Season Preview: Ranking the Western Conference Forwards (and Ashton Kutcher’s Two and a Half Men Debut)

What do Michael Ryder and Ashton Kutcher have in common?

Both have previously enjoyed success in supporting roles, and now both are being asked to replace bigger stars that left town after difficult contract negotiations.

It’s doubtful either will make anyone forget who they’re replacing anytime soon.

Last Monday, more than 27 million viewers tuned in to see how Two and a Half Men would replace Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher.

For those that missed it but wondered how it went, allow me to summarize: blandly juvenile.

Granted, juvenile jokes and innuendo are a big reason why Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on television.

But there’s no question the show’s charm had a lot to do with Charlie Sheen playing off his real-life reputation.

Ashton Kutcher brought a different energy to the season premiere. He was Kelso 2.0 – written to be smarter but just as much the same boy-man character who stole laughs and struggled to keep a straight face on That 70’s Show.

Yep, like Sheen, Kutcher is essentially playing himself. That, however, doesn’t make him interesting. Without the sub-text Sheen’s real-life exploits brought to the sitcom, Kutcher isn’t a strong enough actor to create an interesting character on his own. And he’s struggled throughout his career when given opportunities to play a lead role.

Meanwhile, Michael Ryder is essentially the only off-season acquisition the Dallas Stars made to replace Brad Richards. He’s also struggled when asked to play a lead role (see Montreal career), and enjoyed great, Stanley Cup success as a top-nine forward in Boston.

How are he and the rest of the Stars forwards shaping up for the 2011-12 season?

Let’s get to ranking the Western Conference forward groups:

A- Grade

Last Year (B+)

For the second year in a row we have a surprise on top of the list. This result is almost entirely due to three things: Corey Perry’s emergence as the Hart Trophy winner; Bobby Ryan’s development into a near-elite player; and Teemu Selanne’s incredible season as a 287-year old (matched only historically by the 2000 year old man ). The first line of Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Perry is the best in the league. Like last year though there are real depth issues beyond the top two lines, with Andrew Cogliano skating like Todd Marchant, but in no way capable of replacing the latter’s defensive abilities. If Selanne plays like his age, and none of the youth (Kyle Palmieri in particular) step up into supporting roles, they move down this list quickly.

B+ Grade

San Jose
Last Year (A-)

Will battle with Los Angeles all year for the title of strongest team down the middle. Martin Havlat also represents a speed upgrade over Dany Heatley, although he’s injury prone and beyond him the right side is fairly punchless.  In fact, like Anaheim this is a team with scoring issues in the bottom six, particularly on the wings. It’s a gritty bunch though, and one that looks tailored for the post-season.

Last Year (A-)

Yet another team at the top of this list with an elite core of scoring talent but some questionable depth. Recently, a James Mirtle piece argued how the Toronto Maple Leafs needed more balanced scoring, as their top four forwards provided 53% of forward goals last season. For the Canucks, the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows provided 58.7% of Vancouver’s forward goals last year. That’s a lot of pressure on a few players. With Kesler and Mason Raymond’s injuries clouding their potential impact this season, Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson will have to pick up some of the offensive slack. The third line (Chris Higgins, Manny Malholtra, Jannik Hansen) has the makings of one of the better shutdown lines in the league.

Last Year (B+)

Strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk (maybe the best player in the game), Henrik Zetterberg, Valterri Filppula and Darren Helm. They could really use some help on the wings though, as Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen (despite his playoff scoring reputation) are more appropriate options for a strong second line. The wildcard is Jiri Hudler, who was a George-Lucas-messing-with-the-original-Star-Wars-trilogy-again scale disappointment last season. This is a quick, intelligent group of forwards.

Los Angeles
Last Year (A-)

As discussed above, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll give the Kings arguably the strongest set of centremen in the league. The acquisition of Simon Gagne was a wonderful under-the-radar move. His play improved exponentially as the season went on last year in Tampa Bay and he’s shown previous chemistry playing alongside Richards. Kyle Clifford and Brad Richardson are youngsters providing grit on the third line, while Ethan Moreau will try to extend his career as a veteran 4th line presence. Really, if Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards.

B Grade

St. Louis
Last Year (C+)

On paper this a solid, still improving two-way group that might have greater depth than some of the teams ranked higher. While they lack an elite point producer, they could legitimately see seven 20-goal scorers this year (Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart). Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner bring Stanley Cup experience.

Last Year (A+)

Make no mistake – the core of the Blackhawks forward brigade (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) is good enough to sit atop this ranking. It’s the complimentary players that are still very much a work in progress. Andrew Brunette is a good addition to help the powerplay, but at this point zambonis move faster. Meanwhile, none of Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg or Rostislav Olesz has shown any sort of consistency in their young careers. If one of them finds “it” offensively, the ‘Hawks move up this list.

Last Year (C-)

Things are looking up in Ohio as Rick Nash finally has some talent to partner with. Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal bring much needed scoring depth to the Blue Jacket attack and Ryan Johansen is an elite prospect (although he may be brought along slowly).  The third and fourth lines are inexperienced but play hard. R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette are decent second-line talents.

B- Grade

Last Year (C+)

The future is very bright in Edmonton, but it’s not here quite yet. Taylor Hall looks like a future Maurice Richard candidate and Jordan Eberle looks like a future 30-goal scorer. Alex Hemsky is in his contract year, and seems poised for a career year. Then again, that’s said every year, and he always finds a way to get hurt. Adding Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger addressed two weaknesses (leadership and face-off prowess), but it’s Ben Eager who represents the most important off-season move. Together with Darcy Hordichuk, the Oilers have size that can contribute at the NHL level for the first time in at least two seasons. This group could surprise.

C+ Grade

Last Year (C)

It’s a career crossroads for Dany Heatley. Granted, he played hurt last March and throughout the Sharks playoff run, but a lack of effort has been associated with the former 50-goal scorer for a few seasons now. (You know who else you could say that about? Everyone involved in HBO’s Entourage.) Meanwhile, a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard and greater opportunity for Devin Setoguchi give the Wild their best top-six forwards in franchise history.

C Grade

Last Year (B+)

Last year’s rankings warned of a potential sophomore slump for this group, and boy did they deliver in that regard. There’s still some real promise here though. Gabriel Landeskog was a terrific draft pick, adding some Brendan Morrow-esque qualities to a young, finesse-based lineup. The question is health as Milan Hejduk is older than some countries; Peter Mueller missed much of last season; and David Jones is a band-aid player. If this group can stay healthy they climb these rankings. 

Last Year (C+)

What was a solid top-six is now weaker thanks to Richard’s departure. Jamie Benn will likely shift into the centre ice position, and Ryder will be given every chance to cement himself as a go-to goal scorer on the club. He’s streaky though, which leaves Loui Eriksson the only natural goal-scorer on the roster. Vernon Fiddler and Adam Burish are decent third-line grinders, but there’s very little offense in the bottom-six.

Last Year (C+)

The Flames may slip another grade before the start of the season if Jarome Iginla continues to have back troubles. Those back troubles are really no surprise though – he’s been carrying this team for a long time. There’s some nice grit here, and they’ll remain a tough team to play against. But scoring is going to be a struggle. That’s why there’s a lot of pressure on Mikael Backlund to evolve into an impact offensive player this year.

Last Year (C-)

With all due respect to Martin Erat, there really isn’t a legitimate first line player on the Predators roster. That being said, this is a team filled with forwards who do the “little things” right, and they may just be the best defensive group collectively in the NHL. In many ways Predators forwards are similar to Calgary as a group, although younger and without an Iginla to build around. Keeping the comparison in mind, Colin Wilson is Nashville’s Mikael Backlund. 

C- Grade

Last Year (C)

You know you’re in trouble when Ray Whitney is the most dangerous forward on the roster. The Coyotes may have the worst group of centres in the NHL, and that’s counting Kyle Turris, who is (inexplicably) holding out. I imagine Turris asking for more money has gone about as well as this. How much longer does Shane Doan really have to play in the desert?

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