Late July and August are the dead weeks of the hockey season. Those of us who enjoy discussing hockey on a daily basis are left with writing a number of prediction pieces. Colleague Larry Fisher recently predicted what he thinks will be the entire NHL standings at the end of the 2015-16 season. In this column, I will look exclusively at the eight teams who I believe will qualify from the Western Conference.
Pacific Division Winner: San Jose Sharks
I won’t spend too much time rehashing why the Sharks will win the division. My recent column explains in more detail. Some may think this prediction is way off base but the Sharks were in second place in the division last season all the way through the end of January. The holes in their lineup ended up costing them in February, but this offseason the Sharks have made major improvements in each of their areas of weakness from last season. They still have an elite core, and their depth up front and on the blue line got a whole lot better. With the development late last season of third-line center Chris Tierney and the addition of free-agent winger Joel Ward up front, the Sharks forward lines will be much deeper than in recent years. Defensively, adding free-agent Paul Martin will beef up the top-four defense, allowing younger players like Brenden Dillon, Matt Tennyson and Mirco Mueller to play third-pair minutes. At worst, new goaltender Martin Jones will be as good as Antti Niemi, but with the potential to be much, much better.
2nd Place in Pacific: Calgary Flames
Last year, yours truly was extremely hard on the Flames for being a poor possession team. The Flames were an enigma last year for being incredibly successful despite being heavily out played for long stretches of games. This year, however, will be a different story. The Flames will once again make the playoffs, but their possession numbers will be far better. Not only did they improve an already solid defense by acquiring a stud defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, but their forwards will also be significantly better. Calgary added top-nine forward Michael Frolik in free agency and 2014 first-round pick (fourth overall) Sam Bennett will be a difference maker as a full-time rookie. Bennett only played in one regular season game a year ago, but played in all 11 postseason games. The Flames didn’t lose anyone important this offseason and they added three impact players.
3rd Place in Pacific: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have won the Pacific Division the past three seasons, but all good things come to an end. A lot of people are much higher on the Ducks, but Anaheim has invested far too much in former Canucks Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa. Their young defense is talented but dragged down by Bieksa and Clayton Stoner. Offensively, the Ducks have a great top line that typically carries them in the regular season, but when their best player not named Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry is Ryan Kesler? That isn’t good enough to last. Anaheim has largely had elite success in recent years without being a great possession team. That can’t last forever. With San Jose and Calgary getting better this offseason, Anaheim will slot in behind them this year.
Central Division Winner: Dallas Stars
Another division winner selection that people might think is bizarre, but there is a lot to like about the Stars. Not only do they feature one of the best forward duos in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but the Stars will be a helluva lot deeper this season. Dallas will have three dangerous forward lines. Behind Seguin and Benn, the Stars have forwards Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Valeri Nichushkin and Patrick Sharp. That is a tremendous group of top-six forwards. They could potentially play two of these guys together on three different lines. Forward units are generally put together as pairs and then rotating in and out third forwards.
Defensively, the Stars may be criticized for lack of depth, but last year’s stud rookie defenseman John Klingberg had 40 points in only 65 games. Klingberg, along with Alex Goligoski, Johnny Oduya and Jason Demers, make up a solid top-four defense. Klingberg and Goligoski will be a terrific top pair and if Oduya plays with Demers, those two complement each other well on paper. Demers is an adept right-handed puck mover while Oduya is a solid skating left-handed stay-at-home type. Niemi in net doesn’t wow anybody but talent wise he is a good insurance option as an average goaltender in case Kari Lehtonen fails to bounce back. Dallas made a push late last season to make the playoffs despite having terrible goaltending, Nichuskin injured all year and Seguin was hurt down the stretch. Improved netminding, better health, and key additions up front and on the blue line will make Dallas one of the toughest outs in the Western Conference.
2nd Place in Central: Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators surprised everyone last season with the way their offense exploded. They have always had the defensive firepower and tremendous netminding, but under new coach Peter Laviolette, the Predators offense found a new gear in 2014-15. Thanks in large part to rookie phenom Filip Forsberg and an a bounce-back year from Mike Ribeiro, the Predators finally had the ability to score on a regular basis. The Predators return essentially all of of their key players from last season and should once again be a playoff team in the tough Central Division.
3rd Place in Central: Chicago Blackhawks
Many Hawks fans took exception the other day when I suggested it wouldn’t be crazy if the defending champions missed the playoffs. Last season, the Blackhawks also finished third in the division but were only three points better than the eighth-seed Winnipeg Jets. Both divisions have improved this offseason and the Hawks could easily have a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover. Chicago has played 11 postseason series the last three years and that is a ridiculous amount of games played. They lost some key players this offseason due to salary cap restraints. While they will have some talented players filling in those vacated spots, they are young and inexperienced players that could sink or swim. My best guess is that the Hawks find a way to make the playoffs but struggle all season long as a third seed/wild card team.
Wild Card Winner No. 1: St. Louis Blues
The most notable move made this offseason by last season’s division winner is getting rid of fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Sure, Oshie and David Backes struggled again in the postseason last year, but it is surprising to me that they would get rid of America’s favorite in Oshie. They get role-playing forward Troy Brouwer back in the deal but it is hard to argue that St. Louis is any better than they were last season. More likely they are worse on paper than a year ago. With Dallas getting better, the Predators on the upswing, and the defending champions still a force to be reckoned with, I see the Blues falling down to a wild card team this season.
Wild Card Winner No. 2: Minnesota Wild
The Wild stormed back from the dead last season to a playoff berth upon the trade for goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Minnesota was in a free fall until they solved their goaltending issues. Dubnyk sparkled with a save percentage of .936 in 39 starts for the Wild. It is still to be determined if the performance was a flash in the pan or if Dubnyk can prove himself as one of the elite goaltenders in the league. Moving forward though, he should at least be league average and the team in front of him remains a solid group offensively and defensively. On the back end, they feature one of the best minute eaters in the game in Ryan Suter, plus a bunch of young talent in Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba among others. Offensively, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek make up a strong top-four forwards, plus versatile young forwards like Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter provide some solid secondary scoring.
Just Missed: Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets
These three clubs will all be in the playoff hunt but will end up missing the playoffs. The Kings simply aren’t what they used to be with losing key glue guys. Jarret Stoll looks like he isn’t wanted anymore by anybody. He could re-sign with LA, but his time as a solid third-line center is probably behind him at this point. Former winger Justin Williams is as great of a third-line depth scorer as there is in the league. After all, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy just two years ago. The cap crunch cost the Kings a chance to re-sign him. Los Angeles still has a solid top-six, but their bottom-six is a far cry from their Cup-winning teams. Dustin Brown is a fraction of his former self and while LA won their second Cup with Brown struggling, they no longer have the depth to compensate. Defensively, there is still a lot of unknown in terms of the Slava Voynov situation. The Kings will remain a stingy team with their system play, and elite centers in Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, but their defense won’t nearly be as dominant as years past. The Kings could push the Ducks for the third spot in the Pacific, but the Ducks have better depth, as do the wild card teams from the Central.
Edmonton will make big strides with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the fold, but Andrej Sekera is not enough to fix their defense issues in one offseason. The Oilers will finally be in the hunt from the start of the season to the end but they are still a full season of growth away from returning to the playoffs. In 2016-17 though, they will have the experience necessary to make a much bigger push. Winnipeg will once again be a tough team to play against but they simply lack the star power to make significant noise in that division. The Central is just too tough to return to the playoffs without having made some big offseason additions.