Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NHL Season Preview - Western Conference

It's been a while since I've sat here about to write a blog. Since then I've enjoyed my rainy summer as best I could while packing up and moving back to Ontario.
With the NHL's newest campaign about to start on Thursday, what better time to come back and spit venom on this keyboard then now?
After a quick discussion with Rose unlike those that have made our ears bleed in Glendale, AZ, we've decided to focus on the conference which hosts our favourite teams. Hence, read Rose's blog for the East and disagree with mine in the West (GO PHOENIX!!!).
Pacific Division
The Ducks biggest loss last year came not from the ice but upstairs as GM Brian Burke bolted, in the worst kept secret, to Toronto as their new GM. Salary Cap wise, Burke created somewhat of a mess however was extremely instrumental in creating the championship team back in 2007. On the ice the team struggled throughout most of the season and would've missed the playoffs if not for Swiss G Jonas Hiller winning 12 of his (and the teams) last 16 games. Along with Hiller, Anaheim still has a nice core of young talent with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry leading the way and sophomore Bobby Ryan looking to continue with scoring after a 30 goal rookie campaign. Looking to re-kindle past success in Anaheim is Joffrey Lupul who's return to Anaheim marks the second time in his short career he's been involved in a deal that's also included Chris Pronger, with Pronger going to Philly. Rounding out the new additions are D Nick Boynton, F Saku Koivu and D Luca Sbisa. D Francois Beauchemin left for a big ticket deal in Toronto joining Pronger, D Bret Hedican and F Rob Niedermayer as other departures.
A simple math lesson for new GM's: little/no cap room + no impact additions + skimping on dependable backup + perennial slow start by G Marty Turco = One bad season. That's exactly what happened with the Stars last season. One year after making one the biggest trade deadline splashes in recent memories, acquiring F Brad Richards, the Stars did exactly the opposite the following off-season. The "Dynamic Duo" GM's that were Brett Hull and Les Jackson were nothing of the sort after limping through last off-season deciding on only F Sean "Sloppy Second" Avery and Swede rookie Fabian Brunnstrom. After losing Captain F Brendan Morrow for the season and D Sergei Zubov for long-term, the team faltered and hit a low point when Avery spoke with the Calgary Media about some girl next door and was soon dealt to the Rangers. Enter new GM Joe Nieuwendyk who's first order of business was ushering out coach Dve Tippett and bringing in Marc Crawford. No impact players were brought in with G Alex Auld, D Karlis Skrastins and D Jeff Woywitka being the new names. Departures included F Brendan Morrisson, F Joel Lundqvist, F Mark Parrish, D Darryl Sydor and Zubov. Look for Dallas to join the likes of Colorado and Ottawa who've enjoyed past success but are entering a rough patch.
This rebuilding franchise finally received a ROI last year but not where they expected it. Most improvement didn't come from the forwards as expected, but rather the blue line and backstop. G Jonathan Quick, along with rookie Drew Doughty and Kyle Quindey all paid great dividends while former 1st round pick Jack Johnson missed half the season with shoulder problems. The main goal this year is to improve scoring while maintain the goals against (11th). New additions this year include F Ryan Smyth and D Rob Scuderi, who proved his worth after last years performance with the Penguins. By bringing in Smyth, the Kings lost the resurrected Quincey and D Tom Priessing who were joined by F Derek Armstrong, F Kyle Calder, D Denis Gauthier. Unless the team can see improved scoring from forwards, it can be another year chalked up to rebuilding.
The Phoenix Coyotes. If you follow the sport, even a little bit, then you know about the franchise and their current situation. I'm not going to get into the details, if your unaware and curious, go someplace else and do the research. As for the team in continuous rebuilding mode, it be another long year. Bringing in new coach Dave Tippett will provide a definite upgrade behind the bench however with the losses of F Olli Jokinen (CGY), Nigel Dawes (CGY) and Steve Reinprecht (FLA) the team will rely more heavily on youngsters F Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Scottie Upshall, Mikkel Boedker and Matthew Lombardi all who are still unproven. New faces to the team include D Adrian Aucoin who should be a welcome addition to QB the PP, D Jim Vandermeer and F Radim Vrbata. As we watched Ilya Bryzgalov play slip last year, the team brought in Jason LaBarbera to supply back up. At the end of the day fans of the game will be more interested in what happens off the ice than on and unfortunately it'll affect the team.
All roads lead to San Jose. Well, according to F Dany Heatley that couldn't be any closer to the truth. After a question riddled off-season the disgruntled forward finally got his wish in the first day of training camp by being sent to the Sharks with a pick for F Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and 2 picks. As if this team needed any more firing power, they easily become a cup favourite if they weren't already. Even with the loss of Cheechoo and Michalek, the team has ample support for Heatley, Thornton and Marleau in the likes of sophomore F Devin Setaguchi and F Ryan Clowe. Even though this team is scary deep, one question mark in my mind is what happens if G Evgeni Nabakov goes down long term? That aside look for this team to continue the trend, if healthy, of 100+ point seasons. On a side note, former 67's D Derek Joslin, F Jamie McGinn and Logan Couture could get some action this year.
Central Division
A season to remember quickly became an off-season to forget for the Blackhawks. We all knew that with this much young talent, the franchise would eventually become a viable and competitive team. We just didn't see it coming that quickly, only three wins from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. Then trouble hit the scene quickly after the post-season was over. Pivitol playoff performers G Nicholai Khabibulin and F Martin Havlet, Sammy Pahlsson all were no longer in the Windy City and franchise player and face of the team, Patrick Kane was involved in an assault charge in his home town of Buffalo. What was supposed to be an off-season with renewed interest and anticipation became that which has been familiar to the team, questions. One of the big free agent splashes this off-season was Marian "I picked the wrong team damnit" Hossa. his scoring capability should compensate the loss of Havlet, but with a post-season to forget, he'll need to improve heavily if the Hawks are to be back in the fold. Another question mark is G Christobal Huet. Brought in for a large sum, Huet now has his chance to prove the franchise right by signing him. All these questions aside, the team is still extremely promising with players like F Chris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and David Bolland to compliment Toews, Kane and Hossa.
After a long nine years, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally became a playoff team. Even if it was for a minute, the playoff birth provided growth for the franchise and continued young GM Scott Howsen goal of building a reputation for himself as a competent GM. The biggest surprise for the team last year was G Steve Mason. The 20 year came in once G Pascal Leclaire was limited to only 12 games because of a nasty ankle injury. We all the know the story behind Mason. World Junior Championship star, OHL star, 10 shutouts, Vezina candidate and Calder winner all before the age of 21. Another problem that Mason was able to help solve was scoring depth. Mason's rise ultimately allowed the team to trade Leclaire to Ottawa in exchange for F Antoine Vermette. This move was made to provide a shot of offence for a team that relied on F Rick Nash, RJ Umberger and Kristian Huselius. Not much tinkering was done during the off-season, G Mathieu Garon was brought in for relief duty and gritty F Sammy Pahlsson moved from division rival Chicago. Look for sophomore F Derick Brassard to be look to for scoring this year, but in a tough Western Conference, fans will have to remember last year's playoff appearance until the next one come in a few years.
The Red Wings have been the model of consistentcy for years. That trend may be in jeopardy as no other team took hits as a result of the salary cap than the Wings. Key players Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Ty Conklin all left via free agency. The team still has plenty of depth with more minutes available for F Darren Helm, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary and Patrick Eaves. The biggest concern for this team is the the potential for wear and tear on the back end. D Nicklas Lidstrom is now 39 and may feel the effects of two consecutive 25+ game post-seasons. Similar to that is G Chris Osgood, if Osgood even comes close to his performance last regular season G Jimmy Howard will get his shot. Detroit will be a favourite for the division, however their rivals from the Windy City might a thing or two to say about that.
Ahh Nashville. You were a contender and with the snap of a finger...SNAP, back to reality. After 6 years in the post-season, the Preds missed the playoffs and more importantly stood idol as several key players left the organization. No acquisitions were made save for the locking up of the oft-injured F Steve Sullivan. If you do look for that silver lining it's young D Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. These two have all star potential and Weber went gangbusters last year to finish with 23 goals. A healthy F Jason Arnott, even at 35 years of age, can beleivably put up 25+ goals this season. Add to that the possibility of a consistent season from G Pekka Rinne and the Preds may have an outside shot at the playoffs. Just don't hold your breath.
Losing F Andy McDonald, D Eric Brewer, Erik Johnson and G Chris Mason early in the season spelt certain doom for the team. By New Years, the Blues were in 15th place and without hope. Then suddenly they started playing. Mason returned to play 38 straight games posting a 24-8-6 record and the return of McDonald along with youngsters F David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund provided enough punch to clinch a playoff spot in the second to last game and finishing 6th overall. Although the team scored only 5 goals and lost in a sweep, the team shows promise. The two major departures for this team are defencemen Jay McKee (PIT) and Jeff Woywitka (Dal), however with hopes of Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson playing a healthy season, these losses should be compensated. In goal, the Blues brought in a reliable Ty Conklin who's posted 43 wins in the last two seasons as a backup. If health isn't an issue, 2nd most games lost to injury last year, the team should compete for the 6,7,8 spot.
Northwest Division
The "Iron Mike" era, after a season of high hopes ended with a fourth consecutive first round exit to the upstart Hawks, with GM Darryl Sutter's younger brother, and Red Deer native, Brent taking over. With several big ticket contracts for G Mikka Kiprusoff, F Jarome Iginla, D Dion Phanuef and Robyn Regher, the Flames tried to fiscally get some bang for their buck. This yielded mix results as F Rene Bourque exceded expectations while F Todd Bertuzzi couldn't recapture his old form, even if his contract only ate up 1.95M. With 39 goal scorer F Michael Cammalleri leaving for Montreal, the loss of those goals will be on F Olli Jokinen to fill the gap. To add to an already impressive blue line the Flames acquired D Jay Bouwmeester for a song at the draft and quicky locked him up for 5 years. The addition vaulted the Flames as a team with arguably the best defensive corps in the league. After a lack luster season by Phanuef, look for Brent Sutter (Phaneuf's Red Deer Rebel coach), to help bring his game back up. Kiprusoff will again carry the load in net and therein lies the biggest question mark. With a declining save pct. in each of the past 5 seasons, no reliable back-up and four early round exits, Kiprusoff needs to regain his form of old to help bring this team further in the playoffs.
The Oilers for a few years now have been that team "on the cusp", however they have yet to reach that cusp and last year was the straw that broke the camel's back for 9+ year coach Craig McTavish. Boasting one of the leagues worst PP's, sophomore slumps by F Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, only two 20 goal scorers (one being D Sheldon Souray) and a single player over 65 points caused the nessecary changes. coach Pat Quinn replaced McTavish and is joined by Tom Renney to provide a fresh attitude. On defence, Sheldon Souray still leads the corps joined by Lubomir Visnovsky and one year more mature Tom Gilbert. Between the pipes two goalies playing into the well known "contract year" status received their contracts. G Dwayne Roloson left for the Isles and Nikolai Khabibulin signed a 4 year deal at the age of 36 leaving the Windy City. In order for the Oil to make the playoffs since being one game away from winning it all in 06' (sniff), more productivity needs to be put in by F Shawn Horcoff ($7 mil this year), Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky. Without this, it'll be another long season in Oil Country.
After their worst season since moving to Denver the Avalanche lost an icon to the game, Joe Sakic, to retirement. With a core of young talent in F Paul Stasney, Wojtek Wolski, Marek Svatos and rookie Matt Duchene, the future looks bright but may be in for a rough patch. The team moved Ryan Smyth (LA) in exchange for Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing to solidify the back end. In net however is the teams weakest point. G Peter Budaj never lived up to the hype and is now on a carousal of netminders who'll likey share duty throughout the season. One thing the team can look forward to this year is a chance to receive the first overall pick in next years entry draft as it won't be good this year, no matter how many times you shake the 8-ball.
After missing the playoffs this year certain expectations weren't met and changes needed to be made. From top to bottom, GM Doug Risebrough was given the door, coach Jacques Lemaire resigned after a long tenure and the departure of Marian Gaborik ended a love/hate relationship that ranked second only to the players continual injury problems. Apparently the team hasn't learned their lesson as they handed a large contract to F Martin Havlet who himself has battled injuries for most of his career. F Owen Nolan enjoyed a return to his former self however don't expect that to repeat itself. Even with the team remaining relatively stable defensively (G Niklas Backstrom being locked up long-term and the addition of D Greg Zanon) the team will still need to improve scoring in order to compete in a tough NW division. This team should make the playoffs but don't be surprised if they miss out.
The Canucks appeared poised to go deep in the playoffs. After ending the season strong and sweeping the Blues however G Roberto Luongo's second round meltdown resulted in a career worst 7 goals in game 6 and a series loss to the Hawks. These expectations carried into the off-season while GM Mike Gillis had some decisions to make. His decision ultimately meant re-signing the Sedin twins to matching 5 year/30.5 M contracts and bringing in former Stanley Cup winner F Mikael Samelsson. He wasn't done there though, to replace the departed D Mattius Ohlund, he traded for D Christian Erhoff and signed the captian of his team, franchise player, G Roberto Luongo to a massive 12-year contract extension. In order to meet these expectations, the Canucks will need a healthy and happy captain and some supportive scoring that has plagued the team for years. All said, the Canucks should compete for the division title.
McCoy's picks:
Division winners - San Jose, Chicago and Calgary
Cup finalists - San Jose and Pittsburgh
Cup winner - Pittsburgh