After wowing you all with my spookily accurate picks for the Eastern Conference, I will now tackle the West. In the East, I see two teams who should be dominant (Rangers, Penguins) and then a burbling cauldron of maybe. Out West, everyone is way too good. The Blues, Canucks, Kings and Wild are all scary, and you can make a case for anyone except Columbus making the playoffs. Ah, but who will?
1. The St. Louis Blues. Balanced lineup, stingy D, the unbearable niftiness of T.J. Oshie, and, the biggie for me: two really good goalies. In this short season, teams are going to play every other day (on average) for 96 days. Having both Eliot and Halak to be awesome and give the other one a rest will separate the Blues from the other top teams, and make them that much harder to deal with in the playoffs.
2. The Vancouver Canucks. They also have two great goalies, but one of them, Roberto Luongo, will get traded any day now for reasons that the internet can tell you if you are curious. The team Luongo will leave behind can be scary good when everything is working, and is balanced enough that they settle back into very good when Kesler is hurt or the Sedin twins’ telepathy goes haywire.
3. The Los Angeles Kings. Hard to know exactly where to put the Stanley Cup champs. They only barely made the playoffs last year, and then steamrolled everyone in their path to a championship. There are always concerns about a “Cup hangover” leaving a team less fresh for the next season, but seeing as this season is three months late, the playoff run was likely an asset. What we know for sure is that they are returning essentially the same team that clobbered everyone when it counted most last year, and there should be plenty of mojo left for another cup run.
4. The Minnesota Wild. Even after they added Parise (thanks for the memories, Zach) and Suter, I hesitated before putting them here. After all, the Wild finished 14 points out of the last playoff spot last year, which is a lot of ground to make up. Still, there was always plenty of talent on the roster and Parise and Suter should stabilize the forwards (especially ex-Sharks Heatley and Setoguchi) and the defensemen, respectively. If the Devils fall apart, the Wild are probably my backup team (and no, there is nothing wrong with having a backup team. Go Blue Jays.)
5. The Chicago Blackhawks. At this point, to my professional eye, the conference becomes a clusterflabingo. The next bunch of teams are all clearly very talented and flawed. I’m going Blackhawks because they still have Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews, who are all pretty good at hockey. They also have good depth on defense, which is a major asset, especially with all the stellar offensive teams listed above them.
6. The San Jose Sharks. It seems any assessment of the Sharks always has to center on a psychological analysis of the team’s grit and spirit, and what Joe Thornton means for those things. Doesn’t necessarily seem like the best way to size up a shark, but either way, I’ll say that this team is still too talented to fall apart on us just yet. In a year we can debate the total vs. partial rebuild thing, but I want to see this predator have one more go as currently constructed.
7. The Nashville Predators. Speaking of predators, this is still a really good team but with Suter gone, they are going to have to figure out who they are now on the fly. That whole thing with Shea Weber forcing their hand by signing a huge offer from the Flyers and then having the Preds match was weird, and far from ideal for the organization, but perhaps water under the bridge at this point. Anyway, still good enough for the playoffs, but they’ll need Rinne to go berserk to get anywhere once there.
8. The Phoenix Coyotes. I wanted to go Oilers here, but the desert dogs won their division last year, so I’ll say Edmonton falls just short (while having a better record than at least a couple of East playoff teams). The Coyotes have a bunch of guys, starting with goalie Mike Smith, that make you say, “oh yeah, that guy is really good.” They could use a little more speed, but there should be some enigmatic wingers available at the deadline to fill a hole or boost a power play.
9. The Edmonton Oilers. You’re supposed to pick the Oilers to make the playoffs, and there is enough that can go wrong with the previous eight teams that they have a very good chance to, but I’ll say it takes them another year to really come into their own. With Nugent-Hopkins et. al., the talent is there, but I’ll say that they don’t do enough against the top teams, especially early, to make it in.
10. The Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings playoff streak turned old enough to drink last year, which, even in a league where half the teams make it, is very very impressive. Lidstrom is gone, as is Brad Stuart. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still wonders, but not world beaters on most nights. They’ll probably still make the playoffs because they don’t know how not to, but right now I don’t see their D holding up to the torrent of O in the West.
11. The Anaheim Ducks. Yeah, they are really good too. Or at least they can be. That’s the thing with the West. The Ducks have pretty big error bars, so I’m putting ten mostly more sure things above them. Still, lots of firepower with Getzlaf, Perry and the marvelous Selanne. Yeah, I just wrote “marvelous.”
12. The Dallas Stars. Not buying it with these guys. I love that Jaromir Jagr is still playing in the NHL, but I love that in the way that I love that the Rolling Stones are still touring. I’d love to see them, but I probably won’t get their next album, and the Stars need more of a core to be really competitive again.
13. The Calgary Flames. The best thing the Flames can do is start talking with teams now about what they would give up for Iginla. Everyone would want him, and wants the league whips itself into a good frenzy, someone will cough up the start of the Flames rebuilding effort in exchange for him. Same with Kiprusoff. He’s great, and he should probably go be great on another team.
14. The Columbus Blue Jackets. John Davidson brought the Blues from meh to monsters. Now let’s see what he can do with the Blue Jackets. He has time. Most people don’t know about the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As for the Stanley Cup: Devils over Blues in six. Book it.