Sunday, September 30, 2007

2007-08 NHL Season
Western Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Western Conference predictions:

1. Detroit* -- The Red Wings are arguably incrementally worse than the team that a season ago won the Western Conference regular-season title and went on to advance to the conference finals. They've lost the decidedly lazy, yet somewhat productive trio of Robert Lang, Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder to free agency, a group that comprised the club's second line for the latter half of the season and through much of the playoffs. On defense, Mathieu Schneider and Danny Markov have been replaced with Brian Rafalski and Brent Sopel, which I'll call a wash. However, what's far more significant regarding my ranking of the Wings as the No. 1 team in the West is the rest of the Central Division. The Nashville Predators, Detroit's only serious competitor for the division title since the lockout, has been ravaged this off-season, leaving Detroit as far and away the class of the Central, which is populated by rebuilding teams in St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus. And despite the losses on offense, Detroit still boasts two of the best rising forwards in the NHL in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and has valuable youth in the likes of Valterri Filpulla and Igor Grigorenko ready to step in. It's impossible to write about Detroit without mentioning five-time Norris Trophy winner and arguably the Wings' regular-season and playoff MVP last year, Nicklas Lidstrom, who has proven he can carry a mediocre team in a competetive field on his back. This time around, he'll be asked to help carry a great team with the assistance of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the ageless Dominik Hasek against a poor division. The Red Wings have a track record of not losing the easy games, and they'll have at least 32 of those this coming season.

2. San Jose* -- The majority of hockey pundits, following the Sharks' second straight semifinals flameout last May, cited the Sharks' defense as a prime reason why for their elimination. While San Jose certainly wouldn't mind adding a puck-mover on the backend, it was mental toughness that did them in last postseason, not an inept defense. In fact, the team ranked 5th in the NHL last year in defense and while credit is certainly due to Evgeni Nabokov, who will have the comfort of receiving the majority of the starts this year with Vesa Toskala shipped to Toronto, Ron Wilson's system, which encourages defense by committee, was a large factor as well. Of course, this team is built around its offense. Specifically, the Sharks' luxury of boasting two top-notch centers on their roster in former Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton and two-time All-Star Patrick Marleau. If Jonathan Cheechoo can rebound from an off year, Milan Michalek can continue to blossom into a lethal two-way threat and the team's seemingly endless string of young forwards like Steve Bernier, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski can continue to develop, San Jose will once again be one of the most high-flying offensive squads in the West. Combine that prolific offense with a solid, if unspectacular defense corps capable of playing Coach Wilson's system to perfection and an elite starting goaltender in Nabokov with the losses endured this off-season by defending Stanley Cup and Pacific Division champions Anaheim and you've got a recipe for the Sharks franchise's third division title.

3. Anaheim -- Let's face the facts. Scott Niedermayer, even if he didn't exactly deserve that Conn Smythe Trophy, was undoubtedly one of the best defensemen in the league last year and is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer who will be credited with revolutionizing the defense position. Teemu Selanne, even if he wasn't the same force in the playoffs that he was all regular-season long, holds the NHL record for most goals in a rookie season and most goals in a season by a player 35 years or older, the second of which was set last year, phenomenal bookends to what should also be a Hall-of-Fame career. Even though neither player has officially declared his retirement, Niedermayer has been suspended by the Ducks, giving him time to mull it over and Selanne, an unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned. Thus, the Stanley Cup champions enter the season with a significantly different roster, especially when one factors in the loss of Dustin Penner to the Edmonton Oilers via RFA poaching. Beyond the obvious result of Selanne and Niedermayer's absences -- that they won't be there -- three Ducks are likely to be particularly affected. Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald were unspectacular players in checking-line roles before Selanne came along, resulting in their blossoming into bona fide NHL scoring threats. While the new NHL was definitely a factor in their breakouts, you have to wonder how effective they'll be without the Finnish Flash. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin was a seventh defenseman on Columbus before being sent to Anaheim in the Sergei Fedorov trade, where he has perfected his craft as a quiet, minute-munching blueliner alongside Niedermayer. Without his right-hand man, will Beauchemin be as effective? Questions abound in Disneyland this season, without too many answers. So you're probably wondering why I picked this team to finish as high as I did. Despite the losses of Selanne and Niedermayer, several pieces from the Ducks' Cup run are still in place, the most important being superstar defenseman Chris Pronger. Goalie J-S Giguere, re-signed over the Summer, will also don the Ducks jersey this year, as will burgeoning young forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. There's still plenty of reasons why the Ducks will challenge for the Pacific Division title, but subtract two Hall-of-Famers in Niedermayer and Selanne, a rising young power forward in Penner and lose Selke finalist Sami Pahlsson to injury for 3-5 weeks and the defending Champions will have quite a task ahead of them defending their spoils.

4. Vancouver* -- Technically, you could pick any Northwest Division team save for Edmonton to win the pennant and probably avoid humiliation. The top four teams in the conference were separated by only ten points last season, and that included the Colorado Avalanche, who missed the playoffs. Frankly, the Northwest has emerged since the lockout as the league's most cutthroat division and that trend appears to continue this year, especially with the Avalanche re-loading. But Vancouver has the added advantage of having arguably the best goalie in the NHL at their disposal in Roberto Luongo. A Vezina candidate who, in this blogger's opinion, would have won the award if it weren't for the early bedtimes of East Coast-based members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, Luongo set a franchise record for wins last regular-season with 47, and posted a 2.29 goals-against average and .921 SV%. However, his stock raised dramatically in the playoffs, when the netminder set an NHL record with 76 saves in his first ever playoff game, a 5-4 win in quadruple overtime and went on to singlehandedly carry the offense-starved Canucks to a second-round appearance against Anaheim. With Luongo in net and the defensive stylings of Jack Adams-winning coach Alain Vigneault, Vancouver will never be hard-pressed to prevent goals, but the club made further improvements to the back end, re-signing key parts Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Lukas Kraijicek and adding veteran Aaron Miller to a stacked blueline corps that ranks among the most well-rounded in the league. However, all that defense comes at a price and in Vancouver's case, it's the offense. Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison have never been the same since the lockout, leaving the entire Canucks offense in the hands of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins can work magic, but they're about the only Vancouver forwards who can, a lack of depth that was painfully exposed against Anaheim last postseason. Even still, if Luongo's magical playoffs is a sign of things to come and the defense looks as good on ice as it does on paper, this team shouldn't need more than two goals from its offense to win games, something that's definitely as obtainable for this club as a Northwest Division title.

5. Colorado -- The Avs were one of the NHL's best teams the second half of the season, with the clutch play of Joe Sakic, the remarkable point streak of Paul Stastny and the timely saves of Peter Budaj pushing them oh-so-close to a playoff berth, before the team eventually fell short. But after adding some much-needed grit over the offseason in the form of tip-in artist Ryan Smith and defensive warhorse Scott Hannan, the Avalanche are locked and loaded, determined to put the franchise's first non-playoff spring since arriving in Denver behind them. Colorado boasts what is easily one of the best top-six forward units in the Western Conference, with the ageless Sakic and Calder-nominee Stastny joined by newcomer Smyth, former Rocket Richard winner Milan Hejduk, Andrew Brunette, who come out of nowhere to score 80 points last season, and talented young forward Wojtek Wolski. The offense doesn't end there with the third line boasting the likes of Marek Svatos and Tyler Arnason. The team's rather unheralded defense corps is tremendously well-rounded as well, with power-play quarterback John-Michael Liles leading a group that includes bruising blueliners Hannan, Karlis Skrastins and Brett Clark along with the finesse of Jordan Leopold. Yes, the only chink in this club's armor is the facet that their three primary Northwest Division competitors list as their biggest strength: goaltending. While Vancouver has the luxury of Luongo, Calgary boasts Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes and Minnesota has Jennings-winning Niklas Backstrom minding nets, the Avs will rely on the relatively unproven Budaj, with Jose Theodore a decided backup plan, thanks to terrible seasons the former Hart Trophy winner has enjoyed since the lockout. However, if Budaj, who was spectacular down the stretch for Colorado, pans out, this team has the explosive offense and balanced defense to take the Northwest.

6. Calgary -- There's no two ways about it, the Flames grossly underachieved last season. Despite having a stacked line-up that included the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Alex Tanguay et al, former coach Jim Playfair was unable to motivate his troops, leading to an eighth place finish with the Flames clinging on for dear life as the Avs closed in on them late in the season and an unspiring first-round playoff exit, the team's second straight since falling to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. Instead of doing the logical thing and replacing Playfair himself, GM Darryl Sutter found Playfair what he believed to be a suitable replacement and what the rest of the hockey world believes to be a head case: Mike Keenan. With a track record of disliking Europeans, mishandling young players and humiliating skill forwards, Keenan appears to be a terrible replacement. However, Keenan's ability to motivate players is undeniable, and there really is noone better at "winning now," which is exactly what the Flames need to do. Focusing on players, Calgary enters with an almost identical forward corps as they did last season, with the addition of worn-out veteran Owen Nolan the only wrinkle. Their blueline, however, experienced significant turnover. Brad Stuart bolted to Los Angeles, Roman Hamrlik signed with Montreal, Andrei Zyuzin was traded to Chicago for Adrian Aucoin and Mark Giordano left for Russia. They were replaced by former Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich and ex-Blue Jacket Anders Eriksson. Aucoin could see his career resurrected in Calgary, but there's about an equal chance of him continuing to turn in sub-par defensive efforts. Sarich is not going to live up to the monster contract Sutter handed him, but he's a reliable veteran in his own zone. Essentially, this is a team with the potential to win the Northwest Division, particularly if Iginla improves upon an amazing 94-point season, and Tanguay, Daymond Langkow and Keenan-hater Kristian Huselius build after setting career-highs in points last season, but it remains to be seen whether the Keenan factor will work with or against the team.

7. Minnesota -- The Wild's offseason was nowhere near as eventful as their last one, which saw GM Doug Risebrough acquire the likes of Pavol Demitra, Kim Johnsson and Mark Parrish, but Minnesota still made some key acquisitions, replacing departed free agent center Todd White with Eric Belanger and, more importantly, shoring up their goaltending situation by shipping out embattled netminder Manny Fernandez and re-signing Niklas Backstrom, who came out of nowhere (technically, the Swedish Elite League) to lead the league in goals-against average and save percentage last season, followed up with brilliant goaltending in the playoffs despite a first-round loss to Anaheim. Despite the player movement, there is but one key to Minnesota's season, an ultimate factor which, if it turns out favorably, could bolster the club to the Northwest Division title: Marian Gaborik's groin. Easily one of the fastest, most exciting players in the game, Gaborik scored at a prolific rate last season, a clip that would have projected out to 51 goals -- second in the league -- had the Wild forward played 82 games, rather than 48. If the Slovak can stay healthy, he and countryman Pavol Demitra will wreak havoc upon Western Conference defenses, proving that Minnesota is a conservative defense squad no longer. However, if Gaborik's groin gives out again, Minnesota will be fighting tooth and nail to qualify for the playoffs. Still, this is a club with decent offensive and defensive depth and, more importantly, a foolproof defensive system developed by coaching mastermind Jacques Lemaire. It remains to be seen, though, how well Backstrom can perform over the course of an entire NHL season and while the defensive system is sound, the blueline corps itself is largely unspectacular, with the likes of Johnsson and Martin Skoula being asked to shoulder the load. Even still, Minnesota is a playoff team and have the potential to win the division if Gaborik can avoid the injury bug.

8. Dallas -- Gone are the glory days of Dallas hockey, at least in the regular season. But it's never been about the regular season for the Stars, whose first-round flameout streak reached three seasons last April. This time around, however, Marty Turco was far from the goat: the usually choke-prone Dallas goaltender pitched three shutouts -- and still lost! This was mostly due to a nonexistant offense, a problem that will continue to plague the Stars this season. Nobody on this team, apart from maybe defenseman Philippe Boucher, can be relied on to score goals. Mike Modano is too old to remain effective, Brenden Morrow will provide grit and leadership, but, even if his season isn't riddled with injuries, which in itself would be an accomplishment, the Stars' captain can't be relied on for more than 60-odd points, Mike Ribeiro is too soft to score more than 60 points -- the list goes on and on. So despite boasting a tremendous goaltender and a great defense headlined by superstar blueliner Sergei Zubov, Boucher and trade deadline pickup Mattias Norstrom, the Stars will once again be hard-pressed to score goals, something that should prevent them from challenging for the Pacific Division title. The Stars are probably a playoff team and, with a few deadline acquisitions, could make noise in the postseason. But they'll be clawing for a playoff berth come April and their anemic offense is a big reason why.

9. Nashville -- The Predators underwent one of the most disastrous off-seasons of any team in NHL history. They lost their entire first line in leading scorer Paul Kariya (signed with division rival St. Louis), future Hall-of-Fame center Peter Forsberg (unsigned free agent in limbo regarding retirement) and young, gritty winger Scott Hartnell (picked up by Philadelphia), their captain and No. 1 defenseman Kimmo Timonen (also signed with the Flyers) and starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun (traded to Florida). Those losses combined with persistent rumors regarding the team's imminent move to Kansas City/Hamilton/Las Vegas would logically make the Predators a lottery team. However, the Preds organization is so deep that, while they have no chance at finishing with the third-best record in the West again, will remain competetive for a playoff spot. They still have the makings of two very good offensive units, particularly if young forward Alexander Radulov steps up and Steve Sullivan doesn't sustain too many injuries and have an above-average defense corps centered around burgeoning blueliner Shea Weber. In goal, despite the loss of Vokoun, the team still has Chris Mason, who was great during Vokoun's injury last season, but largely remains a question mark. I expect the Predators to challenge for a postseason berth, but in a conference where teams need a competetive edge, Nashville lacks one -- their once high-flying offense has been replaced to two second-tier lines, their defense is unimpressive and their goaltending is average.

10. Los Angeles -- There's a reason Dean Lombardi was one of the most coveted among unemployed GMs last Summer, when the Los Angeles Kings hired him to fill their vacant position. Despite a few questionable moves during his first off-season in SoCal (trading for Dan Cloutier being the primary one), he quickly reshaped his reputation with his steal of a deal that landed him uber-prospect Jack Johnson from Carolina. This summer, he astutely stayed away from handing out big money and bigger term to the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez -- instead opting to sign a collection of second-tier free agents, including Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart and Kyle Calder. The additions of Stuart and Pressing in particular, combined with the development of Johnson rounds out a very underrated defense corps that also includes former All-Stars Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky. The forward unit is also extremely well-rounded, with young stars Anze Kopitar, Alex Frolov and Mike Cammalleri forming a dominant first line, followed by the likes of Handzus, Nagy, Calder, Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan rounding out the next six forwards. With that defense and those forwards, one would think this team is bound to end their three-year playoff-less slump this year. Alas, one would be very wrong. The Kings' goaltending situation is easily the worst in the Western Conference, if not the league. Cloutier endured a horrendous season that featured an abyssmal .860 SV% and an injury in late December that mercifully ended his season. Rather than risk losing AHL goalie-of-the-year Jason LaBarbera on entry waivers, the Kings rolled a carousel of awful goaltenders for the rest of the year, with likes of Barry Brust, Yutaka Fukufuji and Sean Burke minding Los Angeles nets for the remainder of the campaign, all with equally terrible results. Unfortunately for Kings' fans, despite all the positive progress Lombardi made with the team this off-season, the Kings will still fail to make the playoffs thanks to their terrible situation between the pipes, and will continue to miss the cut until highly-touted goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier makes his debut in purple.

11. St. Louis -- Give John Davidson and the rest of the Blues braintrust credit. After finishing last in the league in 2005-06 and watching their strategy of signing washed-up veterans blow up in their face during the early stages of 2006-07 (who could have imagined?), the St. Louis brass were able to administer quite the turnaround with the hiring of coach Andy Murray and shrewd deadline deals that yielded promising young forward Brad Boyes and a slew of draft picks for Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Dennis Wideman. The re-acquisition of Tkachuk, the addition of marquee free-agent signee Paul Kariya and the development of 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson should provide a considerable boost for the team from the abyssmal status it has suffered through since the lockout, but likely not enough to get them over the hump in a competetive west. Still, the mere fact that there's reason for St. Louis hockey fans to hold their heads high again and motivation for Missouri residents to attend Blues games that doesn't involve free food is a victory in and of itself.

12. Edmonton -- If the fictitious department of obscure awards were to hand out a trophy for most off-season headlines made by a team with decidedly little chance of having even a sniff of the post-season, the Oilers would likely be the recipients. First it was the Michael Nylander fiasco, then GM Kevin Lowe shot and missed with the Thomas Vanek offer sheet until finally Lowe was successful in an RFA poaching endeavor, stealing power forward Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks. While Edmonton's off-season, which also involved the acquisition of offensive defensemen Joni Pitkanen from Philadelphia and Sheldon Souray from Montreal, likely made Lowe few friends around the league, it incrementally improved an Edmonton team that was little better than a minor league outfit at the end of last season. Still, the Oilers are extremely thin up front and, despite the team's failures last season, at least they had an outlet for Ales Hemsky's passes in Petr Sykora. This year, unless Penner has somehow gained two steps over the summer, the Oilers lack a legitimate sniper for Hemsky to dish the puck to, a problem further exacerbated by Fernando Pisani's recent injury. The team's goaltending tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon is also fairly underwhelming, especially when compared to the netminding situations of their division rivals. So while this team is unlikely to be as pathetic as the unit that took the ice at the end of last season, the playoffs are a longshot to say the least and a finish out of the division basement would likely have to be considered a success.

13. Chicago -- "As Martin Havlat goes, the Blackhawks go" was the mantra chanted by Chicago last season, but unfortunately, the entire team couldn't fit in the hospital room the Czech forward frequented last year. While oft-injured, the Blackhawks' lone star was stellar last season, often a one-man show without much of a supporting cast to speak of. The Hawks hope they have that cast, with the free agent signings of Havlat's countryman Robert Lang and 2007 All-Star center Yannic Perreault, along with the hopeful emergence of the team's past two first-round picks, Jonathan Toews (No. 3 overall, 2006) and Patrick Kane (No. 1 overall, 2007). However, this is still a very young team with the likes of Brent Seabrook (22 years old), Tuomo Ruutu (24) and Duncan Keith (24) comprising the Hawks' core, and as with all youthful teams, the transitional phase their players must undergo will hamper short-term team progress, but should ensure a more competetive squad in the long run. So while the Blackhawks will likely be fighting neck-and-neck with Columbus for the Central Division basement this season, they should be a formidable opponent a few years from now, when the likes of Toews and Kane are NHL regulars and Seabrook, Keith and Cam Barker are standout defensemen. But this year, it's hard to envision a finish in the Western Conference's top 10.

14. Columbus -- The Blue Jackets have been a largely directionless franchise for the first seven years of their miserable existence, but after replacing incompetent General Manager Doug MacLean with former Edmonton Oilers GM Scott Howson, it would seem that better days are ahead for this Columbus team. Those days are well ahead, however, as the Jackets continue to be weighed down by the declining Sergei Fedorov's albatross of a contract, the lack of productivity from the talented, yet enigmatic, Nikolai Zherdev and a defense anchored by the obsolete Adam Foote. There's also the issue of goaltending, as the team employs one of the league's more underwhelming tandems featuring mediocre European call-up Fredrik Norrena and unproven, albeit promising, netminder Pascal Leclaire. It isn't all doom and gloom for the BJs, however, as new coach Ken Hitchcock brings with him a defensively conservative style which he was able to display late last season that should help the team eke out a few close wins. But one thing's for certain: if All-Star Rick Nash plans to have another 27-goal season, the Jackets might as well throw in the towel now and save themselves a lot of trouble. Even if Nash enjoys a more productive campaign, it's hard to imagine Columbus not finishing near the Central Division, and Western Conference, basement.

15. Phoenix -- Now, the Coyotes organization themselves have declared this season (and, presumably, quite a few in the forseeable future) a rebuilding campaign, so it's unfair to overly criticize the team for their relative inaction over the off-season. Some would argue their free agent dormancy was preferrable to previous off-seasons which saw Phoenix voraciously sign washed up veteran free agents (see Nolan, Owen and Ricci, Mike). Regardless, this is undoubtedly the worst team in the NHL. When Mike York and Steven Reinprecht are playing on your first line, you know any talk of offensive depth is comical. Speaking of a joke, the team's goaltending situation is one of the worst in the league with David Aebischer, Alex Auld and Mikael Tellqvist expected to battle it out for the top two netminding slots. The club's defense, however, is surprisingly above-mediocre, at least on paper, with youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek along with veterans Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris expected to do most of the heavy lifting on the back end. Still, with porous goaltending, a poor defensive system implemented by coach Wayne Gretzky and the remaining slew of problems facing the Coyotes this season, a finish ahead of 30th overall in the league would be quite the accomplishment.

* denotes division winner

See also: Eastern Conference Preview

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