Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fearless (Maybe Just Crazy) Western Conference Predictions

The ice is down in the NHL's 30 rinks. Training Camp is over. Puck drops in Columbus in about 24 hours. The time as come for...

(just pretend there's a drum roll here...)

...FEARLESS PREDICTIONS in the NHL for 2011-12!

Or maybe just misguided... and/or crazy predictions.

Let's start out with the NORTHWEST DIVISION...

The question is not who will win the Northwest Divistion... but by how much the Vancouver Canucks will win it.

Oh, wait... make that two questions... will a second Northwest Division team make the Playoffs this year?

(Answers: 20 points or more... and "no.")

The Northwest didn't get any more or less tough. It's just kind of... there.

Vancouver looks to be as strong as ever, still possessing most of the team that was within one win of getting its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Though the losses of Christian Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres will hurt in the short term, the addition of Marco Sturm (assuming he can stay healthy) will help fortify the Canucks' weapons on offense. In short... in the weak Northwest, Vancouver only needs to be concerned about making it through another deep Playoff run. With Tampa likely giving Washington a fight over in the East's Southleast Division, the Presidents' Trophy is a lock. They might even win the Cup if they put a media gag on Roberto Luongo (sorry, dude... I think of you every time someone gets a flat tire now).

The Minnesota Wild will be very interesting to watch. The team added a couple good offensive players in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to try and snap them into some kind of goal-scoring shape. Grabbing Mike Lundin will also be a solid help on defense. Will it be enough to put a second Northwest Division team in the Playoffs? Probably not yet.

With two new goaltenders, it almost feels like the Colorado Avalanche is completely starting over. However, they still have much of the core youth that shockingly made the Playoffs two years ago, then shockingly plummeted off the radar last year. Jan Hejda was a good Free Agency pickup who should help the defense. The big questions with the Avs lie in their consistency on the ice, and whether Semyon Varlamov can withstand the attacks of Western Conference teams. Otherwise, the Avs have a more-than-capable backup in J.S. Giguere.

The Calgary Flames got rid of some underproductive baggage in order to keep a core of good players together, but the question is whether they did enough to get themselves back into the Playoffs. Sadly, that answer is also no. In fact, the bottom three of the Northwest will be pretty muddled together this year. Might take a coin flip to figure out whether the Flames or the Edmonton Oilers stay out of the divisional cellar this year. However, don't count the Oilers out too much longer... it's only a matter of time before that infusion of youth and high draft picks puts them back in contention.

The PACIFIC DIVISION... well, the title will be in California, that's for sure.

The obvious frontrunner would be the San Jose Sharks, and though icing a scarily strong team has become one of their trademarks, another less flattering trademark has been their inability to finish the job. The Sharks hope a proven playoff performer like Martin Havlat can help remedy that situation. The bigger question mark is the health of their goaltenders, with Antii Niemi still in doubt after surgery and Antero Niittymaki out for at least another month or so after "lower body" surgery. A stumble out of the block opens the door for L.A. and Anaheim.

Well, well, well... look who decided to show up for work for the Los Angeles Kings. After supposedly playing contract hardball with Drew Doughty, the Kings caved and agreed to pay him more than Anze Kopitar (on average, anyway). So much for taking a stand against the little brat, but it is what it is.

Anyway, the Kings will get some leadership from new guy (and former Philly captain) Mike Richards while Doughty (slowly) grows up and (maybe) starts proving he's worth $7M/year. Richards will get some help from other new guy Simon Gagne, and the Kings will continue their rise. They might even give the Sharks a little heat at the top of the Pacific.

Just watch out for the Anaheim Ducks, who still boast that Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan-Corey Perry line. They also have strong goaltending returning in Jonas Hiller, and lest we forget... the man who refuses to grow old, Teemu Selanne is returning for another go-round at the age of 41. Hell, if you could still score a point-a-game of better -- including the Playoffs -- at the age of 40... wouldn't you? The Pacific race will be tight at the top, kids.

The Phoenix Coyotes have fought through the distraction of off-ice ownership and arena sagas for the past two seasons, and made the Playoffs both years. This year, Coyotes fans will have to deal with both off-ice and on-ice problems after the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov. Most of the forwards and defense are still intact, but the biggest question mark is still in goal. After years of struggle, Mike Smith ended his tenure in Tampa with flashes of brilliance -- including some incredible work against Boston in the East Finals last year. Now, he's the top goaltender in a town that desperately needs one... and hopes to hold onto its hockey team as well.

Whatever Brad Richards may do in New York with the Rangers in the coming years (and I doubt a Cup will among those things) the Dallas Stars are going to miss him. The Stars will have to rely on young guys like Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, and hope veterans like Brenden Morrow and newcomers Michael Ryder and Radek Dvorak can help them along. Offense will be the Stars' biggest issue.

Saving the best for last, the CENTRAL DIVISON is looking strong, and a couple teams on hard times of late are looking to change the guard a little bit. Still, the Detroit Red Wings look to rule the roost, following the departure of longtime goaltender and Cup winner Chris Osgood. The Wings will be formidable in goal as usual, with Jimmy Howard starting and Joey MacDonald serving as backup. The lone notable subtraction was Brian Rafalski, and the Wings reloaded with Ian White and CBJ castoff Mike Commodore in free agency. Not exactly exciting, true, but with their core of forwards intact, unless their goaltending goes to hell early, the Wings will likely be looking down from the top of the Central all season.

The Nashville Predators had a rough offseason. They lost guys like Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward... not huge, but not small losses. Then throw the arbitration nightmare with Shea Weber into the mix, and the typically-frugal Preds were suddenly saddled with a huge paycheck to their captain, who will just be a UFA all over again in the summer. Still, Weber is a vital cog in Nashville... they couldn't afford not to have him this season. Still, even with having to rely on some young players and some tertiary help from free agency... you can never count the Preds out of the Central Division race. I don't know what it is about this team, but looking at head coach Barry Trotz is a good first step. He's not the franchise's only coach going into his 13th season for nothing. It helps to have a goaltender like Pekka Rinne, though they may have to lean on him a bit more this season. If he keeps his form, though, the Preds are a legitimate threat to Detroit.

Now we come to the Columbus Blue Jackets... version 2.0. The top-to-bottom "audit" of the organization resulted in a massive overhaul. When the dust settled, there were new faces in scouting, coaching staff, and of course, on the ice. The roster overhaul (hopefully) brought the Jackets the top-line center (Jeff Carter) and the puck-moving defenseman (James Wisniewski) that the franchise has needed since its inception. It has also brought contract extensions to core players (Clitsome, Methot, Tyutin, Umberger) and an infusion of youth that looks to rise among the veterans and turn this team into a contender. Even with all that talent coming in, the fate of the Jackets' season will still hinge on goaltender Steve Mason rediscovering his rookie form from three seasons ago, and finding consistency.

The offseason moves can be summed up with the two-word mantra "Win now." The payroll numbers say "You'd better."

Like the Jackets, the St. Louis Blues look to return to the Playoffs after a couple seasons of futility. Injuries to their forward lines doomed them last year, so they added to their forward depth by signing veterans Jamie Langenbruner and Jason Arnott. The pair will also provide key veteran leadership in the locker room. Jaroslav Halak transitioned better than expected to the Western Conference, and helped the Blues perform well, even within the tough Central Division. If health allows, the Blues will be the fourth Central team in the Playoffs.

The rest of the hockey world is going to think I'm crazy, and that's okay... I may be the only person who thinks the Chicago Blackhawks will actually regress this year. A season after the Hawks had to break up the team that won the Stanley Cup, they went out looking for some grunt, and got it in guys like Sean O'Donnell and former Philly goon Danny Carcillo. I'm all for grit, but the rest of the Central Division needs to watch its back with Carcillo on the ice, because a hit from behind is about all he is able to contribute. On the positive side, the Hawks also snagged Andrew Brunette. Though entering his hockey twilight, Brunette is still a good goal scorer. The biggest question mark is whether Corey Crawford is the man in net. If not, the Hawks could struggle to find a "go-to guy" with Ray Emery or Alexander Salak.

With the divisional breakdowns done,  I give you:

FINAL WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1. Vancouver Canucks
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Detroit Red Wings
4. Nashville Predators
5. Los Angeles Kings
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
7. Anaheim Ducks
8. St. Louis Blues
9. Chicago Blackhawks
10. Minnesota Wild
11. Colorado Avalanche
12. Phoenix Coyotes
13. Dallas Stars
14. Edmonton Oilers
15. Calgary Flames

Here come the men in the white coats... see you Friday.

Cheers.... Go Jackets!

See the picks for the "Other Guys" in the Eastern Conference Preview...

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