Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Western Conference breakdown, Part 2


Starting with the 8th-place team, ending with the conference champion (regular season):

Anaheim Ducks

Key forwards: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, Joffrey Lupul, Saku Koivu

Key defensemen: Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney

Goaltending: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Jonas Hiller

Outlook: The big news in Anaheim's offseason was the trade of Chris Pronger to Philadelphia for Lupul, Luca Sbisa, the Liberty Bell, the "Rocky" statue and the rights to the Philadelphia cheesesteak, now to be known as the Anaheim cheesesteak.

The move both hurts and helps the Ducks. Their top two lines are now very good, with the signing of Koivu to center countryman and BFF Selanne. Ryan, Perry and Getzlaf (one of my favorite players) are going to be nightmares for teams. But the defense is weaker. The ageless Niedermayer is still manning the blue line, the goal line, the faceoff dots, basically wherever he wants to go. How much does he have left? Then there's Whitney, who had a 60-point season not long ago. He has a lot of offensive potential and will be relied upon to make up for the loss of Pronger.

In goal, there's some drama. No one knows who the starter is. Giguere has a Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup to his name. Hiller has "I almost beat the Red Wings in the second round" going for him. Neither goalie established himself in the preseason. Expect a near 50-50 split until one goalie falters and/or one goalie grabs the reins.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Key forwards: Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard, Kristian Huselius

Key defensemen: Fedor Tyutin

Goaltending: Steve Mason, Mathieu Garon

Outlook: No soap opera here, as Nash, a previously impending free agent, signed a hefty extension before the season began. He'll be bolstered by the return of Brassard, who had season-ending surgery after just 31 games. Brassard was the early front-runner for the Calder Trophy, won by teammate Mason. Vermette, a mid-season acquisition from Ottawa, flourished in Ohio.

The blue line is one of the least imposing in the league. Only Tyutin scored over 30 points. Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore provide physical presences and help Mason protect his net. But the team will be like last year, reliant on Mason not having a sophomore slump and for Nash to take over games.

St. Louis Blues

Key forwards: Almost too many to name. Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Brad Boyes, Patrik Berglund, Andy McDonald, David Backes and we'll stop there.

Key defensemen: Erik Johnson, Carlo Colaiacovo

Goaltending: Chris Mason, Ty Conklin

Outlook: Not many teams can boast the amount of young talent up front than the Blues. I didn't even mention David Perron or T.J. Oshie up above. And when you can put a 40-goal scorer from just two years ago who is still only 27 on your second line (Boyes), you're in pretty good shape. The Blues should only get better, plus they get Kariya and McDonald back from injuries. McDonald missed time in the middle of the season but came back for the end and the postseason and had 44 points in 46 games. Getting a full season from him will be a big help.

Kariya remains a talented player who is only 34 years old (seriously? I would've taken the over. He's been in the league forever.) He played 82 games in five out of six seasons before missing nearly all of 2008-09. Johnson is also expected to be back after missing all of the season. He had 33 points in 69 games as a rookie and has loads of potential.

The concern will be goaltending. Despite being one of the top goalies in the league in the second half and a key reason why the Blues made the playoffs, Mason still has to prove himself. The signing of Conklin, who proved the last two seasons with Pittsburgh and Detroit that he's more than capable of carrying a team, doesn't seem to inspire confidence in Mason.

Calgary Flames

Key forwards: Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Daymond Langkow

Key defensemen: Dion Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr

Goaltending: Miikka Kiprusoff, Masked Man (known in other parts of the world as Curtis McElhinney)

Outlook: Would you trade Michael Cammalleri for Jay Bouwmeester? Essentially that's what the Flames did. The man known as Squid signed in Montreal as a free agent. Calgary acquired Bouwmeester's rights and paid him more than they're paying Phaneuf. Which leads to the question of, is Bouwmeester going to score 40 goals? He'll kind of have to, because apart from Iginla and Jokinen, there isn't a great deal of proven goal scorers on the roster.

And even then, Jokinen struggled mightily down the stretch. He started receiving insults rather than autograph requests when little kids saw him in the streets. Langkow had back-to-back 30-goal seasons but dipped down to 21. Rene Bourque and David Moss could provide the support Iginla needs, if Bourque can stay healthy and Moss takes the next step.

J-Bo and Phaneuf are a dangerous 1-2 punch, literally. Regehr provides a steady defensive presence for Kiprusoff, who apparently won't be used as much as in previous seasons. So we'll see more of the Great Unknown, McElhinney. Kiprusoff is a solid goalie, but I had to question those people who said he should've won the Vezina last year when his peripherals (2.84 GAA and .904%) didn't exactly impress. He tired down the stretch as well, which helped lead to Calgary's collapse. A lighter workload is probably a good thing.

Chicago Blackhawks

Key forwards: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg

Key defensemen: Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Cam Barker

Goaltending: Cristobal Huet, Antti Niemi

Outlook: Once you pop bad karma, it doesn't stop, does it? The Blackhawks recently lost to ZSC Zurich overseas. This on the heels of RFA-gate, Cab-gate, and Hossa-injury-gate. But they look good on paper, don't they?

Toews and Kane are widely considered the West's version of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Add Hossa to the mix once he returns in November or December and that's a dangerous top line. Sharp, Versteeg and Dave Bolland will provide additional offense. The defense overall is one of the better ones in the league, even if some members are being paid 20 cents or so too much (yes, I'm looking at you, Soup.)

I should just copy and paste this next part, but again, goaltending is the question. Personally, I think Huet gets a little too much of a bad rap. His 2008-09 season wasn't as bad as I think some people make it out to be. But he is the weak link on an otherwise very good Chicago team. If he finds the form that blessed Washington for 13 games at the end of 2007-08, when Huet posted a 1.63 GAA and a .936%, good things can come to the Windy City. With Nikolai Khabibulin gone and a rookie behind him, the possibility is there for Huet to become complacent. That must be avoided if Chicago wants to advance far in the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks

Key forwards: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler

Key defensemen: Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff, Mathieu Schneider

Goaltending: Roberto Luongo, Andrew Raycroft

Outlook: I don't think any team was hotter down the stretch than the Canucks, maybe the Penguins or the Blues. A late-season charge, coupled with Calgary's collapse, vaulted Vancouver to the Northwest Division title.

The biggest loss from that team was Mats Sundin, who announced his retirement this week. Defenseman Mattias Ohlund also departed but was replaced by Schneider and Ehrhoff. Vancouver's defense is one to be reckoned with, though Schneider is currently on injured reserve.

Offensively, the addition of Mikael Samuelsson was expected to bolster the Sedins on the top line, but Samuelsson didn't out-perform Burrows and appears slated for the second line, at least to start. If he plays with Kesler, he'll still provide offense.

One popular topic around the Canucks is people asking, "What has Luongo won?" I happen to be one of the people who thinks he's an extremely talented goalie, but the point raised by his detractors is valid. Last year's Vancouver team is perhaps the best Luongo has been on, and he couldn't take them to even the conference finals. In fact, he had a pretty woeful series against Chicago. Giving up seven goals in your final game isn't the way to establish yourself as a go-to netminder. Posting excellent numbers in the regular season is all well and good, but Luongo has to carry that into the postseason for his team to go far.

Detroit Red Wings

Key forwards: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen

Key defensemen: Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall

Goaltending: Chris Osgood, Jimmy Howard

Outlook: That list of key forwards isn't as large as it would've been if I had done this last season, but that doesn't mean there's all there is to this team. The Wings have taken on a couple of reclamation projects in Jason Williams and Todd Bertuzzi, and these may work out, but there are also high hopes for youngsters like Ville Leino, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Daniel Cleary is capable of scoring and Tomas Holmstrom is still in the mix, though he seems to be running on fumes at this point.

The defense remains impressive. The three I listed are among the most talented in the game. Nothing needs to be said about Lidstrom, Rafalski always produces points, and Kronwall combines a strong offensive game (51 points a year ago) with one of the more dangerous physical aspects. Jonathan Ericsson had a strong postseason and could be Detroit's next talented blue liner.

As for the goaltending, Osgood remains one of the most underrated and disrespected goalies in league history. Although he had a 2008-09 regular season to forget, he was stellar in the playoffs. He's won two Stanley Cups as a starter and took another team to Game 7 of the Final. He doesn't have the safety net of Ty Conklin this season, but Detroit will not miss the playoffs. And once there, Osgood should not be underestimated.

San Jose Sharks

Key forwards: Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe

Key defensemen: Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Goaltending: Evgeni Nabokov, TBD

Outlook: What I haven't been able to figure out is why people can only talk about Heatley's trade requests. They just ignore the 180 goals he's scored the last four seasons. Think about that: 180 goals in four seasons. Heatley is a premier goal scorer. Now, though, he's just a me-first, locker room cancer who can't possibly help his team win. News flash: People who aren't all that friendly have won championships before, because they're damn good at what they do.

His new linemate is Joe Thornton, one of the top setup men in the league. Talk about potent potential. Is it going to be enough to push the Sharks out of "Perennial contender who chokes" territory? Could be. Like with other teams, San Jose has more balance now. Marleau likely shifts to the second line, with Pavelski, an emerging talent. Setoguchi scored 30 goals a year ago and Clowe is a solid power forward who can provide both grit and goals.

The finger to point at as to why the Sharks might not win much is the man between the pipes. The 2008-09 season was a down year for Nabokov, which for him means his GAA was 2.44 with a .910%. Not his typical dominance but still decent numbers. Unfortunately for him, that's where he peaked. He allowed 17 goals in six playoff games to the Ducks. Yes, Thornton and Marleau didn't exactly dominate, but Nabokov can't have that kind of postseason if San Jose wants to finally make it to the Final.

Coming tomorrow, Part 1 of the Eastern Conference breakdown.

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