Drop the Puck: NHL Western Conference Preview
With the 2010-2011 National Hockey League season opening on October 7, it is time get you ready for the upcoming season. The NHL’s Western Conference features some powerful teams, including three of the past four Stanley Cup championships, headlined by last year’s Cup winner, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks, having been purged of much talent in the off-season due to salary cap restrictions, are still a legitimate threat to repeat but a whole host of teams are on their tails (or tail feathers). The Vancouver Canucks seem poised to compete, as are the always dangerous Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings. Is there a new team lurking in the shadows?
Keep your eye on the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, all these teams are young and hungry, and could make some noise in the spring.
Best of the West
1. San Jose Sharks
Projected Finish (First, First in the Pacific)
Scoring depth. Not only do the Sharks possess centers Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski, but right winger Dany Heatley is a terror on the power play and he scored 18 goals on the PP last season.
Defense. Other than Dan Boyle, the blue line corps do not strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. Who from the group of Doug Murray, Kent Huskins, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Niclas Wallin will emerge? Perhaps young D Jason Demers will make a big leap in his second year.
How do you make two Fins happy with one net? That is the question that Sharks management and coach Todd McLellan will have to answer as they try to solve who will be their starter – Antti Niemi (from the Chicago Blackhawks) and Antero Nittymaki (from the Philadelphia Flyers).
With 113, 117, 108, and 107 wins in the past four seasons, the Sharks have tasted much regular season success but the playoffs have been a different story. Marleau, Thornton, Boyle, and the bunch need to shed their underachieving ways. Maybe Niemi will be the difference, or maybe more heart ache will be in store in San Jose.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Projected Finish (Second, First in the Northwest)
Roberto Luongo. The Canuck won 40 games, with a 2.57 GAA, and 4 shutouts and, as he is still in his prime, he can be counted on for more of the same in 2010-2011. Offense. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, are special but the Canucks possess players such as Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson, Ryan Kesler, and Mason Raymond who can be counted on for 25-30 goals. Off-season acquisitions Dan Hamhaus and Keith Ballard bolster a tough defense, possibly the best in the NHL.
Are there any weaknesses? Hamhaus and Ballard, two tough defensive-minded defensemen solve the biggest deficiency on the team. Injuries sidelined Daniel Sedin for nearly 20 games and his return should provide that scoring winger his brother missed during the stretch.
Luongo might be the biggest question mark. His play in goal cannot be questioned, but either can his failings in the playoffs. Last season, he was 6-6 with a 3.22 GAA – more than a half-point higher than his regular season. Can the team ride his back while navigating the rugged western conference? That is the question Luongo must determine.
This team has everything, scoring, defense, goaltending, coaching. Do they have enough to unseat the Blackhawks and get past the Sharks? With Luongo, the Sedins, Hamhaus, Kesler, and Burrows, the answer should be yes.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Projected Finish (Third, First in the Central)
An abundance of scoring depth and veteran leadership. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and a healthy Johan Franzen are proven commodities. Todd Bertuzzi played a big role last season, and Dan Cleary, Pat Eaves, Val Filppula, Juri Hudler, and Darren Helm know their roles and play them well.
The defense is strong but getting older. On D, Niklas Lidstrom is 40, Brian Rafalski is 37, and, at wing, you have old guard such as Tomas Holmstrom, 37, Kris Draper, 39, Kirk Maltby, 37, and newcomer Mike Modano, 40. Coach Mike Babcock will need to find a way to keep his guys fresh throughout the season or he’ll be facing lots of breakdowns.
In goal, will Jimmy Howard take over for Chris Osgood permanently? Howard is talented but has yet to prove this is his team. The Red Wings, after two Stanley Cup Finals appearances, including a championship in 2007-2008, had an early spring and that be a good thing, especially with Datsyuk, and Zetterberg and if some of the younger players can step-up.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
Projected Finish: Fourth (Second in the Central)
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp at forward and Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell on the blue line are elite players. The defensive unit is one of the best in the NHL. With only six players older than 30, the team is young, fast, and should be fresh well into the spring.
Other than Marian Hossa, there is a dearth of scoring wingers. Troy Brouwer and newcomer Viktor Stalberg will be counted on for goal scoring as well as Dave Bolland and Jack Skille. Who will provide complementary scoring will be a big issue as the season progresses.
With Niemi gone to San Jose, who will play goal? The Hawks are counting on 35-year old Marty Turco until one of the young goalies is ready.
This team purged itself of some valuable talent, due to salary cap restrictions, but still maintained its core group. Kane, Toews, and Sharp will provide scoring while Campbell and Hossa provide strong leadership. Can the team repeat? Defending a championship may be more difficult than winning one, but this team is equipped to give it a go.
The Los Angeles Kings, with players such as Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Doughty are solid play-off contenders and could make a run at the Pacific crown if the Sharks falter. With young talent such as Berglund, Oshie, and Erik Johnson, the St. Louis Blues are a dangerous team but third best in the rugged central.
With 107 points, the Phoenix Coyotes were the surprise of the NHL last season and should be a solid playoff contender again, especially with Bryzgalov in net. In the rugged west, the final playoff spot could come down to the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche, two young teams with superb goalies in Backstrom and Anderson. The difference could be the Avs goal-scoring ability and the progression of young talent.
The Rest in the West
The Nashville Predators compiled 100 points last season, but that was last season. Last season, the Calgary Flames did something they hadn’t done since 2002-2003, miss the playoffs, they’ll repeat that feat this year, Jarome Iginla or no.
The playoff hopes of the Columbus Blue Jackets rest on the shoulders of Mason and Nash, and they have a chance. This isn’t 2005-2006, Modano isn’t a Dallas Star, and there will be no playoff games in the Lone Star State. The Aneheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers are rebuilding, but the Oilers have Taylor Hall and the future is bright.
Conference Finals :
Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Vancouver in 7
Who Will Raise the Cup?
If you had read the NHL Eastern Conference preview, you’ll remember that I picked the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Boston Bruins in six games.
That leads to a Vancouver vs. Pittsburgh cross-continent match-up and a dream series for the NHL. It will be the Canadian Olympic hero Sidney Crosby vs. the other Canadian Olympic hero in Luongo.
My prediction is Pittsburgh in 6! Write it down, but not in ink. How crazy is the NHL? Anything can happen and probably will in the eight and a half months so, strap-up your helmet, sharpen your skates, and prepare for a long season with Drop the Puck and the National Hockey League.