Tuesday, October 5, 2010

v2, d179: Western Conference Preview

No, this isn't a return to "regular blogging."  However, if I didn't post this, Travis wouldn't know what to expect with the upcoming hockey season.  And I aim to serve.  Plus, I always enjoy writing these, faulty as they may be. 

Last year, I was pretty wicked wrong--but then, a LOT of the experts were also pretty wrong.  It was sort of a wonky season.  I was, however, right on my pre-season Cup pick.  So, ya know.  Two points for me. 

Seems there's a lot more "Eh, I dunno"s than usual this year.  Though that may just be reflective of the quirky nature of last season.  Who knew the Red Wings would be out of the playoffs for 2/3 of the season last year?  Who knew Steve Mason would suddenly suck and the Blue Jackets would be the Blue Jackets again?  Who knew Malkin would score a "disappointing" 77 points last year?  Who knew the Coyotes would challenge the Sharks for the Pacific Division?  Who knew the Flyers wouldn't need goalies and the Habs wouldn't need any forwards over six feet tall to advance to the Conference Final?  (Those were both exaggerations)  Who knew the Avs wouldn't finish dead last???

A lot of weird things happened.  So it's hard to tell if a lot of weird things are going to happen again or not.  Nevertheless, here's my best guess at what we'll see this year.  And what weird stuff could completely throw a monkey wrench into the whole darn thing.


The Sharks are still kings of the Pacific.  (Fortunately there's not a team called the Humboldt Squids)  They've got a ton of offensive firepower on their top two lines and some very capable role-players rounding out their forward ranks.  Looking past the forward lines, however, you can start to see some chinks in the mighty teal machine.  The defense isn't flashy, but it's solid.  It used to be flashy and solid, however.  The two-headed goaltending monster of Antti Niemi and Antero Niitymaki will be good, but I don't think either one of them is as good as Evgeny Nabokov was.  Again, both are good, and this team will win a whole bunch of games this year.  There's too much talent, and the team is going to come out with a bit of steam after getting swept away by the Hawks in last season's WCF.  But I don't think they're nearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the division the way they have been for the past several seasons. 

It could all change if: If Niemi isn't nearly the same backstop playing behind Boyle, Vlasic, and Murray that he was with Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson in front of him. A lot of people believe that, while Niemi won the Cup with the Blackhawks, he rarely had to win anything for them. 


Odd that the Kings aren't the kings of the Pacific. 

Anyway, the Kings took a huge step forward last year, and even with the loss of Alex Frolov I think they're poised to be a really dangerous team this season.  I like their depth at forward, especially at center.  Drew Doughty was a stud last season on defense, and Jack Johnson showed signs toward the end of last year plus the playoffs of being ready to step up and earn that vulgar nickname he'd been granted on message boards around the world (initials: JMFJ).  Hm...Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson.  They've also got Davis Drewiske back there.  It's all about the alliteration on the Kings' blueline.  Goaltending looks to be solid with the two Jonathans manning the crease.  American Jon Quick had a hot start last season (sizzled a little as the year dragged on) and Jon Bernier has been the heir apparent for something like four years now.  There are a lot of good younger players poised to have big years in Los Angeles.

It could all change if: Neither Jonathan is up to the task.  Sophomore slumps for goalies are often epic.  If the Kings took too much of a gamble bringing too many kids on too soon.  If Doughty gets hurt and there's nobody to take his place. 


It's hard to tell exactly how the Yotes did what the Yotes did last season.  Their roster isn't packed with star power.  Aside from Shane Doan and Ilya Bryzgalov, they didn't have a bona fide star player all year.  But Dave Tippett is one heck of a coach, and he got the Desert Dogs playing a team-oriented style of disciplined, controlled hockey.  Everybody bought in, and it made all the difference.

The team lost their best defenseman, their top center, and one of their best penalty killers.  That's probably going to hurt.  Bringing in Ray Whitney gives the team a higher caliber of playmaker than they've had recently, so that's a plus.  In addition, the team is hoping a few youngsters like Kyle Turris are ready to step in and contribute.  But the Coyotes aren't going to sneak up on anybody this season.  I think the Coyotes are still going to be strong, but they probably don't replicate the success of last season.

It could all change if: Bryzgalov isn't the league's most valuable player again.  Nobody steps up to fill Zbynek Michalek's shutdown role effectively.  The team starts off slowly and loses some of their swagger from the last campaign.  This is still a team that will live and die defensively.  If the D falters, it's all over.


The Ducks have one of the best lines in hockey.  Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry can take over a game by themselves.  Teemu Selanne still has some sizzling stuff.  In net, Jonas Hiller will win some games the Ducks probably deserve to lose.  And after that...well, it's not quite so pretty.  When you're looking at the possibility of using Sheldon Brookbank in your top four defensively for a while, you've got depth issues.  Losing both Pronger and Neidermayer over the past couple of seasons brought this team down several pegs.  With the Kings, Coyotes, Blues, Avalanche, and others all on the way up, I will be surprised to see the Ducks playing into the playoff race much come this spring.

It could all change if: Hiller plays out of his mind.  Rookie Cam Fowler develops immediately into a major impact player and transforms this blueline.  This wasn't a playoff team last year, and it doesn't look like they got any better in the off-season. 

Dallas has a strong 1-2 punch at center and some capable wingers scattered across their top three lines.  The defensive core shows some potential, but they really need someone to step up into a bona fide #1 or 2 d-man.  Goaltending could be the team's Achilles heel, almost literally, as starter Kari Lehtonen hasn't played a full season in...well...a long time.  And he's been inconsistent when he has played.  Admittedly, that was in Atlanta, and goalies don't traditionally fare well for the Thrashers.  Still.  History suggests that Lehtonen will be hurt at some point in the season.  And the Stars don't have much of a healthy insurance policy.

It could all change if: Lehtonen does stay healthy and plays up to the potential so many saw in him when he was first drafted second overall.  In 2002.  Also, it could change if one of Grossman, Fistric, or Niskanen wakes up as a young Brian Leetch.  The Stars can't take a step back offensively, either, so they'll need someone to develop into a legitimate scoring-threat-on-every-shift sorta guy. 


I picked the Wings to win it last year, and they didn't, so I'm sticking with that. ;-)

Really, though, it's still hard to pick against them.  Once the whole team was healthy (and Chris Osgood was no longer the #1 goalie) this team caught fire last year.  They bring back basically their entire team from last season: a squad that is talented, experienced, and professional.  The Wings haven't taken a year off in fifteen seasons, and there's no reason to expect they suddenly will. 

It could all change if: Jimmy Howard's play goes south.  Again, a goalie with a sophomore slump can absolutely kill a team.  Also--and again, this is said every single year--the Wings are an aging team.  Hasn't really shown its effects in the regular season, and probably won't again.  But if it does, it's not impossible that this team takes a tumble.


They won the Cup, obviously.  And then they jettisoned something like eight players from that Cup roster due to the Salary Cap.  Now, they've still got two premiere scoring lines and a phenomenal top-four defensive group.  After that, they've got a lot of question marks.  Will Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille fill the voids left by, say, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd?  You know, they just might.  Because this is a talented team, and talented teams can make players play beyond themselves.  But then again, they might not.  Will Marty Turco play like All-Star Marty Turco of a few years ago, or Get-Me-Out-Of-Dallas Marty Turco of the past two seasons?  I'd predict more likely the former, with Chicago's stacked blueline in front of him.  But you never know.  This team has enough talent to make the playoffs even if most of their "what if's" go wrong.  Plus, the Stanley Cup hangover appears to be real for most teams.  But they're going to have to catch a few breaks if they hope to repeat. 

It could all change if: I think I gave enough either-or's there to render this section unnecessary, aye?


The Blues shoulda been better last year.  I don't know what happens.  Actually, I'm not going to be surprised if the Blues challenge the Hawks this year.  St. Louis could be the West's breakout team of the year.  A lot of young talent, a good combination of skill and grit, depth at every position, and a hot goalie who should really shine in his first year as an undisputed #1.  Of course, the team lost two talented offensive forces this offseason in Kariya and Tkachuk, but then again a lot of the younger guys underachieved last year, so it should all balance out, right? 

It could all change if: If they all underachieve again.  If Halak isn't actually Slovakian for "STOP."  But neither of these things should happen. 

The Preds are a pretty good team.  Solid 1st scoring line, good 2nd scoring line, capable role-playing guys on the third and fourth lines, a steady-if-unspectacular group of defenders, and a really talented guy between the pipes.  They're a hard-working group who it's always a pain to play against.  They've been very consistently good for awhile now.  I think we'll have more of the same out of Nashville.  They haven't done much in the off-season to make us suspect that much has changed.  Once again, I expect the Preds to be in the thick of things for those last few playoff spots, and if they get in, then they should give whoever they play fits before bowing out in the first round.  It's nice to know there are some things you can count on.

It could all change if: Pekka Rinne has a bad year, and Mark Dekanich can't be for Renne what Renne was to Dan Ellis.  Or what Ellis was to Steve Mason.  Or what Mason was to Tomas Vokoun.  Strange trend among Nashville tenders. 

Man.  It was pretty brutal in Columbus last year.  After riding the high of the franchise's first ever playoff birth, the whole team pretty much laid an egg.  Rookie of the Year Steve Mason was literally one of the worst goalies in the league.  Shooters think they've found his weak point.  I guess this year we'll see if they're right.  Nobody wants to be "The Next Jim Carey" but Mason is currently the prime candidate.  Meanwhile, we'll see if those talented young offensive phenoms finally give Rick Nash some relief in the scoring department.  Bottom line, this is still a young team that desperately needs to learn through struggling.  A lot of the pieces are there, but they're not quite ready.

It could all change if: Mason is Mason of 2008-09 again.  Two of Nikita Filatov, Derick Brassard, and Jakub Voracek go on pretty major scoring binges at some point this year.  If a young team like this catches fire early, they may be able to ride that momentum through the year and surprise people with a playoff spot again. 

My early Cup pick.  They've got all the ingredients.  Two stellar two-way lines at the top of the order.  Some solid sandpaper on the third line. Six legitimate NHL defensemen.  A money goalie.  And a painful post-season exit to the eventual Cup champs to end last year. This team has spent nearly a decade building to this point, and this could finally be the year they put it all together.

It could all change if: Henrik Sedin or Roberto Luongo get hurt for months at a time.  Otherwise, I don't see much stopping this team, at least not in the regular season. 

The rest of the Northwest is kind mediocre.  Of the rest, I think the Flames'll be best.  A lot seemed to go wrong for Calgary last year.  They played some killer defense, and they've brought back most of that core (well, what was left of it after they were done dealing with Toronto, of course) and their workhorse Miikka Kiprusoff.  The team finished 29th in the league in offense last year, and so they've added some veterans who've had pretty productive years in the past and hoped that they'll rediscover some of their zing playing with Jarome Iginla.  Alex Tangua and Olli Jokinen should both be better than they have been recently.  Tanguay had some good years in Calgary before, so they're really hoping he can click with Iginla like in days of old. Brendan Morrison adds a little bit of depth at center and effectively replaced Craig Conroy.  This team almost made the playoffs despite not scoring, so with a summer to refocus their attention to putting the puck in the next, they should have a good chance at nailing down one of those last spots.

It could all change if: Nothing goes right.  If Jokinen, Tanguay, and Morrison are, in fact, washed up.  If they score like they did last year, this team will likely go nowhere once again. 

What a great season the Avs had last year!  Everybody (self included) predicted they'd finish, at best, 14th in the 15-team conference.  Instead, they made the playoffs and took the Sharks to 6 games.  What happened?  Stellar goaltending.  Surprising offensive production from the team's many "Young Guns."  A balanced attack that could score from three different lines.  Now, it's always hard to tell if a team with this many rookies is going to take a step back or not.  I don't think that the youngsters are necessarily going to fall back a step, but I'm concerned about the team's overall health.  Milan Hejduk still has great hands, but he's not young any more, and he's spent some time hurt the last few years, including the playoffs last season.  Word is he's been held out of some preseason contests due to some soreness.  I don't expect a full year out of him.  Also, Peter Mueller (who came over from Phoenix for Wojtek Wolski) missed the end of last season with a concussion.  Then, his first week back in the preseason, another concussion.  Bad sign.  Two big scorers coming into the year as question marks.  One more strike, and the Avs go from having three lines of guys who can put a puck in the net to two, and they don't have the depth organizationally to field a competitive third and fourth line in that instance.  Plus, the defense is exactly the same as last year's and last year's defense was underwhelming.  I think the Avs are just a bad break away from being on the outside looking in this year.

It could all change if: Obviously, everyone stays healthy.  And somebody takes the emotional leadership of this team and carries the kids on his back.  The Avs started hot last year and sort of hung on to make the playoffs.  They'll have to be more of a battling team to make it back.

Last year, the Wild tried to play a new, up-tempo, high-octane scoring system with a team that had been built to play a puck containment, neutral-zone trapping style.  As a result, they finished 20th in goals for and 21st in goals against.  Oh, and 22nd overall.  With one year of Todd Richard's system under their belt, the hope is that the Wild will be better adjusted to make the transition to run-and-gun NHL team.  With no significant personnel moves, though (Matt Cullen is a good center), you have to wonder if anything's really going to be all that different this year.  If Guillaume Latendresse backs off at all on his surprising goal-scoring total from last year, this team could be dead in the water by the all-star break.  They haven't exhibited a lot of mental toughness over the past year, and their outings this preseason have been inconsistent.  And all losses. 

It could all change if: Niklas Backstrom returns to form from two and three years ago.  He was hung out to dry a LOT last year and his numbers really suffered for it.  Plus, the Wild have had trouble keeping goalies helpful.  If Latendresse, Havlat, and (hopefully healthy) Bouchard have career years, this might be a playoff team.

Goaltending is suspect.  Blueline is lacking.  Forwards are really young.  Edmonton is doing a fine job of rebuilding this franchise.  But make no mistake, they are well mired in the rebuilding process.

It could all change if: The Oilers pull a 2009-10 Avalanche.  If Khabibulin becomes the dominant keeper he hasn't been in years, if the youngsters step in and score in bunches right away, then this team could shock everybody.  That's a lot of ifs, but this team is pretty much in the position the Avs were in last season.  Hey, it could happen.