NHL kick off - Western Conference preview
After a mass exodus of talent from the West to the East, including the three most expensive free agents last summer (Ilya Bryzgalov, Brad Richards, and Christian Ehrhoff), there is finally parity between the two conferences.
With bounce back years from the St Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, and improving clubs like the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets, there won’t be much space between the final playoff spot and 15th place. Los Angeles will finally push into the West’s Elite, while seven of the eight playoff teams from last season, will return to challenge for the Stanley Cup this spring.
15) Phoenix: The Coyotes are a well coached, motley crew of overachievers. The loss of team MVP Ilya Bryzgalov will take this team from playoff contender to bottom-feeder unless they can find a comparable replacement. With only 3 forwards under contract after this season, expect a few career years, as players save their best hockey for free agent years. Still, it won’t be enough for this team on the decline.
14) Dallas: The Stars won’t contend for the playoffs next season – the loss of Richards hurts too much. Michael Ryder and Sheldon Souray are nice additions, and the forward group has some young, improving talent, but not enough to challenge the ever improving middle pack in the Western Conference.
13) Minnesota: All of a sudden the most boring team in the NHL isn’t looking too bad. No more trap; an influx of talented players means the Wild will actually entertain their die-hard fan base for the first time in franchise history. Dany Heatley and Devon Setogouchi join Miko Koivu, P.M. Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Guillame Latendresse to form a halfway decent top six. If top forward prospects Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund make an impact, the Wild will challenge for a playoff spot next season.
12) Edmonton: The Oilers continue to stockpile young forwards. With Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and Linus Omark up front, the Oilers are going to be a fun team to watch over the next few years. They are slowly building a decent pool of defensive prospects, but the young defensemen lag behind the forwards in both quality and NHL readiness. The addition of Ryan Smyth provides much needed leadership. Expect a marked improvement from the Oilers this year.
11) Columbus: Finally, Rick Nash has someone to play with. Jeff Carter makes the Blue Jackets instant playoff contenders next season. The Forward group is deep, especially if top prospect Ryan Johansen cracks the lineup. Overpaying James Wisniewski was a shocker, but at least they have a puck moving defenseman. If Steve Mason returns to his 2009-10 form, they’ll be in the hunt for the 8th playoff spot.
10) Calgary: No team is less exciting than the Calgary Flames. They have an aging group of overpaid forwards, a depleted farm system and, with the departure of Regehr, a suddenly subpar defence corps. If Mikael Backlund can contribute offensively, they’ll challenge for the 8th playoff spot. Expect another long summer in Calgary.
9) Colorado: Giving up a first round pick for Semyon Varlamov was a risky proposition. They Avs could very well find themselves drafting in the bottom five next year. Success depends upon their young forwards rebounding, the health of Peter Mueller and the performance of Varlamov.
8) St Louis: The signings of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner will bring character and leadership to a young team in dire need of direction. With a blossoming group of young forwards including Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie and Patrick Berglund, and solid goaltending, the Blues will return to playoff contention this season.