Pre-season predictions are the alcohol-fueled benders of the sports journalism world: they seem like fun before you decide to engage in them and they provide moments of levity and insight while you’re in the middle of them – but once the process is over, they leave you with painful, lingering reminders of what an ass you can be.
Before I delve into my prognostications for the NHL’s Western Conference (the East was posted last week and can be found HERE) in 2009-10, a couple brief qualifiers:
• The difference between eighth place and 12th or 13th place in conference standings can be less than 10 points. For instance, last year, Anaheim grabbed the West’s final playoff spot with 91 points; the Dallas Stars finished with 83 points, but that was only good enough for 12th in the conference. So picking a team to miss the playoffs isn’t necessarily an indictment of their competitiveness.
• The longer I do these, the more I like to think of predictions not as displays of psychic might, but as expressions of the expectations the hockey world – not team fan bases – has for each franchise. Some teams will exceed those expectations and some won’t come close to meeting them. But if you fervently believe the Islanders or Avalanche are using the same measuring stick for success this year as the Flyers and Sharks, you probably won’t appreciate some of my guesswork.
With that out of the way, I’ll borrow a line from Damon Wayans’ “Handi-Man” character and say, “Let’s get busy!”
1. Calgary. With the Central Division’s many solid teams likely to cut into each other’s point totals, the door is open for either the Flames or Canucks in the Northwest to take advantage of their divisional patsies and slink through the ranks to the West’s top slot. I like Calgary over Vancouver ultimately because I like the Flames’ best defensemen, forwards and their coach more than I like those on the Canucks. And because Flames GM Darryl Sutter has the potential to go Travis Bickle on his roster (even the immediate family members) if anything less than a superlative season takes place.
2. San Jose. Regular season, shmegular season. The Sharks could rack up 164 points in the standings and their fans still would be simultaneously devastated and incensed if they don’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs and far beyond. You can say the pressure is on one of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov or Patrick Marleau in particular, but that wouldn’t be true. Fact is, the entire roster has a lot to prove and atone for. But not until April.
3. Detroit. In the same way many now refuse to believe in the Sharks as a bona fide Stanley Cup threat until they prove themselves worthy of that belief, I also won’t assume Detroit will take a huge step back in the standings until it actually happens. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom remain too spectacularly talented for me to see the Red Wings any other way.
4. Vancouver. The Canucks surprised many – including me – last year by surviving a tepid start to the year and a brutal 2-10 record in January to win the Northwest Division and take Chicago to the limit in the second round of the playoffs. GM Mike Gillis has done well to increase the depth of a defense corps that was stellar to begin with; now the question becomes whether or not the Sedins and Roberto Luongo can justify their lucrative new contracts – and whether Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler can at least replicate their breakout seasons.
5. Chicago. After decades of Bill Wirtz’s ownership of their beloved team, Blackhawks fans had to know the non-stop good news parade from last season couldn’t go on forever. Sure enough, it ended with a few notable thuds this summer: clerical office errors led to unforeseen, potentially cumbersome raises; Dale Tallon became the first GM in recent memory to be fired after steering his team to a Conference final appearance; and Marian Hossa signed a contract that will pay him approximately half the value of the Phoenix Coyotes over the course of approximately 4,380 days. This is still a very good team, but you need all hands on deck to thrive in the West – and there are too many question marks to assume the Hawks can do that.
6. Anaheim. There are many ways the Ducks can miss the post-season – if their Prongerless, thinner defense corps loses Scott Niedermayer or Ryan Whitney for any extended stretch, or if a potential platoon between J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller turns poisonous – but if they’re as together and focused as they were entering last season’s playoffs, they could give San Jose a run for their money as Pacific Division champs. Oh, and that giant sigh of relief you hear (in English and French) is coming from Saku Koivu. After so many years of loyal service in Montreal, even Habs fans should be happy to see him have a little peace and quiet. And sun.
7. Columbus. You think I’m picking Rick Nash, Steve Mason, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Ken Hitchcock to miss the playoffs after what I’ve been through? What am I, new? Move your eyes along to the next prediction already.
8. Edmonton. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I’ve got a hunch the acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin and installation of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney behind the bench might just be enough to nudge the Oilers – who finished the ’08-09 regular season on a 3-8-0 skid (the worst in the league other than Tampa Bay, the Islanders and Colorado) – back into the post-season. Are they going to seriously compete for a Cup? Not if Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner remain their No. 1 center and left winger.
9. St. Louis. If my Oilers hunch goes into the dumper, the Blues are my first choice for a playoff prediction mulligan. A full season from Erik Johnson and T.J. Oshie will make life easier on coach Andy Murray, as will continued progress from David Backes, Patrik Berglund and David Perron. However, their defense unit is one of the least experienced in the West – and unless Chris Mason stands on his head for a second straight year, that could be their fatal flaw.
10. Los Angeles. I hate for you to think I’m underestimating the Kings, because I’m not. The job Terry Murray did behind L.A.’s bench last year was phenomenal, their blueline has the potential to be one of the league’s best and individual talents such as Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are only getting better. But you, me, and even casual Kings followers know how much pressure is on these guys to do something of real merit this year. And in the tougher of the NHL’s two conferences, they may need something to go wrong for other teams just as much as they need a lot to go right for themselves.
11. Minnesota. Let me start by saying that, like the Blues and Kings before them, the Wild, Stars and Predators all could make the playoffs without shocking a lot of people. And the Wild’s holdovers from the Doug Risebrough/Jacques Lemaire era have to feel as if the shackles are off now that Chuck Fletcher and Todd Richards are holding the reins. But is the arrival of Martin Havlat and (2009 playoff healthy scratch) Petr Sykora enough to keep up with the Western Conference Joneses – especially when Minnesota’s group of defensemen can’t hold a candle to those on clear-cut conference contenders? I suspect not, but this transition year has at least lowered the pressure on them to wow people right away – and that may relax them enough to stay in contention for a post-season slot.
12. Dallas. From a healthy Brenden Morrow to Mike Ribeiro to James Neal to Loui Eriksson and many more, there’s much to like about the Stars’ collection of forwards. Nevertheless, the void created by veteran star Sergei Zubov’s departure makes Dallas’ defense corps all the more inexperienced and Marty Turco will need a complete reversal of form (from well below average last season to well above it this year) if the Stars have any hope of squeezing into one of the final playoff berths.
13. Nashville. How do you pick a franchise that has one of the best young defense corps in the game to finish out of the playoffs? Well, after you look at a forward unit that hasn’t made any off-season additions of consequence, a No. 1 goalie (Pekka Rinne) entering his sophomore season and a division that features four very tough opposing teams, it’s certainly easier to do. I’d love to see what Barry Trotz and David Poile could do if they were employed by owners able and willing to spend to the salary cap maximum, but I’d also love a month-long date with Katy Perry and three free swings at Glenn Beck. Life is indeed unfair.
14. Colorado. When “Say It Ain’t Snow” Joe Sakic retired this summer, any pretenses the Avalanche may have had toward playoff contention dissolved into the Denver air. New GM Greg Sherman and coach Joe Sacco will bring fresh perspectives and the track record of president Pierre Lacroix, combined with great building blocks such as Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene, suggests Colorado’s turnaround may take place sooner than later. But if their supporters are thinking “sooner” means “this season,” the month of October – when the Avs play Detroit and San Jose twice, and when 10 of their 14 games are on the road – ought to soundly disabuse them of that notion.
15. Phoenix. I’m not going to pick on the Coyotes any more than fate and feuding rich dudes already have. I will say how terrible I feel for Yotes employees and the franchise’s devoted fans who took hockey into their hearts despite the steady stream of cruddy product that’s been put before them all these years. But if I told you anything other than the truth – that very few people in the league expect anything other than fifth place in the Pacific and a photo finish with the Islanders for last place overall – I’d feel even worse. The only good thing to take away from this year might be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft; then again, how cruel would it be for this organization to acquire its first real franchise player (apologies to Shane Doan), only to subsequently have its team taken away before that young future superstar skates a shift in their town?
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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