The Western Conference might’ve lost the Detroit Red Wings and the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, but it’s still the toughest place to play hockey in the NHL. The battle for the top divisional spots will make this an interesting season. Even some of the traditionally underperforming teams may have the ability to surprise this year.
Here are 14 stories you should be following and what you should expect from each team in the Western Conference.
Can the Blackhawks repeat again as Central Division champs? I don’t see why not. Wait, I do see a problem: goaltending coach Steve Weeks. In Atlanta, Thrashers fans constantly wondered what his job description was, as backup Johan Hedberg acted as goalie coach to both Kari Lehtonen and Ondrej Pavelec. Get ready for Nikolai Khabbibulin giving pointers to Corey Crawford.
If their offense falters, the Hawks may have a problem. Chances of that happening? Slim to none.
Coach Patrick Roy will have his work cut out for him this year. A goalie that can play so much better than he has, defensemen who don’t live up to their potential, and a super young forward corps who need a guiding, patient hand to develop their talent. I give Roy at least one game to walk over to Joe Sakic and demand to be traded. Bonus points if he gives the crowd a Bronx cheer.
The Stars’ offense has improved with Tyler Seguin and youngster Valeri Nichuskin. The Stars’ first overall pick in this year’s entry draft has impressed during pre-season, and if he hangs around that is one hell of a speedy offensive punch they pack.
Look for the Wild to adjust to a more up-tempo, fast attack -- forget it. I can’t finish that thought. The Wild will be the steady team that they were last year, and probably will wind up in a three-way fight along with Dallas and Nashville for the last two playoff spots in the division.
Seth Jones and Shea Weber. This is Nashville’s top defensive pairing. It’s about enough to make you say “Shea who?” Or, if you’re trying to be clever and three beers in, “Sheeeeaaaa whaaaaat?”
The Blues have approximately three and a half second lines, no first line, and a defense that is a brick wall when clicking on all gears. Unfortunately, unless team chemistry kicks in on overdrive, they still don’t have a proven finisher, though new addition Brenden Morrow could wind up being a pleasant surprise. They’ll finish high in the division, but might have their usual problems in the playoffs.
The Jets have Evander Kane, who they apparently hate because he can only afford a phone made out of cash. Also, they’ve given out a large extension to a general manager who thinks he is a) the general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers or b) is beholden to follow the Don Waddell plan of drafting decent picks outside of the top round who just don’t work out while signing free agents that help only incrementally.
They’ll tease for a playoff spot, and then break their fans heart once again. You might be able to take the Thrashers out of Atlanta, but you can’t take the Atlanta sports team out of the Thrashers.
I’ve heard something about some guy maybe retiring after this year. Now, if only I could remember his name… Anyway, the Ducks were the surprise of the Western Conference last year, benefiting from Bruce Boudreau’s magic regular-season touch. They took the Detroit Red Wings to the brink of elimination, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them do the same to another team this year.
Jay Feaster-Watch is go! With the addition of Brian Burke as the president of hockey operations, Feaster is nothing more than a figurehead. With the Flames picked to not do well this season, Burke is going to want to tweak the line-up sooner or later. There is no way that Feaster is allowed to have that responsibility.
Every year the Oilers get better and better - at least their young guns do. Is this the year that they finally pick closer to the bottom of the first round? Probably not, but they won’t be terrible, either. Patience is a virtue when it comes to the Oilers, and it might not be rewarded this year, but it will soon.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the Kings didn’t. Any team which faces them in the playoffs this year (hopefully not the Blues) will have their work cut out against this smart, defensive, hard working team.
It’s all about Mike Smith, and if he can get back to his 2011-2012 form… and if he can live up to that contract. If he regains that, then the Coyotes will contend for the top-4, but with San Jose, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Anaheim fighting it out, this might not be the Coyotes’ year.
The Sharks will be back for more of the same. They’re a solid team and should finish in playoff position easily barring any catastrophe. After mostly standing pat, will they be good enough to take that next step?
If the Sedins don’t get broken blocking shots, they’re going to be a tough team to take down. Coach John Tortorella wants them to play “the right way,” which, of course, is his way. Torts is a good coach, albeit one whose message has a shelf life. Luckily it’s fresh in Vancouver, so he has a few seasons to see what he can do with the roster he has.
Will that roster include Roberto Luongo in net? Signs point to yes - where else is he going to go? He’s stuck, and the Canucks are stuck. I can think of worse goaltenders to be stuck with. If he keeps having a sense of humor about the situation and keeps doing his job, he’ll get the Canucks back to the playoffs. There’s more than one player on this team, despite what the off-season media attention might have you believe. Luongo can only do so much.