It was a pretty quiet off-season on the Western front.
While the Chicago Blackhawks continued making some noise after their championship with the wheeling and dealing brought on by the salary cap, virtually all of their Western Conference rivals proceeded with caution and patience. As a result, the same teams will be battling for supremacy during the 2010-11 regular season.
Here’s a closer look at every team in the Western Conference, listed in predicted order of finish:
Last season: 49-28-5, 103 points, 3rd seed in the West, lost in second round to Chicago.
Breakdown: There’s good reason for the optimism in Vancouver. New additions Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard will bolster the blue-line, which should benefit Roberto Luongo and freshman backup Cory Schneider. It sets up as an important season for Luongo, who relinquished the captaincy over the summer so that he could focus all his energy on preparing for games. No excuses now. The Canucks were second in league scoring a year ago, led by Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, and should continue to have a pretty potent attack. The Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler will be key cogs once again, as will players like Alex Burrows and Mason Raymond, who will be counted on for secondary scoring. On paper, this looks like a team that could challenge for the Stanley Cup.
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 51-20-11, 113 points, 1st seed in the West, lost in conference final to Chicago.
Breakdown: The biggest change comes in goal, where Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki have taken over for the departed Evgeni Nabokov. GM Doug Wilson is banking on the Finnish duo pushing the team over the top—hardly a stretch given that Niemi won a Stanley Cup last season in Chicago. Otherwise, the key pieces remain in place for a team that should have plenty of motivation after reaching the Western Conference final. One point of interest will be seeing who takes over the captaincy following Rob Blake’s retirement, as coach Todd McLellan has yet to settle on his man. Veteran defenceman Dan Boyle and forward Joe Pavelski are considered the front-runners. Look for a big season from Joe Thornton, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 44-24-14, 102 points, 5th seed in the West, lost in second round to San Jose.
Breakdown: Break out the Advil. With a roster featuring nine players 35 or over, the Wings are virtually assured of leading the league in wear and tear. But there’s at least a couple future Hall of Famers among that group—Nicklas Lidstrom and Mike Modano, who decided to sign with his hometown team over the summer rather than retire. Modano might be the most-watched third-liner in the NHL this season because it’ll be the first time he’s ever played outside the Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars organization. Another key addition is Jiri Hudler, who returns after a season in the KHL and adds even more scoring depth to the mighty Wings. If goaltender Jimmy Howard plays as well as last season, Detroit will be a strong contender yet again.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 46-27-9, 101 points, 6th seed in the West, lost in first round to Vancouver.
Breakdown: After failing to land Ilya Kovalchuk in free agency, it ended up being a summer of standing still for Kings GM Dean Lombardi. However, that might not be such a bad thing for a young core that has been trending in the right direction the past couple seasons. The brightest star of them all is defenceman Drew Doughty, who won’t turn 21 until December but is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. He starts the season in a pairing with veteran Willie Mitchell—one of Lombardi’s few off-season additions—and can expect to log major minutes. Not to be forgotten is centre Anze Kopitar, who could threaten the 100-point barrier in his fifth NHL season. The goaltending battle is bound to become a storyline at some point this season. Jonathan Bernier appears ready to push incumbent Jon Quick for the No. 1 job.
Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, 2nd seed in the West, won Stanley Cup.
Breakdown: The champagne had barely started to dry in the team’s dressing room before GM Stan Bowman was shipping players out of town. Nine regulars found new homes in a series of moves that helped get the Blackhawks under the salary cap. It might have been the strangest off-season ever for a Stanley Cup champion. Familiar faces remain with stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith (complete with new teeth) still around, but the team’s trademark depth has been eroded. Bowman’s boldest move was to walk away from goaltender Antti Niemi’s US$2.75-million arbitration award in favour of signing veteran Marty Turco at less than half the price. Don’t be surprised if it ends up playing a major role in the title defence.
Last season: 47-29-6, 100 points, 7th seed in the West, lost in first round to Chicago.
Breakdown: They’ll be looking to get a lot from a little once again in the Music City. GM David Poile continues to operate with a small budget and saw defenceman Dan Hamhuis get lured away to Vancouver with a big contract. He also traded former captain Jason Arnott to New Jersey in a salary-related move. One of Poile’s hallmarks has been making savvy decisions with limited resources and the signing of speedy centre Matthew Lombardi seems destined to fall into that category. Expect him to thrive in a front-line role, perhaps alongside surprise 30-goal man Patric Hornqvist. The Predators will definitely need Pekka Rinne to be good in goal because they are facing yet another season on the playoff bubble.
Last season: 40-32-10, 90 points, 10th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: Everything old is new again in Calgary, where GM Darryl Sutter brought back two former castoffs—Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay. They’re both players with productive pasts who will be looking to regain form. It’s a common theme around an organization that missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. No one will be under the microscope more than captain Jarome Iginla, who had his lowest offensive totals since before the lockout. Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester will also be looking to bounce back after failing to live up to expectations during his first season with the Flames. With no shortage of motivated individuals, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff still on his game, this has the makings of a better year in Calgary.
Last season: 50-25-7, 107 points, 4th seed in the West, lost in first round to Detroit.
Breakdown: After exceeding expectations by such a large margin a year ago, what can they do for an encore? Coach Dave Tippett has his work cut out for him once again. Ilya Bryzgalov is the most important piece of the puzzle—he’ll need to continue the form that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist last season behind a defence that was weakened by the loss of Zbynek Michalek. The addition of veteran forward Ray Whitney brings a little more character to the dressing room and should help on the power play, where the Coyotes were ranked 28th last season. Ultimately, the biggest test will come from the expectations that were created by an unexpected 100-point season and a first-round series with Detroit that lasted seven games.
Last season: 43-30-9, 95 points, 8th seed in the West, lost in first round to San Jose.
Breakdown: The Avs turned the keys over to the youngsters last season and were delighted with the results. Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi and Ryan O’Reilly all made contributions as rookies for a team that shocked many by sneaking into the playoffs. Of course, goaltender Craig Anderson and leading scorer Paul Stastny played a big role too. GM Greg Sherman has done very little to disrupt the chemistry amongst his group, letting veterans Marek Svatos and Darcy Tucker walk away in the summer while adding Daniel Winnick to the fold. Essentially, coach Joe Sacco will be working with the same group he had a year ago. The challenge now is finding a way for them to avoid a collective sophomore jinx.
Last season: 39-32-11, 89 points, 11th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: It wasn’t too long ago when Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger made Anaheim’s blue-line the envy of the league. Now it looks like a weak point. With Niedermayer deciding to retire over the summer, new additions Tony Lydman and Andy Sutton join Lubomir Visnovsky as the top defencemen in Anaheim. First-round draft pick Cam Fowler will also get a shot after making it through training camp without being sent back to junior. There is plenty to like about the rest of the team. Jonas Hiller is an above average No. 1 goalie and Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan are as good a forward line as there is in the league. It will be interesting to see how Teemu Selanne fares at age 40. Yes, after flirting with retirement again, the Finnish Flash is back for at least one more season.
St. Louis Blues
Last season: 40-32-10, 90 points, 9th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: Doug Armstrong wasted no time putting his stamp on the team after assuming the GM duties. His first move was acquiring Jaroslav Halak in a trade with Montreal, deciding to go with the Habs playoff hero in goal and letting Chris Mason walk away as a free agent. Beyond Halak, the Blues playoff hopes hinge on the ability of young players to assert themselves. Veterans Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya have moved on, so more will be asked of David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund. And what lies in store for Brad Boyes? He had just 14 goals last season—a shockingly low total given that he scored 33 and 43 the two years before. It has the makings of an interesting season in St. Louis, especially if the team can improve on its poor record at home.
Last season: 37-31-14, 88 points, 12th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: The Stars have turned the page on their past. The most notable off-season moves involved players leaving Dallas as Mike Modano, Marty Turco and Jere Lehtinen all moved on. GM Joe Nieuwendyk has entrusted the unpredictable Kari Lehtonen with the starting goaltending duties after acquiring him from Atlanta in a trade. He’ll be backed up by the well-travelled Andrew Raycroft. Otherwise, improvement is going to have to come from within, and coach Marc Crawford will no doubt be emphasizing defensive play—the Stars were 23rd in goals against last season and 27th on the penalty kill. Young forwards James Neal and Jamie Benn are candidates to take a step forward.
Last season: 27-47-8, 62 points, 15th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: Anticipation and excitement are in overdrive thanks to three players who’ve yet to appear in a single NHL game. Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle—aged 18, 19 and 20—will share the spotlight on Tom Renney’s youthful squad. The Oilers had just 27 wins a year ago and finished 12 points behind the 29th-place Toronto Maple Leafs. While this team will remain in the bottom half of the league, this season is about taking a step forward and building a bridge to a brighter future. The veterans shouldn’t be totally forgotten. Ales Hemsky returns from an injury-plagued season, Dustin Penner looks for a second straight 30-goal year and Shawn Horcoff steps into even more of a leadership role with the departure of captain Ethan Moreau.
Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, 13th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: Perhaps coach Todd Richards will have more luck putting his stamp on the team this year. The Wild emerged from several seasons under Jacques Lemaire with a bit of a defensive hangover, finishing 21st in goals against with Richards behind the bench. The team will definitely need improvement in that area because scoring likely won’t be a strong suit. Captain Mikko Koivu and oft-injured winger Martin Havlat each have some offensive ability, but they aren’t likely to get much help. The new faces include forward John Madden—a solid two-way centre who is fresh off a Stanley Cup win in Chicago. Minnesota’s biggest strength is in goal, where Niklas Backstrom will be backed up by veteran Jose Theodore.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 32-35-15, 79 points, 14th seed in the West, missed the playoffs.
Breakdown: The organization is betting on a return to form from goaltender Steve Mason. Coming off a poor season, the 22-year-old was given a generous contract extension because GM Scott Howson believes it was an aberration. Mason must prove him right for the Blue Jackets to have success. New coach Scott Arniel faces a tough task with his first head job behind an NHL bench. He’ll have to coax a lot of a lineup that is short on big names. A major wildcard comes in the form of Russian forward Nikita Filatov, who saw limited minutes with the Blue Jackets last season before bolting for the KHL. Can he make an offensive impact this time around? Captain Rick Nash can surely use the help.