Editor’s note: Popblerd is happy to present its initial foray into hockey coverage with this weekly column, authored by Jay Kumar and Stephen Mapes. In the second of a two-part series, Stephen previews the Western Conference. Check out Part One here.
A team-by-team look at the West:
Perhaps no other team in the league has something to prove as much as the Canucks this year, if only to shake the stigma of the riots that followed their game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Bruins. The core of the team is still here (save d-man Christian Ehrhoff), with the Sedin twins looking vital as ever and love-him-or-hate-him leader Ryan Kesler looking to avenge last year’s defeat. The big question will be whether goalie Roberto Luongo can bounce back after some shaky games in the finals. Will the criticism leave him better off or worse? We’ll soon find out.
The Blackhawks were one of last season’s more disappointing teams, despite making the playoffs. Coming off a Stanley Cup victory, and with a strong team and a revitalized Marian Hossa, they looked like real contenders before a late season fizzle put their playoffs in jeopardy. The stars are still all here (Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith), along with some new faces who should add some extra edge to the team. With former starting goalie Marty Turco now gone, the team will be praying Corey Crawford can avoid a sophomore slump. If he stays solid, look for the Hawks to contend for the Cup again.
After two back-to-back playoff berths, the Coyotes look to be in a bit of trouble thanks to free agency departures, especially star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and defenseman Ed Jovanovksi. Despite these new holes, the team hopes to make it three playoffs in a row, and they’ve added some new faces to make it happen, notably goalie Mike Smith, formerly of Tampa. Smith will need to come out strong if the team wants to carry any confidence into the season, just as remaining defense star Keith Yandle will need to be a pillar in the absence of Jovanovksi. It’s a long shot for them, but a playoff run isn’t out of the picture if the stars align.
San Jose Sharks
San Jose has become “the other” Western Conference team in recent years, consistently making runs in the playoffs but never making it to the Cup finals. The team made some bold moves in hopes of finally claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup, sending Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to Minnesota in exchange for Martin Havlat and all-star blueliner Brent Burns. Burns especially looks to shore up a defense that clearly wasn’t tough enough last year, and that should help out the goalie situation, with Antti Niemi coming off an injury and backup Antero Niittymaki already sidelined for 12 weeks. The Sharks have always had offensive finesse, so if the defense and goalies can shore up the gaps, this could be a terrifying team.
As the other side of the big deal with the Sharks, the Wild are hoping the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi will jumpstart their anemic offense (who ranked only 26th in goals per game last year). The team has been on a lengthy playoff victory drought, and for a team nestled in the heart of hockey country, that’s something the fans aren’t exactly enjoying. The new duo of Mikko Koivu and Heatley should help things moving, but they’ll need equal results from their now Burns-less blueline, as well as a better year from goalie Niklas Backstrom, who fought a hip injury last year. You hate to say a team’s season depends on one person, but in the Wild’s case, Backstrom’s health is going to be a major factor if they want to snap their playoff losing streak.
The Preds have been a surprisingly consistent playoff contender over the past few years, though last year was their first time making it past the first round. However, with a large chunk of last year’s roster moving away, it will be up to a roster of youngsters and new guns to keep hope alive this season. The dynamic duo of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber continue to dominate the blueline for the Preds, and last season’s surprising goalie sensation Pekka Rinne will look to deliver another Vezina-caliber season. Both factors are needed to make-up for an offensively weak team which will rely on three rookies (Craig Smith, Chris Mueller, and Blake Geoffrion) and several youngsters (Niclas Bergfors and Sergei Kostitsyn) as well as a (hopefully) revitalized Mike Fisher.
Detroit Red Wings
The elder statesmen of the Western Conference, the Red Wings have made recent strides to provide some younger faces to a roster of veterans in hopes of returning to the Cup finals for the first time since losing to the Penguins in 2009. Three key retirements (Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, and Kris Draper) have left immediate challenges for the team, and they’ll rely on several up-and-comers to have career years to fill those gaps, namely Niklas Kronwall on defense and Jimmy Howard in the net. The ever-amazing Pavel Datsyuk will return as well, hoping to see his production return to the 90+ point range after a disappointing 59 points in 56 games last season. Perhaps the most important factor for the team will be coach Mike Babcock, who clearly knows how to get production out of his players year after year. Look for the Wings to continue their winning ways.
The Ducks rode a red hot Corey Perry to the playoffs last season after losing stalwart goalie Jonas Hiller mid-season to unexplained vertigo. Hiller appears to be back in good health, and hopes to anchor the team’s backline with another impressive (and hopefully longer) season. Meanwhile, Perry, as the league’s only 50-goal scorer last season, will look to keep his offensive power alive. Unlike other teams in the conference, the Ducks remain largely intact this season, and will hope to build off a strong core that can hopefully avoid injury this time around. The Ducks offense looks alive as ever, thanks in large part to high scoring defensemen Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky, though Fowler will need to work hard to fix last season’s -25 rating. Perhaps the most important return, though, is 41-year-old Teemu Selanne, who anchors the second line and allows some breathing room for the starting trio of Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan.
The Stars enter the 2011-2012 season hoping to atone for a catastrophic second half collapse that left them two points shy of the playoff after leading the Pacific Division at the halfway mark. That, combined with the loss of All-Star Brad Richards, has led many to discount the Stars as serious contenders. However, Richards’ departure freed up some serious overhead for new players (six in one day, in fact), including former Bruin Michael Ryder, who will be reunited with former Montreal teammate Mike Ribeiro. If the two can click, it could add some much needed firepower to the second line. Richards’ absence will also allow youngster Jamie Benn to step a bit further into the spotlight, and if he can survive the increased pressure on the ice, the Stars may just have a chance, provided goalie Kari Lehtonen can rise to the occasion in a division already rich with excellent goaltending.
The Oilers have been something of a joke in the NHL for the past two seasons, with repeat dead-last finishes and some of the worst numbers in every conceivable category (goals for and against, power play %, penalty kill %). It’s been a half decade since the team has tasted the playoffs, and while the streak may not end this year, the Oilers do have an exciting group of youngsters that may just get them there soon. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi make up one of the youngest and most exciting lines in the NHL this season, and combined with veterans like Ryan Smyth and Ben Eager, will hope to add some extra grit to a team that got pushed around a lot last season. The goal will be manned by Nik Khabibublin, who is coming off an embarrassing 30-day jail sentence for extreme drunk driving that curtailed his 2010 season. He’ll need to shake those ghosts and embrace this season as a clean slate to make up for poor performances last season.
It seems almost a lifetime ago that the Avalanche were the undisputed rulers of the Northwest division, logging eight consecutive division titles. Although they made an impressive stab at greatness in 2010, the team saw their season point total plummet from 95 to 68 last season. Having one of the worst defenses in the league certainly did not help, and the team has made some big moves to fix things, grabbing goalies Semyon Varlamov and J-S Giguere to replace former goalie Craig Anderson and trading for St. Louis’ imposing defenseman Erik Johnson. Last year’s offense was surprisingly solid, despite the poor record, and if newcomer and second overall 2011 draft pick Gabriel Landeskog can pay immediate dividends, things may even improve on that front. Most importantly, however, the Avs will need to stay healthy, something they couldn’t seem to manage last year. While the roster may be solid when firing on all cylinders, a few key injuries could quickly derail things.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings enter the new season with one of the best goaltending duos in the league, with the dynamic Jon Quick holding the starting role and the equally competent Jonathan Bernier standing in the wings. Either could be a team anchor, and a big question this year will be who emerges as the franchise goalie for the team. The Kings also made some big offseason grabs, including Philadelphia’s Mike Richards and Tampa’s Simon Gagne. The two former teammates will hope to reignite their chemistry from their Flyers days and provide the Kings with some extra firepower to support their stalwart goalies. The Kings’ blueline, however, has several question marks, with their top man Drew Doughty returning from injuries and number 2 man Jack Johnson (not the singer-songwriter) hoping to bounce back from an inconsistent season. If the defense can hold up for 82 games, this could be a team with some serious legs come March.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues looked like something special early on last year before some key injuries derailed their playoff train. Still, that promise continues to grow as they enter this new season. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who was brilliant in Montreal two years ago and had flashes of brilliance last year, hopes to be far more consistent in the pipes this year, and when he’s on, man, is he on. The top six of Andy McDonald, TJ Oshie, David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, and Matt D’Agostini are all vying for top-line duty right now, and there may be some early shuffling to find out what works best. However, goals were not the problem last year for the Blues, who finished 10th with a 2.88 per game average; they’ll need their young defensemen and a revitalized Halak to cut down a high goals against average. If they can do that, St. Louis may just be the surprise of the 2011 season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs a grand total of once in their decade-plus existence, a sure badge of shame for the owners and managers of the expansion franchise. You can’t imagine the team will stay solvent much longer if they can’t hold out some promise of winning in the next few seasons. With that in mind, the team has made several big gets in the off season, most notably center Jeff Carter, who will look to anchor the team’s top line. Carter will team up with Rick Nash to provide a much needed offensive jolt. But the biggest question mark in the line-up rests on former Calder winner Steve Mason, who was downright pitiful last season with a GAA of 3.03. Mason has posted two back-to-back stinkers, and he’s going to need to get back to his rookie numbers to keep his job against new guy Ian Clark. Rookie Ryan Johansen will hope to add an extra spark to the defense, and coupled with some other solid players, the Blue Jackets can be counted out just yet.
Last year, the Flames missed the playoffs by three points but had a fairly quiet offseason. Management is hoping 22-year-old Mikael Backlund will step up to make an impact on the top line. The team has two aging stars—captain Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff—and a lot of veteran support from Alex Tanguay, Rene Bourque, Olli Jokinen and Daymond Langkow. Mark Giordano and Jay Bouwmeester lead an unimpressive blueline corps. If Iginla and Kiprusoff have to carry the team again without steady contributions from the rest of the squad, it’ll be another year without a postseason in Calgary.
Stanley Cup: Canucks over Flyers in 6 games: Vancouver’s got a score to settle and while back-to-back Cups are rare, I think Luongo and company bounce back to take it this time. The Flyers have assembled a mighty powerful team this season, but I think the far more hotly contested West will produce this year’s champion.
Hart (MVP): Ryan Kesler, Vancouver. Sure, he’s easy to hate, but Kesler is coming off a commanding season and an even more impressive postseason (he practically beat Nashville by himself). The extra pressure is going to only help him. Get used to him, including his “interview bombing,” this season.
Vezina (best goalie): Pekka Rinne, Nashville. Rinne was outstanding in net last year, and besides Tim Thomas (who was really more superhero than goalie), was the league’s best. I expect Rinne to match and exceed last year’s production and rightfully earn his first Vezina of his career.
Calder (best rookie): Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado. Landeskog comes into a team desperate for a return to their former glory, and I think he’ll be an immediate strong fit with what was before an okay offense. This number two pick is going to be one to watch this season, and I think he’ll emerge as the undisputed Calder recipient.