2011-2012 NHL Season Preview and Predictions Western Conference

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2011-2012 NHL Season Preview and Predicitons – Western Conference ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic

Here’s part two of the NHL preview for the Ultimate Capper. Below the Western Conference predictions are playoff predictions for teams reaching the second round, conference finals, Stanley Cup, and predicted winner. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Capitals fan. You’ll see the need for that at the end of the column.

Western Conference
1. San Jose Sharks (48-25-9=105)
1st, Pacific Division – 12/1
Trading Dany Heatley will remove some of the issues from this team regarding their failure to score in big games, but they’ll still have to replace his regular season scoring. That said, a second year with Annti Niemi should give this group the confidence that playing defense will win games. On paper, this is still the most talented group in the conference, so I’m taking them to get back to the top of the West this season. Time is running out on this group for the postseason, though, so if it doesn’t happen this year, it may never happen with this core group for the Sharks. This team is very reminiscent of the Flyers of the late 90’s, who reached one Cup final but couldn’t seem to overcome the likes of the Devils, Senators, and Lightning to get back there after 1997. The Sharks haven’t even gotten to that point yet, but maybe – just maybe – this is the year.

2. Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9=117)
1st, Northwest Division – 7/1
The longest offseason for any team and fanbase was in the Pacific Northwest, where Vancouver fans lamented what could – or should – have been against Boston in the finals. Roberto Luongo appeared better than he had ever been in the postseason, but still came up small in the biggest game of his NHL career to that point, a theme that is becoming all too familiar for Canucks brass. With the Sedin twins beginning to reach the latter part of their prime (still with a couple peak years left, but likely unable to duplicate past success from here on out), this is also a win-now team. Guys like Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows will need to assume more of the scoring load, but the big question is still what will happen when the postseason rolls around. This is clearly the best team in the division, and the Canucks will almost surely have home ice in the first two rounds, but after nearly blowing the Chicago series and getting outplayed by Tim Thomas for the Stanley Cup, the question still lingers as to whether Luongo – and by proxy the entire team assembled around him – will be at his best when his best is needed.

3. Nashville Predators (44-27-11=99)
1st, Central Division – 30/1
Yes, you’re reading this right – I’m picking someone besides the Detroit Red Wings to win the NHL Central Division. I watched this team play Anaheim and Vancouver in last year’s postseason and really believe they are the next “elite” team in the West. Shea Weber is the NHL’s version of Darrelle Revis – if Weber is assigned to stop you from scoring, then that’s exactly what will happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Plus, when their arena is full and loud, it might very well be the best home ice advantage in the entire NHL, and that includes historically great hockey cities like Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Philly, and New York. Out of all of the expansion teams that were born in the 1990’s, Nashville was the one that made me scratch my head the most. But with Atlanta having already moved and Florida likely to be on the market soon, it’s incredible the job that the Predators have done in embracing the community, who in turn have embraced the Predators. Get ready, hockey fans – the playoffs have suddenly become the expected norm in the Music City.

4. Detroit Red Wings (47-25-10=104)
2nd, Central Division – 12/1
Even though I think Nashville will win the division, there’s no way a team with Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Tomas Holmstrom will fall too far in the ranks. This is still a very dangerous team that, like Vancouver, needs a bit more consistent goaltending to really reach the ultimate prize. If Manny Legace can deliver like Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood, and Dominik Hasek before him, then Detroit could easily leapfrog every team ahead of them on this list be the odds-on Cup favorite. The fact that I’m picking them fourth, though, clearly shows what I think of Legace’s chances of pulling that off.

5. Anaheim Ducks (47-30-5=99)
2nd, Pacific Division – 25/1
Speaking of windows closing on teams, how many more years will Anaheim be able to retool and reload before the veterans simply aren’t there to be found anymore? Yes, the young talent of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry is undeniable, but what’s around them is aging quickly, so this young group is facing pressure to win this season. If they could somehow either catch San Jose for the division title or flip with Detroit for first round home-ice, I’d feel much better as a Ducks fan of the chances for a first round win. As it is, the four teams above are right now deeper and more talented, which means Anaheim could be in for a short playoff stay even with all of that young ability up front.

6. Los Angeles Kings (46-30-6=98)
3rd, Pacific Division – 14/1
Vegas loves the Kings, I still think they’re a year away. They showed in their playoff series against San Jose that the talent is there, but they absolutely no-showed game four of that series after blowing that huge lead in game three, which good teams simply don’t do in huge, must-win playoff games. They’ll learn from that series, and I think this is a second-round playoff team this year, but they’re not yet at the caliber of the Sharks or Canucks.

7. Chicago Blackhawks (44-29-9=97)
3rd, Central Division – 12/1
Like most teams in the current NHL, keeping a championship (or near-championship) team almost entirely in tact is virtually impossible. Still, trading a Cup-winning goaltender in the offseason immediately following the Cup win usually isn’t a recipe for success. The Blackhawks rebounded from a dreadful start to put together a super second-half and rally for the eight seed last year, and with a full year from Patrick squared (Sharp and Kane) and captain Jonathan Toews, they should be back to a version more like their championship team of 09-10. But this is a tremendously deep conference with about 12 teams fighting for six playoff spots (the Sharks and Canucks are just better, the Oilers are just worse) it wouldn’t surprise me if Chicago wound up in the bottom half of the dozen, watching playoff hockey from home instead of rinkside.

8. Calgary Flames (41-29-12=94)
2nd, Northwest Division – 40/1
This pick basically boils down to not being able to see Jermoe Iginla miss two straight postseasons. The Flames had plenty of ability last season, but couldn’t quite pull out enough wins down the stretch to reach the postseason, finishing ninth. They have plenty of veteran support in guys like Brendan Morrison, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Scott Hannan, all with playoff experience and years under their belt in the league. Like every team, though, the Flames will only go as far as Miikka Kiprusof will take them in net. I believe the 34-year-old Fin has at least one more “great” year left in him, and that might be what it takes to separate Calgary from the rest of the bunch. What I do know for sure, though, is that no team in the league wants to face this team in a best-of-7 playoff series if Kiprusof and Iginla are at their best.

9. Minnesota Wild (39-35-8=86)
3rd, Northwest Division – 75/1
Dany Heatley will need to have an immediate impact on this team if Minnesota wants to emerge as a playoff contender, and I think he’ll do just that. Heatley is quickly running out of places to go, having exhausted Atlanta, Ottawa, and San Jose with his enigmatic personality, issues away from the rink, and on-again, off-again scoring touch. If he has, in fact, committed himself to returning to the elite level he reach with the Senators, then the collection of players around him will certainly be good enough to contend all the way until April. Minnesota is one of the three best hockey states in the country, right at the top with Massachusetts and Michigan, and they deserve a winner at the NHL level. Like most of the teams between 3 and 13, though, the difference between success and failure is so slim, and I don’t think the Wild are quite as talented as the teams above them, thus why I see them missing the playoffs this year.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets (34-35-13=81)
4th, Central Division– 75/1
Acquiring Jeff Carter was a huge move for this team, who will finally have a legitimate center to play alongside Rick Nash. With that first line and a young depth on the blueline that the Jackets have been producing, this team is ready to make the leap, save for one important piece – goaltending. If Columbus had even a somewhat legitimate netmider in the likes of Jaroslav Halak (Blues), Jonas Hiller (Ducks), or even a been-there-before guy like Evgeni Nabokov (Islanders), I would put this team somewhere in line for a postseason berth. Instead they’ll go with Steve Mason as the starter again this season, and he’ll really have to come up big for the Blue Jackets to earn their second-ever playoff spot.

11. Phoenix Coyotes (43-26-13=99)
4th, Pacific Division – 40/1
The Coyotes surprised me the last two years, but with the trade of Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia, I think this the year Phoenix finally regresses a bit. They’ve learned from their playoff trips against Detroit, and with a leader like Shane Doan, there’s every reason to think this team will simply find a way to finish with one of the top eight point totals in the West. But I just don’t see if in the desert this season. Too many other teams around them got better, and quite frankly the Coyotes got worse, so I can’t justify picking them ahead of Columbus or Minnesota, let alone Chicago, Los Angeles, or Calgary.

12. Dallas Stars (42-29-11=95)
5th, Pacific Division – 40/1
With Mike Modano’s retirement now official, the Stars have lost virtually all of the connections to the Stanley Cup winners of 1999 (note to Stars fans: Jason Arnott, he of the game-winner in game 6 of the 2000 Cup for the Devils, is still playing in St. Louis). The problem now for the Stars is gaining traction in a suddenly competitive sports market. When the Stars arrived, the Rangers were about to begin a decade-long playoff drought, the Cowboys were fading from their three Super Bowls in four years, and Mark Cuban was still a couple years away from buying the Mavericks. In the late 90’s, the Stars were the “it” team in the market. While the Cowboys will always be relevant, the Stars are now looking at the defending AL champs who have a shot to repeat, as well as the defending NBA champs. Plus all of the college reshuffling as given Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, and even SMU a ton of media coverage. I’m not saying the Stars aren’t good or that they won’t draw well, but in an extremely difficult sports landscape in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, they will have to work extra-hard to avoid becoming an afterthought for Texas sports fans. Finishing last in the division won’t be of any help in that process.

13. Colorado Avalanche (30-44-8=68)
4th, Northwest Division – 75/1
Like the Devils in the East, it’s kind of hard writing a preview where Colorado has a preseason ranking in double digits in the conference. But the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg are gone, and the Avs have done as good of a job as any in restocking the talent pool for the rebuilding process. Jean-Sebastian Giguere is a stopgap until Semyon Varlamov, acquired from Washington, is ready to be the full-time goalie, and there are only two players on the current roster who will be 30 or older when the season begins. This team will grow up together, and as they do, they’ll rise up this list, too. Look for them back in the single digits in the next two years, and if they can keep the core together for the next decade, they’ll be back hoisting Cups soon enough.

14. St. Louis Blues (38-33-11=87)
5th, Central Division – 35/1
For years before the lockout, the Blues were a lock for the postseason, and this is a town that loves to support winners. The downtown arena is wonderful, and the fans really are yearning for a playoff team. Unfortunately, this team isn’t there yet. They play in a very difficult division, which only got tougher with the Blue Jackets’ improvement. And instead of continuing the youth movement and letting the “kids” gain some experience, the Blues instead brought in the likes of Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Jonathan Cheechoo. Veteran leadership for a young team on the verge of playoff success is one thing, but veterans for the sake of veterans never made sense to me. I don’t like the moves, and think the Blues will ultimately pay for it with a somewhat lost year of very little success.

15. Edmonton Oilers (25-45-12=62)
5th, Northwest Division – 50/1
Number one overall picks are great, but none of the Oilers’ top selections in the past two years have the kind of star power of Crosby or Ovechkin, so it will take a bit longer to truly see the impact. Think Bobby Ryan in Anaheim. They do have 16 players on their 30-man roster that are 25 or younger, though, so this will be a team in two or three years that will certainly see the fruits of their failures of the past couple of years. And with veterans like Ryan Smyth, Bem Eager, and Nikolai Khabibulin, they won’t be a complete pushover either.

Playoff Predictions
East
First Round – Montreal, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York
Second Round – Tampa Bay, Buffalo
Finals – Washington, Philadelphia
Winner – Washington

West
First Round – Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Calgary
Second Round – Vancouver, Anaheim
Finals – San Jose, Nashville
Winner – San Jose

Stanley Cup
Washington Capitals vs. San Jose Sharks
I picked the matchup last year, and I’ll do it again this year. They’re the two most talented teams in the league, the best in each of their respective conferences, and the pressure is on both teams to win this season. The only problem is picking a winner. With everything just about equal, I’ll go head over heart and take the better goalie.
2012 Stanley Cup Champion – San Jose Sharks

 

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