Monday, September 28, 2009

Go West, Young Man, Go West

Players in the Western Conference can breath easy knowing that they have dominated the Stanley Cup Finals in over a decade. The West have beaten the east 8 of the last thirteen finals. Those odds are pretty good and are only getting better as many of those teams have youth maturing.

Ranking the Western Conference is no easy task with teams on the rise and other teams in such turmoil. But there will be a lot of familiar faces back in the playoffs when the 82 games schedule comes to a close. Let's start with the bottom and work our way up.

15. Phoenix Coyotes: Three words, off ice drama. That is what keeps this team from moving forward. As far as player personnel are concerned, the 'Yotes had a busy off season. The signed goaltender Jason LaBarbera, forward Vernon Fiddler and defenseman Adrian Aucoin in free agency. They resigned Scottie Upshall to a one year deal and worked the trade route to acquire Lauri Korpikoski and Radim Vrbata. They seem like the right moves, but with ownership in question and a new coach to boot, there is a lot of chemistry questions to deal with. A team with this much turmoil up top is going to hinder this group through out the season.

14. Colorado Avalanche: Things in Denver are not good. With the departure of Joe Sakic over the summer, the team has lost its prolific leader and fallen from the elite grace they enjoyed just a few seasons ago. With a slew of veterans on their last year of their contracts, this looks more like a shopper's paradise for teams looking to beef up their line-ups come the trade deadline. Players afraid of being traded through out the season very rarely play their best. It is rebuilding time in Colorado.

13. Edmonton Oilers: They made a play for Danny Heatley, but in the end they couldn't pull the forward their way. The Oilers did however get a good goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin. It is pretty much the only positive to come out of the off season for the beleaguered Oilers. They spent too much time on trying to get a deal done with Ottawa, there is not much improvement on this team from a season ago. They are going to have to rely on the players that gave marginal performances last year. It's a tough spot to be in.

12. Los Angeles Kings: Every time the Kings get some good news, something happens that dissolves it. But they may have some hope after signing Rob Scuderi in the off season and trading for Ryan Smyth to give them some leadership. What gives this team hope and heartache is youth. Jack Johnson, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown make up the core of the Kings youth movement. If they can show some more mustard early in the season they could finish higher than 12th. But their goaltending is still marginal and they still need a super-star to make the big plays when they need it most.

11. Minnesota Wild: With the departure of some good talent late last season, the Wild replaced it by signing Martin Havlat, Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy in the off season. The Wild are under new management though, getting a new GM and coach to lead the team in a new direction. It may take a season or two for the organization to get out of some old habits. They do have the pieces to possibly make the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if the Wild can pull it all together this season.

10. Nashville Predators: Nashville let a few players walk in the off season. They were able to keep Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward, but it may not be enough to make the playoffs. Part of Nashville's problem is the small amount of fans and money to work with. The management have failed to pull a team in around Sullivan and team captain Jason Arnott. The Preds still have a good core of defensemen and the combo of Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne should steal a few games this season.

9. Dallas Stars: This team made some smart moves in the off season, and it should show in the standings. Will they make the playoffs? They could, but it will depend on how well the changes at management and coaching affect the team. The big D signed some good defense in Karlis Skrastins and Jeff Woywitka. Jere Lehtinen resigned for another year and the Stars have a better back up in Alex Auld who was acquired in the off season. Low expectations may hinder the Stars this year, but if they grow in the right direction, they could knock off someone on the next list.

Playoff Bound

8. St. Louis Blues: On the verge of something good, the Blues have to build on their experiences from a season ago. But they have to be careful, they are also in a division that highly competitive. One bad stretch could be doom for this young team on the rise. Veterans Keith Tkachuk, Jay McClement, Mike Weaver and Brad Winchester were all resigned and goaltender Ty Conklin should be a capable back up. Head coach Andy Murry has to get the youth of his team to start to believe in themselves. Once the kids start to buy in to the system, the Blues will have a good team on their hands.

7. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are a shell of their former selves. Chris Pronger, Rob Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin and Brett Hedican all left for greener pastures. What saves the team from total breakdown is what they got in return. Saku Koivu, Nick Boynton, Steve McCarthy were signed in the off season and Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa and Ryan Dingle were acquired in the Pronger trade. The Ducks should make the playoffs again.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets: After making the playoffs for the first time in their franchise history, it is understandable that they might have a bit of hangover when teams start taking them more seriously. Lucky for the fans, the Jacks resigned Rick Nash. They also added Sammy Pahlsson to add some punch at center depth. But the BJ's need consistency in the division they are in. If they can build on what they started last year, this team should find a comfortable spot in the post season and will look for their first playoff win.

5. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks shed some big contracts in the off season. Some of that shedding will hinder them, and maybe they won't win their division. But with Roberto Luongo in net and the Sedin Twins signed on for another go, there is no reason this team should miss the playoffs. They took advantage of San Jose's roster shedding by getting Christian Erhoff and Brad Lukowich in exchange for some prospects. They also pulled Mikael Samuelsson from the Red Wings pool. The Canucks should have a good year, but they have to grow some tougher skin to get further in the playoffs.

4. Detroit Red Wings: How can the Red Wings not win their division but still get home ice advantage? Because they are the Red Wings. Whether fans show up to the games or not, the Wings is a hard team to beat night in and night out. A few support players found spots on other teams, but the core of Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings will be okay. Their hold on goaltending greatness in Chris Osgood may prove their downfall if Osgood is not playing his best.

3. Calgary Flames, Northwest Division Champion: Theo Flurey certainly created a lot of buzz in camp this off season, but his comeback was dealt a huge blow when he was released a week before opening night. It was a distraction for Flames' fans, but the real excitement will be the arrival of Jay Bouwmeester. Acquired in the off season, Bouwmeester's arrival bolsters Calgary's defensive squad that is already beefed up with Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. If the Flames can score, their defense should hold up fine, and they will win their division.

2. Chicago Blackhawks, Central Division Champion: This team is riding a good vibe right now and it should carry through to another playoff run. There are few messy ends for the Hawks, the change in GM after Marion Hossa was signed to a ridiculous contract and the release of Martin Havlat and the NHLPA filing grievances with the team after they resigned a bunch of their young talent. The core of Chicago's youth is really is what is exciting about this team. Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews make this team an offensive juggernaut. Solid defense led by Brian Campbell and good goaltending by Cristobal Huet can make this team a dangerous Conference foe.

1. San Jose Sharks, Western Conference Champion: The Sharks have been a tough team to play in the West for quite some time. But getting over that first playoff series seems to give the Sharks fits. San Jose did change up their look a little bit by shipping off Jonathon Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to Ottawa for Danny Heatley. The Sharks are looking for that certain something to push them over the edge. They should win the West again, but it still remains to be seen if they can do any real damage in the playoffs.

The Sharks have the talent to top the West again, but they need to show their stuff in the post season to really get any respect. I like the Blackhawks despite their off season shenanigans. They have now the experience and the coaching to help them win games, it will be hard to count them out come spring. The Coyotes are in trouble, which is sad since hockey did take root in the desert for a few years. I just don't see them coming out with a whole lot of get up and go when their coach was forced out and the league is fighting with a billionaire over their future.

Tomorrow, the Eastern Conference preview.

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