Last season, 14 teams had a legitimate go at the post-season up through the final month of the season. With so much parity in the West, we could be looking at a huge turnover in playoff participants, or we could be looking at the same 8 again next year. Even the Avalanche can't be written off. Here's our best guess at what to expect when it all shakes down next April:
• No reason to believe the Sharks, Red Wings, or Blackhawks are going anywhere.
• The Flames and Ducks represent the middle of the pack and should qualify
• That leaves us the challenge of filtering out 3 remaining spots from 10 qualified teams
The Avalanche was the model franchise for their first decade in Colorado. The last three years have been a steady decline (paralleling the end of Sakic's career). Now that Sakic is officially gone, it's time for the team to regroup and start over. While the Avalanche will be more competitive next season with a healthy Stastny back in the lineup, they're still not going to have enough to get back into the mix for a playoff spot.
Many fans and writers out there will write off last season's dismal performance because of the rash of key injuries. While this may be true, it doesn't mean things will magically be right again this fall. Zubov is still gone, Modano is still old, and Turco is still inconsistent. The team is working with a restricted budget, something they didn't have to face when they were a Western Conference power years ago. While they may flirt with the top 8 at times, in the end, they won't have enough to qualify.
The Oilers are a tough bunch to read from year to year. When they do manage to sneak into the playoffs, they always seem dangerous. The team is built on speed, both up front and in the back, and with the addition of Khabibulin, they just might be good enough to qualify. Problem is, there are so many other teams in the same boat and someone has to lose out. Count on the Oilers just missing the cut.
Seems like everyone in the Central Division continues to get better. Except for one team. The Predators have been right on the playoff bubble for years now, but this season, it will be harder than ever for the team to find their way into the top 8. The other 4 teams in this division are just too strong.
It's hard to leave this team out of the mix. They could easily finish first in their division, and they could just as easily finish last. The moves they made in the offseason are basically a wash between what was gained and what was lost, so no help there. The biggest difference may be in the promised style of play under a new regime. If nothing else, they should be more fun to watch. But will that result in a higher GAA, and more importantly, less wins? They'll be in it 'til the end.
The Kings have been promising better days ahead for almost a decade now. The continuous rebuilding project has left hockey fans skeptical that it will ever get better. Until they actually break through, it's not worth getting your hopes up yet again.
Yes, they won their division last year, so how could they possibly slide out of the playoffs one year later? Remember, they won their division by 2 points, and for the past several years, that division has been the tightest. The Canucks still lack anything resembling offense not named Sedin. Not nearly enough scoring power to be a contender. Add to that the loss of Ohlund, and they're a good a bet as any to miss the cut.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are getting better by the day. They finally made their way back into the playoffs last season after several years off, and there's not reason to believe they will take a step back this season. The Blues may actually be good enough to battle for home ice advantage in 2010. Don't forget, they'll be getting Eric Johnson back this fall.
The one new team entering the mix in 2010 could be the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes were primed for a playoff spot as late as February last season, only to tank down the stretch. Off the ice, they have everything working against them, but on the ice, this team features a host of up and coming offensive stars. Their goaltending is solid and their defense will be enough to get them in. Now actually winning a series for the first time ever is another story...
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were thrilled to participate in the postseason for the first time last April, although it didn't last long. It will be a challenge for them to make it back again this season. The team continues to grow and improve, but there's nothing that sets them apart from 5 other teams in the same category. Expect a three way race between the Jackets, Canucks and Wild down the stretch. Best bet is Mason and Nash will bring this team back for a 2nd try next spring.
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