Last spring changed everyone’s perspective of the San Jose Sharks.
Once it was fashionable to pick them to win a ton in the regular season and then lose early in the postseason. Now that they proved they can reach the conference finals, the debate is about whether they can finally get to the finals.
I for one project them to subscribe to last year’s formula again: lots of points in the regular season and a defeat in the Stanley Cup semifinals. But instead of Chicago, I anticipate the Detroit Red Wings ending San Jose’s season.
It’s not exactly walking out on a limb to pick Detroit, but maybe the Wings are a little less of a favorite than in years past. After all, Detroit’s core and complementary players – aged already last season – are a year older. There’s no telling what the Wings will get out of Todd Bertuzzi, Kris Draper and newly signed Mike Modano as a supporting cast to the “Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk Show.”
And after two straight trips to the finals, the Wings proved they were mortal in losing to the Sharks in last year’s second round. However, that means that for the first time in a couple years they had a longer summer to recuperate.
For me, the top two teams in the West are San Jose and Detroit. I give the Wings the edge because of their goaltending (Jimmy Howard over the Antti Niemi/Antero Niittymaki combo), their depth on defense (Jonathan Ericsson is going to push for top-four minutes) and their decision to fill their bottom six forward corps with veterans rather than youngsters (Modano, et al. over Logan Couture and friends).
The sexy pick around North America this season is Vancouver. However, I’m not sold on their improvements on defense – adding Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis – making up for what they lack up front, where I don’t see a lot of firepower after a top five led by the Sedin brothers.
So instead of sexy, I’m going for old reliable to prevail once the postseason plays out in the West.
Here are my Western Conference predictions:
1. San Jose
Joe Thornton should produce a monster year, but the Sharks’ bottom six forwards are mostly green and I don’t love their defense after Dan Boyle.
Nicklas Lidstrom’s possible swan song should really only end one way: with a Cup. The health of the supporting cast will determine whether that conclusion becomes reality.
Like an old sitcom, it seems “Everybody Loves Vancouver” this fall. Well, I’m not buying any team that’s leaning on Mason Raymond in its top six and I still want Roberto Luongo to prove he can do it in the postseason for more than two rounds.
Practically the same team from last year should finish in the same place this year, although it remains to be seen if a full year of Derek Morris plus more contributions from young defenseman Keith Yandle and the addition of rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson help the ‘Yotes overcome the loss of Zbynek Michalek.
I’m expecting this to be the year Shea Weber enjoys a real coming out party. So you combine the defenseman playing the best hockey in the league with a Finnish sensation in net in Pekka Rinne, and you get a team that shocks the world by finishing in the thick of things.
Half the team will have Stanley Cup hangover and half will be getting used to playing in a new city while dealing with opponents gunning for the defending champs. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews keep the ‘Hawks afloat on sheer talent, but Marty Turco is the wrong netminder in the wrong place.
7. Los Angeles
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why so many are in love with the talent on this team. And Drew Doughty is going to be in the Norris race all year. But there comes a time when you have to supplement young talent with a veteran superstar, even if that means giving up a young chip or two. LA hasn’t done that. And I smell a goaltender controversy brewing between Jon Quick and Jonathan Bernier.
This could be anybody’s spot really, but I give it to the Flames based on a year’s experience playing in Brent Sutter’s system and the best goaltending, with Miikka Kiprusoff, among the teams eight through 15 in the West.
After taking everyone by surprise last season, the Avs are due for a drop-off. There’s no way Craig Anderson repeats his outrageous season of last year, and Colorado failed to supplement its young talent with some veteran help.
The Ducks are almost starting from scratch on the back end. So Jonas Hiller will be tested often in net and will count on one of the league’s better top-six forward groups to provide enough offense – but it won’t score enough to get this club into the postseason.
11. St. Louis
I just don’t see how a team relying so much on bounce-back seasons from would-be scoring stars Brad Boyes and David Backes can really be a playoff threat. And I’m not convinced Jaroslav Halak is the second coming.
Nicklas Backstrom in goal gives the Wild a puncher’s chance to win every night. This team in transition lacks a superstar, but with one season now between them and the Jacques Lemaire era, Mikko Koivu & Co. should be able to keep things interesting until the season’s final weeks.
The infusion of three of the league’s best prospects – Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi – should be enough to keep the Oilers out of the conference basement, even if the rest of the roster is a rag-tag group.
The team that finished 14th in the West last season did nothing to improve this summer. So another next-to-last-place finish is in the cards. Rick Nash must regret re-signing in the Buckeye State every day he wakes up.
If ever there was a team that obviously wants the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, it’s the Stars, who are counting on a lot of youth to emerge as primetime players at once. I’d expect Brad Richards will be the most coveted, and available, trade chip come February.