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Sports Then and Now




Here Comes Hockey Season: Western Conference Preview

Posted on September 20, 2009 by Scott Weldon
It is almost time to start the annual quest for the Stanley Cup.

It is almost time to start the annual quest for the Stanley Cup.

The shortest off-season in professional sports is over. The NHL season is ready to begin again and most of the teams have made huge changes in an attempt to make the playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup in 2009-10. Here’s a quick look at the teams in the order they finished the regular season in their conferences and how I expect them to do this year and why.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. San Jose Sharks (5) – San Jose won the tough Pacific division and the President’s trophy as the leading team in NHL regular season last year. Then they were handled by a more talented eighth place Anaheim team losing their first round playoff series in six games.

San Jose has been an early season Stanley Cup favorite for years now and they started paying their players as if they’d already won a cup. As a result San Jose has huge cap problems this year. They had arguably the best defense in hockey last year giving up a league low 27.2 shots per game.

They started this off-season by dumping two legitimate NHL defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich on Vancouver for marginal prospects to make salary cap room. When you’re forced to dump talent to make room you  have budget issues. San Jose then traded offensive depth players Milan Michalek and Jonathon Cheechoo for disgruntled Ottawa sniper Dany Heatley.

Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton, perhaps the best playmaking center in the game and Heatley one of the best goal scorers in the last five years will thrive together. Throw in Stanley Cup winning point man Dan Boyle and youngster Devin Setoguchi and San Jose will have a devastating power play. The top end talent in San Jose has been boosted but their depth has been sapped. Goalie Evgeny Nabokov looked ordinary in the playoffs and has probably been propped up by that great San Jose defense.

I look for San Jose to lose the Pacific division to Anaheim this year and finish fifth in the west. Without the pressure of being a favourite they may actually prove to be a dangerous playoff opponent, but this perennial cup favourite is on the way down.

2. Detroit Red Wings (1) - Detroit won the Stanley Cup two years ago and lost to Pittsburgh in seven games in the final last year. They are still a cup contender and experienced playoff foe.

Henrik Zetterberg

Henrik Zetterberg

Times are troubled for the city of Detroit and the NHL yet Detroit management made big dollar ($6 and $4 million a year respectively) long-term commitments to team stars Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. It seemed a nice statement of faith in troubled times. Detroit with Datsyuk till 2013-14 will have a strong first scoring line for years to come.

The team still has the best three defensemen in hockey with Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall rivaling the big three in Montreal during the 1970’s Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. Goaltending always seems to be a question mark in Detroit but

Osgood has been good enough to win and not bad enough to lose. There’s no money left to go look for a better goalie. They’re going to have to draft a replacement if Jimmy Howard isn’t it. They lost Samuelsson, Hudler, Kopecky, Hossa and Conklin this off-season. They won’t score as much as they did last year. Their checkers are aging and need to be replaced.

I still like Detroit to hold off Chicago and win the Central division and the west this year. I believe they lose in the playoffs this year to Anaheim or Chicago.

3. Vancouver Canucks (8) - Vancouver held the third seed by virtue of winning the suddenly weak Northwest division. They beat a good St Louis team and then were skated into the ice by a much faster more talented Chicago team.

Vancouver begins and ends with Roberto Luongo. When the top-five NHL goalie was out last year they floundered. Their good defense has been supplemented with freebees from San Jose and the aging power play specialist Mathieu Schneider. Their defense should be able to weather any injury storm. They may even be able to trade a surplus defenseman for scoring help.

The Sedin brothers were resigned and with the other Canuck of your choice (Mikael Samuelsson?) should provide a good scoring line. The talented Pavol Demitra is in decline and needs someone to play with. Mats Sundin’s point a game in the playoffs will need to be replaced. They can put together one of the toughest shut-down lines in the league with counter-attack ability.

I see Vancouver slipping back behind Calgary in the Northwest division and into eighth, the last playoff spot, in the West. Unless they address the lack of secondary scoring I expect them to score closer to 200 then 250 goals next year. They’ll go as far in the playoffs as Luongo can carry them.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (4) – Chicago leapt forward into fourth over-all in the west and second behind Detroit in the Central. Their inexperience seemed to finally cost them against Detroit but their talent saw them past the Flames and Canucks.

Chicago lost UFA’s Martin Havlat, Nikolai Khabibulin, and Sami Pahlsson. They replaced the checker with Tomas Kopecky and John Madden. They replaced Martin Havlat and his concussed brain with Marian Hossa and his bad shoulder. That’s probably a wash. They signed all their RFA’s and have an unbelievably talented young line-up fresh off a deep run in the playoffs.

Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg, Cam Barker, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Jack Skille can be expected to improve as players next year. Dale Tallon had assembled a deep collection of young talent supplemented by a few over-priced veterans like Campbell, Huet and Havlat. After his dismissal it’ll be the new regimes job to try to hold this team together especially with Kane and Toews being RFA’s next year.

Kris Versteeg

Kris Versteeg

Chicago is jammed against the cap. Hopefully the bad karma incurred by firing Tallon doesn’t drag them down. They have a goalie who in the past has done well in a platoon situation and poorly when given too much of a workload or put under pressure. Chicago has him as their only experienced goaltender on a Stanley Cup contender. Yikes. They’ll have to make a deal for a real starting goalie or a platoon mate for Huet before the trade deadline. Josh Harding from Minnesota might be a cheap pick-up.

I’m thinking Huet holds Chicago back from beating Detroit for the Central championship but I think this team may actually end the season with a better record then either the Pacific or Northwest champion. I believe Chicago makes a deal for another goalie and makes it to and wins the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961 when a third place team featuring Glenn Hall, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Bobby Hull managed the feat.

5. Calgary Flames (3) - Calgary lost the Northwest division championship and third seed to Vancouver in the last week of the season when injury and cap problems forced them to play with a reduced roster during the playoff push. They played Chicago in the first round and the swift Blackhawks were probably the worst match-up for Calgary’s slow defense. They lost in six.

Calgary has upgraded their defensive speed this year with the addition of fast, fast young Jay Bouwmeester. Combined with Phaneuf and Giordano Calgary suddenly has three quick defensemen. Phaneuf, Sarich and Regehr hit like trucks. Bouwmeester , Phaneuf and Giordano have offensive skills.

Calgary now has a nice blend of skills on their defense as Sutter has finally gotten away from the need to have six nasty non-skaters playing on his defense. Mikka Kiprusoff has been worked to death the last four years and his goals against average and save percentage have declined each year.

This mobile defense will provide better coverage in their own zone and a bigger role for back-up Mcelhinney should allow Kiprsuoff to enter the playoffs rested for a change. Calgary lost a lot of offense when Cammalleri and Bertuzzi left for greener pastures. Iginla, Langkow, Jokinen, Borque, and Moss are unlikely to provide as much offense as the flames managed last year.

They’re desperately looking for secondary scoring from somewhere and so expect Nigel Dawes, Jamie Lundmark, Fred Sjostrom, Mikael Backlund and perhaps even Theoren Fleury to get a chance to provide it. Probably only Backlund has a chance of doing so. This is probably Jarome Iginla’s last chance to win a cup.

I think this Calgary team with a little more puck-movement and offense from the back end sneaks past Vancouver to win the Northwest division. They can probably win a playoff series with the right match up but that’s it. They don’t seem to be able to match up with the elite teams in the league.

6. St Louis Blues (6) – St Louis made it into the playoffs despite huge injury problems. Unfortunately they couldn’t solve Roberto Luongo in the first round.

St Louis like Boston had a very balanced scoring line-up last year. If everyone stays healthy they could finish the season with seven 20-goal scorers: Brad Boyes, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Patrick Berglund, and TJ Oshie. David Peron might flirt with 20 as well.

Chris Mason

Chris Mason

Keeping Eric Johnson out of golf carts during preseason is going to have to be the team’s first priority.  A healthy Johnson upgrades this defense from fair to good. Chris Mason with a good backup in Ty Conklin should handle the goaltending competently for St Louis. I look for their youngsters to take a step forward and their old guys to stay healthy though Eric Brewer after suffering through a year of back problems just has arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss the start of the season.

I like St Louis to do well in the tough Central division and perhaps win a first round match-up with the Northwest division champs.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets (10) - Columbus was the fourth team to make the playoffs from the tough Central division and then were swept by their deep experienced foe, the Detroit Red Wings.

Columbus behind Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system and the great goaltending by rookie Steve Mason made it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Mathieu Garon has been brought in to back up Mason and to start if Mason turns out to be Roman Cechmanek.

The offense was carried last year by star Rick Nash. The team’s fourth leading scorer Jason Williams was allowed to depart. Derek Brassard a youngster coming off injury is expected to be the teams first line center. The acquisition of Samuel Pahlsson means Columbus now sports three centers, Umberger, Vermette and Pahlsson who are best known during their careers as checkers. This is probably a bad place to look for offense. Voracek. Brassard and Filatov will have to pick up the offense for this team to score more then they did last year. If the goaltending or defense takes even a small step backward this team could be in trouble.

I see this team slipping back to ninth place and out of the playoffs. The defense and the offense may be just a little bit worse next year and in the competitive Central that will kill them.

8. Anaheim Ducks (2) – The Ducks beat out the Wild by two and the Predators by three to make the playoffs. They then proceeded to upset San Jose in six games and extend the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Red Wings to seven games.

The Ducks have moved from cap-strapped former Stanley Cup champions on the decline to up and coming young team on the rebound with money to spend in one short year. They’ve weathered some huge losses along the way the biggest being big mean shut-down defensemen Chris Pronger.

They’ve let their aging star shut-down line of Pahlsson and Moen seek greener pastures. Francois Beachemin the talented third of their big three defenseman has also left, for Toronto, to seek his fortune. They’re now led by new superstar Ryan Getzlaf who would be my choice as Canada’s first line center at the Olympics.

Ryan Getzlaf

Ryan Getzlaf

The big fast talented center almost dragged Anaheim through the playoffs single handedly. There were moments in game 7 versus Detroit where I thought he could not be denied. Youngsters Ryan and Perry on offense and Wisniewski and Whitney on defense give the team a core of talent under 25.

Old men Scott Niedermeyer and Teemu Selanne provide talented Stanley cup experience. Joffrey Lupul and Saku Koivu will provide scoring depth on a second line. Luke Sbisa and the two first round picks that were picked up for Pronger provide the opportunity for more young depth in the future.

JS Gigeure and Jonas Hiller are one of the most talented goaltending tandems in the league and one of them, probably Gigeure and his 6 million dollar contract could be premiere trade bait for a team needing a goalie late in the season.

I think Anaheim is back again and is a more talented team then San Jose. I look for them to win the Pacific and get seeded second in the west though they may finish behind Detroit and Chicago. Anaheim could have another deep playoff run losing perhaps only to Chicago.

9. Minnesota Wild (7) – Minnesota couldn’t make the playoffs last year despite playing in one of hockey’s weakest divisions. Their inability to score killed them despite having the second best goals against average in the league, behind Boston.

Niklas Backstrom was perhaps the best goalie in the league last year. He had the third best GAA among the 43 NHL goalies who played at least a third of their teams games at 2.33 tied with Nik Khabibulin. His .923 save percentage was fourth best in the league. This was all while playing the fourth most minutes in the league with 4088 behind only Kiprusof, Turco and Lundquist. He did this for a Minnesota defense that actually gave up 30.7 shots a game. This was the twentieth worst total in the league.

Petr Sykora a healthy scratch for Pittsburgh during their Stanley Cup
run was picked up for 1.6 million for one year. He’s a bargain and won’t
hurt the Wild’s skinny offense.

Only ten teams gave up more shots on goal then Minnesota. They lost defenseman Kurtis Foster and checker Stephen Veilleux to Tampa Bay. Veteran defender Shane Hnidy and shot-blocker Greg Zanon have been brought in to provide defensive depth. If Brent Burns is healthy and Havlat plays more then the always-injured Marion Gaborik did last year I expect the defense and scoring to improve in Minnesota.

Playing 24 games in the weak Northwest Division should allow them to sneak in to the playoffs in seventh. They don’t seem to have the depth as a team to win a series in the playoffs.

10. Nashville Predators (14) - Nashville was in a fight for the last playoff position until the last week of the season. In the end Chicago, St Louis, and Columbus passed them last year after years of being the second best team in the Central.

Nashville has fallen from their traditional position as the second best team in the tough Central Division because they have been unwilling to spend money. They have $41 million dedicated to salary and despite their finish last year stayed inert all summer long.

Steve Sullivan

Steve Sullivan

Steve Sullivan came back from two years with back problems. The crafty 37-year old provided offensive bounce at the end of the season. His 32 points in 41 games were a great asset on a talent stripped Predator team. Unfortunately his age and injury history make it impossible to count on him playing a full season. Behind Sullivan it’s Dumont, Arnott, Legwand and Erat. These are good players but not enough on a team that scored fewer goals then the Minnesota Wild.

A first rate scorer like Alexander Radulov, now in the KHL, is needed to revitalize this line-up. The goaltending from Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis is first rate. The top three defense of Suter, Hamhuis, and Shea Weber is one of the best in the league. After them you’re looking at playing Kevin Klein and Wade Belak. That doesn’t cut it. David Poile has kept this team afloat with excellent draft picks. He has power play specialist Ryan Ellis and Colin Wilson are waiting in the wings to restock the team. Goalie Chet Pickard provides them more goaltending depth then most teams can dream of.

I look for Nashville to slip down among the Phoenix’s and Colorado’s of the league partly because they play in that brutal Central Division and partly because the owners in Nashville want to hang on to that last $15 million that they could be spending on players.

11. Edmonton Oilers (12) – Edmonton was only six points out of a playoff spot last year but they never really seemed to be able to compete for that spot.

Edmonton was one of the more quiescent organizations in hockey over the summer though not necessarily by choice. Ever since Gretzky left the team has had trouble attracting and keeping talent. The attempt to sign Dany Heatley has to highlight the problem. Mike Comrie doesn’t fill the void. They lost Dwayne Roloson and signed Nikolai Khabibulin perhaps marginally improving the goaltending in the process.

A first rate first string center is needed to help their young talent reach it’s potential. Shawn Horcoff while quick and skilled is overmatched in the #1 slot. Cogliano, Gagner, Nilsson, Shremp, Penner, Eberle, and O’Sullivan will all be looked to, to improve this year. One or two of them at the least should do so.

Alex Hemsky is really currently their only first rate offensive forward. The defense feature four half point a game or better defenseman: Souray, Vishnovsky, Grebashkov and Gilbert. One of these should be packaged with a young forward who isn’t working out for a first line center. Until Edmonton finds these pieces I think they’ll mostly stay in place. Improvement can come from within this still very young talented group of players.

I’m expecting Edmonton to finish near where they did last year and not challenge for a playoff spot.

12. Dallas Stars (11) – Dallas had a horrible season last year after a big playoff run the year before.

The aging Star team suffered a plague of injuries among their older players last year. Combine that with the Sean Avery debacle and Marty Turco’s worst season as a professional goalie and the result was predictable.

Their cost effective defense gave up the fourth fewest shots against in the league, tied with LA. They lost power play quarterback Zubov to Russia. Brendan Morrison and Steve Begin also left but won’t be missed. They brought in career back-up Alex Auld to take some of the goaltending load off of Marty Turco’s shoulders. A healthier season from the forwards, especially Brendan

Morrow will have to help the offense. They picked up a couple of stay at home defensemen in the offseason, but they still desperately need a power play quarterback. Marc Andre Beregron a power play specialist is still available but it’s unclear if Tom Hicks is willing to spend any more money on his team.

This team features older players like Modano and Lehtinen and Morrow who can be expected to get hurt. Ericksson, Richards, and Brunstrom are there to provide secondary scoring.

I don’t think Dallas has improved much this off-season and while I can see them passing Edmonton I don’t think they’ll get much further in the west.

13. Phoenix Coyotes (15) - Phoenix seemed on the verge of threatening for a playoff spot. They traded for Olli Jokinen to push them over the top and when it didn’t work immediately they panicked and dumped his salary on the flames and finished 13th in the west.

Third year player Peter Mueller suffered through a sophomore jinx but he’s a first rate talent ready to bloom. Youngsters Kyle Turris, Viktor Tikonov, Martin Hanzal, and Mikkael Boedker all have varying degrees of offensive skills and certainly can be expected to do better this year.

Shane Doan

Shane Doan

Shane Doan and now Radim Vrbata stand as the only veteran forwards in the lineup except for checker Vernon Fiddler. A quality sniper to play with Turris and Mueller would pay dividends. The defense is depending too much on old workhorse Ed Jovanovski who is unlikely to give them another 80 game season. Has beens Aucoin and Vandermeer have been brought in to fill roster spots. Oliver Ekman-Larson may be brought forward too soon to try to plug some holes on defense.

Jason Labarbara has been brought in to back up Ilya Bryzgalof who had a bad year in nets for the Coyotes. He played a lot of minutes and they gave up a lot of shots per game. He had to wear down.

Organizational input will be needed to improve this team and without it they’ll simply tread water, and they’re already on the bottom of the pool. They’ll finish last in the west.

14. LA Kings (9) - LA finished 14th in the west last year twelve points out of a playoff spot. Their goaltending and scoring failed them.

LA’s defense last year tied with Dallas by giving up the fourth fewest shots in the league. This defense built around young phenom Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Colton Teubert, Matt Greene and Thomas Hickey added Stanley Cup winning veteran Robert Scuderi. This could soon be the best defense in the league. They traded a couple defenseman, Preissing and Quincey to Colorado for aging power forward Ryan Smyth. They have to hope Smyth, Kopitar, Frolov, Moller, Handzus, Williams and Brown can recover from the dip they took after they moved Cammalleri and Vishnovsky last year.

The key will be to get goalies Johnathon Quick and Bernier into the nets at the start of the season.

I see this LA team taking a big step back and passing Dallas and Phoenix to catch the eighth playoff spot in the west. It’s been too long.

15. Colorado Avalanche (13) – Colorado along with NJ and Detroit has been one of the best run organizations in hockey since they moved from Quebec. Until last year they’d never had a season where they got fewer then 90 points. Last year they had 69 points to be last in the west and third from last in the entire league.

Colorado quickly moved to address their weaknesses. They traded the slowed Ryan Smyth and his six million dollar contract to LA for last year’s power play savant Kyle Quincey and puck mover Tom Preissing. They suddenly added two skating defensemen to a lineup burdened with old expensive shut-down men Adam Foote and Scott Hannan who are both starting to move like they have one blade caught in the ice. John-Michael Lilles gives them a third defenseman who can skate and has offensive skills. Throw in veteran Salei and I have to believe the defense will be tighter next year.

Craig Anderson with his second best save percentage in the league playing for that bad team in Florida was a perfect choice as a back-up for Budaj and if everything works out he could win the job from him and improve the teams goaltending. Finally they drafted Matt Duchene who was called by some the most NHL ready player in last year’s draft. With Sakic’s retirement he may be able to fill that second line center spot. Colorado was on a huge offensive run two years ago and I’m thinking with a healthy Stasny, Hejduk, Svatos, Wolski, and now Duchene they might just get back on it.

All of this I believe adds up to some improvement. I see the Avalanche passing Phoenix and Nashville, drafting well again and taking another step forward the next year.

The good organizations don’t wallow at the bottom for long.

2008/09 Final Standings
West    PTS
1. San Jose Sharks    117
2. Detroit Red Wings    112
3. Vancouver Canucks    100
4. Chicago Blackhawks    104
5. Calgary Flames     98
6. St Louis Blues    92
7. Columbus Bluejackets    92
8. Anaheim Ducks    91

9. Minnesota Wild     89
10. Nashville Predators    88
11. Edmonton Oilers    85
12. Dallas Stars     83
13. Phoenix Coyotes    79
14. Los Angeles Kings    79
15. Colorado Avalanche    69

2009/10 Predictions
West
1. Detroit Red Wings     110
2. Anaheim Ducks     106
3. Calgary Flames     96
4. Chicago Blackhawks    108
5. San Jose Sharks     100
6. St Louis Blues         95
7. Minnesota Wild    92
8. Vancouver Canucks    90

9. LA Kings    88
10. Columbus Blue Jackets     86
11. Dallas Stars                      82
12. Edmonton Oilers              80
13. Colorado Avalanche     78
14. Nashville Predators    76
15. Phoenix Coyotes    65

Check back soon for a team-by-team look at the Eastern Conference.

Scott Weldon is a regular contributor to Sports Then and Now.


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