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NHL Playoff Preview: Western Conference

Posted on March 23, 2010 by Scott Weldon

Chicago Blackhawks v Anaheim Ducks

Could this be the year the Chicago Blackhawks bring home the Stanley Cup?

The Western Conference has been the NHL’s elite conference the last couple of years, dominating the inter-conference games. The cup win by Pittsburgh and the recent development of talented teams in Washington and Philadelphia seems to suggest that perhaps that dominance is finished. Once again however the NHL’s best teams seem clustered in the west with only one or two eastern teams even capable of competing with them.

Here’s a look at how the western conference teams are shaping up going in to the playoffs.

FAVORITES:

1/Chicago Blackhawks- Chicago were pre-season cup favorites. They’ve got a depth of young talent most teams can only dream of. Their defense was led by young Olympians Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who distinguished themselves against the best in the world. Twenty one year old Jonathon Toews was chosen the best forward and first all-star team center at the Olympics. Team-mate Patrick Kane starred on the US silver medal team. Throw in sniper Patrick Sharp, veteran Slovakian talent Marian Hossa, youngsters Bolland, Versteeg and Brouwer, power-play quarterback Brian Campbell, the resurgent Andrew Ladd, thumper Dustin Byfuglien and it’s hard to imagine this team losing to anyone.

They maintain an incredible defense giving up a mere 24.7 shots per game, two and a half shots stingier than the New Jersey Devils, who are renowned for their tight defensive game, and best in the league.  

Now however Brian Campbell is out for the season with a broken collar bone. Brent Seabrook is out with a concussion picked up from a nasty hit delivered by former Hawk James Wisniewski.

The goaltending needed to be addressed after last year. Cristobel Huet is a demoralizingly bad goalie. He has stretches of brilliant play offset by periods of complete and utter incompetence. He’s currently sporting an horrifically bad .899 save percentage. Historically he’s played at his worst when the games are most important or when he’s been the undisputed number one goalie. He seems to have some ability to play well in a platoon situation.

Antti Niemi looks to be a competent NHL goalie and his .909 save percentage is enough to win in Chicago. They need Seabrook back for the playoffs to help shore up the suddenly skinny defense. Niemi could be this years Varlamov helping his very good team through the playoffs. If Chicago tries to run with Huet they’ll lose.

The Blackhawks I believe will get Seabrook back and will go with Niemi in the playoffs. This should be enough to get them into their first Stanley cup final since 1991-92.  If Seabrook can’t play and for some reason Huet is the starter this Chicago team is still good enough to win a round or two.

2/San Jose Sharks- The past few years the Sharks have ridden tight defensive play and one line scoring into the playoffs and failed miserably. They’ve fallen from having the tightest defense in hockey, with a league best 27.2 shots against per game last year, to being 21st in the league and giving up 31.2 shots per game so far this year.

Their scoring has them in a group among league leaders Chicago and Vancouver and behind only the Washington Capitals. They’ve put together a better offense this year with Canadian Olympians Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. There’s a significant offensive drop-off when you go to second line players like Clowe, Pavelski and Setoguchi.

San Jose has put together a collection of the best face-off men in the game with Pavelski, Malhotra and Scott Nichol all winning more then 60% of the considerable number of face-offs they take. Nichol and Malhotra represent an attempt to put together a dedicated shut-down line which should help them.

Evgeny Nabokov has been blamed in the past for San Jose failures. The defense has gotten shoddier but Nabokov’s play seems to have improved to make up that short-fall. His .922 save percentage is a huge improvement from last years middle of the road .910.

Unfortunately I can’t believe in this team. Nabokov, in the playoffs, or in the Olympics, hasn’t shown himself capable of winning big games against the world’s best. Boyle has won a cup and Heatley has been in a final but Thornton and Marleau have to have a better effort then they’ve shown in the past for San Jose to go somewhere in the playoffs.

Depending on match-ups San Jose could win a round but they’ll never make the finals in the west. Joe Thornton or Nabokov will have to have a career defining performance for that to happen and I think perhaps they’ve already defined their careers.

They’re really, really good but they’re not great.

3/Detroit Red Wings- They’re in eighth place right now struggling to make it in to the playoffs. It’s a team whose core seems suddenly old. Nicklas Lidstrom is coming up on forty. Rafalski is 37. Both played extra games in the Olympics that might cost them down the road.

Though always dangerous, Nicklas Lidstrom and the Detroit Red Wings seem to be showing their age.

Though always dangerous, Nicklas Lidstrom and the Detroit Red Wings seem to be showing their age.

Last year they had the best offense in the league. This year they’ve scored a Toronto-like 193 goals. They’ve sunk from giving up the second fewest shots on goal in the league to being 14th.

Still this is a team that’s gone through huge roster changes and dealt with injury all season long. The players seem to be getting healthy at the right time. Rafalski had a wonderful Olympics and was the best defenseman of the tournament and a first team all-star.

The goaltending has passed from Chris Osgood’s faltering hands into Jimmy Howard’s steadier mitt. He’s sporting a .924 save percentage which is among the best in the league. The youngster still makes me nervous and he hasn’t weathered playoff pressure yet.

Still this Detroit team will be dangerous to play. They know how to win and they’re likely to slaughter any San Jose’s or Phoenix’s they meet. They should be able to score from anywhere in the line-up and if they meet Chicago in the first round that might be the best series of the playoffs. I like Detroit to win a round or two but their seeding will probably result in them meeting and losing to Chicago pretty early in the playoffs.

Contenders:

1/Vancouver Canucks- The Canucks have had a great season scoring and are grouped with Chicago and San Jose as the second best offensive teams in the league. I’ve got more faith in Roberto Luongo and his .916 save percentage than any of the other goalies I’ve mentioned so far. When Daniel Sedin went down with injury Henrik Sedin had a breakout year with 28 goals and 95 points in 72 games. Daniel, now back and healthy, is having a similar kind of season with 20 goals and 70 points in 54 games. Alex Burrows is along for the ride.

Ryan Kesler had a great Olympics as did recently recovered line-mate Pavol Demitra. Samuelsson is out hurt right now but will certainly help the offense when he returns.

This is the best looking Canuck team I’ve seen in a while. They look to have to have locked up their division with a six point lead over Colorado, with ten games left to play. They may end up against Los Angeles in the first round which could be a tough test.

2/Los Angeles Kings- They haven’t been in the playoffs since they lost to Colorado in seven games in the first round after the 2001/02 season. Ziggy Palffy lead that team in goals and Jason Allison lead them in points. The Kings have gone 1-4 in playoff series since Gretzky got them to the finals in 1992-93. That’s five playoff series in 16 seasons of hockey. It doesn’t seem fair somehow.

Well the Kings are back. The defense lead by Olympians Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson has given up the third fewest shots on goal in the league. Throw in the defensively minded Scuderi and Matt Greene and you’ve got something. Goaltender Jonathon Quick has been good in LA and should give them enough in nets to succeed.

Offensively they’re lead by the talented Anze Kopitar. In the playoffs one line teams tend to have trouble scoring. If Kopitar gets shut-down it’ll be up to the gritty Brown and Smyth to generate some scoring. It would be nice for LA if the moody Frolov picked up his game. Doughty and Johnson can help the offense with scoring plays from the back-end. I like this LA team to win a series and at least be a tough opponent.

3/Anaheim Ducks- Why do I have this team seven points out with eleven games left to play, listed as a contender? I’m not sure myself. Even if they managed the herculean task of hauling themselves back into the playoffs I am positive the Blackhawks would finish them in short order.

Injuries and age have hampered the Anaheim Ducks this season.

Injuries and age have hampered the Anaheim Ducks this season.

Still I believe the first line of Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan is one of the best in the league. Hiller with his .917 save percentage and strong performance for Switzerland at the Olympics is on the verge of being a top ten NHL goalie. Their secondary scoring with Blake, Koivu and Selanne is unfortunately just too old as is their top defensive forward Todd Marchant. Add to that the ancient Olympian Scott Niedermayer and the 34 year old power playAdd an Image quarterback Lubomir Vishnovsky, and it’s obvious a lot of young players will be breaking into this line-up in the next two years. Their last good young defenseman is James Wisniewski who’s out for an eight game suspension after concussing Brent Seabrook with a vicious hit. Their other young talented defenseman was traded to Edmonton as he proved too slow not only for the US Olympian team but also for the NHL.

I believe this team, if they’d managed to make the playoffs in fifth or sixth probably would have won a round or two. The loss of Pronger and Beauchemin has been pretty devastating to the defense and really the Ducks won’t make the playoffs. They may be the best team in the league that won’t.

Also Rans:

1/Colorado Avalanche- This young team has rebounded from a last place finish in the west last year to looking pretty secure in a playoff spot. Fabulous goaltending from Craig Anderson has stabilized this pack of youngsters.

They’ve got a first line lead by American Olympian Paul Stasny. Talented youngsters Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O’Reilly and new acquisition Peter Mueller have been fueling the offense. The return of veteran Milan Hejduk from back and knee troubles has come at just the right time.

The veteran defense of Foote, Hannan, Salei and Lilles is starting to falter (5th worst 32.2 shots against per game). Kyle Quincey has still helped with the power play.

The Avalanche can win a round, especially against the right opponent, say Phoenix? Once they’re in the final four I don’t think there are a lot of teams in the west they can beat. Here’s a team though that has filled a lot of their needs and now needs to draft and develop a couple top quality defensemen.

2/St. Louis Blues- Here’s another team on the outside looking in that I still like better then some of the teams who’ve made the playoffs. The Blues are six points back and I don’t see them catching Detroit. Chris Mason and Ty Conklin have been one of the better platoon goaltending arrangements in the league this year.

The defense is lead by US Olympic standout Eric Johnson. The offense is made up of a cohort of young players who mostly seem to have taken a step back after Andy Macdonald and Paul Kariya managed to stay healthy this year. Brad Boyes, Patrick Berglund, TJ Oshie and Olympian David Backes all seem to have suffered offensively. Still with Alex Steen scoring 21 goals the Blues have a line-up that could have eight twenty goal scorers in it. The Blues may improve when UFA’s Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya go elsewhere at the end of this year. Additional ice time for the Peron’s and Berglund’s and Boye’s may just improve this team.

Pretenders:

1/Phoenix Coyotes- This team has had a magnificent year in the face of adversity. The Coyotes are currently tied with the Chicago Blackhawks and leading the Pacific division. I can’t believe San Jose won’t eventually wrest control of the division away from them but Phoenix still looks likely to finish as fourth seed in the west, with the third best record.

The success of the Coyotes recently can be tied to Bryzgalov’s save percentage. Two years ago Phoenix threatened to make the playoffs and he had a .921 save percentage. Last year he sported a bad .906 and they finished twelve points out of the playoffs and never looked to be in. This year he’s got a .920 and they’re a lock for the playoffs.

New Coach Dave Tippet and a new dedication to defensive hockey has to be responsible for some of this improvement.  They’ve put together a veteran line-up including Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski, Robert Lang and Mathieu Schneider. The offense seems to be scored by a committee of players. Wolski became the teams leading scorer when he was traded from Colorado. Radim Vrbata and new addition Lee Stempniak lead the team with 23 goals each. They also added free agent Derek Morris to go with deadline acquisitions Stempniak and Wolski.

I can’t believe this group of admittedly competent veterans in front of the great goaltending of Bryzgalov can go anywhere in the playoffs this year.  That said they’re currently the hottest team in hockey at 9-1.

2/Nashville Predators-
Here is another team that seems to manage on duct tape and baling wire. They’re currently fifth and would face the always beatable San Jose Sharks in the first round. This Nashville team however is a team that I think the San Jose Sharks can beat.

The core of this team is the defense. Shea Weber was a first team all-star at the Olympics and a sterling combination of offense and defense. Ryan Suter was a standout on defense for the American team at the Olympics and is a big fast skating defender. Throw in solid Dan Hamhuis who just doesn’t make mistakes, and it’s easy to see how this team that gets chipped away at year after year while hardly ever adding players, manages to survive.

They’ve also shown a good eye for finding goalies and a skill for developing. Rinne and Ellis are having a hard year but still represent an able tandem.

The offense has devolved as this team, that was one of the quickest in the league a few years back, depends now on the aging Arnott and Dumont. Steve Sullivan returning from long term disability has helped, but his career could end at any instant. After the loss of Alexander Radulov, Patrick Hornquist is the only young up and coming offensive talent they have. David Legwand has devolved into a checker.

I don’t see this Nashville team beating anyone or going anywhere but I am impressed they made the playoffs.

3/ Calgary Flames- The Flames had a few top quality players in the middle of a line-up of pluggers. They traded one of those Phaneuf, for more pluggers. Now it’s only Kiprusoff and Iginla, and a cast of thousands. The injury to Langkow will not help and I can’t see the Flames closing the widening gap between themselves and Detroit. It’s a shame. This team looked like it was going some where about five years ago. It looks like next year will be a big rebuilding year for their new GM.

4/Minnesota Wild- The Wild started slow and have come on too late. Backstrom had a poor year and is back to playing in a tandem with Josh Harding. They’re not as good this year as in past years.

The stultifying defense is still 8th best in the league tied with Nashville in giving up a mere 29.1 shots per game. Koivu has had another great year. Brunnette at 37 looks to be coming near to the end of the line. Havlat and Backstrom need to have better seasons next year but if they do Minnesota should be back in the playoff hunt. When Guillaume Latendresse with 26 goals is your best scorer, there are some offensive issues. Burns returning to the line-up has certainly helped the Wild, but again it’s too late for this year.

5/Dallas Stars- Dallas has been close to the playoffs all year but has never seemed able to close the gap. They’re still only seven points back but there’s never been a hint that the organization wanted to do anything this year to improve the team and the team hasn’t shown any improvement all year. There’s a core of good talented forwards here lead by Brad Richards, with Louis Ericksson, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Brendan Morrow.

The rumours are that Marty Turco’s tenure in Dallas may be over despite his above average .912 save percentage. He’s 35 but certainly could contribute somewhere else.

6/Columbus Blue Jackets- Their fall from the playoffs to second worst in the west is certainly disappointing, but not entirely unanticipated. Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system wore on some of the players this year and he ended up getting fired. Rookie goalie sensation Steve Mason has suffered through a worse then usual sophomore jinx with an .898 save percentage. His four shut-outs are nowhere near last years league leading ten. I expect Mason to eventually recover his game. He’s a great young goalie.

The team has one of the best power forwards in the league, in his prime, with Rick Nash. They have a covey of young talented forwards ready to take the next step forward with Brassard and Voracek and especially Filatov if they can coax him back from the KHL. Columbus is better served if they can drop down past a few of Florida, the Islanders, Carolina and Tampa Bay into a lottery pick.

7/Edmonton Oilers- This talented young team that looked to be on the cusp of greatness is now the worst team in the league, by a lot. They’re ready to add Taylor Hall to the young stew of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Gilbert Brule, Robert Nilsson, Marc Pouliot, Patrick O’Sullivan and Jordan Eberle. Some of these guys have to become top quality NHL players for this team to go anywhere. Shawn Horcoff at 32 looks suddenly to be near the end of the road. Souray at 34 just seems always injured. The core of this team is now Hemsky, Penner and Whitney all at 27-28. The team needs a new, better young goalie. At least Edmonton has that first over-all draft pick to look forward to.


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