NHL predictions: Western Conference
Yes, it's time for my preseason predictions — the time when many of you write in angrily accusing me of hating your team (or jinxing it by praising it too much), and when I giggle quietly to myself at the lather many of you have worked yourself into.
If there's one thing I know about predictions, it's this: they aren't any guarantees what the standings will look at season's end. Rather, they're about the expectations hockey people (at least the ones I've spoken with) have for each organization. Said expectations can be met, fallen short of or surpassed, which is why they play the games. But for now, here's my sense of how the 2011-12 campaign will shake out in the Western Conference.
After coming within a win of the Stanley Cup last year, the Canucks have more than six months to daydream about getting back to mid-April and fighting through four teams again. Will Roberto Luongo dig a tunnel from his house to Rogers Arena to avoid dealing with the fan/media fishbowl? Can the blueline survive the loss of minute-muncher Christian Ehrhoff? Will the Sedins learn ventriloquism and make screwy speeches on each other's behalf to mess with the minds of reporters? None of the answers matters a lick. The franchise is now firmly ensconced in Sharks/Capitals territory, where nothing they accomplish during the regular season will make much of a difference to their fans.
Some were shocked to see The Hockey News pick the Hawks to win the Central Division this year. With respect to the always-dangerous Red Wings, I don't know why. Jonathan Toews set career marks for assists, points and plus-minus last season — you know, when he was exhausted from winning the 2009-10 Cup — and a lot of Chicago's other young stars who looked drained last season (especially Duncan Keith) have had a few months of legitimate rest. And GM Stan Bowman has added a handful of rugged veterans (including Sean O'Donnell, Jamal Mayers and Steve Montador), most of whom are hungry to win their first Cup. The only real shocker here will be if the Hawks fail to materialize as one of the West's true powerhouses.
3. Los Angeles
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air migration from Philly to LA continued over the summer with the blockbuster deal that made Mike Richards a King and Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds Flyers. Although the Kings had six players with at least 20 goals, their offense fell by 22 goals last season (219, down from 241) and their depth on the bottom two forward lines falls off fairly precipitously from the world-class players they have in their top two. But many are high on the composition of the roster and see the Kings having the best collective campaign in franchise history. Of course, if they can't get star defenseman Drew Doughty signed to a contract, take everything I said in the previous three sentences with a silo of salt.
Other than a couple exceptions on the blueline, the Wings return with the same lineup they had last season. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg remain men among boys who can play an elite two-way game; Nicklas Lidstrom remains a giant man among men among boys who can play virtually a perfect game; and Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall provide exemplary secondary support. Sure, they need Jonathan Ericsson and some other young(ish)sters to take advantage of increased responsibilities, but the guys at the top of Detroit's pay scale still have to do all the heavy lifting — and they will.
5. San Jose
I like the job GM Doug Wilson has done as much as anybody, but the four players he brought in this summer — Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus and Jim Vandermeer — were a combined minus-40 last season. That's unlikely to help their charitable penalty kill unit (24th in 2010-11). The Sharks won't be able to withstand a serious injury to one of their big three (which, as far as I'm concerned, now includes Logan Couture to go along with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau) and still finish atop the Pacific and second in the West as they did last season. In no way will they miss the playoffs, but I think the increasingly competitive division in which they play will temper their regular season success.
Goalie Jonas Hiller says he's completely over the troubling bout of vertigo that sidelined him most of last season, but no one knows how long his clean bill of health will last. Teemu Selanne is returning for another season, but who knows how much water is leaking out of his 41-year-old fountain of youth? The Ducks have arguably the most talented first line in hockey, but does their defense inspire confidence only in the easily inspired? These and more questions will be answered this season, but the sheer number of them that surrounds Anaheim leads me to suspect the Ducks won't finish as high as they did last year when they finished fourth in the West.
7. St. Louis
Fact: When all their players were healthy to start the 2010-11 season, the Blues went a franchise-best 9-1-2 and held their opponents to just 17 goals in that span. Then the injuries began to pile up and they exposed a young St. Louis roster that, by management's own admission, got too high off the team's highs and too low off its lows. Veterans Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins were brought in to maintain a more even keel. But who's kidding who? Davis Payne's team is going to rise or fall based on the development and production of new captain David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo and Jaroslav Halak. I think they've got enough talent in the tank to make the postseason.
The way the Jackets skidded through the end of last season — with just three wins in their final 22 games — you would think I'd have to be crazy to peg them as a playoff team. And maybe I am. But maybe I also remember the Jackets team that began the season 14-6-0 and was 20-15-3 as the calendar year changed to 2011. And maybe I think the free agent additions will help tremendously, goalie Steve Mason (clearly the key to their season) will enjoy a bounce-back year and internal improvement will continue from the likes of Marc Methot and Derick Brassard. Will the Jackets make the playoffs for the second time in the franchise's 11-year history? Uh, maybe.
The Predators gave their fans more to cheer about than ever last season with the first playoff series win in the organization's existence. Then something very familiar to the franchise took place: the annual summer departure of some highly paid talent (in this case, Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi) and the subsequent increased reliance on squeezing the most out of their internal assets. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne are all awesome, but Nashville's group of forwards (including their presumptive first line of Sergei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher and Martin Erat) are anything but.
Yeah, I know, the Flames finished the season on a 27-11-9 tear. I also know how they started the year, looking disinterested, rickety and impotent offensively. Yes, they have some world-class weapons and could secure a low playoff seed if everything (and I mean everything) goes right. However when you miss the playoffs, take blueline mainstay Robyn Regehr out of the picture, add only Lee Stempniak, Scott Hannah and Chris Butler in the offseason and with a straight face tell people Mikael Backlund is your No. 1 center, I'm sorry, but the benefit of the doubt will benefit teams other than yours.
Even without Jacques Lemaire behind the bench, the Wild still was to goal production as Minnesotans are to a Snooki-caliber tan in the middle of February. Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi can't help but help the anemic offense, but the price GM Chuck Fletcher had to pay (top blueliner Brent Burns) has significantly weakened the team's defense. I mean, Marek Zidlicky and Greg Zanon as your top pairing? Wild indeed, and not in a good way. Fletcher had a mighty task in pulling up the deep defensive roots established by Lemaire and former GM Doug Risebrough. To me, he's still got some uprooting to do before the Wild turn the corner and is seen as a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.
The easy thing to do is say the absence of Ilya Bryzgalov from the Coyotes' net will be the chief reason they'll plummet out of playoff contention this season. In reality, there are a few more absences that will keep them out of the postseason: Vernon Fiddler, their best penalty-killer (other than Bryzgalov, of course) signed with Dallas; blueline fixture Ed Jovanovski took Florida's money and ran; and veteran center Eric Belanger left for Edmonton. Newcomers Raffi Torres, Daymond Langkow, Boyd Gordon and goalie Mike Smith will make decent contributions, but considering the Coyotes were just four points ahead of the ninth-place Stars last year, it hardly seems a stretch to suggest they've got some disappointing days ahead in what could be their final season in Arizona.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk is a very smart individual, but not even a mutant GM made from the DNA of Steve Jobs, Sam Pollock and Ken Holland could overcome the ownership issues that have plagued the Dallas franchise since Tom Hicks' financial empire went kablooey. The extended search for a new owner (which is still continuing, by the way) ensured Brad Richards would depart the scene. And the newcomers Nieuwendyk was able to convince to join the organization — Fiddler, Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak and Sheldon Souray — are at best complementary talents. If the Stars couldn't make the postseason last year with Richards, how on earth — or any other planet — can they expect to qualify without him?
When a number of THN staffers lobbied successfully to place the Avalanche ninth overall in the West in our magazine's preseason picks, senior editor Brian Costello and I thought (a) there had been an inadvertent glue leak through the office ventilation system, and (b) we somehow were immune to the clear delusion it was causing. This team had the worst defense and penalty kill in the NHL last season and their answer was to bring in Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien on defense, as well as an entire new goaltending duo in former Capitals starter Semyon Varlamov and long-past-his-prime J.S. Giguere. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Oilers fans had a collective conniption when I pegged their team for 15th in the conference last season. The Oilers then went out and posted the league's fourth-worst offense, fourth-worst power play, third-worst defense, second-worst penalty kill — and finished 15th. Moreover, they lost 22 of 31 one-goal games, a hallmark of a young, still-learning roster. Edmonton brass is demonstrating the requisite amount of patience with an extremely talented core, but the offseason additions were mostly muscle (Andy Sutton, Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk) and that doesn't bode well for the possibility of getting anywhere close to a playoff spot this year.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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