Giving “My Two Cents” On The Western & Eastern Conferences…

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My Two Cents for January 18th:

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

At The Dawn Of A New Season- The moment we’ve all waited for for the last seven and a half months has finally arrived. The Puck drops Saturday as the NHL embarks on a lockout shorted 48 game campaign for the 2012-13 season. With the season being shorter, this could open the field up and create quite the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs which start over 100 days from now. For all intensive purposes the abbreviated season created a it’s own tournament with all interconference games and teams jockeying for position to get to the final eight of their conference by the end of play on April 27th.

In Monday’s column I took a look at the Pacific Division and how it could shape up for this short season. I based the picks more on a feeling that I get for each team and how they should do. I will do the same for the Western Conference teams in the Northwest and Central Divisions. With 48 games, each team has a possible 96 points and I use a projected point total to gage how a specific team may do. For example (and also to recap my Pacific Division outlook), I projected the LA Kings to finish first in the Pacific Division with 76 points, followed by the Sharks with 65 points. Third was Phoenix with 62 points, followed by Dallas (58) and Anaheim (57). We’ll also look briefly at the Eastern Conference even though there are no interconference games this season. Let’s have a look at the two other Divisions in the Western Conference (projected points in parenthesis.

 

Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Northwest Division- 1) Vancouver Canucks (73) The Canucks possess a strong roster with a great deal of depth that will be what carries them to the post season. Vancouver led by the Sedin twins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler will have no problem putting goals in the net. The Canucks attack also features the usual suspects of Mason Raymond, Alexandre Burrows, David Booth, Kevin Beiska and former Shark Manny Malhotra. Roberto Luongo’s status with the team up in the air. Even if he is dealt, the Canucks should be just fine with Cory Schneider who’s developed into a fairly steady goalie.

2) Colorado Avalanche (67) The Avs just missed the post season last year only by a few points and are determined this season to find a way to get to the final eight of the Western Conference. The Avs have youth on their side with Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, Erik Johnson, former Shark Jamie McGinn and Paul Stastny all under the age of 30. The addition of free agent P.A. Parenteau the Avs have several solid weapons at their disposal. Former Washington Capitals net minder Semyon Varlamov will be in net for the Avs, backed up by former Anaheim Duck Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

3) Calgary Flames (62) Calgary has dropped off noticeably in the last few seasons having missed the post season two years in a row. Jarome Iginla leads the Flames who are looking to find a way back into Lord Stanley’s tournament. The problem with the Flames roster over the last two years can be anything from age to just basic chemistry issues. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman will help along with stalwart Michael Cammalleri, but the Flames will need more consistency and contributions from the remaining roster to exceed the projection of a 62 point finish. Miikka Kiprusoff is still a solid mainstay in goal and is still one of the toughest goalies to score on. However, Kiprusoff isn’t getting any younger and may actually benefit because of the lockout shortened season.

4) Edmonton Oilers (59) The Oilers are one of the up and coming teams who’s time will come. If they were to make the postseason in this short campaign, it would certainly be a feather in their cap. Even if they don’t, they may still come out ahead and better for it as this 48 game schedule is only a ramp up for 2013-14 with a five month intermission after April 27th. The Oilers will make the most of their top talent as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Justin Schultz lead this line up the NHL’s young guns that once they reach their maturity in a few seasons could very well have the Oilers recapturing some of their glory days as serious Cup contenders. That won’t be the case this season only because of the youth factor and a team learning to play and mesh well together. This Oilers are on the right track to be a successful franchise with an over .500 season likely certain in the next year or two. Devan Dubnyk is also coming into his own as the Oilers goalie of the future. The Oilers if nothing else will be fun to watch and will give their loyal fans their moneys worth.

5) Minnesota Wild (54) – The Wild are a big question for me. It’s not because of a lack of talent. The Wild have as much good talent as anyone. However, you also have a scenario where a handful of players eat up most of the payroll leaving the Wild with fewer options down the road and possible chemistry issues from within. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are certainly a pair of players with a dearth of experience in the NHL that nobody would mind having. However, the price the Wild were willing to pay could have also done more harm then good. The Wild are locked into both contracts for the next decade and if either or both of these two get injured during the season, the Wild will have fewer options. Former Sharks Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Torrey Mitchell will certainly be able to deposit there share of pucks into the net. Throw  Mikko Koivu into the mix and you could have a potent offense.

In goal Niklas Backstrom will see the bulk of the action. The Wild could easily exceed the expectation here if they find chemistry and consistency. In general, teams that tend to spend a lot of money on a few stars usually have the toughest time finding a team chemistry that works long term. The huge signings will look either like a good investment or amazingly foolish. It all depends on whether or not this team can find the right chemistry.

Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Central Division- 1) Detroit Red Wings (77)- The Red Wings are the “Gold Standard” franchise in the Western Conference if not the entire NHL. The Red Wings never rebuild, they just reload (I even think they coined that phrase too). The Wings will certainly get challenges from both Chicago and St Louis. However with their veteran experience and their ability to control a game like a fine tuned machine, The Red Wings though they many not win it each year are usually right in the thick of it. This season will certainly be no different. With the Red Wings, it’s all about the usual suspects. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm are all amongst the NHL’s best snipers who can score from anywhere on the ice in ways most other teams can’t duplicate. The addition of Mikael Samuelsson just makes the Red Wings even better still.

In the net Jimmy Howard returns. He will be backed in net by the former Maple Leafs’ goalie Jonas Gustavsson. The Red Wings year in and year out money as being Cup contenders. This season will be no different.

2) Chicago Blackhawks (72)- The Blackhawks are still very much a force to be dealt with just being over two years removed from the 2010 Stanley Cup run. Most of those core players,  Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Not very much has changed on this roster over last season, but that’s practically irrelevant as the team as it’s set up now is certainly good enough to challenge both Detroit and St Louis for the division crown. Getting to the post season should not be a reach for the Blackhawks, it’s just a matter of staying healthy. Toews missed the final 22 games of last season with a concussion and their are certainly worries there. In goal, the Blackhawks have Corey Crawford starting with Veteran Goalie Ray Emery as the back-up. For the Blackhawks it’s just a matter of getting through the first 48 games and see where thing seed out for them. The Blackhawks should be right there.

 

Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

3) St Louis Blues (70)- Behind Coach Ken Hitchock, the Blues were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL last season in clinching the #2 seeding in the West. From there, the Blues made surprisingly easy work of the Sharks before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions LA Kings in the following round. Last year the Blues got “a taste” of the post season and are anxious to get back there and get more. Alex Pietrangelo along with Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and David Backes are looking to lead the Blues back to the top of the Central Division and along with Chicago seemingly have the right combination of skill and talent to challenge Detroit. The Blues were fairly consistent and organized in their play last season as Head Coach Ken Hitchcock guided a team that just the previous year finished 12th in the Western Conference.

In goal for the Blues is Brian Elliott, and he’s backed up by Veteran net minder Jaroslav Halak. Look for the Blues to be in the thick of it again as well as being a factor in the post season.

4) Nashville Predators (64)- After losing Ryan Suter in a free agent grab by the Minnesota Wild, and narrowly keeping Shea Weber after he was given a 14-year offer sheet which would have been a lucrative for him by the Philadelpha Flyers, the Predators are again licking their wounds after a playoff loss to Phoenix as well as the free agency losses. Nashville Head Coach Barry Trots deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team together both during and after the season. Somehow the Predators always find a way to compete despite free agent losses during an off season. The Preds despite Suter’s defection still host a decent number of skilled players on their roster. Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and David Legwand are ready to lead a team whose focus is not so much winning the division as it is getting into the post season. In addition to retaining Weber’s’ services, the Predators also added former Shark Scott Hannan to help on defense along side Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Kevin Klein. Also helpful is the departure of a player who is no longer tied to the organization in Alexander Radulov, the father of the 7AM game day curfew.

In the net for the Predators is veteran Pekka Rinne, who is backed up by the returning Chris Mason. Rinne has become one of the more high endurance goalies who is a tough as any net minder on any given night.

5) Columbus Blue Jackets (48)- It seems these days that the Blue Jackets and their fan base have gotten more than their fair share of problems. First, it was the not so surprising loss of Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. Next, the Lockout then came along and wiped out a total of 119 dates of the NHL calendar for 2012-13. One of the casualties of the lockout was this all star game, which was supposed to be played on January 28th in Columbus. Blue Jackets cannot catch a break and the good thing about the upcoming season may just be the fact it’s only 48 games. On the positive side of the ledger, the Blue Jackets through trades brought on board Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno. These three have a decent level of NHL experience and should be able to make the Blue Jackets competitive in most games. Former Los Angeles Kings’ defenseman Jack Johnson alongside Ryan Johansen, James Wisniewski  and Derick Brassard should be able to infuse some youth and energy for this team.

The goalie position for Columbus could rotate between three, Sergei Bobrovsky, Steve Mason, and Curtis McElhinney. It just may come down to who the three is the hotest at the time.

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