Where were we? Oh yes! I was in the process of eliminating all surprise and mystery from the 2011-2012 NHL season. In my last post about the Wales Conference, as per Kelly Buchberger in the 1991-1992 season, I was experiencing zone. Completely knocking it out of the park with some bold predictions and zesty sports reportage.
Today, we do the Campbell Conference.
Hold on to your butts. Again.
The Campbell Conference
It has been a good decade since a team could limp into the Western Conference playoffs with a sub-.500 record and put a legitimate scare into the top dogs. In other words, the competition is stiff from the number 10 slot upwards. All of them are good teams with a solid chance to squeak in the backdoor of the playoffs and take a Cup favourite to 7 games in the first round or even knock them out. It’ll be a cockfight again this year. So everybody keep your heads on a swivel.
The Division winners:
1. (Northwest) Vancouver Canucks
2. (Pacific) San Jose Sharks
3. (Central) Detroit Red Wings
– I have picked these 3 teams the last 3 years to win the division banners. I have been wrong once (Chicago in ’10).
– I really, really, really (pretend I said really 100 times) don’t want the Canucks to waltz away with the Northwest again but they will. They’ll overcome a super bad October (mark my words!) to sit comfortably in 1st by January. I figure both Colorado and Minnesota will take a run at them. Maybe even Calgary early on too! But Vancouver, once they are healthy, is the deepest and most talented team in the conference.
– I think the Sharks are better this year than last. The acquisitions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat gives them something they didn’t have before: a legit No. 2 puck moving d-man behind Dan Boyle and a proven playoff scorer. Gone are Dany Heatley (meh) and Devin Setoguchi (ouch), and though the later hurts more than the former, they actually filled holes rather than created any. With Boyle, Burns, Murray, Vlasic, and Demers on the blue, Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Clowe, and Havlat up front, and Niemi in net: they are nipping at the Canucks’ heels. Too bad they have the Kings, Ducks, and Coyotes in their division or they would run away with the Conference.
– The Red Wings are icing the same team they have for the last 22 years. Veterans all over the place who know how to win hockey games. Studs at every position (forward, defense, and goalie) and some interesting prospects who have developed well in Grand Rapids (look out for the kid Brendan Smith on D). Why would anyone think they are gonna take a step back this year? Well, they’ll finish third because they are in the toughest division. All of Columbus, Nashville, Chicago, and St. Louis are contenders. Playing those teams will chip away at their final point total but not enough to change the outcome.
4. Los Angeles Kings
5. Chicago Blackhawks
6. Anaheim Ducks
– Oh boy, those Kings are gonna be good. Real Good. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll down the middle. Drew Doughty (unless he gets offer sheeted by the Oilers!), Jack Johnson, Matt Greene, and Willie Mitchell on the backend. Johnathan Quick and Johnathan Bernier in net. Wowie Wow Wow. If there weren’t so many veterans on the Sharks I would say the Kings would win the division. Many people are picking the Kings to pass the Sharks this year but they still lack a bonafide playmaker (their Art Ross guy) to complement their forwards. If division re-alignment happens next year and the Kings are in the same division as the Oilers it’s gonna be like the old Smythe Division battles of the late ’80s and early ’90s in no time.
– I have officially jumped on the Chicago Blackhawks bandwagon. Well, not necessarily. Maybe just the Johnathan Toews bandwagon. With the exception of Sidney Crosby, he is the best centerman in the entire NHL. Exhibit A: scoring the game-tying goal with less than 2 minutes to go in game 7 of the 1st round. And, oh yeah, he was killing a penalty and was on his knees when he zipped the puck past Luongo. I was sitting in a bar called The Coppertank in the heart of Kitsilano when he did that. It went silent. Except for me. I was jumping around yelling, “DID YOU JUST SEE THAT?!” I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that Toews’ determination is good example of why Chicago will be in the contender conversation for some time: the guy knows how to win. Plain and simple. Also, I like their goalie (Corey Crawford), Pat Kane is a wizard, and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are perhaps the best defensive duo in the league. Good luck to whoever gets them in the 1st round (LA!).
– Teemu Selanne is the best hockey player of my generation. Hands down. 80 points last season! At 40! Uh what? That’s impressive. He’s scored 637 career goals. Will probably end up with around 660 or 670 for his career. And about 40% of those he has scored against the Oilers. Jerk! Well, he’s back for another year. Corey Perry might be the best left winger in the league. Ryan Getzlaf might be one of the best power fowards. Bobby Ryan has got a sick set of mitts. Lubomir Visnovsky had an enormously under appreciated season. Cam Fowler is a good one. The only question mark is in net. If Jonas Hiller isn’t healthy they are in trouble. Makes a guy wonder why they let Ray Emery take off so easily. Hmmm. Still, they are the chased not the chasers in the West.
The Playoff Challengers
7. St. Louis Blues
8. Nashville Predators
9. Colorado Avalanche
10. Columbus Blue Jackets
– Let’s take a look at the Blues for a second. They were one of the NHL’s best teams in the first half last year. They started 9-1-2 and kept rolling from there until injuries got in the way. They lost David Perron, TJ Oshie, Roman Polak, and Andy MacDonald for long stretches at a time. Traded Brady Boyes, Eric Brewer, Jay McClement, and Eric Johnson. And Jaroslav Halak had a decent year considering the circumstances. Then, they acquired Chris Stewart and their goals for jumped from 2.68 to 3.31. Stewart scored 15 goals in 26 games as the Blues made a bit of a late season push for a playoff spot. Alex Pietrangelo is for real. The guy they got in the Johnson deal – Kevin Shattenkirk – is the most offensive defenseman for his age group of the last 4 years. Their new captain, David Backes, lead the team in goals, and their fans are some of the best in the league. The Blues are back. If they can stay healthy.
– I thought the Nashville Predators were going to give the Canucks more of a go in the 2nd round of the playoffs last spring. I was warning Canucks fans all over town that the Preds were going to give them fits. And if they did beat them that they were going to take a lot of rips of the flesh on the way. Well, I was wrong. Sort of. Nashville did prove to be a tough out. They were gritty, resilient, and played over their weaknesses rather than gave into them. And Pekka Rinne went nuclear. On the other hand, their depth was exposed with injuries. Sergei Kostitsyn went AWOL, and Shea Weber’s footspeed was exposed by the Canucks frenetic forecheck. The losses of Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan, and Marcel Goc to free agency are huge. Normally I would pick this team to fall out of contention but Barry Trotz has a defensive system that works. And they have Pekka Rinne. What do you think it would take to get free-agent-to-be Ryan Suter out of there? A 3-asset trade (Omark, Marincin, 1st overall)? Or 6 years at 50 million? Make it happen Katz.
– The Colorado Avalanche are coming. Expect good years from the following Avs: Peter Stastny, Milan Hejduk, Matt Duchene (!), Gabriel Landeskog (!), Peter Mueller, Ryan O’Reilly, Brandon Yip, David Jones, Eric Johnson (!), Jan Hejda, Kyle Quincey, and Semyon Varlamov (!). Joe Sacco is a solid coach too. If there is anybody who could sneak past Nashville it’s Colorado. Expect them to come out of the gates flying again. There might even be Norris murmurs about Johnson. No joke. Word on the street is that the kid is stronger, faster, and more determined this year to prove St. Louis wrong for trading him. I think Duchene is going to be a key member of the Canadian Olympic team in 2014 a la Brendan Morrow. And that Gabriel Landeskog was the most NHL ready prospect from last year’s draft (oh man do I covet Duchene and Landeskog for the Oil). The trade for Varlamov though pricy (a 1st and 2nd rounder) might prove to be the best move when the team in front of him decides to take a night off. Colorado is indeed coming.
– I’m not too sure what to expect from the Blue Jackets but I think they have too much talent up front to waste away in the conference basement. Finally, Rick Nash has a center in Jeff Carter. And a good one to boot. They will score a tonne. That Ryan Johansen kid will push at Landeskog for the best freshman in the West and James Wisniewski was a good signing. However, Steve Mason is still Steve Mason and their blueline is razor thin. They are a bubble team. A hot team could jump past them (Calgary or Edmonton!) but likely will have enough offense to linger around the playoff talk until March.
11. Minnesota Wild
12. Phoenix Coyotes
13. Edmonton Oilers (!)
14. Calgary Flames
– Is it just me or does Minnesota never change? They are essentially the exact same club as last year. Perhaps with less depth on the blueline than a year ago. It’s as if Cliff Fletcher thought his bunch was good enough last year. They weren’t. Watch them hover in the bottom of the contender pile until February and then slowly lose ground until March when they are officially slotted outside of the good ones and the bad ones. It’s purgatory. Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to get in the lottery. Tough break for a hockey loving state.
– If the Coyotes are lucky they will trap and claw their way to 12th place finish in the conference. If they are unlucky (i.e. injuries to Shane Doan, Keith Yandle (!), or Rusty Klesla) and they will finish in last place. They need a goalie. They need one bad. Or they might as well start looking for housing in Southern Ontario/Quebec/Seattle. You know what? They should start looking anyway. I mean, they are going to be the most boring hockey team in the conference this year. By a long ways.
– This is the year where Jay Feaster gets to eat his words. Not that eating his words would be tough assignment, it looks as though the man hasn’t said no to food in awhile; rather, this is the year the Oil jump the Flames. And here’s why:
1. The Oilers have improved in almost every department: penalty kill, power play, even strength, toughness, swagger, offensive talent, minor league depth, at center, and in the bottom 6 forwards. Our goaltending is suspect though. Devan Dubnyk will be the starter and who knows what kind-of numbers he’ll bring for a full season. If it’s anything like his .916 save percentage and 2.71 goals against (tops amongst rookie goalies!) he should be respectable. Also, Lowetide thinks Yann Danis will eventually step in as the backup when Khabibulin gets hurt. That will improve the overall pucks-in-the-net number over last year.
2. The defense remains weak. Real weak. I had mentioned to some friends an incentive ladened contract for Bryan McCabe may have helped but this blue line is unbalanced and over-matched. Ryan Whitney is out indefinitely, trust me. I bet we don’t see him until the Grey Cup. I think management is taking their time with Jeff Petry and will go with potential-waiver-claim-victim Taylor Chorney and AHL veteran Corey Potter for opening night instead. Ladislav Smid is getting better but can’t play the right-side. And though Tom Gilbert is the best all-round defenseman on the team, he is not a number 1 guy. The Oil will not challenge for a playoff or contend for the division until their defense catches up with their offense. But OH! that offense.
3. Taylor Hall will score 40 goals this year if he stays healthy. Sam Gagner will score 60 points this year if he stays healthy. Jordan Eberle will be the captain of this team when they are good – MVP. Ryan Smyth is back – thank Buchie! Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has got eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head and is NHL ready. Ales Hemsky is our best pound-for-pound NHLer if he stays healthy (80 points!). Magnus Paajarvi cheats a little too much defensively to be considered and offensive threat right now but he is growing into a complete NHLer. Linus Omark makes things happen when he cares enough to do so. Shawn Horcoff will thrive in a reduced offensive role. Ben Eager is exactly what the Oil have been lacking in the agitator department for years. Eric Belanger is exactly what the Oil have been lacking in the faceoff department for years. Ryan Jones is not a 4th line winger. He is with this top 12. These guys will score 250 goals this year! For sure.
4. The AHL is bristling and bubbling with talent. Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander, Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick, Colton Teubert, Antti Tyrvainen, Lennart Petrell, Chris Vandevelde, and Marco Acrobello all have upwards arrows by their names. Ryan Martindale has impressed at camp but is still waiting for his contract. I’m confident he’ll get one. In Junior: Drew Czerwonka, David Musil, Brandon Davidson, Martin Marincin, and Travis Ewanyk are going to be contributors in the NHL some day. And Tyler Bunz is the goalie of the future. It has been awhile but the Oil are gathering steam in player development.
5. If the Oilers can stay healthy and if they kids continue to develop they might challenge briefly for a playoff. However, today is not their day. But, tomorrow is promised to them. Look out NHL!
– Which brings me to the Flames. Go to capgeek.com and look at all the no-movement clauses they have on the books. Oh man, that sucks. If you were too lazy to check the link there are 11. ELEVEN! Hey Feaster, good luck rebuilding this team when they start to tank around January and you can’t move 50% of your players. HA! But, for real, they’ll be bad because their defense is thin, their forwards are old, and their goalie is sliding faster than housing prices in the Southern Calgary Suburbs. Burn! Good luck Calgary. Enjoy the basement. We left the lights on for ya.
15. Dallas Stars
Question: What do the last 3 (including this year) last place finishers in the Campbell Conference have in common?
Answer: Sheldon Souray
Enjoy the year everybody. It’s gonna be good. Goilers!