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NHL Western Conference Preview

Welcome back hockey fans! How great was it to see some real live regular season hockey last night? Tonight, the rest of the teams start their seasons. Here is the second half of the NHL season preview. Same rules as yesterday with a few different voices. As I said yesterday, I solicited contributions from a number of different bloggers, readers and commenters and all I asked was that the previews were around 100 words. (Most of them were.) With that in mind, here’s a look at the National Hockey League’s Western Conference.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Blackhawks by Souvenir City
Cap casualties caused the Blackhawks roster to jettison much of their Cup winning team from ’09-’10 whereas the past summer has been the exact opposite in Chicago. Steve Montador, Andrew Brunette, Sami Lepisto, Dan Carcillo, Shane O’Donnell and Jamal Mayers were all added to the roster this past summer. The Hawks are finally Stan Bowman’s team, even Dale Tallon’s mortal sin has been sent to Florida. The core of the team is still what matters and they’re entering their 3rd and 4th years together on this roster. Duncan Keith is going to be the crux for this team. Last season he was sub-par. The Hawks needs him to return closer to that Norris form from two years ago. Chicago is geared up for another Cup run and a long summer off should have them ready for it than last season. And as always, Pat Kane will still ensure hockey appears more often on this site. Usually he’ll be referenced as a “dickface.”

Columbus Blue Jackets by @CRM_Stephen
The Blue Jackets finished in 5th place last season. Unfortunately, it was in the division and not the conference. To help remedy their general awfulness, Columbus traded for center Jeff Carter and signed defenseman James Wisiewski. Both players are major upgrades. Carter playing alongside Rick Nash should prove to be a lethal scoring pair up front. Along with Wisiewski, they brought in Radek Martinek from the Islanders to help improve the defense. Much of Jackets’ success will depend on whether or not Steve Mason can return to the high level of play he exhibited a few years ago. When its all said and done, Columbus should still miss the playoffs, but climbing out of the basement is a real possibility.

Detroit Red Wings by @JHScramble
This is probably the premiere franchise in the NHL. For the past two decades this team has been a lock for the playoffs and has won 4 Stanley Cups. The Wings are again a playoff lock, but many are suggesting that the Championship window has closed. I don’t think that is the case, yet.  Granted, the Wings got bounced in the second round last year, but that was against a very good Sharks team in an extremely close and well played 7 game series. The retirements of Kris Draper and Chris Osgood should help the team improve. The signing of Ty Conlkin will provide a serviceable backup to Jimmy Howard and Mike Commodore should be a nice edition to the defense. The Wings play in a tough division, but should finish either in first or second place. 100 point season and a playing for a chance to make the conference finals sounds about right.

Nashville Predators by Wide Word of Sport
The Predators strengths (defense, goalies) and one glaring weakness (top end forwards) were very obvious this off season.  To address that weakness, GM David Poile drafted a goalie with his top pick, and traded away a promising young defender (Cody Franson) to rid themselves of Matthew Lombardi’s concussion.  They then were able to use that $14 million in cap space to antagonize Shea Weber into not signing a long-term contract, and allowing alternating fan whipping-boy and fan favorite Joel Ward to leave for Washington.   Despite all of this, they still have the top defensive pairing in the league in Weber/Suter, an elite goaltender in Pekka Rinne, and young defensive depth in 2011 OHL Player of the Year Ryan Ellis (starting 2011 in Milwaukee).   In addition, much of the forward depth behind the currently-injured Mike Fisher, and perennially underwhelming Martin Erat and David Legwand is a combination of young players trying to regain their form (Sergei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist) or up-and-comers/rookies with potential for a breakout season (Craig Smith, Blake Geoffriyon, Colin Wilson).  In the end, the lack of a 40- (or possibly 30-) goal scorer will hurt the team, but they certainly have the cap space to make a deal, so much like last year, the team you see in March should be very different (if not improved) from the team they’ll field this weekend.  Last year’s team won 44 games, but needed miraculous efforts from Rinne in almost all of them.   A defense-oriented team again, the Predators will win 42 games, and pull off a playoff upset as a 6th seed.

St. Louis Blues by Souvenir City
Not a whole lot went right for the St. Louis Blues in 2010-11. At one point they were missing six guys including Barrett Jackman, Roman Pollack, T.J Oshie and Carlo Colaiacovo to various injuries. Not to mention that Oshie was also suspended for missing a practice late in the season. David Backes was the one of two guys (MattD’Agostini) to play all 82 games for them last year and he put up a modest 61 points split evenly between goals and assists. That’s what $2,5M will buy you these days. Jaroslav Halak was acquired from Montreal but he disappointed in first season. The Blues and Jackets should both be better, one of them will likely make the West playoffs.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Calgary Flames by Jason Lisk
The Flames have finished with between 90 and 96 points each of the last four years, in the nether region between good and bad. They just missed the postseason two straight years, and have an aging core. The team, as it has been for much of the last decade, is still led by Jarome Iginla, going strong at age 34. The Flames got some bad news this week, as 22-year old center Mikael Backlund broke a finger and is expected to miss 6 weeks. Backlund was expected to move up to the first line with Iginla, and for now, David Moss will take that spot.  The other youngster the team will count on is 20-year old Czech Roman Horak, acquired in the Tim Erixon trade with the Rangers this offseason. Meanwhile, Mika Kiprusoff will be in goal again, which may not be a good thing. Kiprusoff’s .906 save percentage was the lowest among goalkeepers with at least 60 starts, and he’ll be 35 in October. If the Flames hope to just make the playoffs this time around, they will need the older players to stay healthy, get a spark from Backlund and Horak, and hope the goalkeeping is a little better in 2011-2012.

Edmonton Oilers by Geezus
The Oilers finished 2010-11 with a very young group of skilled forwards, a multitude of injuries and questions in goal. They begin this year with a younger group of skilled forwards, a multitude of injuries and questions in goal.  Watching Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi and the return of Ryan Smyth and his glorious mullet will provide some hope to fans in Edmonton who continue to fill the building on a nightly basis (really what else is there to do in Edmonton? Amirite?). The Oilers should climb out of last place in the league, a position they’ve occupied for the past 2 seasons, but signs point to this team once more finishing in the draft lottery. Heads will roll, Game of Thrones style, in the front office next summer.

Colorado Avalanche by @THeatOnward
The Avs season will boil down to two things: keeping players healthy and play between the pipes.  The team was second in the league with man – games missed to injury, and the inconsistency took its toll on the young talent. The goaltending will again be the hotspot as the team fortified its blueline in order to lower its 3.5 GAA from last year. The offensive talent is there, and there is a lot of room to improve off of their worst season since the move to Denver, but without consistent goaltending, it is hard to see how they will. Best Case Scenario: 7th seed and the customary Denver 1st round exit. Worst Case Scenario: Top 3 draft pick and Joe Sacco is looking for a new job. 

Minnesota Wild by Hawkeye
There have been a lot of changes this season for the Wild.  Todd Richards was let go after two years of mediocre results (having your team fall apart in the last couple months of the season will get you fired).  Then on draft night the Wild traded defenseman  Brent Burns to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle and the Sharks first round pick.  That trade wasn’t too surprising, but trading the unhappy Martin Havalt to the Sharks for Dany Heatly? That was.  Some folks (/glares at SC) think that Heatley will bring disruption to the locker room (as if Havlat didn’t).

The most important “addition” will be a healthy Guillaume Latendresse on the second line.  That will be important, since the Wild will actually have two lines that can score and perhaps even three if Clutterbuck, Powe and Brodziak score as well as they hit.  They’re going to have to score too, since the defense is a mess.  There are going to be more than a few chances given up by the defense corps, and it’ll be up to goaltenders Nicklas Backstrom & Josh Harding to stop them.  It could be rough.  Even with the shaky D, I think the Wild have a good chance of making the playoffs this year. Winning a series?  That’s another story.

Vancouver Canucks by Geezus
Let’s be perfectly honest, the Canucks will slice through the Northwest division like a hot knife through butter. General Manager Mike Gillis elected against making big changes following a disappointing game 7 loss at home to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final (who can forget this iconic photo) , instead looking to bolster the team’s depth.  The loss of Christian Ehrhoff to the Sabres in free agency may impact the power-play but expect big things from Alex Edler in an expanded role. The Canucks rested their key players during the pre-season in an attempt to ward off the dreaded Cup hangover, but injuries to Ryan Kesler (expected back near the end of October) and Mason Raymond (indefinite) will be felt early. Finally, there is Roberto Luongo. After a summer of difficult questions, how will he respond? My guess is with another Vezina Trophy nomination, but he will ultimately be judged by the post-season.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Dallas Stars, by @TheSportsHernia
The Dallas Stars finished 9th in the West last season with a record of 42-29-1, tragically falling short of the playoffs by just two points. I had always thought of this franchise as one of the bigger spenders, but over the last few years Stars’ ownership has unfortunately been financially embattled to the point they filed for Chapter 11 and currently reside slightly above the NHL’s salary cap floor. Even worse, gone are the pimping days of Stars legend Mike Modano (Googling “Mike Modano girlfriend” sure as hell sets a lofty tone), renowned ass archer Jason Arnott, and the king of completely intentional but unintentional scruff, Brett Hull. This saddens me to a certain degree, mostly because a great deal of my association with hockey players and their respective teams comes from video games, and since I no longer play video games I feel like I’m losing touch with the new breed. I’ll do my best to reconnect. By all accounts, the Stars are expected to fall off a bit from where they finished last year, but I have faith — perhaps blind faith — that the trio of Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and Brendan Morrow will allow to Dallas to at least smell the first round.

San Jose Sharks by Joey Sondag
With two high-profile offseason deals, the Sharks expect to remain strong contenders as they search for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. In moves that sent forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota for Martin Havlat and offensive-minded defenseman Brent Burns, the Sharks will have an increased physical presence at the blue line without surrendering too much of their high-powered offense.  With a supporting cast that includes recently signed veteran Michal Handzus and 2011 Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture, the Sharks are predicted to finish near or at the top of the Western Conference.

Anaheim Ducks by Stephen Douglas
Quack, quack, quack, Mr. Ducksworth. Sorry, had to get that out of my system. The most exciting thing about the Ducks is that they return one of the top lines in hockey in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and last year’s MVP Corey Perry. Scoring will be no problem for the Ducks, especially with their offensive-minded defensemen. It’s a lack of defensive-minded defensemen that will hurt Anaheim. That puts a lot of the pressure on goalie Jonas Hiller who was great last year before coming down with vertigo. If they stay healthy, they should a fun team to watch and make another run to the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings by Stephen Douglas
The Kings are coming off a first-round playoff exit and are expecting a big leap this season with the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. Their additions should solidify LA’s first two lines along with star Anze Kopitar. With defenseman Drew Doughty signed to a fresh 8-year, $56 million deal, they should find some stability on defense. Jack Johnson fulfilling his potential certainly wouldn’t hurt. In goal, the Kings boast a talented young duo of netminders who will compete for playing time in Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Or “The Two Jonathans” as they’re affectionately known around the LA club scene. Expectations are high in LA and a deep run isn’t hoped for – it’s expected.

Phoenix Coyotes by Stephen Douglas
With Ilya Bryzgalov in Philadelphia, the Coyotes turn to Mike Smith to stop the puck from entering the net. It’ll be quite the feat if Smith can stop the puck with the regularity of Bryzgalov. Phoenix will again rely on a strong defense to help Smith with that task. Keith Yandle has been solid and durable over the last couple years and will again lead the defense. Offense will be the major issue in the desert as Phoenix will again used a balanced, if underwhelming attack. It will take a stellar defensive effort by the Coyotes to make up for the loss of Bryzgalov and again reach the playoffs.

[Images via Getty]

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