WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The Central Division is the toughest division is hockey. You can make a case for every team making the playoffs and almost every team winning the division. The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks may not take the regular season seriously but they are the best team in the division. The Winnipeg Jets hope to build on last year’s surprise playoff appearance. The Dallas Stars added veteran leadership to bounce back from a disappointing 2014. This is a make or break year for the perennial disappointing St Louis Blues. The Avalanche made changes to escape the division cellar. The Wild made no significant changes and may find them in the cellar.
1. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS- Chicago had a tough off season but the Blackhawks are the champs. They have the best leadership group on and off the ice in the NHL. Jonathan Toews is this generations Mark Messier. Patrick Kane , assuming he’s not in jail, is the best scoring winger hockey. Marian Hossa is one of the best two way wingers in hockey. Chicago lost Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp in the off season. Both were accomplished, skilled championship wingers. They were replaced by Ryan Garbutt, Marko Danno and Artem Anisimov. Each player fills a need in the Windy City. Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw’s emergence in the playoffs proves this franchise doesn’t rebuild it reloads. The Defense is anchored by arguably the best defenseman in the business Duncan Keith. Trevor Daley comes in from Dallas to add more offense from the back end. Chicago hopes he can be as durable and reliable as Johnny Oduya was. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson round out the top four with their Stanley Cup pedigree. Last year’s Cup run proved Corey Crawford is a big time goaltender and Scott Darling is the super clutch back up.
2. WINNIPEG JETS - Winnipeg surprised everyone last season by making the playoffs. They may not surprise anyone this year but they will forecheck them into submission. The Jets have a bunch of skilled wingers with size. The captain Andrew Ladd leads the top line with handsy Bryan Little and large Blake Wheeler. The relatively small Mathieu Perreault leads the second line with Mark Sheifele and Drew Stafford. The bottom two lines centered by Alex Burmistrov and Adam Lowry enable the Jets to matchup with anyone in the West. On defense the Jets go as deep as anyone this side of Nashville. Jason Trouba and Toby Enstrom are reliable and Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers are massive men with offensive skills. If net minder Ondrej Pavelec can hold up or Michael Hutchinson fills in as admirably as last year a deep playoff run is possible.
3. DALLAS STARS – The Dallas Stars had their season ripped away from them last season when Tyler Seguin got injured. This season the Stars added what they so desperately needed. Leadership, defense and goaltending. Patrick Sharp brings his three Stanley Cups to Dallas to show superstars Jamie Benn and Seguin how to win. Benn And Seguin definitely know how to score. Valeri Nichushkin needs to rebound from injury and Ales Hemsky needs to rebound from a mediocre season. John Klingberg is all star in the making on defense. While no one else on the blue line falls into that category Johnny Oduya will bring defensive responsibility to the Dallas blue line. If former Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi takes Kari Lehtonen goal tending job Head coach Lindy Ruff will have something he’s never had in Texas, reliable goaltending.
4. ST LOUIS BLUES – The St. Louis Blues are classic underachievers. Head coach Ken Hitchcock’s style of play leads to a lot of regular season wins and not very many in the post season. Captain Kangaroo’s Blues play a tight defensive style in the regular season then don’t have enough offense in the post season. Vlad Tarasenko cannot be blamed for lack of offense. He is a scoring machine and one of the best players in the league. Paul Stastny needs to prove he’s worth his big contract and David Backes needs to prove he deserves to wear the C. Alexander Steen and Jaden Schartz do just enough to avoid blame. TJ Oshie didn’t and was shipped out for the Capitals warrior Troy Brower. On defense Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester think you can stop people with your reputation. Alex Pietrango is a young stud hopefully he doesn’t learn his team mates bad habits. St. Louis’ goaltenders are average. Jake Allen and Brian Elliot may not be the number one reason the Blues underachieve but they never come up big in net.
5. NASHVILLE PREDATORS- The Nashville Predators have the best defense in the NHL. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are the best blue line pairing in the league. Both of them are Norris quality. Young gun Seth Jones is a ridiculously talented defenseman who only gets better. Fliip Forsberg leads the forwards and can be described the same way Jones was. The Predators season fortunes will fall into the hands of old men, centers Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher. Fisher you can put your faith in, Ribeiro probably not. Colin Wilson and Craig Smith are proven if not flashy goal scorers. Flashy DayLight Savings James Neal escaped Geno Malkin’s shadow and proved his critics wrong. Pekka Rinne when healthy is a top five goalie. Carter Hutton is a capable backup but Rinne needs to play for Nashville to make the playoffs in the tough division.
6. COLORADO AVALANCHE- The Avalanche are a team that could win the division or come in last. They have as much talent as anyone, but will they play smart hockey. Fiery Head coach Patrick Roy is not on the hot seat because he’ll pick up that chair and throw it at his team. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are a talented young nucleus. They need to bounce back from last season’s disappointments. Hall of Famer Jerome Iginla led the team in scoring last season and is still a highly productive player. Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau have been brought in to add depth to the forward unit. Francois Beauchemin signed with the Avs. and is everything the Colorado blue line needed last year. Toughness. Size. Responsibility. Erik Johnson returns from injury and will be paired with the offensive minded Tyson Barrie. The Avalanche net minder Semyon Varlamov can look unbeatable horrible, sometimes in the same game. Calvin Pickard who looked good last season if Varlamov falters.
7. MINNESOTA WILD- The Wild did almost nothing in the off season and will regret that decision. Minnesota did resign goalie Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk saved their season last year. Can he do it again this season? Dallas and Colorado got better in the off season so probably not. Zach Parise is a good player but he’s not a franchise changer thus he makes too much money in a cap league. Nino Niederreiter has an upside but Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are underachievers. Ryan Suter is an All –Star defenseman. The rest of his blue line mates are mobile but not very physical. The Wild always seem hell bent on getting rid of Head coach Mike Yeo. It seems like this will be the year.
The Pacific Division will be won by a team in Southern California. The Ducks were one game away from the Stanley Cup Finals and the Los Angeles Kings are one season removed from winning the Stanley Cup. The San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames figure to be in the playoff hunt. The Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks will fight for fifth place. Edmonton would consider fifth in the division a good season Vancouver would not. No one will be fighting Arizona for last place.
1. ANAHEIM DUCKS- The Anaheim Ducks were one game away from the Stanley Cup Finals and will be right there again. Ryan Getzlaf is Superman and Corey Perry is Batman. Last season’s addition of Ryan Kesler gives the Ducks a Justice League of hockey. Anaheim rearranged some wingers in the off season. Carl Haglin a burner with clutch hands was added. Cris Stewart an underachieving giant with flashes of skill also joined up in Orange County. Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano can fill the net. A big question in Anaheim will be if Richard Rackell can move into a third line center role. Newly acquired Kevin Bieksa will be asked to fill Francios Beauchimin role as the teams defensive rock. Hampus Lindolm is a blue line star in the making. Simon Depres looks like he’s finally living up to his potential. Fredrik Andersen is trying to fight off the hyped, oft injured John Gibson for goaltending duties. Head coach BBQ Bruce Boudreau always toys with his net minders. Boudreau better figure it out or he will be out in Anaheim.
2. LOS ANGELES KINGS – Kings Head coach Darryl Sutter may also on the hot seat. Difference being Darryl Sutter has two Stanly Cup rings from coaching the Kings. The Kings have the best number one line in the league. Anze Kopitar is a great two way center and Marian Gaborik is a sharpshooter extraordinaire. Milan Lucic puts the power in power forward. Fellow big man Tanner Pearson is back from injury to give the Kings all of their Super Seventies back. Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan. Drew Doughty is a phenomenal defenseman but he played too many minutes last year. Slava Voynov can solve that problem if he remains out of jail and in the country. The rest of the defensemen need to rebound from last season’s lack luster efforts. Jonathan Quick needs to return to his Vezina level because Jhonas Enroth is not the back-up Martin Jones was.
3. SAN JOSE SHARKS – The San Jose Sharks changed Head coach but kept their underachieving former captains Joe Thorton and Patrick Marleau. Joe Pavelski should be the captain. He has the talent and the passion. Logan Couture had a good 2014 campaign but 2013 rookie sensation Tomas Hertl had a sophomore slump. Joel Ward was added to this team to score big goals and hopefully fill some of the leadership vacuum. Paul Martin will fill any vacuum on the blue line because nobody in the leagues plays a steadier twenty five minutes a game then him. Martin’s partner will be the Brent Burns. Burns is so good offensively he has played top line forward for the Sharks. Burns is also good in his own end. The rest of the blue line core is non-descript but will not hurt you. Martin Jones is the team’s new goaltender and will bring stability to crease.
4. CALGARY FLAMES – The Calgary Flames had a Cinderella 2014. Jack Adams winner Head coach Bob Hartley seemed to do it with mirrors. Johnny (Hockey) Gaudreau scored big goal after big goal. If Gaudeau gets half the bounces he got last year he’ll still be very lucky. Johnny is also lucky he has a legitimate number one center in Sean Monahan. Jiri Hudler adds a versatile veteran presence to the top line. Sam Bennett adds fresh legs and skill to the second line. Michael Frolik adds a little bit of everything else to that line. Mark Giordano anchors an impressive defense crew. TJ Brodie, Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman gave Calgary a marvelous top four last year. The Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton to crowd the blue line when that money could have been spent on forward depth. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo split the net duties. The Flames need one to get a hot hand as they did last year.
5. EDMONTON OILERS – The Edmonton Oilers are sick of losing. The Eighties legacies were thrown out and GM Peter Chiarelli and Head coach Todd McLellan were brought in. Connor McDavid is billed as the team’s newest savoir. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent Hopkins Edmonton’s previous saviors are still trying to harness their immense talent. Jordan Eberle has played the best of the high draft bunch and Nail Yakupov the worst. Drafting McDavid is not Edmonton’s only reason for optimism, the Oilers also brought in Andrej Sekara. He is an an actual top four NHL defenseman.The Oilers also acquired Eric Gryba. Gryba is a thumper with a snarl to protect the kids from the back end. Also Edmonton finally now has a goal tender. Cam Talbot is solid in the crease. Hope is flowing like water in Edmonton.
6. VANCOUVER CANUCKS – The Vancouver Canucks got embarrassed the playoffs last season. So what did Vancouver do, the threw away most of their grit and toughness and added the softest Sutter of all time. The Sedins are still in town but can Radim Vrbata play over his head like he did last year on their off wing. Chris Higins and Alex Burrows are still around too. Shawn Matthias, Brad Richardson and Zach Kassian are not. That’s a lot of size and grit for new over achiever Brandon Prust fill. The Vancouver defense is mobile but not overly tough. Alexander Elder, Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis are mobile but not exactly tough. Goalie Ryan Miller has never been considered tough and now he’s not even considered a good goaltender. Vancouver in a few seasons went from a team with too many good goalies to a team with none.
7. ARIZONA COYOTES – The Arizona Coyotes best forward was a healthy scratch for the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs. Antoine Vermette did score a couple big goals for Chicago when he was in the lineup. This season Arizona fans will get to see young forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair develop. They will also see forwards Steve Downie and John Scott commit violent felonies on the ice. Oliver Ekman Larsson is a Norris level defenseman but he cannot play sixty minutes. Zbbynek Michalek is a human orange traffic cone. Fellow blue liner Nick Grossman is only slightly more mobile than Slow Z. The usually effective goalie Mike Smith needs to bounce back after a horrible 2014. If he doesn’t Arizone will show up in court begging the franchise to move.