NHL Western Conference Preview
After months of pain and suffering for all NHL fans out there, the season is finally back and NHL fans out there can all stop pretending to care about the NBA, AHL, ECHL, College Football or whatever other pathetic excuse of sports league was used to substitute the NHL.
Now that the NHL is finally back on ice lets take team by team look at what is in store for the 2013 season.
I only write about the West in this segment. Because I’m from the West Coast and the West and East don’t ever meet in the regular season. So I don’t really see the East as being that important (no offense East Coast hockey fans)
Phoenix Coyotes: After winning their first ever division title in 2012 and making it as far as the Western Conference Finals, the expectations are as high as they’ve ever been in the desert. However this still probably won’t be enough to keep them in Phoenix. It will be hard to replace 2012 leading point-scorer Ray Whitney who left to Dallas in Free Agency. Phoenix brought in David Moss and 39-year-old seasoned veteran Steve Sullivan. Phoenix will continue to play defensive well-disciplined this shortened season under Dave Tippet. Goaltender Mike Smith will have to play as good or better than he did last season and Phoenix will need someone else beside Shane Doan to step up and contribute on offense if they want another division title.
San Jose Sharks: After making consecutive Western conference Final appearances in 2010 and 2011, the Sharks took a big step back last season winning only one playoff game and not looking much like the Stanley Cup contender they’ve been in recent history. GM Doug Wilson who typically is very active in the offseason didn’t make any noteworthy signings or trades, and only brought in depth player Adam Burrish. The Sharks aren’t getting any younger, and the window of opportunity to win a cup is closing as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle all in their thirties. The Sharks will look to prove that they are a still a serious Stanley Cup contender and that last years short playoff run is not a sign of things to come. If the Sharks can get consistent goaltending from Antti Niemi and fix their 29th ranked penalty kill they should be able to make a serious run at the cup.
Los Angeles Kings: After last years Cinderella story playoff run the Kings will have very high expectations in 2013. They made almost no changes in the offseason and they enter 2013 with a nearly identical roster that they won the cup with. Their core players are all in their mid 20s and are locked up in long term contracts. The Kings will need another spectacular season from Vezina runner-up Jonathon Quick if they look to repeat in 2013. If the Kings let their Stanley Cup hangover last to long they might find themselves fighting for a playoff spot in the talented Western Conference, but based on last year, maybe that’s exactly where they want to be.
Dallas Stars: Although Dallas is in a rebuilding year they added two very talented veteran players this offseason in Roy Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. The number 1 priority in Dallas this season is to re-sign Jamie Benn. Dallas finished only a few points out of the playoffs last season and will look to sneak in this year which will be a challenge in a very tough Pacific Division, but with Jaromir Jagr on the roster anything is possible.
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks finished in the cellar of the Pacific division in 2012 and will have a tough time getting relevant in the West again this season. 42 year old ironman Teemu Sellane has retuned for what will more than likely be his last season despite the fact that he lead the Ducks in points last season and many say he could play for another 2-3 years. Anaheim has a talented top six with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Saku Koivu and Selanne but they lack depth and strong defense. The addition of Andrew Cogliano should help but don’t expect a playoff birth from the Ducks.
Projected Pacific Division finish:
1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
Vancouver Canucks: Two consecutive President trophies has Canuck fans longing for that elusive Stanley Cup. Last years early exit to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings surely didn’t help their fight to bring Vancouver its first championship. The Canucks find themselves with two very capable goaltenders in Corey Schnieder and Roberto Luongo. But after receiving the majority of the blame for the Canuck’s underachievement’s Luongo has fallen out of flavor in Vancouver and looks to be on his way out. Vancouver will likely fetch a nice package from whomever they trade with (many sources believe it will be Toronto) The Sedin twins and Phil Kessel will continue to carry the offense for the Canucks. Its Cup or Bust in Vancouver.
Calgary Flames: The Flames have been a very average team for many years and have not made it past the Western Conference quarterfinals sense 2004 and 2009 was their last playoff appearance. GM Jay Feaster tends to be very trade active adding Jay Bouwmeester, and Micheal Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak in recent years. However none of these trades have really paid dividends and the Flames continue to find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. The Flames will need a big season from Miikka Kiprusoff in order to stay relevant in the West.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche are long removed from the glory days with Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic and have been rebuilding for a few years. Will this be the year they finally turn the corner and become more than a 10th seed in the west? They find themselves in a mediocre division and a playoff spot is not out of question. If Calder Cup winner Gabriel Landeskog can put together a solid sophomore season the Avalanche might actually find themselves in the playoffs.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild made the most noise this NHL offseason after they won the free agent jackpot signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. If Dany Heatley can play like the 40 goal scorer he once was back in Ottawa the Wild should be able to put together a very respectable team. Devin Setoguchi and Mikko Koivu are the remaining offensive threats on Wild as their lack of depth and defense will be their biggest flaws. It will be interesting to see how Ryan Suter plays without Jeff Fischer next to him on the blue line.
Edmonton Oilers: After three consecutive # 1 overall picks the Oilers will look for Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov to carry the Oilers. The Oilers are one of the young teams in the league and are filled with potential. But it is still to be determined if this potential will translate to success or just to a fourth consecutive first overall pick. Oiler fans long for the dynasty of the 80s back when Gretzky was still skating for them and breaking records left and right. But in the meantime these fans will need to hope for the best from this young Oiler squad.
Projected Northwestern Division Finish
St. Louis Blues: After years of mediocrity the Blues were a real threat last season winning the Central Division and clinching the #2 seed in the West. This defense first team allowed the fewest goals in NHL history last season and rotated net minders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot in goal. Both these goaltenders are very capable #1 goalies on any team and they both would be the starters if they weren’t on the same team. But St. Louis still opts to hold on to two very good goaltenders. If things start to head south in St. Louis and the team is struggling, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one of them traded away to a team with issues in net.
Nashville Predators: The Predators enjoyed one of their best seasons in franchise history last year, making it all the way to the Western Conference semi-finals for the first time ever. However, the Preds took a hard hit this offseason when defenseman Ryan Sutter left for Minnesota in free agency. It will be difficult to repeat last seasons success without him. With Jeff Fischer still on the blue-line and Pekka Rinne in goal, and this team is still talented enough to make the playoffs but probably not talented enough to still contend for the cup.
Detroit Red Wings: Long considered the power and class of the Western conference the Red Wings took a big step back last season getting eliminated in the Western Conference Quarterfinals in 5 games. With Future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom having just retired Detroit finds themselves in uncharted waters. Lidstrom has been an invaluable member of the Detroit blue line for twenty seasons and his presence will be hard to replace. To top that off Tomas Holmstrom has also retired and the Red Wings are looking in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in over 20 seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL. With Brad Stuart also leaving, the Red Wing’s defense will be their biggest area of concern this season.
Chicago Blackhawks: Sense winning it all in 2010 the Chicago Blackhawks have yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. They still have much of the core of that team in tact, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Towes, Marian Hossa, Duncan Kieth, and Brent Seabrook. On paper Chicago is a deep team on offense and defense with goaltending being their biggest area of concern. We’ll see how well Corey Crawford holds up this season. If he plays well Chicago might find themselves in a deep playoff run.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Columbus Blue Jackets had the worst record in the NHL last season and still didn’t receive the number 1 overall pick. To make matters worse their star player Rick Nash demanded to be traded away and was sent to the New York Rangers. Once promising Rookie of the Year Goaltender Steve Mason has been nothing but a liability sense his rookie year and Columbus is struggling in all areas of the ice. This franchise will really have to turn itself around if they want a chance of making their second playoff appearance in franchise history.
Projected Central Division Finish:
2. St. Louis
Projected Final West Coast Standings
2. San Jose-y
4. St. Louis -x
5. Los Angeles-x