Saturday, September 29, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Predictions: Western Conference

Sharks logoWings logoWild logoNucks logoDucks logoStars logoFlames logoBJacks logoAvs logoOilers logoPreds logoBlues logoKings logoHawks logoYotes logoFar less rambling to accompany my Western Conference predictions. Just a few notes on why I see various teams improving or regressing compared to last season.

1. San Jose Sharks
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Minnesota Wild
4. Vancouver Canucks
5. Anaheim Ducks
6. Dallas Stars
7. Calgary Flames
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
9. Colorado Avalanche
10. Edmonton Oilers
11. Nashville Predators
12. St. Louis Blues
13. Los Angeles Kings
14. Chicago Blackhawks
15. Phoenix Coyotes

First, with the relative stagnation of Detroit I don't see them repeating as conference champions, though they will still quite easily capture the Central Division title. When I say "stagnation" I am only considering the moves made by division and conference rivals as compared to the lack of action by the Wings in the off-season. What the Wings have is still solid and in some cases spectacular, including players such as Nicklas Lidstrom on defense and Pavel Datsyuk as the top line centre. Time will catch up with netminder Dominik Hasek and defenseman Chris Chelios at some point, though we'll have to wait and see whether that's evident this season.

You might think that with softer competition from their division rivals, Detroit would have an even easier time of walking away with the most points in the conference. I'm going to hammer a knuckle ball into that theory and say that the lack of strong clubs in the immediate vicinity will be a disadvantage for the Wings as they drop more games with stronger teams from other divisions and may even let up with their Central division competitors. It's the old, "play golf with skilled players and your own game improves" theory.

At least one intangible as well regarding the Wings. Though Scotty Bowman has professed otherwise, I still believe that he has been playing footsie with Toronto and any further developments on that front during the season could be a distraction.

I see the San Jose Sharks stepping up a notch this season. They still have one of the best top 2 line centers in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau respectively. Thornton especially should continue to be a huge points producer as he goes for his third straight 90 point plus campaign. On defense, the Sharks lost Scott Hannan to the Avalanche but they also gained Craig Rivet late last season and with the added off-season and training camp to become even more familiar with San Jose's system, their defense corp. should be as strong as ever. Evgeni Nabokov is now the undisputed no.1 goalie as Vesa Toskala was shipped off to Toronto along with potential headache Mark Bell. As long as Nabokov stays healthy, this team is as solid as they come.

A kind of palpable rage develops within teams that are stocked with talent but have faltered come playoff time. This added motivation of showing everyone what they are really capable of should turn the Sharks into a wrecking crew to be reckoned with this season.

The Anaheim Ducks will still be a strong team this year, but not to the same degree as in their Cup winning campaign. Teemu Selanne and Scott Nidermayer are nowhere to be seen and without those two, the team chemistry will be markedly different. Add the enigmatic Todd Bertuzzi to the mix and the potential is there for a nasty brand of thuggery delivered by him and Chris Pronger. Without the regulating force of the departing vets discipline could be a problem.

I'm taking the Minnesota Wild to win the Northwest division and thus place third in the conference. The Wild haven't done much in the off-season but they were already exceptionally strong in 06-07 and they have a lot of young players that will continue to improve. Rock solid defense and the goaltending duo of Manny Fernandez and Niklas Lidstrom will help them to beat out Vancouver in the improved Northwest division this year.

Vancouver Canucks' goalie Robert Luongo is roundly hailed as the best player between the pipes and there's no argument here. The problem is that the lack of offense wasn't really addressed by the Canucks in the off-season, though they did pick up Ryan Shannon and Brad Isbister. No doubt GM David Nonis will try to address that lack of scoring at some point during the season. That the Canucks are still a solid team is a testament to the skill of Luongo and Vancouver's good defense.

Logic and a modicum of common hockey sense would dictate that the Columbus Blue Jackets won't make the playoffs, especially ahead of the Nashville Predators and even the improved Edmonton Oilers. But if I were to take the popular route, my picks would only be derivative of every other half-baked, two-bit prognosticating son-of-a-bitch out there. Columbus has to make the playoffs eventually, so this season's as good as any. Well, no...actually it's not. But, I'm sticking with my "to hell with it" pick.

In fact, Columbus did make some improvements to their team, the most notable being the signing of Mike Peca. Now, a 33 year-old centreman coming off a nasty season-ending injury might not be the player you would think could help push the B Jacks into the playoffs for the first time. But he is the type of individual who can have an immediate effect on a team, not just in terms of the skill he brings to face-offs and the penalty killing unit but also the motivating force he can have on younger players.

Ken Hitchcock in his second season as the Blue Jacket's coach together with the addition of new GM Scott Howson are both pluses in my opinion. Like most new GMs, Howson will likely look to make his mark with at least a few moves throughout the season.

Nashville has been gutted to some degree and together with the collective venom from Canadian fans clogging up their karma and hindering their mental game, they will fall completely out of the playoff picture. Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun and Scott Hartnell are all gone this season and that will hurt them. Rate both the Predators and Blue Jackets as my wild cards thrown in the mix for the sake of making things more interesting, though I think both picks could come to fruition.

I fought against my visceral dislike of Mike Keenan and slotted the Flames in at 7th place. The Flames were considered some of the biggest underachievers in 06-07 and Keenan's brand of nastiness could be just what they need. A shared loathing of their new coach could be a unifying force for the Flames and may spark them to more wins and some success in the playoffs.

I like the changes the Oilers have made but it's just a matter of the moves of other teams and mitigating factors conspiring to squeeze them out of the playoffs once again this season. I always like an underdog and the disrespect the Oilers have been absorbing from around the league makes me want to see them over-achieve. I just don't quite see the additions they have made being enough to result in a huge improvement over last year.

Again, my lack of familiarity with some teams means they are getting short shrift and for that I offer no apologies. That's just the way it is.

Now that we have the predictions out of the way, on to the REGULAR SEASON!!!!

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