Hello again, and welcome to Part II of my 4-Part NHL season preview. In part I, I gave you all my Eastern Conference Predictions. In part 2, I will give you my predictions for the Western Conference. I will approach these predictions a bit differently than I did those for the Eastern Conference. Today, I will give some strengths and weaknesses of each of the 8 playoff teams out west. I will be upfront here in saying that I do not usually follow the Western Conference as much as I do the East, over the course of the season, so many of you may have differing opinions here. Like always, feel free to chime in with your opinions below.
1) Vancouver Canucks
The defending conference champs return in 2011-12 as without a doubt one of the clear-cut contenders for a Stanley Cup. Arguably the deepest team, top to bottom in the entire NHL, the Canucks will once again be lead by former Hart trophy winners Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Ryan Kesler returning to full health will also be a welcome sight for Vancouver’s offense. Perhaps the biggest strength of the Canucks, will be the retribution factor. The Canucks’ were so close to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, they could taste it. They always say that a team must learn how to lose, before you can learn how to win; and in 2010-11 , the Vancouver Canucks sure learned how to lose.
Truth be told, there isn’t much to put here. The loss of puck-moving defenseman Christian Ehrhoff will undoubtedly play a role in the Canucks’ success in 2011-12. However, a team that employed 9 NHL-quality defensemen in 2010-11, a replacement should not be hard to find. The only real question mark in Vancouver, is the ability of star goaltender Roberto Luongo to bounce back from a rough finish to the post-season of 2011. But even if Roberto is to falter, young Cory Schneider will be ready and willing to carry the load.
2) Los Angeles Kings
The popular favorite in the West, is without a doubt the LA Kings. After losing out on key free agents Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards over the past two summers, GM Dean Lombardi opted to pull the trigger on a trade sending Wayne Simmonds and uber-prospect Brayden Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for former Flyer-captain Mike Richards. Richards should make an immediate impact on the LA roster, and provide perhaps the best 1-2 punch at center, along with all-star pivot Anze Kopitar.
While the addition of Mike Richards went a long way to solidifying the Kings 2nd line, the team’s lack of depth after the top 2 lines is perhaps the team’s biggest achilles heel. Beyond Richards, Kopitar, Williams and Stoll, the Kings lack much skill on the offensive end. In order to be successful in 2011-12, the Kings will need improved production from the likes of Kyle Clifford and Brad Richardson.
3) Chicago Blackhawks
The 2010 Stanley Cup Champions are perhaps the deepest team in the entire NHL. Led by stars, the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Pat Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks will be back and looking for a return to the Cup Finals. Look for Chicago to once again be near the top in the Western Conference for most of 2011-12.
After making some solid depth acquisitions this offseason, the Blackhawks only true weakness entering 2011-12 is the play of young goaltender Corey Crawford. While Crawford did have an excellent rookie season, it is unclear whether or not he can continue his strong play, going forward. The sophmore slump can be a huge issue in hockey, and it will be critical to the Blackhawks success, that Crawford is able to battle through.
4) San Jose Sharks
Scoring. San Jose is one of few teams that can legitimately run 3 very productive offensive units. The addition of Brent Burns will also significantly help out on the back end, and go along way to replacing Rob Blake as an offensive force from the blueline, who retired last summer.
The swap of Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat will be sure to pay dividends for San Jose in the post-season , but it is unclear whether or not Havlat can produce at the same rate as Heatley can, during the regular season. However, on a team with Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Ryan Clowe, I am sure goal scoring should not be an issue.
5) Detroit Red Wings
With Captain Nicklas Lidstrom returning for what looks to be like 1 final year in the league, 2011-12 looks like it’ll be Detroit’s last crack at the Cup for a few years. Look to the Red Wings to rely on top end talent and a bevy of experience to lift them to the top of the Western Conference.
Perhaps the only weakness of the Red Wings, is age, and with age, comes a proneness to injuries. Star pivot Pavel Datsyuk missed most of 2010-11 with a wrist injury, but looks to be 100% entering training camp. However, if the Wings want to succeed in 2011-12, they must get key contributions from younger depth players.
6) Nashville Predators
The biggest strength, of a cash-strapped Nashville squad, is none other than the man standing behind the bench, Barry Trotz. Trotz, arguably the best coach in the game, always finds a way to get his Nashville team to over-achieve and get into the post-season.
Uncertainty over the futures of the big 3; Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, and Pekka Rinne, will surely cause a stir in Nashville, as the season draws on. It will be up to those 3 all-stars to put away thoughts of contracts and focus on hockey, if Nahville wants to once again be a playoff team, in 2011-12.
7) Anaheim Ducks
The RPG line is unquestionably the most dynamic scoring line in hockey, and will once again be relied upon to provide most of the Ducks’ offense. The RPG line is perhaps the only line in hockey that can truly carry a team to the playoffs.
The biggest knock on the Ducks, is that they are a very top-heavy squad. Beyond the RPG line, there really aren’t many reliable offensive forwards on the Anaheim roster. Also, beyond Lubomir Visnovsky and budding superstar Cam Fowler, there isn’t a whole lot of depth on the Ducks’ blueline. Also, concerns over the health of goaltender Jonas Hiller will be huge in determining the Ducks’ success in 2011-12.
8) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have finally found a true #1 center to play along side Rick Nash. It is my belief, that given the chance to play with a legit play-making pivot, Rick Nash can be one of the top-5 players in all of hockey. He is mean, nasty, big, strong, has a fantastic shot, and really knows how to finish. He has now been given that opportunity, thanks to GM Scott Howson’s acquisition of Jeff Carter.
The biggest issue for Columbus is their depth, or lack there of. There really aren’t many proven NHL defenders on this roster. The addition of James Wisniewski will do wonders for the Jackets’ Power-Play, however, beyond Wiz, I do not see much strength on that blueline.
9) St Louis Blues
10) Minnesota Wild
11) Calgary Flames
12) Edmonton Oilers
13) Phoenix Coyotes
14) Dallas Stars
15) Colorado Avalanche
Thanks For Reading!
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Filed Under: Anaheim Ducks • Calgary Flames • Chicago Blackhawks • Colorado Avalanche • Columbus Blue Jackets • Dallas Stars • Detroit Red Wings • Edmonton Oilers • Los Angeles Kings • Minnesota Wild • Nashville Predators • NHL • NHL Teams • Phoenix Coyotes • San Jose Sharks • St. Louis Blues • Vancouver Canucks • Western Conference
About the Author: Boston Bruins writer for Hockey Independent. Have written for The Hockey Guys and SB Nation Boston. Follow me on Twitter @_BWoodward or shoot me an email at BWoodward.HI@gmail.com.