Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Western Conference Predictions

The thirteen actors depicted on the left represent thirteen teams that have a legitimate shot at making the Western Conference playoffs. That's right, the only teams I'm ruling out right now are the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators, and the St. Louis Blues. All of the other teams have a fairly decent shot at finishing in the top eight for one reason or another, but no team has more pressure to do that this season than the Chicago Blackhawks. Here's a team who will finally be showing all of their games on television (welcome to this century, Chicago fans), spend loads of money to sign Brian Campbell and Christobal Huet, have two of the most exciting young players in the game in Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews, will be hosting the second annual Winter Classic against Detroit on New Year's Day, and has finally decided to waive Nikolai Khabibulin. There's plenty of promise in Chicago and just about everyone is predicting this team to finish well in 2009. The Central is no longer an easy division for the Red Wings and I think we'll get a glimpse of that over the next few months of hockey.

1. Detroit Red Wings
The Stanley Cup Champions didn't lose anybody important (au revoir Dominik Hasek), but instead, managed to rope in Marian Hossa, one of the premier offensive players in the NHL. The Wings are loaded on the back end with every-year Norris contender Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski leading the way. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will lead an explosive offense.
Key Additions: Marian Hossa, Ty Conklin
Impact Player: Chris Osgood (Along with Franzen, he was the x-factor in last season's cup victory. Can he do it again?)

2. Dallas Stars
There was no one happier than Martin Brodeur when Sean Avery signed with the Stars during the offseason - unless you count the Stars themselves. Avery add to the already impressive depth on the Stars offensive unit which includes Brendan Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, aging Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, and the biggest mystery in the NHL, Fabian Brunnstrom, who until he signed with Dallas, was considered the best player not in the NHL. In goal, Marty Turco will come back after a strong postseason and look to build on that success.
Key Additions: Sean Avery, Fabian Brunnstrom
Impact Player: Sergei Zubov (Will age finally catch up to him? Or does the veteran have one more great season in him?)

3. Colorado Avalanche
Call me tinted or call me dumb, but the Colorado Avalanche will win the Northwest Division for the first time since 2003-2004. You can find faults with any team in the NHL, but the Avs have one major selling point which people need to get excited about. Their top six defensemen are as solid as they come. Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan, Jordan Leopold, and Adam Foote provide a steady, responsible crew. The biggest concern comes with Leopold, who has bones made of glass. If he can't stay healthy, the Avs will probably look to Daniel Tjarnqvist or Kyle Cumiskey to fill the void. Either way, this group should be able to limit the shots that Peter Budaj has to faced. Beyond the D, the offense still boasts several big names, including several pests - Darcy Tucker, Per Ledin, Ian Laperriere, Cody McLeod/McCormick, and Scott Parker. The Avs are certainly going to be a tough team to play against. Behind the bench, Tony Granato takes back his old job from "It's Time For A Line Change" Quenneville.
Key Additions: Per Ledin, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft
Impact Player: Peter Budaj (This team is going to sink or swim with goaltending. Budaj's time is now or never.)

4. San Jose Sharks
It always seems like it's supposed to be "their year." Last year, the Sharks were the trendy pick to make the Stanley Cup heading into the postseason. Instead, they barely survived a first round matchup with the Flames and ended up losing to the Stars in the second round. This season, the Sharks return with a completely revamped defensive group. During the offseason, they traded Matt Carle and promising youngest Ty Wishart to the Lightning for superstar Dan Boyle and they signed ex-Av Rob Blake over from the Kings. After firing Ron Wilson, the Sharks were in the market for a coach and hired Detroit assistant Todd McClellan to the position. It will be McClellan's first gig behind an NHL bench as a head coach.
Key Additions: Rob Blake, Dan Boyle
Impact Player: Patrick Marleau (The captain can't afford another terrible season. It's time to sink-or-swim.)

5. Chicago Blackhawks
Finally, their wait is over. The Blackhawks are going back to the postseason. The Hawks have plenty of talent, plenty of heart, and plenty of excitement to make this season a memorable one. The biggest question will come on defense where the Hawks are very weak. Brian Campbell isn't exactly a great defensive player (ok, I'd rather have Greg de Vries if we were talking purely about defense) and Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Cam Barker are still very young. Though, with all of the talent on the front end supporting Kane and Toews (Sharp, Havlat, Byfuglien, Ladd, Skille, and heck, add Campbell in there, too) the Hawks will have an impressive season.
Key Additions: Brian Campbell, Christobal Huet
Impact Player: Patrick Sharp (Sharp surprised a lot of people last season. With all of these young players needing to step up, Sharp is one of the experienced guys who will be looked to in the early-going)

6. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have had some troubles prior to the 08-09 season. Trying to sign Teemu Selanne has been harder than they originally thought and as I type this, they still don't have enough room to maneuver under the Cap. One has to wonder if Brian Burke is starting to think about leaving Anaheim after his contract expires this season bolting to, I don't know, Toronto? Regardless, the Ducks are not the same team that one the Cup a couple of seasons ago. The names are somewhat the same. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu will lead the offensive with Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermeyer in the backend. JS Giguere is still in goal and Randy Carlyle is still behind the bench. It's just, the Ducks didn't seem to have that same edge last season as they had in the past and I think it might carry over. The depth isn't what it used to be and the Ducks didn't do anything to improve last season's team unless you count the signeds of Brendan Morrison and Steve Montador. Factor that in with the incredible toughness of the Pacific, and the Ducks will struggle throughout.
Key Addition: Brendan Morrison
Impact Player: Corey Perry (If Getzlaf struggles, Perry is the go-to guy)

7. Calgary Flames
Todd Bertuzzi? Ugh. Mike Keenan? Ugh. Dion Phaneuf? Ugh. This team is absolutely disgusting. They'll make the playoffs thanks to Kipper, but don't expect me to like it. I am, afterall, an Avs fan. The Flames did well to get rid of Tanguay and replace him with a cheaper version of himself in Mike Cammalleri. Also, Jarome Iginla is still, without a doubt, the top right winger in the game. That, and the fact that Kipprusoff will be motivated to end the doubts that he is no longer a Vezina-quality goaltender, will be enough to get the Flames into the 7th spot.
Key Additions: Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi
Impact Player: Todd Bertuzzi (Does he prove that he's no longer a waste of space?)

8. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers got rid of some dead weight by trading Joni Pitkanen for Eric Cole and subsequently signing Lubomir Visnovsky to fill the void. The Oilers also went out and acquired once-considered-gem Gilbert Brule from the Blue Jackets. Brule was supposed to become a star in the NHL but he could never really find his footing in Columbus. If some of his potential starts to come out, the Oilers will have a special player. However, the Oilers already have a couple of special players on their side. Sam Gagner and Alex Hemsky lead the offense along with captain Shawn Horcoff. Last season, Gagner recorded the fifth most points in one season as an Oilers rookie, ranking behind Jari Kurri, Jason Arnott, Dave Lumley, and Glenn Anderson. That's some pretty good company. The Oilers were hot at the end of last season and should be able to find some consistency in '09.
Key Additions: Eric Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, Gilbert Brule
Impact Player: Tom Gilbert (With the inconsistency of Sheldon Souray, Gilbert needs to provide a lot on the blueline.)

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9. Phoenix Coyotes
Peter Mueller, Shane Doan, and Ilya Bryzgalov will make great attempt at getting the Yotes into the top eight but I think they'll fall just short. Look for this team to be a contender in 2010.

10. Minnesota Wild
Brian Rolston is gone and it'll be interesting to see how Andrew Brunette performs in a similar role. The defending Northwest champs didn't do enough to stay ahead of the Avs, Flames, and Oilers.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets
They've made some significant moves by drafting Nikita Filatov, signing Kristian Huselius, and trading for Raffi Torres, but RJ Umberger is not the #1 center they needed to play with Rick Nash.

12. Nashville Predators
I'm not sold on Dan Ellis and the Predators haven't sold many tickets in their years in Nashville.

13. Los Angeles Kings
Allow the youth movement to commence! Here's to Fukufugi making another start!

14. Vancouver Canucks
Who is going to score if one of the Sedins get injured? Certainly not Mats Sundin.

15. St. Louis Blues
Erik Johnson is injured and Paul Kariya isn't in his prime.

Western Conference Champion - Detroit Red Wings
It's not my fault that they're this good. If you're thinking about a Stanley Cup hangover, just remember that Marian Hossa has yet to win one.

Coming up, my Stanley Cup prediction!

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