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Pensburgh's 2008-09 NHL Bloggers' Season Preview - Western Conference

Here's the Western Conference previews.  Be sure to check out the Eastern Conference preview as well.

Last season's record: 40-34-8
10th in the Conference
Second City Hockey



There's a tremendous amount of buzz going on about the outdoor game against the Red Wings. This is the probably going to be the single biggest event in Blackhawks history and people are pumped for it. Just to have this team exposed to a national audience in an event this large is going to be huge to bring the Blackhawks back into relevance, as they have been doing lately. Can't say enough about the effort John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz made to get this to happen.


I think GM Dale Tallon did a fantastic job this offseason of bringing in some players that are going to seriously give the Hawks a chance to be contenders this year. Getting Brian Campbell was probably a shock to most Hawks fans, since this team usually never ponies up the big bucks for a superstar player. Can't complain about bringing in Campbell, he's a tremendous addition to the blue-line and I think he's gonna be a fun player to watch in Chicago. I don't think anyone saw the signing of Huet coming, but it looks like he will be the main starter and I see Nikolai Khabibulin getting traded awfully soon. I would say this is a playoff team looking at them on paper right now.


The Hawks' biggest asset is going to be both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane entering their second seasons respectively after getting that first season out of the way. These guys are just an amazing talent this early in their careers and I think they will both have big seasons offensively and all around in general barring any injuries. They may be playing on the same line this year, which worked well last year for a while, so that should be something special to watch.


If all things fall into place correctly I can see them finishing around 6th in the West. That's assuming that they can stay relatively healthy and get some young players to contribute enough, which is never an easy task. Opponent-wise, I can see the Red Wings being a tough customer as always, and a team that the Hawks will have to battle in the Central, which is usually the norm. They handled the matchups with Detroit well last season, and if they can do it again this year that will make it an easier road to the playoffs.


Last season's record: 54-21-7
1st in Conference
Blog: Winging it in Motown




History has shown that it's quite hard for one of the two finalists to return to the Stanley Cup Finals so I find it hard to believe that both teams will return to the finals (although I wouldn't mind it). If I had to pick one of the two teams to return, I'd have to go with Detroit. The biggest key is the team's health. An injury to certain Red Wings players versus a healthy Pittsburgh team is a very different story so my explanation below is based on the comparison of two healthy NHL clubs.


Amazingly, our team has improved since the finals with the acquisitions of Marian Hossa and Ty Conklin as well as re-signing Brad Stuart, who they had acquired just at the trade deadline. Who did we lose? Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake to retirement. In fact, our biggest losses came in the personnel department with two coaches leaving for San Jose and advisor Scotty Bowman heading to Chicago.


Obviously, a lot has to go right for a team to make it the Finals much less repeat. But if any team can do it, it's the Red Wings. The last time a NHL team repeated, it was the Wings in '97 and '98. Usually the biggest problem in trying to repeat is the Cup hangover. Players have a shorter summer and may not have the same motivation to win the Cup.


Thanks to Marian Hossa, I believe the Wings will have the hangover cure. Want motivation? Hossa is likely here in Detroit for one season (unless GM Ken Holland can work his magic). That gives this team a deadline. Hossa has yet to win the Cup and they are unlikely to retain his services for another season so this is their one chance. While Holland didn't change the roster much, it's not exactly the same line-up preventing things from getting too stale.


Detroit fans are certainly excited about the outdoor game. However, we're understandably not nearly as excited as Chicagoans. It sounds like 3000 or less of the game's tickets will be available to Red Wings season ticket holders and even less to the public. Chicago fans presence will dominate Wrigley Field. It's their team. Their city. Their historic ballpark. The Wings are merely the opponents and I think that's how Wings fans feel about it. It's cool to be a part of something like this, but it's not our event. We just have to show up. Had the Wings been hosting the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium versus a historic rival like Toronto, you'd see a fan base way more excited about the game.


Last season's record: 41-32-9
Eighth in the Conference
Blog: Player previews available at On The Forecheck




Last season's record: 34-36-12
13th in Conference
Blog: Light the Lamp



As far as the offense the Jackets are going with a top line of Nash-Umberger-Huselius and hope this mesh of skill and size can find chemistry quickly. The hope also is that Huseilus can do for Nash what he did for Iginla and that is create space for Nash to work his magic.  After playing in just 23 games last year the Jackets hope Freddy Modin can return to his 20 goal form and is almost viewed as a free agent addition.  Peca, Chimera, Boll, Malhotra, Murray,York & Novonty will fill out the bottom two lines. They also have 3 blue chip rookies in Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov who could make an impact. Brassard and Voracek in particular figure to play key roles this season.


Defensively the Jackets feel they have through an extreme makeover and that is after having the 8th best goals against last year in the entire NHL.  With Tyutin, Commodore and Backman in the fold the Jackets feel they have vastly upgraded their puck moving ability, leadership, defensive play and competitiveness.  Tyutin instantly becomes their best all around defensemen.  Commodore will fill the void vacated by Adam Foote while Backman will be given the opportunity to replace Hainsy as the PP QB.  The early word is that Backman is the strongest offensive player from the blueline the Jackets have ever had which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Ron Hainsey.  Kris Russell will be counted to improve on his rookie year and contribute offensively.  Rustly Klesla and Jan Hejda return as two strong minute eaters who can shutdown the opposition's top players.  Tollefsen, Rome & Methot provide solid depth when injuries strike.


Pascal Leclaire certainly grabbed hold of the starter position last season as he finished top 10 in every major statistical goaltending category outside of wins.  He is clearly being counted on as the starter this season while Norrena will play a backup role.  The hope is that Leclaire can play in 60 games while Norrena should see 20 or so starts.  

While Leclaire has certainly shown he has the skill level to be a top flight starter in the NHL he still has to prove his durability.  The most games he's over his 4 NHL seasons was 47 last year and again he battled injuries at the tail end of last season but recovered to put in a solid performance the Canadians in the World Championships.


The team has to stay healthy and the young guns must contribute. With the Jackets being the 2nd worst offensive team in the league last year they need some home grown offensive punch this season to join the likes of Nash/Modin/Umberger/Huselius as primary scorers.  For the Jackets to make a run at 7th or 8th seed they need to hit on health and on youth.  If those two things occur they make the playoffs for the first time in their history.  If they don't, its back to the greens in April.


Last season's record: 33-36-13
14th in the Conference
Blog: St. Louis Gametime




In all honesty, this season could seem like a step backwards during the heat of the moment. In a few years, fans' perception may change and see this season as a turning point. More veterans were traded at the deadline last year and more were allowed to walk in July. The youth movement is in full force. Rookies T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund along with second-year players David Perron and Erik Johnson are seen as the future building blocks of the franchise. If they play like veterans this year (healthy veterans), the Blues could hang around the playoff hunt much of the year. If they play like 19 and 20-year-olds, it could be a long, long season.


The Blues traded fan-favorite Jamal Mayers to Toronto and acquired a legit backup in Chris Mason from Nashville. In free agency the Blues signed...wait, I know this. It's coming to me. Oh yeah, nobody worth mentioning. But as I mentioned above, they have big expectations for Oshie, a former first-round pick who has been an mainstay at North Dakota for three years, and the big Swedish center Berglund. Pencil them into the opening night lineup right now. First-round pick Alex Pietrangelo is gong to get a look in camp and may see a nine-game tryout during the regular season before the 18-year-old defenseman either sticks with the Blues or is sent back to juniors. Oh, sure there was a rumor that the Blues were interested in signing still popular former Blue Brendan Shanahan, but that news was so close to single game tickets going on sale, it couldn't be close to true.


Brad Boyes hitting the 40-goal plateau last season was a tremendous surprise. The former Leaf first-rounder and former Bruin finally cashed in on his potential. He's going to be a focus of the offense and power play. It all starts with him. David Backes in his second NHL season last year did not give up when the Blues fell out of the playoff race last year. The big forward showed a nasty attitude and physical style on the ice. His play even got the Blackhawks bitching after about the roughness late in the season. It was sweet. Vancouver saw enough in him to make an offer to the restricted free agent. The Blues matched in less than two hours.


The Blues were great the first half of the season on the penalty kill. Unfortunately, they killed their own power plays just as well easily finishing last in the league. Goaltending depth with All-Star Emannuel Legace and Mason is a plus. Lack of a mature puck-moving defenseman is an ongoing issue, one that also leads to the power play problems. Coach Andy Murray in an interview Friday night on 550 KTRS said he has personally taken over the job of coaching the power play this season. His job may soon depend on it.


Then former owner Bill Laurie and his Wal-Mart money dismantled the team when he sold it, the franchise practically collapsed, They finished last in the league. Attendance was a joke. Lowest point of the team's 40+ years, and that includes the time when they almost were relocated to Saskatoon. But the new ownership group headed by Dave Checketts has reached out to the fans. Team president John Davidson is a popular face of the organization. They've finally committed to a real youth movement. The fans responded and really showed up last year with 20 home sellouts. The fans were obviously disappointed something wasn't done in free agency this summer, but it doesn't seem like they've given up yet. The team is lucky in that the Cardinals are going to miss the playoffs and the Rams are one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Blues are making an effort and seem to be headed for an upswing. That patience with the fans may last as long as that situation doesn't change.




Last season's record: 44-28-10
Third in the Conference


In short, the Wild want for no advantage, in terms of either fiscal or emotional support.  And yet in the off-season, the team low-balled Brian Rolston, let Pavol Demitra walk without even trying half-heartedly to retain his services, and effectively fired hometown boy Mark Parrish with a contract buyout.  These three were the team's second, third, and fourth-leading goal scorers last year, and yet not one got an offseason contract.

The team won't just need a few team-bonding exercises to make another playoff run this season, though.  They're counting on Brunette, Miettinen, and Nolan to replace Parrish, Demitra, and Rolston, which seems like a long-shot proposition; and after trying to deal half the team for Olli Jokinen last year they're still desperately short at center.  Mikko Koivu has developed into a top-line centerman, but behind him the Wild is stuck with the disappointing Eric Belanger, the 20-year-old sophomore James Sheppard, and then a mismatched cast of rookies and veteran hangers-on.  Given that center, in the Lemaire system, is perhaps the most important role on the ice - the man in the middle is responsible for both creating offense and yet acting more or less as a third defenseman - it's a hole the team could do without.

On defense, the team is counting on big contributions from Bergeron and Zidlicky.  Brent Burns and Nick Schultz are both young, solid defensemen, and Burns has the makings of the team's next big star - he's the sleeper pick, as he might be the best under-25 defenseman in the league that nobody is talking about.  But behind those two is the Kim Johnsson, who's solid if annoyingly bland and overpaid, and disaster-in-waiting Martin Skoula, who continues to see the ice despite generally displaying the talent of a skating chimpanzee.  In other words, if no more solid, it's at least a similar group on the blue line this year, and with Niklas Backstrom in goal there's no reason to expect the team's defensive play to swirl down the drain.

And toughness - despite the losses of Fedoruk and Voros, the team still retains LW Derek Boogaard, possibly the league's best fighter and worst offensive forward, and has added RW Craig Weller, from Phoenix, another guy who's not afraid to mix it up.  (Gone, thankfully, is near-criminal goon Chris Simon, whom the Wild brought in at the trade deadline for virtually no sane reason, with the possible exception of GM Doug Risebrough channeling the ghost of Hedley Lamarr.

And you know what would be a big help to the team in reaching that goal?  A rich, happy, and offensively-rampant Marian Gaborik.  All that remains to be seen is what kind of riches he'll demand.


Last season's record: 44-31-7
Sixth in Conference
Blog: Mile High Hockey



Joe Sakic seriously considering retirement and then deciding to play another year is like Jesus descending from heaven to bring forth the end times.  It's bigger than that, even.  Joe Sakic is the holy patron saint of Colorado Avalanche hockey, much like that Yzerman guy was for those horrible monsters in Detroit.  Only Joe Sakic has class.  And a better wrist shot, even at nearly 40 years old.  By the way, how many points did Steve Yzerman score when he was 37?  The answer is eight.  Joe Sakic scored 100 points at age 37.

Peter Budaj is by far the most underrated player in the entire National Hockey League, and I'm not just saying that.  In the four---four----opportunities to play more than three games in a row that Budaj has had in his entire career, his combined record is 31-10-7.  No joke.  When given the reassurance that he'll be the starter, win or lose, he's never let the Avalanche down.  Unfortunately, the Avs were more concerned about getting their money's worth out of Jose Theodore, so they labored under a ridiculous goalie carousel that screwed up any chance for Budaj to establish a rhythm.  Some goalies can step in for a couple games here and there and be awesome.  Budaj can't.  He's a born starting goalie and excels when he's given the chance to play on a regular basis.  31-10-7.  The record is there.  The fact that only some Avalanche fans ever noticed that is not Budaj's fault.  As for Andrew Raycroft, I have no confidence in him just like I had no confidence in Jose Theodore.  The Avs will rely on him at their peril.

The biggest strength, by far, is the defense.  Adam Foote is still a badass and he's got a great supporting cast.  The Avs have speed and scoring ability in John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold (may heaven protect him), great passing and ice awareness in Brett Clark, some banging ability in Ruslan Salei.  Scott Hannan ain't bad, either.  Backing them up is some dude from Scandinavia who played in Russia last year and a little kid named Kyle Cumiskey who is, no doubt about it, the fastest skater in the entire NHL.  No lie.  The kid is ridiculously fast.

The biggest weakness is kind of unknown, but there are possibilities.  If the offense succumbs to repeated injuries like last year, the team will be in big trouble.  The top six scorers are all pretty good, but once they fall, their backups are mostly bangers and rookies.  If guys like Sakic, Stastny, Hejduk and Smyth can stay healthy, the team will be okay as far as offense goes.  The other wild card is the coaching.  Tony Granato, who was once head coach for a little while before the Lockout, has the best regular season record of any of Colorado's four head coaches.  But Joel Quenneville came in and Granato got demoted to assistant for a while.  If Granato has learned anything from Quenneville, the Avs could be in trouble.  If Granato can remember the stuff he learned from vintage Bob Hartley, the team should be fine.

Who's a sleeper?  I think Andrew Raycroft is going to get a lot of rest on the bench.  Oh, that's not what you meant.  I'm not entirely sure.  There are a few guys that could outperform their past records (Wojtek Wolski, for one), and others that are pretty much completely unknown (Per Ledin, from Sweden).  Honestly, I have no idea.  It depends on what kind of coaching style Granato adapts and which players take to it the best.  I think, talent-wise, that Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos are all poised to have huge years.

Last season's record: 39-33-10
11th in the Conference
Blog: Preview at Oilers Nation (I know - it's the Canucks)





Last season's record: 42-30-10
Seventh in the Conference
Five Hole Fanatics



What's most concerning for Flames fans is the fact the Kipper's stats have declined since he became a Flame back in 03/04. There are various external issues that can have significant effects on a goalies numbers. League changes (crack-down on obstruction, increase in powerplays) and team issues (player movement, strategic alterations) could perhaps account for some of Kippers gentle drifting towards the mean.

Isolating shots and shot quality lets one better assess goaltending. The impact of goaltending is highest when a strong goalie allows ‘few’ goals notwithstanding a high number of shots faced and / or shots of high quality.


You'll probably hear a lot about how Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay were soft and didn't compete every night last year. The fact of the matter is, the Flames lost two legitimate top 6 forwards this summer (in Tanguay's case, likely the second best forward on the team) and replaced them with question marks.


Of the three notable guys acquired this summer, I only consider Mike Cammalleri a legit top 6 forward - and even he is a 26 year-old coming off a rough season where he got scored on an awful lot. Todd Bertuzzi and the Flames org is saying a lot of nice things going into the year, but the reality is Bert hasn't been an impact forward for quite some time. Whether it's his age, his back problems or his damaged psyche following the Moore incident, Todd is several steps away from the dominating force he was in Vancouver. While a resurrection is not impossible, I consider it pretty unlikely at this juncture - especially given the fact the he struggled to be relevant in such cozy surroundings in Anaheim. Chances are, Bertuzzi will be replacing Nolans contributions rather than those of Huselius and Tanguay.


Overall, I assume the Flames will take a bit of a step back offense-wise this season (although the bottom 6 has marginally improved), especially at even-strength. For the first time since the Flames cup run, I think there's a sizable gap between their potential floor and ceiling when it comes to their final standing in April. If all things go well (offense improves, Kipper gets better, etc) I can see the Flames winning the division. If all the coins land on tails, however, it's just as likely the team will place 9th or 10th in the conference. If you pressed me, I'd place my bet on the 7th or 8th spot, however.



Last season's record: 41-35-6
Ninth in the Conference
Blog: Preview available on Two-line Pass





Last season's record: 49-23-10
Second in the Conference
Blog: Fear the Fin



The off-season was eventful, to say the least.  Saying sayonara to Ron Wilson and hello to former Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan is a move getting thumbs up from everyone including Red Wings fans who hate to see him go.  Hopefuly he'll install some of the discipline and work ethic that the Sharks have sorely lacked the past few years as far too often they've tried to get by on sheer talent alone. 


On the ice, the disappointment of losing Brian Campbell to Chicago was mitigated by both how abysmal he was during the playoffs last year and the addition of Dan Boyle.  Seeing Rob Blake in teal will be interesting to say the least; if he has anything left he'll add some grit and attitude behind the blueline.  Up front little changed, which is somewhat surprising considering how goal scoring-challenged the Sharks were last year.  The belief appears to be the primary reason for this was a lack of support from the defense, so the new corps will no doubt be called on to so something other than clear the puck and then go on break.


Strong points: Evgeni Nabokov has proven himself to be a solid workhorse in net, someone who can and will steal games for his team.  The defense looks to be top-notch in their own end, and promises to do a better job supporting the offense than was the last case.  Up front, Thornton can be one of the absolute best players and playmakers in the league when he chooses to be.  Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau are solid scorers, although the latter tends to run hot and cold.  Ryan Clowe is going to be a stud in this league, a tough left winger who both dishes it out physically and has a scorer's touch. 


Weak points: Not much depth at the wing positions, especially right wing.  The great unknown is whether McLellan can get this team to do what Wilson could never do, namely play hard night in and night out.  If he can, the Sharks are legitimate Cup contenders.  If not, it'll be the fourth straight year of two and through... if they get that far.


Logo_anaheim_ducks_medium Last seasons' record: 47-27-8
Fourth in the Conference
Blog: On the Pond


Niedermayer's decision to return meant that there are three defensemen being paid just over $18 million next year.  This has contributed to the salary cap issue and it is no secret that Mathieu Schneider, who was brought in to replace Niedermayer last year, is being shopped round.  The Ducks likely trade partner is the Kings, who are below the cap minimum and are in need of a veteran defenseman to lead their young and inexperienced blueline.  Until salary is moved off the books, no salary can move on.


The Ducks got rid of excess salary by buying out Todd Bertuzzi's overpaid contract.  Bertuzzi was not performing to the level at which he was being paid and was let go.  Doug Weight never really got going after being obtained last December and was let go as a free agent.  The Ducks picked up a solid second-line center in Brendan Morrison, who should be able to provide much needed offense to the team.  The rest of the transactions added depth at defense in Steve Montador and forwards in Eric Boguniecki, Josh Green, Joakim Lindstrom.   The Ducks also re-signed Corey Perry to a nice long-term contract, assuring that he remains a Duck for now.


Bobby Ryan has a great opportunity to prove he is ready for the NHL full time.  He has been working out with the Ducks trainer, Sean Skahan, all summer and has made a commitment to taking his role on the Ducks and running with it.  He has great potential and with the right linemates and enough self-confidence, he could be a pleasant surprise.  Because Ryan has been developing slowly, as most power forwards do, there has been much criticism heaped upon him.  However, once he puts everything all together, he will be a force to be reckoned with.


The Ducks should not have a problem making the playoffs again.  The distractions and fatigue from last season are removed and they are healthy and hungry once again.  An early playoff exit to the Dallas Stars in the first round gave the team a reality check.  Their hearts were not in it and it showed.  This year the Ducks need to get started right and find the offense that was missing last year.  They will be fighting with the Sharks and Stars for top spot in the Pacific Division, and getting that top spot can mean the difference between an early playoff exit or the home advantage that can help them go deeper.  The Ducks have finished with over 100 points the past several seasons, and there is no reason why they cannot attain that again with their stellar defense still intact and strong goaltending in JS Giguere and Jonas Hiller.  Can they repeat their Stanley Cup win?  That is unknown, but they certainly have a good chance of being a contender.


Last season's record: 38-37-7
12th in the Conference
Blog: Great Phoenix coverage at Coyotes Hip Check  and Cup Crazy's NHL Blog




Last season's record: 45-30-7
Fifth in the Conference
Blog: Andrew's Stars Page



I think the Stars' offseason moves were fine. They didn't have a lot of room to work with the cap and spent the money on Sean Avery, who is the kind of player who fits what they do on the ice. He's versatile, can move up and down the lineup and is hard to play against. He's a guy who can score 15-20 goals, maybe more, and that fits in with their score by committee philosophy.

Loui Eriksson is a player to keep an eye on this season. He's a young player who showed a lot of improvement last year. He's always around the net. He had 14 goals and 17 assists last season and has the potential to contribute more. Depending where he ends up as far as linemates he's a player who could approach the 20-goal mark.

I think their strength is that are a well-coached team that plays sounds team defense and is always in games. They've got top notch goaltending with Turco, a good set of defensemen and a good set of forwards with a good mix of talent and grit.  They have very good special teams. They do just about everything well, which doesn't leave them with a lot of weaknesses. They may be a little thin as far as defensive depth if they get hit with a lot of injuries and their backup goalie, Tobias Stephan, is untested. Other than that, they are strong across the board.

Since they are in the Pacific Division with San Jose and Anaheim it's tough to say where the Stars will finish. I'd say it could be anywhere from 2nd in the West to 5th depending on how those three teams shake out in the division. I think they have a good chance to win the division, so I'll settle on 2nd overall in the West behind Detroit.

Last season's record: 32-43-7
15th in the Conference
Blog: Full preview available at Frozen Royalty


Even with the loss of skilled winger Michael Cammalleri, who was traded to the Calgary Flames in June, the Kings have skill up front and should not have a problem scoring goals, especially if they can resolve their contract stand-off with restricted free agent left wing Patrick O’Sullivan, who remains out of the Kings training camp pending a contract agreement.

One of the players in training camp who no one can miss is the 6-7, 248-pound Brian Boyle, who has also been turning some heads, and not just because of his size. He has soft hands and better-than-average skating ability for a player of his size and could easily find himself centering the third line.

Last season, Boyle was another young prospect who got a look with the big club and he made the most of it, scoring four goals with an assist in eight games.  To be sure, Boyle did not look out of place in a Kings jersey during his brief stint at the NHL level. 

Despite being victimized time and time again by horrid defensive coverage in front, goaltending was once again a major weakness, as Jason LaBarbera faltered far too often, sometimes because of the nagging effects of injuries, but just as often, just by playing poorly.

The Pacific Division is still the toughest division in the league. As such, the Kings are going to have major trouble getting out of the Western Conference basement. However, they will improve over their 29th place finish in the league standings last season—how much is the question. Needless to say, they will not make the playoffs.

Kings fans would do well to keep in mind that the team is still rebuilding, and it actually is the first time in franchise history that they have done so, despite claims to the contrary. It will take another year for the Kings to improve enough to qualify for the post-season and at least two or three more years before they could conceivably be a Stanley Cup contender. As such, winning is clearly not the priority this season.