Wednesday, October 15, 2008

2008-2009 Western Conference Prognostications

East was East, and this is West…

1. Detroit

The good: You won 54 games, had 115 points, won the Western Conference title, won the Stanley Cup champion, and you lost no one of critical importance. To this, you added Marian Hossa. Shouldn’t Congress be investigating this sort of thing? But that’s the splashy addition. The one the Wings don’t get enough attention (or credit) for is signing Ty Conklin, who pretty much saved Pittsburgh’s season last year when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a high-ankle sprain. Detroit doesn’t rebuild, they don’t even reload. They just have oodles and oodles of guns.

The bad: We are of a mind that there are 20 games a team will win, no matter what. And, there are 20 games a team will lose, no matter what. The Red Wings lost 21 games last year, so they pretty much maxed out on that philosophy. Whether they do so this year will be a product of whether Chris Osgood is “as-good” in 60 games as he was in 43 (the number in which he played last year). But frankly, we’re stretching here. The Wings are loaded.

Outlook: It is extremely difficult to repeat as Stanley Cup champion these days, and that is the only standard that matters for the Wings (they are the last franchise to have repeated, in 1998). They might have a marginally tougher time within their division this year than they had last year – their competition has improved – but it won’t be so much as a speed bump to the playoffs.

2. San Jose

The good: San Jose is “Detroit-lite” (regular season version) in this respect – they finished second in the conference last year, didn’t really lose anyone of critical importance (unless you’re including the rental Brian Campbell), and added Dan Boyle from Tampa Bay to improve the power play. Evgeni Nabokov established himself (again…in the regular season…think there is something coming?) as a top-notch goaltender, and it seems unlikely that Jonathan Cheechoo will continue his free-fall in goal scoring (from 56 three years ago to 23 last year).

The bad: The Sharks have shown themselves to be little more than regular season wonders, and that falls squarely on the shoulders of Joe Thornton, fairly or not. He’s averaged 101 points a year over the last three years…he has a total of five goals in 35 playoff games over the same three seasons. Nabokov didn’t have a bad playoff – his statistics were roughly comparable to his regular season results – but he was inconsistent. In six of his first nine playoff games last year he allowed three or more goals. Until the big guys step up in the playoffs, they will continue to be something of a regular season wonder.

Outlook: On paper, San Jose is somewhat better than last year, but certainly not better in the same way Detroit is. The Sharks still, despite a change behind the bench to Todd McClellan, have the look of a team that will get 105 points, win a playoff series (maybe), then go out to the disappointment of their fans the head scratching of the hockey punditry.

3. Calgary

The good: Someone has to win the weak Northwest Division, and Calgary is as good a choice as any. The Flames have top-end talent in Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, and (if he plays to his 2006-2007 level, instead of last year’s) Miikka Kiprusoff. That should keep the Flames in most games. Adding Mike Cammaleri from Los Angeles should add some punch to a roster that was 14th in scoring last year.

The bad: When you are standing behind your eighth NHL bench, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a matter of “when,” not “if” things will eventually end unpleasantly. That’s the case with Mike Keenan, who is in his second year in Calgary. He has never lasted more than four years at any stop and has lasted three or fewer in his last five postings. We guess that means he’s safe for this year, but don’t hold us to it.

Outlook: The Flames will be a rugged, in your face group, which is pretty much the way Kennan teams play. Kiprusoff has to play better this year than last to make this work, though. 39 wins isn’t bad, but Kiprusoff finished 28th in GAA and 30th in save percentage last year. Calgary found a way to scratch out enough offense to finish tied for 13th in scoring. But this doesn’t have the look – even with the addition of Todd Bertuzzi and Cammaleri – of being a team that will generate a lot of offense.

4. Dallas

The good: Last year, Dallas was a top ten team in scoring (9th) and defense (6th in goals allowed). That was with Brad Richards playing only 12 games after being obtained at the trading deadline from Tampa Bay. One figures he hasn’t lost his playmaking touch (an average of 73 assist/82 games played in his career coming into the year), and he can’t be as bad as the -27 he put up last year with Tampa Bay and Dallas. Then there is the matter of Sean Avery. He stands alone at the top of the heap of players whose eyes hockey fans would like to gouge out with a grapefruit spoon, but the Rangers were a better team with him than without him on the ice last year. That doesn’t figure to change in Dallas.

The bad: Does Mike Modano have anything left? He’s never had a 100-point season, but he’s only had 100 points the last two years combined. Perhaps more ominously, he was a team worst -11 (among players in Dallas for the entire year) last year. Dallas had career goal scoring years from Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribiero, and Niklas Hagman – all with 27 or more goals. If they can’t repeat that, it’s hard to tell from where Dallas is going to get any consistent goal scoring.

Outlook: If…If the Stars can get years out of Morrow, Ribiero, and Hagman that they got last year. If Richards returns to something that more closely resembles his better years in Tampa Bay. Then Dallas is the second best team in the West. But here is something to ponder…in the three years since the lockout the Stars have finished no worse than fourth in fewest shots allowed (second in each of the other years). This has masked a drop off in goaltender Marty Turco’s save percentage (no lower than .913 before the lockout, no better than .910 since). In Dallas, it’s the system. How they play it will be what to watch.

5. Anaheim

The good: Teemu Selanne is back for a full year after playing only 26 games last year. He had 12 goals in those 26 games, only slightly less than the pace he set when he scored 48 in 2006-2007 and 40 in 2005-2006. Scott Niedermayer is back for a full year after playing in only 48 games last year. Ryan Getzlaf appears to have arrived as a point-a-game player, and Corey Perry isn’t far behind. Through games of December 14 last year, Francois Beauchemin was -9. That’s important because Niedermayer rejoined the lineup on Deecember 16th. After that, Beauchemin was even though the rest of the year. Something to think about for this year, with Niedermayer with the Ducks from the start.

The bad: Goal scorers are an odd bunch. Consider Peter Bondra. He had 45 goals with the Caps in 2000-2001. Then he went 39-30-26-21-5 to end his career. Selanne is 38 years old. Is he getting to be about that age to see a slip? There really isn’t a lot more about this club one can think of as bad, or even potentially so. Neither do they look better.

The outlook: The Ducks are a veteran team (only three players younger than 25 on the opening night roster), which probably means few surprises. J-S Giguere is in the prime of his career, and his last two seasons reflect that (71 total wins, a combined GAA 2.18). This looks like a team built more for the playoffs than the regular season.

6. Minnesota

The good: Marian Gaborik hasn’t been traded (yet). Minnesota might have the best Niklas Backstrom in the NHL – 56 wins the last two years in goal, a GAA of 2.17, a save percentage over .920. This has been a team that has made the most with comparatively meager gifts, which suggests that Jacques Lemaire has done a whale of a job as coach. He’s still there.

The bad: The Wild had nine players in double digits in goal scoring last year. Three of them were not on the opening night roster, and the three missing players (Brian Rolston, Mark Parrish, and Pavol Demitra) were second, third, and fourth in goals last year. If Gaborik isn’t signed to a new deal and is traded, the Wild might not score again this year.

Outlook: Minnesota benefits from playing in a system that masks its talent weaknesses. They will be starved for offense, but it’s not as if pressing the attack is a governing philosophy of the club, anyway. The Wild play Lemaire’s system very well, and there is little reason to believe they will do otherwise this year.

7. Chicago

The good: Having Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews with a season’s worth of experience under their belts. Getting Martin Havlat – a guy who has averaged 30 goals per 82 games over his career – returning to the lineup. Adding Brian Campbell to the club to provide some punch and stability to the blue line, and to complement Brent Seabrook, who had a big leap forward last year (more than doubling his goals scored and improving his plus-minus by a +19).

The bad: They’ll need to sort out their goaltending situation. Cristobal Huet was signed for a bundle, but it’s not apparently clear that he’ll be the number one six months from now, with Nikolai Khabibulin lurking. Neither goaltender is devoid of issues. Khabibulin, for all of his big contract and a Stanley Cup (with Tampa Bay) has not won more than 30 games in ten years. Huet has won more than 30 once (last year) but has never played more than 52 games in a year. Are either of these guys going to be the big hoss to which the Hawks will hitch their wagon in the stretch?

The outlook: Chicago has the look of a team that is perhaps a year away, although a lot of folks said that about the Caps last year, too. We – being peerless in prognostications – had the Caps making the playoffs last year. We expect the Hawks to do the same this year. In a league where young guys make marks earlier in their careers than years past, the Hawks have several very good ones.

8. Edmonton

The good: This is another club that has a good young group of players – Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert…all 25 or younger. Adding an Erik Cole will provide some grit and goal scoring, as well. The Oilers look to have a pretty good mix of youth and veterans (especially on defense) that will allow them to avoid the ups and downs of a more heavily youth-weighted lineup.

The bad: The Oilers had three goaltenders on their opening night roster – Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Dwayne Roloson, and Mathieu Garon. That suggests to us that the Oilers just aren’t sure what direction to go in. When the dust settles, it looks like Garon will be the number one, but it might be a shaky perch on which to sit. Garon hasn’t had a bad career to date, statistics-wise, but looking at the three of them, it’s hard to see where the Oilers will have many games stolen by their goaltending. On a young team, that could be a problem.

The outlook: Edmonton has built a team that could challenge in the lower half of the playoff draw this year, so long as the young guys keep improving. There should be some constants – Shawn Horcoff getting 20 goals or so (he’s averaged that in the last three seasons), Dustin Penner providing some toughness and offensive pop (he’s averaged 26 goals the last two years), Steve Staios providing some solid play on the blue line. Edmonton might really be that team that is a year away, primarily because of its goaltending, but we think they’ll make it this year.

9. Colorado

The good: Last year was the first time since 2001-2002 that Joe Sakic did not average at least a point a game, and it took missing 38 games with a hernia to do it. Sakic is back, and so too might be the point a game production. Paul Stastny has averaged a point a game over his first two years. Marek Svatos rebounded from a 17-goal drop in production last year to post 26 goals.

The bad: The Avalanche, despite being a playoff club last year, was very streaky in the second half. From February 12th through the end of the year (26 games), the Avs lost five in a row, won nine of 11, lost four in a row, then closed the year winning five of six. That kind of inconsistency doesn’t often get rewarded. The Avs also will be turning over the reins in goal to Peter Budaj, who had a fine year in 2006-2007 (31-16-6, 2.68, .905), but appeared in 22 fewer games last year, posting roughly similar numbers (2.57, .903). Behind him is Andrew Raycroft, who is on his third team in four years. He hasn’t had a year were he’s saved as many as 90 percent of the shots he faced since his rookie year.

Outlook: There isn’t a lot of room for error. If any of Budaj, Sakic, or Stastny go down, the Avs will be in real trouble. Adding Darcy Tucker isn’t the answer – he’s gone from 61 to 43 to 34 points the last three years. When you score 61 points and play like he does, you’re “gritty.” When you play that was and get 34 points (with the possibility of sinking further), you’re not gritty, you’re “annoying.” As it is, they are probably on the wrong edge of the playoff mix. Any injuries or bad stretches, and they’re sunk.

10. Nashville

The good: The Predators return four of six players from last year that scored 40 or more points. The Predators have assembled a solid back line. Dan Ellis had a very good year last year in taking over as the number one goaltender when Chris Mason stumbled. Nashville also had one of the best penalty killing units in the league. The Predators proved to be a resilient bunch amid swirls of conversation about the future of the franchise in Nashville.

The bad: They will miss Alexander Radulov’s scoring. It was not an especially potent power play last year, and it won’t be this year, either. Although Dan Ellis performed well last year, he will now have a brighter light shining on his play, and backing him up will be a rookie, talented though he might be, Pekka Rinne.

Outlook: The Predators won’t win on style points. They will win with all the horses pulling in the same direction and through hard work. The problem is that they are a less gifted team than last year’s,and last year’s did have much in the way of top-end skill. They’ll struggle in a division that has teams with superior skill, such as Detroit and Chicago.

11. Vancouver

The good: It all starts with Roberto Luongo, who must feel as if he wronged the hockey gods in a past life to perpetually play behind teams that struggle offensively. But he can steal more than a few games by himself – he’ll have to. After that, the offense boils down to the Sedins, Daniel and Henrik, and not much else, unless Pavol Demitra can rebound from a 15-39-54 effort last year in Minnesota. The Canucks will be in most games on the strength of Luongo and a hard-nosed blue line with Mattias Ohlund, Shane O’Brien, and Willie Mitchell.

The bad: 23rd in scoring last year, 18th on the power play, 25th when trailing first. Vancouver was a poor offensive team, and Demitra isn’t likely to be nearly enough to turn that around.

Outlook: This is a club that wilted in the stretch last year, losing seven of their last eight to finish three points out of the playoffs. Luongo played in all seven, going 1-6-0, 4.02, .864, and getting pulled three times. At some point, such overwhelming reliance on the goaltender out of a lack of reliable or consistent offense takes its toll. And that will be why the Canucks will be out of the money again.

12. Phoenix

The good: The Coyotes probably overachieved last year, even though they finished 12th in the West, and they bring back most of the core of that effort. Shane Doan had perhaps his best year last season, but he gets help this time around in the form of Olli Jokinen. Jokinen should take some pressure off of Kyle Turris in his rookie year in the middle.

The bad: The Coyotes are going to have a hard time getting any offense on the wings after Doan. Radim Vrbata, who was second on the team in scoring last year skating on the right side, is now in Tampa. Peter Mueller performed well in his rookie campaign, but after that, the Coyotes didn’t have a winger with 30 points last year.

The Outlook: This is a very young team, with six roster players who are 21 or younger among the skaters. They are especially young up front with only Doan and Steven Reinprecht older than 30. There will be growing pains. When all is said and done, overachieving last year should not be confused with “good.” There is a promising young nucleus here, but they are some time away from being competitive. Ilya Bryzgalov, who performed well (and often spectacularly) last year, will have to do at least as well for the Coyotes to challenge.

13. Columbus

The good: The Blue Jackets have some capable players in Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger, and Mike Commodore. And they have some promising youngsters in Drerick Brassard and Jakub Voracek. Like Phoenix, though, the youth needs time to deveop a game. On the back line, Rostislav Klesla would probably be a much better anchor if he hadn’t lost large chunks of two seasons to injuries. But he’s only 26. Fedor Tyutin comes over from the Rangers, and he’s only 25.

Bad: Columbus has a culture of losing. Last year was the best in franchise history, but they still finished under .500 with 80 points. It will be an offense-challenged team. How much? Columbus had 34 wins last year – 11 of them came via shutout. It isn’t immediately clear that they will be more potent this year. The Blue Jackets will get some veteran support from Mike Peca and Fredrik Modin, but both are players whose best production appears to be behind them.

Outlook: If Leclaire has the same level of production he had last year, the Blue Jackets will still probably finish with around 80 points. It would be a lot to expect nine shutouts this year, even if head coach Ken Hitchcock stresses defense-defense-defense. There isn’t enough offense among the veterans, and the youngsters are too young yet.

14. St.Louis

The good: Not a lot. Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk could provide some offense, but they are 34 (in a few days) and 36, respectively. Brad Boyes had a coming out party of sorts last year with 43 goals. The Blues have some competent defensemen, but the loss of Erik Johnson to a knee injury just about killed whatever thin chance they had to compete this year.

The bad: Last year, the Blues were a bottom third team in goals scored, goals against, and power play (dead last). But at least they could kill power plays (seventh in the league). Well, with Johnson out for the year, can they make it four for four in the bottom five?

Outlook: This is a team that will compete for the top overall pick in next June’s draft. It would seem that they’ll be looking to shop any veteran over 30 come the trading deadline. This will not be a pleasant year for coach Andy Murray.

15. Los Angeles

The good: Anze Kopitar and…well, Anze Kopitar. OK, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Bown will contribute some, but not nearly enough to make the Kings respectable. Patrick O’Sullivan has a world of talent, but he ended a holdout only four days before opening night. The one thing the Kings can’t afford is a slow start by any of their skill players.

The bad: The Kings employed four goaltenders last year, none of whom could reasonably be confused with being a bona fide number one NHL goaltender. Erik Ersberg was the best of the lot, but in only the second most appearances, to Jason LaBarbera. For the moment, LaBarbera looks like the number one. That should not be comforting to Kings’ fans.

Outlook: This will be the worst defensive team in the West, perhaps the worst in the league. A penalty killing unit that was dead last in 2007-2008 doesn’t figure to be better this year. The Kings have some kids in the pipeline, especially on defense (Thomas Hickey, Drew Doughty, Colton Teubert), but with the exception of Doughty, who was on the opening night roster, they are perhaps years away.

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