09/26/2008 8:18 AM
By Chad Huebner
We continue with the Mega-Super-Sized-Happy-Fun-Sugar-Free 2008-09 NHL Season Preview (copyright pending) with a look at the Western Conference. Can Detroit repeat? Can Chicago catch them? Will we find the answers to these scintillating questions?
Detroit Red Wings
How about right now?
So, no, Chicago won’t catch the Red Wings, and yes, Detroit definitely can repeat as champs. I wouldn’t have been surprised had Detroit decided to rest on its laurels, let 5-6 years pass without another championship but still dominate the conference, then win it all when people start to ask if they can ever win it again.
Instead, Detroit went out and got one man, the man as it turns out, in Marian Hossa. I’m sure Hossa was contemplating a return to Pittsburgh and the possibility of not only playing an extraordinary season for the Pens, but also actually winning the Cup this time around. But here came Detroit, checkbooks ablazin’, and snatched the hot offensive forward for a high price for one year. Not like they needed the added firepower, when they have Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen, et al.
At least the Red Wings won’t have any doubters on how good Chris Osgood can be in net. Finally, he won a championship without any question marks hanging over his head (best to avoid such hallucinations by not mixing beer with cough syrup).
Chicago will certainly provide a tougher challenge in the division than Detroit has ever faced since the NHL moved to a six-division format, but the Red Wings are ready for the league’s first back-to-back championships since the last time they did it in 1997 and 1998.
You probably think that I’d have my beloved team at the top of this division and a sure-fire lock to win the Cup. Luckily, I’m more of a realist, and can see that while the ‘Hawks are taking steps in the right direction, it’ll take a little while for them to reach their destination. There were slight concerns when they overpaid for Brian Campbell (which should instantly give the PP and the blueline a much-needed boost) and Cristobal Huet (a much more capable backup and potential starter should “The ‘Bulin Wall” crumble), but come on. Who doesn’t overpay for such juicy talent? Look at the Red Wings, the team the ‘Hawks are trying to emulate. . . and hopefully eventually destroy, MWWWWAHH-AHH-AHHHH! Okay, enough of my Snidely Whiplash routine, let’s move on.
St. Louis Blues
Here’s another team making great strides, but in need of a few more years of seasoning. Erik Johnson going down for a couple of months could be a serious blow if the rest of the blueline doesn’t step up. Getting Chris Mason from the Nashville Predators to give goalie Manny Legace some support can only help. Bottom line, though, is that the Blues are St. Louis’ last chance at a good team this season. The Cards couldn’t do it in baseball, and the Rams are absolutely atrocious on both sides of the football, so it’s all up to the Blues. No pressure or anything, fellas.
Columbus Blue Jackets
This is my generous side saying that the Blue Jackets won’t finish last. . . again. Other than that, there’s no convincing me this team won’t go anywhere positive soon. They’ve never finished higher than third in their division, never had a playoff appearance and never had a winning season. Yet the fans stream into the arena and year after year, prognosticators with more on the ball than me pick them as a playoff dark horse. Well, you know what? I’ve had it with this team. And for all those fans who keep plunking good money down money to watch this mediocre carnival, all I have to ask is why? Why keep supporting a team that keeps coming up short for nearly a decade now? Stop being cannon fodder for the Red Wings. This is probably one of the biggest reasons my beloved ‘Hawks can’t leapfrog Detroit is because they keep feasting on the weaker divisional opponents they play nearly half of the 82-game season. Columbus makes for a great minor-league city, not a very good major league one, so just take the Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers out of the league, put in a Kansas City and a Las Vegas club, and see what happens.
I’d almost lump Nashville into the “Why do they have a NHL team?” category, but at least the Predators have made the playoffs and have at least challenged Detroit a time or two. For now, it’s time for the Preds to sink before they can rise again. Squaring away the ownership is the first step in the healing process, but now it’s time to start rebuilding this team for the long haul, which means giving lots of rookies and untested youngsters major ice time, which means last place (though not too far behind the Blue Jackets). Heck, at least they still have the team’s all-time leading scorer in David Legwand (hard to believe he’s only 28), so that’s something.
What went so wrong for one 2000 expansion franchise in Columbus went so right for the other one in St. Paul. Another year, another slugfest for the top spot of the Northwest Division, but out of all the teams, Minnesota seems to be the one with their collective heads screwed on straight. They can shoulder the loss of Pavol Demitra on offense because Marian Gaborik (an original Wild, you might say) will come into his own as the team’s top point-getter. And things can only get better for Niklas Backstrom in net. He’s 49-4-7 when the team is leading at any point in the game, which means he’s nigh-invulnerable (if you don’t know what that means, ask someone who knows a thing or two about comics, mainly “The Tick”).
I wanted to make a surprise pick, and I think this is the right place to do it. Budding young talent plus some under-the-radar moves to bolster the offense (Erik Cole) add up to a return to the postseason for Edmonton. It’s a gut feeling that tingles with possibilities. The city, fans and players are ready to make a run for the top, but being a pest for a higher seed will have to do for now.
The Rise of 2006, followed by The Stumble of 2007 must mean the Canucks will finish in between both seasons this year. It’s a matter of getting some extra firepower so Roberto Luongo can win 2-1, 1-0 games instead of coming up short despite being a Top 5 goalie. Granted, it’ll be a little tougher without longtime Canucks Trevor Linden (retired), Brendan Morrison (Anaheim) and Markus Naslund (New York Rangers) around, but acquiring Demitra helps a bit. So do the Sedin twins. I’m looking at photos of them right now, and I can tell them apart: one has a fainter goatee. Yeah, that’s it.
Welcome back, Mr. Sakic, glad you could drag your feet about playing or retiring for as long as possible. He’s one of the best players, I’ll give him that, but maybe it’s time to hang the skates up for good after this year. The Avs have a few younger stars (like Paul Statsny) waiting in the wings to show their stuff, and it doesn’t help it if the aging rock star wants to shake and shimmy one more time in too-tight spandex (not a good look). The Avs are far removed from the days in which they were feared in the league, and it’ll take time for the fans to become accustomed to a team with few stars from the glory days. But they can still make a run at the playoffs, because that’s what teams in this division do.
Just like in the Atlantic Division, there’s no shame in finishing in last place. There’s also no room in the playoffs for a team that really overachieved last year, without much going for it this year. Signees Mike Cammalleri (who’s probably tickled pink to be elsewhere than with the Kings. . . except in Columbus) and Rene Bourque might really pan out and Todd Bertuzzi might add a scoring touch to his grit, but there are way too many mights and maybes to make a difference this year. Place your bets on the day when Mike Keenan’s head explodes.
If missing half a season meant that the Ducks would finish with 47 wins and 102 points, wouldn’t you think the Ducks would contemplate holding out Rob Niedermayer until just before the playoffs started? A well-rested Niedermayer, plus just having him back again galvanized the Ducks at a time in which they were stuck in neutral. They couldn’t overtake the red-hot San Jose Sharks, but they should hold them off this season. It doesn’t matter if the Ducks can’t score in bunches (though getting Morrison from Vancouver should turn things up a notch) as long as “Jiggy” gets, well. . . jiggy with it. The Ducks aren’t as strong as they were two years ago, but they still can put up a fight and make the race for the best record in the conference interesting.
While Anaheim and San Jose were beating each other’s brains out for the number two seed, the Stars once again quietly put together a fine regular season, then went on to upend both the Ducks and Sharks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. With an expected drop-off by the Sharks for having a rookie head coach, the Stars will fill the number two slot just fine. They’re undoubtedly the quietest upper-echelon team that you’ve ever heard about (er, or didn’t since they’re so quiet). Maybe that’ll change this year with the addition of Sean Avery, who’s far from the silent type. Say what you will about his thin mohawk and his Thomas Dolby glasses, teams win with him in the lineup.
San Jose Sharks
Unlike the situations other rookie coaches in the league face, this one is favorable for Todd McLellan in that he has a pretty good team to start with. But while they’ll make the playoffs, expect a bit of a drop-off since he’s never been head coach before, and also because he has to battle the Stars and Ducks a bunch of times. And remember, Brian Campbell was a huge reason for this team’s late-season surge, so without him, the Sharks are back to square one on defense. Well, more like 1-1/2 since they did pick up Dan Boyle in the off-season. I just think the Sharks are suffering from The Uniform Curse, where a team who wears ugly, or even slightly-ugly garb, is doomed to continuously fall short until they make some changes. In the Sharks’ case, they need to take the orange out of their unis: it sticks out like a sore thumb. . . err, fin.
Congrats for The Great One to finish a campaign with a winning record. But finishing a game or two above .500 won’t get the Coyotes into the playoffs anytime soon. At least they won’t be boring on offense (something that sounds strange coming from a Gretzky-led team) after bringing in Olli Jokinen from Florida. And look, they have “Brizzie” between the pipes! Ilya Brzgalov wasn’t going to be the top starter in Anaheim anytime soon, so seeing him flourish in the desert should be a real treat.
Los Angeles Kings
It baffles me that the oldest of the West Coast franchises has the most difficulty of winning a championship, let alone winning at all. It’s not as if the Kings haven’t had a bevy of top picks to build a solid foundation. At least this off-season was a little different in that they used draft picks for promising talent in centers Jarret Stoll and Brad Richardson, guys who would’ve been on the third line elsewhere can move up a bit in this system. Alexander Frolov gave the Kings an extra punch on offense, but let’s face it, this is a young team, and it’ll take time for things to come together, something I’m sure Kings fans understand. . . and loathe.
Playoff Seeding for Western Conference: 1. Detroit 2. Anaheim 3. Minnesota 4. Dallas 5. San Jose 6. Edmonton 7. Chicago 8. Vancouver
Playoff Results for Eastern Conference: Quarterfinal Winners-Pittsburgh, Montreal, New Jersey and Philly. Semifinal Winners-Pittsburgh and Montreal. Conference Final Winner-Pittsburgh.
Playoff Results for Western Conference: Quarterfinal Winners-Detroit, Anaheim, Minnesota and Dallas. Semifinal Winners-Detroit and Anaheim. Conference Final Winner-Detroit.
I try to shy away from the double rematch-seeing the same two teams in the Cup Finals in consecutive years-but it makes sense this time around. It won’t be easy for the Pens and the Red Wings in a year where we’ll see some teams rise when they usually stumble, but both are talented from top to bottom.
It’s just that, this time around, look for a new ending to the same story.
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