Got that East Coast bias out of the way yesterday so that we can focus on the Western Conference today. Or as those of us that are fans of teams that reside there, the Bestern Conference. I won’t be a snobby fan on this topic but there is no question that the West is deeper than the East. It’s probably one of the reasons the Canucks ended up failing in the Cup Finals. They were put through the meat grinder that is the West and ended up falling in seven games. That, and Timmy Thomas putting up the forcefield. Since 1993 only eight different teams have hoisted the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. There may be a ninth this season.
In the East, I finished with the Islanders as they were one of the worst teams last season. Today, we begin with the Edmonton Oilers. This team was bit by the injury bug last year as Ryan Whitney was lost for the season with an ankle injury as was number one overall pick Taylor Hall. For the second consecutive season the Oil were the worst team in hockey. It netted them Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who will start the season in the NHL. Still no bolded name and I’m going away from the star power for Edmonton. Why Devan Dubnyk wasn’t given more of an opportunity to prove himself last season in favor of drink drink vroom vroom Nikolai Khabibulin I will never understand. The Oil games that I did see Dubnyk start last year, I liked what I saw. Seeing as how the Oil’s blue line is below average at best, they’ll need him to prove he’s at least a serviceable NHL netminder. A little further south in Alberta, the Calgary Flames might be the biggest mess in the conference. Just look at their Capgeek page. Lots of no-trade clauses and little depth in the minors. It’s time to trade Jarome Iginla to a contender. He’s been a good soldier. Let him go win somewhere. The Flames are in a rebuilding mode for the next two years at least.
The big dog in the Northwest division will once again be the Vancouver Canucks. I will do my best to not show my bias for this team but having gone through the same short summer the year prior, I know how short rest can affect a team. However, I’m not familiar how a short summer and a crushing game seven loss in the Cup Finals can affect the psyche and body. The Nucks will be without Ryan Kesler to start the year, they lost some edge with Raffi Torres and their blue line depth was taken when Ehrhoff departed for Buffalo. Dan Hamhuis is one hit away from his career being in jeopardy. The Sedin twins still remain, as does Alex Burrows. This is not just the Blackhawks fan in me speaking but I see a regression for this team in 2011-12. Roberto Luongo played 85 games last season. No matter the talent, fatigue is the great equalizer. That c-word label still remains as well. Speaking of chokers…
The San Jose Sharks are an enigma wrapped in an enigma wrapped in horrible teal uniforms. They’ve also never reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their history. This team has probably had the most talent in the West for the last three seasons. They haven’t won a Conference Final game in that span won a single conference final game in that span. The window is closing for them and it’s happening fast. Joe Thornton is 32 this year. His decline is coming. Patrick Marleau is also 32. The being said, I love shipping Dany Heatley to Minnesota for Brent Burns. The Sharks are focusing on defense. Antti Niemi can make the spectacular save but he’s prone to softies. The less shots he faces the better. Burns along with Dougie Murray and Dan Boyle will be formidable on the blue line. I’m high on the Sharks but the homer in me can’t pick them.
The team that San Jose eliminated last year in seven games was the Detroit Red Wings. They managed to come back from down 3-0 to force a game seven but couldn’t complete the deal. I’ll be accused of bias again here but the Wings are regressing as well. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a shot at Shea Weber next summer but Nicklas Lidstrom is 43. Yeah, he won a 7th Norris Trophy last year and was quite good. Father Time wins every time. It’s almost certain that Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and the Mule can still lead the Red Wings to home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Wings scare me in 2012-13, just not this year. The Nashville Predators are the exact inverse. It’s Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne’s last season in Tennessee most likely. Weber is playing for a monster contract. The Preds lacked the offense to get past Vancouver last spring. If Sergei Kostitsyn can stay healthy, that’s an added bonus for their offense. Mike Fisher-Underwood will get a full year with the team. This team has a lot to play for and they may just upset someone in the playoffs. It’ll be their last chance to do so for a couple years as it’s likely many of the key parts depart for greener pastures next summer.
Suppose this is as good a time as any to bring up the Chicago Blackhawks what with all the Central division talk. Chicago had quite the summer. They jettisoned Brian Campbell’s enormous contract for some guy named Rostislav Olesz. He’s cheaper but not nearly as useful nor can he stay healthy it seems. Still, it offered up the valuable cap space the Hawks have been without for a couple summers now. With it, they went out and improved the blue line with Steve Montador. They extended Patrick Sharp. They re-signed Corey Crawford. They added some snarl with Jamal Mayers, Sean O’Donnell and Dan Carcillo. They added a locker room guy and big body in Andrew Brunette. Despite needing that grit and veteran presence, it’s the core that will continue to be the difference makers. Patrick Kane will be a center this year it seems. Okaaay. Jonathan Toews will lead by example and is on his way to being a top five player in the NHL. There’s two names you need to concern yourself with when talking about Chicago though. Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa. Keith was downright bad last season after winning the Norris in 2010. He never found a opposing shinpad he didn’t like to hit on shots from the blue line and his minutes were up which left him looking tired by February. It is critical for the Hawks that he return closer to that 2009-10 form than what we saw last year. Boss Hoss played more hockey from 2008-2010 than any other player in the sport. Three straight Finals trips. Finally, he gets a summer off when he turns 32. He’s the best two way player on Chicago’s roster. 40 goals? 40 assists? No, those numbers don’t matter. If he plays 70+ games for the Blackhawks this year, they’ll have things that don’t show up in the box score but in the points column in the standings instead.
Can you tell I’m a Hawks fan?
The Los Angeles Kings will be quite the interesting story this season. There’s a few new face in the city that doesn’t show up for anything but basketball games. Mike Richards came in from Philly during the mass exodus that was Paul Holmgren’s panic attack this summer. Drew Doughty also just got paid and looks to be in LA for the rest of the decade. This was the fear that the rest of the West had about LA two years ago. The Kings have made the leap and should easily be the 2nd best team in the Pacific division. But how long will it take for Richards to get acclimated to LA’s system? Am I the only one that thinks Jon Quick is more Jimmy Howard than people realize? And what about the lack of cap space? If the Kings suffer an injury to Kopitar or Richards, they don’t have the replacement parts or the cap to sustain it. They don’t have nearly the depth issues as Anaheim Ducks though. Past the top line of Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry there’s not a whole lot to offer there. Is Jonas Hiller cobweb free? It’s the last hurrah for Teemu Selanne and possibly Saku Koivu. There’s not even a player worth highlighting on this team to be honest.
The group of three that won’t get much of a highlight in the West will be the Phoenix Coyotes, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. The key player for Phoenix is Jobbing.com Arena. The lease in Glendale is the only thing keeping the Coyotes in the desert. They made the playoffs last season but losing Ilya Bryzgalov will set this team back. Dallas lost Brad Richards and added… Vern Fiddler? As for the Wild, adding Dany Heatley isn’t exactly a positive thing. Goal scoring he brings. And locker room dissent.
So, I’m down to Colorado, St. Louis and Columbus, eh?
The St. Louis Blues suffered some injuries last year. There’s a ton of RFAs to-be on this roster but the most important has to be T.J. Oshie. He played with Jonathan Toews on a North Dakota team that was loaded with NHL talent. Yet, Oshie hasn’t lived up to his billing of a first round selection in the 2005 entry draft. He failed to show up for a practice last season and was suspended for two games. There’s a leadership void on the Blues roster. Who fills that? The Blues brought in Jason Arnott who does have some solid playoff experience in with the Devils. I keep looking at this Blues roster and other than Jaro Halak, I’m not sure who to really point to as a sign of hope for those that wear “the note.” In fact, I’d venture to say that the Columbus Blue Jackets finish higher in the Central. Rick Nash finally has a center! But what in the blue hell was this team thinking when it awarded R.J Umburger 5 years and $23M? Don’t get me started on the James Wisniewski contract either. Steve Mason is still in net. Can he rebound to his Calder Trophy performance from 2008? I doubt it. I still think they finish higher than the Blues but it won’t be by much.
There was hope for the last team I mentioned in the East. The Colorado Avalanche will get no such treat. Matt Duchene is pretty good and he proved that he can dance as well last season. They traded their netminder to Ottawa where he’ll be left to rot. Milan Hejduk is well over the hill. The team is barely above the salary floor. The fans aren’t coming through the gate anymore at the Pepsi Center. Things are pretty bleak in the Mile High City. I dunno… maybe they can borrow Tebow?
Suppose this is the portion of the post where we get into predictions sure to be wrong. This I can tell you for certain. The Canucks aren’t making it out of the West this year. They are still tremendously talented. They probably should be more driven this year than last after the way they went out. I just don’t see them having the gas in the tank. Am I allowed to pick two teams? Because I’m picking two teams. I think you’re going to see an eventual rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Finals to determine who gets to play for the Chalice. Chicago is reloaded and finally has a backstop they’re comfortable with. The Sharks know that their window with the current core is starting to close. The team that takes the biggest step back will undoubtedly be Phoenix. If they finish higher than 11th I’ll be shocked. The Kings are the team with the highest potential upside. The Oilers might be the most fun to watch just because of the kids. We’re just two days from hockey that matters! Powerplays! Goal horns! Zambonis! ICE CREWS! YAY!
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