I spoke about the Red Wings in the last entry, but now it’s time to take a ppek at the rest of the Western Conference. For the most part, the teams seem to be improving. There are a few teams to note though.
Lots of folks have been hanging on San Jose to be the all-out favorite this year, having brought in defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat from Minnesota. I’m not exactly convinced that Burns will be the missing piece. After dealing Ian White to Detroit, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to Minnesota, the Sharks have lost several prominent players. I think it would have been better if Todd McLellan had reorganized the lines completely, which may have produced some better chemistry rather than jumping to trades. Havlat’s a decent forward, but he’s not the sniper that Setoguchi is. There will most definitely be a period of adjustment as these new faces figure into the patterns, but I find it tough to agree with the predictions that the Sharks will finally hoist the Cup after 20 years with this new crop.
The team to watch out for in the Western Conference is the Los Angeles Kings. They have been consistently improving since finishing last in 2007-2008. They gave the Sharks a run for their money before being knocked out in the quarterfinals. A solid corps of forwards returns in Dustin Brown, Simon Gagne, Anze Kopitar, and Jarret Stoll. Add to that Flyers center Mike Richards and all of a sudden, the Kings are rolling three solid scoring lines. Jonathan Quick returns in net as well, quickly becoming the face of this team. Thankfully they were able to come to terms with blueliner Drew Doughty to keep the defense core strong. As long Quick stays on top, and the Kings forwards can meld together for plenty of goals, I predict the Kings will advance even further in the playoffs this season, much to the surprise of the rest of the Conference. They certainly have the cap space to make some additions, too $9.4 million dollars is a LOT of money, and with several players entering contract years, the Kings upper management has a lot of options ahead of them.
I still like Vancouver too. Let’s not forget the Runner-Ups from last season. Not a whole lot of big moves for the Canucks this summer, with the exception of shuffling Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo. However, recall last season’s playoffs where the Canucks saw half their defense sidelined with injuries. While they still had Ehrhoff, Vancouver was still able to come within one game of the winning it all. The Sedins, Samuelsson, Higgins, Burrows, Edler, Bieksa, Luongo…they’re all back. And once Ryan Kesler joins up again after hip surgery and his antics in the world of burlesque, he’ll have just as much grit and determination as ever. And with 2 million dollars in the bank, they can certainly grab someone else at the trade deadline to fill any holes
Chicago’s worth mentioning too. Last year they had a string of injuries at varying points in the season which hampered their chances. A couple notable additions for the Hawks this season, like Dan Carcillo and Sami Lepisto. Lepisto was a good pick for Chicago, and will see a lot of action on the blue line. I liked the way he played in Phoenix and hopefully those skills will translate. I’m not so sure about Carcillo though. Granted, the Hawks needed to add some more grit to protect their boat load of elite scorers, but they could have done better than Carcillo. Joel Quenneville should run a few extra drills with the penalty killing units to prepare for the “splash” Carcillo will make. It’s not the Broad Street Bullies anymore, where he was in good company, so there will be a period of adjustment. I doubt he’ll last much longer than the one season he’s signed on for. The Hawks need to stay healthy, Corey Crawford needs to improve a bit more, and the special teams need to step up if the Hawks want to advance again. They’ll probably dip into their $3.4 million cap space sooner rather than later.
So at the beginning of the 2011-2012 Season, here’s how I predict things will shape up in the West.
Los Angeles Kings
Detroit Red Wings
San Jose Sharks
Columbus Blue Jackets
St. Louis Blues
I’ll revisit these predictions at the All-Star break as I see how things develop.