Wild Wild West
by, 07-22-2012 at 21:42 (1144 Views)
With most of the big free agents off the market, save names such as Alex Semin and Shane Doan, the focus of many hockey prognosticators now shifts towards the regular season.
While plenty can still happen between now and puck drop, it's really never too early to start taking a stab at where off-season jostling should land teams within the standings.
This weekend, Boom City takes a good long look at the [B]Western Conference.[/B]
The Western Conference remains the most unpredictable of the NHL's two sides. With Central Division boasting four legitimate playoff regulars and the Pacific Division on the rise, teams in the once-powerful Northwest have seen a recent fall from grace over the past few seasons.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1072[/ATTACH]The [B]St. Louis Blues[/B] came close last season, but this year they will finish the task and claim the top seed in the Western Conference. After falling to the upstart and eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the Blues have learned a valuable playoff lesson, one that will make them all the more difficult to defeat in 2012-13.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1062[/ATTACH]The[B] Vancouver Canucks[/B] were ousted early in the 2012 playoffs by those same LA Kings. Despite the setback, the Canucks are still a bonafide Stanley Cup contender and will be right back in the mix this season. Don't expect them to claim the division title as easily in years past. Led by Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Minnesota might just have something to say about that.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1068[/ATTACH]The defending Stanley Cup champion [B]Los Angeles Kings[/B] won't be surprising anyone in 2012-13. With Jonathan Quick in net and what is arguably one of the best top six forwards groups in the NHL, the Kings will once again be a formidable force.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1071[/ATTACH]The [B]Chicago Blackhawks [/B]could be without the services of 2011-12 leading scorer Marian Hossa to start 2012-13, but with a healthy Jonathan Toews, the Hawks will battle St. Louis for the Central Division title. Their only setback? The crease combination featuring Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1075[/ATTACH]Many expect the [B]Detroit Red Wings[/B] to fall off the face of the earth in 2012-13 when they will be faced with playing hockey under the reality of doing it without Nicklas Lidstrom. I'm not one of those. Detroit might be a bit thin on the blueline, but with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk leading the charge upfront and Jimmy Howard in net, the Wings should be primed for another record playoff appearance.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1070[/ATTACH]For many years the [B]San Jose Sharks[/B] were considered annual favorites to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Well, those years are quickly fading away as the team's stars slowly age. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle are no spring chickens, but they certainly aren't decrepit old men either. The Sharks should manage to scrape into the tight Western playoff scene, but they will have to fight tooth-and-nail in the difficult Pacific Division.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1063[/ATTACH]Many pundits have written the [B]Calgary Flames [/B]off after they once again failed to engage in the rebuild that most experts are calling for. The addition of Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka and Dennis Wideman should help the offense, but can the aging Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff continue to be difference makers now that they have both eclipsed 35 years of age?
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1065[/ATTACH]The [B]Minnesota Wild[/B] made the most noise of any NHL team this off-season. The acquisitions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter via free agency instantly make the team much more dangerous. With the infusion of strong youthful talent in the form of Mikael Granlund and possibly Charlie Coyle among others, the Wild, who were one of the Western Conference's top teams in mid-December of 2011, aren't as likely to fizzle out in 2012-13.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1074[/ATTACH]The [B]Nashville Predators[/B] suffered a serious loss when Ryan Suter departed to the aforementioned Wild. Offensive enigma Alexander Radulov departed (again) for the Kontinental League. Just when GM David Poile thought things couldn't get any worse, Shea Weber received a 14 year, $110-million offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers and could also be on the way out. If Weber stays, the Preds have a shot at a playoff spot. If Weber leaves, it will be a long season for coach Barry Trotz and fans in Tennessee.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1061[/ATTACH]The [B]Colorado Avalanche[/B] continue to slowly improve as their young talent develops. Matt Duchene fell to injury in 2011-12, which significantly slowed his performance. A healthy Duchene along with the addition of late-bloomer P-A Parenteau should help bolster the Avs offensively. Greg Zanon will add a much-needed stay-at-home presence on the blueline. With all that being said, Colorado still has a way to go before it can consistently crack the West's top eight.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1069[/ATTACH]The [B]Dallas Stars[/B] were just about a playoff team in 2012. This off-season, with new ownership firmly rooted, GM Joe Nieuwendyk was able to mix things up a bit. Steve Ott is gone but Derek Roy will be in once he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery. Then the 40+ club strolls onto the scene. Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr were Nieuwendyk's two most significant additions this summer and while both performed at a high level in 2011-12, it is only a matter of time before Father Time himself catches up with Whitney and Jagr.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1064[/ATTACH]The slow rebuild in Edmonton continues. Slowly. Nail Yakupov brings yet another dangerous weapon to the Oilers ever-growing arsenal of fire power upfront. Justin Schultz will certainly help the pathetic situation on the Edmonton blueline, but he can't do it all himself. With a thin D-core, Devan Dubnyk needs to prove that he can handle No. 1 minutes in the NHL. If he falters, the Oilers will once again fall short of their playoff goal.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1066[/ATTACH]The [B]Phoenix Coyotes[/B] were ravaged this off-season. 2011-12 leading scorer Ray Whitney left for the division rival Dallas Stars. Franchise heart Shane Doan is still an unrestricted free agent and the unstable ownership situation in the desert seems to have pushed Doan out of Phoenix. Mike Smith had a phenomenal year in 2011-12, but can he maintain such a high level of play?
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1067[/ATTACH]The [B]Anaheim Ducks[/B] lost power play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky via trade and replaced him with the Sheldon Souray, the man with a booming shot and wrists of glass. Bryan Allen also joins Souray on the blueline, coming over via free agency from Carolina. Teemu Selanne returns for a 20th season, exciting news for all around the league. It's too bad that the 'Finnish Flash' won't get a shot at the Stanley Cup in Anaheim.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1073[/ATTACH]Things can't get much worse for the lowly [B]Columbus Blue Jackets[/B]. After last year's total car-bomb of a season, the Jackets have nowhere to go but up. With Sergei Bobrovsky in the mix alongside Steve Mason, the Blue Jackets goaltending situation might not be better, but they at least have a second option if Mason can;t rekindle the magic that netted him a Calder Trophy once upon a time. Ryan Murray should be special to watch on the Columbus blueline, but he alone can't save a ship that has already capsized.
[ATTACH=CONFIG]1077[/ATTACH][B]Central Division projection:[/B]
[LIST=1][*]St. Louis Blues[*]Chicago Blackhawks[*]Detroit Red Wings[*]Nashville Predators[*]Columbus Blue Jackets[/LIST]
[B]Northwest Division projection:[/B]
[LIST=1][*][ATTACH=CONFIG]1079[/ATTACH]Vancouver Canucks[*]Calgary Flames[*]Minnesota Wild[*]Colorado Avalanche[*]Edmonton Oilers[/LIST]
[B]Pacific Division projection:[/B]
[LIST=1][*]Los Angeles Kings[*]San Jose Sharks[*]Dallas Stars[*]Phoenix Coyotes[*][ATTACH=CONFIG]1076[/ATTACH]Anaheim Ducks[/LIST]
[B]Western Conference projection:[/B]
[LIST=1][*]St. Louis Blues*[*]Vancouver Canucks*[*]Los Angeles Kings*[*]Chicago Blackhawks[*]Detroit Red Wings[*]San Jose Sharks[*]Calgary Flames[*]Minnesota Wild[*][I]Nashville Predators[/I][*][I][ATTACH=CONFIG]1078[/ATTACH]Colorado Avalanche[/I][*][I]Dallas Stars[/I][*][I]Edmonton Oilers[/I][*][I]Phoenix Coyotes[/I][*][I]Anaheim Ducks[/I][*][I]Columbus Blue Jackets[/I][/LIST]
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