Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Western Conference breakdown, Part 1


A look at the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference and their outlook for the 2009-10 season, in reverse order of their finish last year, so I'm starting with the last place team first. These are not predictions on how teams will finish. Coming Wednesday, a look at last season's top eight from the West. The Eastern teams to come later in the week.

Colorado Avalanche

Key forwards: Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk, Marek Svatos, Wojtek Wolski

Key defensemen: Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Adam Foote, Tom Preissing

Goaltending: Craig Anderson, Peter Budaj

Outlook: Growing pains are still in order for the Avalanche, who finished third-worst in the NHL last season. Stastny is a near point-a-game player but has had injury problems since his rookie year. His health and further development are key for Colorado. Hejduk continues to get things done, scoring 27 goals last season.

The Avalanche goaltending situation was one of the worst in the league last season. Andrew Raycroft is gone and Anderson steps in as the likely No. 1 netminder. He has the potential to be a No. 1 but things are going to be tougher in the mountains compared to the beach.

Los Angeles Kings

Key forwards: Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Justin Williams

Key defensemen: Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson

Goaltending: Jon Quick, Erik Ersberg or Jonathan Bernier

Outlook: The darling of many experts. The next "it" team. And there is a lot of talent on the club. Kopitar is a stud in the making, and along with Smyth and Williams could form a potent line. Frolov (90 goals the last three seasons) and Brown, an emerging power forward and team captain, could be bumped to the second line.

The defense, with all-around talents in Doughty and Johnson and defensive defensemen Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene, could be one of the more well-rounded in the league. Quick came out of nowhere last year to win 21 games with solid peripherals in 44 appearances (2.48 GAA, .914%) but will need to show he's the real deal.

Frolov, Williams and Johnson must stay healthy.

Phoenix Coyotes

Key forwards: Shane Doan, Peter Mueller, Radim Vrbata

Key defensemen: Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Keith Yandle

Goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jason LaBarbera

Outlook: Other than Doan and maybe Jovanovski, there's not much here that many mainstream fans might know. There are some talented youngsters in Mueller, Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris, and Vrbata's last full season resulted in 27 goals in Phoenix, but this team is a number of pieces and years away from competition. Bryzgalov took a step back, maybe two, last season after a solid 07-08 campaign. He must get back to his previous form and show consistency to become a legitimate No. 1 goalie.

Oh, and then there's all that off-ice drama that will continue to hang a cloud over the team all season.

Dallas Stars

Key forwards: Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, Brad Richards

Key defensemen: Stephane Robidas, Matt Niskanen

Goaltending: Marty Turco, Alex Auld

Outlook: This is the team in the West I think is most poised to make a big jump in the standings. The Stars were just eight points out of a playoff spot but played almost the entire season without captain Brenden Morrow. They dealt with the Sean Avery soap opera for longer than they should've (which is a period of about five minutes.) Richards had a disastrous season with health issues. Turco had his worst season since 2005-06, when, ironically, he set a career-high in wins.

The goaltending should be better. Turco won't be as bad, and if he is, Auld is a backup capable of carrying a team for brief stretches, unlike Tobias Stephen. Morrow and Richards need to be healthy and return to form. If they don't, there will be more misery in Big D. The blue line isn't very imposing, but Niskanen is an emerging talent.

Edmonton Oilers

Key forwards: Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner

Key defensemen: Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert

Goaltending: Nikolai Khabibulin, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers

Outlook: Word is Penner is finding the new coaching staff to be to his liking. He'll need to start producing and soon if Edmonton wants to go anywhere. The new coaching staff will also raise questions as to what this team will look like.

With Khabibulin in the fold, the goaltending is a little more stable than with Dwayne Roloson. Oh, and Khabibulin is better. The Oilers have one of the deeper blue lines, where even No. 4 Denis Grebeshkov scored 39 points.

Nashville Predators

Key forwards: Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat

Key defensemen: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter

Goaltending: Pekka Rinne, Dan Ellis

Outlook: On paper, this team did not do very much, at all, to improve itself. In fact, the Preds took a hit when Greg Zanon signed in Minnesota, taking away one of their more reliable defensive figures. Weber emerged as one of the top offensive defensemen and Suter might not be far behind.

Otherwise, this team is going to rely on the old and the young. The old: Arnott and Sullivan, both 35 (Arnott will turn 35 on Oct. 11) and both dealt with injuries last season. If healthy, the two players will lead Nashville's offensive attack, along with Dumont. Sullivan in particular must avoid the injury bug. The last time Sullivan played 70 games in a season? 2003-04. When he's played the last four seasons, he produced at near point-a-game rate.

The young will be netminders Rinne and Ellis. Rinne will enter as the No. 1 but Ellis has also shown glimpses of being a capable starting goalie. Plus there's a tradition in Nashville that the backup overtakes the starter (Chris Mason, Ellis himself and even Rinne.) If the netminding falters, so will the team.

Minnesota Wild

Key forwards: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Pierre-Marc Bouchard

Key defensemen: Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky, Kim Johnsson

Goaltending: Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding

Outlook: Overall, there is more goal scoring ability on the roster compared to last year. A year ago, the Wild looked to the likes of Antti Miettinen and Owen Nolan - whose best years are behind him - to score, given the injury to Marian Gaborik. Now, a seemingly-healthy Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora come to the rescue.

Backstrom will be fine even with the shift from a defensive style to an aggressive, more open game. Assuming Burns is healthy, he could be in for an explosive season, and even Johnsson could flourish, or at least produce, under Todd Richards.

The Wild are certainly capable of being a playoff team, or they could find themselves on the bubble again. Koivu needs to step up his game, especially if he's named permanent captain.

The other eight teams will come later.

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