The Western Conference is packed with top contenders: Anaheim, San Jose, Detroit and Calgary all garner big respect. And it’s a deep conference, too, with Minnesota, Vancouver and even Nashville still lurking in the shadows.
Then there are the also-rans Â– the teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season, but are pushing for a spring fling in 2008.
After looking at the East last week, here’s what to expect from the basement bunch in the West:
The Avs went on a tear late last season, losing just two of their final 20 games. But it wasn’t quite enough and the team ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since moving to Denver in 1995.
That alone should provide plenty of motivation for a franchise that had been accustomed to advancing deep into the post-season.
And when you throw in the summertime additions of left winger Ryan Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan, plus the progression of young guns such as Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos, a return to the playoffs seems likely.
The big question is in goal, where Peter Budaj needs to prove he’s a true No. 1, and Jose Theodore needs to prove he’s not washed up at 31.
The Blues have a good defense corps that has a chance to be great. And in today’s NHL, that’s more than enough to be considered a playoff contender (see Stars, Dallas).
Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, Christian Backman and Jay McKee Â– assuming he plays more than 23 late-season games this year Â– might not carry a high profile, but they’re a solid top-four. Throw in Calder candidate Eric Johnson and the blueline should be the Blues’ biggest strength.
In goal, Manny Legace provides adequate netminding as he tries to prove he’s a bona fide No. 1 and capable of backstopping a team into the playoffs.
Up front, it’s like 1996 all over again as Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are the big guns. They need to stay healthy and lead the team offensively for the Blues to have a chance at meaningful springtime games.
St. Louis is improving, but the post-season is a tall order.
The Oilers had their fill of agony last season; they’re hoping this year brings more of the ecstasy they experienced during 2006’s run to the Stanley Cup final.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. While Colorado was winning every game down the stretch last March, Edmonton was losing every contest Â– and hardly even scoring any goals.
GM Kevin Lowe stabilized the blueline Â– which desperately needed help Â– by bringing in Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen, as well as Dick Tarnstrom. These three defenders are assets in the transition game, an area of weakness last season.
With Ryan Smyth, Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora having moved on, the pressure is on Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Ales Hemsky and Raffi Torres to play up to their potential.
Edmonton needs everything to fall into place to vie for the post-season.
The Kings are young and full of promise Â– except in net, where AHL veterans Jason LaBarbera and Jean-Sebastien Aubin appear poised to start the season. For LaBarbera, at least, it’s a make-or-break chance to prove once and for all he truly belongs in the NHL.
Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky are the veteran presence on a blueline that also boasts Brad Stuart, Tom Preissing and rookie wunderkind Jack Johnson.
Alexander Frolov, Mike Cammalleri, Anze Kopitar, Ladislav Nagy, Dustin Brown and Patrick O’Sullivan are young, talented forwards.
This might be a very good team in two or three years, when the youngsters have ripened and goalie-of-the-future Jonathan Bernier has taken over in the crease. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
One of these years, the Blackhawks will surprise us all and return to the ranks of the respectable.
Certainly, the building blocks are in place, from defensemen Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Cam Barker, to forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Tuomo Ruutu. Heck, even leading man Martin Havlat is only 26.
Chicago has been in the playoffs only once in the past decade, a five-games-and-out experience against St. Louis in 2002. The NHL has taken a hit in the Original Six city during this time and the only way the Hawks can reclaim their place on Chicago’s sporting landscape is to become relevant again.
They don’t have to make the playoffs Â– and it’s not likely to happen this season Â– but they can’t be the league laughingstock, either.
All eyes are on coach Ken Hitchcock to see if he can turn around this perennial loser.
The Blue Jackets’ biggest problems have been an inability to score and a penchant for soft play. (They’ve had their share of goaltending woes, too.)
Hitchcock might not help much with the scoring Â– offense isn’t exactly his forté Â– but he definitely won’t stand for indifference. If players are invisible in a game, they’ll be up in the press box for the next.
As far as the offense is concerned, look for Rick Nash to approach 50 goals and for Nikolai Zherdev to finally wake up. They’re not going to win many 7-5 games, but the Jackets should be able to set franchise records for wins and points.
Don’t get too excited Â– 36 wins and 74 points would do it. Meanwhile, it’ll take 90-plus points to make the playoffs. One step at a time.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one, but the best player on the Coyotes is the coach. If Shane Doan or Ed Jovanovski go down with an injury for an extended period, things might get real bad Â– real, real bad Â– in Phoenix.
The team has decided to take the slow-and-patient approach to rebuilding. That’s a good long-term idea; they’ll be better for it in two or three seasons.
But in the short term, it’s gonna hurt.