With the regular season officially underway, it's time to make predictions for the upcoming year. We start out west, with an Eastern version to follow later this week.
The Western Conference is the stronger of the NHL's two halves. Detroit is the odds-on favourite to win it all again and San Jose looks very dangerous just to name two. Here's the way I see it, from worst all the to best.
ON THE OUTSIDE
15. Los Angeles Kings - The Kings have a great young core of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson. They also don't have anything resembling a legitimate number one goaltender. Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg will have their hands full all season long. Rookie defenceman Drew Doughty should be a standout but it will be a long year in LA.
14. St Louis Blues - The future looks good in St Louis. Brad Boyes, poised to follow up his monster 07-08 campaign with another big one this year. David Perron, skilled sophomore could break out. Guys like TJ Oshie and Patrik Berglund are looking to have strong rookie campaigns and could exceed expectations but the loss of big blueliner Erik Johnson could have disastrous consequences. Jay McKee and Eric Brewer need to eat a lot of minutes if this team wants to contend, which it won't.
13. Columbus Blue Jackets - It's a make or break year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are the only NHL team to have never qualified for the postseason. Management has made a commitment to end that streak this year. They added Kristian Huselius and Carey Price's nemesis RJ Umberger up front. And they brought in a new number one defenceman.... Mike Commodore. He'll likely be with Fedor Tyutin as the top pairing. You've got to feel for goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
12. Nashville Predators - They were surprisingly good last year and gave Detroit a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. Then Alexander Radulov injured Jason Arnott while celebrating a goal. It wasn't the last time Radulov shot his teammates in the foot. This summer Radulov elected not to honour the final year of his entry level contract instead opting to go to Russia and play in the KHL for big money and pay no taxes. Hanging his teammates out to dry came easily to Radulov and they'll be reeling from it for to long to make the playoffs.
11. Colorado Avalanche - Colorado's difficulties are in goal as well. Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj are expected to platoon and that's a tall order. The fact that the Avs put a whole lot of eggs in one basket with last year's deadline acquisitions doesn't help. If Paul Stastny is healthy he could score 90+ points but the lack of goaltending and dependence on aging and oft-injured superstars (Foote, Sakic, Hejduk) equals disappointment in the Mile High City this year.
10. Chicago Blackhawks - Huge changes in the windy city this summer. Cristobal Huet is an upgrade on Nikolai Khabibulin but isn't a guy who can give you more than about 50-55 starts per season so his backup will be important. Brian Campbell joins a strong blueline. Duncan Keith is a beast, Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook are solid. Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews are electric. Patrick Sharp is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. The rest of the forwards... Well Martin Havlat is great but he's more fragile than the polar ice cap. Andrew Ladd is a certified first round bust. Dustin Byfuglien was good last year and will need to be exponentially better if the Hawks expect to contend for a postseason berth.
9. Minnesota Wild - Jacques Lemaire is a great coach. Kiklas Backstrom a very good goalie. Marian Gaborik wants out. The Wild play a mind-numbing, sleep inducing brand of hockey and the loss of Brian Rolston will be too much to overcome. If they fall out of contention by trade deadline time, look for Gaborik to be in play on the trade market.
8. Edmonton Oilers - You have to love what the Oilers did this offseason. Bringing in noted Hab-Killer Erik Cole and underrated (at least out East) defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky to a talented group that includes Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, super-sophomores Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano up front and guys like Tom Gilbert Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray on the back end. Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon could very well determine whether the Oilers are on the outside or in when it comes down to the postseason.
7. Phoenix Coyotes - Ilya Bryzgalov had his ups and downs in his first year as a number one goalie but he proved he can get it done. Up front, a dynamic group led by veteran Shane Doan and complemented by youngsters like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris is joined by Olli Jokinen. New addition Kurt Sauer is one of the most underrated defenceman in the West. Don't mess with them either. With noted sluggers like Daniel Carcillo (one of my favourite players in the league), Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk out there, oppposing teams won't be taking too many liberties with Phoenix players. Viktor Tikhonov is a sleeper pick for rookie of the year.
6. Vancouver Canucks - This pick is based on one thing: Roberto Luongo and his ability to win games single-handedly. Sure, the Canucks will have trouble scoring goals but it won't stop them from making the postseason and pulling one of their patented early exits.
GOOD BUT NOT GREAT
5. Anaheim Ducks - Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne are some of the best of their generations. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are two of the best of theirs. Add in a JS Giguere in goal, a shake of role players like Sami Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer and the only question left is... Are Ken Klee, Kent Huskins and Steve Montador good enough as your bottom three defencemen? They're Good enough for 5th.
4. Dallas Stars - Is there a better vetran bargain than Brenden Morrow? Guy Carbonneau's son-in-law is signed in Dallas through 2013 at 4.1 million per season. A true leader. Brad Richards is overpaid but still great. Marty Turco is a good and possibly great goaltender. The question is can Sergei Zubov come back in time to help out on the back end. The other question is how long before Sean Avery steals Jessica Simpson from Tony Romo?
3. Calgary Flames - The addition of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi will answer offensive questions. What it all comes down to is Mikka Kiprusoff. The Flames will live and die with Kipper this year and I expect big things from the ginger-haired netminder. He'd better be good and healthy as backup Curtis McElhinney's NHL experience is limited.
LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
2. San Jose Sharks - It's now or never in San Jose. Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are part of one of the West's best defensive units. Joe Thornton has this year's playoffs to prove he's not the A-Rod of hockey. The Sharks look to have the right mix of grit and raw talent, veterans and youngsters. They also have one of the best goalies in the game.
1. Detroit Red Wings - Take last year's most dominant team and throw in Marian Hossa and you've got a recipe to repeat. The deepest team in the NHL got deeper this summer and guys like Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula will only get better. There defence is so good they make Chris Osgood look like a superstar. The Wings will have the best record in the regular season and shouldn't have much trouble skating to yet another Stanley Cup final.
There are many contenders for the last two playoff spots in the West and injuries will play a big part in who gets them. At the end of the day, it looks like Detroit and San Jose at the top and then everybody else. With the regular season right around the corner, it's time for some bruising Western showdowns.