Sunday, August 21, 2005

What the puck, part 2

Last time, your humble scribe dissected the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference.
This time, the West gets the scrutiny...


Detroit - division favorite -- The Wings are still far above the rest of the Central pack, even though age has taken its toll. Re-signing Chris Osgood to play goal doesn't bode especially well for the Wings' long-term hopes, and the loss of Darren McCarty takes a key element out of the team. Still, there's too much talent for this relatively weak division.
Nashville - contender -- The Predators are a team on the serious rise. Paul Kariya will help the offence, Danny Markov will help the defence. And Tomas Vokoun gave the Wings trouble in the playoffs in '04. Not quite ready to play at the Wings' level, but close.
St. Louis - on the bubble -- The Blues are a team on the way down. Unstable in goal, without a hammer on defence, not deep on offence... but still talented enough to vie for a playoff spot. Trading Chris Pronger for 3 younger defencemen may pay off in the future, but not this year.
Chicago - on the outside -- Not even Nik Khabibulin can pull this mismanaged franchise out of the doldrums.
Columbus - on the outside -- Better, but a year away from being a playoff contender. Signing Adam Foote is a real plus, though.


Vancouver - division favorite -- The Canucks have a lot going for them: Depth and talent up front, a sound defence, and should win the division. However, if they're still relying on Dan Cloutier, the poor man's Roman Cechmanek, their playoff hopes are tentative at best. Still, there's a lot of talent up there.
Calgary - contender -- The Flames won't be able to sneak up on people as they did in their run to the Cup final in '04. They're better equipped this time around. Jarome Iginla is the real MVP of the league; Mikka Kiprusoff is the real deal in goal; good free-agent additions in Darren McCarty, Tony Amonte and Roman Hamrlik; and the defense may be the best in the West, with budding superstar Robyn Regehr and prize rookie Dion Phaneuf. If Phaneuf plays to expectations, this team will be a force for years to come. Not quite enough balance for a regular-season title, though.
Colorado - contender -- The Avs' long streak of division titles will end this time. No Forsberg, no Foote. There's still plenty of talent up front with Sakic, Hejduk and Tanguay, but after Rob Blake, the defence is thin, and the jury is still out on David Aebischer in goal. A playoff team, but not a lot more.
Edmonton - on the bubble -- This is a tough call. The Oilcans' acquisitions of Chris Pronger and Michael Peca are real pluses, but they're going to need Ty Conklin to be very good in goal and a no-name defence is going to have to play well all season. I see the Oilers in the playoffs, but being stuck in the best division in the West isn't going to help them.
Minnesota - on the outside -- In another division, the Wild might well be a playoff team. This year, I suspect they're a year away from being a real playoff contender, because the rules changes are going to nullify Jacques Lemaire's trap.


San Jose - division favorite -- The Sharks did lose some of their grit in the Mikes, Ricci and Rathje. But their talent is the best in the division, and Nabokov is a very good goalie. Not the conference's best team, but it could wind up as the top seed in the West.
Phoenix - on the bubble -- Don't expect miracles on the bench from Wayne Gretzky. But he's quietly built a team that has a good chance to make the playoffs out of a pretty average division. I suspect at some point that Brian Boucher's days are numbered in Phoenix, since the Coyotes signed both Curtis Joseph and decent backup Steve Passmore. Boucher could probably get a decent scorer or defenceman in return.
Anaheim - on the bubble -- The Ducks signed the best defenceman available (and, for my money, the league's best defenceman) in Scott Niedermayer. They've got a quality goalie in J-S Giguere. But who's gonna score goals? That's the big question for a new coach to solve.
Dallas - on the bubble -- The system still makes the Stars tough defensively (so does the slush at their home rink) and Marty Turco is a good netminder. But Mike Modano is on the down side, and there aren't many other scorers on this club.
Los Angeles - on the bubble -- The Kings need a goalie. Badly. That's why I put 'em at the bottom of the list here. They'll be able to score some goals, with J.R. Roenick coming to town. The defence isn't an embarrassment, either. And the Kings are due for some luck after their last two seasons were destroyed by injuries.

Next time, I'll proffer some preseason views on how the whole league ranks.