Alright, it's a lovely Saturday night, and I'm sitting down to write my Western Conference Predictions for the upcoming season (while listening to the Sharks/Coyotes game). This year, no matter how much I've hesitated, I'm doing the West before the East, the hypothetically more difficult to predict. Just remember two things:
*I am not an expert and don't claim to be. Like last year, I have not read any predictions on TSN.ca, ESPN.com, in the Hockey News, or at various blogs. Why? I'd rather put my own random thoughts on here, right or wrong.
*Chance are, they will be wrong. It's too hard to predict anything in this league, and that's especially true in an Olympic season. So much can change for teams who may lose their best player or players for a long stretch at a critical time. Plus, as we've seen for two years running now, playoff races have come down to the wire, some to even the literal last games of the season.
With that established, I'll try to be shorter than last year with this (yeah right!), but yet still include for some randomn thoughts that can provide enjoyment during the post regular season analysis.
Like last year, I'm first looking at what teams I think will be better, worse, or even to last year, before giving my top 8!
Vancouver - EVEN to BETTER
I like Vancouver's chances here, maybe even moreso than last year. Like so many other teams, their biggest star is in net, and Roberto Luongo may just be the #1 guy in line for Team Canada at the Olympics in Vancouver. Lot of pressure on a guy who faced some injuries in the recent past. But I think he's up for the task; no doubt he is committed, maybe more than ever after yet another disappointing playoff loss. On offense, it is truly the twins team now, if it wasn't before, with oft-injured Demitra, well, injured again. Key Questions: If Alex Burrows can have a good follow-up to last year's surprise season. And if the talk of the town - literally - Cody Hodgson makes the team and lives up to the hype surrounding him.
Calgary - EVEN
I may be alone in this, but I do not see how Bouwmeester makes this team THAT much better. He improves the defense, but even though he was lauded as the best thing out there, he's never proven to me that he's anything beyond the most boring intermission interview next to "Captain Mumbles" (Chris Drury). Yet, he's still young and maybe he'll come more into his own in Calgary. Scoring will suffer, losing a great player in Cammalleri to Montreal. I'm not sure they make it up. Captain Jarome Iginla and good guy Craig Conroy remain my favorites on this team, but I'm keeping a close eye on former Rangers Sjostrom and Dawes as well. Key Questions: Can Kipper be the goalie he has shown glimpses of during this team's success? How will Olli Jokinen respond in his first full year w/the team.
Edmonton - BETTER
I have no reason whatsoever to believe that this team will truly be better than last year, but let's get this straight right away, my reasoning has nothing, absolutely NOTHING to do with new assistant coach Tom Renney. Just so we're clear. But if we are being honest, I think that Edmonton was a train wreck at times last season but were good enough at times to make it a question of whether or not they'd be able to sneak in the playoffs. The biggest difference to this team, besides the new coaching staff is the addition of former elite goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Maybe I'm giving them too much credit for minimal changes, but I'll still be curious to see. Key Questions: What coaching style wins or gets the most credit for how the team turns out - Quinn's go-go-go or Renney's play-for-the-shootout snore fest?
Minnesota - EVEN
The Wild missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins last year. Looking to this year they have, for the first time in what seems like a hundred years, a coach that is not Jacques Lemaire. That alone is enough to make it impossible to guess where they'll end up. The oft-injured Gaborik is gone, and the oft-injured Havlat is in to take his place. I think this team has decent defense, and very strong goaltending, but it'll still be a question of how much they'll score. Although, much like with the Rangers, by default, if players are given the green light to go, they'll be better off in my opinion. Key Questions: Again, does Havlat, who is now, next to Mikko Koivu, the face of the offense, stay healthy and make the big impression we know he wants to?
Colorado - EVEN to WORSE
I don't know why everyone assumes that Phoenix will be the dead last time in the Western Conference this year. My votes on Colorado. Save getting a better goalie - Florida's Craig Anderson, tell me how this team got better? I love Matt Duchene - the kid is a trip; but I don't think he'll provide enough help to a team in dire need of...anything. The sad departure of long time staple and Captain Joe Sakic, means new leaders will have to emerge. I just don't see it being this year. Key Questions: Can Paul Stastny, a sensation as a rookie, rebound from last season's injury and be the leading scorer on this team?
San Jose - EVEN to BETTER
San Jose provides one of the most confusing teams to analyze. They have enough talent and they always play so convincingly - until it counts that is. Vancouver's Team1040 voted them one of the biggest busts of the last decade for their consistent superb regular seasons followed by disastrous departures from the post-season, none more embarassing than last year's journey - from President's Trophy to first round upset at the hands of Anaheim. Cheechoo and Michalek are gone, Marleau has had his Captain's C stripped, and Heatley is hoping Joe Thornton can help them both resurrect their careers in Northern California. Who's to say what will happen after, but I expect them to be one of the best in the West in the regular season; not that much has changed and Nabokov is still one of the elite goalies in the league. I'm keeping my eyes on personal favorite Manny Malhotra (and Jed Ortmeyer if he sees time with the big club). And this team in general because they are such a mystery to everyone, probably even themselves. Key Questions: How does the tandem of Thornton and Heatley fare? Will this team ever figure out how to get that "never say die" attitude when it really matters? If it's not an issue of talent, is it an issue of heart?
Anaheim - BETTER
I'm not a huge Ducks fan, and I don't know why. (Maybe perhaps Chris Pronger's departure will improve this just slightly?) I have always liked Giguere and Hiller really impressed me last year. Their defense should still be solid enough, but it's their offense that makes me shake my head in disbelief. Ryan, finally coming into his own with all the promise, with Getzlaf, who became a superstar out of nowhere it seems, and Perry. Add Lupul and Saku Koivu - tell me his reuniting with Selanne is not a good story, by the way. I'm rooting for the long time Habs Captain in his new colors even if they are not as pretty! This team is stacked. I see no reason why they won't be at the top of the conference. Key Questions: How will Koivu adapt to the West; he's been quoted as saying it is a different world even in the pre-season. Is Hiller now the true #1?
Los Angeles - BETTER
I greatly look forward every year to watching this team improve. Drew Doughty as a rookie last year, looked like he'd been running the powerplay for years. Scuderi will provide some much needed experience to this teams backline, coming over from a winning team. A lot of people are saying perhaps this is the Kings year to finally make a push to the postseason. I am crossing my fingers for them, but even if they fall short, I think they will definitely continue to improve and make it a real challenge. Key Questions: Kopitar's production has slowed but he's going to need to be a top scorer for this team - can he do it? Is Quick ready for the big time?
Phoenix - EVEN
My adoptive desert team. A team I want to see succeed more than almost any other. A team that my heart wants to tell me will excel because they have heart and talent and a young team full of kids who want to prove something to everyone. And because they have one of the BEST captains in the league, with more talent than he is credited for and one of the best attitudes I've ever seen. Yeah. I want them to do well. But I can't think with my heart; I have to try to be diplomatic here. What's good: this team was a playoff team until All-Star break last season and showed strong games against the powerhouse Sharks and Ducks. The bad: they couldn't hold onto the lead they had gained and finished the season scoring the 4th fewest goals in the league. I think Aucoin should help Jovo, Yandle, and Michalek provide some points from the defense. I think having guys like Upshall, Lombardi, and Prucha (sigh) for a full year will help to boost those goal totals. But I am just not sure that they are able to overcome all the emotional and on-ice difficulties. They are a young team and no one (seriously folks) should have had to endure what these players did last year, all summer, and still today. I'll be watching and rooting though, and hoping this team beats the odds. Key Questions: Does Bryzgalov regain his former solid play and be a necessary force for this team? Wlll Vrbata, who had a very impressive season with the team two years ago, come back after a dismal and disjointed last season in Tampa?
Dallas - EVEN
For my love and respect of Mike Modano, I hope this team is able to forget about everything that went wrong last year. From Turco forgetting how to play goal, to long-term injures to Morrow, Richards and Zubov, it was just all not good in Dallas from the start. (And no, the guy with the initials S.A. was not the one to blame). They have a new GM in Niewendyk nand a new coach in Marc Crawford, coming off a gig on HNIC. I'll be interested to see how the "coach only dogs can hear" will fair in the Lone Star State. Let's face facts though - this team can be very successful if a few things fall into place. If Turco plays like he did 2 seasons ago and if they stay healthy. They have the veteran tandem of Morrow and Modano, and plenty of talent to score with Ribeiro, Richards, and Eriksson. Their defense will be suspect, as for the first time in more than a decade Sergei Zubov will not be on their blueline. Even though he was oft-injured in most recent seasons, he is the type of player you take for granted and miss when he is gone(Trust me on this!). Key Questions: I've already kinda asked it - who steps up on defense for this team? Will the real Marty Turco please show up?
Detroit - EVEN
Despite some changes in player personnel, I never root against Detroit. For when I do, I find, I often look foolish. They never fail to have someone waiting in the wings (no pun intended) to step into one of the best systems in the league and be game ready. They came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup, again, and that was on an off year for the team and their best guy and leader Nick Lidstrom. There's nothing much I can say about them, except that until it is proven otherwise, Detroit is legit. Key Questions: Will rookie Ville Leino live up to the hype I keep hearing? Wlll the loss of Marian Hossa be as good a thing for Detroit as it was for Pittsburgh?
Nashville - EVEN to WORSE
I have always liked Nashville, and they always seem to hover around the same place - right around the 8th seed in the playoffs. Sometimes they get in, and have memorable playoff run-ins with San Jose, and sometimes they fall just short. Last year was one of the just short years. Their defense shone behind Shea Weber last year and Pekka Rinne impressed in nets. It's their offense that concerns me. JP Dumont, once always counted upon to come through, has watched his goal totals slip in recent seasons. I'll be curious to see how they do, but if I had to guess, this is not a year they make the playoffs or come as close as they had been. Key Questions: Is defense enough or will this be a LONG season in Tennessee?
Columbus - EVEN
My other once favorite adoptive team. Columbus pleased many, myself included, by finally making the playoffs for the first time in their existence last season. They then promptly, very promptly, exited in four games to division rival Detroit. Steve Mason made such strides to get this team where they were, but for Columbus to have moved on in the playoffs would have meant a stand-on-his-head situation from the young goalie. And it just didn't happen. But experience is a teacher and I think it was good they got the first steps of that to build on for this year. If Nash can regain his brilliant top form and bring his teammates along for the ride, there is no telling how high they'll go. Vermette was a nice addition last year. Huselius and Umberger had moments, but they'll need to do more. As a fan, I want to see how Filatov performs this year. Former Ranger Fedor Tyutin continues to impress, as many of us thought he would and I expect him to continue making strides every year. In a questionable move, team and fan favorite Manny Malhotra is gone in favor of Pahlsson, who will be paid more than Malhotra asked for. Bottom line: I think Columbus will go as far as Mason and Nash will take them. Key Questions: Just how far can Mason and Nash take them? Will Freddy Modin ever remain healthy enough to make a difference here like he did in Tampa once upon a time?
Chicago - EVEN to BETTER to ????
Well, once upon a time earlier this summer, I thought this team was going to be a Cup favorite. And they still may be. But an off-season of turmoil and whatever the heck you want to call it puts a lot more into question. The Kane saga disappeared (thankfully), but the rest of it remains. Marian Hossa was given a 12-year contract but will not start the season due to injury. The GM who built this team was let go, abruptly, to former Hawk Marty Havlat's extreme annoyance. They still have an overpaid Brian Campbell which is only the beginning of the salary cap concerns. And their win now or never goal is backstopped by a French goalie who cannot decide whether his last name is Hue-ay or Hue-T. Look, I love the Hawks and I love the story they wrote. I still believe they'll be very good. But I'm still curious how it all comes together. If it is win now at all costs, do they have all the pieces in place? Key Questions: The goalie known as Huet - is he the real deal? Can Kane put the off-season drama behind him and have as stellar a year as he did last season? In what shape will Hossa find this team when he joins them just early of the new year? Will he make the difference they think he will?
St. Louis - BETTER
I, with embarassment, must admit that I hardly ever watch the Blues. Common sense shows it's harder for me to watch games that start during the 8 o'clock hour because I'm already probably invested in some game going on in the East. My knowledge of St. Louis suffers for that. But, I do always silently wish well to John Davidson's team. And now Darren Pang has left the desert for Missouri as well, so chances are I'll be happy to turn on a game or two (Phoenix's loss is St. Louis' gain and I owe Panger a lot for being so willing to lay praise on Prucha when he joined the team at deadline). Back to the ice, it was only a matter of time before St. Louis got good. They had the young talent, we kept hearing about, but I don't think anyone would have predicted how good it would come together for them last year. A team of players where I only know most of them by where they came from before they got there, they were able to make huge strides despite injures to key players (Johnson and the golf cart, Legace and the carpet) and leapfrog over a few teams to take the 6th seed last spring. I still know hardly anything about them, but I know better than to root against a team that has Ty Conklin as their back up. (As I said before, his last two NHL teams lost in the Stanley Cup Final. But they made it to the Final!) Key Questions: Can Mason deliver for this team? How do Kariya and Johnson rebound from their injuries?
Okay, so that wasn't any shorter than last year. But, did you really believe me when I said I'd try? =) Without further ado, how it'll all shake out.
1) San Jose
7) St. Louis
Narrow misses to Columbus, Dallas, and Los Angeles, even though truth be told it's a big risk to have all three Western Canadian teams in the playoffs and to ignore how potentially good Dallas and Columbus can be if all goes right. But it's a risk I'm going to take. In fact, my only thought, as previously mentioned, is that I feel strongly that Colorado will end up last in the conference for a second year in a row.
But anything can happen, right?
Stay tuned for the Eastern Conference Predictions soon - which may just prove to be harder than I originally thought.