2016-17 NHL preview: Western Conference power rankings
Remember when Nashville leveraged a country music star’s marriage to swing a big trade? Since he arrived from Ottawa in 2011, newly appointed Predators captain Mike Fisher has seen his team pull off even bigger deals for forwards Filip Forsberg, James Neal and Ryan Johansen and defenseman P.K. -Subban—acquisitions- good enough to quiet those lame Mr. Underwood jokes.
David Poile deserves credit: Not since George Costanza has someone found so much success in doing the opposite. The GM shipped away his franchise’s hallmarks—dependability, grit, -defense—and brought in undervalued players who sometimes came with baggage. Give him your disgruntled, your unrefined, your offensive geniuses yearning to breathe free.
The latest such swap—Subban, from Montreal, for defenseman Shea Weber—will be a rare case of addition by both subtraction and addition. Most famous for his hits and heavy shot, Weber didn’t fit a team that under coach Peter Laviolette asks its blueliners to lead the rush. His contract put the Predators in the awkward position of making their highest-paid player the one who fit their team concept the least. Now with Subban, a Norris Trophy winner who has averaged 54.7 points over the last three seasons, the opposite is true.
ON THE DOORSTEP
|4||Los Angeles Kings|
The Stars provide a perfect foil for Nashville. Built on another trade that took the starch out of the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry (Loui Eriksson to Boston for Tyler Seguin, in 2013), Dallas’s forward corps will be a torture test for the Preds’ blue line. While some teams try to blend speed, grit and skill by playing bruisers with stars, Dallas’s secret is having forwards, not lines, with all three qualities. Winger Jamie Benn (6' 2″, 210 pounds) has edged out Sidney Crosby (5' 11″, 200) and Patrick Kane (5' 11″, 177) for most points over the past two seasons and could whup either.
Now the bad news for the Stars and the Predators: The Blackhawks’ seemingly annual salary-cap crisis wasn’t so bad this year. While Chicago had to sacrifice promising young forward Teuvo Teravainen to shed Bryan Bickell’s bloated contract, it got a great deal on a former cap casualty, defenseman Brian Campbell (one year, $1.5 million cap hit), who was eager to return. The emergence of 2015 Rookie of the Year Artemi Panarin (77 points) mitigates the losses up front, though Chicago is still thin down the middle, where Teravainen had some experience.
As for the decade’s other quasi-dynasty, the Kings figure to grind out another 100 points behind That ’70s Line of Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, hockey’s most punishing. With Pearson and Toffoli, both 24, reaching their primes, this unit may join the Stars’ Seguin, Benn and Patrick Sharp in the 600 pounds–600 shots club this season. L.A. stripped Dustin Brown of his captaincy this off-season, but as long as the percentage of the cap he takes up (8.0%) is higher than his ratio of shots that go in the net (5.0% in 2015–16), the team will go through familiar scoring droughts.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
|5||St. Louis Blues|
|6||San Jose Sharks|
For the Blues, a team intent on making smooth transitions—naming Mike Yeo coach-in-waiting while Ken Hitchcock mans the bench for one last campaign—it’ll be rough replacing captain David Backes (45 points) and Brian Elliott (.930 save percentage). While Jake Allen becomes the undisputed No. 1 in net, untested Carter Hutton (career .910) will start games Elliott otherwise would have. Unless their lame-duck coach leads them to a strong start, the long-rumored trade of pending free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk may be their best course of action.
By contrast, the Sharks are returning essentially the same team that seized the organization’s first Western Conference title. But time is working against San Jose stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Winning it all in their final hurrah is a romantic notion, but the Sharks were a bubble team last year (sixth in the West), and as mentioned, not much has changed. Still, after years of playing the hapless favorite, the underdog role suits San Jose.
In a summer of big moves, none helped a team more than the Flames’ netting the Blues’ Elliott for a second-round pick. Last year Calgary’s goalies had an .898 save percentage. In 181 games in St. Louis, Elliott averaged .925. That would be an improvement of roughly a goal per game over the course of a full season. They won’t be that much better, but the Flames will compete.
If Anaheim felt so compelled to bring back someone from its 2007 Stanley Cup team, perhaps it should have tried to coax Teemu Selanne out of retirement. Whatever you think of the job Bruce Boudreau did behind the Ducks’ bench, new (and former) coach Randy Carlyle hasn’t exactly put together a gleaming postseason résumé since he was fired from Anaheim in ’11. Up-and-coming defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are great. But Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, they ain’t.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
Boudreau landed quickly in Minnesota, where his offensive Midas touch figures to improve a team that ranked 18th last season. Forwards Zach Parise and potential new linemate Eric Staal can help each other prove they’re not steeply declining in their early 30s. On the back end, Ryan Suter could use some relief (28:36 TOI per game last year), but the Wild’s young blueliners need to play much better to let that happen.
Signing in Edmonton, hulking winger Milan Lucic has unofficially been cast to play Dave Semenko in The Wayne Gretzky Story, starring Connor McDavid. Lucic (55 points, 244 hits last season) gives McDavid’s line a physical edge without sacrificing too much skill. But even with newcomer Adam Larsson, the Oilers’ defense could use more of both.
In other throwback news, it seems every 20 years or so, the Avalanche benefit from Patrick Roy abruptly and publicly quitting his job. A first line as talented as Colorado’s—Matt Duchene (No. 3 pick in 2009), Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2 in ’11) and Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 in ’13)—deserves a coach committed to an aggressive system.
WAIT TILL 2020
On a roster that’s had surprisingly little turnover since its move to Winnipeg in 2011, No. 2 pick Patrik Laine adds much-needed skill and flair. But a great season from him will only make it more tempting for the Jets to tank for top-ranked prospect Nolan Patrick.
The Coyotes have a nice top line of Max Domi, Martin Hanzal and Anthony Duclair. But how good can the team really be when those three had the same number of combined points last season (137) as the players Arizona is now paying to skate elsewhere (Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Ribeiro and Antoine Vermette)?
Loui Eriksson looked great with fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin during the World Cup of Hockey. Indeed, Tre Kronor faithful and prospect enthusiasts may enjoy watching the Canucks. Vancouverites? Not so much.