OK, we did the East yesterday, so today we do the Western Conference. In order of projected finish, with comments:
1. San Jose Sharks. The NHL's most up-and-down team goes thru another rollercoaster season, achieving incredible highs in the regular season, only to get smashed in the playoffs. Again. How long can they keep going with this bunch and not burn everyone out? Evgeni Nabokov and 'Jumbo' Joe Thornton aren't getting any younger, and now with the trade for Dany Heatley, they have the NHL's biggest headcase.
2. Chicago Blackhawks. The NHL's 'Is This the Year? theme might as well be that for the 'Hawks, for after this season they have to re-sign Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, and the Hawks are already cap-screwed after signing Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract, then finding out that Hossa will not even be able to play until December due to shoulder surgery.
3. Calgary Flames. The Flames biggest problem, now that the whole Jay Bouwmeester episode is behind them? GM Darryl Sutter. 'Mr. Warmth' is about as talkative as a corpse. Fortunately, he also has some excellent talent to work with, provided Jarome Iginla doesn't get seriously injured, and they are able to actually spell Mikka Kiprusoff every so often. 73 games in net are too many at today's NHL level. The Flames actually have some decent talent at the 3rd line level; not all teams in the West can say that.
4. Detroit Red Wings. Ah, yes, the team you love to hate, because with all their problems (Goaltending, defections to the KHL, etc.,) the Wings still pose the single biggest night-in, night-out challenge to any other Western Conference team. The talent level may have diminished somewhat, but what they are losing in experience they are more than making up for in drive. And, the Wings have hockey's best scouting staff and upper management.
5. Anaheim Ducks. Despite trading away Chris Pronger (to Philadelphia) last season, despite the impending final Niedermayer retirement, the Ducks are able to hold on to talent and improve on it (Saku Koivu, most notably). If they could finally get the pieces back together again, they might be a sleeper pick to go far in May.
6. St. Louis Blues. If the phrase 'Youth shall be served' applied to hockey, the Blues would be at the top of the list. Returning a healthy Paul Kariya doesn't hurt. Neither does a solid goalie in Chris Mason. And, you have all that young budding talent that John Davidson & Co. has put together. This is a team definitely on the way up.
7. Vancouver Canucks. No Mats Sundin? No problem, as long as the Sedin twins are together. The potential downfall of the Canucks may be on the blueline, where three of their top six 'D' are over age 32. Of course, there always is the 'what if Roberto Luongo gets hurt?' question to deal with. And, since the Olympics will be held in Vancouver, there's that small matter of the 22-game road trip (14 before the Games, and eight after) to deal with, too.
8. Los Angeles Kings. Another young, talented team, ready to get into that elite group called the Western Conference Playoffs. What the Kings need is good, solid goaltending, something there hasn't been much of since the Fabulous Forum days. The Kings might be good enough to do it this season.
9. Minnesota Wild. This team is a team admittedly in transition right now. New GM (Chuck Fletcher), new coach (Todd Richards), new players (Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Shane Hnidy, Greg Zanon) and a new, more offense-oriented outlook. Gone are (amongst others) Marian Gaborik (and his groin problems), Martin Skoula (Hallelujah!) and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The Wild may not survive their October from Hell (6 of their first 7, and 8 of their first 11 are on the road) but if they should be anywhere near .500 after the Carolina game at Raleigh on Nov. 15th, look out.
10. Columbus Blue Jackets. Will Steve Mason stand on his head again this season like he did last year? With the first-ever playoff appearance behind them, the Jackets can concentrate on fine-tuning their roster, and finding two linemates that Rick Nash can play with. A lot for the Jackets will depend on not only who they're playing, but when. Especially with Detroit...
11. Dallas Stars. Like the rest of the lower third of the West, the Stars will find themselves in transition, especially as Mike Modano reaches the 40-year-old mark. Marty Turco needs to reduce his workload for the Stars to be competitive, but with the rest of the West getting better, the Stars may not be able to keep up.
12. Edmonton Oilers. Save for signing Nikolai Khabibulin, what did the Oil do this summer? Precious little, unfortunately. The 'Bulin wall' will have to hold up under a lot of pressure this winter.
13. Nashville Predators. Again, what did they do? Yes, the Preds signed Steve Sullivan, but he's getting long in the tooth, and the Preds need more offense, not less. Pekka Rinne will be one busy goalie as the minutes pile up. Time to blow it up and start over?
14. Phoenix Coyotes. It's good to see that the 'Yotes players still think hockey can work in the desert, even if Greater Phoenix cannot get across the Valley to see them. How much will the fallout from all the court proceedings mean to the on-ice product? You have to ask.
15. Colorado Avalanche. Owner Stan Kroneke is determined to cut costs; anyone tell him that cutting costs == losing? The Avs are in rebuild mode; hopefully Paul Stasny and Wojtek Wolski can carry the offensive load while the rebuild is under way.
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