Okay, okay, I should have gone the other way. Done the easier East over the more difficult West. But that's not how it played out, folks. So, here you get my day two of predictions, an unsure and un-committed, best guess scenario of how things will play out West this year. . .
MIN: even to worse
EDM: even to slightly better
DAL: even to better
LAK: can you say they can get worse from worst? eh. . .worse
ANA: even to better
DET: better (if possible)
And now the hopefully shorter than the East but still quite wordy Western analysis:
Wild - I like the Wild. But. . .Marian Gaborik, the Ranger killer, has not proven he can stay healthy. If he were healthy, he'd produce seasons like Henrik Zetterburg and Pavel Datsyuk did in Detroit. He is a very good, and very underrated player. But, when you are not healthy, you are not noticed. That, coupled with the departures of Pavol Demitra, and Brian Rolston, makes me think this team will not be as good as years past. They still have Pierre-Marc Bouchard, but even his production tailed off last season if I remember correctly. I have been a fan of the other Nicklas Backstrom, the goalie, but I am not sure how I see it playing out this time around. He had an up and down year. A lot was up and down in Minnesota last year and they did make a rather quick exit. Not sure I'd bank on the Wild in what will be a tough race in the West this year.
Avalanche - I guess I figure it would have to be either the Wild or the Avalanche making the playoffs this year. Don't think they'd both miss it. And I just might have to go on the side of Colorado. Young guys who had good years within the last two, like Marek Svatos and Paul Stastny, will need to keep up goal production. Joe Sakic will need to stay healthy. Peter Budaj has been rather solid in nets, though; more so than I thought. I'm not sure I even have a reason, but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say Colorado steps in. And remember, I'm still looking forward to some Darcy Tucker / Sean Avery antics when the Stars come to town. Worth watching at least.
Oilers - I actually struggle with Edmonton on this analysis. They actually almost made the playoffs last year. Had a monster comeback in the second half of the year. And that should be credited. Guys like Sam Gagner came out of nowhere to do big things for the team. Led by a bunch of young guys who know one knows, in fact. Figure, if Dwayne Roloson can keep the group in it, if he stays, and Sheldon Souray can be the power play quarterback the Oil signed last year, maybe they do have a shot. In my mind there are four or five probable-to-definite picks for the West, and the other three spots are up for grabs. I wouldn't count the Oilers out of it, but that's really going to be anyone's guess.
Flames - I like the Flames. I don't think you can go wrong with an offense centered around I-can-do-everything-posterboy Jarome Iginla. But he can't do it himself. Kristian Huselius has departed for Columbus; Alex Tanguay for Montreal. Guys like Mike Cammalleri, Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow will really have to step up. And don’t forget, they still have one of the best goalies in the league with Miikka Kiprusoff and one of the best D-men in Dion Phanuef. They will also benefit from taking points from presumably Minnesota and Vancouver. I really think this is the toughest division to predict. Any of these teams or perhaps only the one that the league mandates has to, might make the playoffs this year. I don't see why Calgary isn't my front-runner though, on experience and the last few years alone. But I think anything can happen in the NW division.
Vancouver - I can’t in good consciousness say Vancouver will be better this year. They lost Markus Naslund to free agency, Trevor Linden to retirement, and have just named their goalie (yes, again, their goalie) to be team Captain. True, their goalie will keep them in games they shouldn't be in. But this team struggled embarrassingly to score goals last year. It was horrible for him. Who is going to step up? Pavol Demitra will help. Those Sedin twins do what they can. Some of the young guys, like Ryan Kesler and Taylor Pyatt, will provide some, but honestly, I don't think it will be enough. Colorado, Calgary, Edmonton, and perhaps even Minnesota will average more goals. I sadly don't see how this team makes the playoffs. Mats Sundin, the wanted savior, might not have been able to provide enough on his own to save this team. Canuckville, you are in my thoughts.
Stars - I am excited to see how the Stars do this year and more confident than last year that they will do well. Marty Turco slayed some demons with his solid performance in nets during the playoffs. Brendan Morrow was a honest-to-goodness beast when it counted. Haven't seen that from him in quite some time. Brad Richards started to find his stride and will get to test his first full year for the black, green, and gold. And my favorite and yours, Sean Avery, who is already ruffling feathers all throughout the Western Conference, gets to pal up with (or against) agitator Steve Ott. Nice. The only major setback I see is that Sergei Zubov, the most underrated defenseman over the last decade or more, is still suffering the ills of off-season hip surgery, and will not start the season. If he gets healthy or even comes back at 50%, he's better than most in the game. I think Dallas will flourish this year.
Sharks - The classic example of just some piece missing from the puzzle. Perhaps this will be edition by subtraction. Ron Wilson is testing his patience in Toronto. A new coach has taken the helm. But I refuse to believe that a team with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jonathan Cheechoo will struggle to score, although we've all seen it. Subtract one Brian Campbell, add one Dan Boyle, who is looking to resurrect and be the top offensive D-man he proved he could be in Tampa, and you have a team. A plethora of young talent like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryan Clowe, Milan Michalek, and Joe Pavelski, are primed for good years. This team seems poised. Not to mention anything of my favorite for Vezina this year, the man who was robbed last year, Evgeni Nabokov. Not many are better. The guy was a machine last year. Expect no different in this. I expect San Jose and Dallas to fight to the end for the division title, although I'm not sure either will knock Detroit from the top step.
Kings - I think I'm going to be watching some Kings games again this year. I am excited to see how the young talent continues to develop - Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Patrick O'Sullivan. And who will be in nets for the team - always a mystery. They are missing Rob Blake this year on D, so they got if we can all believe it, even younger. They are missing a lot, no one is denying. No one expects much, but perhaps that is when you can surprise. I think they'll score a lot and give up a lot, but you know what - I think they'll be better than last year, points wise at least. Playoffs, unfortunately, not a good chance at all.
Ducks - I have to assume the Ducks will be at least as good as they were last year, if not better, as they will have Scott Neidermeyer and Teemu Selanne for the entire season this go around. And I never argue with a team that boasts perennial All-Star J.S. Giguere in nets. But I don’t think Anaheim will be able to beat Dallas or San Jose for the division. I still think they lack something. And it it's young talent, for both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry should have good seasons. It's not for veteran leadership as like-him-or-hate-him Chris Pronger is there, although not the captain this go around. I am not sure. But this team is one of my bets to make the playoffs. And probably to be angry enough to go further than last year's quick exit.
Coyotes - The desert dogs. Hmm. I really like their chances at being one of those bottom three surprise teams to squeeze into the playoffs. They almost did it last year and I was rooting for them, trust me. I think having Ilya Bryzgalov for a full year in nets might make the difference. He is a premiere goalie when he's needed to be, and I see him really making a difference for this young team. Shane Doan quietly had a big numbers year last year. And never count out Ed Jovanovski to help on the power play. Patrick Mueller had an impressive rookie campaign as well. Honestly, I think things are looking brighter in Phoenix and perhaps, bright enough to bring the maroon and white into the promised second season. Out of the could-be-there, these might be my favorites.
Red Wings - I couldn't criticize this team last year. I knew if Nashville didn't beat them, they would probably go all the way. And as you well know, they did. Considering their biggest loss was a guy that in the end did not play for them in the last few rounds of the playoffs - the now retired HOF goalie Dominik Hasek - I am not sure how they won't top the West once again. And not only did they not suffer big losses, they got the big add of the summer with signing Marian Hossa from the Penguins. Yep. Really hard to imagine them not sailing right through to the playoffs, although, let it be said, Chicago played them tough last year and will be better this year and Nashville was always a tough game as well. They probably will not have as many points in what should be a more difficult division. But, really, who cares. Bottom line: Red Wings will be playoff bound.
Blackhawks - Here's hoping, and it might just be a reality, the only other non-successful original six team besides the New York Rangers, will see a fast rise to glory this year. A lot changed with the Blackhawks in a short time. They got two of the best young studs in the game - Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (ROY). Their long time owner died and the son saw fit to finally put home games on local TV. And around that time, the team got good. Very good. Add Brian Campbell. A goaltending battle, and an answer to the popular off-season debate, Cristobal Huehhh or HueT? Also, add a hopefully (seriously now!) healthy Marty Havlat, and perhaps this is the year. Again, the West is tough, perhaps tougher than last year, but if I had to pick, I'd say Chicago gets it done. Or at least makes it very, very interesting. Next to Washington, Chicago is my best bet for entertaining hockey to watch this year. Enjoy the Kane/Toews pairing while you can, guys. This is greatness in the making!
Blue Jackets - Every year for the last few, I've picked Columbus to make the playoffs. And no matter how much I want them to (and I do) and feel they do have a chance (I do), I am not sure if it's possible for all three of the last spots in the West to be filled with teams that failed to make the dance last year. Possible - of course. Probable - probably not. But if Rick Nash regains his brilliance (more fo that legendary goal stuff like we saw against Phoenix), they'll be going in a good direction. Nik Zherdev and Dan Fritsche are out. Kristian Huselius and Philadelphia's R.J Umberger are in. I do see this team improving offensively. Defensively, they aren't bad, but they are staggeringly young. Even younger than in past years. I’m just not sure if this team has it from that end. True, Pascal LeClaire had a career year for shutouts. Freddy Noreena saw good time the year before. Hopefully they, and Steve Mason if necessary and healthy, are enough to get it done. I do hope so. Honestly for myself, and for guys like Rick Nash and Manny Malhotra, I hope they do it. I’m just not sure if this is the year to see Phoenix, Chicago, AND Columbus all knock out practical perennial playoff teams like Colorado, and Minnesota.
Blues – I’ve got the Blues? I . . . am not really sure what to say about them. This is one of the few teams I know hardly anything about. Despite a promise I made myself at the All-Star break to watch more Blues games because Manny Legace was hilarious, I did not. Too many teams and too little time. Thus, I know nothing really except I can’t imagine St. Louis will be much better, and I can’t imagine this team is in line for a playoff berth in an over talented and super saturated West. An injury to young gun Erik Johnson, and in the worst of ways (ie: golf cart incident on team golf outing day) might have been a season demise foretold right there. See you next year, I hope.
Predators – Last but not least, a team I actually rather enjoyed watching last year – Nashville. I felt they could beat Detroit and they made it interesting for a moment, but I’m not sure the team that has just seemed to sneak in the last few years, will do it again this year. They will have to be better and have to generate more points in a tougher central division. And I’m not sure they do it. Dan Ellis should still be good, and I hope he is. J.P. Dumont is always ready for a good year, when in the lineup. I don’t really know what else to speculate. I am just going on a hunch that they don’t make it. If they do, I’m happy. But I’m just not sure it’s not someone else’s turn. And as a Rangers fan, I hope Jed Ortmeyer gets better and back in the lineup real soon.
Okay, the West is analyzed and I feel seriously much less sure of these picks than I do of the Eastern ones, but no more stalling, here we go:
2) San Jose
Narrow misses for Edmonton and Columbus, although I see both of those teams, or potentially Nashville, and maybe even Minnesota stepping in! But urgh – I will stand by my predictions. I can’t be any worse than the people that do this professionally, can I? Montreal – from last to first. Rangers – from worst to best. It’s a hard world we live in, hockey predictors, that is. And I’m just trying to makea best stab at it for the fun of it all.
Honestly, I just hope it’s as fun and exciting a season as last year with really tough battles in both conferences.
I won’t predict it; I’ll just hope for it. :)