With the start of the 2010-11 NHL season now little more than a week away I figured it was time to pull out my crystal ball and try and predict which Western Conference teams will be Stanley Cup contenders this year, and which teams are going to be dusting off the old golf clubs come early April. Last year the Phoenix Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche were predicted to be cellar dwellers but surprised hockey experts around the league by making the playoffs. With parity the name of the game in the NHL these days, there is little doubt that similar surprises will occur in the 2010-11 season. Here are my 2010-11 regular season power rankings for the NHL’s Western Conference:
15 – Minnesota Wild
This is a franchise that just seems to be heading in the wrong direction. It is a new era in Minnesota following last season’s departure of superstar Marian Gaborik and coach Jacques Lemaire, and this team has a long way to go before they will again contend for a playoff spot. Martin Havlat was brought in to try and take the place of Gaborik, but was largely unimpressive in his first season with the club. Both Mikko Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse had career years last year, and will be hard-pressed to match their offensive totals from the previous campaign. With an anemic offense goaltender Niklas Backstrom will have to have a Vezina-caliber season for the Wild to even have a shot at the playoffs. Personally I think even that goal is pretty ambitious and it will likely be a few seasons before the Wild contend again for a playoff spot.
14 – Columbus Blue Jackets
Another team with offensive challenges the Columbus Blue Jackets have been treading water ever since joining the league at the beginning of the new century. Rick Nash will of course be the go-to guy for the club, but beyond him the team doesn’t really boast any offensive stars. Sure, Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette will all do their part, but their contributions won’t be enough to push this team into playoff contention. If Steve Mason can recapture the form he had in his rookie campaign then perhaps the team could move up the list a few spots, but young goalies are notoriously inconsistent, so that scenario is hard to bank on at this point.
13 – Nashville Predators
Though the Predators were a playoff team last year, and actually gave the Chicago Blackhawks a tough go in round one there is little reason for optimism in Nashville going into the 2010-11 season. Rock steady defenseman Dan Hamhuis has found greener pastures with the Vancouver Canucks, and captain Jason Arnott has returned to his old stomping grounds in New Jersey. Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne will be keys to the team’s success, but they can only do so much on a roster that boasts several other good, but no other great players.
12 – Edmonton Oilers
Looking around at 2010-11 regular season predictions from hockey bloggers I’ve found the Edmonton Oilers on the bottom of most power rankings. It seems that the consensus opinion is that the Oilers fans will be forced to endure a second straight dreadful season. In my opinion the team actually underachieved last year, and their 30th place finish was not indicative of their potential. The addition of young stars like #1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi should make the team a dangerous offensive opponent, and the return of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin should shore up the team at the all-important goaltending position. I still don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, but they should climb a few spots in the Western Conference standings this year.
11 – Dallas Stars
Another team in transition the Dallas Stars will have a much different look this year. Team mainstays Marty Turco and Mike Modano have moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings respectively. However, the emergence of players like Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and James Neal give Stars fans reasons for optimism, and veterans like Brad Richards and Brenden Morrow should help fill the leadership void left by the departure of Modano and Turco. Ultimately it is goaltending that is the biggest question mark in Dallas this year. If Kari Lehtonen can elevate his game with his new club then this team can make a run at a playoff spot.
10 – Anaheim Ducks
Though the Ducks boast stars such as Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and the ageless Teemu Selanne up front it is their blueline that has them ranked 10th on this list, sitting outside the playoff picture looking in. The retirement of Scott Niedermayer has left a gaping hole on the back end, and Jonas Hiller is still struggling to prove himself a bona fide number one. That being said the Ducks are still a tough team to play against and should they manage to squeak into the playoffs they have the experience and capability to play the spoiler role against the powerhouse teams of the Western Conference.
9 – St. Louis Blues
Of all the teams in the Western Conference the Blues were the hardest to place for me. In my opinion this squad could finish anywhere from 6th – 13th place without surprising anyone. They are a team that scores by committee and though they have young players with plenty of potential they are one of the few teams in the league that doesn’t boast a single star. The biggest key to the Blues season, as is the case with many of the teams in these power rankings, will be the play off newly acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak. If Halak can perform at or near the level he showed during last spring’s playoff run with the Montreal Canadiens then the Blues should be a shoe-in to make the playoffs.
8 – Colorado Avalanche
Last season the Avalanche exceeded expectations by a wide margin, but I don’t see them getting more than marginally better this season, and it is very possible they could experience a precipitous drop should goaltender Craig Anderson not be able to duplicate his incredible performance of a year ago. With plenty of young firepower in the form of Stastny, Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller and Matt Duchene the team shouldn’t hurt for goals. The departure of defensive stalwart Brett Clark does leave a void on the back end, however. All in all this team should hover right around the bubble all season, and if they do make the playoffs it is unlikely they will depart quickly without more than a whisper.
7 – Phoenix Coyotes
Another surprise from last season the Phoenix Coyotes have earned every ounce of respect they are being given this season. Most are predicting the Coyotes to comfortably make the post-season. Another team like St. Louis that likes to spread the offense around the Coyotes are short on superstars. What they don’t lack though is a strong work ethic. Coach Dave Tippett was masterful at getting the most out of his players last season, and providing his players haven’t tuned him out there is no reason to doubt that this hard-working bunch can make it into the playoffs for the second straight year.
6 – Los Angeles Kings
If you are looking for a reason why the Los Angeles Kings will make the playoffs this year then you need look no further than franchise defenseman Drew Doughty. Doughty established himself as a superstar last season, and should only get better as the years pass. In addition to this likely Norris Trophy candidate the Kings also boast a strong core of forwards that includes Slovenian star Anze Kopitar, hitting and goal-scoring machine Dustin Brown and the indomitable Ryan Smyth. In net Jonathan Quick will likely continue to live up to his name, and should he stumble Jonathan Bernier is waiting in the wings, ready to assume the number one job. The Kings should easily nab a playoff spot, and could conceivably pull off a first round upset in the 2011 playoffs.
5 – Calgary Flames
Some might feel I’ve ranked this club a little high, but Brent Sutter is just too good a coach to imagine a lower finish. Of course a coach can only do so much – the players have to perform on the ice. However, with captain Jarome Iginla – arguably the greatest leader in the game today – and former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff in between the pipes on-ice performance shouldn’t be an issue. Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s second year with the Flames should be far better than his first and the return of former Flames Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay should provide the Flames with enough scoring punch to win those tight one goal games they always find themselves in. No, they won’t challenge the Canucks for the Northwest Division title this year, but they will be a tough team to play against, and should make the playoffs with plenty of points to spare.
4 – Detroit Red Wings
Though the Red Wings aren’t as mighty as they were just two short years ago, they are still a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. Both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg should produce higher offensive numbers than they did last season, particularly in light of the fact that it looks like they will be playing together this year. The addition of Mike Modano and the return of Jiri Hudler should add even more scoring punch to a team that never seems to have trouble scoring goals as it is. On the blueline Nicklas Lidstrom will again be the lynch pin, and though he is getting long in the tooth will likely again challenge for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. With great coaching and solid team defense sophomore goalie Jimmy Howard should have a lot of easy nights between the pipes and the Wings should finish in the top half of the West.
3 – San Jose Sharks
A perennial regular season powerhouse the Sharks should once again find themselves challenging for the top spot in the Western Conference. Boasting stars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Joe Pavelski the club should have no problem scoring goals. Over the past few seasons they’ve been masterful at limiting the number of shots on goal their opponents get and that trait should help ease the sting of losing long-time number one netminder Evgeni Nabokov to the KHL.
2 – Chicago Blackhawks
Many hockey experts are predicting a precipitous drop in the standings for the defending Stanley Cup champions, following the dismantling of the roster in the off-season due to salary cap issues. However, though they’ve lost guys like Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg this roster is still as powerful as any in the league. It is hard to cast doubt on a team that boasts the like of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa in its line-up. If goaltender Marty Turco can recapture his form of a few years ago then the Hawks should have little problem overcoming the loss of Byfuglien and crew and should contend for the Western Conference title.
1 – Vancouver Canucks
Looking at the Canucks roster going into this season it is hard to predict anything but first in the Western Conference for them in 2010-11. Led by Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel, goaltender Roberto Luongo and a strong supporting cast that includes Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows, Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, the Canucks are strong at every position. For long-suffering Canucks fans who’ve been waiting four decades for glory might finally get to see their team go all the way this year.