Jim Neveau, THW Reporter-at-Large
Last year saw the rise of the Phoenix Coyotes to NHL prominence, the Colorado Avalanche coming back from the depths of mediocrity, and the return of the Columbus Blue Jackets to the lower rung of the Central Division.
The season also saw all but one team in the Western Conference playoffs come into the post-season with over 100 points, a display of how strong the conference is. Only the Avalanche didn’t crack 100 points, but their 95 points were nothing to sneeze at.
Now, as we come into the 2010-11 season, there are several teams who have made improvements this off-season, and there are yet others who are holding onto their veteran core and hoping to make one or two more solid playoff runs.
Which teams will be in? Which ones will be out? Who will be hot and who will flame out spectacularly? Here is the way that THW’s Jim Neveau sees the Western Conference shaking out.
Last Year’s Conference Finish: 11th Jim’s Prediction: 10th
The Ducks are a team that is straddling the proverbial half-board: they have one skate on the bench (the present), and one leg over the boards (the future). They are relying on veterans like Teemu Selanne, Jason Blake, Saku Koivu, and Lubomir Visnovsky, but at the same time they also have guys like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Jonas Hiller who are bearing the torch of the new generation of Ducks who are looking to take over.
The main areas of concern for the Ducks will be on their power play unit and on the defensive side of the puck. The Ducks did have the fifth ranked PP unit in the league last year, but losing Scott Niedermayer’s five goals and 22 assists on the man-advantage will be a bit of an obstacle for the team to overcome. On defense, Niedermayer averaged 26 minutes a game and played some really quality D for Anaheim last year.
Having guys like Selanne (14 goals) and Bobby Ryan (11 tallies) will certainly help soften the blow of losing Scott on the power play, and a new crop of defensive players will also help soften the blow on the blue line. Cam Fowler may make the roster out of camp, and if he does, expect some big things out of the 12th overall draft pick in 2010.
Last Year’s Conference Finish: 10th Jim’s Prediction: 11th
After a playoff appearance in the 2008-09 season, the Calgary Flames took a big step back last year. Their excellent penalty killing fell from 4th to 15th in the league last year, and their power play unit was positively abysmal, finishing 26th in the league.
A big part of that problem was the poor performance turned in by Jay Bouwmeester last season. He only scored three goals (one of which was on the power play), and finished with a paltry 29 points. They also dealt away Dion Phaneuf to Toronto, so their blue line won’t exactly be brimming with expectations of a big offensive punch this year.
On the plus side, Rene Bourque did have a very good year last year, and Calgary did acquire Ian White, who notched 12 points in 27 games with the Flames last year. Both of those guys should certainly help things offensively for the Flames, and if they can produce on the power play, Calgary could make some noise in a weak division.
Penalty killing will still be a challenge this season, so that will certainly be a number to keep an eye on for folks trying to evaluate the Flames.
Last Year’s Conference Finish: 2nd Jim’s Prediction: 5th
Last year’s Stanley Cup champions underwent a massive transformation last season. Gone is the depth that propelled them to the franchise’s first title in 49 years, and in its place is a group of youngsters who will be immediately subject to the pressure and scrutiny that comes with the Cup.
The Hawks are going to face some pretty serious challenges in overcoming some of their personnel losses. The goaltending situation is questionable at best, with Marty Turco taking the reins from the departed Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi. The team’s offense will also be a question mark, as young players like Jack Skille and Bryan Bickell will be looked at to help provide punch on the third and fourth lines.
The reason the Hawks will stay near the top of the conference is that they weren’t forced to deal any of their absolute top tier talent. Guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith will provide some degree of continuity, and the team will still be a challenger for the title this season.
Last Season’s Finish: 8th Jim’s Prediction: 7th
The Avalanche were arguably hockey’s biggest surprise last year. They took a goaltender that had been cast off from Florida in Craig Anderson, and a duo of talented youngsters in Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart, and rode them all the way to an eighth place finish in the Western Conference a year after finishing dead last.
This year, the Avs will be looking at the youngsters to continue their maturation, and they will also be looking to Paul Stastny to continue his excellent offensive production from last year. He scored 20 goals and dished out 59 assists in 2009-10, and he will need to post similar numbers for Colorado to have a shot at making the playoffs in back to back seasons.
Another key for Colorado will be the veteran leadership of Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote. Those two have been around the block a few times, and on a team full of youngsters, they’ll need all the gray haired guys they can get.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Year’s Finish: 14th Jim’s Prediction: 15th
Last year’s Blue Jackets were one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL. They took a sizable step back from their playoff appearance in 2009, and changes were made, with Ken Hitchcock getting the door and Scott Arniel grabbing the reins. They allowed 259 goals last season, which was second worst in the Western Conference, and sophomore goaltender Steve Mason, who had 10 shutouts in his rookie season, struggled mightily last year.
Offensively, the team wasn’t much better, only scoring 216 goals and finishing an abysmal 2-10 in shoot-outs last season.
This team desperately needs some more offensive punch from people not named Rick Nash. Antoine Vermette had a career year last year despite the team’s difficulties (27 goals and 38 assists), and he will need to replicate those numbers if the Jackets are going to get out of the cellar in the West.
It will also be up to Mason to be more consistent in the crease, and up to the defense to tighten up. The unfortunate reality for the Jackets is that they play in arguably the toughest division in hockey, and it’s going to take a mammoth effort from them to make their way out of the cellar.
Last Year’s Finish: 12th Jim’s Prediction: 13th
The Stars are a team in transition this season. The Mike Modano era finally came to an end after last season, and the team also parted ways with longtime goalkeeper Marty Turco during the off-season.
In Turco’s place will be Kari Lehtonen, who wore out his welcome in Atlanta with sloppy and inconsistent play. He did find some success down the stretch last year, but his performance will have to improve significantly for Dallas’ standing in the conference to rise.
He will find a defense that isn’t exactly loaded with talent, as well as one of the worst penalty killing units in the NHL last season (27th).
On offense, Brad Richards is still going strong, but he will need a bit more help than he got last year in that department. Loui Eriksson and James Neal will certainly be able to at least come close to last year’s productivity, and the stars will also be looking to Brenden Morrow to replicate his 20 goal performance of last year.
All in all, the Stars didn’t really add any pieces during this off-season that will get them out of neutral, and in a division featuring the Coyotes, Sharks, and Kings, that will likely not be enough to get them back into postseason contention.
Last Year’s Finish: 5th Jim’s Prediction: 1st
Last year’s Wings were one of the teams hardest hit by the injury bug. They had key players like Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, and Niklas Kronwall miss a huge chunk of games, and even with all of that adversity, they were still able to scratch and claw their way to a blazing finish and the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
This off-season was pretty quiet, but the Wings did bring in some solid players. Not only did they bring in Mike Modano to solidify the center position on their lower lines, but they also brought back Jiri Hudler, who missed last season after defecting to the KHL.
Both of these acquisitions, along with the solid goaltending of Jimmy Howard, should be enough to get the Wings at least back into contention for the division title. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk seem primed to have career years in 2010 as well, and with all of the talent that the Wings have (and the veteran know how to use it), it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them reclaim the top seed in the Western Conference.
Last Year’s Finish: 15th Jim’s Prediction: 14th
Needless to say, the Oilers really stunk last year. They scored 214 goals while giving up 284, and they nearly lost 50 games in regulation. They also had to deal with the off-season distraction of the Sheldon Souray sweepstakes, which still haven’t found any sort of resolution.
With all of these bad numbers and bad news, the Oilers still have some glimmer of hope. Dustin Penner is just coming into his prime, and if he can have another year like he did last year, there will hopefully be other players to help him on offense.
Obviously, the big acquisition of the off-season was draft pick Taylor Hall, who will be looking to bring some youthful exuberance to a locker room that hasn’t had a lot to smile about lately.
Ultimately, the Oilers undoing will most likely be their wreck of a goaltending situation. Nikolai Khabibulin is not only dealing with back surgery, but also with his drunken driving conviction in Arizona, and young guns Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring themselves.
A lot of pundits have picked Edmonton to make a big jump forward this season, but with that goaltending, and a defense that is in disarray, it seems highly unlikely that they are going to make a ton of progress this year.
Last Year’s Finish: 6th Jim’s Prediction: 4th
The Kings went into this off-season looking to make a big splash and land an extremely talented winger to bolster their scoring attack. They ended up striking out on Ilya Kovalchuk, but they did manage to hold the pieces from last year’s playoff squad in place, so they essentially are treading water.
That really isn’t a bad thing for LA. They have one of the younger teams in the league, and while they didn’t add any pieces, the guys they do have are another year wiser, more developed, and have a hunger to win that is going to carry them right into the thick of the race for the Pacific Division.
Going over this team’s young talent is breathtaking. Young captain Dustin Brown had a solid season last year, and Drew Doughty is quickly developing into one of the top defensemen in the game. They also have goaltender Jonathan Quick, who after a sluggish start (no pun intended) ended up becoming a very good back-stop for the squad in the second half of the season.
With all of the talent that they have in place, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Kings make a step forward and give the Sharks a run for their money as the class of the division. They still could use another scorer, and perhaps a little more depth on the blue line, but if you are looking for a team that is on the rise, the Kings certainly fit the bill.
Last Year’s Finish: 13th Jim’s Prediction: 12th
Last year’s Wild squad was supposed to be a lot more dynamic offensively, and they were going to rely less on defense for success than they had in previous seasons. A huge deal was made about the team’s efforts to improve in the scoring department, and their signing of Martin Havlat certainly reflected that commitment.
The sad reality was that the team scored the exact same amount of goals (219) last season that they had the season before. They did rely less on defense, but at the expense of allowing 246 goals. It was also a bad season for Niklas Backstrom, who went 26-23-8, and had a GAA of 2.72. Josh Harding wasn’t any better, and he has already been lost for the season with two torn knee ligaments suffered during the pre-season.
The Wild are going to have several obstacles in the way of improvement this season. The lackluster offensive punch has got to improve, and they have to stay healthy, as they had one of the highest man-games lost to injury rates in the league last season.
Ultimately, however, the team will need to play better defense in front of Backstrom this season, because if they don’t, it could be another long season in a city that loves hockey as much as any other metropolis in the world.
Last Year’s Finish: 7th Jim’s Prediction: 9th
The Predators seem like they are a team that is custom built for the rigors of playoff hockey. They score dirty goals, and they are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They also have goaltender Pekka Rinne, who is coming off of a fabulous season that saw him permanently unseat Dan Ellis, who is now down in Tampa.
All of these attributes led them to a heart-stoppingly close encounter with the Blackhawks in the first round of last year’s playoffs. If the team had made sure to cover Patrick Kane in the closing seconds of Game 5, the Hawks’ run to the Cup may very well have ended prematurely in the Music City.
The big issue facing the Predators is whether or not they have the components required to get timely scoring. Playing good defense and having a great keeper is all well and good, but if you can’t put the puck in the net with a degree of consistency, you are going to have problems making it anywhere in the playoffs.
If Nashville can get some production from a new source, they should be able to make it out of the rough-and-tumble Central Division and make it to the postseason once again. If they can’t, however, it may very well be a long summer once again for the Preds.
Last Year’s Finish: 4th Jim’s Prediction: 6th
The Coyotes were unquestionably the league’s Cinderella team last year. They were essentially a team of nomads, with the league unable to find a local buyer to keep them there, and a lot of folks clamoring to move them back to Canada. They didn’t allow any of this drama to distract them, however, as they came within one game of defeating the defending West champion Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs.
This year, the Coyotes will look to repeat the magic of last year with a slightly different cast of characters. They smartly brought in Eric Belanger to be a lower line center, and they also will be getting the healthy services of Scottie Upshall, who missed nearly half of last season after injuring his knee.
A lot of folks are looking for a “return to Earth” season from the Coyotes, but with guys like Ilya Bryzgalov and Shane Doan in the fold, there is still the potential for them to retain their status as one fo the best teams in the conference, and to make a return trip to the postseason.
The key to their success might very well be the performance of two youngsters. If Kyle Turris can finally reach the potential that made him the NHL Central Scouting’s top rated prospect of 2007, and if Oliver Ekman-Larsson can fulfill some folks’ gaudy expectations of a Calder Trophy-caliber season, then the Desert Dogs might be howling into April once again.
St. Louis Blues
Last Year’s Finish: 9th Jim’s Prediction: 8th
Last year’s Blues were a really solidly built defensive team. They check hard, they skate hard, and they prevent opportunities better than just about any other team in the conference. They had the best penalty killing unit in the NHL last year, and they have two emerging stars in Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson.
And oh yeah, they added some guy named Jaroslav Halak to that mix.
With their new goaltender in tow, the Blues seem ripe to make a return trip to the playoffs after barely missing out last season. If they are going to get back into the post-season, however, they are going to have to dramatically improve their record at home. They lost 18 regulation tilts at home, which was second only to woeful Edmonton in the conference for home futility. They also struggled on the power play during the season, successfully converting less than 17% of their chances.
If the Blues can defend Scottrade Center with more fervor, and can score a few more power play goals here and there, they not only can make the postseason, but they may be able to make some noise with that gifted Slovak in the crease.
Last Year’s Finish: 1st Jim’s Prediction: 3rd
After a year in which they were eliminated in a shocking first round upset by the Anaheim Ducks, the Sharks came back with a vengeance in the 2009-10, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference and making it all the way to the Conference Finals, only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks in a four game sweep.
During the off-season, the Sharks did lock up a couple of crucial pieces in Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, but they said goodbye to Evgeni Nabakov, who signed a contract in the KHL. To replace Nabakov, the Sharks originally were going to rely upon Antero Niittymaki, but when the opportunity to snatch Antti Niemi away from the Blackhawks, the Sharks jumped on it and added him to the roster.
The big question for the Sharks this season will be whether or not their third and fourth lines can provide enough offensive punch to make up for off-nights by their top two groupings. It was this dearth of scoring that really hurt San Jose in the playoffs last year, and it will be their undoing again unless they can rectify the problem.
This year will be an interesting test for the Sharks, as they continue to get longer in the tooth and their window of opportunity to pursue a championship continues to close.
Last Year’s Finish: 3rd Jim’s Prediction: 2nd
After a second straight season of being defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the playoffs, the Canucks spent the off-season retooling their roster a bit. They improved their defense quite a bit, bringing in Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis to shore up the blue line.
The Canucks have several things going for them this season outside of the new faces. They will have a lot friendlier schedule, as they won’t have to go on an insanely long 14 game road trip (their longest trip is five games). They also will be playing in a very weak division this season, and there is the potential that they will be the only team from the Northwest Division to make the post-season.
The only real potential weakness that the Canucks may have involves the expectations being heaped upon them by pundits and fans alike. Some teams simply can’t handle the burden that high expectations of success can bring, and while it doesn’t seem likely that the Canucks will collapse like some teams do (like the Sharks and Capitals), it is still something that the team will certainly have to guard against.
This will likely be the best shot that the Canucks have to bring their first Stanley Cup championship to Vancouver, and if they are unable to convert this opportunity into a title, the winds of change may sweep through western Canada.