Tuesday, October 02, 2007

2007-2008 NHL Season Preview Part I: The Western Conference

Well boys and girls, (yeah I know L.A. and Anaheim have already "opened the season" but they did that on the other side of the Atlantic. The rest of the league doesn't get underway until tomorrow) it's that time of year again where we try to look into the crystal ball and figure out what will happen over the next six months.

So without further ado and in predicted order of finish:


Central Division:


Detroit Red Wings (50-32; 113 points; 1st Central Division, 1st Western Conference, 2nd Overall; Lost in the Conference Finals):

The Wings once again beat up on a weak division (only New Jersey had more wins in their own division) only this time they were able to get to the Conference Finals before getting blitzed by the Thug Ducks. The Wings who live by the motto "old age and treachery will overcome youth and strength" did secure a part of their future by locking up 28 year old Pavel Datsyuk before the off season even began. But their two big additions (Brian Rafalski and Dallas Drake) are both over 30 and one (Drake) is pushing 40. What makes this so sad is that even with the geriatric lineup; the Wings are STILL favored to win their division and could even pull off another #1 seed in the Western Conference. However any idea that they are the team to beat in the Western Conference is simply laughable. If you're looking for this year's version of last year's Philadelphia Flyers, here's a good candidate. But I wouldn't bet anything on it. Next year when they have 8 fewer games against their dysfunctional division is when the collapse is likely to hit.


Nashville Predators (51-31; 110 points; 2nd Central Division, 4th Western Conference; 3rd Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

You have to feel somewhat sorry for the Nashville players. Last year was supposed to be the year that everything came together. They even went out and rented Peter Forsberg to push them over the top and once again, the curse of David "Bud" Poile left them wondering what happened. Now throw in a salary purge and an embarrassing ownership saga and you wonder just how much worse things can get for them. The good news is that save for the Red Wings, the rest of their division is so bad; they should still be able to land safely in second place. The bad news is, the rest of the conference is so strong you can't like their chances of making playoffs. Their only hope is that the other divisions beat up on each other so much that the Preds can sneak into the 7th or 8th spot. But any ideas of bringing the Cup to the Grand Ol Opry are on indefinite hold until this ownership issue gets worked out.


St. Louis Blues (34-48; 81 points; 3rd Central Division, 10th Western Conference, 22nd Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

Give St. Louis credit, they were not nearly as bad as they were supposed to be last year and actually held up pretty well considering their division and conference. While they were still miles away from a playoff berth, they did exceed expectations. They made some moves in the offseason to shore things up but still have an unsettled situation in goal. The Blues aren't likely to threaten the playoffs again only because the rest of their conference is so strong, but they look to be on the right track. At least for now. We'll see how the greybeards hold up this season and if they can get anything in return for them at the deadline.


Columbus Blue Jackets (33-49; 73 points; 3rd Central Division, 11th Western Conference, 24th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

If Columbus wants to make the playoffs, it looks like they'll have to petition to be realigned into the Eastern Conference. I don't blame them for getting rid of Doug MacLean and if they decided to take on Michael Peca in the hope that he'll be healthy enough to auction off at the trading deadline, then the Blue Jackets are heading in the right direction. Otherwise they're bringing a paring knife to a bazooka battle. How else would you explain the additions of Kris Beech and Jiri Novotny, two guys the Caps cut loose? The biggest concern for Columbus fans has to be the status of Rick Nash. He'll be 26 when his current contract is up and will he want to stick around if there isn't any hope of progress?


Chicago Blackhawks (31-51; 71 points; 5th Central Division, 13th Western Conference, 26th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

The good news for the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans is that longtime owner and noted penny pincher Bill Wertz died. The bad news is that Bill Wertz died and now the ownership situation heads into flux. The other bit of good news for the Blackhawks is that they won the draft lottery last year and took Patrick Kane. While the Blackhawks seem bent on throwing him and Jonathan Towes to the wolves right now, there is reason for hope in the Windy City when it comes to hockey. However, better days are a ways off and the Blackhawks aren't going to bother anybody this season or next.


Northwest Division:


Calgary Flames (43-39; 96 points; 2nd Northwest Division, 8th Western Conference, 13th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

Say what you want about Mike Keenan (and I certainly have) but when he arrives, he usually gets results. Calgary's biggest undoing last year was a dismal record on the road and Iron Mike will not tolerate that (even though he won't ever practice the Power Play). Whether or not the Flames can survive the loaded Western Conference remains to be seen, but it will depend largely again upon goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff. It wouldn't be a bad idea to get Iginla some help but Iron Mike has always preferred tough defensemen over goal scoring forwards Iginla is going to have to do it by himself once again.


Vancouver Canucks (49-33; 105 points; 1st Northwest Division, 3rd Western Conference, 8th Overall; Lost in the Second Round of the Playoffs):

Vancouver is the type of team you (well at least I) want to like. But they keep going out and doing something that really makes you wonder about them. The Nucks got into the second round on the back of Roberto Luongo and couldn't get over the hump against the Thug Ducks. So Vancouver goes out and not only comes up with ugly uniforms they also kind of tinker around the edges. But with cap pressures starting to mount, the Canucks have a very small window of opportunity to strike before things become very hairy for them. Luongo has proved just how good he is, but the Canucks will need more if they expect to get beyond the second round in a cutthroat Western Conference.


Minnesota Wild (48-34; 104 points; 3rd Northwest Division, 7th Western Conference, 11th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

The up and down Wild were mostly up last year and were able to find enough offense to make it back into the playoffs. However, they couldn't even get started against the Thug Ducks in first round and were gone rather quickly. Over the past two seasons, the Wild have discovered how to score goals and they'll need to do more of it if they want to get beyond the first round. If Minnesota were in the Eastern Conference, their path to the playoffs would be easier, but that isn't the case. The trading of Manny Fernandez to Boston gives some cap space to make a move to strengthen up. But any kind of regression will mean no playoffs for Wild.


Colorado Avalanche (44-38; 95 points; 4th Northwest Division, 9th Western Conference, 14th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

Colorado's 95 points last season was exactly the same as 2005-2006 and better than three teams that made the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. Their frantic finish almost made them a playoff team in the West but they're trying to find their way in a rough Western Conference and in a new salary cap system. With Joe Sakic being 37, the big question is how much does he have in the tank? Furthermore, can 24 Peter Budaj build upon his strong finish and carry it throughout the year. The Avs added Ryan Smith who is now 31 and starting to break down because of his physical nature and hasn't played as full NHL season in three years but it will be the play of Sakic and Budaj that makes or breaks Colorado this season.


Edmonton Oilers (32-50; 71 points; 5th Northwest Division, 12th Western Conference, 25th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

One year removed from an emotional run to the Cup Finals, the Oilers found themselves spending Confederate money in the Unrestricted Free Agent market. So in attempt to cover up their problems, GM Kevin Lowe filed a laughable grievance and threw around wild offer sheets. His second stab at an offer sheet yielded him 24 year old Dustin Penner and some GM's who will be looking to poach back next summer. In the meantime however, the Oilers regressed on their blueline (at least when it comes to playing actual defense) and will have to rely upon the days when Wayne Gretzky skated in Edmonton to win games by simply outscoring everybody. While the "new NHL" rewards teams that can score goals, you still have to be able to prevent and stop goals from being scored upon you in order to win. I can't see how Edmonton gets under 226 goals allowed (the most of any Western Conference playoff team which was Calgary) with Dick Tarnstrom and Sheldon Souray being brought in to shore up the defense.


Pacific Division:


San Jose Sharks (51-31; 107 points; 2nd Pacific Division, 5th Western Conference, 5th Overall; Lost in the Second Round of the playoffs):

While I'm still trying to figure out their collapse last spring, I still think the Sharks could end up winning their division. San Jose settled the fight in goal choosing Evgeni Nabokov over Vesa Toskala. However their oddest move and what could become their biggest drawback is their signing of Jeremy Roenick, the introduction of that cancer into the locker room is what will eventually do them in. Otherwise, the Sharks mostly stood pat which is another sign of danger for a team that comes up short. Losing Guerin and Toskala won't hurt as much as seeing Scott Hannan leave. The most interesting thing to watch in San Jose though will be the interaction of Roenick with head coach Ron Wilson. Otherwise, this is another team that will disappoint come playoff time.



Dallas Stars (50-32; 107 points; 3rd Pacific Division, 6th Western Conference, 6th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the Playoffs):

After finally getting Marty Turco to show up in the playoffs, the Stars got bounced by one or two teams in the playoffs who scored fewer goals than they did (New Jersey had the worst offense of all the playoff teams). Of course, Vancouver had Roberto Luongo in goal and that made it tougher on the Stars. Dallas needs more offense if they're to advance but the pressing question is who is going to provide it? Mike Modano is 37 and Sergi Zubov is 36. The Stars have few options to improve their goal scoring production. Jusi Jokinen appears in many a highlight reel, but that's only in the gimmick. He's only scored 31 goals in the NHL in his first two seasons. Dallas has already shown that they can make the playoffs with their lineup, it is winning the playoffs that will continue to elude them unless somebody starts scoring like crazy.


Anaheim Thug Ducks (48-34; 110 points; 1st Pacific Division, 2nd Western Conference, 4th Overall; Won the Stanley Cup):

As if Cup hangover wasn't hard enough to overcome, the Thug Ducks must also contend with a soap opera surrounding their Captain (will he or won't he return), his "replacement" getting injured before the season even started, their top forward not deciding either if he wants to return or just retire; add in the questionable acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi along with a salary cap nightmare and you have a recipe for disaster. And the worse news for Thug Duck fans is that Ryan Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry are RFA's next year with salaries that will force GM Brian Burke to get really, really creative or blow up his team. Better yet, with 14 UFA's in the 2009 off season, the Thug Ducks have seen their window of opportunity slam shut. The only good news for Anaheim fans is that it won't take long to get through that new season ticket waiting list.


Los Angeles Kings (27-55; 68 points; 4th Pacific Division, 14th Western Conference, 28th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

The Kings are in the middle of a rebuilding mode and will need some time to get their reworked roster into shape. The best thing that the Kings can do is try to stockpile prospects and draft picks. While they went for a quick fix, none of the contracts will hamstring them when they return to respectability. Getting Rob Blake back will help them at the box office but that's about it. The Kings will continue to reside around the bottom of the NHL.


Phoenix Coyotes (31-51; 67 points; 5th Pacific Division, 15th Western Conference, 29th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

If Wayne Gretzky had not assembled the 2002 Canadian Olympic Hockey team, winning the first Canadian Olympic Gold in Men's hockey in 50 years, there would be serious questions about his ability as an executive. Make no mistake, this is his hockey team and it looks to be the worst in the NHL going into the season. Phoenix cleaned out the front office but they still have a long way to go. The novelty of seeing Wayne Gretzky on the bench as a coach has worn off and a shiny new arena won't draw fans by itself. The Coyotes are now entering a rebuilding mode and the onus is now on Gretzky to prove that the 2002 Olympic team was not fluke and he really can build a hockey team from the ground up.

Up next, the Eastern Conference...

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