NHL Western Conference Season Preview 2013: Wide Open Race

The NHL’s Western conference produced a few surprises last season with the #8 seeded Los Angeles Kings eventually being crowned the conference’s champions. As many as 11 teams were in the race for playoff spots late into season, and a couple of the division titles were heavily contested. The conference doesn’t appear to have gotten any easier in 2013, but maybe the West’s recent stronger powers have a few more questions than answers with opening night just a couple of days away.

High Expectations For 2012 Stanley Cup Champions?

The Kings caught the hockey world by surprise in the playoffs last year. They just about crept into the postseason in underwhelming fashion clinching the West’s eighth seed after a disappointing 2011-12 regular season. It wasn’t that LA were written off completely in their match-up against Vancouver, but needless to say they were one of the most commonly picked teams to be bounced in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. Instead, they stormed to the Finals losing just two games along the way, and then secured a second Stanley Cup in franchise history beating the New Jersey Devils in six games.

An extended break combined with GM Dean Lombardi’s re-signing of the majority of the roster has many writers and analysts predicting LA to avoid the dreaded ‘cup hangover’. LA are widely expected to challenge for a repeat success more strongly than the previous two cup winners Boston (2011) and Chicago (2010), who were both bounced in the first round as defending champions.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)

While the return of a roster that dominated in the playoffs should be a positive thing, it is worth noting that that same roster struggled through most of the regular season. They were the second lowest scoring in the NHL, and while they played strong team defense, they also leaned heavily upon goaltender Jonathan Quick, who put in an outstanding performance.

Elsewhere, 2011-12 was arguably one made up of disappointments. Big free agent addition Mike Richards mustered just 44 points, while Simon Gagne only skated in 34 contests due to injury. Top blue-liner Drew Doughty put up his lowest point total since his rookie season, while captain Dustin Brown finished with his lowest goal total since 2006-07. Jarret Stoll managed just six goals one season after scoring 20, and even deadline acquisition Jeff Carter managed just nine points in 16 regular season games.

Lombardi gambled in re-signing Dustin Penner to a new deal hoping that he recaptures his postseason form, while more further improvement is expected from young forwardsDwight King and Jordan Nolan, who impressed in limited action last season. Still, it is difficult to know what to expect from this roster after its Jekyll and Hyde act last season, and they possibly won’t be helped by the fact that a couple of pivotal players in Anze Kopitar and Willie Mitchell appear set to start the season on the injury list. A repeat doesn’t look so simple.

What About The Regular Season Champs and Western Conference Finalists?

After looking at the defending Stanley Cup champions, it seems only logical to look at the teams that were arguably closest to LA’s level last season. The Vancouver Canucks dominated in the regular season winning their second straight President’s Trophy, before suffering against the Kings in the first round. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes faced off against Los Angeles in the Western conference finals after surprising many with playoff series wins over Chicago and Nashville.

The Canucks have been as talented, balanced and deep as any team in the Western conference over the past two seasons. They were one game away from success against Boston in 2011, and appeared to be primed for another deep run before their shock early exit.

Once again heading into 2013 Vancouver are amongst the favorites, and that status seems to have grown with the decision to hand the #1 goaltending reins to Cory Schneider. The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, Roberto Luongo is still there and the Canucks clearly don’t want to rush the trade of such a valuable asset. Second, Schneider is a vastly talented goaltender with a great statistics so far in his career, but he has played just 76 NHL games in total (including the postseason). He is not a proven reliable top level goaltender yet and the likely specter of Luongo in the background will surely make his job difficult this season especially if this team enters the playoffs with big expectations once again.

Meanwhile, perhaps an even greater concern for this club is the status of Ryan Kesler, who looks set to start a second straight season on IR. Kesler was a crucial part of that 2011 playoff run playing a strong two-way game behind the Sedin line. It was also announced earlier this week that fellow another player penciled into second line, David Booth, would miss over a month of the season with a strained groin. There are pretty serious questions surrounding the ability of Vancouver’s scoring depth to cope with those losses.

It is a little surprising to be saying this about a Phoenix team that won its first division title since moving to the desert and then went on to reach the conference finals, but the Coyotes just about averted disaster during the past offseason. It appears that the ownership situation, with Greg Jamison’s group coming in, is just about sorted, while they managed to re-sign the team’s captain and face of the franchise Shane Doan.

Still, it was another season where the Coyotes had to deal with significant losses. Ray Whitney, who scored 77 points last season, departed to sign with the Dallas Stars as a free agent. Whitney’s loss could have a major effect on winger Radim Vrbata, who scored 35 goals last season, but relied heavily on strong chemistry with the savvy veteran to do it.

Shane Doan Coyotes
(Icon SMI)

Of course, this is a Coyotes team that hasn’t relied upon high scorers for most of its three-year playoff run, but things are looking extremely sparse for even by their own standards. They will be relying upon Mikkel Boedker to build upon his impressive postseason performance, while a 60-point season from Antoine Vermette wouldn’t go amiss either.

A factor that has received little attention during preseason talk has been the performance of goaltender Mike Smith. The 30-year old made Coyotes’ fans forget Ilya Bryzgalov in a hurry last season putting up Vezina Trophy worthy numbers, but it should be noted that his .930 save percentage, 2.21 GAA and eight shutouts came out of nowhere compared with the rest of his career at all levels. Smith has shown fragile confidence levels in the past, and it might be a little optimistic to assume that he will reach the dizzy heights of 2011-12 again in his career. This could be the season that Phoenix’s remarkable run under Dave Tippett finally comes to an end.

Hockey Town Rising?

With last season’s successful teams facing serious questions, maybe there is an opportunity for a new team to come through the West. An obvious candidate to emerge this season are the Wild, who stole the free agency headlines by signing top UFA duo Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. The free agency splash was by far the biggest in the franchise’s short history and issued a statement of intent from a team that scored just 177 goals in 2011-12 and finished 12th in the West, despite leading the conference in early December.

Suter and Parise definitely transform the outlook for Minnesota, but they will have little time to jell with their new teammates. Suter will be asked to head an inexperienced blue-line, where he may have to play more minutes than last season when he finished third in the league averaging 26:30 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Parise and the rest of the Wild’s offense will have a lot of goals to find if they are going to be successful. There are more questions than answers in Minnesota at the moment.

How Big Were Those Blue-Liners?

The Red Wings and Predators enter the 2013 season with similar problems. Both teams finished the 2011-12 season ranking in the league’s top 10 for GA/G. However, both will have to compensate on their blue-line’s for two of the NHL’s biggest minute-eaters.

Nashville are perhaps in slightly better shape with Shea Weber still marshaling their corps and a promising mix of experience and youth supporting him led by Roman Josi. However, the strength of this team has unquestionably been damaged and this defense might be a little slow relying heavily on veterans Hal Gill and Scot Hannan.

Meanwhile, Detroit lost one of the games legends with Nicklas Lidstrom announcing his retirement this summer. Lidstrom has been a pillar for this franchise during his 20 seasons of service, and served as captain during the previous six. Niklas Kronwall may be ready to lead this team (though he still needs to improve his overall defensive game), and there may be promise in the team’s young talent with Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl, but there is a lot for this franchise to work out. They will be heavily dependent on the play of Jimmy Howard, and that could be a problem if the 28-year old doesn’t recapture his terrific form from the first half of 2011-12.

Nicklas Lidstrom Norris Trophy
Nicklas Lidstrom (Icon SMI)

The Detroit dynasty might cling on with a strong core of talent based around Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Kronwall still existing, but their era of dominance appears to be over, and the longest playoff streak in professional North American sports has been put on watch.

The Return Of The Offensive Powerhouses?

For the previous seven seasons it seems that San Jose and Anaheim have been perennial playoff contenders, but recent signs suggest that times are changing. Meanwhile, Chicago and their potent offense haven’t managed to advance past the first round of the postseason since their own Stanley Cup success in 2010. Will a shortened 2013 season spark the re-emergence of these once dominant offenses?

In 2011-12, San Jose’s once consistent top five offense fizzled. Joe Thornton failed to hit the 80-point mark for the second straight year, while Patrick Marleau managed just 65. The Sharks’ lack of depth was brutally exposed with a sharp drop off between the team’s top four scorers and the rest of the line-up. There haven’t been any major additions over the offseason, but coach Todd McLellan will hope that Martin Havlat stays healthy, Brent Burns adds more punch from the blue-line, and that the team’s top players do more scoring. This team reached the Western conference finals in 2010 and 2011, and surely Thornton, Marleau and co will be desperate for a long run with their window of opportunity now closing.

Anaheim barely qualifies as a Cup contender after missing the playoffs in two of their last three seasons. However, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each enter contract years and head coach Bruce Boudreau is likely to have some license to get this offense moving after  poor campaign last season. Jonas Hiller returns fully healthy in net, while GM Bob Murray shored up the blue-line with a couple of big (literally) additions in veterans Sheldon Souray an Bryan Allen. Maybe there are enough positives factors and motivations for this team to pull off a Cup run.

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Surely a team with that core should be a regular challenger for the Stanley Cup. It hasn’t been the case so far. Since winning the cup in 2010, the Blackhawks haven’t earned home ice advantage in the postseason, and they haven’t won a playoff series. The team’s stars enter the year healthy and there is a feeling that the team’s youth should ensure that the forward group is more balanced than in previous years. Johnny Oduya is now a permanent part of the team’s blue-line, and Nick Leddy has another season of experience under his belt. Big question marks surround goaltending tandem Corey Crawford and Ray Emery though.

St Louis Are Western Conference Favorites?

A group of THW writers recently put forward their predictions in an article. The 16 writers picked only four different teams coming out of the Western conference, but eight of them picked the St Louis Blues. It isn’t that hard to see why.

Alex Pietrangelo Predators
(Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

In a Western conference that looks wide open and is full of teams with more questions than answers, the Blues are perhaps the perfect regular season pick. It isn’t that St Louis doesn’t have any question marks, their biggest one is whether they can repeat the success that saw them win the Central division title under Ken Hitchcock.

Still, the feeling is that this team has retained a core and has nowhere to go but up. They have a pair of goaltenders, who could take the lion’s share of the starts, or could once again share time. They have a defensive core that is led by one of the most under-rated young defenseman in the league Alex Pietrangelo. It owns a forward group that should be boosted by being pretty much fully healthy to start the season, and by the addition of young KHL star Vladimir Tarasenko. This is a big, bruising hard-working team that developed tremendous chemistry last season, and should be able to pick up from where it left off in 2011-12. Maybe the Blues just about deserve the favorites tag in the West heading into the 2013 NHL season.