The National Hockey League lockout is now over, and its time to play hockey. The Western Conference is always very competitive, and I expect nothing less this season. It may even be tighter than previous years because of the 48 game lockout shortened schedule. Here is a quick preview, and the predictions to how Inside Edge Hockey News sees this season unfolding in the Western Conference.
1 – St. Louis Blues – The Blues are primed for a great season. With the leadership behind the bench of Ken Hitchcock, and newcomer Vladimir Tarasenko the Blues are primed to explode. The strong core that features Backes, Oshie and Perron up front will be set to light the lamp. The strong defensive core of Norris candidate Alex Pietrangelo will hold up the back end, and the NHL’s top goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott will be the clincher for this teams success. I look for the Blues to roll to a division and conference championship.
2 – Vancouver Canucks – It’s time for the Canucks. They have had their changes and opportunities but failed to win the Stanley Cup. There time is drawing close to an end, as age is starting to become a factor. The main questions in Vancouver this season is will Corey Schneider have what it takes to be a number one goalie, and will the Canucks deal Roberto Luongo and his huge contract? Another solid year for a talented team.
3 – San Jose Sharks – This one is a little far out there, but I think the Sharks will find a way to win the very tough Pacific Division. The Sharks have a very deep front end, and defensively look very good also. The question mark is in net with Niemi. He definitely is capable of caring this team a long way in the playoffs, but is he consistent enough. Look for the Sharks to have another great season. Don’t look for the Sharks to get to many lofty predictions based off some previous let downs.
4 – Los Angeles Kings – There will not be a cup hangover for the Kings this season because of the long lockout. The question in Los Angeles is will they fall back to reality? This team barely snuck into the playoffs last season, and then went on a run. Will this team be able to carry this success over? I don’t see that happening. I question if Quick has the ability to carry this team two years in a row. That is a huge task. Look for the Kings to be a strong team, but fall short of winning their division.
5 – Chicago Blackhawks – This will be another very solid year for the Blackhawks. With their only question mark being Crawford in net the Hawks will be poised for a strong playoff run. Things may be a little bit easier going this season as much of the Western Conference talk has not been surrounding the Blackhawks.
6 – Phoenix Coyotes – The Coyotes continue to impress. I think this is a great team that is only getting better. Considering they are owned by the NHL, and are worried about money, Don Maloney has done wonders. I look for a little fall of this season because it is so difficult for a goalie to continue to play at the level Mike Smith did last year. Although they play in one of hockeys toughest divisions, the Coyotes will succeed and make the playoffs again.
7 – Nashville Predators – With the loss of Ryan Suter in the off-season the Predators will have their work cut out for themselves. The fact is Barry Trotz always finds a way to get this team to succeed. With Pekka Rinne in net, and a solid defense backed by Shea Weber I look for the Predators to go to the playoffs again this season.
8 – Detroit Red Wings – This will be a tough year for the Red Wings. The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom will definitely make things a little more difficult for the Red Wings. There is still a lot of talent on this team, but the biggest worry is the depth on defense. Things will be a little tougher for the Wings this year, but I believe they will sneak in to the playoffs.
9 – Edmonton Oilers – The young Oilers are poised for future success. The key word there is “future” success. It will be another year out of the playoffs, but not another year getting the first overall draft pick.
10 – Anaheim Ducks – I really do not know what Ducks team will show up this season. Will it be the talented Ducks team that should show up based on their players or will the underachieving Ducks of last year show up? I think the struggles will continue, and the Ducks will be on the outside looking in again this season.
11 – Minnesota Wild – Everyone has these guys contending for the cup because of the off-season acquisitions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It is going to take a lot more than these two stars to get this team in the playoffs. It will take one more year of team building and a coaching change before this team sees the post season.
12 – Calgary Flames – This team is on the down slide, and it continues this season. There is not a lot to be hopeful for in Calgary this season. It actually looks like a season where the highlights will come from player transactions rather than wins.
13 – Dallas Stars – The struggles will continue in Dallas this season. The off-season acquisition of Jaromir Jagr will help add depth to the offense, but the fact that their most potent offensive player is still not signed in Jamie Benn. This won’t make the start of this season very easy. Look for the Stars to struggle all year.
14 – Columbus Blue Jackets – The start of a new era in Columbus begins this season. It’s life without Rick Nash. It may be a blessing for the Blue Jackets five years from now, but this teams struggles will continue this season.
15 – Colorado Avalanche – The rebuild in Colorado will continue this season with little success. It will take time for the Avalanche to mature into a solid team, and this season will not be an easy one.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
St. Louis Blues versus Chicago Blackhawks
STANLEY CUP FINALS
St. Louis Blues versus Tampa Bay Lightning
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION – St. Louis Blues