Having finished up the Eastern Conference prognostos, and with optimism rolling across the land, it only makes sense to offer up a big steaming pile of Western Conference prognostos (dipping sauce is optional)…
1. Vancouver Canucks (1st in NW)
Since the end of last season, there has been a lot of attention paid to the Vancouver Canucks and the changing of the guard in goal from Roberto Luongo to Cory Schneider. One might think that the change from a goalie with 339 wins to one with barely a tenth that number (38) would result in some slippage in performance. Well, over the last nine seasons the Vancouver Canucks averaged 102 standings points, more than 110 points in each of the last two years. They have done it with goaltending from the likes of Luongo (224 wins with the Canucks over the period), Dan Cloutier (74), Schneider and Alex Auld (38 apiece), and even Curtis Sanford (11). Eleven different goalies have won games for the Canucks in that span, and only Dany Sabourin (2-4-1) had a sub-.500 record. That is, in part, because there are eight skaters on the club who have played in at least 200 games with Vancouver. Not a bad definition of stability. And that group includes the Brothers Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Alexandre Burrows, all of whom have more than 100 goals for the Canucks in that period. Vancouver will be just fine.
2. Los Angeles Kings (1st in PAC)
The Kings dominated the playoffs last spring in route to their first Stanley Cup. That is not to say they are immune from the Stanley Cup “hangover” that has left the Cup without a repeat owner since 1998. And this is really a team built more for the playoffs than for a regular season of putting up numbers. Their offense will not be as bad as last year’s (29th in scoring), if only because they will have Jeff Carter for the whole season (6-3-9 in 16 games with the Kings last season). It will help that the Pacific Division is not as strong, top-to-bottom, as it was last year, too. This is team that could have a couple of 30-goal scorers (Carter and Anze Kopitar), a what might be the deepest defense in the league, and a virtually impenetrable goaltender in Jonathan Quick. They will not repeat their Cup victory, but they won’t be easy to beat, either.
3. St. Louis Blues (1st in CEN)
The stunning swiftness with which the St. Louis Blues were dispatched by the Kings in last spring’s playoffs was a surprise, but remember, too, that the Blues’ ascent to the stratosphere of 109 standings points (tied for second in the league) followed a post-Lockout I period in which they bounced along between 80-90 standings points (they averaged 81). This might be their year, now that they have fully incorporated the disciplined approach of head coach Ken Hitchcock. Although Hitchcock has a reputation – deserved – as a defense-oriented coach, the Blues had nine players with ten or more goals last year and 16 with ten or more points (Kris Russell would have made 17 had he been with the Blues for more than 43 games). The Blues will not likely hold teams to 1.89 goals per game again (unless you think goalie Brian Elliott has nine more shutouts in him), but they will be hard to score on and balanced enough to do enough of their own.
4. Nashville Predators (2nd in CEN)
Losing defenseman Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild will hurt, but then again, not having the year-long soap opera of where Suter and defensive pair-mate Shea Weber will go has to be a plus (Weber is staying). Last year they were top-ten in both scoring and fewest goals allowed (only Detroit, Vancouver, and Boston could claim that double along with the Preds). They also were top-ten in both special teams rankings – tops on the power play (only Vancouver and Pittsburgh could claim that one). This is a team that does things the right way and consistently the right way (no streak of regulation time losses longer than three games last season). Suter or no Suter, they still have Barry Trotz, perhaps the best coach in league history not to have won a Jack Adams Award.
5. Chicago Blackhawks (3rd CEN)
This is a team that seemed to go stretches on autopilot last season, but if you look at their record at every ten-game mark it was impressive: 6-2-2, 12-5-3, 18-8-4, 24-12-4, 29-15-6, 32-21-7, 37-25-8, before closing 45-26-11. They did it primarily by outscoring their opponents…well, of course, but doing it by 2.94 goals per game (tied for fifth in scoring) to 2.82 goals per game (only eight teams allowed more, only one – Ottawa – making the playoffs). The Hawks have the wherewithal to repeat that sort of offensive performance, but they do need Corey Crawford to finish better than 33rd in goals-against average (among 45 goaltenders) and 36th in save percentage…or Ray Emery, for that matter, if Crawford cannot.
6. Detroit Red Wings (4th CEN)
Hear that? That creaking sound? That is the Detroit Red Wings. Their current roster features six forwards past 30 years of age, and that includes Pavel Datsyuk (34), Johan Franzen (32), and Henrik Zetterberg (32). The defense does not creak as much (Niklas Kronwall is 31, the only defenseman older than 30), but neither it is the strength of the team, either, especially since Nicklas Lidstrom has retired. The top pair here could be Kronwall and Ian White. Good, but with one too few Nicklas’ on it. It will put more pressure on Jimmy Howard in goal, and this could be important on a team that faced the third-fewest shots on goal per game last season.
7. Minnesota Wild (2nd in NW)
So, you finished dead last in scoring offense. Answer: sign Zach Parise to a long-term deal as a free agent. You finished tied for 13th in goals allowed per game. Solution: sign Ryan Suter to the same contract terms as Parise. This is the poster child for personnel management in the NHL (throw money at a problem?). It will have the appearance to have worked, not because Parise and Suter by themselves are 14-point difference makers (the margin between the Wild point total last season and eighth place in the West), but maybe because they could get Mikko Koivu back for a full year (27 games missed to injury last season).
8. San Jose Sharks (2nd in PAC)
San Jose remains a good team, occasionally a very good team. But their time in the conversation on which teams are bona fide contenders for the Stanley Cup is coming to an end. Look at the leadership. Captain Joe Thornton is 33. Associate captains Ryane Clowe (30), Patrick Marleau (33), and Dan Boyle (36) are also on the far side of 30. And after Logan Couture (23), this is not a team bursting with skill coming up behind that veteran group. They will squeeze into the post-season, mostly as a product of the Pacific Division not being altogether than strong.
9. Phoenix Coyotes (3rd in PAC)
Last season the Coyotes finished 18th in scoring offense, 29th on the power play, and still won the Pacific Division, finishing with 97 points (sixth highest point total in the Western Conference). How? One could point to the fact that the Coyotes finished fifth in scoring defense and eighth in penalty killing. But it really came down to goalie Mike Smith. In the 2012 portion of the 2011-2012 season Smith was 23-8-7, 2.00, .937, with six shutouts in 39 appearances. This for a team that allowed the third highest number of shots on goal per game. Before last season Smith was 67-66-19, 2.71, .906, with 11 shutouts in 162 career appearances. Last season was really his first sustained opportunity to be the number one guy in goal (his previous high was 42 appearances with Tampa Bay in 2009-2010). Which Smith shows up this season will likely be the determining factor on whether the Coyotes make another playoff appearance.
10. Dallas Stars (4th PAC)
On March 28th of last season the Dallas Stars beat the Edmonton Oilers, 3-1. With the win the Stars had a record of 42-30-5 and were atop the Pacific Division, guaranteed of a number-three seed in the playoffs. It was their last win. The Stars lost their last five games, scoring a total of six goals and getting shut out twice in the process. The finished fourth in the Pacific Division, tenth in the Western Conference, and out of a playoff berth. You cannot say they stood idly by after that finish. The Stars added Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, and Jaromir Jagr to their forward corps, a total of 60 goals scored among them last season. But, that trio is also a combined 109 years old, Jagr and Whitney each having turned 40. Is that the answer to their late fade last season?
11. Edmonton Oilers (3rd in NW)
This team will be really good for awhile, assuming they can hold on to young talent. But that breakout year is probably not going to be this one. There are question marks in goal and on the blue line. In goal, Nikolai Khabibulin will turn 40 in January, and Devan Dubnyk still does not have a 50-game season on his resume. On defense, they have what might be the wrong combination of age (Andy Sutton: 37) and health (Ryan Whitney has played in only 86 of 162 games for the Oilers over the last two seasons). But they will be fun to watch. Among forwards 25 or younger last season Edmonton had three among the top 29 point getters (Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall), and those three did it while missing a combined 45 games. If they’re healthy, watch out.
12. Anaheim Ducks (5th in PAC)
Bruce Boudreau gets a chance to see what he can do with a full season as the Mallard in Charge. He was 27-23-8 with the Anaheim Ducks last season after being relieved of his head coaching duties in Washington in November (he was a combined 39-32-9, which looks a lot like the Caps’ 42-32-8 record). The challenge for Boudreau will be to find a balance between coaxing more dependable offense out of a team that ranked 22nd in scoring last season and more responsible defense (the Ducks ranked 19th in scoring defense). He’s going to have to do it with what he had, which might not be a bad thing if you think that, say, Ryan Getzlaf’s 57-point year was merely a hiccup, and you can be relieved that the Bobby Ryan trade/no-trade saga is over.
13. Colorado Avalanche (4th NW)
This club was 8-2-2 in their first dozen games last season, 24-38-8 in their last 70. Those last 70 games were played at a 66-point pace. For the sake of reference, that’s “Blue Jacket” territory (Columbus finished the season with 65 points). The Avs simply were not that good last year – 26th in scoring, 15th in scoring defense, 21st in 5-on-5 play. What saved them, to the extent it did, was that only four teams had more one-goal wins. On the other hand, only four teams had more three-or-more-goal losses. Can new arrival PA Parenteau put them over the playoff hump? Nowhere else is their inconsistency evident than in goal. An example – Semyon Varlamov appeared in 53 games last season. In 15 decisions he allowed one or no goals; in seven decisions he allowed at least five goals. That’s how you end up 27th in goals against average and save percentage. This team really isn’t that close to being a playoff team, at least not so close as their fast start last season might have suggested, even with as good a young talent as Gabriel Landeskog.
14. Calgary Flames (5th in NW)
This team finished second in the Northwest Division last season and still missed the playoffs, this being the state of hockey in that division. The Flames finished tied for 25th last year in scoring and lost second-leading scorer Olli Jokinen to Winnipeg in free agency. They did add Jiri Hudler (25-25-50 in 81 games with Detroit) and Dennis Wideman (11-35-46 in 82 games with Washington) to more than make up for Jokinen’s production. But Jarome Iginla is another year older (35) with some hard miles on him, Miikka Kiprusoff played his seventh straight 4,000-plus minute season and is about to turn 36, and Jay Bouwmeester seems destined never to quite live up to his promise as a defenseman. Unless the Flames get at least that 23.6 percent shooting percentage from Curtis Glenrcross again, it will be a long year.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets (5th in CEN)
In 11 seasons the Blue Jackets have finished last in their division six times, fourth on four other occasions, and as high as third only once. They have never won a playoff game (swept in their only appearance, in 2009). And now, their franchise leader in goals, assists, points, power play goals, shorthanded goals, and games played has left and taken up residence in Manhattan (that would be Rick Nash). Their leading returning scorer – Vaclav Prospal (16-35-54 last season) – will be 38 years old in February. Then there is goalie Steve Mason, whose GAA ballooned from 2.29 in his rookie season to 3.06 to 3.03 to 3.39 last season (44th of 45 qualifying goaltenders), while his save percentage dropped from .916 in that rookie year to .901 to .901 to .894 last season (43rd). Sergei Bobrovsky (3.02, .899 in 29 games last year), who is only four months younger than Mason, is supposed to help solve this problem. Good luck with that lottery pick next summer.