Monday, September 28, 2009

Day Two-Hundred Sixty: Hockey Preview!! (Western Conference)

Two things before we get into this:

First, I'ma tone down the analysis somewhat. If you read this site, you probably don't know Mike Komisarek from Steve Konowalchuk, so if I tell you that the Leafs picked Komisarek up, it won't mean a whole lot to you. Therefore, if I just say something like "Toronto beefed up its blueline," just trust me on it.

Second, this has little to do with the season preview, but I wanted to write a brief something about Theo Fleury. Theo was one of the game's most talented goal-scorers in the very-late 1980s into most of the '90s. The majority of his career was spent with the Calgary Flames, where he won a Cup in 1989. Around the late '90s and early 2000s, Fleury really struggled with alcohol abuse to the point where he just couldn't play anymore. The guy underwent all sorts of therapy, but he just wasn't able to shake it and he was suspended indefinitely from the league. He eventually went over to Europe and played for a bit while he tried to turn his life around. Eventually, he returned to North America, but wasn't playing anymore. That is, until this summer, when he announced that he wanted to attempt an NHL comeback at the age of 41. He was pretty unanimously mocked by most fans, who were still using him as the butt of drunkenness-related jokes, but you could tell there was a strong contingent of hockey fans and journalists pulling for him to make it. Theoern got a tryout with the Flames, and he played pretty well, picking up four points in four pre-season games, but he just wasn't the same player, and last weekend Calgary announced they were going to let him go. Today, Theo Fleury officially retired, having battled all of his personal demons into submission--not just the alcoholism, but the accompanying shame as well--and walked away from the game on his own terms, not on theirs.

Bravo, Theo.

All righty, on to the preview!

This division is always pretty competitive, but I don't think a legitimate Stanley Cup contender has come out of the NW in quite some time. (With the notable exception of the over-achieving Edmonton Oilers in 2006) It's going to be pretty much the same story this year.

1. Vancouver Canucks--These Canucks got off to a bit of a rough start last year and were hit with a rash of unfortunate injuries, but they really turned it on toward the end of the season (and it wasn't just because of Mats Sundin). This team has a good combination of grit and skill up front and a solid-if-unspectacular blueline. That's enough to keep them in pretty much every game. Back it up with one of the best goalies in the world, and you've got a group that should manage to edge out the competition in the Northwest.

2. Calgary Flames--J-Bo gives this team a major upgrade at D. He should take some of the pressure off of Dion Phaneuf and allow Phaneuf to become the absolute monster he was his first couple of years in the league. I don't think the team really managed to replace the almost-40 goals Mike Cammalleri scored for them last year, and I'm not terribly confident that Curtis McElhinney will be able to give golden boy Miikka Kiprusoff much relief in net. Last season, it seemed like several 70-plus game seasons in a row was starting to wear on Kipper. If he rebounds to top form, this team can absolutely win the division. If he doesn't, then they should be pretty happy to settle for second.

3. Minnesota Wild--I expect the Wild to get off to a poor start, largely because they're trying to shake off a style of play that has been ingrained in the franchise since day one when Jacques Lemaire took control of the team. New coach Todd Richards has the Wild attacking, and according to reports from blogger extraordinaire Mike Russo, the team still looks a bit confused in executing the new system. Once they get going, though, this could be a really good team. There's some offensive skill that never really got the green light under the old regime that should put up some pretty good numbers. I worry a bit about the team's forward depth, but I think they're pretty solid in all the other facets of the game. Powerplay may be a struggle, and this team has a history of getting burned by injuries, but they were only a few points out of the playoffs last year and should be in the thick of the hunt again this season.

4. Edmonton Oilers--The Oilers have got some decent young players, but there's just not much on this roster that really stands out to me as something to get really excited about. I think their blueline is overpaid, and while I like Nik Khabibulin, consistency hasn't been his strong point since his 2004 Cup with the Bolts. However, last season was his strongest in quite a while (*cough*contractyear*cough*) so we'll see if he can repeat that success. I'm a little skeptical, but he's got the talent to carry this team to a low playoff seed if he really applies himself.

5. Colorado Avalanche--Man, earlier this summer I wanted to believe this year was not going to be as bad as everyone was saying it would be, but...this year is going to be as bad as everybody was saying it's going to be. And the scary thing is, I think it'll be a couple of years before it gets better. The Avs are paying the price for their successful run from 1996-2004, and the old guard is either retired (Sakic, Roy) or old (Foote, Forsberg). It's no wonder Foppa's talking comeback--but not with the Avs. This'll be a good year for evaluating some youngsters, and I think the situation in net has improved from the last year or two, but it's gonna be a lot of L's this year in Denver.

The Central has gone from being the league's biggest joke to being the toughest division in the NHL. I expect four teams to make the playoffs, with the fifth team knocking on the door.

1. Detroit Red Wings--I think this is the year the big red machine starts to show its age. That said, this is still a crazy-good team, and there are some talented youngsters coming up. I don't think they've adequately replaced all the pieces they lost over the summer, but if there's one thing the Wings do consistently, it's win. They've got one of the best coaches in the game and a core of players who know what it takes. However, if Osgood puts up numbers like he did last regular season, than this is the year that the Red Wings' Central title streak comes to an end.

2. Chicago Blackhawks--The Hawks are probably talented enough to overtake the Wings. I think losing in the Conference Finals is probably the best thing that could have happened to this bunch. This summer, however, has been full of...distractions. And next summer should be fraught with uncertainty. If the Hawks can manage to simply show up and play each night's game without having to worry about any external factors, they should be golden. However, it's been a lot to deal with for a team of young guys, and I won't be shocked if this is the year's Big Disappointment (there's always one!). The other question mark is in goal, where Cristobal Huet wasn't bad last year, but he wasn't overwhelming, either. And the competition is cutthroat in the Central this year; one weak link could be the difference between first and fourth.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets--I think it's going to be awfully tight between Columbus and St. Louis for the third slot in the division. Rookie goalie Steve Mason came out of nowhere to dominate the league last year and propel the Jackets to their first ever playoff berth. And the Jackets have drafted well; they've got a slew of young talent that could electrify on the forward ranks. Their D is good, not great, but if Mason continues his stellar play and Nash and co. start putting in pucks like they could, it shouldn't matter. This will be a really fun team to watch.

4. St. Louis Blues--Man, last year was screwy for the Blues...and they STILL almost made the playoffs! Barring any more conspiracies involving Sarah Palin and golf carts, the Blues should be at full strength this year with no rotating goalie carousel. And, as the rest of the Central, their seasons of sucking are long gone, and the kids they've drafted are developing nicely. Keep in mind, the Blues didn't have their best defenseman for the entirety of last year. I think a lot of folks aren't taking the Blues too seriously, and I think that's going to work in St. Louis' favor.

5. Nashville Predators--If I'm a Nashville fan, I'm wondering where exactly things got off track. The team was up-and-coming, made a couple of playoff appearances, and then...splat. Something went wrong. It's not like the Preds fell apart, I just think enough other teams improved while Nashville kind of made lateral progress. They've got some young stud d-men and some reliable vets at forward, but there's not a ton of depth anywhere. Goaltending could be a strength, but if Ellis falters again and Rinne hits a sophomore slump (which, from watching him play in the AHL, and giving Nashville goaltender history, I think there's a decent chance), the Preds aren't going to finish too close to the post-season heap, and Canadian fans are going to start clamoring for the team to move to Winnipeg. (Which, really, might not be a terrible idea)

Ah, the Pacific. "The other division" in the West. Interesting to think that the Pacific has produced more franchises that have won the Cup in the past two decades than the Northwest or the Central. (Though the Central is tied for the overall number of Cups: In the past ten years, Colorado has 1, Detroit has 2, Anaheim has 1, Dallas has 1) Okay, so that's kind of a useless stat. Anyway, as always, the Pacific has a couple of contenders and then...the rest.

1. San Jose Sharks--Seriously, Sharks. Why don't you have a Cup yet? Now that they've acquired Danny Heatley, there is no excuse for not winning it all. Combination of youth, experience, skill, size, grit, goaltending, depth, motivation. I know I said this last year, but if San Jose can't put it all together and at least make a Conference Finals run this year, they probably never will.

2. Anaheim Ducks--The team was one goal away from unseating the Red Wings last spring. Think about it. I think they took strides toward improvement this off-season. They won a Cup in 2007, and they want very much to get back to that place--and they'd better do it soon. Even without Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, their blueline is pretty darn good. This is as rough-and-tumble of a team as you'll find in the West, and they're skilled, too. The goaltending competition should be good for both Giguere and Hiller, too. Again. They won't have the skill to unseat the Sharks in the regular season, but this is a team that's built to win playoff battles. If the graybeaerds can last that long, that is.

3. Los Angeles Kings--Okay, this is a fairly bold prediction: the Kings overtake the Stars this year. Why? Again, this is a team that's been improving over the last few years. It's a team that's done a good job developing its younger prospects garnered through over a decade of mediocrity-or-worse. It's a team with a coach who does a great job of getting everything possible out of his players. And it's a team that seems to be starting to believe in themselves for the first time in ten years or so. Young team on the rise trumps older team on the decline.

4. Dallas Stars--Admittedly, there are still some pretty darn good players on the Stars; they just had trouble putting it all together last season. Marty Turco was pretty bad for them in net, and if he doesn't turn it around it's going to be a loooong year in Big D. With that said, the team was plagued with injuries last year, so playing with a full roster should help, but the defense is suspect, the goaltending has been a bit on a downward slope lately, and the majority of their best players are shells of what they once were. This team will need its younger snipers to step it up if they want to legitimately compete again--and some of the young guys don't appear to be getting along with the coaches right now. Ru-roh.

5. Phoenix Coyotes--Poor, poor Coyotes. A week into training camp, they didn't even have a coach. They may end up moving to Hamilton halfway through the year. They still don't know who owns the team. Fans aren't buying tickets, because nobody believes the team will still be in Arizona after this season. How's a hockey player supposed to concentrate under these circumstances??? There are some kids who have the talent to be stars, but they need an environment in which they can grow and be given the chance to succeed, and the Phoenix market is just a mess right now. Poor Shane Doan.

I'll do the East tomorrow. Puck drops Thursday!!!