As promised I am following up my dark horse blog with my predictions blog. Very unique I know. No playoff predictions though, way too early for those. With that said, let’s start in the West.
1. San Jose Sharks: Probably the deepest team in the league. Tons of offensive skill led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo (the kids (Pavelski, Michalek, Setoguchi) ain’t half bad either). The blueline is solid if unspectacular although Hannan will be missed. Worst-case scenario though is Evgeni Nabokov going down, Patzold and/or Greiss will not carry the team like Toskala could.
2. Anaheim Ducks: Stanley Cup hangover will lead to a slight drop off and a second place finish in the division. Ducks still have one of the best bluelines in the league, despite Niedermayer’s supposed retirement, but Selanne’s loss may be a lot to overcome.
3. Los Angeles Kings: My dark horse pick. Kopitar and Cammalleri are just getting better and the Kings have the best blueline depth in the league. Bernier seems poised to achieved greatness immediately and is ready to play with the big boys. The Kings will surprise many.
4. Dallas Stars: Mike Modano isn’t the player of old and Brendan Morrow’s health is still a concern. The “Nens” (Jussi, Jere and Antti) will need to up their offensive output in order for the Stars to compete in the high-scoring Pacific. Bright spot is of course in goal with one of the better tandems in the league in Marty Turco and Mike Smith.
5. Phoenix Coyotes: It’s going to be a long year in the desert but one of promise. Gretzky and Co. are going to play the H, E, double hockey sticks out of Mueller and Hanzal, and will expect Michalek and Ballard to continue improving on the blueline. The goalie situation is a mess but the Dogs aren’t expecting much in the win column anyways.
1. Colorado Avalanche: 2007-08 will be a resurgent year for the Avalanche after missing the playoffs for the first time ever in Denver. They signed arguably the best shutdown defenseman available via UFA in Scott Hannan, and Ryan Smyth will ease some of the pressure off of the still dominant Joe Sakic. The goaltender situation isn’t great but it’s solid, enough for the Avs to restate their claim on the Northwest crown.
2. Minnesota Wild: This is a team that constantly flies under the radar but should be recognized as one of the league’s elite organizations. If the Wild can get even 90% of the effort and results they got from their goalies last year the playoffs are a lock, and if Marian Gaborik (57 points in 48 games) can stay healthy for an entire season expect to see his name on the Art Ross. The supporting cast is second to none and the Wild should cruise to a playoff berth.
3. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks need one thing: OFFENSE! The defensive side of the game is golden with Roberto Luongo in nets and a solid core of blueliners defending the home end. The problem is that the Sedins can’t do it alone. Naslund and Morrison need to return to their pre-lockout form because the Northwest will be a death struggle this year and the Canucks don’t want to be one of the casualties.
4. Calgary Flames: Iron Mike Keenan is back behind the bench and that can either be a very good thing (’94 Rangers) or a bad thing (’01-’03 Panthers). Luckily, the Flames talent level more matches the Rangers of lore than the Cats of Flor. (forgive the bad puns…), and the Flames should be highly competitive. However, the defense could be considered suspect and they STILL do not have a true #1 centre. But Iginla and Kiprusoff could single (or is that double) handedly lead this team to the post season.
5. Edmonton Oilers: A terrible end of the season led to a very interesting offseason. But did all the wheeling, dealing and stealing Kevin Lowe undertook do much good? Not in my eyes. For the Oil to make the playoffs Penner needs to over earn that huge paycheque, the defense has to overachieve on the defensive side of the puck (I’m looking at you Souray) and Garon needs to be able to capably fill in for Roloson who is going to need lots of time off. Unfortunately, there are too many variables and I see another long season in Edmonton.
1. Detroit Red Wings: The Wings pretty much stood pat over the offseason and that’s good enough to take the ugly duckling division of the West. Detroit will continue to feast on the points given to them with games against St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago (although the former and the latter will be more difficult this time ‘round). Zetterberg and Datsyuk are on track to become upper echelon scorers and Dominik Hasek continues to be Dominik Hasek even at 42.
2. Nashville Predators: Everyone is under the impression that the Preds were cleaned out over the summer but this is not the case. They still boast two solid scoring lines, a very good, young defense corps (anchored by the veteran de Vries), and a goalie in Chris Mason that showed he could handle the #1 role last year. Additions of Bonk, Ortmeyer and Gelinas improve the Preds defensive presence up front. Preds will slip in the standings from last year but they’ll easily make the playoffs.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: The future is bright in Chi-town. So bright that some serious strides towards respectability will be made this year. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will likely lead the charge in the Calder race and coupled with a hopefully healthy Martin Havlat, the Hawks offense is one of the tops in the West. The defense is young but more than capable, but the goaltending still remains suspect with Khabibulin yet to live up to his lofty contract status. Another playoff-less season is ahead but the fans may actually start to care again in Chicago.
4. St. Louis Blues: The Blues hope to carry over the success they achieved last year under Andy Murray into this year. They made a slight improvement on offense bringing in Paul Kariya. But beyond him they are still relying on the aging and production dropping Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight. Eric Johnson will make his long awaited debut but he alone won’t raise the Blues from the bottom half of the league in goals against or from the bottom sixth of the league in penalty kill. Manny Legace is a dependable backstop but he alone can’t carry the team. Another lost season for the Blues.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: I don’t get this team. On paper they have the talent to succeed, but beyond Rick Nash everyone underachieves. Zherdev is turning into a huge bust and Pascal Leclaire is an injury waiting to happen in goal. Adam Foote leads an improving defensive corps but they are still young and will be prone to many defensive breakdowns especially when faced with the high flying offense of other Western conference teams. Hopefully, with Ken Hitchcock behind the bench and Scott Howson as GM this will be an identity forging, turnaround season for the Jackets, although another finish in or close to the basement is in the cards.
Western Conference Standings
1. Detroit Red Wings
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Colorado Avalance
4. Anaheim Ducks
5. Minnesota Wild
6. Nashville Predators
7. Vancouver Canucks
8. Calgary Flames
9. Los Angeles Kings
10. Chicago Blackhawks
11. Dallas Stars
12. Edmonton Oilers
13. St. Louis Blues
14. Columbus Blue Jackets
15. Phoenix Coyotes
Agree? Disagree? Let me know!
Back tomorrow with the Eastern conference picture!