Jan 182013
 

The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues could be battling for top spot in the Western Conference this season.

Yesterday, we previewed the Eastern Conference. Today – the Western Conference:

1. St. Louis Blues – 60 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: A-
Defense: A-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: A

Why: The time is now for the Blues, who are strong in all areas and backstopped by one of the best pairings in the league (Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott). A Conference Finals appearance, at the very least, should be expected. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pieterangelo are among the best young defensemen in the game and eat up minutes on the back end. The addition of rookie winger Vlad Tarasenko should give the Blues three scoring lines with grit.

2. Los Angeles Kings – 58 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: A+
Defense: B+
Forwards: B
Coaching: B-

Why: The Kings finally played to their potential in last year’s post season, winning the Stanley Cup after a difficult regular season. There’s no reason to expect similar struggles this time around, especially with the lockout-related layoff recharging some of the players’ batteries. An injury to Willie Mitchell hurts somewhat, but should give more icetime to second-year defenseman Slava Voynov, who was the reason L.A. could part with Jack Johnson at last year’s deadline. The Kings are extremely deep at centre, with Anze Kopitar a dominant two-way force (although he’s starting the season with a knee injury). Jonathan Quick was the NHL’s best goalie in 2012, and is supported by Jonathan Bernier, who could easily start for a number of other teams.

3. Vancouver Canucks – 50 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: A-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B+
Coaching: B-

Why: The window on the Canucks’ Stanley Cup dream is quickly closing. Injuries have rendered Ryan Kesler a question mark, and without him it’s hard to see where the goals will come from beyond the Sedin line. David Booth’s injury also adds to these offensive woes. The team is deep in net, and really needs to move Roberto Luongo as soon as possible to fill gaps up front. The blueline is very solid but unspectacular, with Jason Garrison likely to struggle to repeat last year’s goal-scoring performance. New starting goalie Cory Schneider was the only significant Canuck to spend time playing during the lockout. Expect this team to be slow out of the gate.

4. Detroit Red Wings – 54 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: B
Defense: C+
Forwards: B
Coaching: A

Why: The Red Wings blueline looks rather suspect, especially when you consider two former Maple Leafs (Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White) will be expected to shoulder top-4 minutes. Actually, the Wings will likely go as far as two youngsters take them: If Brendan Smith can step in and fill some of the offensive void left by Lidstrom’s retirement, that will be a major boost to the team’s fortunes. Similarly, if Damien Brunner can find chemistry with Henrik Zetterberg, it will fill the void left by Jiri Hudler’s departure. Pavel Datsyuk remains an elite player, and Jimmy Howard is a proven commodity in goal.

5. Nashville Predators – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: A
Defense: B
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Predators will be successful as long as Pekka Rinne remains a top-end goaltender in the NHL. Thankfully, Rinne played throughout the lockout, and should be in top-form right out of the gate. Yes, the loss of Ryan Suter has an impact, but not as much as you may expect, as youngsters Jonathan Blum and especially Roman Josi are ready for additional minutes. Up front, the team is filled with strong skating grinders, with Craig Smith the most likely Predator to experience a bump in offensive performance. This team will never win pretty, and the style of play likely to be found during this shortened season may actually be to their benefit. For what it’s worth, reviews of Sergei Kostitsyn’s play overseas during the lockout were extremely positive.

6. Phoenix Coyotes – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: B
Defense: B
Forwards: D+
Coaching: A

Why: Mike Smith came out of nowhere to dominate between the pipes, lifting the Coyotes all the way to the Western Conference Finals. A similar level of performance should get them safely back into the playoffs, although an injury would be devastating (the drop-off in quality to backup Jason LaBarbera is massive). Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a point per game defenseman in the AHL, and looks ready to assume the mantle left by Niklas Lidstrom as the best Swedish defenseman in the NHL. Nobody squeezes more out of marginal NHL talent on the third and fourth lines than coach Dave Tippett. Steve Sullivan is unlikely to replace the performance of Ray Whitney (off to Dallas), which means the time is now for Mikel Boedker and Martin Hanzal to find their offensive game. In all honesty, the Predators and Coyotes are arguably the same team playing in different coloured jerseys.

7. Chicago Blackhawls – 51 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: D
Defense: A
Forwards: A-
Coaching: C+

Why: The elite talent to be found on the Blackhawks roster – and there’s a lot of it – is held back by questionable goaltending. Corey Crawford was inconsistent in goal last season for Chicago, and Ray Emery wasn’t much better. The defense unit is largely unchanged and should be strong, although Duncan Keith’s play dipped slightly in 2011-12. Up front, Marian Hossa should be ready after a devastating playoff hit from Raffi Torres, and Patrick Kane played very well overseas during the lockout.

8. Minnesota Wild – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for the playoffs
Goaltending: B-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: D+

Why: Since when has spending a lot of money on unrestricted free agents led to on-ice success? Granted, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are huge improvements to the Wild roster, but this remains a work-in-progress lineup. Mikko Koivu should thrive with Parise on his wing, but the real key to the Minnesota attack this year will be the development of Mikael Granlund. If Granlund is Calder Trophy-worthy offensively, that should push the Wild into playoff contention. The defense behind Suter is thin and relatively young, and who knows how he will respond to greater responsibility than what he had in Nashville. Nik Backstrom is better-than-average in goal, but has been injury prone of late. His backup – Josh Harding – also has injury issues and was diagnosed with MS in October. Raised expectations and a slow start could cost coach Mike Yeo his job.

9. Edmonton Oilers – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C-

Why: Let’s be clear – on paper, right now, it’s hard to see the Oilers as a playoff team. However it’s very likely they will improve upon every grade listed above over the course of the season. That’s what happens when young teams develop and get better. It should also be noted that only the Flyers had more players active during the lockout than the Oilers. Rookie Jeff Schultz has dominated the AHL, and could be the most exciting rookie defenseman to hit the NHL since Sergei Zubov. NHL-calibre play from the rookie Schultz, and injury-free play from Ryan Whitney, will give a significant boost to the Oiler blueline. Meanwhile, the team is loaded with offensive talent up front. Jordan Eberle, in particular, looks like he might be ready to join elite status. Finally, there isn’t a more respected coach internationally than Ralph Krueger. If he lives up to his reputation, it’s just one more reason why the Oilers can make the playoffs.

10. San Jose Sharks – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C
Defense: A-
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C

Why: The Sharks nucleus remains formidable, but beyond Logan Couture, it is also aging, with the best days behind Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau. San Jose remains a team with a good top-six and a sketchy bottom six group of forwards. The blueline is the team’s strength. Brent Burns is still recovering from off-season surgery and had a disappointing first season on the West Coast, but has the talent to be a solid #2 defenseman. Brad Stuart and Doug Murray are solid defensively, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is underrated. In goal, Antti Niemi continues his history of inconsistent play, and may be pushed by backup Thomas Greiss.

11. Dallas Stars – 46 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C-

Why: The Stars have rolled the dice in the off-season, loading up with aged veterans Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr in efforts to get the team back into the playoffs. It’s quite possible this strategy could blow up in the team’s face, as older players will have their energy and bodies taxed during the shortened season. Top-line forward Jaime Benn is also sitting out with a contract dispute, making it even more likely the Stars get off to a poor start. The blueline is thin, although Alex Goligoski has untapped potential as a puck-mover. The key then is how well Kari Lehtonen can play, and how healthy he can remain. Lehtonen was Vezina-calbire last season.

12. Anaheim Ducks – 44 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: C+
Defense: C
Forwards: B
Coaching: C-

Why: Like their state rivals in San Jose, the Anaheim Ducks boast a very solid offensive nucleus in their top two lines (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne) but little depth beyond that upfront. The hope is rookies Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Devante Smith-Pelly can fill the talent gap, but that’s asking a lot (especially Smith-Pelly, who hasn’t shown much in the AHL). The addition of Scott Niedermayer as an assistant coach is hoped to help the stalled development of Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa. They must improve to support what is otherwise a slow-footed, veteran blueline. In net, Jonas Hiller had a poor 2011-12 and must rebound for the Ducks to get into the playoff race. A slow start could see some major changes to the roster, not to mention coach and management.

13. Calgary Flames – 43 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: B+
Defense: C+
Forwards: C-
Coaching: C-

Why: There’s just not enough talent on this roster to win a playoff spot, which means it will take a superhuman season from Miikka Kiprusoff to get the Flames to the post-season. At his age (36) that’s a lot to ask. Meanwhile, the team’s best player, Jarome Iginla, has already suffered a groin injury and has a lot of wear and tear on his 35-year old body. The additions of Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka (out with a blood clot) and Dennis Wideman are band-aid solutions to solving some of the offensive issues that have plagued the team recently. You can question each players’ willingness to compete and they’re likely to be found in Bob Hartley’s doghouse at some point. In fact, a poor start to the short Flames season could see both Kiprusoff and Iginla finally dealt, in efforts to better secure the team’s future.

14. Colorado Avalanche – 41 points

Status: Wild Card
Goaltending: B
Defense: D
Forwards: C
Coaching: C-

Why: Whereas the Capitals are the biggest question mark in the Eastern Conference, welcome to the biggest question mark in the West. They could win the division; they could end up in last place. The Avalanche certainly feature talented young forwards up front (Matt Duchesne, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Statsny), but the contract dispute with Ryan O’Reilly is a significant blow. He’s the team’s best two-way player – Colorado’s version of Ryan Kesler – and without him there’s a significant lack of grit and defensive acumen amongst the forward group. The defense looks like a mess. Erik Johnson is still struggling to find a consistent, top-level NHL game. Rookies Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott may be asked to add speed and puck-movement to a sluggish blueline, but both play a high-risk game. Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are a goaltending duo with strong potential but prone to streakiness. Keep in mind – only 5 Avs players were active during the lockout.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets – 38 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D-
Defense: C
Forwards: D
Coaching: D+

Why: Essentially, the Blue Jackets have blown themselves up by trading Rick Nash, and are starting from scratch in terms of building a winner. They’re going about it the right way this time, with a focus on building from the net out. They could be better than they’re rated here. Sergei Bobrovsky was lights-out during the lockout in the KHL and has high-end potential. A strong season from him would be the first strong goaltending season Columbus has had in years. On defense, Jack Johnson played very well after being dealt from the Kings, as did Nikita Nikitin (from St. Louis). Add James Wisniewski to the equation and suddenly you have a mobile, solid puck-moving top-three. It’s in their own zone where there could be problems. The biggest hole is up front on offense, where youngster Cam Atkinson looks primed to break out. There’s some decent grit and speed in the mix, but goals will be very hard to come by.

  • http://twitter.com/dcrwrites Dave Robinson

    So the Red Wings can expect four more points than the Canucks despite having worse goaltending, defense, and forwards while playing in a tougher division? Really?

  • Tom Wakefield

    Keep in mind the expected slow Canucks start without much on the second line, and the impact b.smith and d.brunner are likely to have with Detroit. I think the red wings d and forward play will exceed their initial season grades this year. Meanwhile, I think the Canucks will relatively underperform (but still win their div and get 3 seed). That’s why there’s a point difference despite the larger grade difference. Canucks have stronger team on paper…but games aren’t won on paper.

  • http://www.leftcoastbydesign.ca/ Chris (@lyteforce)

    Is the Northwest truly that weak in a shortened season when compared to Central?  Sure Calgary & Colorado bring the NW down, but Columbus should be an even easier walk over as Tom has outlined.  And I think one factor that most forget is that travel will be a much larger factor with the “Olympic Schedule” we see this year.

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