Saturday, October 11, 2014

NHL Preview: 2014-15 Season: Western Conference

Almost every team in the NHL has improved this off-season, whether by adding players from other teams (via trades or free agency), or promoting younger talent in-house. Talent-wise, the NHL has never been better. Which means that while some teams may have improved, they could still drop in the standings because the opposition got even better. This is the case in the West, what with the veritable arms race at the center position this summer.

Western Conference:

The Central Division:

1. Chicago Blackhawks

One of the two best teams in the league - with the Los Angeles Kings, both vying for ''dynasty'' status - although Chicago usually has better regular seasons. This is the last season before Jonathan Toews' and Patrick Kane's monster contracts kick in and may force the team to liquidate more assets than just Nick Leddy, so this might be their last ''window'' to a Stanley Cup... though with their development system, I can see them contend after a short two-year ''experience-building'' drought. Corey Crawford is a top-10 goalie. The defense corps is second to only the Kings'. Having the choice between Brad Richards and Teuvo Teravainen to center the second line is a luxury no other team - save L.A., again - has.

2. St. Louis Blues

As it was last season, this is Ken Hitchcock's Moment Of Truth with the Blues, except this time they attempt to win with Brian Elliott manning the net rather than Jaroslav Halak - a step back. Except they have finally brought in a legitimate #1 center in Paul Stastny, slotting David Backes where he should be, at #2. The rest of the cast is similar to last year, with the Big Three of Alex Pietrangelo (now paid like a Norris winner), Kevin Shattenkik and Jay Bouwmeester (three 2014 Olympians) on defense, and Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen to help Stastny out up front. I predict another strong showing in the regular season, but the West is so competitive that they won't make it far in the playoffs.

3. Minnesota Wild

If the Wild didn't have so many question marks in net (Josh Harding's health, Niklas Backstrom's consistency because of health and age, Darcy Kuemper's lack of experience, Ilya Bryzgalov waiting in the wings), I might have been tempted to slot them in first place. Adding Thomas Vanek to an already-scary and proven top-6 (Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niedereiter) makes for an offense that very well could finish first in the league in scoring. Their defense is steady, and any one of the kids they have down in the AHL could fit on their bottom pairing - and the same can be said for the 12 guys that could play on their third line, let alone the fourth. The Wild are the deepest team in the league.

4. Dallas Stars

The Stars moved from just outside the playoff picture to second-round playoff talk just by hiring Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky (a.k.a. last season's top line for the Ottawa Senators) to their second line, behind Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. It wouldn't even matter who the other wingers were if they weren't Valeri Nichushkin (a first-line talent) and Antoine Roussel (a bruising winger who could develop into a 30-goal, 100-PIM power forward). Their defense isn't as proven as the top three in their division (Sergei Gonchar is particularly long in the tooth), but Kari Lehtonen is a world-class goalie - provided he stays healthy.

5. Colorado Avalanche

The Avs surprised a lot of observers by winning their division last year, but they will not be able to repeat. Not because ''advanced statistics'' will bring them back to earth, nor because they lost Paul Stastny - Nathan MacKinnon will replace him in no time. Semyon Varlamov will have another terrific season, and Tyson Barrie will keep improving as their leader on defense. Adding veteran help in the form of Jarome Iginla and Daniel Brière will also help Alex Tanguay steer youngsters Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog in the right direction. Ryan O'Reilly might be on his way out, but even that's not a deterrent. It's just that all teams will be prepared for the Avalanche now, and Patrick Roy's squad will take no one by surprise; that, and the fact that the division leaders are so strong will relegate the Avs to ''wild card'' status... which is fine, and probably perfect for Roy, who will use their ''underdog'' status as a motivational tool come playoff time.

6. Nashville Predators

The Preds are the most improved team in the West, because they went from having Mike Fisher as their #1 center to slotting both Mike Ribeiro (an All-Star-caliber pivot) and Derek Roy (who might no longer be the player he once was) ahead of him. And how do you help a pure passer and playmaker like Ribeiro? By giving him 40-goal man James Neal (Evgeni Malkin's former linemate) to play with. That, to me, sounds like two guys producing 70 points each that weren't there last year. Add that to a superb defense corps led by Shea Weber (perhaps the most well-rounded defender in the game) and Seth Jones, and a comeback performance by Pekka Rinne and, should the Blues falter, the Preds could move up in these standings.

7. Winnipeg Jets

Ondrej Pavelec's game has fallen a lot, but even if he suddenly stopped 92% of all pucks going his way again, the Jets just aren't deep enough to even put a dent in the strongest division in hockey. Andrew Ladd's a fine leader, Dustin Byfuglien's a force wherever he plays, Evander Kane is a sniper (though troublesome at times, and he might not finish the season in Winnipeg) and Blake Wheeler is a legitimate top-line winger. Mark Scheiffle might turn into something, but even then, that's the extent of their offense. The team's strength is on D, with Byfuglien, Tobias Entrom, Jacob Trouba, Zach Bogosian, and Mark Stuart. They might need to trade one of them to improve their offense, and another to solve their goaltending issues.

The Pacific Division:

1. Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks got younger by allowing/forcing Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu to retire.They may have solidified their second line for the present by trading Nick Bonino for (the oft-injured) Ryan Kesler, and Dany Heatley's a cheap gamble to complement Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on the top unit. Can youngster Cam Fowler run the defensive unit for a top contender? Can the young tandem of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson get the job done in nets? Can coach Bruce Boudreau get enough out of this team to finish atop their division? I believe the answer to those questions is ''yes''. Are they / can he make them Stanley Cup contenders? No.

2. San Jose Sharks

Let me copy and paste my intro to last year's post: ''I could totally live in a world without the San Jose Sharks. Even the Stanley Cup wouldn't see a difference.'' This is probably the year they implode for good. In a weak division, though, they can still finish second - in the regular season.

3. Los Angeles Kings

For once, I'm not worried about the Kings' offense, what with Marian Gaborik playing with Anze Kopitar. A healthy Gaborik gives you 40 goals, an injured one rests for the playoffs - I see that as win-win. Superstars Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick have a habit of half-coasting through the regular season and turning the switch on come playoff time, and two Cups in three years with a Conference Finals in between them tells me that could be the right thing to do. It'll mean cold sweats to their 25,000 fans from January to April (they have no idea hockey starts in October, either), but another Conference Final finish in June will forgive all.

4. Edmonton Oilers

This is the year the Oilers almost make the playoffs, probably losing out to the Avalanche in the wild card race, by a point or two. Their offense is stacked, their goaltending in finally stable, their defense and breakout will vastly improve, and they've added expensive experience in free agency, with Cup winners and finalists to lead the way. The Great Leap Forward has begun.

5. Calgary Flames

I like how they're rebuilding, I like Jonas Hiller in nets, I like that despite their brand of truculence, they still kept the diminutive Johnny Gaudreau to woo the fans, I like having Bob Hartley around to teach the kids how to play, I love Mikael Backlund and the slew of talented forwards in the pipeline. This will be a fun team to watch in the playoffs... two years from now.

6. Vancouver Canucks

John Tortorella
wasn't everything that was wrong with this team. Not having up-and-comers to fill in for the aging players getting injured was mostly it, coupled with the worst-trading GM of his generation. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin still have some magic left in them, and Alexandre Burrows still has gas in the tank; the uneven Radim Vrbata will score 30 and still frustrated fans, and the defense will miss 200-man-games to injury. What sinks this team is, essentially, the trade-off in nets: present-day Ryan Miller is no Roberto Luongo. I'm not even sure he's better than backup Eddie Lack.

7. Phoenix Coyotes

''The Seattle Portland Québec Phoenix Arizona franchise isn't done going through harsh times.'' I wrote that last year when I predicted they'd finish 6th in their division. They'll contend for last-place overall - in the NHL - this season. If the bottom teams could be relegated to the AHL like certain European leagues do, the Coyotes would be fighting it out with the Jets (ironic, isn't it?) and Carolina Hurricanes to stay alive... and they might lose. Beyond Mike Smith, Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, all I see are question marks, some I don't mind (Sam Gagner, Antoine Vermette, Mikkel Boedker), others I'd avoid at all costs (Martin Hanzal, Shane Doan's age, Martin Erat).

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

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