Western Conference Outlook
September 30, 2009 by Big Tony
Tomorrow the journey for the Stanley Cup begins but for now we preview the other side of the coin before the puck drops, all analysis ends, and the games begin.
Ok corny intros aside here is my preview of the west (much like I did for the east) followed by the finals pick and who I think will hoist the Cup next spring.
The eight teams to qualify—in no particular order—are as follows: Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, and the San Jose Sharks.
The Detroit Red Wings are the best of the best again and despite having lost Hudler and Hossa they will simply use the machine of a farm system they’ve created to reload without skipping a beat. The only outstanding question in Detroit is the regular season play of Chris Osgood who put up subpar numbers last year from October through March. Showing up in the playoffs has always been Osgood’s M.O. but if he is as inconsistent this year as he was last season the rise of other teams in Detroit’s division could find the mighty Red Wings fighting for a playoff spot.
Things are looking up on the ice in Chicago as long as Patrick Kane can stay out of trouble off the ice. Kane along with Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews (among others) return while veterans John Madden and Marian Hossa have been added to an already star-studded roster. Much like their counterparts to the north Chicago’s only real unknown is in net as Nikolai Khabibulin is now a member of the Edmonton Oilers. The most seasoned and perhaps most likely person to provide stability for the Hawks between the pipes is Cristobal Huet who has shown some signs of greatness. No matter who ultimately gets and keeps the starting job as the goaltender goes so goes Chicago. If their netminder is consistenly good then Chicago can win it all, and if not then they won’t, but either way the playoffs are in their future.
Columbus got its first taste of post-season hockey last season riding mainly the back of surprise rookie netminder Steve Mason. While Mason will not enjoy the same amount of individual success as last year it is my contention that the team will fare better overall. Rick Nash is on a short list of stars on the Blue Jackets but what Columbus has over other teams is cohesiveness. This group has gone through a lot of losing together and last year they experienced a taste of winning. Last year’s success felt good to them and the bitterness of not winning a game in the post season no doubt left a bitter taste in their mouths and will only bring them together to work harder for one another to become a better squad.
Vancouver rode Roberto Luongo all the way to the post-season last year and sweep the St. Louis Blues out of the playoffs on the stick of Alex Burrows. The playoffs were a coming out party of sorts for Alex Burrows (according to some) and Canucks fans have to hope it was just that. Locking up the Sedin twins was huge for any hopes of being a serious contender for Vancouver but the past few seasons have shown that they cannot rely on the Sedin’s for all of their offense. Having three solid lines is something they have lacked for a few years causing their postseason success to be limited. Adding the experience of Mathieu Schneider will greatly improve their blueline but it will be up to the likes of Ryan Kessler and the aforementioned Alex Burrows to prop up this team to the next level. Round one is a given, but round two and beyond is up to Vancouver.
For the Calgary Flames it is short and sweet. They can make it to round one of the playoffs (as they will do again this year) but the question yet again for the Flames is will they have enough discipline to take their frustrations of first round exits and translate it into playing more sound hockey. It’s no longer about skill for Calgary, they’ve got that, it’s amount having the mental fortitude to better themselves as a team.
The Los Angeles Kings will probably be the most interesting and exciting story of the Western Conference this season. Most all puckheads agree that this team is on the rise but I think not only are they on the rise but that they will win their first round playoff series. Sure it puts me in a bind as far as other preseason predictions go but I’m saying this one supersedes all other predictions I make with the exception of the scenario in which they play the team I think will advance to the finals out of the west. Generally I am simply that confident in what the Kings organization as a whole is doing. They have taken their licks over the years but have spent a lot of time learning from those lumps and have put some pretty talented players in key areas. They have a lot of good, young players in Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov (heading into the prime of his career), Jack Johnson, Jarred Stoll (also heading into this prime) and Jonathan Quick who was extremely reliable in goal last year and is likely to only get better. Along with this young talent they have added seasoned veterans in Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi who has just come off a Stanley Cup Championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Kings have the right people in the right places at the right time and barring injury this team is poised to be successful right now.
Lastly are the President’s Trophy winning San Jose Sharks who have done little to change their team in terms of quantity of moves but the quality of moves has been stellar. Dany Heatley was picked up—at the expense of Jonathan Cheechoo—and will be a wonderful addition to this squad. Regular season success has not been a problem for the Sharks (true of many west teams it seems) but Heatley puts them over the hump into serious contention to win the west. Heatley can not only score a lot of goals but he has enjoyed a fair amount of success before so his experience along with a chip on his shoulder to show those in Ottawa that he can still play is going to move San Jose along another step in the right direction.
The only other team that could make any noise should they make the playoffs are the Anaheim Ducks. Their experience is what sets them above the rest but unfortunately perhaps their greatest asset is their biggest downfall. The Ducks are an aging team who have lost yet another step at every position and can only hope to stay close until the trade deadline where they can maybe make a move for a younger group of players with fresher legs for a lengthy playoff run. Edmonton is not far behind either but they fall short of the star power and physical play needed to succeed in the west. Goaltending is Edmonton’s strongest aspect but that was true last year as well so they will not get their either. No other team has a prayer of even getting to the playoffs let alone making noise once they get there.
With all of that said I think the Chicago Blackhawks will be the team to make it out of the west as they will find what they need in net and will go a step further than last year. Chicago will take on the Boston Bruins who will outlast a tired group of Pittsburgh Penguins to take the east. This sets up an awesome original six match-up which will be a marketing dream for the NHL. After an incredible back and fourth battle the Stanley Cup Finals will again go seven games at which point the Chicago Blackhawks will finally allow Marian Hossa to hoist the Stanley Cup as the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Champions! Enjoy opening night everyone!