Today, just hours before the NHL drops its first puck in Finland, we’re going to preview the Western Conference.
It’s worth noting that, this season, the West is substantially weaker than the East. Far fewer elite teams. Many more also-rans. Here are the Big Mouth’s rankings, from best predicted finish, to worst, in the NHL West.
1. Vancouver Canucks – There is no disputing the fact that the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, brought their games to a new level last season. But the Canucks faltered again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Roberto Luongo is, easily, the most overrated player in the NHL. Success in the regular season is one thing…in the playoffs is quite another.
2. Chicago Blackhawks – Many experts think the Hawks will slip after sending a large part of their Stanley Cup championship roster elsewhere during the off-season. They will not. They are as deep as any team in the NHL and all goaltender Marty Turco has to do is have an average season for the Hawks to challenge for top spot in the conference.
3. Detroit Red Wings – Are the Wings too old? Have they seen their day? Not with Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk in the picture. Only Jimmy Howard in goal produces question marks for the Wings.
4. Los Angeles Kings – Is the Pacific Division torch finally ready to be passed from the Sharks to the Kings? Says here it is. It’s all about youth in L.A. Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Quick, Wayne Simmonds and Dustin Brown are all ready to take the next big step.
5. San Jose Sharks – One of these years, the San Jose Sharks won’t dominate the West. This is that year. They still have two extremely powerful lines up front. But, in goal, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup despite Antti Niemi – not because of him. In the playoffs, it will be the same Sharks’ El-Foldo.
6. Phoenix Coyotes – Dave Tippett’s Coyotes surprised a few teams last year. This year, they won’t. But, if Ilya Bryzgalov has another career year, and forwards like Wojtek Wolski continue to star, the Coyotes will have another good season.
7. St. Louis Blues – A lot of people think playoff hero G Jaroslav Halak will carry the Blues to the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. Can’t see it. What will bring the Blues success is if their young forwards and defencemen continue on an upward arc.
8. Anaheim Ducks – Looking at the Ducks’ top line of new captain Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry, it’s hard to believe Anaheim finished a distant 11th in the West last year – especially when you consider Jonas Hiller in goal. Their blueline is the Ducks’ big weakness.
9. Calgary Flames – Undefeated in preseason! Means nothing. Miikka Kiprusoff is not the same goaltender he was six years ago when he lugged the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final. Jay Bouwmeester is vastly overrated on defence. And RW Jarome Iginla’s wildly inconsistent play is getting very tough to figure out.
10. Colorado Avalanche – In Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene, the Avs have two of the most explosive young players in the game. And ageless Adam Foote provides guidance for a young corps of blueliners. In goal, the Avs are praying that either Craig Anderson or Peter Budaj can play way above his head.
11. Nashville Predators – The team that boasts the most studs on any NHL blueline, esp. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, should have had more success than it has. Barry Trotz’ Preds just can’t seem to get past that first round. Lack of scoring and goaltending issues continue to plague Nashville.
12. Dallas Stars – After 30-year old Brad Richards up front, the Stars’ offence gets really thin, really fast. New no. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen only played 12 NHL games last season. He could play five times that this year.
13. Edmonton Oilers – There hasn’t been a better time to watch hockey in Edmonton in about twenty-five years. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi will give fans all they want to see on offence. When the puck is in the Oilers’ zone, however, you may want to look away.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets – Once again, the Jackets are a one-trick pony – and last season’s 67 points are not good enough for big Rick Nash. Columbus’ only hope to avoid a dismal season is if Steve Mason tends goal like he did two years ago.
15. Minnesota Wild – For years, under Jacques Lemaire, the Wild were a boring, defensive squad. Now they’re just boring. GM Chuck Fletcher has given coach Todd Richards absolutely nothing to work with. Niklas Backstrom in goal is, however, able to win games by himself.
Western Conference Final Prediction – Chicago over Vancouver