Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Your Peerless Prognostos for the 2009-2010 Season -- The Western Conference

We’ve done the East, and now, the West…

1. San Jose

The good… On paper, lots. The Sharks subtracted a player who went from 56 to 12 goals in the blink of an eye (Jonathan Cheechoo) and added a player who has averaged 37 goals a year over his seven year career and who is in his prime (Dany Heatley). The Sharks otherwise return their top four goal scorers and point producers from last year. They’ve topped 100 points in four of the last five years (and had 99 in the other year); they’ve averaged 48 wins over the last five years. They know how to win… in the regular season.

The bad… Since reaching the conference final in the 2003-2004 playoffs, the Sharks have failed to escape the second round in four straight seasons, getting eliminated in the first round last year. More than any other team in the league, the regular season means nothing in evaluating this team. They’re kings from October to April. May and June?... well, that’s another story.

The key… Heatley. If you look at his 82-game splits for his career, he’s averaged 42-46-88, plus-8. Twice he’s topped 100 points in his seven year career. He’s a point-a-game producer in the playoffs over his career. But he has no Stanley Cups, and his teams, while loaded offensively in Ottawa, reached only one Cup final. Is Heatley the A-Rod of the NHL? All gaudy stats and no titles? He might not have any better chance to get that monkey off his back than this year – he and his fellow Sharks.

2. Chicago

The good… The Blackhawks are young, skilled, and exciting team to watch. They took a big step up last year. In their first playoff appearance since 2002, they advanced to the conference final before losing to Detroit (two of the losses coming in overtime). During last year’s regular season, they played Detroit to a virtual draw, going 2-2-2. They return most of that team, with a year of experience to their credit.

The bad… Their leading scorer from last year – Martin Havlat – is skating for Minnesota. Half of last year’s goaltending tandem – Nikolai Khabibulin – is tending goal for Edmonton. Adam Burish, who provides some edge for the Hawks, is out for the next six months with a knee injury. The kids – Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – are going to have to bear a heavier load in carrying this team.

The key… Cristobal Huet. Last year’s free agent find, brought in because Khabibulin had been such an underperformer with a big contract, now becomes what could be this year’s underperformer with a big contract. Huet has never played more than 42 games in a regular season, he’s won more than 20 games in a season only once. He has decent career regular season numbers (2.45 GAA, .917 save percentage), but in three tries, he’s never played in more than seven playoff games in a postseason, and he’s never led his team to a playoff series win (he played in three games in last year’s playoffs). Chicago had two untested youngsters – Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford (ten NHL games between them) – fighting for the backup slot. For better or worse, Huet is the guy, and he’s working without a net, so to speak, for the first time in his career.

3. Vancouver

The good… Quietly, Vancouver got young. Their roster as of today includes only five players older than 30. But it isn’t as if they lack experience. The Sedin twins return (both 29) after finishing tied – what else – for the team lead in scoring with 82 points. Ryan Kesler, who finished third in Canuck scoring last year, plays solid defense, and won 54 percent of his draws, is only 25. The top scorers on the blue line – Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler – are 28 and 23, respectively. Alexandre Burrows, who chipped in 51 points while racking up 150 penalty minutes, is only 28. And there is Roberto Luongo (30), who remains one of the top goaltenders in the game.

The bad… Well, let’s get back to Luongo. He had that famous meltdown in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal last year, but it also bears noting that he gave up five goals at home in Game 2 of that series. A save percentage of .877 in that series is not the way to cement one’s reputation as a clutch playoff goalie. And, Pavol Demitra, who had 53 points last year, is starting the year on long-term injured reserve, as is Mathieu Schneider. But even with those two on the shelf, the Canucks are hard against the salary cap.

The key… Laurence Gilman. It’s tempting to say Luongo, given the need to rid himself of the bad taste to the finish of his season, but the Canucks have some fancy footwork to do concerning their salary cap. And that’s where assistant GM and “capologist” Gilman comes in. The Canucks will be dancing with the cap all year, and if they are to have any flexibility to make any roster moves to help their prospects, Gilman will be a very busy man.

4. Detroit

The good… The whole organization, from the owners to the Zamboni driver. This is the platinum standard for team management and sustained excellence in the NHL. 18 straight years in the playoffs, four Stanley Cups in the last 12 years plus one other trip to the finals, nine straight years of at least 108 standings points (13 of the last 16 over 100 points). They are strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. They have one of the best two-way wingers in the game Henrik Zetterberg. They have a hedgehog to give goalies fits in front of the net in Tomas Holmstrom. They have one of the top defensemen in the history of the sport in Nicklas Lidstrom and a clutch playoff goalie in Chris Osgood. They are, in short, a lesson in the construction of a hockey team to last.

The bad… You’d be picky finding anything truly bad about this team, but two things might be of concern. First, although this team has quietly gone about the task of getting younger (nine of the roster players are older than 30), they remain rather old in key positions. Osgood will be 37 next month. Lidstrom will be 40 in April. Defenseman Brian Rafalski just turned 36. Forwards Kris Draper (38), Kirk Maltby (37 this December), and Holmstrom (37 next January) have considerable mileage. The other thing is that this team has played not only the requisite 246 regular season games the last three years, but another 62 post season games as well. That’s even more mileage on the critical components.

The key… Pavel Datsyuk. The Russian has established himself as one of the most consistent, not to mention skilled, players in the game. Since the lockout he has a pair of 87 point seasons and a pair of 97 point seasons. He’s developed into a goal scorer (27, 31, and 32 the last three years), and has been durable despite being a bit undersized (5’11”, 194) and thought of more as a finesse player. He’s missed only 18 games over the past five seasons. His value is in that he is not only one of the best offensive players in the game, but one of the best defensive players, too. He’s the center around which the whole Red Wings team turns.

5. Calgary

The good… Brent Sutter is behind the bench. He squeezed 106 points out of a New Jersey team last year that missed Martin Brodeur for most of the regular season. In the Flames, he might have a team that more closely approximates “Sutter Hockey” – nasty, edgy, rugged. Jarome Iginla is a supremely skilled player and a fine leader, but he isn’t beneath getting in an opponent’s face. There is no prima donna in his game. Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are two of the biggest hitters from the blue line in the league. They’ve added Jay Bouwmeester to the blue line. And it’s not as if the Flames are only a scratch-and-claw kind of team. They finished eighth in league scoring last year.

The bad… Mr. Kiprusoff? Your reputation is in peril. Over the last five seasons Miikka Kiprusoff’s goals against has gone 1.69, 2.07, 2.46, 2.69, 2.84. His save percentage has gone .933, .923, .917, .906, .903. He hasn’t escaped the first round of the playoffs since backstopping the Flames to the finals in 2004. Perhaps he suffers “Brodeur Syndrome,” a propensity to play for more than 4,000 minutes a season (he’s averaged just over 4,400 over the last four seasons). He would seem to need his minutes dialed back, too.

The key… Daymond Langkow. Thought we were going to say, “Iginla,” didn’t you? Well, Langkow needs to step up and fill in some of the offense that departed with Mike Cammalleri to Montreal. In the last three seasons, Langkow’s points have dropped from 77 to 65 to 49. He needs to be closer to 75.

6. Anaheim

The good… Anaheim didn’t draft Eric Fehr? Sorry, that’s a Caps fan joke. Ryan Getzlaf, the guy the Ducks drafted when the Capitals passed on him to take Fehr in 2003, is perhaps the league’s standard for “power center.” At 6’4”, 221, Getzlaf has turned into a scorer (91 points last year, after seasons of 39, 58, and 82), has developed an edge to his game (PIMS up from 22 to 66 to 94 to 121), is a solid two way player, and can hold his own in the circle (over 50 percent on draws for the first time in his career last season).

The bad… Luxury. As in, can the Ducks afford the luxury of a $6 million a year back-up goaltender? Jonas Hiller (the inexpensive $1.3 million a year goalie) and J-S Giguere (the one with the contract) each played in 46 games last year. Hiller had more wins, a better GAA, better save percentage, and more shutouts. Then, Hiller played in all 13 Ducks playoff games, finishing with a more than respectable 2.23 GAA and .947 save percentage in going 7-6. The word is that the two will split time to start the year, but there is a decision coming that can’t be avoided.

The key… Bobby Ryan. The trivia answer to the question, who was drafted just after Sidney Crosby in 2005, Ryan had a superb first full season with the Ducks last year (31-26-57, plus 13, 12 PPG, 3 GWG). The key for him is whether he can avoid the sophomore slump. Even having added Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul to provide punch, getting the next level of improvement from Ryan will be key to a successful season in Anaheim.

7. Columbus

The good… Finally! After eight seasons of frustration, the Blue Jackets finally skated in their first post season. OK, so they lost in the first round. Baby steps. And speaking of baby steps, the Blue Jackets should enjoy another step up in development from forwards Jakub Voracek (38 points in 80 games last year) and Derick Brassard (25 points in 31 games before ending his season with a shoulder injury). Those two, plus Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger, and Antoine Vermette, make up a soild core of forwards, and none is older than 27. Add to that Calder Trophy winner and Vezina finalist Steve Mason in goal and rookie Nikita Filatov, and this is a team that will have to be reckoned with down the road.

The bad… The defense needs work. Mike Commodore is a solid vet, and Rostislav Klesla can be a solid blueliner, when healthy (he’s missed 86 games in four years since the lockout). After that, there is uncertainty. It’s also a young group. Only Jan Hejda is older than 30.

The key… Rick Nash. At 27, with 441 games of NHL experience, he’s now the old man. After netting 41 goals in 2003-2004, he seemed to have slipped for a few years, but he reached the 40 goal mark once more last year. He’s likely to have more opportunities with more skill surrounding him. He needs to cash in on his opportunities for the Blue Jackets to take the next step.

8. St. Louis

The good… The Blues seem to have successfully kept defenseman Erik Johnson away from golf carts over the summer. He returns to the lineup after missing all of last year with a knee injury suffered in a golf cart mishap. And he seems to have put the off-time to good use. 6’4”, 238, and 8.8 percent body fat? And even without Johnson, not to mention Paul Kariya for 71 games, the Blues made the playoffs last year after spending three years on the outside looking in. They did it with spit, bailing wire, and fine coaching. They averaged 2.77 goals a game last year, and they gave up 2.77 goals a game. But they had Andy Murray behind the bench, who coaxed everything possible out of the team.

The bad… This is a team that might rely a little too much on special teams. They were third in the league in penalty killing last year, eighth on the power play. Getting Kariya back means more offense, but this is still a somewhat offensively challenged club that is going to depend on the continued genius of Andy Murray to coax the most out of them.

The key... Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk was the fourth leading scorer for the Blues last year, but he is clearly in sight of the end of his career. He’ll be 38 in March and hasn’t had but one 60-plus point season since 2003-2004. His point totals have slipped from 58 in 2006-2007 (with St. Louis and Atlanta) and 58 in 2007-2008 to 49 last year. If he can get closer to 60, he takes some pressure off a club that has capable, if not elite goaltending in Chris Mason and Ty Conklin.

9. Los Angeles

The good… With Drew Doughty (20 this December), Matt Greene (26), and Jack Johnson (23 this January), the Kings have as solid a young core of defensemen as there is in the league. Add in the underrate Rob Scuderi, fresh off a Stanley Cup win in Pittsburgh, and this looks to be the strength of the team in the near future.

The bad… Those defensemen had better be good. The Kings were 27th in the league in scoring last year, even with a gifted player such as Anze Kopitar. Ryan Smyth will add some grit, but not enough offense to make this team scare people.

The key… Kopitar. He slipped a little last year, down in goals (from 32 to 27), assists (from 45 to 39) and points (from 77 to 66). He needs to be a better in his own end, too. But he’s only 22 and has lots of upside yet to realize. On a team with more moving parts on offense, he could be a 100-point player. But the Kings don’t have enough around him. The temptation to be avoided is in trying to do too much and take everything into one’s own hands.

10. Nashville

The good… There might not be a more resilient team in the NHL. Despite the soap opera playing out off-ice with this franchise, it still managed to finish within three points of a playoff spot and win 40 games. They did it with a non-descript offense (24th in the league in scoring), a middle-of-the-road defense (13th in scoring defense), and success-challenged power play (26th). But a team coached by the durable Barry Trotz and managed by the diligent David Poile should be expected to have a large measure of resiliency.

The bad… This is a club trying to operate in a wing-tip league on a shoestring. They made no signing of note in the off-season, and they don’t really have prospect depth to provide improvement on offense. It is a team that will struggle night-in and night-out to cobble together goals.

The key… Trotz. After 11 years as the Predators’ coach – the only one the franchise has known – you’d think he’d wear out his welcome or have players start tuning him out. But no one in the organization seems to embody the work ethic and stick-to-it attitude like Trotz. He is only the second coach in NHL history to coach a new team for at least its first ten years (Lester Patrick is the other, with the Rangers from 1926-1939). He’ll need all of his arsenal of tools and tricks to get the most out of this team. It has some solid defenders in Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis, but it lacks mightily for skill on offense.

11. Edmonton

The good… The biggest moves might be behind the bench, with Pat Quinn taking over as head coach and former Ranger boss Tom Renney taking over assistant duties. Good thing, too, because the team of Gretzky had one 60-point player last year, and they didn’t make up for that with sterling defense, finishing 22nd in goals allowed.

The bad… This is an odd team. Six skaters account for at least $4 million apiece in salary cap hit. It’s not that they are bad individually, but Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Alex Hemsky, Lubomir Visnovsky, Sheldon Souray, and Tom Gilbert don’t sound like a solid core to build around, either.

The key… Nikolai Khabibulin. He’s going to be expected to lift the Oilers from 22nd in goals allowed, but the last time he was brought in to work that magic as a free agent, it didn’t go so well. Will he be an improvement over Dwayne Roloson? Perhaps, but not nearly enough of one, it would seem.

12. Dallas

The good… This franchise probably needed some fresh paint, or at least it gave that impression, and it did so in adding a new general manager (Joe Nieuwendyk) and new coach (Marc Crawford). Perhaps that’s what they need. Even though they missed the playoffs last year, this is a team that made the show in five straight years before that, averaging 105 standings points in the process.

The bad… Sometimes, guys have career years all as a group, and that leads to a team doing better than expected. But last year, it seemed the Stars went in the other direction. They had only seven players with at least 30 points. But none seemed to crash and burn more than goalie Marty Turco. He managed 33 wins only because he played in 74 games, a career high. Otherwise, he had career worsts in GAA (2.81), save percentage (.898), and had the fewest shutouts of his career (three) since getting only two in 2001-2002.

The key… Brad Richards. Is there a player who has done less in recent years to justify such an outsized contract? Since putting up a 23-68-91 line in 2005-2006 with Tampa Bay, he gone from 70 points to 62 to 48. In fairness, he was injured last year (only 56 games) and suffered mononucleosis the year before that. That just means he needs to show the club just what it’s getting for $7.8 million a year.

13. Minnesota

The good… Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, they are free at last. The shackles of a defense first, second, and always system appear to have been lifted with Todd Richards taking over for Jacques Lemaire behind the Wild bench. Frankly, the defensive shroud style seemed to get stale in the far north. Richards has a history as a winner. As the Wild web site points out, he advanced to the playoffs in each of his 13 seasons as a player and in all seven as a head coach or assistant coach.

The bad… Can Richards turn around a team that finished 22nd in scoring last year and squeeze a couple of more standings points out of a team that finished two points out of a playoff berth? That’s going to be a tough job to pull off, even after the Wild added the oft-injured Martin Havlat (138 missed games over the last four years) and Petr Sykora (ten straight 20-goal seasons).

The key… Havlat. If he is the 81-game player of last year with the Hawks (29-48-77, plus-29), the Wild are a decent bet to challenge for a playoff spot. If he’s the player of the three years before that (playing in only 44 percent of the games available), it would be a stretch for the Wild to make the playoffs.

14. Colorado

The good… The fall of the Avalanche from the elite in the NHL is complete. The last vestiges of their golden years are gone. Joe Sakic has given way to Joe Sacco (new coach). They’ve added a new GM (Greg Sherman). Avs fans can take solace in the knowledge that it is not likely to be worse than it will be this year. It gets better from here.

The bad… Until last year, no Avalanche team had won fewer than 39 games in a season, and that 39-win year in 1997-1998 was the only time in 12 years prior to last year that they won fewer than 40. Last year’s 32 wins might look good in comparison to this year. They won’t be worse on offense – they were 30th in goals scored. It would be hard to be worse on defense – they were 26th in goals allowed – but they will give it the old college try. Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj would be fine backups on another team. Unfortunately, one of them will have to shoulder the load as the number one.

The key… Not to get impatient with Matt Duchene. The third overall pick in last June’s draft is the future of the Avalanche. It isn’t likely he’ll be the present. He doesn’t have a Vincent Lecavalier or a Martin St. Louis to take the offensive burden off him like Steven Stamkos last year. Guys like Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny are a notch or two below that level of support.

15. Phoenix

The good… It’ll feel so good when it stops. The unending story of “Whither Coyotes?” that has been playing out for months now, that is. Other than that, there isn’t much good to talk about here. The Coyotes have swapped out coaches (Dave Tippett for Wayne Gretzky) and added fresh bodies to add to the count – Lauri Korpikoski, Jason Labarbera, Adrian Aucoin, Taylor Pyatt. They added Robert Lang on Tuesday. These are largely placeholders until the likes of Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Martin Hanzal, and Peter Mueller develop further.

The bad… It’s bad enough to be thin on talent, but having to deal with all the other distractions and what has to be a bitter fan base in Phoenix will combine to make this a very ugly season.

The key… Finding their happy place. The situation surrounding the Coyotes is what it is, and there is nothing any player – or coach, for that matter – can do about it. If they just play the games, gain experience, and get some luck in the inevitable lottery in which they will participate, it might not be so bad in the end. At least it might be something they can tell their grandkids about.


Xaroc said...

Nice post but Hudler is playing in the KHL this year.

The Peerless said...

Dang it!..one of those always gets through. Thanks for the correction.