Thursday, October 06, 2005

NHL Preview: Western Conference

Full disclosure: The West rankings were written before the first games. The East rankings were done today, though it might be a couple days (or even early next week) before the team-by-team is put up. Anything that I took from the games Wednesday night has been noted, though I didn’t change any of the West rankings.

1. Detroit Red Wings: Call me a homer, but I really believe they’re the best team in the West. They have the best defense corps in the league as Lidstrom and Schneider are going to be lethal with the new rules (As will Kronwall once he comes back), Fischer makes a nice breakout pass, and Chelios and Lilja are no slouches as 4-5 defensemen. Everyone’s pretty solid in their own end, and there’s a lot of offensive talent there. Everyone wants to talk about their lack of depth now, but if you look at the rosters, there aren’t a whole lot of teams that do have depth. And Yzerman-Draper-Maltby as a third line isn’t bad at all. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are two of the league’s brightest young stars, and having Robert Lang and a motivated Brendan Shanahan isn’t too bad either.

Biggest Gain: Mike Babcock. No question about it (and that’s not just because they were pretty quiet in the free agent market). He’s a huge upgrade from Dave Lewis and just might provide the kick in the butt this team needed.

Biggest Loss: Curtis Joseph. No he wasn’t great, but he was a darn solid goalie who deserved a lot better than he got from the Wings. Plus now they have Chris Osgood. Awesome.

Biggest Question Mark: The obvious question mark is in goal. Legace has put up great regular season numbers—and I think he’s a darn good goalie, and should be the starter—
but never has been “The Man”. Osgood is hurt (and those groin injuries can linger) and he kinda sucks. But the Wings won a Cup with Ozzie in net, and they’ve still got a great defense corps to help cover it up.

2. Vancouver Canucks: They’re deep, they have one of the best—if not THE best—lines in the NHL, Bertuzzi is going to be a force with the new rules, and they’ve got a solid defense corps. But as with the Red Wings, the big question mark yet again is in net.

Biggest Gain: Anson Carter. Nothing spectacular, but he adds good depth and can knock in some goals for them.

Biggest Loss: Brad May. Who’s going to put out a bounty on unsuspecting players now?

Biggest Question Mark: In goal. Cloutier has held them back for a couple years when it looked like they were getting ready to contend. He’s just not a good goalie. But this could be the year that it doesn’t matter all that much anymore. Or maybe they’ll just play Alex Auld.

3. Calgary Flames: I’m not quite buying all the Flames Kool-Aid that TSN, SI and ESPN have been spewing, picking them #1 in the league and whatnot. But they are going to be a very solid team, and they’re better in goal that the two teams listed above them. And they still have the best player in the league in Iginla. They’ve got a great defense corps as well. That adds up to a pretty good finish in the conference.

Biggest Gain: Roman Hamrlik. Provides some nice offensive punch to their blueline, which was lacking in it before. He edges out Philippe Sauve for this award. Just kidding.

Biggest Loss: Craig Conroy. They didn’t lose any great players, but the Flames did lose some solid ones, and Conroy is the best of that bunch.

Biggest Question Mark: Who’s going to score apart from their top line? Simon-Reinprecht-Donovan isn’t exactly a great 2nd line (though I do think the world of Reinprecht as a hockey player, and I think he’s very underrated).

4. Nashville Predators: A good team who gave the Wings fits in the playoffs two years ago added some scoring in Kariya, Vokoun looks like he’s ready to make The Leap into the echelon of top goalies, and they’ve got a good young defense corps.

Biggest Gain: Paul Kariya. If (and that’s a big if) he can stay healthy, he should thrive having the new rules, which means people can’t hit him and that makes him happy since he’s a pussy. I hate Paul Kariya, but when he’s on, he’s fun to watch.

Biggest Loss: Denis Arkhipov. He chipped in a consistent 30-40 points and was great on the line with Erat and Orszagh. The latter was a big loss as well. He may be back once his knee heals, but I think he tore all of his CLs, so he won’t be back for awhile.

Biggest Question Mark: Can Kariya stay healthy? They’ve got some solid players, but Steve Sullivan is the only other difference marker on their roster that isn’t in goal. Kariya adds that threat to a second line, which makes them that much harder to play against.

5. Anaheim Mighty Ducks: The Los Angeles Ducks of Orange County but Sometimes Anaheim Too pulled off the coup of the Free Agent Frenzy, getting Scott Niedermayer to leave New Jersey (Though really…who wouldn’t want to leave New Jersey for SoCal?) and join his brother. They also got Selanne away from his partner friend Paul Kariya. Niedermayer, Ozolinsh, Salei, Carney, Vishnevski, and the almost-Wolverine Jason Marshall make up a defense corps that any team not named Detroit would probably envy. That Fedorov guy ain’t bad either. There is a question of depth up front. Both Ducks fans have to be thinking that Steve Ruccin (who they gave to the Rangers) would be looking pretty nice still.

Biggest Gain: Scott Niedermayer. The absolute best defenseman available and they landed him. Solid all-around, spectacular on offense.

Biggest Loss: The bulk on JS Giguere’s pads.

Biggest Question Mark: Can Giguere regain his form from when he took the Ducks to the Cup Finals? If he can adjust to the new rules they could be higher than I have them ranked.

6. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks got hit very hard by free agent defections in the offseason. Check out this list from TSN: Additions: F Josh Langfeld.
Subtractions: D Mike Rathje, C Vincent Damphousse, D Jason Marshall, C Mike Ricci, F Curtis Brown, F Todd Harvey, F Alexander Korolyuk (returned to Europe). Ouch. Despite losing Rathje, the defense is still strong with Stuart, Hannah, and McLaren, and they’re strong in net with Nabokov. Up front is the same question that most teams are facing…who is going to score after the top 4-5 forwards?

Biggest Gain: Umm….I guess that’d be Josh Langfeld. That has to make Sharks fans feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Biggest Loss: Rathje. He’s huge, he logged a lot of minutes for the team, and was relatively healthy. If they had managed to keep him (and with $14 million in cap room, how did they not?) that would be one scary-good defense corps.

Biggest Question Mark: Can Milan Michalek overcome a serious knee injury and live up to the high hopes placed on him as the #1 prospect in the organization?

7. LA Kings: Conroy, Demitra, Roenick, Mr. Candice Cameron. Not a bad crop of free agents the Kings signed, and I didn’t even mention their starting goalie Mathieu Garon. They also lost quite a bit though, with Ziggy Palffy, Ian Laperriere, Anson Carter, Martin Straka, Jozef Stumpel, Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh taking off. The latter two hadn’t helped them recently, despite being great players in the past. Allison for $1-1.5 million is a gamble worth taking though, and the Leafs could hit on that boom-or-bust player.

They do, however, have a pair of young stars-in-the-making in Alexander Frolov and Michael Cammalleri. They don’t have a great defense corps in front of their young goalie however, and it will be interesting to see if he can hold down the fort.

Biggest Gain: Jeremy Roenick. The guy can still play when he shuts his mouth long enough to do it.

Biggest Loss: Ziggy Palffy. When he’s healthy, he’s close to a point-per-game player. It’s hard to replace that, and even if you can replace that, you’d like to have it anyway.

Biggest Question Mark: The Kings have been absolutely ravaged by injury the last few years. “Can they stay healthy?” trumps “Can Mathieu Garon make an impact as an NHL starting goalie?”.

8. Dallas Stars: They managed to keep Mike Modano. That right there may have saved the fortunes of the Stars this year, because without him they were royally screwed. Their defense took a hit with Teppo Numminen and Chris Therien taking off, and I’m sorry but Martin Skoula does not fix that. Turco is a solid goalie, though he hasn’t shown it in the playoffs, which surprises me because he was just money at Michigan. Morrow-Modano-Guerin is a great line and Lehtinen and Arnott round out a solid top 5 forwards.

Biggest Gain: Modano’s signature on his contract. It looked like he was gone, but he decided to stick with the team he’s played for his whole career.

Biggest Loss: Teppo Numminen wasn’t the player for them that they hoped he would be, but when you’ve got Skoula in your top 3, you’re going to feel the loss of a guy that probably underachieved for your team.

Biggest Question Mark: Is this team good enough to make the playoffs? I feel like this team pretty much is what it is. No real injury reclamation projects, no superstud prospects adjusting to the NHL, a solid goalie, no players that seem ready to make The Leap. They’re going to be right on the bubble the whole year I think.

9. Colorado Avalanche: My how the mighty have fallen. I know Kariya and Selanne underachieved for them, but losing those two plus Forsberg and Foote in the same offseason? No one should be riding Pierre Lacroix’s jock over that one. Lacroix has been given a free ride from people after putting the Avs in contention year after year in the late 90s, but lately has made several very questionable moves and completely sold out the team’s farm system. He also had the most curious move of the offseason, signing Brad May who put out a bounty on Steve Moore last season. The defense corps is shaky once you get past Rob Blake and Karlis Skrastins (and the fact that I give them Skrastins in the “not shaky” department says something). The Anti-Christ JM Liles is a good offensive defenseman, but he ain’t Nick Lidstrom in his own end. Hedjuk, Sakic and Tanguay are as good as any top 3 forwards you’ll find, but once you get past them there ain’t a lot of scoring punch left. If the Avs offense disappointed when Forsberg, Selanne and Kariya were there, what’s going to happen with them all having departed?

Biggest Gain: Antti Laaksonen. He’s a good all-around forward who should be a fan-favorite, having played for DU.

Biggest Loss: Forsberg or Foote. Take your pick. They were both integral parts of Colorado’s success and they both did it in their own way. When healthy, Floppa was the best player in the league. Foote was a guy that no one liked to play against. And they didn’t replace either of them adequately.

Biggest Question Mark: Unfairly or not, is 2003-04 Vezina-candidate David Aebischer really a good goalie? Can he carry the load without a viable backup (still) and with a questionable defense corps? He had a great year in 03-04 but I’m still not sold on him. I’m biased, but I really don’t see this team making the playoffs.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets: Foote, Hrdina, and Berard were three nice free agent signings. Nash plays with two guys that can get him the puck in Marchant and Zherdev. Apart from the top-line though, there’s not a lot of proven depth. The defense corps is good and Denis is a capable goalie, but I don’t see them quite having enough firepower yet to make the playoffs in the close West.

Biggest Signing: Adam Foote. He can put fear in the hearts of opposing forwards and is the mean defenseman they needed to clear the front of the net.

Biggest Loss: Gerard Gallant’s moustache. He hasn’t had it for awhile I don’t think, but I still miss it whenever they show him. They didn’t really lose anyone in the offseason unless you count Zenith Komarniski, which I don’t.

Biggest Question Mark: Who scores apart from the top line, and will Rick Nash have better than a 3:1 goal:assist ratio?

11. Phoenix Coyotes: This is a team that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of. I debated putting them as high as 7th, but they end up back here and I’m not sure why. They have good forwards (Comrie, Nedved, Nagy, Doan, Hull), a solid defense corps (Morris, Tanabe, Gauthier), and a good goalie in Curtis Joseph. So why do I have them ranked 11th? No clue. I just don’t like something there and I can’t put my finger on it. They’ve got definite upward mobility from this position.

Biggest Gain: Petr Nedved. Nedved’s 40-50 points should be a nice addition to a team that doesn’t have a ton at center behind Mike Comrie.

Biggest Loss: Daymond Langkow. Nedved’s 40-50 points don’t completely replace Langkow’s 50-60.

Biggest Question Mark: Is Wayne Gretzky a face, or a legit coach? We’ll find out. They talk about how he’s great at recognizing talent. We’ll see in the upcoming seasons if he should be behind the bench or in the front office.

12. Chicago Blackhawks: They’re another sexy pick to have a breakout season, and while I could see it, I’m not going along with it. There’s so much young talent on this team that I feel like they’re still a year away. Tuomo Ruutu is sick though. Adrian Aucoin and Nikolai Khabibulin were great acquisitions. Making Martin Lapointe the third highest-paid player on the team was not. They have a very shaky defense corps. It’s a good thing they signed the Bulin Wall, because they’re going to need him.

Biggest Gain: Khabibulin. If Scott Niedermayer wasn’t the prize of the free agent class, then Khabibulin was. Does anyone really think he wouldn’t have ended up in Detroit but for the new salary cap? This was a coup for Chicago.

Biggest Loss: Bryan Berard. He isn’t a great defenseman, but he’s solid enough and would probably be their #2 guy.

Biggest Question Mark: Can the young talent get used to the NHL, and if so, how quickly? If they mesh quickly, then this team could also be shooting up the Western Conference.

13. Edmonton Oilers: They’re fast. They should greatly benefit from the new rules. They added Chris Pronger and Mike Peca. And yet, I don’t think it’s going to be enough (sorry Mgoblog). They don’t have a lot of proven scorers up front…or…well…any that aren’t named Ryan Smyth (Peca had 3 good years, but has come back to Earth the last couple of seasons). Ed note: After watching them last night, Jarrett Stoll is gonna be a player (whether it’s this year or not) and Horcoff looks like he could break out this year. The defense corps is solid, and they expect good things from ex-UNH goalie Ty Conklin.

Biggest Gain: Chris Pronger, literally and figuratively. If he stays healthy we all know how good he can be. The biggest issue is staying healthy.

Biggest Loss: Eric Brewer, both literally and figuratively. I think the world of him as a player, and the Oilers are taking a gamble that Pronger won’t get hurt yet again.

Biggest Question Mark: Who the hell is going to score for this team?

14. Minnesota Wild: The masters of the trap will have to adjust to the new NHL rules, and quickly if they want to stay in the playoff hunt. They might have the coach to do it though, as I do believe that Jacques Lemaire is one of the best minds in the game. Brian Rolston was a nice addition to help take some of the heat off Gaborik. They’ll again platoon Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. They really could have used some help down the middle, and an upper echelon defenseman because I don’t see one on their roster. I don’t see this team doing too much this year. (Ed note: They fared ok last night)

Biggest Gain: Brian Rolston. When Alexandre Daigle was your leading scorer (probably on and off the ice), you need some help offensively.

Biggest Loss: The ability to trap.

Biggest Question Mark: Has anyone heard of any of their centers? That’s probably an exaggeration, but still…

15. St. Louis Blues: Owwwwwww! I had them ranked here even before last night’s shellacking, as did pretty much everyone else. They lost their three best players in Pronger, MacInnis, and Demitra and replaced them with Eric Brewer and the fork that is sticking out of Scott Young’s back. To top it off, Keith Tkachuk came into camp looking like Cheech Hunt. They have a nice top line and a nice top pairing on defense but after that it’s just painful to look at their roster. That playoff streak is coming to an end. There’s just no way it doesn’t, short of 7 plane crashes.

Biggest Gain: Eric Brewer. This trade will work out well for both teams. It’ll look really good for the Blues in a couple years, much in the way the Pronger for Shanahan team worked out for them.

Biggest Loss: Chris Pronger. Go figure.

Biggest Question Mark: The biggest question comes courtesy of me watching the game last night, and was echoed roughly 1 second later by everyone else I was watching with. “Dallas Drake is their captain???”

In the playoffs, the Wings come out of the West if they get any goaltending whatsoever. I have faith in Babcock he’ll go with Legace, and Manny will do just fine.


Brian said...

you might be surprised to know that Edmonton finished like 9th or something in scoring last year. Their major issue was awful goaltending from Salo down the stretch... Montoya level. (ZING!) Brewer always flashed potential but was about as consistent as Michigan State football. Pronger is a massive, massive upgrade.

Horcoff and Ales Hemsky had monster years overseas... I think the Oil are an easy playoff team personally.

Tom said...

When did Horcoff get good? I was a State fan when he was at State and I remember him as being good but not great. Now all of a sudden he's not only good in real life, he tears it up on NHL06 as well. I really feel like I missed something here.

By the way, the preview was great, much better than the one in SI (who apparently think that teams only have 14 players now as they put in three lines, two d-pairings and a goalie for each team). I did disagree with two things though. In my opinion, St. Louis will miss MacInnis and Demitra both more than Pronger given the new state of the NHL (skill players and defenseman that can move the puck at a premium). The other thing was that I think the Wings biggest gain was letting Hatcher go. This year he is just going to be a penalty magnet.

Brian said...

Horcoff's been doing pretty decently in EDM the last few years as a second/third line grind center, and then he blew up overseas... yet to be seen whether he keeps it up but given what I saw at MSU I think he's suited to the new NHL.

And Pronger's no Hatcher... he's actually a really good offensive defenseman, too. That's why he won the Hart that year.

Packer487 said...

Brian, that does surprise me that Edmonton was that high in goals for last hockey season. Looking at their stats from 03-04, it seems like they have a bunch of solid 10-20 goal scorers but no one apart from Smyth (and maybe it'll prove to be Horcoff) that will go nuts for them--though Stoll is kind of sick. I didn't realize Torres had 20 last year...I thought he was just a guy that was really good for us in NHL2k5.

I will acknowledge that I may have underrated your team. It was actually way harder than I thought it'd be to rank the teams. I had Dallas, Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, and Columbus all over the map before I settled on the rankings I came up with.

I didn't feel good about putting Dallas in the playoffs but it still seems like they have too much talent to leave out. It's gonna be an interesting fight for the 6-12 spots in the West for sure.

Tom: They might just miss Demitra more than Pronger, especially since they got Brewer back in the Pronger trade, but they've been without MacInnis so much I felt bad putting him down there.

robert paulson said...

I cannot consider CuJo a big loss. The guy was never anything better than above average in Detroit. Legace put up better numbers whenever given the chance. Manny is at least as good as CuJo was here.

Sure, Joseph was great back in the day, but he never was great in Detroit. Can't say I'll miss him.

Tom said...

Perhaps Detroit's biggest potential gain could be Chris Chelios retiring. I don't want to be to down on a guy after only two games, but right now he has been the worst d-man on the team. When Scott Stevens left, maybe Chelios should have taken the hint. Anytime you are being outplayed by Lebda for crying out loud. I think that a lot of people underestimated the negative effect the new rules would have on the cagey veteran defenseman.

Packer487 said...

Agreed about Chelios. 5 penalties last night? Yikes. At least one of them was REALLY weak, but he still earned his share. Lebda looks really good doesn't he? That was an unexpected surprise.

As for Cujo, I think he's a loss because now we have Chris freaking Osgood in net. I'll agree that Legace is probably as good as Cujo was here, but I'm dreading seeing #30 back in net. Hopefully Legace will keep up his strong play and earn the playoff duties. I think he can handle it.

The other reason I was sad to see Cujo go is that he deserved so much better than what he got in Detroit. Holland treated him horribly, he was scapegoated for the playoff failures which were not at all his fault, he got humiliated by being waived a couple times....I want to see that guy win a Cup and it's not going to happen in Phoenix. He was a class act the whole time he was here, and I wish things had worked out better.