2012 NHL Preview: Western Conference Contenders

SJ's summer catch, Brent Burns

See the following for a comprehensive NHL Season Preview

Yesterday I previewed the top teams in the Eastern Conference. It was not only a long and impressive list, but filled with uncertainty due Sidney Crosby’s injury, the roster overhaul in Philadelphia, and the potential of up-and-coming clubs in Buffalo and New York. Overall, the Western Conference wasn’t quite as tumultuous over the off-season, but there was significant movement from two of the top five teams.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Jose

For the second consecutive year, the San Jose Sharks made it to the Western Conference Final. And for the second consecutive year, they were eliminated rather easily, this time falling in 5 games to Vancouver. So GM Doug Wilson examined his roster and did some major renovations, acquiring Brent Burns and Martin Havlat in separate trades from Minnesota. In all, he sent away Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle, and a few draft picks. Bringing in Burns – a former all-star defenceman – helped provide balance to a team which previously lacked capable two-way defencemen. After years of knocking at the door, the Sharks may finally be ready to take the next step in their quest for the Stanley Cup.

Head Coach: Todd McClellan

Forwards:

Couture-Thornton-Marleau

Clowe-Pavelski-Havlat

McGinn-Handzus-Mitchell

Sheppard-Murray-Ferriero

Defencemen:

Boyle-Murray

Burns-Vlasic

Demers-White

Vandermeer

Goaltenders: Niemi-Niitymaki

2011 Regular Season: Pacific Division: 1st | Western Conference: 2nd | League: 5th

2011 Playoff Loss: 3rd round (Vancouver)

Significant Additions: Burns, Havlat

Significant Losses: Heatley, Setoguchi

 

Areas of Concern

As it stands, there isn’t really anything the Sharks NHL roster lacks, but they do have one weakness. The Sharks have dealt away lots of picks and prospects (currency at the trade deadline) in recent years, which limits their ability to add impact players via trade this coming year. If they do suffer any injuries to key players, they might not be able to replace them.

Standings Projection: Top-2 in Pacific Division, 1st-4th in the West

Playoff Projection: Stanley Cup Finalist

 

Los Angeles

To my eye, the Kings are the Sabres of the West – a young team with many great pieces who was making slow but steady progress into a Stanley Cup contender. Then all of a sudden this summer they took a giant leap forward, acquiring Mike Richards from Philadelphia. They dealt away one of the top young prospects in hockey – Brayden Schenn, in order to get him, but after several years of good drafting, they could afford to lose Schenn. With Richards in the fold, and Kopitar healthy, the Kings now have a dangerous one-two punch at centre, and with a talented goaltending tandem and a future Norris Trophy winner in Drew Doughty, the Kings might be the deepest team in the West.

Head Coach: Terry Murray

Forwards:

Penner-Kopitar-Williams

Gagne-Richards-Brown

Richardson-Stoll-Clifford

Moreau-Lewis-Parse

Westgarth

Defencemen:

Doughty-Scuderi

Johnson-Greene

Mitchell-Martinez

Drewiske

Goaltenders: Quick-Bernier

 

2011 Regular Season: Pacific Division: 3rd | Western Conference: 7th | League (Overall): 12th

2011 Playoff Loss: Round 1 (San Jose)

Significant Additions: Richards, Gagne

Significant Losses: Smyth

Areas of Concern

As deep as they are at all positions, the Kings might need even more depth at forward. Their main concern lies with their top-6 wingers. When healthy, Simon Gagne and Justin Williams are both capable first liners, but health has eluded both of them in recent years.  Then there’s Dustin Penner, who’s dominant in brief stretches, but too often invisible. Counting on all three to be healthy and effective all year may be unrealistic.

And like Buffalo, there’s the issue of youth. Their most talented defencemen are Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, but both are a few years away from their prime. Big things are in store for both players, but defencemen take a bit longer to mature, particularly when they’re counted on to play mistake-free hockey for 25 minutes per night.

Standings Projection: Top-2 in Pacific Division, 1st-4th in the West

Playoff Projection: Conference finalist

Chicago

Despite losing a huge chunk of their championship team in 2010, the Blackhawks came just a goal away from a historic comeback in last year’s first round. Down 3 games to none against the first-place Canucks, the Blackhawks took the next three games in dominant fashion before losing game 7 in overtime. This off-season brought more changes, as Brian Campbell and Troy Brouwer were both traded, replaced by veterans Andrew Brunette and Steve Montador. After a long summer of contemplation, the Hawks look to regain their championship form in 2012.

Head Coach: Joel Quenneville

Forwards:

Brunette-ToewsKane

Frolik-Sharp-Hossa

Bickell-Bolland-Olesz

Carcillo-Stalberg-Mayers

Defencemen:

Keith-Seabrook

Hjalmarsson-Montador

O’Donnell-Leddy

Lepisto

Goaltenders: CrawfordEmery/Salak

2011 Regular Season: Central Division: 3rd | Western Conference: 8th | League (Overall): 13th

2011 Playoff Loss: 1st round (Vancouver)

Significant Additions: Montador, Brunette

Significant Losses: Campbell, Brouwer

Areas of Concern

The Hawks still have a fantastic core, but they haven’t been able to recover the depth they had in their championship year. Their defence is of particular concern, as swapping in Steve Montador for Brian Campbell is a losing proposition. Similarly, 40-year-old Sean O’Donnell is no upgrade, and 20-year-old Nick Leddy probably isn’t ready for prime time. As good as their top-3 defencemen are, #4-6 just aren’t good enough for a championship team. The same thing could be said for all who are slotted in at LW.

2011-2012 Standings Projection: Top-2 in Central Division, 2nd-5th in the West

Playoff Projection: 2nd round

 

Vancouver

After a dream season, the Vancouver Canucks were just one game away from lifting the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for Canucks fans, it was not to be. I detailed the reasons why in this article.

Mike Gillis decided not to tamper much with his team over the summer. He added veteran scoring winger Marco Sturm, once a key piece of the Joe Thornton deal in 2006. They also sent a training camp invite to former all-star Owen Nolan. But the biggest transaction was on the other side of the ledger. The Canucks were unable to come to terms with defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and ended up losing their top offensive defenceman. The Canucks are still an excellent team, but it will be a tougher road this coming year.

Head Coach: Alain Vigneault

Forwards:

Sedin-Sedin-Burrows

Sturm-Kesler-Samuelsson

Higgins-Malhotra-Hansen

Ebbett-Lapierre-Nolan

Mancari-Bitz

IR: Raymond

Defencemen:

Hamhuis-Bieksa

Edler-Salo

Ballard-Rome

Alberts

Goaltenders: Luongo-Schneider

2011 Regular Season: Division: 1st | Conference: 1st | Overall: 1st

2011 Playoff Loss: Stanley Cup Finals  Boston)

Significant Additions: None

Significant Losses: Ehrhoff

Areas of Concern

Despite the Canucks first-overall finish last season, they didn’t seem as talented as 1st place teams of the past like the Capitals or the Red Wings. Despite leading the league in goals last year with 262, the Canucks didn’t have many skilled forwards in the line-up beyond the Sedins and Ryan Kesler. This certainly affected them against Nashville and Boston, where elite defencemen like Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara were able to shut down the Sedins, leaving the team gasping for offence. Losing Christian Ehrhoff will only hurt their #1 ranked powerplay, where a large portion of their goals were scored.

Furthermore, last season’s gruelling run has left them with key injuries to Mason Raymond (out till November with a fractured vertebrae in his spine) and Ryan Kesler (will miss training camp and early October recovering from hip surgery). I expect they’ll be bitten by more injuries as the season progresses, as playing over 100 games in a 9 month span takes a severe toll on the body.

2011-2012 Standings Projection: 1st in North-west division, 2nd-5th in the West

Playoff Projection: 2nd round

Detroit

Every year someone predicts the decline of the Detroit Red Wings, and every year they prove those people wrong. The Red Wings are about as deep and skilled as any team in the west, led by the usual suspects in Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lidstrom, and an underrated supporting cast. They lost Brian Rafalski to an unexpected retirement, but moved quickly to replace him with Ian White, a younger guy who plays a similar type of game. The Red Wings are no longer the prohibitive favourites they were just a few years ago, but they remain one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference.

Head Coach: Mike Babcock

Forwards:

FranzenDatsyuk-Holmstrom

Bertuzzi-Zetterberg-Cleary

Helm-Filppula-Eaves

Miller-Abdelkader-Mursak

Defencemen:

Lidstrom-Kronwall

Stuart-White

Ericsson-Commodore

Kindl

Goaltenders: Howard-Conklin

 

2011 Regular Season: Division: 1st | Conference: 3rd | Overall: 6th

2011 Playoff Loss: 2nd round (San Jose)

Significant Additions: White

Significant Losses: Rafalski (retirement)

Areas of Concern

But Detroit is also the oldest team in the league, a fact which has been catching up with them in recent years. Injuries tend to build up as they go deeper into the playoffs, with last year’s casualty being Johan Franzen. With key players like Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, and perhaps even Nick Lidstrom, in the twilight of their careers, it’s getting tougher for this team to win 16 playoff games after a sufficiently challenging 82 game season.

2011-2012 Standings Projection: Top-2 in Central Division, 2nd-5th in the West

Playoff Projection: 2nd round

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The only team that bears discussion is Anaheim, but beyond a few really great forwards (Perry, Getzlaf, Ryan), the team really doesn’t have enough talent. They might be able to pull off a first round upset, but they don’t have the depth to carry out a long playoff run.

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