Tuesday, October 03, 2006

2006-2007 NHL Season Preview Part I: The Western Conference

This is by far the hardest part for me to do because I pay so little attention to these teams, but I'll give it a shot anyway.

In predicted order of finish by Division.

Pacific:

San Jose Sharks: They return the Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton along with Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo. Yes, there is a question in goal, but who in this division doesn't have one? San Jose has the firepower up front and just enough stability in the back to win the division if nothing else.

Anaheim Ducks: Gone are the "Mighty" and the purple and teal uniforms. Now that the uniforms are easier on the eyes, some are picking the Ducks to be Cup finalists if not winners. Sorry, I'm not buying. The last time Anaheim had such a promising run, they fell flat on their faces the next season. G.M. Brian Burke believes that Chris Pronger is the missing piece. Problem is, they gave up too much youth for that piece. They too have goaltending issues but could win the division over San Jose. I'm only picking them second because they are relying on Teemu Selanne to carry the offense. It has been eight years since he's strung 40 goal seasons together.

Dallas Stars: They picked up the much beloved Jeff Halpern from the Washington Capitals overpaying him big time. They also for whatever reason picked up Eric Lindros. But maybe Dallas should have picked up Roberto Luongo? Nah that would have made too much sense... Marty Turco is fine for the regular season, but come playoff time, well, let's not talk about that. Dallas is another aging team up front. While the "new NHL" may allow these guys a new lease on life with less physical play, the more demanding tempo may hasten the departure of the graybeards just as quickly.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings pulled an overhaul in the off-season. They have a new G.M. in Dean Lombard and a new head coach in Marc Crawford. Crawford is a good coach with a good track record, but the problem is that he brought his goaltender from Vancouver, Dan Cloutier, with him. They also brought back the aging Rob Blake and let go of Pavol Demitra. Their dismissal of Jeremey Roenick though can only be seen as an upgrade. They made what looks to be a good trade getting Jack Johnson from Carolina, but he won't play much in L.A. this year, he's for the future. Crawford has his work cut out for him, he could improve this team some, but Cloutier will continue to hold Crawford back.

Phoenix Coyotes: Wayne Gretzky was concerned about his team's physical presence last year. So he went out and got some large defensemen and some big forwards. The problem is, his goaltending is old and the forwards aren't going to score many goal. When your top offensive threats are Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan (two players whose best days are long behind them) you're in trouble and so is Phoenix.


Northwest:

Calgary Flames: Former Head Coach/GM Darryl Sutter gave up the bench duties to Jim Playfair, who probably has the best name for a coach in professional sports. Calgary has been helped by the salary cap. It has allowed them to keep Jerome Iginla and compete for players to provide them depth like Alex Tanguay. However, the Flames need somebody to help them score more goals; they were 27th last year in the NHL. Without more offensive help, the Flames won't get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. And having to face Roberto Luongo eight times a season, they may not win their division.

Vancouver Canucks: Maybe next year they'll be the sexy pick to win the Cup. They have too much talent to not make the playoffs this year but with all the new players, there has just been too much upheaval to think that the Canucks can put together a run at the Cup. You would have to think that the injuries that plagued them last season won't crop up and having a legitimate goaltender in Roberto Luongo should also prop this team up. With any luck, we'll find out just what Luongo can and cannot do in the playoffs this season.

Edmonton Oilers: Everybody fell in love with the Oilers and their resurgence last year. An eighth seed that took the Stanley Cup Finals to seven games and played thrilling hockey all along the way. Well, once the season was over, the Oilers lost Chris Pronger and most of their ability to sneak up on people. They got great goaltending from Dwayne Roloson in the playoffs last year and was that for real or a one-shot-wonder? We'll find out. The Oilers could still sneak up on people though in the regular season. They aren't a team to be taken lightly, but they shouldn't be expected to land in the Finals again.

Minnesota Wild: And here "The State of Hockey" finds themselves like Calgary benefiting from the salary cap. The Wild opened up the checkbook and signed six UFA's. Most UFA's have a down year after cashing in. The Wild hope that isn't the case, but history dictates otherwise. The Wild still aren't crazy about offense. Even in the old NHL, you had to score goals in order to win. The Wild don't look to be much of threat offensively this year, again.

Colorado Avalanche: Well, the wheels have fallen off of the bus here. Age and the salary cap have finally caught up with the Avs because if Andrew Brunette is on your second line, you've got issues. The Avs have been holding on ever since Patrick Roy retired. They are the sexy pick to be the flop of the west and I just cannot resist piling on. If there is a team that needs to go into rebuilding mode, it is Colorado.

Central:

Nashville Predators: Well, it is now or never for the Hockey Tonks. The Predators have been building from Day 1. They made some splashy moves once the lockout ended. Now it is time for all of this to start paying off or people such as GM David "Bud" Poile and Head Coach Barry Trotz could be gone. Well, at least they should be. Their only real competition in the division is Detroit. They have 24 games vs. Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis and need to get at least 36 of the 48 available points against those teams. If Nashville can play no worse than .500 against the rest of the league, (That's 106 total points) they shouldn't have trouble overthrowing the Red Wings. But they made a number of moves this off-season and that will be easier said than done.

Detroit Red Wings: CW says that constantly picking Detroit to falter is only going to make you look foolish. But Detroit has one of the oldest rosters in the league. They had issues in goal so they turned to a 41 year old Dominik Hasek, who couldn't stay healthy through last season. The Red Wings lost Steve Yzerman to retirement and Brendan Shanahan to the Rangers. Detroit though still has 44 year old Chris Chelios, 37 year old Mathieu Scheinder, and 36 year old Nicklas Lidstrom. One must wonder, will all of these guys hold up? The Red Wings do have younger players (under 30) up front. But the rot has started from the goaltending on out. The Wing may have one last gasp yet again and will benefit from a soft Central Division schedule because no team in the NHL beat up on their division more than the Red Wings did last year. But once they hit the playoffs, they will look as lost as they did last year versus Edmonton. Detroit is the perfect example of a paper tiger.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Here's another team who took advantage of the post lockout salary cap. The Blue Jackets added a lot of new parts last year and had trouble making them all work together. The Blue Jackets added less this year but still have a ways to go. They should be better if key players (like Rick Nash) can stay healthy but unless a goaltender emerges, they will not be serious playoff contenders this season.

Chicago Blackhawks: The hands down worst owner in professional sports once again will fail to ice a competitive team. They are benefiting from the cap too but aren't spending too close to it. It is tough to see just where the Blackhawks are trying to go. They have to hope that Nikolai Khabibulin can regain his cup winning form in order to be competitive in a tough Central Division and Western Conference.

St. Louis Blues: The much ballyhooed 25 year playoff streak came to an end last year with a resounding thud. The worst part about the collapse of the Blues was that they didn't even make the Stanley Cup Finals in their 25 year streak. The Blues brought in former TV Color Man John Davidson to oversee the rebuilding process. For the sake of the Blues fans, lets hope Davidson is more successful than Matt Millen has been with the Detroit Lions. However, the early signs aren't good. When the Caps rebuilt, they went on the cheap, they chose young players and journeymen vets to get them out of the wilderness. While the jury will be out of the Caps for a few more years, the Blues decided to bring in some veterans who are solid contributors. The Caps benefit from playing in a weaker Eastern Conference. The Blues are going to be buried in the West. If the Red Wings couldn't make Manny Legace work, how can the Blues?


Part II will look at the Eastern Conference's Northeast and Atlantic Divisions.

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