After a very hectic offseason, the balance of power in the NHL has shifted quite dramatically. Kevin Greenstein takes in all the changes and breaks down how he expects things to go in the Western Conference in 2008-09…
1. Detroit Red Wings: Repeating as Cup champs is no easy task, but these Wings have the tools to get it done. GM Ken Holland didn’t lose any core members of his championship squad, while improbably managing to add the summer’s most highly coveted free agent, talented two-way forward Marian Hossa. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk remain the foundation of this star-studded lineup, while youngsters Niklas Kronwall, Valtteri Filppula, and Johan Franzen emerged as key contributors during last spring’s Cup run. Perhaps most importantly of all, netminder Chris Osgood has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a worthy NHL starter, and he should remain the Wings’ last line of defense until former University of Maine standout Jimmy Howard is ready to take over.
2. Calgary Flames: Look for this Mike Keenan-coached squad to take a large leap forward, with willing disciples Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf forming the backbone of the Northwest Division’s finest club. Iginla and Phaneuf distinguish themselves with their ability to combine finesse and force, and should compete for the Hart and Norris Trophies, respectively. In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff endured a rough 2007-08 campaign, but there’s every reason to believe that he’ll rebound to his typical Vezina-caliber form. Key offseason departures Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius weren’t really Keenan-type players; look for mighty-mite Mike Cammalleri (acquired from the Kings) and power forward Todd Bertuzzi (signed as a free agent) to capably pick up the scoring slack.
3. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks kept their Joe Thornton-led forward corps intact, and Vezina Trophy finalist Evgeni Nabokov remains between the pipes. But big changes were made on the blue line, with an eye towards making the Sharks a more formidable playoff opponent. Young Matt Carle was jettisoned to Tampa Bay, while veterans Dan Boyle and Rob Blake step in to give San Jose’s rearguard corps some much-needed experience. Boyle is a dynamic power play quarterback, and he should quickly develop nice chemistry with Thornton. Blake’s best seasons are certainly behind him, but with plenty of support from hard-hitter Kyle McLaren and skilled youngsters Christian Ehrhoff and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, his workload should be reasonable.
4. Anaheim Ducks: With Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger anchoring the defense—and with Jean-Sebastien Giguere capably tending goal—the Ducks’ defense is devastating. Up front, youngsters Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (both selected in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft) are quickly emerging as top-tier players. Without question, the key to the Ducks’ success is Getzlaf, who will need to take another huge leap forward if they’re to re-emerge as Cup contenders. A 100-point season isn’t out of the question for the talented power center. One huge question mark is whether Finnish star Teemu Selanne will return to the team. An unrestricted free agent, the 38-year-old winger’s presence could have a hugely positive impact on the Ducks’ fortunes, but it remains unclear whether GM Brian Burke will be able to fit him under the salary cap. Another question mark is what will be done (if anything) with in-limbo D-man Mathieu Schneider, whose $5.6 million salary makes him quite expendable.
5. Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks were incredibly busy during the offseason, signing high-profile UFA’s Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet. With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Martin Havlat highlighting a talented forward corps, the ‘Hawks seem poised to make Chicago care about hockey again. Campbell will provide a nice offensive spark, his outlet passes and power play quarterbacking filling two desperate needs for this up-and-coming club, while Huet represents a meaningful improvement over Nikolai Khabibulin. Toews and Kane were stellar as rookies; under the tutelage of head coach Denis Savard, they should have no difficulty avoiding the sophomore jinx and continuing their meteoric ascents. The injury-prone Havlat is a question mark, but if he can remain healthy, he should absolutely thrive alongside Toews. Young power forward Andrew Ladd, acquired at the trade deadline for Tuomo Ruutu, is another highly talented ‘Hawk to keep an eye on.
6. Phoenix Coyotes: Look for the Coyotes to take a huge leap forward this year, benefiting tremendously from the full-season presence of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and the arrival of new first-line center Olli Jokinen. An ideal mix of youth (Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov) and experience (Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris), the Coyotes are well positioned to take full advantage of the sage teachings of head coach Wayne Gretzky. In particular, look for the relatively unheralded Tikhonov to emerge as a bona fide Calder Trophy candidate (Rookie of the Year). It’s probably one year too soon to call them Cup contenders, but these Desert Dogs should be a solid playoff team and an extremely dangerous first round opponent.
7. Dallas Stars: The Stars were one of the NHL’s biggest surprises last season, battling their way to the Western Conference Finals. And though they weren’t able to upend the high-powered Red Wings, Marty Turco and company demonstrated that they have what it takes to compete with the NHL’s finest clubs. Turco is the team’s backbone between the pipes, while centers Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards join Mike Modano to form what is one of the league’s best pivot trios. Captain Brenden Morrow is a top-notch power forward, while new arrival Sean Avery brings a sandpaper-style that should translate well, particularly during the postseason. Rookie Fabian Brunnstrom lit up the Swedish Elite League in 2007-08, and could be a top contender for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year). One potential cause for concern is blueliner Sergei Zubov, who is expected to miss some time after hip surgery, but the Stars did surprisingly well last season while he was out of the lineup.
8. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers have tremendous talent up front, with Erik Cole joining a forward corps that also includes Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, and Shawn Horcoff. Fast and young, the Oilers’ forwards are tailor-made for the near-perfect ice at Rexall Place. And on the blue line, new arrival Lubomir Visnovsky and a now-healthy Sheldon Souray should energize the Oilers’ power play. But goaltending is a bit of a concern, with Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson forming what is without question the Oilers’ Achilles heel. Assuming he plays close to as well as he did in 2007-08, the resurgent Garon should be good enough to get Edmonton to the postseason. But the best days are clearly in the past for Roloson, who turns 39 on October 12th.
9. Los Angeles Kings: Much like the Penguins in the East, the Kings have parlayed a number of consecutive low finishes in the standings into an absolute wealth of top-tier young talent. 21-year-old Slovenian center Anze Kopitar is a budding superstar; at 6’4” and 220 pounds, he boasts a rare combination of size, speed, and elite-level skill. Supporting him up front is hard-hitting power forward Dustin Brown, whose style evokes a young Brendan Shanahan. The blue line corps boasts two of the game’s most promising prospects, Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty, but is severely lacking in experience. In goal, it’s only a matter of time before Jonathan Bernier takes over, but the Kings should expect some rough patches before he ascends to his anticipated place amongst the game’s elite netminders.
10. Nashville Predators: The Predators have done a fine job of remaining competitive despite a litany of off-ice concerns that threaten their future in Nashville. Anchoring the forward corps is first-line center Jason Arnott, a bullish power forward with a booming shot. On the blue line, young Shea Weber is a future Norris Trophy candidate, and should be expected to take a giant leap forward this season. The revolving door in goal has seen both Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason depart over the past two offseasons, and now the job belongs to Dan Ellis. How Ellis handles the pressure of being the starter from day one will be the biggest key to the Predators’ 2008-09 season.
11. Vancouver Canucks: Without question, goaltender Roberto Luongo is one of the NHL’s brightest stars, and he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt during the 2007 playoffs that he has what it takes to excel in the postseason. But just as during his time in Florida with the hapless Panthers, Luongo finds himself playing behind a goal-starved team with an average blue line corps. Throughout the Canucks’ lineup, players are slotted above where they belong—for example, first line forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin would be better suited as second-liners—and as a result, Luongo will rarely get the needed scoring support. Night after night, he’ll be relied upon to keep the Canucks in games they deserve to lose, and unless young forwards Ryan Kesler and Steve Bernier take meteoric leaps forward with their development, the Canucks will miss the playoffs.
12. Minnesota Wild: There are certainly some bright spots in the Wild lineup, most notably defenseman Brent Burns, goaltender Niklas Backstrom, and blazing-fast forward Marian Gaborik. New acquisitions Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron should help energize the power play, helping to make up for the absence of departed UFA Brian Rolston’s booming shot. But the key to the Wild’s season is Gaborik. When healthy, he is unquestionably one of the game’s most dynamic players. But he’s missed 73 games over the past four seasons, and the Wild simply don’t have the supplemental scoring power to survive another extended absence.
13. Columbus Blue Jackets: GM Scott Howson made some major roster modifications this past offseason, jettisoning former high-first round draft picks Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule in favor of UFA Kristian Huselius and trade acquisitions Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman, and Raffi Torres. But a thorough review of the personnel shift yields the inexorable conclusion that the maneuverings were at best a zero-sum gain, at least with regard to the team’s overall talent level. So once again, the team’s success will depend upon a Rick Nash-led offense, injury-prone starting netminder Pascal Leclaire, and the defense-first coaching style of Ken Hitchcock. In a division with the Red Wings, Predators, and resurgent Blackhawks, that probably won’t be enough.
14. Colorado Avalanche: The Avs were one of the NHL’s finest teams for over a decade, but age and injuries have wreaked havoc on their roster. Captain Joe Sakic made the difficult decision to return for his 20th NHL season; he should once again score at nearly a point-per-game pace. And presumed successor Paul Stastny is in the process of capably taking the torch from Sakic, just as Sakic did with his father Peter in the late 1980’s. But there are some serious question marks throughout the rest of the Avs’ lineup, most notably in goal. Last season, Jose Theodore took over the starting role and backstopped the Avs into the postseason. But the former Hart Trophy winner is now tending the pipes in Washington for the Capitals, leaving the team’s goaltending in the not so capable hands of new acquisition Andrew Raycroft and the returning Peter Budaj. Unless Raycroft rebounds to his 2003-04 Calder Trophy winning form, it could be a very long and frustrating swan song for Sakic.
15. St. Louis Blues: Under the leadership of team president John Davidson, the Blues are without question moving in the right direction. However, a freak offseason injury suffered by the team’s franchise player—defenseman Erik Johnson—effectively derailed the team’s 2008-09 season before it began. Johnson, 20, was injured during a team golf outing on Sept. 16, when his right foot got caught between the accelerator and the brake of his golf cart. He tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee as a result of the mishap, and is expected to miss the entire season. There are some other bright spots on the Blues’ roster—young forwards Patrik Berglund and Brad Boyes, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo—but this is clearly another rebuilding year for St. Louis. Indeed, if there is reason for optimism, it’s that the Blues’ anticipated last place finish should land them first crack at 2009 top prospect John Tavares.