Last week, I posted my Eastern Conference predictions for the 2010-11 NHL regular season. Now it’s time to take a look at where the teams in the West are likely to fall. The Western Conference consists of 4 “elite” teams, a whole bunch that are in building mode at the same time, and the Calgary Flames. This makes projecting where teams will finish that much tougher, because the majority of the teams could make the playoffs if their young players make the leap from prospects to impact players. Please, no wagering!
1 – Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks head into the season as the best team in the NHL, on paper. They have a top 5 goaltender who will only get better with more rest and less pressure without the C. They added Dan Hamuis and Keith Ballard to an already strong group of Edler, Ehrhoff, Bieksa on the backend. They also have plenty of star power on forward and enough piss and vinegar to make sure their skill players have all the time and space they need. The Canucks are hoping to accomplish something that they will be able to one day tell their children about, or in Sami Salo’s case, children he once could have had.
2 – Chicago Blackhawks
This might seem like a generous ranking, but did the Hawks really get that much worse? Call me crazy but Turco over Niemi is a push in my opinion. Their current D group, assuming Nick Leddy makes the team, is better than the group that won the cup. Up front, yes they lost Byfuglien, Versteeg, Madden, Ladd and Burish, but besides Byfuglien, the success of those players had a lot to do with the players around them. It won’t show right away, but guys like Jeremy Morin, Viktor Stalberg and Fernando Pisani can be just as effective as Burish, Ladd and versteeg when you put them with elite players.
3 – San Jose Sharks
The Sharks’ window of opportunity is closing, and they have 1 or 2 more seasons to take advantage. Their 2 headed monster in goal of Niemi and Niittymaki will hopefully give the Sharks better goaltending in the playoffs. Their top 2 lines on forward are both lethal. The only real question mark in San Jose is whether or not their defense is good enough. If the Sharks are as good as I expect them to be, they will be one of the teams looking to add a top end defenseman at the trade deadline, and will certainly be one of the teams that Tomas Kaberle would go to if Burke ever decided to put the success of his hockey team ahead of his ego.
4 – Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are in very good shape this year, and depending on how quickly Chicago adjusts to all of their changes, Detroit can challenge for the division. Jimmy Howard is going to build on an impressive rookie season and could top the 40 win mark. Lidstrom is back for another year, anchoring a defense that is as talented and as deep as it gets in the NHL (Kronwall, Rafalski, Stuart, Ericsson, Kindl, Salei). The forwards, led by Zetterberg and Datsyuk down the middle, consists of 4 lines capable of playing with speed, flow and creativity. The only thing that can slow Detroit down are common injuries such as groin pulls, concussions and death by old age.
5 – LA Kings
The LA Kings should be higher on this list, in fact, they should be at #3 instead of San Jose, but Dean Lombardi just isn’t doing enough to add impact players to his young roster. They have over $9 million in cap space, mostly because they were hoping to acquire Kovalchuk and Paul Martin but instead had to settle for Ponikarovsky and Mitchell.
6 – St. Louis Blues
This is a make it or break it year for the Blues. They have a good mix of good young players with a minimal cap hit, and useful veterans. They stole Jaroslav Halak from Montreal (next time, Pierre Gauthier won’t let Jacques Demers read over trade proposals), which should in itself be enough to push them into the playoffs. Erik Johnson is slowly becoming one of the top defensemen in the NHL; and TJ Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund are all on the cusp of having big years.
7 – Phoenix Coyotes
I’m really not that high on Phoenix this year, but I don’t see how they won’t make the playoffs. They have a rock solid goaltender in Bryzgalov. Their defense is underrated and will only get better with Oliver Ekman-larsson and Maxim Goncharov spending some time in the NHL this year. They have a very good coach in Dave Tippett; and they should have enough scoring depth up front (Doan, Wolski, Stempniak, Whitney, Upshall, Hanzal, Belanger, Turris) to generate offense consistently. Attendance will still be an issue in Phoenix; but they did bring in Kyle Wellwood which should make the building seem a lot more full.
8 – Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim will struggle at times this year, but I believe they ultimately end up sneaking into the playoffs. Jonas Hiller will provide solid goaltending, and the big 3 up front of Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan could legitimately score 100 goals between them. The big question in Anaheim is if their defense will be good enough. They did add solid veterans in Lydman and Sutton, and rookie Cam Fowler is expected to make the team; so hopefully that will be enough to replace the loss Scott Niedermayer.
9 – Colorado Avalanche
Remember when St. Louis and Columbus made the playoffs, and then took a step back the following year? That’s what I see happening to Colorado this year. I think they will be in the hunt most of the year, but after 50-60 games, when Craig Anderson starts to fatigue, that’s when they will fall out. The Avs are on the right track, but I think they are missing some top end scoring wingers (missing Mueller won’t help) and they have too much money tied up in mediocre defensemen like Liles and Hannan. This could change considering they are one of the only teams that have plenty of cap space to be able to acquire a big name player that may become available.
10 – Nashville Predators
They always seem to perform above expectations, but when all is said and done, I just don’t think this team has enough goal scoring to be a playoff team. Pekka Rinne is a great goalie, and Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are 2 of the top defensemen in the conference, but they need guys to put the puck in the net in order to win games. Only 2 players on Nashville’s roster have ever scored 30 goals in a season. Hornqvist did it last year, and Steve Sullivan hasn’t done it since 2006. One could describe Nashville’s playoffs hopes as being dead, which is interesting because Barry Trotz is known to suffer from “neck-rophylia”.
11 – Columbus Blue Jackets
Don’t forget that this team is only 1 season removed from having made a playoff appearance. While their defensive corps is certainly not an elite group, you can be sure that Steve Mason can’t possibly be as bad as he was last season. Provided that Derrick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov can establish themselves as top 6 forwards, that will ensure that Columbus will be a difficult team to defend when you take those guys and complement them with the likes of Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius, RJ Umberger and possibly even Ryan Johansen.
12 – Minnesota Wild
Warning – please do not forward this blog to Josh Harding. I don’t want him to suffer a career ending eye injury by reading this. For whatever reason, I am not a big fan of this Wild team. Their defense and goaltending is pretty good, but Brent Burns who is their #1 on D, always seems to be hurt; and outside of Mikko Koivu, they really don’t have any stars up front. Havlat also has an injury history and who knows if Guillaume Latendresse will be able to duplicate his impressive year last season. There are just too many question marks in Minnesota.
13 – Edmonton Oilers
I wouldn’t be shocked if this Oilers team made the playoffs, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they ended up in last place. The future does look bright with Hall, Omark, Paajarvi and Eberle; but they simply do not appear to have enough depth on defense or stability in between the pipes to be a playoff team this year. Side note, since Khabibulin is Edmonton’s goalie, can the expression between the pipes be renamed between the bars?
14 – Calgary Flames
If this prediction is accurate, the Sutter era in Calgary will be over. This organization is a mess right now. They have a whole bunch of overpaid guys up front, which includes over $20 million tied up in Langkow, Stajan, Bourque, Kotalik, Hagman and Jokinen. Jarome Iginla is not the player he used to be, and the same goes for Miikka Kiprusoff. Much like Dallas, it wouldn’t be so bad for them to finish near the bottom of the standings, start accumulating some good prospects and convert some of their aging veterans into quality young players. For Calgary’s sake, I hope they get rid of Sutter before he convinces himself to sign Olli Jokinen to a 5 year contract extension and trade Jarome Iginla to the Leafs for jeff Finger and Mikhail Grabovski.
15 – Dallas Stars
While they do have some good young players up front (James Neal, Jamie Benn), there just isn’t enough offensive depth past their top 2 lines, their current group on D is simply not good enough at this point and the injury prone Kari Lehtonen is hit or miss in goal. The best thing that can happen is for them to finish at the bottom of the standings, re-stock their prospect pool (which is more bare than Tom Hick’s bank account) with high draft picks, and trade Brad Richards at some point for some youth.
About the Author
Written by Corey Krakower
I am the Director of NHL Content & Habs writer for ProSportsBlogging.com; I have spent 8 seasons behind the bench as a minor hockey coach; and I am the future GM of the Montreal Canadiens (according to my mom). I spend my days managing the Harrow Sports brand in my hometown of Montreal and I moonlight as a Hockey Advisor for Pi Athlete Management. Most importantly, I'll throw anyone under the bus for a laugh.