This is day one of Stoop Sports’ NHL preview, a four day event that has been waiting in the wings for way too long. Tomorrow the hockey staff will preview the Eastern Conference but for now, sit back and get acquainted with Western Conference before the first games on Saturday.
Breaking down the Western Conference are NHL Staff writers Ryan Pavlicek, Anthony Pucik, Corey Cahill, Scott Abuso and Clayton Dyer. You are all set free.
Day One: NHL Western Conference Preview
Question 1: Who are your three division winners and why? Who will have the best record in the conference and why?
Ryan Pavlicek- A shortened 48 game schedule makes it very difficult to make this kind of prediction. Simply put, there’s no way to know which teams will have a fast start out of the gate which will be a huge factor in the final standings. While young teams are more of a threat because of better stamina, the experienced teams will be more likely to pick up where they left off last season. The experienced teams are those who will conquer the top of the Western Conference because they’re simply the most prepared for what’s to come this season. That’s why my number one seed out of the West for the playoffs will be the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings. The Pacific Division is there’s to lose. Although Anze Kopitar will miss the first 3-4 weeks of the season, the team as a whole is strong enough to not miss a beat. Jonathan Quick is the best goalie in the league right now (sorry Rangers fans) and their top flight defense is still in tact. Don’t forget that the Kings are extremely skilled offensively which makes them the most complete team in the NHL. Coming in second will be the Northwest champion Vancouver Canucks. This is a team that has won the conference each of the last two seasons, and that’s because they’re always dominant through 82 games. For that, I expect a shortened season to help this team in particular. The Canucks stay hot all year but always falter in the playoffs. The team can’t seem to handle the playoff intensity after expending all of their energy on a full 82 game season, therefore, a shortened season will keep them rested and ready to go. It won’t be enough to win the conference for a third straight season, but it could make a difference come playoff time. Rounding out the top three will be the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues. This is a team with two tremendous goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. These two proved to be quite the duo last season, and they will be even more dangerous during a shortened season. Playing games almost every other day, and a lot of back to backs, the Blues have the luxury of having two goalies who are proven winners. This is their division to lose, but they won’t thanks to a stellar defense and even better goaltending.
Anthony Pucik- In this shortened NHL season there are going to be a great deal of surprises around the league. If one team gets hot early it will be the difference between making the playoffs or missing them. Having said that, in the Western Conference the Central Division will go to the St. Louis Blues, the Northwest to the Colorado Avalanche, and the Pacific to the Dallas Stars. The St. Louis Blues have virtually the same team that they did last year and they finished just behind the Vancouver Canucks, second in the conference, so I expect them to be just as successful as they were last year and take the Central Division without a problem. The Colorado Avalanche are an interesting team; last year they shot out of the gates as one of the best teams in the NHL and then fell off the map as the season progressed. This year, with the addition of an extra scorer in former Islander P.A. Parenteau, I think that the Avalanche start off hot again, but this year because of the short season the season, stay atop the standings and steal the Northwest Division. The Stars will take the Pacific Division this year because of their offseason acquisitions. Aging stars Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney were acquired to bring some veteran presence to the team, as well as strengthen the Stars offense. Just missing the playoffs last year, the Stars will come out hungry and take a highly contested Pacific Division. The St. Louis Blues will do what they could not do last year and win the Western Conference. With a fantastic goalie tandem of Halak and Elliot in a season where having two good goalies will be important because of the frequent back to back games, the Blues will have enough to rise atop the conference standings.
Corey Cahill- Coming out of the Central Division, arguably the strongest division in the NHL last year, I like the Detroit Red Wings. The Blues beat them out by 5 points last season and these two will compete for the division again. Why? Age will not be a factor for Detroit because of the shortened season and also it is going to be very, very difficult for Halak and Elliot over there in St. Louis to duplicate what they did last year in net, with a combined GAA of 1.76. The Red Wings are a terrific home team and along with their up and coming goaltender Jimmy Howard, I see them taking back the Central crown. The Vancouver Canucks will win the Northwest Division. I don’t see the Canucks having that much competition this year even with the Minnesota Wild’s acquisitions of Parise and Suter. Like a lot of teams with a couple big newcomers, it usually takes them at least half the season to gel. In this case, that half season, is the entire season. The Oilers have a young, promising team and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sneak up in the Northwest. Cory Schneider is going to take the reins in net for Vancouver as Roberto Luongo watches. With the Sedin brothers and a nice supporting cast, the Canucks will win the Northwest by 8+ points. Out of the Pacific, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Los Angeles Kings, will take the division and the conference and be even better than they were last year. Jonathan Quick will carry the team throughout the shortened regular season and the team will continue to build off of their Stanley Cup run from last season. With the depth on this Kings roster, the only place they can go from here is up. As we all know this is hockey and due to the competitive balance that it holds, ANYTHING can happen.
Scott Abuso- The St. Louis Blues will take the Central Division. The Blues proved themselves to be a strong team in the West last season, led by the defensive minded coaching of Ken Hitchcock they put together an impressive run to the playoffs. A large part of their success can be credited to the strategy of rotating their two starting caliber goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. The tandem is quite used to playing for short stretches and taking a seat on the pine. Being that the shortened season will force a few teams into a similar situation, I believe the Blues will thrive on their recent winning experience. The Colorado Avalanche will take the Northwest. Colorado is a very young team and that showed early in the 2011-2012 season. The team broke out to a great start, feeding off of the energy and just burning through their competition. They were in playoff contention up until midseason, but look for this team to come out swinging with a new focus this year, because of the talent of P.A. Parenteau and the play of Semyon Varlamov. The Dallas Stars will take the Pacific. If you were paying attention to the early signings of the NHL offseason, you could tell the Dallas Stars were gearing up for a playoff run. They added the powerful veteran offensive weapons of Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, while trading away a physical forward in Ott for the offensive prowess of Derek Roy. Given the age of Jagr and Whitney, the Stars have a tiny window of opportunity and this year I believe they cash in and take the division.
Clayton Dyer- Although they are susceptible to the Stanley Cup hangover, the Los Angeles Kings are just too good not to win the Pacific Division. With Vezina Trophy winner Jonathon Quick in goal, and the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Dustin Brown up front, the Kings easily have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league. The fact that the Kings have almost the exact same roster as last season’s Stanley Cup winning team is just another reason why this Los Angeles squad is poised to come out of the Western Conference with the #1 seed, and possibly even the President’s Trophy. Out in the Northwest the Minnesota Wild are just too good not to win the division. Granted, the Wild haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, but with a possible first line of Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, and Mikko Koivu, this Minnesota team could become a force in the Northwest for years to come. Finally, the St. Louis Blues balanced roster and dynamic duo in net will lead them to another Central Division title. Like the Kings, the Blues will enter the 2013 season with a roster almost identical to the one that lead them to a 49-win season last year. The Blues second place finish in 2011-’12 shocked the hockey world, but nobody is taking them lightly this year.
Question 2: Who are your other five playoff teams and why?
Ryan- In no particular order, the 4-8 seeds will be held by the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche, and the Dallas Stars. The Red Wings have a talented goalie in Jimmy Howard and are experienced everywhere else on the ice. The Red Wings may be old, but they’re the best home team in the league. The shortened season may be tiresome for this team in particular but it won’t keep them out of the playoffs. The Blackhawks still have a dynamic offense and a great defense. Their fallback is inconsistency from goaltender Corey Crawford who was awful during their round one playoff loss last season. Crawford should be better and the Blackhawks will make the playoffs yet again. The Predators did lose Ryan Suter and Alexander Radulov, but they’re coached well enough to make the playoffs again. The defense is still good enough to manage without Suter and goaltender Pekka Rinne is a big reason why as he will make the defense look better than it is. Head coach Barry Trotz is one of the best in the game and he’ll make sure the offense does its part. The Colorado Avalanche looked like one of the leagues best early last season, but collapsed badly mid-season. They fell short of the playoffs, but the addition of P.A Parenteau will be a huge boost. Although John Tavares undoubtedly was a big reason for Parenteau’s point production in New York, he shouldn’t decline too much with the talented and finally healthy Matt Duchene. This team is ready to finally be consistent, taking advantage of this short season. I stressed experience earlier in my part of this roundtable and the Dallas Stars gained experience when they signed Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. Those two additions will improve an already impressive offense, but also provide the veteran leadership needed for a playoff team. Sheldon Souray left the defense, but as long as they lockup superstar Jamie Benn, the offense should be good enough to win a lot of games.
Anthony- The other five teams that will make the playoffs in the Western Conference, in no particular order, are the Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Even though the Predators lost Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild, they will still have enough pieces to make the playoffs this year with Pekka Rinne behind the net and all of their scorers returning from last year. The additions of Zach Parise and the aforementioned Suter will give the Wild a boost on both offense and defense, and will push them into the playoffs. The Wild made much needed changes this offseason to ensure they would not be left out of another playoffs. The Phoenix Coyotes will be able to find their way into the playoff picture again this year. Although they lost Whitney this offseason, they kept longtime captain Shane Doan and still have a great deal of last year’s team which brought them a division title, including goaltender Mike Smith. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions will make the playoffs this year and will most likely make it with much greater ease than they did last year. Superb goaltending from Jonathan Quick and solid offense (even with Anze Kopitar’s absence) will be enough for the Kings to have a chance to hoist the Cup again. To round out the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks will take a spot in the playoffs. Chicago certainly has the offensive tools to be a playoff team, if their defense and goaltending is solid than they have the potential to make noise in the playoffs.
Corey- My #4 playoff team is the St. Louis Blues. With their defense, excellent power play, and goaltending, they will be right behind the Red Wings in the Central, landing them in the #4 spot in the West. My #5 playoff team is the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks will get in as the fifth seed after a disappointing season last year because guys like Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle may benefit from a shortened season. If Antti Niemi is strong in net, the Sharks will be a top 5 playoff team. My #6 seed in the West is the Nashville Predators. The Preds lost Ryan Suter to the Wild, but retained Shea Weber. With Rinne in net and their core guys still together, the Preds will be in the playoffs. My #7 seed in the West is the Chicago Blackhawks, the fourth and final playoff team from the Central Division. With their high powered offense and sluggish goaltending, they will sneak in at #7. My eighth and final seed goes to the Dallas Stars. With the offseason acquisitions of Jagr, Whitney, and Derek Roy and young guys like Benn, Eriksson, and Goligoski, the Stars will get the final playoff spot. However, if Kari Lehtonen doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, the Stars stand no chance. Waiting right behind them are the Wild, Oilers, and Coyotes.
Scott- Despite the loss of Ryan Suter,the Nashville Predators have a solid core of forwards, an all-star goalie in Pekka Rinne, and a still strong defense. Expect them to make the playoffs in a respectable seeding. It all comes back to that shortened season for the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are a team loaded with talent, the result of many consecutive high draft picks. Despite the drafting of talent, the Oilers have been stuck in the bottom of the standings. This is the year. Expect them to feed off of the energy of having a young, offensive minded squad. They won’t win by playing great defense, but they just may have the prowess up front to sneak in. It would be foolish to count the Los Angeles Kins out of the playoffs. The entire Stanley Cup team is intact for at least the next three years; led by the stellar goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the late season pickups of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and their defensive talent, the Kings are a team ready to contend again. Although they won’t finish in the top three, they will most certainly come into the playoffs with a respectable seeding and make some noise as the defending champs. Despite the goaltending controversy developing on the Vancouver Canucks, they are fully capable of making the playoffs. They definitely won’t go all the way, but Luongo is a great regular season goalie and Schneider is a more than capable starter. The Sedin twins also put some kick in the Canucks’ offense while they have a more than serviceable defense. Go ahead, bring on the boos. The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the rebuilding process. You know what that means? Zero expectations. Nada. They traded away star forward Rick Nash for some solid team depth in Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon. Although I don’t expect a great deal out of them, the Blue Jackets can snag the 8th seed and get a little redemption for their absolutely abysmal 2011-2012 season.
Clayton- Seeds 4-8 should look pretty similar to last year’s, but who knows what could happen with a 48-game sprint of a season? While the Phoenix Coyotes won’t win the Pacific this year, goaltender Mike Smith will lead them back to the playoffs. The loss of Ray Whitney is definitely a big one for the ‘Yotes, but they have enough firepower up front to make up for his absence. The Canucks won’t be as dominant as they have been in recent years because of uncertainty surrounding their goaltending situation, but they will make the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Their finish in the standings, however, will most likely be determined by the play of goaltender Cory Schneider, who hasn’t played more than 33 games in a season. Roberto Luongo’s bags are practically packed, so Schneider’s workload will significantly increase this season, but whether he can handle it or not will greatly influence Vancouver’s season. The Chicago Blackhawks are another team whose fate will greatly rest on the shoulders of their man between the pipes. Corey Crawford took a step back from his breakout campaign in 2010-’11, and was shaky at times, but still put up respectable numbers last season. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathon Toews have more than enough talent to carry the Hawks to a playoff berth, but the pressure will definitely be on Crawford and backup Ray Emery. The San Jose Sharks will be back in the playoffs, although that’s pretty much a given nowadays (the Sharks haven’t missed the postseason since 2002). However, not once have they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in that 10-year span, and San Jose’s window for winning the Cup is certainly dwindling with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Martin Havalt’s best years behind them. Finally, what would the NHL playoffs be without the Detroit Red Wings? The loss of Niklas Lidstrom leaves a gaping hole in the Red Wings defense and leadership core, and forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are aging fast, but I don’t see the Red Wings missing the playoffs any time soon.
Question 3: Who is your dark horse team that can possibly steal a playoff spot from one of your eight teams above?
Ryan- There is quite the debate stirring around the NHL world in regards to where the Edmonton Oilers will finish. Some say it’s a lock that they make the playoffs after drafting #1 overall for the third straight season and drafting Nail Yakupov. Yakupov will be added to one of the most talented forward depth charts the league has, while college star Justin Schultz attempts to strengthen a weak defense. My only issue with the Oilers is that Schultz hasn’t proved himself in the NHL yet as this will be his rookie season, and the many extremely talented forwards are still young and developing. Also, the Oilers young team has had problems staying healthy. Devan Dybnyk also needs to show that he’s the goalie of the future, although it already appears he’s establishing that. In the end, the Oilers seem more like a 9-10 seed that will take huge strides before making the playoffs in 2013-14. But if everything goes smoothly in a shortened season (very possible) they could return to the playoffs this season.
Anthony- My dark horse for the Western Conference is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Granted, they just lost their best goal scorer last year in Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, but this may not be the worst thing in the world. In that trade, they picked up two solid offensive players in Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov who will add much needed depth to a very weak Columbus offense. I think Columbus rides this new team chemistry and surprises a lot of teams in the beginning of the season with a “nothing to lose” attitude en route to coming very close to making the playoffs.
Corey- My dark horse is the aforementioned Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers have had the number 1 overall pick the past three years, so they have to be good eventually, right? I think they can be a very good team this year and possibly get into the playoffs. Their top six forwards shape out to be Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, and Nail Yakupov. That is some serious firepower in the top two lines. This team looks like it may be shaping up to be a Red Wings like team when Datsyuk and Zetterberg were in their prime. On defense, things aren’t as bright. They re-signed big time prospect Justin Schultz this offseason, which is a positive moving forward for this team. Their top four defensemen will probably consist of Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Ryan Whitney, and Justin Schultz. If they want to contend for a playoff spot, their defense has to be better than it has been in years past. In net, Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin will continue to share games like they did last year. The large, 6’5” Dubnyk is the younger one and probably their goalie of the future so he will most likely take over the starting job by the second half of the season, barring his performance. If all goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if the Oilers got the eighth seed in the West, possibly even the seventh. As we all know though, not everything goes according to plan all the time. We will just have to wait and see.
Scott- The Chicago Blackhawks are a team loaded with talent, but as last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs showed us, talent up front can only take a team so far. The reality is, the situation in Chicago’s net is shaky at best. Crawford is a capable NHL starter, but his play as of late has made him look beyond mediocre. In fact, two soft goals he allowed sealed the Blackhawks fate against the Coyotes.
Clayton- As much as I would like to say the Edmonton Oilers, I think there is not enough talent in net and too much uncertainty on defense for their young guns to carry them to the promised land. The real dark horse in the Western Conference is the Dallas Stars who haven’t made the playoffs since 2007. General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk made some great moves this offseason, bringing in talented forwards Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, and Derek Roy. Although Whitney and Jagr are both on the tail ends of their respective careers, the two can still pack a punch; Jagr had 54 points in his first season back in the NHL after a 3-year hiatus in Russia while Whitney put up 77, good enough for 12th in the league. Roy, on the other hand, should be entering his prime at the age of 29. He probably won’t match his career high of 81 points set back in 2007 with the Buffalo Sabres, but it isn’t too much for the Stars to ask for 50 points from the talented center. Dallas lost center Mike Ribiero to free agency, but the addition of those three forwards, along with the development of left winger Loui Eriksson, will more than make up for his absence. A huge question mark for the Stars, however, is the fate of restricted free agent center Jamie Benn. The cash-strapped ownership group in Dallas will be hard-pressed to sign the young All-Star, but if the Stars have any hope of making the playoffs in 2013, they will need to lockup Benn.
Question 4: Who finishes dead last in the conference and why?
Ryan- While some will say that the Columbus Blue Jackets will surprise some people this season, I say that there’s no chance. I had no problem with them trading Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, but I felt they could’ve gotten better pieces in return. Publicizing that Nash wanted out and only wanted a select number of teams obviously brought down the Blue Jackets leverage in what to ask for in return. If you forgot, the Blue Jackets received Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first round pick (which will be a high one by the way). Yes, these players will help move the franchise along, but not without some more developed talent surrounding them. Their blue line looks great for the future, but losing 2012 first round pick Ryan Murray for the season is a huge blow for right now. It’s just to soon to think the Blue Jackets can climb the standings, especially without a proven starting goaltender.
Anthony- The team that comes dead last in this conference is the San Jose Sharks. This season features a lot of division games, and from looking at it the San Jose Sharks are worse than everyone else in their division so I do not see them winning a lot of those games. That on top of other teams throughout the conference looking better on paper, I think that the Sharks end up at the bottom of the pool in the Western Conference.
Corey- This one almost seems too easy to answer. After another dreadful season last year, Scott Howson and the Columbus Blue Jackets found a way to get worse, not to mention they lost out on the first overall pick in the lottery. They traded Rick Nash to the Rangers in the offseason for almost nothing and got Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov from New York, but are they really going to make that big of a difference moving forward? If I were the owner of the Blue Jackets, Scott Howson would not have a job right now. Ok, back to the point. My point is that the fans in Columbus are going to be sick and tired again after another season of the Blue Jackets finishing last in the West. If they do, it will mark the fourth consecutive season where they have had a bottom three finish in the West. To add injury to insult, their #2 overall draft pick from this past season, Ryan Murray, will be out 6-8 weeks after undergoing shoulder surgery this past week. I pray each day for the fans of Columbus that things start to get better. Scott Howson is on the hot seat this year.
Scott- It’s sad to say, and I really cannot believe I’m saying this, but the Detroit Red Wings will finish last in the conference. In a shortened season, it’s all about a great start on the road to the playoffs. Being in their first year of the Post-Lidstrom era, the Red Wings have some learning to do. That coupled with their aging offensive stars has me doubting a successful year from the Wings.
Clayton- If there is one certainty in this very uncertain National Hockey League, it is this: the Columbus Blue Jackets will finish last in the Western Conference. I have always kind of pulled for this “Little Train that Couldn’t”, but GM Scott Howson has literally steered this team into the ground… and then kept going. Nothing against the former Philadelphia Flyer, but when the best player on your roster is R.J. Umberger, anything higher than a 12th place finish in the super competitive and compact Western Conference should be considered a miracle. Right now, the only thing Blue Jackets fans will be looking forward to is the summer, when they can hopefully draft a future star. However, this draft class is not nearly as talented as ones in the past, and “rebuilding process” doesn’t even begin to describe the current situation in Columbus. If I’m Howson (which, honestly, I’m glad I’m not) I’d look to ship every player not named R.J. Umberger, Jack Johnson, or Brandon Dubinsky out of Columbus, and try to rope in as many draft picks as I possibly can. This team needs to be completely dismantled; there isn’t a snowballs’ chance in hell of the Blue Jackets making the playoffs this year or any year in the future with the lineup they have right now.