We did the Eastern Conference prognostos, now we head to the…
1. Vancouver Canucks
Last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up will not be the best team in the West, but they will finish atop the conference standings. Their path through their own division – the Northwest – will be easier than that of their principal competitors, San Jose in the Pacific and the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central. Not that the Canucks are a pushover. They return with their roster almost entirely intact. Ryan Kesler will not score 40 goals again (41, actually), but there are still the Sedins to challenge the 100-point mark. The only real question mark is whether Roberto Luongo suffers his own Stanley Cup hangover after allowing 18 goals in four losses in the Stanley Cup final. Last year Luongo appeared in the fewest games in a regular season in nine years (60, compared to 58 in 2001-2002). Cory Schneider appeared in a career high 25 games last season. That convergence will continue.
2. San Jose Sharks
In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for this Godot chap to arrive on the scene. They were practicing for waiting on San Jose to appear in a Stanley Cup final. San Jose’s formula – win pre-season plaudits from pundits, win a lot of games from October to March, drop out of the playoffs before the blossoms are off the trees, rinse, repeat. They’ve been doing that since 2003-2004 (average record, 48-23-11; number of conference finals won, zero). To their credit, they realized it wasn’t working and retooled in significant ways (Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, out; Martin Havlat, in). Like that team that plays on the Potomac River, what they do from October to March isn’t going to impress anyone anymore. Let’s see what they do in May and, if they’re still around, in June.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks followed up their Stanley Cup in 2010 by sleepwalking through a lot of the 2010-2011 season before playing their last 26 games to a 16-7-3 record and an eight-seed in the West. Those early cobwebs won’t be there this time around. The Blackhawks have a certain familiarity insofar as their expected performance level among their skaters is concerned. One expects that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa will fall in around the 70-point mark. Duncan Keith and Keith Seabrook will combine for 100 points or so. The wild card is Corey Crawford in goal. He led all rookie goalies in wins, was second among them in goals against average, and was third in save percentage. He had more than a respectable 2.21 GAA and .927 save percentage in a first round loss to Vancouver last spring. What he has for a second act will be the missing element to be defined in the Blackhawks’ effort to return to the finals.
4. Detroit Red Wings
Someday, the Red Wings’ run is going to come to an end. Twenty consecutive seasons in the playoffs, four Cups, six appearances in the Finals. An average of 47 wins a season over that 20-year period (including 33 in a 48-game season in 1995). That streak will not end this year. Whether they finish ahead of Chicago or not will largely depend on whether the Wings can: a) get another top notch season from Nicklas Lidstrom, and b) if they can fill the hole made with the retirement of Brian Rafalski. That is important because the Wings got 110 points and 20 goals out of that pair last season. Ian White might the player to watch here. In stops at Calgary, Carolina, and San Jose last season he was 4-22-26, plus-3, in 78 games.
5. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings might not finish the season on top of the Western Conference, or even the Pacific Division, for that matter. But they might be the most dangerous team in the West next spring. By that time, newcomers Mike Richards, Dustin Penner (a late arrival last season), and Simon Gagne will have a season to become acclimated to the left coast and their new teammates, and Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson will have another 82 games of experience. And Jonathan Quick could continue that upward arc that saw his GAA drop from 2.54 to 2.24 last season, his save percentage jump from .907 to .918, and his shutout total rise from four to six. He might be the best goaltender in the Western Conference.
6. Nashville Predators
There might not be a consistently better-coached team in the NHL than the Predators, nor one that more consistently applies a philosophy to its effort. Without high end talent since, well, forever, the Predators rely on balance, hard work from all four lines and all three defensive pairs, and solid goaltending. There might not be a player with more than 50 points (there wasn’t last year) or a player with more than 25 goals (there wasn’t last year), but with Pekka Rinne in goal, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring the defense, and Barry Trotz still behind the bench, 100 points is not out of the question (they finished with 99 last season).
7. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have what might be the best first line in all the NHL with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan, not to mention a legendary goal scorer in Teemu Selanne pulling down 18 minutes a night. The iffy areas for the Ducks are on defense in their own end and Jonas Hiller, who is among the more talented goalies in the league, but who suffered bouts of vertigo last season that caused him to miss more than 20 games, including six in the post-season. He says he is over it, but it remains to be demonstrated that he is.
8. St. Louis Blues
The Blues finished ten points out of the party last season, but that was without T.J. Oshie (missed 33 games) and David Perron (missed 72 games). Perron is trying to return from a concussion and is probably the biggest question mark. Not far behind is goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who had a somewhat disappointing 2.48 GAA and .910 save percentage after a big year in Montreal that earned him a big payday with the Blues in free agency.
9. Calgary Flames
The Flames finished three points out of a playoff spot last season. But it is hard to see the Flames improving on that with the lack of balance they displayed on offense last season, entirely too dependent on Jarome Iginla (43-43-86) for consistent scoring. Then there is the matter of goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who saw his GAA swell from 2.31 to 2.63 and his save percentage shrink from .920 to .906. Seeing as how he is about to turn 35 and has logged more than 4,150 minutes in each of the last six seasons, one wonders if he isn’t running low in the gas tank.
10. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets finished 24th in offense last season. Adding Jeff Carter should take some heat off Rick Nash, letting both big forwards contribute more goals to the Columbus effort. But the Jackets were also 26th in the league on defense. And that means goalie Steve Mason has to prove that his Calder Trophy rookie season was not a sign of being a one-hit wonder. He’s had goals against averages over 3.00 the last two seasons and save percentages of .901 in both seasons.
11. Dallas Stars
Brad Richards is gone and with it the likelihood that the Stars improve on last year’s ninth place finish in the West. Loui Eriksson will do his level best to prevent a slide – he finished only one goal and three points behind Richards in scoring for the Stars and was a plus-10 to Richards’ plus-1. He and Mike Ribiero (19-52-71) will probably have to have career scoring years to give the Stars a chance to get into the top eight. Getting Jamie Benn to show a similar improvement this season to the one he had in his second NHL season last year (up 15 points from his rookie year) wouldn’t hurt, either.
12. Phoenix Coyotes
Between goaltenders Jason LaBarbera and Mike Smith, the most wins either has in the NHL in one season is LaBarbera’s 17 wins with Los Angeles in 2007-2008. Last season, Ilya Bryzgalov had his 17th win on January 15th. That is the difference between this year’s Coyotes and last year’s edition. And it is magnified by the fact that Phoenix is not a team that is going to score a lot. Last season they had one 20-goal scorer and one 60-point player. Both happened to be Shane Doan, who while being a warrior, also happens to be about to turn 35 (Monday). This season will test the wits of coach Dave Tippett.
13. Minnesota Wild
These are not your father’s Wild. These are not even last season’s Wild. New coach (Mike Yeo), new attitude (bringing in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to perk up the offense). But after Mikko Koivu (17-45-62, plus-4, last season), where is the depth at center? And the defense looks as if it will be overmatched on most nights. Folks are going to find out just how good a goalie Niklas Backstrom is. He’s going to get a lot of work.
14. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers will start the season with four top-ten overall draft picks on their roster. That would be impressive but for the fact that those four picks were taken over the last five years, a reflection of how bad the Oilers have been and how much further they have to come as those youngsters mature. They will be better late than they are early, but not nearly enough to raise them from the lower echelon of the West.
15. Colorado Avalanche
No team in the West will capture the attention of Caps fans over the course of the season more than Colorado. For the Caps own the Avalanche’s top pick in next year’s draft, and it could be a lottery pick if the Avs finish in the bottom five in the league. There is also the matter of the Avs’ new goaltender, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He’s going to get more than the 33 games of work he got last year in Toronto, because the Avs other new goaltender, Semyon Varlamov (obtained from Washington for that top pick in 2012), has not played as many as 33 games in either of his full seasons in the NHL (his high is 27), a product of repeated leg and groin injuries that have took him out of the lineup in Washington. And Colorado’s defense is such that a goaltender is going to be tested physically. That’s not a good mix.