Halftime Sports

NHL Western Conference Preview

October 3, 2017

Three seasons ago, this section would have been easier to write. From 2010 to 2015, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings dominated the NHL’s Western Conference, combining for five Stanley Cup titles in six seasons. Since 2015, however, the conference has become considerably more competitive. The 2015-16 season saw the San Jose Sharks finally make it to a Stanley Cup Final, and the 2016-17 campaign saw the Wild Card Nashville Predators stun the conference to make their first final as well. 2017-18 should be an exciting season. Nashville will look to build on last season’s breakthrough, perennial contender Chicago will look to rebound from an underwhelming playoff performance, young and talented Edmonton will aim to take the next step towards a championship, and the puck will drop for the first time in Las Vegas.

Central Division:

Chicago Blackhawks (2016-17 record: 50-23-9, Lost to Nashville in first round.)

2016-17 was a disappointing season for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Co. The ‘Hawks brought back Brandon Saad from Columbus, but lost young star Artemi Panarin, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Fan favorite Marian Hossa also developed a skin disorder in the offseason, which may force him to retire (although this has not been confirmed). Still, the Blackhawks should not be overlooked, especially considering the offensive core of Toews and Kane remains intact. Veteran blueliners Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will also return, as will reliable netminder Corey Crawford. The supporting cast may have changed, but Chicago remains a force to be reckoned with.

Colorado Avalanche (2016-17 record: 22-56-4, Did not make playoffs.)

Truly, the Avalanche are the BoJack Horseman of hockey teams. Back in the ’90s they were a famous (and successful) club, but all that’s left now is dysfunction and disappointment. Colorado’s management has been talking about moving star forward Matt Duchene since before last season’s trade deadline, but has yet to pull the trigger on a deal (there are widespread rumors that former star player and executive VP of hockey operations Joe Sakic has set a wildly unrealistic price for Duchene). Duchene was despondent when he showed up at training camp, and looks like he’s given up on the possibility of ever playing with a successful team in Denver. Sakic would be wise to move Duchene quickly, possibly to a team like Ottawa in need of firepower. Team captain Gabriel Landeskog could also net a good return on the market. What the Avalanche really needs is defence, and while first round draft pick Cale Makar is a step in the right direction, the team made no significant moves to reinforce the blueline via free agency over the summer. Sakic did add to Colorado’s collection of draft busts by picking up former Oilers #1 pick Nail Yakupov, who’ll join former Blues #1 pick Erik Johnson on the Avalanche’s island of misfit toys. Fans in Denver should hope that Sakic can come to his senses and blow up the team to accumulate draft picks, but even that might be a bit much to hope for.

Dallas Stars (2016-17 record: 34-37-11, Did not make playoffs.)

The Stars remain a team with awe-inspiring firepower, and the front line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and new addition Alex Radulov will strike fear in the hearts of the vast majority of Dallas’ opponents. The Stars suffered from some bad injuries last season, and should rebound and contend for a playoff spot. However, the defense remains highly suspect – Dallas picked up Marc Methot in a trade with Vegas, but Methot is not the type of player who can transform a defensive corps. First round pick Miro Heiskanen might be, but he won’t be in the league this season. Also, while netminder Ben Bishop was a stud in Tampa Bay, he’s starting to slip (though he may yet rebound). It will probably be business as usual in Dallas this year; look for the Stars’ attack to overwhelm opponents and carry the team to the playoffs, then flame out in a best-of-seven series against a squad with actual defensive depth.

Minnesota Wild (2016-17 record: 49-25-8, Lost to St. Louis in first round)

The Wild return to the ice after their most successful regular season ever, and it will be interesting to see if head coach Bruce Boudreau can build on this success, despite his reputation as a coach who can’t get his teams to succeed in the postseason. The blueline is robust, but injuries to Ryan Suter or Matt Dumba could make Minnesota a lot more vulnerable. Veteran forward Zach Parise is showing some signs of wear and tear, but fortunately the Wild have a solid first line anchored by captain Mikko Koivu, and many young forwards in the farm system. The Wild don’t have a superstar scorer, which might make them interested in some of Colorado’s young forwards, but they do have a stud goaltender in Devan Dubnyk. The Wild have a little ways to go, but if they make some savvy moves as the season progresses, they could be a borderline Cup contender.

Nashville Predators (2016-17 record: 41-29-12, Lost to Pittsburgh in Stanley Cup Final.)

The breakout team of the 2016-17 season won’t fly under anyone’s radar this year, and shouldn’t expect many easy games. However, the defensive corps in Tennessee is the envy of the league–few teams ice a squad as deep as P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. On offense, the Preds lost James Neal to the expansion draft, and Mike “Carrie Underwood’s Husband” Fisher retired in the offseason. Still, Ryan Johansen will be back from the injury that knocked him out of the playoffs, and Filip Forsberg should continue to develop. Nashville poached center Nick Bonino from the Penguins in free agency, and he’ll look to take on a bigger role now that he’s out from under the gigantic shadows of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Goalie Pekka Rinne is still Nashville’s man, though there is a risk that he hits a bit of a cold streak. I wouldn’t call Nashville the favorite per se, but I think they have as good a shot at winning the Central as any other team, largely due to their enviable blueline.

St. Louis Blues (2016-17 record: 46-29-7, Lost to Nashville in second round.)

After contending for the last couple seasons, there’s some speculation that the Blues’ window to contend for a Stanley Cup has closed. That may be a little pessimistic, but the Blues will have to adjust to be competitive this season. This will be their first full season without star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk since 2011-12, as well as the first full season under new head coach Mike Yeo, who had brilliant stretches as head coach of the Wild. The Blues have some stars up front, most notably Russian sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and newly-acquired center Brayden Schenn. The defence no longer has Shattenkirk, but Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo are no slouches. Goaltender Jake Allen will have to be good, as there’s not really a reliable backup in St. Louis.

Winnipeg Jets (2016-17 record: 40-35-7, did not make playoffs.)

The Jets are an intriguing team, but may be limited by playing in a tough division. They have plenty of offense – Patrik Laine is going to be a star for years to come, and is complimented by guys like Blake Wheeler. The defense is suspect, but it is worth mentioning that Tyler Myers missed the vast majority of last season with injuries, and looks to be back in full form for the new campaign. The Jets hope that their netminders, former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason and former UMass-Lowell standout Connor Hellebuyck, can step up and steal the team some games, which is a possibility. If things break the right way, the Jets could make the postseason. If they don’t, coach Paul Maurice will probably find himself on the way out of Manitoba.

Pacific Division:

Anaheim Ducks (2016-17 record: 46-23-13, Lost to Nashville in Conference Final.)

The Ducks are ageing, but shouldn’t be counted out after the 2016-17 season saw them win the division before getting stunned by Nashville in the Conference Final. This season will mark 11 years since the Ducks won California’s first Stanley Cup. Forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who were on the 2006-07 team, must think they have enough left in the tank for another run. The Ducks will miss forward Ryan Kesler, who will probably be out until the new year with an injury. Anaheim also saw some churn at the goaltender position, losing both Jhonas Enroth and Jonathan Bernier to free agency. However, John Gibson looks to be a star on the rise, and newly-acquired veteran Ryan Miller can provide mentorship and carry a few games. The Pacific division might be the second-best in hockey this year, but the Ducks are well-positioned to be competitive.

Arizona Coyotes (2016-17 record: 30-42-10, did not make playoffs.)

After a deal with Arizona State University (home of the newest NCAA Division I hockey team!) for a new arena fell apart in the offseason, the ‘Yotes face an uncertain future in Arizona. However, now is not the time for speculation about a possible move to Quebec, Kansas City, or Seattle. The Coyotes faithful (both of them) can look forward to an improved blueline this season. Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a borderline star, and may play alongside his countryman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was acquired from Chicago in a trade. Finn Antti Raanta is also an intriguing addition in net. It’s likely that the Coyotes will retire number 19 this season for retired winger Shane Doan, who hung up the skates this offseason after 21 years with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes/Arizona Coyotes franchise. The Coyotes don’t have what it takes to make the playoffs, but they should be an interesting team to watch.

Calgary Flames (2016-17 record: 45-33-4, Lost to Anaheim in first round.) The Flames have drawn a reputation as an underachieving team in recent seasons, and most of that has to do with their netminder troubles. The Flames acquired Mike Smith, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, over the offseason after getting unimpressive returns from Jonas Hiller and Brian Elliott. Smith is on the older side, but the Flames brain trust hopes that his numbers were artificially deflated by backstopping a sub-par Coyotes team for many seasons. If Smith proves to be “the guy,” the Flames could be a solid team this year, with scoring coming from young talent like Johnny “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau and Sam Bennett, as well as a robust blueline built around Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano. Watch the Flames as a team with high upside this season.

Edmonton Oilers (2016-17 record: 47-26-9, Lost to Anaheim in second round.)

This team will be all kinds of fun this season (and I say this as a Flames fan). The biggest move over the summer in the provincial capital was undoubtedly getting phenom Connor McDavid to sign a monster 8-year, $100 million extension, which makes the 20 year old one of the highest paid players in the league. The deal should be worth it though, as McDavid is a star who already warrants comparisons with Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, and Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers also signed McDavid’s linemate Leon Draisaitl to an 8-year extension of his own, which gives them a solid offensive core for years to come. Of course, all this spending came at a cost – young forward Jordan Eberle was traded to the Islanders for Ryan Strome to help keep the team below the salary cap. The Oilers shouldn’t miss Eberle much though; they have other young talent in the form of players like Jesse Puljujärvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Edmonton also has some veteran leaders like Jussi Jokinen and Milan Lucic, as well as a decent blueline and netminder corps. It’s fair to say that Edmonton has arrived as a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, perhaps for the first time since Mark Messier left the team in 1991.

Los Angeles Kings (2016-17 record: 39-35-8, did not make playoffs.)

How the mighty have fallen! After missing the playoffs in 2017, the Kings didn’t do much to troubleshoot their team in the offseason. Their most notable signing may have been veteran forward Mike Cammalleri, who last played for the Kings in the 2007-08 season. This will be the Kings’ first season since 2011-12 without grizzled head coach Darryl Sutter, who led the team to its only two Stanley Cups. After two cups in the last five years, it’s hard to feel bad for the Kings, but fans of Southern California’s oldest NHL club look to be in for a long and dull season.

San Jose Sharks (2016-17 record: 46-29-7, Lost to Edmonton in first round.)

The Sharks had a relatively quiet offseason, and the change most fans will notice is the absence of Patrick Marleau, who signed with the young Toronto Maple Leafs after nearly 20 seasons in Silicon Valley. The Sharks’ focus was locking up their younger players with expiring rookie deals like Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen. Of course, the subtext here is the need to re-sign top-flight defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic next season. Vlasic isn’t as much of a character as his fellow defenceman Brent Burns (indeed, who is?), but he’s still one of the top 30 blueliners in the league, so he’ll command a hefty salary next season. By staying quiet this offseason, the Sharks have (hopefully) ensured that they can keep both Burns and Vlasic for the foreseeable future.

Vancouver Canucks (2016-17 record: 30-43-9, did not make playoffs.)

Vancouver wants to make it back to the playoffs after finishing near the bottom of the conference standings last season. However, that’s an improbable goal for the Canucks, who are caught between building for the future and giving their veterans a quality sendoff. The Sedin brothers are reaching the end of their time as players (they’re both 37), but they’ve indicated that they want to finish out their playing careers in Vancouver. With the exception of veteran winger Thomas Vanek, Vancouver’s offseason additions are mostly younger players like Alex Burmistrov and Sam Gagner, who are both under 30. First round draft pick Elias Pettersson is talented, but won’t make the NHL for a couple more seasons. The Canucks’ goal at this point is building for the future.

Vegas Golden Knights (2016-17 record: N/A, team formed in offseason.)

Finishing in the middle of the pack should be a reasonable goal for the Golden Knights in their inaugural season in Las Vegas. The team formed over the summer via an expansion draft, which ostensibly means all the other NHL teams protected their best players from being chosen by Vegas. All the same, General Manager George McPhee was able to put together a halfway-decent team, with some talented offense in the form of James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault, and David Perron. Vadim Shipachyov is an intriguing pickup from SKA St. Petersburg of the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Vegas’ defence is okay but not great, with young talent like Brayden McNabb and veterans like Deryk Engelland. The Golden Knights also have an experienced goaltender with Cup pedigree in Marc-Andre Fleury, and first-round draft pick Cody Glass should be plenty talented once he makes it to the NHL. Vegas won’t make the playoffs (and this season, their primary concern should be getting fans to come to games), but they’re building a decent foundation for future success.

The Pick: San Jose Sharks

I think the Sharks will get back to the Stanley Cup Final, though they may not win the conference outright in the regular season. Vlasic and Burns are solid blueliners, and young guys like Donskoi and Tomas Hertl are maturing. If one of their goalies emerges as a reliable presence, the Silicon Valley boys could give Joe Thornton one last shot at Lord Stanley.

That being said, I expect the Oilers to dominate the regular season. The young talent is improving, and after making headway in the playoffs last year, they’ll be hungry for more success. No one will look forward to playing Edmonton this season.

I’m wary of Chicago, which won 27 games last year in which they were outshot by their opponents. Only one team won more games this way than Chicago (New York Rangers with 28), and this suggests that Chicago may have been coasting on luck last season. Without significant moves this offseason, I think the Blackhawks may take a startling dive.

Finally, if Joe Sakic suddenly becomes a competent executive and trades away some of the Avalanche’s firepower, that could significantly alter the West’s balance of power. If San Jose, Minnesota, or Nashville picks up Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog, the added offensive capacity could help them pull away from the pack and emerge as the team to beat in the West.


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