There is no doubt that the NHL’s Eastern Conference is catching up to the talent level in the West. However, the West remains the significantly deeper conference. Going into 2015-16 there is really only one Western Conference team without playoff expectations, that of course being the Arizona Coyotes.
Now in fairness to the East, the West has two fewer teams (14 compared to 16) but remember the Coyotes are also known for coming out of nowhere. They went to the Western final just three seasons ago. Head coach Dave Tippett is one of the most widely respected head coaches in the game, and Arizona has a number of highly rated prospects who are NHL-ready.
The East meanwhile has teams like Carolina, Florida and New Jersey that are clearly facing an uphill battle for the playoffs. Not to mention Boston has been a punch line this offseason and if Ivan Provorov isn’t ready for the NHL just yet, well, the Flyers still have defense issues. These are five teams that don’t have great vibes in the East.
With basically the entire Western Conference either having made the postseason last year and/or have serious expectations to make it this season, the battle for the top eight spots will be a major grind. That also means, almost anything can happen. Some of the best of the best could actually be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Nobody should be shocked if either of the following three clubs miss the postseason.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues remain just about the same as they have been the last few years going into 2015-16. They are a really good team, hard to play against and have a really good chance to make the postseason. However, they reside in the toughest division in the NHL. There is not a single bad team in the Central Division, unless you consider the 2013-14 division champion Avalanche a bad team. Last season the Blues, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets all made the postseason. Dallas and Colorado are the only two Central teams that failed to qualify.
The problem for St. Louis though is that the Jets now believe they can win, and the Stars got a lot better this offseason. Dallas upgraded in goal with Antti Niemi as quality insurance if Kari Lehtonen doesn’t bounce back. They also added two other former Blackhawks, one on defense in Johnny Oduya, and another up front in Patrick Sharp. Not to mention they will have 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin back from injury this year. Dallas made a late push last season despite missing Nichushkin nearly all season and Seguin for a long stretch. Dallas has a really good chance at the playoffs this year. St. Louis meanwhile is just old news, and haven’t really done much of note other than trading away fan favorite T.J. Oshie.
St. Louis could easily miss the playoffs in the Central. Nashville, Chicago and Dallas could take the three divisional slots with Minnesota and Winnipeg being the two wild cards. Or, the much improved Pacific Division could steal back a wild card spot. The Pacific could very easily send Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary and San Jose to the playoffs. Not to mention Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers. Last year there was no way that both wild cards were going to come out of the Pacific, but it could happen this year. The Central is still the better division but it is entirely feasible only three Central teams make the postseason.
Before you call me crazy, let me remind you of a couple things. First and foremost is that last year’s defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs after winning two Stanley Cups and losing once in the Conference final the previous three seasons. Coming into this season, the Blackhawks are in the exact same position as last year’s Kings. They are coming off three straight seasons going to the third round or further, including twice winning the Stanley Cup. Chicago has simply played a giant truckload of games the last few years. There is also such thing as bad luck. Sure, the Kings were limited by the Slava Voynov situation last season but they also had a terrible overtime record. The latter of which was pure dumb luck. That’s hockey.
Secondly, the Blackhawks barely made the postseason the year after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup. Remember they had some significant salary cap issues that offseason and the following year they were the eighth seed? They nearly came back from down 3-0 against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks. Jonathan Toews scored one of my favorite goals of all time with this short-handed game tying goal late in Game 7. Please, before you Hawks fans hate on me, let me be clear I’m not a Chicago hater, just being realistic. Losing Sharp, Oduya and Brandon Saad are significant losses. Subtracting two top-six quality forwards and a top-four defenseman is going to take away from Chicago’s depth. Having a deep roster is what has propelled them to such great success.
Would it surprise me for Chicago to miss the playoffs this season? No doubt. But I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if it happened. The Central could potentially see Nashville, Dallas, St. Louis and Minnesota make the playoffs, with San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Calgary making the postseason from the Pacific. These eight teams are all significant competition. Again, not even mentioning McDavid and the Oilers, nor the Jets.
I really don’t understand why so many people are drinking the Anaheim Ducks cool-aid. They have some quality young defense but it is also a blue line that is going to have the aging Kevin Bieksa and Clayton Stoner playing on a nightly basis. Neither are very good at this point. Not to mention Ryan Kesler is extremely overrated as a No. 2 center and is not nearly the same guy that he was in Vancouver’s run to the 2011 final. Yes the Ducks went to the Western Conference final last year but they had arguably the easiest first two opponents that any team has seen in recent years. With the Kings and the Sharks both missing the playoffs, the Ducks faced two teams that hadn’t been to the playoffs in years. Last year’s Flames were a terrible possession team and the Jets were just happy to make the postseason. Yeah Anaheim got to the final four, but they would have been laughed at had they lost either of those first two series.
Sure, the Ducks have won three straight Pacific division titles, but they haven’t once beaten a team in the playoffs that was tough competition. In 2012-13 they were upset in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings, one of the easier upset picks of the first round. The following year in 2013-14 they nearly were upset again by the Stars, taking six games to eliminate them before losing to the Kings in round two. And then last year they lost to the Blackhawks as expected.
Given that Calgary is no longer a cakewalk, having added Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik to their lineup, the Flames are no longer a mirage. They are the real deal. In the Pacific alone, Calgary, San Jose and Los Angeles could easily take up the three divisional seeds. As for the wild cards, well the Central could easily take both. With Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville the three Central seeds, Minnesota and St. Louis both have the rosters capable of beating out the Ducks.
Overall West Outlook:
Now by no means do I expect both last year’s Western finalists to miss the playoffs. I’m merely suggesting that either one of them missing the playoffs wouldn’t be that surprising considering the depth of the conference. While I would say there is only about a 1% chance that two of these three teams miss the playoffs next year, I would say there is a good 25-35% chance at least one of them falls off.