From top to bottom the Western Conference is generally seen as the stronger of the two in the NHL. But even though the Vancouver Canucks finished with a whopping 117 points last year, the 2010-2011 season didn’t end with a Western champion.
Can the Canucks bounce back? Is Los Angeles ready to take the next step? How will Columbus bode with a Rick Nash Jeff Carter one-two punch? Here are the 2011-2012 NHL Western Conference predictions.
1. Vancouver Canucks: Whether they claw their way back to the Stanley Cup Final is a whole other story, but there’s no doubt that the Canucks are the most dangerous team in the Western Conference. On the blue line Christian Ehrhoff was a major off-season loss with regards to the Canucks powerplay, however the rest of the Canucks defense as well as a strong group of forwards will have to pick up the pieces. The Sedins remain two of the top forwards in the game, Ryan Kesler has gone from one of the most feared to-way centers in the NHL, to one of the best second-line centers period and a healthy Marco Sturm should add a scoring punch to Vancouver’s third line. And it will be players like Sturm who’ll have to step up early in the season with injuries to Kesler and Mason Raymond that will keep the two out for the first month of the season.
2. Los Angeles Kings: Even with Drew Doughty’s future in Los Angeles in question – the 21-year-old recently rejected a nine-year $61.2 million contract offer – the Kings still bode one of the most dangerous rosters in the NHL. Off-season acquisitions Mike Richards and Simon Gagne should provide the necessary offensive punch to help bolster the Kings goals for average that ranked 25th in the league in 2010-2011. In goal, after lots of speculation last season that he would lose his starting job to Jonathan Bernier, Jonathan Quick proved that he’s the number one guy in L.A, putting up the best numbers of his career thus far. Hopefully an improved offense will take some of the load of his shoulders.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 the salary cap forced the Blackhawks to let go of major role players and in 2011 they nearly missed the playoffs, finishing eighth in the West. However, while some questioned the way general manager Stan Bowman built the Blackhawks – top heavy and without depth – Chicago proved that they’re far from an eighth seed when they pushed the Vancouver Canucks to overtime in a seventh and deciding game in the first round of the playoffs. Much credit has to be given to 26-year-old Corey Crawford who stole the starting job from Marty Turco less than half way through the season and gave Chicago a sense of reliability between the pipes. If Crawford continues to emerge as an up-and-coming goalie there’s no doubt that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, the rest of the Hawks offense and a strong defense core will pull the rest of the weight.
4. Detroit Red Wings: It’s the same old story in Motown with Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the way for the Red Wings. But with a familiar face in Brian Rafalski calling it a career back in May the question remains who will replace the offensive touch and defensive prowess on Red Wings back end. It’s likely off-season acquisition Ian White will be expected to fill the void on the Wings powerplay, but Rafalski’s minutes will likely be spread among Detroit’s defensemen and the likes of Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Commodore will be expected to step up in his absence. Another challenge the Wings may face is competing against teams whose core players are closer to their mid-twenties and the fact that the Central Division is likely to be more competitive this season with the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues potentially playing for a playoff spot.
5. San Jose Sharks: While there’s no Stanley Cup to show for it, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the work he’s done at the helm of the Sharks franchise since 2003. When the critics called for star power he brought in Joe Thornton; when they called for defense, he acquired Rob Blake and Dan Boyle; when they asked for a pure scorer he traded for Dany Heatley; when they said Evgeni Nabakov couldn’t win the big game he brought in Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi. This season has been no exception. After a disappointing end to the 2010-2011 season that had Stanley Cup hopes, without overhauling the entire franchise Wilson made the changes he felt were necessary to bring the Sharks back to the top of the Western Conference. Heatley never turned out to be the perennial 50-goal scorer he had hoped for so Wilson moved his mega contract and brought in Martin Havlat. He also traded Devin Setoguchi, who wasn’t a top-six forward in San Jose and in exchange picked up defenseman Brent Burns whose 17 goals and 46 points will without a doubt bring even more firepower to the already dangerous powerplay.
6. Anaheim Ducks: Beyond the exceptional play of Nashville Predators Pekka Rinne, if one thing held the Ducks back from advancing to the second round of the 2010-2011 playoffs it was inconsistent performances from their goaltenders, specifically Ray Emery and Dan Ellis, who were trying to fill the void of an injured Jonas Hiller. But with Hiller back and healthy for 2011-2012 and the fact that the Ducks arguably bolster the best top-line in the NHL with Ryan Getzlaf skating between Bobby Ryan and reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, it should without a doubt be another post-season appearance from the Ducks this season.
7. Nashville Predators: Unfortunatley David Poile was unable to re-sign captain Shea Weber to a long-term contract, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the 2011-2012 season the Predators possess one of the top defensive pairings in the league in Weber and Ryan Suter. Known for having little to no scoring power at all the Predators grind out victories through superb defensive hockey from franchise staples like Weber and Suter and terrific goaltending from Pekka Rinne. If Nashville is going to have any sort of success this season they’re once again going to have to live off that mantra. With just two players cracking 50 points and two reaching the 20-goal plateau last season the Predators have to continue to buy into the systems of head coach Barry Trotz and hope their defense and goaltender can carry the rest of the load. Otherwise they could quickly plummet down the Western Conference.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets made big moves in the off-season in acquiring forward Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers and defenseman James Wisniewski from the Montreal Canadiens. Both should help the Blue Jackets on the offensive side of the puck and especially on the powerplay where Columbus ranked 29th last year. But while general manager Scott Howson proved that management is committed to winning in swinging the deal for Carter and picking up Wisniewski, the success or failure of the Blue Jackets season hinges on the play of goaltender Steve Mason. The Columbus goaltender won the Calder Trophy as a the leagues top rookie in 2008-2009, but since his play has declined and in order for Columbus to claim the eighth seed in the West they’ll need Mason to be in rookie season form.
9. Calgary Flames: We saw two totally different Calgary Flames teams last season, one that struggled and saw themselves in last place in the Western Conference at points of the season and another that lost just seven games after the All Star break, nearly squeezing into the playoffs. But with a roster heading into the 2011-2012 season that’s nearly identical to the one they had in 2010-2011 it’s hard to predicate what kind of success rate the Flames will have. Without a bonafide number one center or left-winger, it will once again be up to Jarome Iginla to carry the Calgary offense yet again. If Alex Tanguay has another big season and Miikka Kiprusoff can get himself back to top form, then the Flames could be seeing a playoff birth.
10. St. Louis Blues: The Blues surely improved over the off-season, adding veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who’ll definitely help in the development of the Blues young roster. Yes we have them penciled into the 11th seed in the West, but if things go right for the Blues there’s no reason not to think that their youth infused roster couldn’t compete for the eighth seed in the conference. Can T.J Oshie stay healthy and become a top-six forward? Will Kevin Shattenkirk avoid a sophomore slump? And is Alex Pietrangelo ready to be considered a go-to defenseman? These are all questions that when answered at the end of the 2011-2012 season will help determine why St. Louis finished in a playoff spot, or on the outside looking in.
11. Minnesota Wild: While the Wild made a big acquisition in Dany Heatley, they lost top-scoring forward Martin Havlat and top-scoring defenseman Brent Burns. Devin Setoguchi is a good second-line player for the Wild, but unless Pierre Marc Bouchard has a breakthrough offensive season, Setoguchi will be relegated to top-line duties likely playing alongside Heatley and Wild captain Mikko Koivu. Chuck Fletcher is on his way to building a winner in Minnesota, but there are still many missing pieces to the puzzle meaning the Wild will likely be in the bottom third of the Western Conference standings.
12. Dallas Stars: Ownership issues forced the Dallas Stars to let superstar-forward Brad Richards test the free agent market and he finally answered one of the biggest questions of the 2010-2011 season as the 31-year-old inked a long-term deal in New York with the Rangers. The loss of Richards is a huge thorn in the side of the Dallas powerplay that scored 55 times last season seeing as Richards had a point of 29 of those goals. Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, Brendan Morrow and off-season signing Michael Ryder will all be expected to make up for the loss of Richards, but seeing as the Stars lost their offensive force and didn’t replace him with anything significant it should equal another season without post-season hockey in Dallas.
13. Phoenix Coyotes: With all the talk of franchise relocation, it was pretty incredible to watch the Phoenix Coyotes make back-to-back births in the last two seasons. But losing Ilya Bryzgalov will easily mean KerPlunk for the Coyotes franchise. With Mike Smith currently slotted as the teams number one goaltender – he’ll likely battle with Jason LaBarbera – and the loss of Ed Jovanovski on defense, the Cinderella story that’s been the Phoenix Coyotes for the past two seasons is likely to be over.
14. Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are strong down the middle led specifically by Matt Duchene and Paul Statsny, but the rest of the Colorado offense is thin beyond Milan Hejduk who is going to be 36 in the New Year. In goal Semyon Varlamov is going from being the backup in Washington who’s used to playing 25 games in a season to the starter in Colorado who’ll likely play upwards of 50 or 60 games depending on the health of Jean-Sebastien Giguere. All things considered this Avalanche team has pieces that symbolize a young and upcoming franchise, but there’s a lot of work still to be done.
15. Edmonton Oilers: Unlike the predicted 15th place Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference there are a lot of positive things to say about the likely last place team in the West. It’s going to be another losing season for the Oilers, but it will also be another season in which there youngsters get tons more NHL experience. Bringing back veteran Ryan Smyth was not just a good move by management in that the 35-year-old was drafted by the Oilers and played 12 seasons in the white blue and orange, but he’s the perfect role model for a team filled with inexperienced young players.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com