NHL: Western Conference Crown Doesn’t Sing The Blues
With the NHL season kicking off Tuesday night, here are my predictions for the Western Conference as mentioned this past Saturday on Real Hockey Talk.
1) St. Louis Blues – Jaroslav Halak will bounce back in net, Jaden Schwartz will breakout offensively. A lot of depth throughout the roster, just need to be able to finish. The addition of veteran winger Brenden Morrow may seem like a minor addition at this point in Morrow’s career, but I believe the gritty veteran will add a lot to the team as well as his leadership will be very beneficial to the youngsters.
2) Chicago Blackhawks – The only player lost from last season’s cup winning team that they will miss is Michael Frolik and his terrific penalty killing ability. They will battle it out with the Blues for the Central title. I do believe there will be a minor cup hangover, but as the season goes along they will be right back to where they were last year, led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front. Tremendously deep on the back-end as well. The Hawks will have an excellent shot at being the first to repeat as cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.
3) Minnesota Wild – Goaltending can be a question and lack of overall depth, although in terms of up front, this team has a ton of youngsters looking to take the next step including Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Also look for veteran winger Dany Heatley to have a nice season statistically, as this is not only a contract year, but he appears to be healthy and in good shape.
4) Winnipeg Jets – While Ondrej Pavelec has been inconsistent in net for this club, this will be the deepest, most talented team he’s had to work with in terms of the Jets/Thrashers franchise. With youngsters like Mark Scheifele provding secondary scoring, this team will continue to improve and inch closer to a playoff spot. They aren’t quite there yet, but things are looking up for this franchise.
5) Dallas Stars – Bringing in Jim Nill as General Manger will put this organization back on the map. Are they ready for the playoffs? Not quite…unless everyone meshes quickly including new additions like Tyler Seguin. Watch for rookie winger Valerie Nichushkin to make not only an immediate impact, but be a Calder Trophy candidate as awarded to the league’s top rookie.
6) Nashville Predators – Despite having one of the top coaches in the NHL in Barry Trotz, a defensive core led by Shea Weber and now youngster Seth Jones, will this team be able to score enough to get back into playoff contention? Will Pekke Rinne get back on track in net? If so, this team will finish much higher. If not, then another season out of the playoffs is around the corner.
7) Colorado Avalanche – This team is without a doubt loaded with great young forwards led by captain Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and 2012 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon. That being said, where’s the defense? While new head coach, Patrick Roy will get on these guys to play up to their potential, there just isn’t enough on the backend and in goal for the Avs to make any significant strides in the standings…yet.
1) Los Angeles Kings – The addition of Matt Frattin should help improve secondary scoring. Anze Kopitar is primed for a big year offensively as is Jeff Carter. This is a very deep team both up front and on the back end. Losing “The Piece” Rob Scuderi will hurt, unless of course Willie Mitchell doesn’t miss a beat on the backend after missing all of last season due to a knee injury. Jonathan Quick is healthy from the get-go and will have an excellent shot at being a Vezina Trophy finalist as awarded to the league’s top goaltender.
2) San Jose Sharks – This team will battle it out with the Kings for the pacific division crown. Still very talented with a nice mix of veterans and youngsters. If Antti Niemi can play the way he did last season in net, this club will be a Stanley Cup contender. With Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all in the last year of their contracts, expect for all three to have solid seasons. Logan Couture is the top player on this team and the young forward will continue to only get better. Look out for rookie Tomas Hertl. The young Czech forward has a chance to step right in and perhaps be a Calder Trophy candidate.
3) Anaheim Ducks – While this team overachieved last season, there is still a lot to like. They still have nice top end players up front like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Despite trading Bobby Ryan, the Ducks got a nice return and the continued emergence of young forward Emerson Etem will help provide secondary scoring. Teemu Selanne is primed for another solid season in what appears to be his final NHL season. Both Viktor Fasth and Jonah Hiller provide the Ducks with a very strong duo between the pipes. The Ducks backend is not bad, but not up to par with the top teams out west.
4) Phoenix Coyotes – Ownership is settled! This will provide a tremendous lift. While Shane Doan is getting older, he did play injured last season and now that he has extra mobility back and the addition of center Mike Ribeiro, Doan should be in line for a 25 goal season. The key up front, just like last season is Ribeiro and Doan’s left winger, Mikkel Boedker. If the 23-year-old can break out offensively, that would be a huge lift to this club, that can already compete with anyone defensively. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is primed for a Norris Trophy caliber season as awarded to the league’s top defenseman and if Mike Smith can play the way he did two seasons-ago in net, the Coyotes should be back in the playoffs.
5) Vancouver Canucks – While new head coach John Tortorella would not have been my choice for this club, there is still enough top-end talent up front, depth on the blueline and if Roberto Luongo is on track- good enough goaltending for this club to make the playoffs. The Canucks window to contend for the cup appears to be closed or very close to it though.
6) Edmonton Oilers – This club can be one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. With youngsters like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov leading the way up front, the Oilers can no doubt put the puck in the net. The key question is net and on the backend. Can Devan Dubnyk be a legitimate number one goaltender? He has the ability, although he needs work on his mobility a bit and consistency. The Oilers backend is better with veteran and new team captain Andrew Ference joining the club as a free agent. The being said, there is still some work to do on the backend and perhaps in net before the Oilers are ready for that next step.
7) Calgary Flames – Jay Feaster….Enough said. 7th place here you come. That being said, the Flames do have some nice young players through out the organization now and perhaps within the next few seasons can slowly get back into contention. Slowly is the key word. This team needs to rebuild properly and it now finally appears they are on the right track. Yes, Jay Feaster needs to go at some point and I’m assuming within the next year he’ll be gone.
C1 Blues, C2 Hawks, C3 Wild
P1 Kings, P2 Sharks, P3 Ducks
WC1 Coyotes, WC2 Canucks
C1Blues vs. WC2 Canucks (Blues finish with the most points in the Western Conference).
C2 Hawks vs. C3 Wild
P1 Kings vs. WC1 Coyotes (Kings finish with the 2nd most points in the Western Conference).
P2 Sharks vs. P3 Ducks
C1 Blues vs. C2 Hawks
P1 Kings vs. P2 Sharks
Western Conference Final
Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Stanley Cup Final: Los Angeles Kings vs. (You’ll find out tomorrow when I give my eastern conference picks).