Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Preview Time: NHL West

Oddly enough, the balance that appears present in the NHL's Eastern Conference is only topped by what you see in the Western Conference.

Last year's crazy playoff race could only be the start. Realistically, the top 13 teams (maybe even 14, depending on the ability of the Coyotes to focus) are going to contend for playoff spots. The problem, of course, is that only eight get in.

Let's take a look at the West.

15. Phoenix Coyotes

Upheaval on the ice, and pure insanity off of it. The Coyotes still don't have an owner, it seems that the team is lacking a bit of on-ice direction, and there are virtually no fans who trust this organization enough to spend their money on tickets. You have to feel bad for Shane Doan, a very good player who has this to show for his unending loyalty to this franchise. There is some talent outside of Doan, including defenseman Ed Jovanovski and forward Matthew Lombardi, who was the centerpiece of the Coyotes' return for Olli Jokinen.

14. Colorado Avalanche

It appears a youth movement has begun, and that's not a bad thing. The Avalanche have some quality veterans, but depth is a serious problem, and no one knows how Craig Anderson will fare as a top goaltender. If management is willing to stick to this plan for a couple years, there could be a real payoff. However, it remains to be seen if ownership will let the Ryan O'Reillys and Matt Duchenes develop before they get antsy and look for high-profile veterans.

13. Dallas Stars

This is where the fun really begins. If we were trying to rate teams based on their ceiling, the Stars could conceivably be as high as sixth or seventh. They have some nice young defensemen, including former Bulldog Matt Niskanen, and they have veterans Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Modano, and Brenden Morrow up front. Marty Turco needs to rebound in goal, and the Stars are leaning on a lot of younger guys in front of him. How they gel will play a huge role.

12. Nashville Predators

Nashville can stop people, thanks to guys like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and goalie Pekka Rinne. However, the problem comes when it's time to score goals. The Predators just don't have a lot of punch up front, barring breakout seasons from the likes of David Legwand and Martin Erat. This team is going to be very close, but a lack of offensive punch will cost them dearly in the end.

11. Calgary Flames

This is going to be the "What are you, nuts?" pick. Calgary has a very impressive group of top players. The problem comes in the half of the game that these top players can't be on the ice for. After getting caught too close to the cap to help an ailing roster late last season, general manager Darryl Sutter spent to the cap again, and he is very low on depth. If Miikka Kiprusoff is asked to start 70 games again, watch for a breakdown there, too.

10. Minnesota Wild

New coach Todd Richards promises a more wide open attack this season. That's good, but it won't guarantee enough wins to make the playoffs. The good news is that this division is still wide open, but the bad news is that the Wild still look to be short on NHL-caliber centers, and it's unknown if they can score enough goals. If they're healthy, and they pick up on the new system quickly, the Wild could really surprise. However, those are big "if"s, as big star Martin Havlat has just as much of an injury history as former star Marian Gaborik does.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets

While Columbus had a nice run to the playoffs last year, they didn't make it by much. The margin for error is slim again this season, thanks to an ultra-competitive division and a lack of top-line forwards. They'll go as captain Rick Nash goes, and there are some nice young defensemen here. Of course, they also have goalie Steve Mason, who looks to follow up on his Calder Trophy season.

8. Los Angeles Kings

General manager Dean Lombardi has built to this moment. His team now has to be considered a legitimate playoff threat, thanks to the offseason additions of defenseman Rob Scuderi and forward Ryan Smyth. One of the league's top young rosters now has gritty, edgy veterans to help lead the way. No matter what these two do, there are two players who will play the big roles in determining this team's fate. Goalie Jonathan Quick has Olympic potential, but he has to prove himself as an NHL starter first. Forward Anze Kopitar has "superstar" written all over him, but he was very subpar a year ago.

7. St. Louis Blues

Last year's hot streak to make the playoffs didn't help the Blues once they got there, as St. Louis was dispatched in four straight by Vancouver. This year, St. Louis is stronger in goal, with Ty Conklin signed to help out Chris Mason, and they're a year older. The biggest offseason addition was a player already on the roster. Young defenseman Erik Johnson blew out his knee last summer and didn't play a second in 2008-2009. He's back to quarterback the Blues' power play, which was potent without him and is now downright deadly.

6. Edmonton Oilers

Here's a surprise for you. Edmonton has speed, skill, tons of talent, some grit, added a quality veteran goalie, and now has one of the top coaches in the world. Pat Quinn might be 66, but he's coming off a World Junior Championship as coach of Team Canada, so there is proof that Quinn is capable of coaching younger players. He'll have to do this with Edmonton, which is loaded with youthful energy. Craig MacTavish struggled to get these kids to play hard, but there's reason to believe that Quinn won't.

5. San Jose Sharks

Dany Heatley can only do so much. He has to gel with Joe Thornton, and the Sharks have to hope that they don't miss Milan Michalek. Also, what is the psyche of this team, one that lost another early playoff series to an underdog and then watched its longtime captain stripped of his job? The Sharks have a lot of potential, but that hasn't helped them get over the hump in the past. With virtually everyone in the West having improved in some way, San Jose will face a huge challenge.

4. Chicago Blackhawks

The addition of Marian Hossa won't help them for a while, as he will miss time after shoulder surgery. However, they don't need him that badly, and the rest will help him greatly after two long playoff seasons with Pittsburgh and Detroit. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland, and Dustin Byfuglien lead the way, with Cristobal Huet looking to prove himself once and for all as a top NHL goalie.

3. Vancouver Canucks

The image of Roberto Luongo sitting in his crease after Patrick Kane's third goal in Game 6 of the West semifinals last year is a lasting one. It was a shocking end to Vancouver's season, as the normally-stout defensive team gave up seven goals in their swan song. The Canucks are a bit stronger on the blue line, thanks to players like Mathieu Schneider and Christian Ehrhoff, and the return of the Sedin twins is huge. Luongo is the man, though. He has to rebound, or it will be a long year for the defending Northwest Division champs.

2. Anaheim Ducks

They may have lost Chris Pronger, but Anaheim is clearly a better team than they were at the outset of last season. Old guys Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are back for the long haul, and young stars Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan will continue to develop. The Pronger trade brought them Joffrey Lupul, and the club signed veteran center Saku Koivu. The Ducks have transitioned from Brian Burke's fisticuffs style to more of a free-wheeling, skating team, and they could be a real power in the Pacific Division.

1. Detroit Red Wings

There are teams you just don't bet against. Detroit is one of them. They may have lost Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson, along with Jiri Hudler (KHL), but the Wings have an uncanny ability to reload when guys take off. They're still a very strong defensive team, with veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski joined by the likes of Niklas Kronwall, who is going to have a huge season. Speaking of not betting against people, Chris Osgood is still in goal. The Red Wings are the class of the Western Conference until proven otherwise. Like it or not.

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