Friday, October 4, 2013

2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Western Conference

In the second part of my NHL Preview series, I'll take a look at the Western Conference, where the new playoff rule for the final two spots could very well apply.

Western Conference:

The Central Division:

1. Chicago Blackhawks

I usually never pick a reigning Stanley Cup champion to finish first in their division the following year, mostly because of fatigue - and also because they usually lose key components of their team to free agency. But not only are the Hawks' key pieces under long-term contract, they're also playing in the weakest conference in the league - they won't coast through thanks to St. Louis and L.A., but their high-end talent and depth is unmatched in the West while Pittsburgh and New York will face each other much more often.

2. St. Louis Blues

This is Ken Hitchcock's Moment Of Truth with the Blues, a well-balanced team of players in their peak years. They'll don't need Jaroslav Halak to steal games, but he will - that's what he does. The defense is among the best in the league, led by the Big Three of Alex Pietrangelo (now paid like a Norris winner), Kevin Shattenkik and Jay Bouwmeester. Built a bit like the Boston Bruins in that there are no superstars on offense but instead will score by committee, they don't have Boston's grit nor the same level of abilities - where the Bruins boast six possible 60-point players, the Blues have five guys capable of reaching 45-to-50. But they like to win 2-1 or 1-0, and they will.

3. Minnesota Wild

The Wild have built themselves a team that can contend right now with a strong leadership group that includes captain Mikko Koivu, former New Jersey captain Zach Parise, and former Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville - all of whom are potential Olympians. The future's also pretty much guaranteed, with the best stable of prospects at the AHL level. Ryan Suter could use some help on defense, and both goalies are question marks when it comes to health but the Wild remains a fine team.

4. Colorado Avalanche

How can a team of talented attackers, an iffy defense and questionable goaltending be ranked 4th in their division? One reason is how weak that division is, the other is the fact that first-year head coach Patrick Roy can teach an AHLer to contain an NHLer any day of the week - but offense has to come naturally. And the Avs have plenty of that, perhaps enough to trade either Ryan O'Reilly or Paul Stastny for help on the back end near the trade deadline, though it may not prove necessary. I've heard people wonder aloud about André Benoit as a 3rd/4th D - but Roy saw a lot of him in the past few seasons as an RDS contributor and analyst in Montréal (which he did between coaching games with his Québec Remparts of the LHJMQ), and he liked what he saw. Expect other coaches not to like Roy, he'll get under their skin a lot, save for perhaps 5 of them.

5. Dallas Stars

All the talk is about Tyler Seguin, and while he will likely be a point-per-game player for nearly ten seasons, it would be wrong to build around him; he's more a ''piece of the puzzle'' guy than ''big picture'' player. Jamie Benn looks like he got the call to be the face of the franchise, and I think he's a year or two removed from being able to consistently put points on the board, but rookie Valeri Nichushkin will lend a much needed hand. Shawn Horcoff and Ray Whitney will be fine leaders for the kids to look up to, and in a couple of years, the Stars could contend. In the meantime, they'll be a playoff-bubble team. They'll likely make it this year on the strength of their powerplay (which should crack the league's top-10) and because their conference is so weak.

6. Nashville Predators

As always, the defense will be impressive and hard to beat. And, as always, goals will come at a premium - on both sides of the ice. I love Mike Fisher, but he shouldn't be anyone's first-line pivot at this point in his career. Rookie Filip Forsberg could very well finish first in team scoring, followed by stud defenseman Shea Weber and... rookie defender Seth Jones. Yeah, it's that bad.

7. Winnipeg Jets

I don't expect coach Claude Noel to last until Halloween, and he may have won less than five games at that point, though it's not entirely his fault: GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has built this team going half-way on exactly what you should do (through the draft and patch up through fee agency), and half-way exactly what you should never do - overpay to retain your current top players although they have led you to the bottom, thus preventing direct position-by-position immediate improvement. Most GMs aren't stupid enough to downgrade their rosters via trade on purpose, yet the Jets have painted themselves into a corner, with a really awful colour to boot.

The Pacific Division:

1. Los Angeles Kings

How little do I think of this division? I'm guessing a team that has trouble scoring more than two goals per game will win it. Jonathan Quick is one of the two best goalies in the world, so stopping pucks won't be an issue;  Slava Voynov dislodged Drew Doughty as the #1 defenseman, but that just makes him better, not Doughty worse. The trouble with the Kings is Anze Kopitar should always get ore than 75 points, Dustin Brown should get 30 goals and 200 PIMs, and the second line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter should be just as productive. Often, they're not. But the Kings are jusdged on their playoff success anyway, and they're Cup contenders for sure.

2. Vancouver Canucks

Why second? I don't know. The Sedins still work their magic, Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kesler are dynamic role players with a finishing touch, Roberto Luongo will lead Canada at the Olympics, John Tortorella is a fine tactical coach despite his temper... I guess I just don't feel the defense as well as I used to. It's porous, and no longer as productive. Their window is closing fast.

3. Edmonton Oilers

A worthy coach to show the uber-talented youngsters how to play a better all-around game, three point-per-game players, a 35-goal man in Jordan Eberle, and the year Devan Dubnyk proves his critics wrong all make for a stong showing this year. The addition of Andrew Ference on defense will help a lot.

4. San Jose Sharks

I could totally live in a world without the San Jose Sharks. Even the Stanley Cup wouldn't see a difference. This is the year where we realize just how old Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle really are.

5. Anaheim Ducks

I like the Ducks. I love Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne; I usually draft Ryan Getzlaf in my hockey pools and I wish François Beauchemin had never left the Montréal Canadiens. But I still have to face the fact that they're an injury or two of being dead-last in their division. These are the years to rebuild, to have a contender when John Gibson will be ready to take the mantle as #1 goalie.

6. Phoenix Coyotes

The Seattle Portland Québec Phoenix franchise isn't done going through harsh times. Past Mike Ribeiro, no one is worthy of first-line status on that team; past Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, no defenseman deserves to be an opening night roster NHLer. Brace yourself, Mike Smith, it'll be a long 6 years.

7. Calgary Flames

The Flames desperately needed to rebuild. But they should have planned it earlier,, and allowed Jarome Iginla and  Miikka Kiprusoff to retire as Flames more gracefully, all the while preparing the next generation to take over. As it stands, they lost both with very little in return, and no one's ready to take the mantle. Bob Hartley will lose his hair and his cool all winter long with this team, one I'm surprised actually reached the cap floor.

The playoff picture:
Los Angeles (1B) - Colorado (7)
Vancouver (2) - Edmonton (3)
Chicago (1A) - Dallas (8)
St. Louis (2) - Minnesota (3)

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