West Side Story

Northwest Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. Vancouver Canucks (51-22-9, 111 pts)
  2. Calgary Flames (37-29-16, 90 pts)
  3. Colorado Avalanche (41-35-6, 88 pts)
  4. Minnesota Wild (35-36-11, 81 pts)
  5. Edmonton Oilers (32-40-10, 74 pts)

The story in the Northwest for the last several years begins and ends in Vancouver.  Due to a historically weaker division, the Canucks have dominated the region’s hockey for sometime typically grabbing the top spot in the West come playoff time.  Naturally this has been followed by continued playoff failures and fans have gotten antsy.  Olympic Gold Medal winner and longtime backstop Roberto Luongo may finally be at the end of his Vancouver rope.  Fans this offseason displayed their feelings on Luongo when the team announced that backup Corey Schneider would be taking over the number 1 spot.  The rest of the team in front remains virtually the same with the dynamic Sedin twins, however a significant injury to star centerman Ryan Kesler could result in a tough opening month or two. Yet, with the change in net, its reasonable to believe the Canucks will move Luongo at some point and likely bring in some depth to help in a run.   All in all however, the team remains strong in a weaker division and should be in the dance when it’s all said and done.  Whether they can improve on previous postseasons remains to be seen.  The other major storyline in the Northwest comes out of the Land of 10,000 lakes, as the Wild were the big money spenders over the summer.  Minnesota signed two players, RW Zach Parise and D Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million deals in an effort to bring successful hockey back to the Twin Cities.  Those two will be joining a solid core anchored by veteran winger Dany Heatley and Captain Mikko Koivu, giving the team a much deeper and stronger offensive rotation.  Throw in potential Rookie of the Year Mikael Granlund and there’s a lot to be excited about in Minny.  However, questions still surround blue line production beyond Suter, and questions  of chemistry could lead to a slow start.  That being said, I expect the Wild to be in the playoffs come May.  Despite a 2nd place finish in the division last year, there are a number of questions around the Flames, none bigger than will long time Captain Jerome Iginla be traded?  The lifetime Calgary Flame is 36 and entering the final year of his contract.  He’s consistently shown an unwillingness to leave the team that drafted him, but with the playoffs unlikely this season, its expected that a number of contenders will be in contact with the Flames regarding Iginla, and it may be too hard for him to pass up one last shot at the Cup that this may be the year he finally waives his no-trade clause.  The same can be said for star goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, also 36 with a no-trade, the expectation is that the Flames will look to move him as the team rebuilds with younger talent.  Speaking of youth, the other two teams in the division are stacked with it.  Coming off winning the Calder Trophy as ROY last season, Colorado named Gabriel Landeskog captain, making 20-year old Swede the youngest captain in NHL history.  They went out and added winger P.A. Parenteau from the Islanders to boost scoring, adding him to a forward group that includes all-stars Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene.  The blue line has questions as big-name defenseman Erik Johnson has been inconsistent since his arrival in Denver, while a young group of no-names will be called on to step up in big spots if this team is to make a run.  The biggest determinant will be Semyon Varlamov in net.  So far the 24-year old has been okay, but will need to improve to get Colorado to the playoffs.  Finally, in Edmonton is a team that has improved each year over the last several and gets closer to returning to the postseason.  As one NHL coach said, “you can’t have that many top picks in so many years and not improve.”  A backhanded compliment sure, but true.  With players like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, and Nail Yakupov; all of whom are under the age of 22, Edmonton will eventually be a force in the West.  Eventually.  Right now, there’s not enough depth on defense and Devan Dubnyk will have to play his best season to get this team to the playoffs. 

Projection: 

I still think Vancouver is the top team here, but for how much longer remains to be seen.  Expect 2 teams to make it with Vancouver winning the division and Minnesota taking 2nd.  I feel Edmonton is on the rise as they finish 3rd in the division and squeak in with the 8th seed in the conference.  Barring injuries, Edmonton will return to the postseason for the first time in 7 years.  Calgary trades their stars and brings up the rear as they enter a rebuilding stage. 

 

Central Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. St. Louis Blues (49-22-11, 109 pts)
  2. Nashville Predators (48-26-8, 104 pts)
  3. Detroit Red Wings (48-28-6, 102 pts)
  4. Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11, 101 pts)
  5. Columbus Blue Jackets (29-46-7, 65 pts)

Entering the playoffs last season the Blues were the hot pick in the conference to reach the finals.  They prevailed in the toughest division making many give them the edge over the President’s Trophy winning Cancucks, should the two cross paths.  Well they never did.  Both teams succumbed to the buzzsaw that was the 8th seeded LA Kings.  Disappointment lingered in the Loo for the duration of the lockout, but it’s hard to argue against another successful season for the Blues.  With a lockout schedule that will be heavy with back-to-back games, St. Louis’ two outstanding netminders give them a great shot at another division crown.  They have a strong coach in Ken Hitchcock and a solid group of veterans like David Backes and T.J. Oshie.  It will be on this core to take the next step from good to great, and potential ROY candidate Vladimir Tarasenko could go a long way in helping with that transition.  They look to learn from their sweep at the hands of LA and grind out another postseason trip in a highly competitive division.  Nashville, long plagued by their nemeses from Detroit, finally excercised that particular demon by ousting them in the first round of the playoffs last year before falling to Phoenix.  However, the loss of Ryan Suter will be a tough hill to overcome for the Predators to repeat last years success.  Just look at the reaction of Captain Shea Weber, who was furious over the loss of his blue line partner.  Pekka Rinne remains one of the sport’s top goaltenders and should be able to generate a lot of wins, especially against the inferior teams.  But with no significant additions in the offseason and such a major loss, if some of the teams youth does not step up consistently during the season, Nashville may find itself just on the outside looking in once 48 games have been played.  Contributing to this is the fast start of the Chicago Blackhawks.    After finishing 3rd in the division, Chi town was dispatched by Phoenix in the first round, and it appears the lingering feeling of defeat over the long layoff has ignited an angry Blackhawks team.  So far the best team in the league, Chicago is off to an incredible 6-0-0 start with wins over defending champ LA, Phoenix, St. Louis, Dallas, Columbus, and Detroit.  That’s right, 4 of 6 wins against last year’s Western playoff teams, so its not exactly a misleading 6-0-0.  But you’re never as good as you are when you’re hot, and never as bad as you look when you’re cold.  Chicago will cool off and still has some questions.  Corey Crawford, who’s looked great so far, still has to prove he’s a bona fide number 1 in this league and the power play still needs work.  But it’s hard to see a team loaded with talent like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith fail to make the post season.  Longtime Central stalwart Detroit may finally be on their downswing.  An aging team lost one of the greatest players in franchise history in defenseman Nicklas Lindstrom.  Replacing Lindstrom is a tall task for anyone given what he meant to the team as a symbol beyond just hockey.  Lindstrom wore a Red Wings sweater for 20 seasons and never missed the playoffs, not once.  He won 4 Stanley Cups over that time and one Conn Smyth has playoff MVP; Lindstrom was the Red Wings embodied in one player, and while they still have offensive stars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, along with all-star caliber goalie Jimmy Howard, age and durability in a shortened season spell trouble for the Motor City.  Add in the improvements being made elsewhere in the conference, and this could be the year that amazing streak comes to an end.  Tough days get even tougher in Columbus, a last place team last year that traded away the only great offensive talent they’ve ever had…and got little in return.  With the departure of Rick Nash, I just don’t see how this team scores enough goals to be relevant this season.  This was a last place team with a better roster a year ago, expect the same results in 2013.

Projection: 

I’m going a bit against the grain here by predicting only 2 teams will make the playoffs, from a division that sent 4 teams a year ago.  I just feel that turnover in Detroit and Nashville will result in drops from last year’s production.  Chicago is on pace to win the division, and it’s hard to pick against them.  They’ll slow down but they’ve already scored key wins within the division, so I agree they take it.  St. Louis remains strong and will battle them to the end, taking 2nd place. 

 

Pacific Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13, 97 pts)
  2. San Jose Sharks (43-29-10, 96 pts)
  3. Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15, 95 pts)
  4. Dallas Stars (42-35-5, 89 pts)
  5. Anaheim Ducks (34-36-12, 80 pts)

Pretty much the best way to describe the Pacific is status quo.  All five teams are basically returning the same squads that put up last year’s results.  Phoenix added a few new faces, including winger Steve Sullivan who’s off to a tremendous start.  But the keys to this team’s success remain blue line depth and goalie Mike Smith.  Defenseman Keith Yandle is one of the best in the game and can put up 50 points from the blue line in a normal 82 game season.  Health has never been a concern for him and the teams success will hinge on his ability to make those around him better, particularly on the power play.  Mike Smith would likely have won the Conn Smyth had him and the rest of the Coyotes not also succumbed to the Kings.  Scoring was the major concern as the season started, but Sullivan has started to ease some fears in the department.  If he can keep it up, Phoenix will again be a dangerous Pacific squad.  The only team hotter than the Sharks right now is the aforementioned Blackhawks.  San Jose has fired out of the gate and has been scoring goals at a wild pace.  Veteran Patrick Marleau already has a few multi-goal games to begin the year and other vets like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and goalie Antti Niemi made up a group of 11 Sharks that spent the lockout playing in Europe, suggesting that they are in better shape to start the season, and so far the results back that up.  However, San Jose is definitely the oldest team, with the possible exception of Dallas, in the division and durability in a lockout season could be a major issue.  The defending champs return the same squad that hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup last June.  Jonathan Quick is back and may be the best goalie in the West, if not the entire NHL.  It’s obviously reasonable to suspect the Kings success to continue into this year’s playoffs.  However, Quick did have surgery on his back in the offseason and it remains to be seen what effect that will have on his game; and of course, there is the ever worrisome “Cup Hangover.”  Winning the Stanley Cup, like any title, is extremely difficult and exhausting, it will be interesting to see if this Kings team will have the hunger and energy to make a lengthy title defense.  The Stars finally answered their biggest offseason question this week when the signed centerman Jamie Benn to a 5-year $26 million deal.  They also boosted their offense with 30 goal scorer Michael Ryder, Derek Roy, and the ageless Jaromir Jagr.  They’ve improved a bit on the blue line and Kari Lehtonen remains a viable number 1 goalie; however, as mentioned, this team ranks among the oldest and durability could be a significant issue.  Finally, in Anaheim they look to improve on a disappointing 2011-2012 campaign that saw the firing of a coach and a last place division finish.  Last year, the Ducks’ three best players Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf got off to a horrible start and could not find a groove together.  The slow start proved fatal as the team was never able to overcome early struggles.  That group must start better this year or else one of them, maybe more, could be shipped out.  The defense in Anaheim has been revamped and its success could help the Ducks make up for some lacking offense and should give goalie Jonas Hiller more protection in front, making his life substantially easier.  In the end though, the Pacific might just be too tough for the Ducks this season, and stars could be on the move before its all told. 

Projection:

Three teams will make it, the same three teams from last year.  San Jose, has started strongest, but I worry about age and durability.  I think Phoenix repeats as division champion with the Sharks and Kings battling to the final day for 2nd place.  The Ducks have the best chance to pass one of them as I just don’t think Dallas has the weapons to compete.  If they stay healthy and get a fast start with some breaks along the way, the Ducks could play spoiler and sneak in.   

 

2013 Western Conference Playoffs:

  1. Chicago Blackhawks
  2. Vancouver Canucks
  3. Phoenix Coyotes
  4. St. Louis Blues
  5. Minnesota Wild
  6. Los Angeles Kings
  7. San Jose Sharks
  8. Edmonton Oilers

Round 1

Oilers over Blackhawks in 7 games, Canucks over Sharks in 6 games, Coyotes over Kings in 7 games, Blues over Wild in 5 games

Round 2

Oilers over Canucks in 6 games, Blues over Coyotes in 5 games

WCF

Oilers over Coyotes in 7 games

Stanley Cup Finals:

That’s right everyone, it’s a repeat of 2006 as the Oilers and Hurricanes play for the greatest trophy in sports.  And in one of the greatest underdog stories ever, the Cup finally returns to Canada and Edmonton’s youth and athleticism prevail in the lockout shortened 2013 season.  Oilers over Hurricanes in 7 games.