Ok, I know, it’s not an original concept for a blog post but I still want to get my predictions on record before the season starts. Feel free to disagree about any of my choices. Anything can change between now and the end of the regular season, injuries and trades for example but I’ll still stand by these. Today I post the West and the East will follow later this week.
1. Chicago – A young team rapidly earning their stripes finally passes the Red Wings in the tough Central. Christobal Huet will have to step up and replace the departed Nikolai Khabibulin in net but with such a talented group in front of him he should be good enough to backstop this team to a #1 seed in the West. The real question will be how far they can go in the playoffs.
2. Anaheim – I like the off-season additions of Saku Koivu, Nick Boynton, Joffrey Lupul and most recently Evgeni Arthukin. This team has two good scoring lines, two starting-caliber goaltenders and a defense that returns perennial Norris Trophy candidate Scott Niedermayer and will get a full season from Ryan Whitney and James Wiesnewski. This is a team with no discernible holes and after upending the #1 seed Sharks in last year’s playoffs the Ducks should be primed for a long run in this year’s playoffs.
3. Calgary – The Flames will barely hold off the Canucks in what should be one of the more interesting divisions in the NHL. The Flames have added stud defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and checking forward Fredrik Sjostrom to an already impressive lineup that includes Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Reghyr. If Jokinen bounces back from a tough season and Miika Kiprusoff is consistently solid in net, I see the Flames coming out on top in the Northwest and thus earning the automatic top 3 seed.
4. Detroit – Despite the losses of Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler, the Red Wings are still capable of taking the conference again. I just feel that after two long playoff runs and a couple of significant losses, the Wings won’t be able to hold off the Hawks for Central division supremacy this year. The Wings have to hope that Goaltender Chris Osgood plays better than he did last year as veteran back-up Ty Conklin left for St. Louis as a free agent. The team added Patrick Eaves, Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams to help offset the losses of Hossa and Hudler. With Lidstrom and Rafalski leading the charge from the back line and Franzen, Datsyuk and Zetterberg up front the Wings remain in good position.
5. San Jose – The Sharks fall off a little and lose the Pacific Division crown to the Ducks this year but that may not be such a bad thing if the last longer in the playoffs. The Sharks went the other route last season and took the top seed in the West before bowing out to the #8 seeded Ducks. Way too much talent on this roster to not make the playoffs but I think many Sharks fans were expecting something a little more radical this off-season after such a disappointing playoffs last year. They have been rumored to be pursuing Heatley but nothing yet. I don’t think it’ll matter much to Sharks fans how the fare in the regular season as long as they qualify for the playoffs. It will be their play in the postseason that will be closely scrutinized.
6. Vancouver – The recent additions of Defensemen Mathieu Schneider via free agency and Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich in a trade with San Jose, the Canucks feel they have adequately replaced the loss of veteran Mattias Ohlund to Tampa in free agency. With Kevin Bieska, Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo, Shane O’Brien and youngster Alexandre Edler already in the fold the Canucks are deeper than they were last year defensively and can withstand the type of injuries that robbed the team of Bieska and Salo for stretches last year. They have one of the best in net with Luongo so no problems there. What keeps the Canucks from overtaking the Flames is their lack of scoring depth up front. Apart from the Sedins the team has some nice players but no one to really take the scoring pressure off.
7. Columbus – Back-to-back playoff berths for this once moribund franchise has to make the fans of the Blue Jackets happy. They have a premier forward in Rick Nash, a real up-and-comer in net with Steve Mason and some nice complementary pieces up front in veteran checker Sami Pahlsson, young stud Center Darrick Brassard and key role players like Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger. The Jackets are lacking on the defensive end with only Fedor Tyutin and Mike Commodore performing up to par last year. Another offensive minded defenseman would be a welcome addition and could put the Jackets in position to challenge the Wings for the 4th seed.
8. Los Angeles - I am guilty of drinking the kool-aid; I believe that the Kings will finally get back to the playoffs after many years out. So much young talent and they will finally start to gel in the second half of the season and the Kings will pass the St. Louis Blues and take the 8th spot in the West. Granted it will all end quickly in the playoffs at the hands of the Hawks but this will be a big step in the ascension of the L.A. Kings. Jonathan Quick will finally provide the Kings with consistent play between the pipes and the young defense will improve to the point where the Kings will be in most every game.
9. Dallas – A return to health for key forwards Brendan Morrow and Jere Lehtinen will help catapult the Stars back into the playoff picture though the Kings will beat them out in the final days of the regular season. An improved Marty Turco will also elevate the team from afterthought to contender in the West. The real key however may be the young defense. With Sergei Zubov leaving Dallas for the KHL, young players like Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen and Niklas Grossman to carry the load.
10. St. Louis - As I foreshadowed in a previous prediction the Blues will finish just short of a second consecutive playoff berth. They had a real bounce-back season and a great second half propelled them to the playoffs last year. Unfortunately they didn’t do enough in the off-season to build upon last year’s success. A return to health by Erik Johnson will help but he probably won’t be at full strength to begin the season. Eric Brewer could potentially miss a big chunk of the season leaving some holes on the blue line. Offensively the team has some nice pieces but it won’t be enough in the end.
11. Edmonton – After being spurned by Dany Heatley in the off-season, the Oilers head into the coming season looking much like they did ending last season; young and improving but not quite playoff ready yet. The addition of Khabibulin in net will be an upgrade but the Oilers would need a number of young forwards to improve significantly in order to realistically have a chance at the playoffs. Heatley would have made them a contender for a lower seed.
12. Minnesota – After years of moderate success under the direction of the architect of the notorious “trap”, the Wild have changed course after firing GM Doug Riseborough and watching Jaques Lemaire take his bag of tricks back to New Jersey. New coach Todd Richards plans to install a more fast-paced and offensive-minded attack. Franchise stalwart Marian Gaborik left the Wild and signed with the Rangers and he was replaced by another oft-injured forward Martin Havlat. With slow plodders Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan expected to be important cogs up front it’s hard to imagine that Richards offensive transition will be seamless.
13. Nashville – GM Dave Poile and Coach Barry Trotz have done a stupendous job of keeping the medium market Preds competitive in a tough division. Unfortunately it will be another year outside of the playoff bubble in Nashville. While the Preds boast one of the best blue line groups in the NHL, they are thin up front and must rely heavily on youngster Pekka Rinne in goal. They could surprise but all indications are that they will not qualify for the playoffs this season.
14. Colorado – Thank goodness for Phoenix or Hamilton or whatever they are going to be. Otherwise it would be the Avalanche bringing up the rear in the West. The Avalanche do have a couple of bright spots; Center Paul Stastny and…….well maybe that’s about it until Matt Duchesne makes his Colorado debut. They have serious holes in net and have an aging blue line. Not much to look forward to in Denver.
15. Phoenix – Yes, they have more young talent than Colorado. And yes they also are in better shape in net but with all of the drama surrounding the sale and the potential move of the franchise I find it unlikely that Phoenix will finish anywhere other than last in the West. As a fan of hockey, I hope that the ownership situation clears up and the team can begin to move forward so some of the young talent can mature and help this franchise contend at some point.