Following up on my first post in the prediction series on the Easter Conference Standings, here is my prediction for the Western Conference. Again please feel free to leave your comments on my predictions (and your own predictions) in the comment section!
- San Jose Sharks
- Detroit Red Wings
- Vancouver Canucks
- Los Angeles Kings
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Anaheim* Ducks
- Nashville Predators
- St. Louis Blues
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Dallas Stars
- Colorado Avalanche
- Calgary Flames
- Minnesota Wild
- Phoenix Coyotes
- Edmonton Oilers
*My ducks prediction is based on Hiller having overcome his vertigo problems. If he hasn't and they have to rely on Ellis I think they drop to 9th and everyone else goes up 1.
1) San Jose Sharks
They were second in the West last year (only one point ahead of Detroit though) and I think they will be first this year for two reasons: they have improved and last year's first place team (Vancouver) has gotten worse (will be explained in Vancouver's section). San Jose started slow last year and in my opinion it was due to two problems. There D looked lost after losing Blake and their goal tending was playing quite poorly. Over the year Niemi found his game and they made a couple trades to bolster their D and they settled back down. This summer I think they greatly improved their team by adding an elite defenseman in Brent Burns, a guy who can do it all. Between him, Vlasic, Demers, Murray, and of course (one of my favourite players) Dan Boyle I think they have an incredible defense. On the forward front they are the definition of deep. Last season they had 8 (eight) players crack 40 points. That is incredible. While they lost two (Heatley and Setogouchi) they brought 2 more back in (Burns and Havlat). They are going to be able to play 3 very strong scoring lines made up of Havlat/Marleau/Thornton/Pavelski/Clowe/Couture/Mitchell/McGinn/Handzus. That is impressive. The big knock against them is that their two top forwards and one of their top top 2 D-men are on the wrong side of 30. I think they'll be fine this year, but this has to be there year.
2) Detroit Red Wings
Detroit, Detroit, Detroit... why must you always be so good? Detroit made very few changes this offseason.
They finally forced Chris Osgood *chose* to retire, they added Ian White, Ty Conklin, and Mike Commodore. Their forward corps remained pretty stable. The only major change of course was the loss of (Potential Hall of Famer? Probably close, but not quite) defenseman Brian Rafalski. While he will be a huge piece to replace I think they can come close with an increased load going to Kronwall and bringing in White to push from the bottom up. Similar to San Jose the biggest drawback of this team is age: their best player (and IMHO the best player since Lemieux retired), Captain Nicklas Lidstrom is 41 years young. Their top 3 forwards (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Franzen) are 33, 31, and turning 32 in December. That being said they have a good goalie (Howard) and a deep team at both F and D and I think they can put up a similar season to last year (105 points).
3) Vancouver Canucks
Last year's President's Trophy winners *should* have been primed to contend to repeat for that feat. Their D probably took a hit by losing their prime power play quarter back (Ehrhoff), but with Edler and Bieksa to swallow those minutes (and even Ballard) and Hamhuis, Rome and Salo also around it shouldn't effect them THAT much. Their depth forwards should also remain more or less the same. They locked most of them in with some minor turnover (Torres left, late season addition Lapierre is remaining) that should not effect them much. The reason that I have them falling back a bit is injuries. Their number 2 center (last years Selke winner and 4th leading goal scorer), Ryan Kesler is injured to start the year, without a clear return date set. He is the man that plays the toughest minutes and appears (at least to me) to be the heart of the team. Combined with the loss of his winger, Mason Raymond, until at least late November, there top 6 is going to take a pretty large hit. With Luongo in net, the Sedins, and a strong defense this is still a very good team, but I just think they won't be QUITE as good.
4) Los Angeles Kings
With the Kings' off season changes I wanted to say they'll definitely win the division. Then I realized they are in San Jose's division so I lowered that expectation down some. I think it will be a fun battle and can see them being the "4th placed team" with more points than the 3rd and potentially even 2nd placed team. The Kings were a good team last year, who lost their star forward (and core of their offense) Anze Kopitar just before the playoffs and ended up losing in the first round (while putting up a good fight) to the San Jose Sharks. That team that lost though has gotten better. Having one of the deepest prospect pools in the league is useful because you can trade for a great players, without taking much away from your team. The Kings did this by trading an (IMHO) overrated 3rd liner (Simmonds) and 2 futures (top prospect Brayden Schenn and a pick) for one of the leagues' best centers, Mike Richards. While they also lost their third line center from last year (Handzus) they effectively pushed their 2nd line center (Stoll) down into that roll by now having 2 number 1 Cs. Kopitar is probably my favourite C in the West, not playing for Detroit, and now has Mike Richards behind him. With strong wingers in Williams, Team Captain Dustin Brown, newly added Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner (who didn't look strong after being picked up last year) they have a (to quote Ron Wilson) "scary good" top 6. Fortunately for them the quality up front does not stop there. With guys like Parse, Richardson, top prospect Loktinov, Clifford, Lewis, and former Oilers' captain Ethan Moreau they have strong forward depth. The Kings' D is also very strong. Assuming Doughty's contract arguments get settled they have a strong corps led by the aforementioned Doughty, who looks to be a franchise defenseman. Behind him they have Jack Johnson (who looks to finally coming into his own), and some strong veterans in Greene, Scuderi, and shutdown defender Willie Mitchell. With prospect Thomas Hickey knocking on the door they look pretty damn solid there too. Finally their goalie tandem: a very strong 1-2 punch with Quick and (*another* top prospect) Jonathan Bernier. Last year many expected Quick to be pushed for his job, by this highly touted prospect Jonathan Bernier. How does he respond? By having the best year of his career, ranking 10th in wins (7 of the 9 people ahead of him had more GP) and tied for 12th in save % with a 0.918. I have them in fourth because I think SJS is a very good team, but if things go right this team could lead the West.
5) Chicago Blackhawks
This is a hard team to predict. One year after winning the Stanley cup they lose their starting goalie and play a past-his prime veteran (Turco) to start the year slowly. When rookie goalie, Corey Crawford took over, they seemed to find their game, finished the year strong and fought tooth and nail to the eventual Western Conference Champions, in a hard fought 7 game first round playoff loss. There is no denying that the Stanley Cup winning team has lost a lot of its depth. They lost their number 3 defenseman in Campbell for the sole purpose of getting out of his contract. While their D is in no way poor (how could it be, being led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook), it is no longer absolutely incredible. Behind them they have a solid second pairing D-man in Hjalmarsson and a solid prospect/young player in Leddy, then a bunch of okay veterans. No problems in my eyes but not incredible. Up front I really like their C depth. They stole Frolik from a silly Tallon (IMHO) and can now line up 4 top 9 C's Toews, Sharp, Bolland, and Frolik. Frolik may very well develop into a top 6 C and Bolland seems to play like one in the playoffs. The teams high end forwards are obviously incredible, being led by Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp. While they lost Brouwer, they added iron man Brunnette. With youth like Bickell, Brunette, Olezs and Frolik their bottom 6 should be okay. Finally we come down to their goaltending. To me this is a large question mark and I think they should sign Emery if he plays well in camp. While Crawford played very well last year and has been highly touted for a while, I am always hesitant to trust sophomore goalies, particularly when the back up is a rookie. Regardless this is a strong team and should be around the middle of the Western Conference.
6) Anaheim Ducks
This ranking is assuming Hiller is over his vertigo. Anaheim may very well have the best top 3 forwards in the league with Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf. With the ageless wonder (8th in scoring last year), Teemu Selanne behind them their top end forwards are awe inducing. That being said their depth up front is okay but nothing special. They have an aging Saku Koivu, and an overpaid Jason Blake. Some solid (but nothing special) players in Sexton and Beleksey. They also have some young players/prospects who look solid in McMillan and Palmieri. Their D is also a little top heavy. They have a top offensive D-man who is at least solid defensively in Ludomir Viznovski (last years D-man scoring leader) and a good all around defender in Beauchemin. Their top 4 is rounded out by top prospect/young player Cam Fowler and a solid Lydman. Their D is probably average. What I believe will carry them is their goalie. Jonas HIller is 3rd in S% over the last 4 years. He is damn good.
7) Nashville Predators
The same thing can be said about the Preds every year. They have great d-men, goalies, a strong defensive system, and basically no forwards. Like in previous years they should be a playoff team because of their strength defensively and will likely have trouble scoring goals. While they have a couple of guys who are solid (not spectacular) offensively like Erat, Fisher, and Hornqvist, and some young guys they hope can repeat or improve in Bergfors, Kostitsyn, Wilson, etc. I think they are going to have some trouble up front. Fortunately for them their D is absolutely incredible. Led by one of the best D-men in the game (I would put him behind Chara and not much else), Shea Weber and great, instead of incredible, D-man Ryan Suter, Nashville has a deep, young D corps that is strong all the way through. Boullioun through Hillen, Klein, Blum, and prospects like Ellis are all either good defenseman or look likely to become them. Add in one of the best goaltenders (Vezina nominee last year) over the last 3 years in Pekka Rinne, backed up by what looks like a very good prospect in Anders Lindback and you have a team that should be able to be pretty succesful by being stingy in their goals against.
8) St. Louis Blues
The Blues are my prediction for the new team in the Western Conference Playoff picture. They have a deep group of young forwards who have yet to bring their team much success. With young forwards like Perron, Oshie, and Berglund looking ready to take the next step; young prime aged players Steen and the power forwards Backes and Stewart; and the veteran McDonald coming off a good season they have the forwards to make some damage. On the backend they are very young, but talented. They traded away the former first overall pick (EJ) but got back what looks like a prime power play quarterback in Kevin Shattenkirk. Between him and Pietrilangelo they seem to have their puck moving settled for the next long while. Behind those two they have some solid but not special players in Roman Polak, Carlo Coliacavo, and Barrett Jackman. Finally it comes to their goaltending. Last year Halak had his worst season in the NHL. I expect him to bounce back towards his previous career production and that alone should raise them to the playoffs.
9) Columbus Blue Jackets.
They have a deep group of forwards that has been improved with Carter, Nash (two top end goal scorers), Umberger, Vermette, Brassard, Huselius, (back in November/December) and Prospal, plus top prospect Ryan Johansen threatening to make the team. Their D is okay but not special. They have a good powerplay QB in Wisniewski; 3 good all around defenders in Tyutin, Method, and Russel; good prospect in Moore; and best name in the NHL Clitsome. What I believe holds them back is goaltending. They are rolling out Steve Mason (who I think was a flash in the pan after 2 seasons of 0.903 goaltending) and a prospect.
10) Dallas Stars
The Stars have been able to maintain a reasonable offense after losing 2 of their top forwards in the last 8 months. A top 6 of Morrow (30 goals last year), Ribeiro (19th in point scoring over the last 4 years), Benn (young player many are predicting for a breakout year), Erricksson (a player who is terribly underrated), Michael Ryder, and somebody. There forward depth will be okay but nothing special with Fiddler, Dvorak, Dowell, Ott, and Burish, among others. On D they have another extremely unheralded player in Stephane Robidas. Now that they have brought in a true PP QB (Goligoski), I feel that Robidas will be able to shift back into the more "all ice" roll where he is best suited. They obviously have also recently added the alluded to Goligoski who is a young player with good offensive instincts. After that they have a couple decent defenseman in Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, and Adam Pardy. Finally, for some crazy reason they signed Sheldon Souray to a one year deal so maybe he can provide some offense from the backend. A year in a half ago, Dallas traded their top prospect (Ivan Vishnovski) for Kari Lehtonen and many Stars fans were upset. They were trading for a goaltender who, while talented, had serious injury problems. A year in a half later, Vizhnovski was traded one more time then fled for the KHL and Lehtonen is coming off a basically full season where he provided strong goaltending. He is still reasonably young and I think he can do well for this team. With a couple very good pieces up front, on D, and Lehtonen I think they'll be a solid team, but they just don't have the dep.th to make the show.
11) Colorado Avalanche
They have a surprisingly deep group of forwards. Their top 3 C's look good (Stastny, Duchenne, O'Reilly). Their wingers have the potential to be good but have many question marks. They have Hejduk (pretty old); Mueller (returning after missing an entire season with a concussion); two top prospects in Hillen and Landeskog; and a guy who shot a ridiculous SH% last year, David Jones (to be fair to him he always seems to shoot a high SH%). The good thing for them up front is that they appear to have solid depth with players like Porter, Winnick, Yip, McClement, Kobasew, and Stoa. Their D is really the worst part of the team. Behind the player they hope is a franchise defenseman in Eric Johnson, they are not so deep. They have a couple adequate prime aged players in Kyle Quincey, O'Byrne, Cumisky, Ryan Wilson, and Matt Hunwick. Fortunately they brought in a solid (but definitely not special) top 4 D man in Hejda. With the trading of Shattenkirk they are probably hoping that top prospect Stefan Elliot will be ready to play PP QB soon. Finally we come to the controversial part of their off season (and by controversial I mean laughable): their goaltending. Colorado made a large gamble by trading away their first round pick next year for Semyon Varlamov. This is crazy for two reasons: (1) they were a lottery pick team this year so may be trading a potential lottery pick and (2) Semyon Varlamov has had injury problems and seemed to be on his way to the KHL. Now while I think they paid a ridiculous price I think they actually got a good goalie and that he will help to carry this team out of the lottery pick range to probably 8th-ish. Varlamov first came to wide attention playing extremely well for the Caps in the playoffs 3 years ago after incumbent starter, Jose Theodore, choked in the first 2 games. He has since continue to play quality hockey putting up a 0.924 S% and 2.23 GAA last year to give himself a career S% of 0.917 and GAA of 2.39. These are very respectful numbers for a 23 year old former 1st round pick. The big knock against him is of course his health, never having played more than 27 games having come into both of the last 2 seasons as arguably the starter.
12) Calgary Flames
Say hello to the
2006-2007 Toronto Maple Leafs 2011-2012 Calgary Flames. They are a team built behind one incredible forward who is late in his career and a couple complimentary forwards up front; a bunch of overpaid d-men who have seen better times elsewhere plus one relatively young guy who was drafted late but looks pretty good; and an overrated goalie. Its time for them to trade Mats Sundin Jerome Iginla and start their rebuild. While they have a couple other good forwards in Alex Tanguay, Olli Jokinen, Brendan Morrison, Curtis Glencross, and the oft injured Rene Bourque, their forwards leave much wanting. They have some solid depth in Stempniak and Moss, but without better talent in front of them it doesn't really matter. Oh, they also have a pretty solid young looking player in Matt Stajan Mikael Backlund. On defense they have a couple solid pieces, but all are overpaid. Bouwemeester can handle a lot of minutes but his offense has fallen off a cliff. Cory Sarich is solid defensively but aging. However, I do like the addition of Scott Hannan on the cheap and Butler from Buffalo who looks like he has some potential. Finally they have at least found a diamond in the rough in late round draft pick Tomas Kaberle free agent signing Mark Giordano who has good defensive awareness and solid offensive instincts. Good think they gave him an NMC and NTC because history has shown them it will never be smart to trade him. Finally we come to their overrated goaltending. Mikka Kipprusoff is often discussed as one of the great NHL goaltenders in the league. I believe this is stated because he gets a lot of wins and used to be really good. There is no denying that his 3 seasons from 2003-2007 where he had a 0.933, 0.923, and 0.917 were great. Similarly so was 2009-2010 when he had a 0.920. I guess that makes it easy for some to ignore that in the other 3 of the previous 4 seasons he had 2 0.906's and a 0;904. Oh and his high number of wins probably comes from consistently playing some of the most GP having never played less than last years 71 GP since establishing himself as a starter in 05/06. Frankly Kipprusoff is just not that good anymore AND they over play him. I wouldn't feel comfortable depending on him. Its time to blow up this aging roster and try to refill the cupboards. To bad the cupboards are completely bare, they lost their top prospect to NYR a few months ago for nothing, and more than half their team has NTCs... Enjoy Flames fans, you have my sympathy...
13) Minnesota Wild
While the team has probably improved its forward corps some, its D corps has suffered. With Koivu,
Havlat Heatley, Setogouchi, Bouchard, and Latendresse there is some hope for their offense. However this is still mostly the team that fell into a hole around last February and could climb out of it to save their life. The forward depth isn't particularly good and their D is particularly bad. Marek Zidlicky and NIck Schultz are both okay and... Well thats about it. Fortunately for them they have a pretty damn good tandem in Backstrom and Harding to steal them a bunch of games. Between their goaltending and their handful of good forwards they should be able to keep themselves completely out of the basement, but not much more. At least they have that Granlund kid who looks pretty damn good...
14) Phoenix Coyotes
Lets see how this team does with Ilya "Why do you Heff ta be so mad" Bryzgalov. Up front they have a mix of older veterans, in Doan, Langkow, Vrbata, and Whitney, who while still good will probably see decreased production due simply to age; a couple young guys who never seemed to take that next step in Boedker, Hanzal, and Korpikoski; a guy who is being a dick in Kyle Turris; and the best tweeter in the league, Biz Nasty. Fortunately for them their D corps is actually pretty solid, which is probably a good thing for a team coached by Dave Tippet. On there back end they have the awesome Keith Yandle, followed by a solid top 4 guy in Klesla. Complimenting those two they have 3 solid older veterans in Rosvizal, Morris, and Aucoin. With top prospects like Ekman-Larsson and Gormley knocking on the doors they have a solid unit. Unfortunately for that solid D-corps they are going to be in front of laughable goaltending. Starting in net for them is Mike "I was once traded for Brad Richards" Smith. Thats about all he has going for him. A couple different times in his career he has put together stretches that made him look like a starting goal tender but he just hasn't been able to do it consistently. Behind him is Jason LaBarbara who has done well in the backup job in Phoenix, but by this point in his career has clearly established himself as a career back up. These guys are not going to do well, but they still won't be as bad as:
15) Edmonton Oilers
Has any team ever gotten 3 first over all picks in a row? /Check'sGoogle. The last team to do it was the Nordiques from '89-'91 where they drafted Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, and Eric Lindros. For some reason I don't think the last 2 first overalls plus 2012's will be as good as those three, but I think Edmonton has a shot at finding out for themselves. While they have a fair bit of good forwards that is all that this team has. With Hall, Hemsky, Horcroff, Gagne, Eberle, MPS, and Omark they have a bunch of guys who should be able to score (but keep in mind a bunch of those sophomores may regress). Unfortunately for the Oilers thats about it on offense. I guess they got a solid top 9-er in Belanger too... On D they have Ryan Whitney who is very good, Tom Gilbert who is a solid all-icer and Smid who is good defensively. Not very good at all. In net if they were smart they would give the starting job over to Dubnyk (actually they should have done this last year), who did surprisingly well as the backup last year behind that team. However for some reason they seem determined to give the starting job to Khabibulin,who was not only the worst starting goaltender in the NHL last year by save percentage, but also spent the summer in the criminal justice system dealing with his DUI. I'm sure he's in great shape.... If their good young forwards all take a step forward, Hemsky and Horcroff can stay healthy, and they give the starting job to Dubnyk they could probably pull themselves up a few spots. But if all of those things don't happen they are probably looking at another lottery pick.