NHL: Western Conference preview/predictions

The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings look to be the first team since the 1997-1998 Detroit Red Wings to win back to back titles. It will be no easy feat, but the Kings will once again be in the discussion. Just like the Eastern Conference, the west is filled with great parity. With a short 48-game schedule, clubs will need to get out of the gate quickly and make sure to avoid any prolonged slumps.

Lets take a look at how I think things will shape up during the regular season.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets had high expectations going into last season after a busy offseason, that included the acquisitions of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski. Things didn’t go as planned of course as the Blue Jackets struggled during the first half of the season and eventually traded Carter to the Kings forJack Johnson and a 1st-round draft pick. This move not only helped the Kings a ton, but also was much needed for the Blue Jackets. Carter was not fitting in and despite Johnson’s defensive short comings, he finished the season on a high note and was a big part of the Blue Jackets late season success. In July, the Blue Jackets dealt captain and star goal scoring winger Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. While I don’t think they got the greatest asset value in the deal, the Jackets did obtain some intriguing players. Forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimovare good character players that provide some scoring depth to the Jackets. Dubinsky had a tough year last season offensively, but he should bounce back to a 20-plus goal over a full season pace. The biggest addition to the Jackets though comes in the form of their new president of hockey operations, John Davidson. The former St. Louis Blues executive worked wonders for that franchise and will now begin to transform the Jackets throughout the organization into a winning franchise. The Jackets will be competitive this season, but unless Sergei Bobrovskyand/or Steve Mason can rise to the challenge in net, this club is not quite ready yet to contend for a playoff spot. They will be soon though!

14. Colorado Avalanche – If everything comes together the Avalanche can sneak into the playoffs. Of course in the very tough Western Conference and with center Ryan O’Reilly still unsigned, I don’t think that will happen. The fact that I have the Avs in the 14th spot doesn’t mean I think they will miss by a long shot. I believe the 8-14 seeds will all be close in terms of points, especially in such a short season. The Avs have some outstanding young players, led by 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog, O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. Picking up hard hitting winger Steve Downielast February was an outstanding move as he brings another element to the Avs offensive attack. Also the signing of playmaking winger P.A. Parenteau should also boost the forward corps. Even if O’Reilly misses significant time as he remains a restricted free agent, the Avs should score at a much greater clip then they did last season when they tied for 24th in the NHL in terms of goals for. In the crease, they are set with Semyon Varlamov, who is more than capable of stealing games if need be and he is backed up of course by veteran J.S. Giguere. On the blueline they are led by former 1st overall pick Erik Johnson. If the 24-year-old can continue to take his game to a new level that will be a huge key for the Avs success going forward. There is a lot to like about the Avs. Their roster is filled with young talent and within the next 2 years they should begin their surge back towards the top of the Western Conference.

13. Calgary Flames – For the past few years, I’ve been one of those people that has said countless times that the Flames should look into rebuilding. They haven’t listened and while they do have a team that should compete for a playoff spot, there are still a ton of questions. Up front the Flames brought in center Roman Cervenka, 27, from the KHL hoping his game will translate over to the NHL. If the talented center can find his way and form a strong 1-2 punch with long time Flames captain Jarome Iginla, then perhaps that can lead to a playoff spot. Another potential bright spot is 20-year-old Swiss winger Sven Baertschi, who scored 3 goals in a brief 5 game stint with the Flames last season. Baertschi is going to be an outstanding player in this league for a long time, but if the talented youngster can make an immediate impact this season that will be a significant step towards the Flames potential playoff hopes. On the backend the Flames welcome in newcomer Dennis Wideman, who is being paid a ton, but was an all star last season. The 29-year-old offensive defenseman joins Mark Giordano and Jay Bouwmeester as the anchors of the Flames blueline. In net, 36-year-old Miikka Kiprusoff continues to be a work horse and one of the top netminders in the league.

12. Dallas Stars – While the stars potentially have a very potent offensive group, there are still some questions and holes throughout the lineup that should make it extremely difficult to finish in the top 8. While Ray Whitney andJaromir Jagr both had very productive offensive seasons last year for their former clubs, you still can’t help but think about the “AGE” question. Granted Jagr stays in amazing shape and Whitney is like a fine wine, but it does still sound funny that Whitney was an original member of the San Jose Sharks and Jagr was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins before I even started kindergarten and wiping my own ass. With star forward Jamie Benn still unsigned that would leave a huge whole in the Stars lineup if he missed time. Derek Roy should fit in nicely as the Stars 2nd line center, but the team did give up some grit in Steve Ott, who went over to the Buffalo Sabers as part of the Roy deal. In goal, Kari Lehtonen is a very good number 1 goaltender when healthy. On the blueline, the Stars are led by solid two-way defenseman Alex Goligoski as well as veteran Stephane Robidas. In general though, the Stars are a middle of the pack team on the defensive end. Again, like the teams mentioned above, if everything falls into place for the Stars and of course Benn is signed to a contract in a hurry, then the Stars can contend for a playoff spot. A lot needs to happen though!

11. Anaheim Ducks – There are very few teams, if any, that rely on their top players more than the Ducks do. While the Ducks are strong in net with a healthy Jonas Hiller leading the way, they do lack overall team depth. If their star players can stay healthy and produce like they are capable of, then the Ducks can be a force. Top center Ryan Getzlaf needs to prove that his 2011-2012 season was just a bad fluke. The talented 27-year-old only had 11 goals and 57 points last season while playing in all 82 games. If Getzlaf can get back on track and once again be a point per game player, then the Ducks might be in business. In addition with Corey PerryBobby Ryan and the ageless 42-year old Teemu Selanne, the Ducks should finish much higher then 23rd in goals scored, which of course is where they ended up last season. Despite the lack of overall depth up front, there are some young players likeDevante Smith-Pelly, who should continue to improve. On the blueline, youngster Cam Fowler leads the way, along with steady veteran Francois Beauchemin. If the Ducks are out of contention towards the April 3rd deadline, do we perhaps see them look to move Getzlaf and/or Perry as they are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer? It will be an interesting season in Anaheim to say the least.

10. Minnesota Wild – The Wild surprised many last season and got off a to a fantastic start before crashing back down to earth. Granted they did suffer quite the collection of injuries last season, but they still were just not a very good team. With the major additions of Zach Parise and rookie Mikael Granlund up front as well as Ryan Suter to anchor the blueline, the Wild will without a doubt be in playoff contention. The problem is that word that begins with a P and ends in arity. So many good teams out west that unless the new look Wild can click right away and get off to another strong start, I believe they’ll be on the outside looking in come playoff time. The Wild’s overall forward depth is pretty solid and on the backend after Suter it’s okay, but the Wild do have some intriguing defensive prospects that should be making the jump in the next few years. In goal the Wild have two solid netminders in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.

9. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks still have amazing top end talent that includes not only the over 30 crew with the likes of Joe ThorntonPatrick MarleauMartin Havlat, Ryan Clowe and Dan Boyle, but also the younger stars likeLogan CoutureJoe Pavelski and Brent Burns. In fact I think Couture will continue to take his game a step further and really turn into the top offensive threat on the team. The Sharks also added veteran defenseman and former Shark, Brad Stuart. That being said, Stuart did struggle last season defensively for the Detroit Red Wings and while he is a nice addition as long he plays like his normal self, I still feel the Sharks may continue to have the same overall problems they had during the second half of last season and their quick first round playoff exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Can Antti Niemi bounce back in net to be a solid number 1 goaltender or will he continue to struggle with inconsistent play. While their team defense was good last season as they tied for 8th overall in goals against, I feel they will fall back a bit towards the middle of the pack, despite adding Larry Robinson to the coaching staff. If Havlat can stay healthy that will be huge. Their record with Havlat was top notch at 25-11-3 and without was 18-18-7. Look at it this way, the Sharks should have great team chemistry as their main core has been together for many years and they kept basically the same team intact from last season. Also adding Robinson and Jim Johnson to the coaching staff should be very beneficial. That being said, while they have the talent to remain a top contender in the west, I feel that the signs of struggle last season will continue over and the club will surprisingly miss out on the playoffs. Granted the Sharks still do have the type of roster/team where they can finish in the top 4 in the west and nobody including myself would be surprised. That’s how close and tough the west will be this year once again.

8. Edmonton Oilers – Welcome back to the playoffs Edmonton! Their great core of young players are only getting better and I feel this is the year where Devan Dubnyk takes the leap as a solid number 1 goaltender. New head coach Ralph Krueger has the respect of his young roster from being an assistant coach with the Oilers. Krueger will hold this club accountable for their defensive play which of course has struggled, but he will make sure that the young Oilers learn that a great defense is a full team effort. Up front the team has the ability to be very explosive offensively with the likes of Jordan EberleTaylor HallRyan Nugent-Hopkins, rookie Nail Yakupov and veterans likeAles Hemsky and Ryan Smyth. On the backend the team signed young free agent defenseman Justin Schultz, who has been putting up fantastic offensive numbers during the lockout in the AHL. Recently the club acquired Mark Fistric from the Stars and he should fit right in on the Oilers 3rd defensive pairing. If Ryan Whitney can stay healthy that will be another huge boost to the clubs defensive core. Expect both Yakupov and Schultz to be able to step right in as rookies with an immediate impact.

7. Phoenix Coyotes – Last season the Coyotes made the playoffs for the 3rd straight year, but this time it was more than just an appearance. The Coyotes won the Pacific Division, then advanced all the way to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. While the team did lose veteran offensive force Ray Whitneyto free agency, the additions of Steve SullivanMatthew Lombardi and the continued emergence of youngsterMikkel Boedker should make up for the lost offensive production from Whitney. Newcomer David Moss will be a nice addition to the Coyotes bottom 6 forward corps, as he will be at least equal to, or perhaps even a slight upgrade over the departed Taylor Pyatt. On the backend veterans Adrian Aucion and Michal Rozsival departed, yet the Coyotes re-acquired Zbynek Michalek from the Penguins. The 30-year-old veteran is one of the best shot blockers in the league and as steady as they come in his own end. Michalek also fits head coach Dave Tippett’ssystem as well as anybody. The continued improvement of youngster Oliver Ekman-Larsson will eventually make him a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, but also for the team will also make their already outstanding defensive core that much better. This kid is something special as at the age of 21, he can already play in all situations and he is not only extremely solid from an offensive standpoint, but he is top notch in his own end making the little plays that coaches really appreciate. The Coyotes great mix of talent on blueline continues with outstanding offensive defenseman Keith Yandle and defensive savvy Rostislav Klesla. A top 4 of Ekman-Larsson, Michalek, Yandle and Klesla can match up with any club in the league. It doesn’t stop their as you add in veteran Derek Morris, who played much better in the second half of last season, David Schlemko, as well as talented youngsters battling for a spot like David Rundblad and Michael Stone. Once again the Coyotes will be a top notch defensive club. In net,Mike Smith really broke out last season as goaltending coach Sean Burke took him under his wing. Smith was always considered to have amazing athletic ability and talent, but had never been consistent. Last season Smith was outstanding all year long, but really turned up the heat during the stretch run and into the playoffs. Smith should have another fantastic season as now he has really improved his positional play and his focus has improved drastically.

6. Detroit Red Wings – Despite the retirement of long time star defenseman and captain Nicklas Lidstrom,the Red Wings still have a nice blend of talent and will remain a playoff club. Sure they may not be considered favorites and last season even with Lidstrom they lost in round 1. That being said, they do have some nice young players coming through the ranks that will pay dividends in the next couple seasons to help get them back towards the top. WithPavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg still leading the charge offensively the Red Wings should still have no trouble scoring. The addition of wingers Damien Brunner and former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson should also help offensively. In goal Jimmy Howard has developed into an outstanding number 1 goaltender and as long as he stays healthy and on his game, the Red Wings shouldn’t fall too far down the standings. On the blueline without Lidstrom, the club no longer has a legitimate number 1 defenseman, but they do have solid depth. The likes ofNiklas KronwallIan WhiteKyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson will be joined by free agent addition Carlo Colaiacovo and youngster Brendan Smith, who is poised to stay up full time with Red Wings after a brief call up last season.

5. Chicago Blackhawks – The Hawks have a ton of talent not only up front, but on the blueline as well. Their defensive depth has improved and is very impressive. On the blueline they are led of course by former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Up front, team captain Jonathan Toews leads the way, along with a talented bunch including Patrick KaneMarian HossaPatrick Sharp, Viktor Stalberg and Dave Bolland. The Hawks can score with anyone and they have a nice blend of grit and toughness. So with all this talent, why aren’t the Hawks ranked higher? Well for starters of course my favorite word parity, but also the Hawks goaltending is a huge question mark. Corey Crawford was inconsistent last season and struggled in the playoffs. Ray Emery is fine as a backup, but if Crawford struggles out of the gate, can Emery be a number 1 guy? Probably not, so look for the Hawks to try and address their goaltending need if this remains an issue. Until they address the need, (unless Crawford and/or Emery surprise and pull through in a big way) the Hawks will have a tough time advancing deep in the playoffs if soft goals are still being allowed at a premium.

4. Nashville Predators – The Preds lost star defenseman Ryan Suter as he departed via free agency, but they still have captain Shea Weber leading the blueline. Beyond Weber, the Preds do have a nice blend of talent on the backend so the departure of Suter should not be considered the end of the world. If young offensive defensemanRyan Ellis can continue to improve that will be a huge boost toe the Preds defensive core. In net with Pekka Rinne, the Preds are set for a long time. They brought back former Pred, Chris Mason to handle backup duties. The Preds will continue to rely on scoring by committe, which worked very well for them last season. While they don’t have any big time offensive stars, they do have nice depth up front as they can roll out 4 lines that all have the capability of providing some offense.  When the talented Alexander Radulov re-joined the club in the second half of last season, it appeared to hurt the team in general more than help. The Preds basically have the same mix of forwards they had during the first half of last season when they were so successful, so Radulov’s offensive production will not be missed. Head coach Barry Trotz is one of the best in the business and will get everything out of his players. Expect the Preds to have another successful season.

3. Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks have been one of the league’s best teams the past couple seasons, but have still yet to win a Stanley Cup. On paper, this club is still very stacked, but with injuries to forwards Ryan Keslerand David Booth, the Canucks may not get out of the gate as quickly as they would like to. Of course with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin leading the way up front, this team will still score a ton of goals despite the injuries. On the blueline, this club has a ton of depth and their defenseman will add a ton to the offense as well. Newcomer, defenseman Jason Garrison, had a surprise breakout year last season with the Florida Panthers in which he scored 16 goals., including 9 on the power play. If Garrison is not a one hit wonder and can continue that type of production with the Canucks, it will be a significant boost to already super talented club. In goal, Cory Schneidertakes over as the number 1. The 26-year-old is outstanding and will provide the Canucks will great goaltending for years to come. Roberto Luongo will back up Schneider for the time being, which of course is a great problem to have as long as there are no distractions. Of course at some point during the season, there will be teams that have goaltending questions that will probably continue to try to trade for Luongo, but the Canucks will hold firm until they get an offer they like.

2. St. Louis Blues – The young Blues were outstanding last year after Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach near the beginning of the season. Now while the Blues were expected to get back into the playoffs last season, I don’t think anybody could have known how much success they would end up having during the regular season. Are the up and coming Blues an example of a young team who peaked quickly, but will fall back a bit for a year before taking another 2 steps forward? Or are they going to keep pushing forward from here on out into becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for many years to come? I will go with the latter. The Blues are very strong defensively as evident by them finishing number 1 last season in goals against. They are led on the backend by Alex Pietrangelo, who has become one of the top 2-way defenseman in the NHL. In goal, both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot should continue to do a solid job sharing the duties of keeping the puck out of the net. On the offensive side of things, the Blues can use improvement, but that might on the way in-house. First and foremost winger David Perron, who played very well once returning from injury last season, is healthy from the start. In addition, youngster Jaden Schwartz should win a full time spot out of camp. The 20-year-old played pretty well in a brief 7 game stint with the Blues last season. As good as Schwartz is, the Blues have another young forward coming up that will probably be even better. That of course is Vladimir Tarasenko. The young dynamic Russian forward should provide an immediate boost to the Blues offensive attack. Expect for the Blues to challenge for the top spot in the west this season and make headlines in the playoffs.

1. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings are trying to become the first team since the 1998 Red Wings to win back to back Stanley Cups. History of course is not on their side, but this is a very deep and talented club that will definitely be in the mix of things again. Last season was a struggle for the Kings for most of the first half. When Darryl Sutter took over as head coach the team played better, but still struggled to score. Once rookies Jordan Nolan and Dwight Kingwere brought up, the Kings found a bit of life. Then the acquisition of Jeff Carter really jolted the club and the Kings began to play like the team that many expected them to be. The Kings were the first team from the Pacific division to clinch a playoff spot, but losing their last 2 games to end the season to the Sharks, bumped them down from the 3rd seed all the way to 8th in the west. This was a team that underachieved that finally got going when they had to. Up front the Kings have outstanding depth and top line talent. With the likes of Anze Kopitar, Dustin BrownMike Richards, Carter and Justin Williams, the Kings have a nice blend of offensive talent. The Kings also have what appears to be a rejuvenated Dustin Penner and a healthy Simon Gagne. Granted, in Gagne’s case he has battled injuries for a while and is now 32, but he did have neck surgery for a lingering issue that affected his mobility. This issue has bothered him since his last season with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-2010. The Kings have a ton of depth up front, so they should have no trouble scoring this time around. On the blueline they are also very strong as they finished 2nd in goals against last season. They are led of course by the young and extremely talented Drew Doughty. The Kings will deeply miss outstanding defensive defenseman Willie Mitchell, as he will be out for what appears to be the first month or so of the season. In net, 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner for playoff MVPJonathan Quick is coming off back surgery, but he appears to be ready to go at 100%.