NHL season preview

The West

Patrick Inman, Contributor

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As the 2017-18 season kicks off, all 31 teams gear up for the same goal…a chance to dance with lord Stanley.

Some intriguing stories from the Western Conference this year include everything from the brand new Vegas Golden Knights franchise, to the Blues trying to get past the Western Conference Finals for once.

Here are my predictions for how the Western Conference will fair this year.

Chicago Blackhawks: 3rd in Central, make playoffs

After this team made history by winning three Stanley Cups in six years, they are finally showing signs of slowing down. Even after an incredible regular season last year, the Blackhawks got swept by the 8th seeded Predators en route to their Stanley Cup finals appearance. During that four game sweep, Chicago only scored three goals. Yes, you read that correctly, THREE goals. In my eyes, Chicago could have a perfect regular season, and still not win a Cup after witnessing that. Chicago supposedly “shook things up” in the off season by dealing away an incredible young talent, Artemi Panarin to Columbus for Brandon Saad. Chicago also added Patrick Sharp back to their lineup from the Stars. To me, and most other educated fans around the league, this is Chicago’s GM making a desperate attempt to bring back the old chemistry during the hawk’s winning days. Chicago is without Hossa for the entire season, they lost Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes, and Crawford and Toews are still the most overrated players in the league. Chicago will probably have a decent regular season as they typically do, but expect an early playoff exit.

Colorado Avalanche: 7th in Central, miss playoffs 

How this team still exists is beyond me. Last season was one of the worst a professional team has ever had. There was only one bright spot, Matt Duchene. The 26-year-old forward is an absolute stud on both ends of the ice. There were major rumors floating around that he was going to be traded, but for some reason, Colorado’s stubborn GM refused to move him. This team does have talent through Landeskog, MacKinnon, Barrie, and of course Duchene. However, almost all of them have under performed from their expectations coming into the league because there is virtually no team around them. Colorado should ship off these talents to fully rebuild instead of trying to hang on, wasting the primes of their careers. Do not expect the Avalanche to do much, other than let goals through the crease.

Dallas Stars: 1st in Central, make playoffs 

Dallas has an overall well-balanced team this year after making some splash moves this off season. The Stars brought in reliable goaltender Ben Bishop to solidify the crease, a problem for many seasons. They also added Marc Methot, who played alongside Erik Karlsson for years, to secure the blue line. The biggest move after losing Patrick Sharp was bringing in one of the best wingers in the game, Alexander Radulov with a five-year contract. Dallas also hired defensive genius Ken Hitchcock, who was the formulaic mind behind St. Louis’s recent incredible defensive core. With all of these additions, the Stars now have a great Goalie, a formidable blue line, and perhaps one of the best offenses in the league that boasts at least three 30 plus goal scorers in the forms of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and now Radulov. Even if the Stars have a mediocre defense this year, with solid goal tending, expect them to make a deep run due to their high-powered scoring ability.

Minnesota Wild: 6th in Central, miss playoffs 

The Wild shocked the hockey world with an incredible run in the latter half of the 2016-17 season…only to disappoint the ‘hockey state’ with a 1st round loss at the hand of St. Louis. A few positives heading into this season include the young stars Granlund, Coyle, and Zucker only improving. The Wild can always count on solid, reliable goal tending from Dubynk , and Suter heads an impressive defensive core. Despite their recent success, star forwards Zach Parise is out with shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the first 11 weeks of the season. Without Parise, and no depth after the 2nd line, Minnesota will need to rely too much on Dubynk for their success. As history tells us, too much reliance on a goaltender leads to disappointing seasons. Expect the Wild to fall just short of a playoff berth.

Nashville Predators: 2nd in Central, make playoffs 

This team took the hockey world by storm last year by sweeping Chicago, leaving them to only THREE goals the entire series, as an improbable 8th seed. Nashville proceeded to cruise to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost to the Penguins in an entertaining series that no one could have been predicted. This year, Nashville has an incredible shot to go on another deep playoff run. Sniper James Neal did depart to Vegas, but Nashville signed Nick Bonino, a clutch, capable center to replace him. This team’s top two parings on defense are better than any other team in the league. If Pekka Rinne provides consistent goal tending, if the defense stays healthy, and if Bonino, Johanson, and the younger forwards can produce, expect the Predators to make noise in the playoffs…maybe even a Stanley Cup Finals rematch with Pittsburgh.

St. Louis Blues: 5th in Central, make playoffs

St. Louis is almost always a safe bet to make the playoffs in recent history after several great regular seasons. However, despite regular season success, the Blues have an extensive history of losing early in the playoffs. In order for the Blues to make progress this year, they need to get past their playoff woes. Newcomer Brayden Schenn is expected to pick up offensive slack that has been far too apparent in recent seasons. Last year, Jake Allen emerged as a proven number one goaltender, and is expected to continue his winning ways this season. The blue line, headed by all-star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, is experienced and consistently in the top five every year. The Blues have the arsenal to make a deep playoff run, but their division is incredibly strong this year, which leads me to believe their regular season play this year will force them to play a tough opponent, and continue the history of being ‘upset.’

Winnipeg Jets: 4th in central, make playoffs 

Similarly to Toronto, Winnipeg boasts an incredibly talented, young core. 2nd Overall pick last year Patrik Laine scored 36 goals last year, and 21-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers notched 25. The Jets have three very deep lines with scoring capability, if they can put it all together. The defense is led by the heaviest man in hockey, Dustin Byfuglien who is an incredible two-way player in almost all aspects. Jacob Trouba, who is still under the age of 25, compliments Dustin on his other side. Goal tending leaves something to be desired, with Conner Hellebuck not solidified as a number one goalie yet. Newcomer Steve Mason is expected to split time with him, in order to relieve the goal tending issue (if you call that relief). Expect the Jets to make a step in the right direction, and have one of the top defenses in the league to lead them to a possible playoff run. The goal tending will more than likely be their downfall come playoff time.

Anaheim Ducks: 1st in Pacific, make playoffs

For several seasons now, myself, along with many other hockey fans, are baffled that this team has not made the Cup since their run in 2007. A decade later, the Ducks have consistently been in the top five teams during the regular season in terms of points…but have only had four disappointing losses in the Western Conference Finals to show for it. Similarly to the Blues, Anaheim is almost guaranteed to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference, but need to get past their horrific history of playoff disappointment.  This year, captain Ryan Getzlaf and company hope to prove doubters wrong as their team remains largely unchanged from last season. Injuries have plagued this team in the past, but if the Ducks can remain relatively healthy, and John Gibson continues to prove he is a franchise goal tender, then expect the Ducks to use their experience as an advantage come playoff time for a deep run.

Arizona Coyotes: 6th in Pacific, miss playoffs

Arizona was one of the most productive teams this off season. Two familiar faces parted ways with Arizona as longtime Captain Shane Doan and coach Dave Tippet left. New additions include Goal tender Antti Raanta, Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, and speedy forward Derek Stephan. Although Arizona has been in the basement for the majority of the last decade (excluding the one odd year they made the conference finals), and these new additions, along with the young core hope to take a step in the right direction. I expect Arizona to do just that, however the team is a few years away from being a contender. Only time will tell if the young core will develop as advertised.

Calgary Flames: 3rd in Pacific, make playoffs

After a poor performance in the first round last year against Anaheim, Calgary added some key pieces to enhance one of the most well-balanced teams in the league. Both Eddie Lack and Mike Smith were acquired to solidify what the Flames have been missing for year, reliable goal tending. The blue line was bolstered as well through the acquisition of Travis Hamonic, who is a shutdown defenseman. Now that the Flames have goal tending, along with their stellar defense, expect them to have a great regular season and make the playoffs.

Edmonton Oilers: 2nd in Pacific, make playoffs

Since the great one led the Oilers to four cups in the 80’s, there has been very little to cheer about in Edmonton. That is, until number one overall pick Connor McDavid was drafted by them two years ago. McDavid won the Hart trophy last year as the league’s best player…and he is only 20. The man has the same, if not more potential than Sidney Crosby. Besides McDavid, the Oilers have two stacked lines with Lucic, Hopkins, and Draisaitl being key players. The top two lines have incredible scoring capabilities, and are dangerous to match up with. Goal tender Cam Talbot has proven himself as a number one net minder now, and has a solid defense in front of him led by Adam Larsson. The only downfall I see with the Oilers is there lack of offensive depth in the 3rd and 4th lines, and inexperienced defensemen. If the top two lines produce like they should, expect the Oilers to make the playoffs. This team is still a few years away from a true contender.

Los Angeles Kings: 5th in Pacific, miss playoffs

Since the 2014 cup run, injuries have destroyed this contending team. Now that the majority of the roster is healthy, the Kings are a legitimate threat…but may get squeezed out of the playoffs by one or two games. The reason being is that the West is stacked this year in terms of skill, and although the Kings have the firepower to potentially gain a playoff berth, I believe they will ultimately fall short due to their recent history of season-ending injuries. Jonathan Quick is just starting to get back to form, Kopitar is falling off a bit, Brown is not the same, and the defense is riddled with holes. This is probably the hardest team in the west to predict due to their unpredictable play at times, but expect the Kings to wait at least another season for a shot at Lord Stanley.

San Jose Sharks: 4th in Pacific, miss playoffs 

After Patrick Marleau took his talents to Toronto, a strange realization came over many Sharks fans…their championship window has officially closed. San Jose had about eight years where they could have been a legit contender with the incredible core group of players they had. Now that Marleau is gone, Thornton is potentially retiring next year, Pavelski isn’t getting any younger, and Couture may possibly get traded come mid season, expect the Sharks to play at a mediocre level this year. After this season, San Jose will be in the basement.

Vancouver Canucks: 8th in Pacific, miss playoffs

The Sedin Brothers are nearing the end of their career, and they want a cup. However, Vancouver has failed to put the adequate pieces around them in order to build a championship team. As a result, this team remains in the basement. Apart from the transcendent talent the Sedin brothers possess, there is little to nothing for Canucks fans to cheer for. The defense is riddled with holes, there is no solid net minder, and the offense is non-existent. There’s not much to say here other than expect Vancouver to remain in the basement for years to come…so long Sedin Bros.

Vegas Golden Knights: 7th in Pacific, miss playoffs

Despite the hype surrounding a brand new expansion team, there should be very little to be excited about in their inaugural season. Expansion teams have a rich history of being awful for a solid decade before they gain a legitimate team and farming system through the minors, and Vegas should be no different. Vegas will need to rely heavily on Goal tender Marc-Andre-Fleury to perform like a Vezina-trophy winner if they want any success. Neal, Perron, and Marchessault pretty much embody the entire offense. The defense consists of inexperienced AHL players that have been trusted in starting roles due to the lack of depth on this roster. Expect Vegas to be the laughing stock of the league for quite some time…at least until their plethora of draft picks are selected.

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