Here is my predicted order of finish for the western conference, followed by the mandatory blurb.
- San Jose
- Los Angeles
- St. Louis
The only division winner I’m unsure about is San Jose, who will have to deal with what looks like a very good L.A. Kings team. Because I believe the Northwest is so much worse than the Central and Pacific, I am making Vancouver the default number one seed based on all of the easy wins they’ll get that Chicago and San Jose won’t.
Detroit and L.A. look like the clear rest of the top five in the west along with the Canucks, Blackhawks and Sharks. There is a large incentive to win divisions this year, because no team really wants to have to play in that 4-5 matchup in the first round. Whoever finds themselves in that spot will have to go through three of the other four “top five” teams in order to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Over the summer I didn’t have the stones to take Dallas over Anaheim in the Pacific, but as time has gone on I’ve completely fallen in love with Dallas’ blue line. I had this spot pegged before last night’s home win over Chicago, but that certainly did nothing to change my mind. I don’t think Dallas has enough depth at forward to be as good over the long haul as the top five teams, but they’re not giving anything to anyone else in this conference if you break down rosters.
I flip-flopped St. Louis and Nashville because the Predators’ forwards don’t do it for me, and I still think the house of cards situation in Nashville is scary. If it plays out as I wrote that it could, the Preds will be looking at a 10th-or-worse finish.
The Flames are a team that I strongly considered taking over Nashville, but if the rosters remain the way they are today, I think the Preds’ defensemen and goalies have enough to finish a point ahead of the Flames over an 82-game season. The catch is that Calgary plays in that weaker division, and so their ticket to the playoffs is going to be punched only if they can have a tremendous record against Edmonton and Colorado — I’m talking something like 9-2-1 collectively. Minnesota should be better with a new coach and Heatley and Setoguchi from San Jose, but the loss of Brent Burns may hurt worse than Wild brass thinks it will.
Anaheim has that great top line, and even a second line that got things done last year, mainly thanks to Teemu Selanne, but I don’t know about their depth or the idea that if their starting goalie falls back into problems with vertigo or any other injury, they have no plan. Gone are J.S. Giguere and Ray Emery, which leaves the backup duties to Dan Ellis, who is on his third team in 16 months for good reason. The Ducks need MVP candidate seasons out of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and can’t suffer a dip in form by Selanne or fellow elderly Finn Saku Koivu. It’s all a little much for me to believe in, and I think Anaheim takes a step back this year while their young blue line matures. The health of the organization is not in question.
Phoenix is a team that is easy to dog, since they lost their starting goalie and replaced him with Mike Smith — the man who went back and forth with Dan Ellis last year, and not because of quality play by either. Then there’s the impending move that everyone thinks is happening, which by most accounts should be to Quebec City. But the Coyotes’ skaters are actually pretty solid, and if they can put all of the off-ice stuff out of their heads, and Smith and backup Jason LaBarbera actually play well for most of the season, this team can still make the playoffs. I don’t think they will because I just don’t think they’re better than the eight teams I picked to make it, but the ‘Yotes don’t suck.
Edmonton should be exciting to watch, with all of their rookies and sophomores paired with the returning Ryan Smyth and Oiler mainstays Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. The goalie situation is strange, as the team seems to ignore statistics and results and resist rolling Devan Dubnyk as a normal NHL starter. Much of my projecting them ahead of Colorado is dependent upon the team realizing that Dubnyk is their man and going with him for at least 52 games this year, ahead of Nikolai Khabibulin. I’ve never liked a blue line that allowed 269 goals as much as I do that of Edmonton. Once Ryan Whitney returns, he will join Tom Gilbert in playing huge minutes and forming something of a poor man’s Suter & Weber. I would have said Keith & Seabrook, but Duncan Keith doesn’t play the kind of defense that the rest of these guys do. Go ahead, mock me. He doesn’t. I watch the games.
Picking Columbus for 14th was the choice made with the least conviction. It almost seems that because the front office cares so much about winning soon that it will just happen, but I know better. The top line of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal is sweet. They were great last night against Nashville. But the rest of the team can’t do anything, and the blue line has to deal with the absence of new hire James Wisniewski for another seven games. I’m not sure who is going to do the job in his absence, but I’m leaning toward nobody. It’s unfortunate for one of the two new hotshots to get himself suspended for 10% of the season before it even starts, but that’s what Wiz has done. You could blame him or new NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan, but not many fifth-place teams can get better by not having its best defenseman for the first 10% of the new campaign. I’ve written about Steve Mason’s inconsistency before, and don’t wish to bury the kid. He’s got potential and a new goalie coach, so maybe that will be good enough. I’m just not sure the D men in front of him will be.
I never get tired of pointing out the flaws in the Colorado Avalanche franchise, and they start at the top. Many of it is documented, but let me just ask, why they don’t have a captain named yet? I wrote a few weeks ago about the options the team had, and the logical choice would be the one big time skater that is signed beyond this season: Paul Stastny. Well, he doesn’t have a “C” on his jersey, or at least nothing has been announced. To me, there are only two reasons the Stast Man doesn’t have the captaincy of the team. Either 1) the team wants Matt Duchene to be the face of the franchise, or 2) Stastny doesn’t want to captain the team. If it’s the latter, then that probably means that he doesn’t want to even be there, but unfortunately he’s got four years left on his contract. If it’s the former, then Duchene should already have been announced as the captain.
Could Stastny’s father’s comments on the front office destroying the team last year be lingering? Does the team want to wait to re-sign some more players before deciding on a captain? Is Erik Johnson even possibly in the mix? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I also know that the question of why Stastny isn’t the captain of the Avalanche is one that nobody else is willing to ask.
I think this team is in disarray, as evidenced by their play over the last season and a half. Everyone likes to talk about their “talent,” but I see a team that has a bunch of players who probably want the fates of their brethren Craig Anderson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Tomas Fleischmann and others: to get out. If I’m wrong, then some players will sign extensions this year. Time will tell. I don’t like what I see, although I personally do like new goalie Semyon Varlamov. I just don’t think it’s a good situation for the young Russian. We’ll see how it pans out.