHL’s 27th-placed team from returning to playoff consideration, in spite of hiring a new coach and assistants. Current State: After surprising most pundits to a franchise-best 14-6-0 start, the Blue Jackets have nearly mirrored the prior season’s free-fall by posting a 6-14-3 record, currently 2nd worst in the NHL in their last 23 games, placing only ahead of the New Jersey Devils in that ignominious category. Future State: Saddled with a continued free-fall as well as financial constraints due to lease issues with its arena, the Blue Jackets now find themselves in the position of sellers come trade deadline time as well as disgruntling a disenchanted fan base even further.
Dallas Stars – Prediction: A transition year for the Stars in losing two of their former stalwarts Marty Turco and Mike Modano and trying to adapt to matching a new system to its personnel. Current State: Perhaps the NHL’s most pleasant surprise and apparently the reason I keep my day job, the Stars currently occupy the 3rd spot in the Western Conference standings. Their surprising start has been buoyed by the health and solid performance of new goaltender Kari Lehtonen as well as the play of center Brad Richards. Future State: While I nor most pundits can explain it, the Stars appears to be destined to make the playoffs and so long as Richards doesn’t get traded or Lehtonen gets injured.
Edmonton Oilers – Prediction: While they would struggle, the Oilers would be an exciting young team with the likes of no. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall and other exciting new forwards in Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark, as well as the return from season-ending injuries to forward Ales Hemsky and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Current State: While the Oilers are struggling, they are an exciting team and one that will give headaches to teams in the very near future. Future State: Injuries to Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Whitney and Eberle have contributed to the struggles, but if they can return from injury, the Oilers can be one of the NHL’s true spoilers.