By Jake Shoemaker
Los Angeles (3)
The Los Angeles Kings are, once again, loaded. In the strike shortened 2013 season, the Kings limped out of the gate with the typical Stanley Cup “hangover”. But, once they got rolling and superstar goalie Jonathan Quick got healthy, the Kings reemerged as a force in the Western Conference. The Kings keep the luck out of the net
X-Factor: Jeff Carter. The Kings grind their opponents down with a balanced scoring attack that comes from a both physical and finesse forwards. In his first full year with the Kings, Carter proved his worth as a sniper scoring 26 goals. But, with those 26 goals came just 7 assists. Carter’s career numbers suggest that the large disparity between goals and assists is an anomaly, a stat that the Kings hope proves to be true. If Carter can learn to share the luck while still maintaining his scoring touch – perhaps becoming a point-per-game scorer at the tune of 40 goals and 40 assists – the Kings could very well return to the Finals. If Carter can’t share the puck, look for the forward to a decrease in goals scored per game and for the Kings to be just another playoff team.
After a phenomenal regular season that led only to a disappointingly brief playoff stint, the Ducks are once again primed to make a deep run in the Western Conference. Anaheim has its two best players and team leaders, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, locked into long term deals and they also have two high caliber goaltenders, Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, who are capable of carrying the team at any point in time. The stable presence of the goalies will be a major factor in keeping the Ducks consistently performing during the regular season, especially in the strong Pacific Division. Look for Anaheim to yet again be a team that is built for a long season, not a playoff run.
X-Factor: Andrew Cogliano. Last year, the Ducks got a combined 51 points from Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, two veterans whose best days are well behind them. With Bobby Ryan, last year’s third highest point getter, no longer on the team, Anaheim needs the underachieving Cogliano to finally live up to the expectations that led to Edmonton draft him in the first round eight years ago. Cogliano produced at about .5 points per game and had a stellar plus/minus in 2013, showing signs of significant worth. He also had the highest shot percentage on the team. If he can fill Ryan’s scoring void, the Ducks have the other pieces in place to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
The Edmonton Oilers will be relevant this year. Just how relevant is up to them. The Oilers have young talent on the front line to beat rival goalies Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo and Antti Niemi, and a blossoming goaltender of their own in Devan Dubnyk. Where they lack depth and talent is on the blue line, but newly minted Captain Andrew Ference should bring stability, toughness and leadership to the group. If Edomonton can continue its strong special teams play, they have the pieces to compete for a playoff birth over the course of a long season. Unfortunately, unless Dubnyk becomes a world-class goaltender, a postseason birth might be all Oiler fans can expect in 2013-2014.
X-Factor: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Last September, Boston rewarded Tyler Seguin’s early success with a lucrative contract that paid him like a superstar. They hoped an investment in the 67 point scorer would pay off. The result: Seguin’s numbers dropped and he played uninspired during the playoffs to the tune of 1 goal in 22 games. Edmonton just made a similar business decision with Nugent-Hopkins. The young forward tallied just 24 points in 40 games last season, which is, quite simply, inadequate production for a $6 Million per year athlete. If Nugent-Hopkins can’t increase his production to close to a point per game (he produced at a rate of about .8 points per game his rookie year) and if he plays uninspired play like Seguin, the Oilers will not have enough depth in such an experienced division. My guess, Nugent-Hopkins steps up and proves hungry to earn the Stanley Cup that Seguin already had at the same point in his career.
Vancouver is committed to Roberto Luongo in net. After not being able to move his contract, the Canucks must hope he can return to form now that he is the man again. Luongo’s fragile ego likely didn’t like the pressure of having Cory Schneider’s competition, but can a man who can’t handle inter-squad competition really lead a team to a Stanley Cup title? Vancouver still has talent all over the ice to match any team with the Sedin brothers, Ryan Kesler and Jannik Hansen up front and Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa on the blue line.
X-Factor: John Torterella. Torterella has been known to coach tough, gritty teams that sacrifice themselves for the collective cause. When his Rangers bought in, they were a force in the East. When the style of play became too demanding, they lacked enough offensive fortitude to compete. In inheriting the Vancouver Canucks, Torterella is inheriting a group of men not known for their toughness. So the major questions will be, how well can the Canucks balance what their identity has been with what Tortorella will want it to be? And, how can the defensive minded Tortorella turn around the 19th ranked offense in the league with his style? Ultimately, if the team doesn’t buy in, the Canucks will not compete for the Stanley Cup. My guess, the talented squad is too good to miss the playoffs but will not be cohesive enough to win a title.
San Jose (8)
The San Jose Sharks have been a playoff mainstay since they acquired Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins back in 2005. Unfortunately, despite consistently high finishes in the Western Conference, the Sharks have failed to even make the Stanley Cup Finals, let alone win one. Since the trade, the Sharks have won their division four times and even won a Presidents’ Trophy. So when will the Sharks break through? Not in 2013-2014. Stars Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are aging. Goalie Antti Niemi, although phenomenal in 2013, started 43 of the team’s 48 games, accounting for 96% of the team’s wins. Thomas Greiss proved unable to spell Niemi a break and simultaneously earn the team a few wins last year, so the team will look to Alex Stalock to support Niemi’s efforts. If Stalock can’t produce as Niemi’s backup, the Finnish Vezina finalist will be exhausted when it matters most, playoff time.
X-Factor: Brent Burns. The Sharks experimented with moving Brent Burns from defense to forward after he posted a -5 rating and 0 points in February. Burns responded by tallying 20 points in the final 24 games. Burns is a strong, physical presence on the forward line for the Sharks, whose other top forwards, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Thornton and Marleau aren’t known for their physicality. If Burns, in his first full year as a forward, can continue his scoring ways and also play a strong two-way game, the Sharks will benefit dramatically. The Sharks likely will also count on Burns to man the point on the power play to maximize his skill set. Burns is the type of player who can make his teammates better and wear down his opponents, and if he breaks out and plays at an all-star level, the Sharks can be one of the best teams in the Pacific Division.
Phoenix has been a trendy pick to make a deep run in the upcoming season. An up and down team over the past few years, Phoenix will rely on the goaltending of Mike Smith to take them to the playoffs. Last year, in Smith’s second season with the team, the athletic Canadian saw a major drop in his stats as he battled through injuries for much of the season; his save percentage dropped from .930 to .910. The Coyotoes will likely go as Smith goes. Phoenix relies on a balanced scoring attack with large offensive contributions from its defenders, especially Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekmann-Larsson. Yandle led the team in points last year, and if the Coyotes want to make the playoffs this year, their forwards need to step up and put the puck in the net with more frequency.
X-Factor: Mike Ribiero. After many productive seasons in Montreal and a fantastic season in Washington, Ribiero signed with Phoenix this offseason to be the offensive star that the Coyotes have been lacking. But, at 33, Ribiero must prove that he is worth the $5.5 Million per year that Phoenix invested in him. Ribiero has never been “the man” on his respective team, but after tallying 19 points more than Phoenix’s highest point-getter last year, Ribiero must be ready to assume the role. If not, Phoenix will be overmatched by the talent of the other Pacific Division teams.
The Calgary Flames looked very much like a minor league hockey team in 2013. With no superstars, the Flames struggled to both put the puck in the net and to keep the puck out of the net. They lost the longtime heart and soul of their team in former Captain Jerome Iginla with hopes of improving the team in the long haul, but his departure will not help them yet. The diehard fanbase will have to wait at least one more year before they can hope to sniff the postseason.
X-Factor: Karri Ramo. The Flames, in order to be relevant, truly need the entire roster to elevate its game, but the mistakes of the squad will ultimately fall on the unproven Ramo. Mikka Kiprusoff struggled mightily last year behind an anemic offense and a horrendous defense that seemed to leave the netminder out to dry game after game. Ramo has been given the chance to be the starting goaltender and should be on a mission to prove himself, but even Henrik Lundqvist might struggle behind this Calgary squad. In such a deep division that has goalies who keep the puck out of the net, Calgary will be hard pressed to win on a regular basis.
St. Louis (1)
The St. Louis Blues are ready to be the best team in the Western Conference. After Ken Hitchcock took over early on in the 2011-2012 season, the Blues have been one of the best teams in the league during the regular season. They boast depth in net with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot splitting time, and if either man falters, they have arguably the best goalie prospect in the league waiting in the minors in Jake Allen. St. Louis has speed, strength, skill and size on both the defensive and offensive fronts. Although they don’t have one go-to star, the Blues have scoring depth that can be likened to that of Chicago and Boston. And, Norris Trophy candidate Alex Pietrangelo has a knack for scoring big goals from the blue line when the squad is in need. They are a team that is built for the playoffs because they will not be broken down and beaten up by a more physical team, and they have the depth to avoid getting shut down by standout defenders. Look for St. Louis to overtake the Blackhawks as the West’s best as they make the jump into elite team status.
X-Factor: David Backes. Andy McDonald retired in June after battling concussions for much of the past few seasons. When the undersized forward was playing, he was the heart and soul of the squad, consistantly injecting the team with energy. With McDonald and his veteran leadership gone, Backes will have to assume a larger leadership role as Captain. Backes is known to be a physical distributor who creates space for his teammates, but last season he struggled mightily on the power play. St. Louis has the depth to overtake Chicago in the regular season, but they will need their special teams play to be dominant to supplement their steadily improving 5 v. 5 play in order to win the West.
The Blackhawks had one of the greatest regular seasons in recent memory last year and they followed it up with a gritty playoff run that led to a Stanley Cup Championship. Despite a few alterations to last year’s roster, the Blackhawks managed to keep their core intact much more so than they did after defeating the Flyers in 2010. They Blackhawks boast world-class talent in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, a phenomenal and underappreciated goaltender in Corey Crawford, young standouts in Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, and three phenomenal defensive pairings. Don’t expect a Stanley Cup “hangover” from this group – they have the right balance of veteran leadership and hungry young athletes who are still trying to prove themselves. Chicago should be considered a serious threat to defend the Stanley Cup.
X-Factor: Niklas Hjalmarsson. Hjalmarsson came into his own during the Stanley Cup playoffs last year and was a critical cog in the team’s ultimate victory. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are well-known as the shutdown stars of Chicago’s phenomenal defense, but Hjalmarsson is a player who, if he can raise his game to an elite level throughout the season, can enable the Blackhawks to shutdown even the deepest offensive squads in the West like St. Louis and Edmonton. It is scary to think that the NHL’s best defensive team last year could be even better in the upcoming season.
The Western Conference is in for a serious challenge when Winnipeg comes to town this year. The Jets have been knocking on the playoff door in the East for the past few seasons, and this is the year that they will finally break through to the playoffs. One major issue for the Jets last year was their league-worst power play that scored only 14% of the time. Devin Setoguchi, who scored 5 power play goals for the Wild last year, will be a welcome addition to the group, as will 2011 first round pick Mark Scheifele. The Jets may struggle against teams that have the defensive prowess to shutdown their top line, but the scoring contributions that the Jets receive from their defense will help lead the franchise back to the postseason.
X-Factor: Jacob Trouba. The Jets need to sure up their defense in front of workhorse goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in order to sneak in to the playoffs. Fortunately for the Jets, their division is not loaded with offensive firepower. Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg’s 19 year old 2012 first round draft pick, will be given an opportunity to shine in the upcoming season. Trouba, who just last winter was playing for the University of Michigan, is a big, physical defender who can contribute significantly on both ends of the ice, as well as on the power play and penalty kill. Although the growing pains are likely to come along during his first stint at the professional level, Trouba has the potential to be a rookie difference maker.
Nashville looks to bounce back to relevancy this year after an abysmal 2013 season. The Predators will benefit from their main wild card competitors playing in the Pacific Division. Although the Predators did not make too many significant changes in the offseason, they will benefit from an offseason to mend their plethora of injured players including Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson, two of their greatest contributors when healthy. Pekka Rinne is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL and he will, once again, be called on to keep the team afloat. The Finnish goalie has often been one of the league leaders in shutouts over the past 5 years, and if he can contribute between 8 to 10 more this year, Nashville can make the playoffs.
X-Factor: Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg played a complimentary role in Chicago during their Stanley Cup run last year. In Nashville, he will be asked to do much more this year as he joins a team whose highest point contributor last year was defenseman Shea Webber. The Swede has a knack for scoring when given the opportunity, and he will likely be given an uptick in time-on-ice this year with the hopes that he can find the back of the net with great frequency. If Nashville can’t figure out how to boost its 29th ranked offense, 2013-2014 will be a repeat of 2013.
In year two of the Parise-Suter era, Minnesota hopes to make the jump to elite status that it couldn’t quite make last year. The Wild started out 2013 slowly but built success over the course of the year, ultimately leading to a playoff birth. Although their playoff stint was short lived, a taste of the playoffs should keep the Wild hungry for more. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Western Conference has enough teams that have either more depth or better goaltending to keep the Wild from the playoffs this year. Niklas Backstrom is past his prime as he posted the second worst save percentage of his career last year, and his two shutouts will make it tough for the Wild to win the low scoring games that will inevitably come with such a weak offense.
X-Factor: Ryan Suter. The $100 Million man took a while to fit in with the Wild last year, but his play in the second half of the season is what the Wild will need for a full season if they want to make the playoffs. Suter ended the season with a rating of +2, an awful rating for a shutdown defender. He contributed significantly on the power play and logged an incredible amount of minutes per game, but a player taking up that much salary cap space must do it all.
The Stars were in the playoff hunt for a while last year before fading in the final weeks of the season. With quite a few changes to the team, including the departures of Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder and Derek Roy, the Stars will have to gel quickly to keep pace with the depth of the Western Conference. The arrival of Sergei Gonchar will add scoring punch to a defense that didn’t contribute much offensively last year, but he will also be called upon to improve the team’s terrible goals against average. Young defenseman Brenden Dillon will likely be called upon to eat up minutes on the blue line, but the Stars need more than just a minutes-eater. All in all, the West has too much talent for the Stars to keep up. Look for some regression and a disappointing season for Dallas.
X-Factor: Tyler Seguin. How will Tyler Seguin fit in this year with the Stars? After playing for three years in the shadows of some talented Boston superstars, Seguin will have even more eyes on him this year as he will be looked upon to score at least 80 points for Dallas, moving from wing to center. The offensive minded forward will also need to show that he learned a thing or two from Patrice Bergeron in order to help a defense that gave up nearly 3 goals per game last year. Can Seguin mature under less media scrutiny? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean he has what it takes to lead the Stars to the postseason.
Colorado was one of the NHL’s worst teams in 2013 because they lacked depth and experience. Their top forwards, P.A. Parenteau, Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene logged an unsustainable number of minutes per game for a full season and they got little offensive help from their teammates. Colorado did little to add scoring punch, but they will hope that former second overall pick Gabriel Landeskog can emerge as a young superstar after a strong sophomore season last year. Additionally, the Avalanche will look to Semyon Varlamov, yet again, to carry the burden between the pipes, with hopes that he can emerge as a consistent goaltender. Ultimately, Colorado lacks depth, the ability to shut other teams down, and experience to even think about contending for a playoff spot.
X-Factor: Tyson Barrie. The young defenseman needs to step up as the leader of the Colorado defense this year. In 2013, he contributed offensively, leading all team defensemen in points despite only playing in two thirds of the games, but he ended the season with a -13 rating. Barrie showed that he can contribute a significant number of minutes on the ice despite his inexperience, but now comes the tough part – he must balance his offensive play with a defense first mentality to help out the league’s 4th worst defense. Additionally, Colorado will look for Barrie to be a force on 7th worst power play. With so much on his plate, the 22 year old better grow up fast.