Oct 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville sits with his players during the third period of a preseason game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
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The NHL’s regular season begins tonight with five games, so let’s take a look at how the Western Conference stands
Hooray, hockey is back! And the Chicago Blackhawks’ first game of the regular season doesn’t conflict with a Chicago Cubs game (like last year). That’s good news for a portion of the fan base.
But while we care most about the Blackhawks around here, they’re obviously not the only team in the league. We have 29 other teams vying for the Stanley Cup as well, some with a better shot than others to actually earn it.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the two divisions that matter most to the Blackhawks — the Central Division and Pacific Division — and try to predict what happens in the 2016-17 campaign with regard to the Western Conference.
You can’t go into hockey season without expectations. So let’s get to it.
Oct 4, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban (76) attempts a one-timer in the third period during a preseason hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
How does the Central Division shape up?
Some really interesting things happened in the Central this offseason. Naturally, the division projects to be a gauntlet to get through, though things may be a little different in 2016-17 than they have been in the three or four seasons prior.
Winnipeg Jets —Added: F Patrik Laine; Lost: No major losses
The biggest move of the offseason was the Preds acquiring do-it-all defenseman Subban from the underappreciative Montreal Canadiens. They lost their captain, Weber, in the process, but massively upgraded their team as well.
The Blackhawks went through a bit of their usual turnover, while the Blues lost their captain this offseason as well in Backes. The Stars, Avalanche and Wild were busy on a variety of levels, though I’m not sure anyone but Dallas improved out of that trio. Winnipeg had a quiet offseason but selected potential franchise cornerstone Laine in the 2016 draft.
I’m not sure pundits are giving the Preds enough credit in the preseason. That defense, with goaltender Pekka Rinne behind it, is going to be extremely difficult to score against. And then most of the unit can push play and make things happen in the offensive end. That, combined with a stable forward corps, is scary.
The second through fourth spots are kind of toss-ups at this point, but I think they’ll go between Dallas, Chicago and St. Louis. The latter two teams have some adjusting to do early in the season, while the Stars will probably just keep scoring and having bad goaltending.
The Wild will be the Wild — a fine team, just good enough to make the postseason, but not good enough to go far. Winnipeg will make some strides, while I see Colorado taking a step back. That team is under a coach with no NHL head coaching experience and hasn’t adjusted to the quicker, leaner style of NHL play that’s very much seen in the Central Division. Both of these factors will burn the Avs.
September 27, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks forward Kevin Labanc (62) is congratulated for scoring the game-winning goal in overtime during a preseason hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
How are things going to go in the Wild West?
The Pacific Division actually produced the Western Conference champion last season with the surprising San Jose Sharks. The team that was struggling to find an identity not long ago is apparently good with where it’s at now.
Meanwhile, the Ducks and Kings continue to be in contention mode. The rest of the division is either in rebuilding status or just straight up dumpster fire status.
A decent bit of in-division movement among players this offseason in the Pacific, which was also a landing ground for some former Central Division athletes. San Jose went with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” strategy, and it should serve them well.
Los Angeles got stronger by losing guys like Lucic and Versteeg and made some solid, if not major, improvements at forward. Anaheim had a really turbulent offseason following another early playoff exit. They went back to Randy Carlyle at coach, which … hasn’t worked that well in the past.
Edmonton made two baffling moves in moving former first-overall picks Hall and Yakupov for essentially nothing. The Flames and Coyotes made some nice little improvements, but seem focused on their youth as well. Why Vancouver signed Eriksson is anyone’s guess, considering how bad the Canucks are going to be for the entirety of his six-year deal.
x-Los Angeles Kings, 102 points
x-San Jose Sharks, 100 points
x-Anaheim Ducks, 97 points
Calgary Flames, 85 points
Arizona Coyotes, 84 points
Edmonton Oilers, 82 points
Vancouver Canucks, 55 points
x-qualifies for playoffs
I see the Pacific shaking out as a battle of “meh” again this season. But don’t be surprised if these teams make noise in the postseason, as they always seem to. There’s just no reason to go from the same three playoff teams as came out of the Pacific last year, and there’s also no reason to assume one or two of the others will snag wild-card spots.
Calgary, Arizona and even Edmonton (despite it’s desire to purge Hall) are on the slow rise. Vancouver, meanwhile, is going to be horrible. Maybe the Canucks will actually shop the Sedin brothers this season. Or maybe they’ll just opt to retire, if they don’t want to be split up and can’t take anymore of the team’s mediocrity. I wouldn’t blame them.