Yesterday, we made our Eastern Conference predictions and today we move into more familiar territory with our picks in the Western Conference picks.
I will clear the air right now and clearly state that my ranking of the Predators is not a homer selection. After watching the team all through camp, there is clearly something special about this year's team that hasn't been there in past years and they will surprise plenty of people this year.
So here we go...
1. Vancouver - I don't expect Vancouver to be quite as strong as last season. Washington will pass them in the race for the President's Trophy. The Canucks should be able to amass at least 110 points, primarily due to the weakness in the Northwest Division where I see no other playoff teams. The team could get out of the gates slowly with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond being sidelined at the start of the season. However, the team is deep and solid in all areas so there is no reason that they will not finish at the top of the West.
2. Los Angeles - The Kings are solid at both ends of the ice and have a great tandem in net and will be in a tight race with the Sharks and Ducks all season long. After disappointments the last couple of seasons, Mike Richards and Simone Gagne should add enough punch to push the Kings toward the top of the heap.
3. Nashville - The Central Division will be a bloodbath this year with four teams strong enough to make the playoffs. The Predators will put goaltending and defense first but are ready to provide more offensive punch with all the key players being a year more experienced. Colin Wilson appears set for a breakout season. Eleven players are playing for contracts and there is a great mix of youthful experience and Barry Trotz led team play that will push the Preds to the top of the heap in the division.
4. San Jose - The Sharks had a major shake up with the acquisitions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlet to strengthen their brood of top players. They will miss the edginess of Scotty Nichol, Ben Eager, and Jamal Mayers. The Sharks had a near perfect preseason even with Antti Niemi recovering from a surgery at the start of camp. The team will continue to be strong and could push the Kings for the top spot in the Pacific.
5. Chicago - The teams ranked 5-7 are all excellent squads and are basically interchangeable in those slots. The nod goes to the Blackhawks who have retooled with a little bit of the grit that they lost in the post Stanley Cup purge. They have all the pieces in place on both ends of the ice and the addition of Ray Emery as the backup should help spell Corey Crawford in net.
6. Detroit - The Wings are perennial contenders for the best in the West and this year should be no different. They will miss the experience of Brian Rafalski and Kris Draper in what could be the swansong season for Nicklas Lidstrom. That being said, there could be added motivation for Pavel Datsyul and Henrik Zetterberg to gab one last Cup before there is a shift to younger players over the next couple of years.
7. Anaheim - The Ducks may be the best team that I have ever picked for a seventh seed in a conference. The team that had 99 points in last year's race returns virtually intact. They have the top line in the NHL and may have the best second line too. If Jonas Hiller is indeed at full strength, they could make a run for the top of the Pacific Division.
8. St. Louis - The Blues have been building a young team for the last couple of years and only got stronger when they picked up Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk from the Avs at the deadline last year. Jaroslav Halak will have to play 65-70 games as they cannot depend on Brian Elliott in goal. They will be a fun team to watch and are the best of the rest in the West.
9. Calgary - To me honest, my 9-15 picks could really shuffle into any order depending on injuries and how teams may come together. The Flames had plenty of movement in the offseason and none of it really appears to have made much of a difference. The team could compete for a playoff spot in a weak division. It is a real shame that Jerome Iginla gets older every year and still doesn't have a shot at the Cup. I guess there's hope for him at the trade deadline.
10. Phoenix - The Coyotes will continue to battle on and off the ice as their situation in the desert remains unresolved going into the start of the third season under NHL control. Dave Tippett and Don Maloney have worked miracles but do not have enough firepower or goaltending to coax the team into another playoff appearance.
11. Dallas - The Stars went to the last game of the year fighting for a playoff berth but without Brad Richards they will not be an improved team. Kari Lehtonen has never made it two seasons in a row without an injury so this would be his year to check out for a while. The team has no solid reason to expect a run at the playoffs.
12. Minnesota - Mike Yeo will have his work cut out for him on a team that was mediocre last year and all the movement of the offseason appears to be more subtraction than addition. Nicklas Backstrom will have the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to keep the Wild in close, low-scoring affairs.
13. Columbus - The Blue Jackets made a big splash in the offseaon with the additions of Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski and an aging Vinny Prospal. They did little to address the issue of Steve Mason who has become a career underachiever in net since his Calder Trophy rookie year. It will be the same song, different verse for the doormat of the strong Central Division.
14. Edmonton - The Oilers will be better and they should be. With repeated years of top draft picks, the youth should catch fire at some point. This could be the year, especially if they can get decent goal-tending for a change and Ryan Smythe can ignite some magic among the youngsters.
15. Colorado - Avalanche fans can expect to be entertained more this season with the acquisition of Shane O'Brien and the drafting of Gabriel Landeskog who appears to be hanging with the team during preseason camp. The team is banking on a sometimes fragile Semyon Varlamov in goal with the aging J.S. Giguere as the backup. I would love to see the Avs do better but their season ending tailspin last year really soured me on the team. I predict Joe Sacco could be the first coach fired.
Tomorrow, I will finish the preseason outlook with playoff predictions and a look at the major awards,
Buddy Oakes for PredsOntheGlass