2015 NHL Season Preview – Western Conference
You have had a month to adjust to the fact that summer is over, winter is coming, so that should likely mean you’re in hockey mode. But maybe more than any other offseason in NHL history, things are drastically changing.
This was the summer of analytics. Now, good teams have been up on analytics for years now. I don’t really bring them up much because quite frankly good analytical players are usually guys I really like. But you were flat out a moron if you were running an organization and ignoring them (Dave Nonis, Steve Tambellini, I’m guessing Brian Burke since the former 2 learned under Burke). But now teams like the Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Islanders, they’re at least trying to catch up to what good teams are doing.
Also, Saturday nights have changed, hockey on TSN is no longer, and we live in a Rogers universe now. They have HUGE shoes to fill and Rogers doesn’t exactly have a good track record for putting the best product out there (see the Jays), but I have been impressed thus far with their hires, the returning to North America Paul Romanuk in particular. Let’s all hope they realize they can’t just own the Canadian rights, and that Canadian hockey fans deserve to see the best coverage they can deliver.
So this preview will start in the West, and the West is best. I know it rhymes, but it’s also a fact. Of the top 10 teams in this league, 7 or 8 are in the West, and 4 are in the top 5. Like it just isn’t even close. People want to mock the Oilers rebuild, well they would be a playoff team in the East. It is ridiculous to win in the West. And it makes for unreal drama during the regular season and the first 3 rounds of the playoffs.
I have very little doubt the Ducks win this division in the regular season. Kesler is a great add (total d-bag, but a great add) as he finally addresses that 2nd line center spot that the Ducks have lacked since Getzlaf emerged as a 1st line center. But I still don’t like this teams blueline come playoff time, and I really don’t like their coach come playoff time. I really believe what happens, same as Marty Shottenheimer in the NFL, is that he gets his teams to overachieve. So it isn’t really that he is terrible come playoff time, it’s just that his teams shortcomings get exposed.
I don’t know if I liked their offseason. Sometimes when you’re the champs, you fall too much in love with your guys. So while I really love Matt Greene, it seemed like an overpayment for a guy who is maybe your 6th D-man. And 7 years for Marian Gaborik? The cap hit isn’t too bad, but you can get guys like Gaborik every year at the deadline. And most of the years it is actually Gaborik who you can get! Having said this, they have an elite number 1 center in Kopitar, an elite number 1 D-man in Doughty, and an elite number 1 netminder in Quick. I say they’re going back to the conference finals at least because the other powers in this division can’t win come playoff time.
Well this is the biggest question mark of the year. Will they be a sh*t show, or will they overcome a very rocky offseason to be a regular season power yet again? Beyond the fact that the organization very clearly wants to move on from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, is the fact that those 2 are going to start declining. Is Logan Couture a 1st line center? I honestly don’t think he is. Great 2nd line center, not a front line guy though. Joe Pavelski is a jack of all trades top 6 guy, but he’s not a front line player. Even without the mess off the ice, this team might fall back simply because they’re due to do so. Having said that, I still think there is enough here to get in the playoffs.
I love most of what they did this offseason. Miller being brought in I’m not real high on, but I understand the move. But while some garbage still remains, they got rid of the majority of the trash. I won’t name names, but you know who I’m talking about. So now they have a good guy in overseeing the franchise (Linden), good guy in as GM (Benning) and a good guy in as head coach (Desjardins). The conerstones of this team will fit Desjardins system a lot better than they did Torts system. The blueline is real solid, but not spectacular. They really need Alex Edler to get his career back on track, it would be a tremendous help as he is a guy who has all the tools to be a top pairing guy. Hasn’t been the same since the Kings humiliated him in the 2012 playoffs. I like this team to fight with Colorado right until the last week of the season for the final playoff spot in the West.
I’ll be called a homer here for not picking them 6th or 7th in the division, but I actually think they’ll hang around the playoff picture this season. They’ve addressed a lot of the things I’ve been harping on them to do for a long time now. Got Gagner out, he was a problem for this team as they continually tried to force him into the 2nd line C spot. Arcobello is better, but it’s still a glarring weakness and while Draisaitl should make the team he shouldn’t be rushed into that role. They got A LOT bigger this offseason. A lot of the kids reported to camp heavier, and all the acquisitions have a lot of size. So they shouldn’t get pushed around like they had been. And finally, though this was addressed last season, they have goaltenders who stop pucks not a guy who hopes the puck hits him. Don’t underestimate bringing in Craig Ramsay as an assistant who’ll run the D. He’s made a huge impact in all his stops as an assistant.
I feel like this crew right now is living off the fact that Dave Tippett is their head coach. It feels like nobody notices that they’ve missed the playoffs the last 2 seasons and it’s not working like it once did in the desert. Mike Smith seems a little too comfortable the last 2 seasons. They’re good 1-3 down the middle, but nothing close to a number 1 guy. They enter the season with even less skill on the wings then they’ve had. The blueline still looks good, but can a good blueline overcome all that is wrong with this squad? They won’t be a pushover by any means. They’ll still be a long, boring night for the opposition. But I don’t see this squad making much noise this season. And you know how I feel about Sam Gagner. I’ll push all my chips to the middle of the table on him not producing much of anything in his new situation this season. He is what he is, a tweener who doesn’t fit well anywhere in your lineup.
I loved how hard they played last year. Mark Giordano is pretty underrated outside of Southern Alberta and should have been on the Olympic team last season. But while this team is absolutely on the right track, you have to take a step back and realize that they played their ASSES OFF last season….and were only 27th overall. Monahan, Bennett, Gaudreau, Brodie, Wotherspoon, they have some talent in the system. But I just don’t think they can duplicate that effort they played with all of last season. Bob Hartley has worn on his players in both his stops in the league and so I’m not expecting anything different here. But again in saying this, they’re building something real good and have a better start to their rebuild than the Oilers did. They have a number 1 D-man to anchor the blueline, they have some solid vets in their prime up front, and they’ve got a couple of high end center’s in the draft. Things look up in Calgary, just not this season.
I liked them to win the President’s trophy last year, and they were in the hunt until late in the season. Then, the roof caved in which resulted in them getting Chicago in the 1st round rather than Minnesota and even when it was 2-0 Blues I felt like they weren’t going to get to the 2nd round. I like bringing in Paul Stastny. He’s not a legit 1st line center, but he’s a big upgrade for them and will allow David Backes to play a role he’s much better suited for. But I sure hope Hitch isn’t dumb enough to move Backes back to the wing. I know that has been discussed but I’m not sure if it was moronic media guys suggesting it or if the Blues had actually been talking about putting a Selke candidate on the wing in favor of 24 year old Finnish rookie Jori Lehtera. Maybe the best blueline in the league, the big question comes in net and they still haven’t done much to shore up their goaltending. Jake Allen will be the starter by seasons end, but a Cup contender entering the playoffs riding a rookie isn’t something that works very often.
I’m not going to be high on the Stars come playoff time. Barring a blockbuster trade that changes the look of this team I believe they’ve built a regular season power that will get hammered in the playoffs every year. Both Seguin and Spezza are perimeter players. In fact when he was drafted I said to anyone who would listen that Seguin reminded me of Spezza in that way. Both are front line centers, but neither are centers who can carry you in the playoffs. Jamie Benn is the only muscle they have up front, they have next to nothing on D, and Kari Lehtonen is good, but not great. So they won’t go far in the playoffs. BUT….they’ll do major damage in the regular season.
Kind of the same deal as last year. I don’t expect the Hawks to be too interested with the regular season. They’ve won 2 rings, they have dominated the regular season, they just know that for them they just have to get to the playoffs healthy. Once they’re in, they’ll do what they have to do. The biggest problem this team has is staying interested. It cost them against the Kings last year. They lost interest midway through game 2 of that series and it cost them their 3rd Cup in 5 years. But when they’re on, this is the best team in the league make no mistake about it, even better than the Kings. It’s just that the Kings are more consistent.
So they won a series last year, and they won a couple of games against the Hawks, and EVERYONE started talking about how they were emerging as a power in the West. NOOO they are not. They are what they are, which is a good team, not a great team. They can maybe get out of the 1st round, but won’t go deep. Tomas Vanek is a bit of an improvement, but they needed improvement on the back end. I don’t understand why you give 6.5 mil a season to a guy who doesn’t show up half the time, playing a position you don’t have a need for. Just because he wants to play in your city?! Well if he wants to play there so bad, offer him 4 mil per, not 6.5. Just stupid. They have a good system built up, but Chuck Fletcher is looking like a guy who come trade deadline is willing to burn through his depth. They’ll need a lot of kids to take major steps on that blueline this season if they want to be a contender in the West. It feels like they’re stuck in no man’s land as a franchise.
5. Colorado Avalanche (wildcard winner)
Is anyone NOT selling on this team’s success last season? I can’t believe they made the playoffs last season let alone finished 1st in the division, 3rd overall in the league. Even after that 13-1 start I was telling friends “they still won’t make the playoffs”. But the amazing run continued all year long. But that kind of goaltending and that kind of shooting percentage simply can’t last. They’ll fall back to the pack this season. But they still have good goaltending, still a great down the middle, and they play hard for Patrick Roy so while they’ll fall back I’m still going to say they sneak into the playoffs. Won’t be surprised if they don’t, but I believe they have enough to get in. Even if they don’t though, what always seems to be forgotten is that this is maybe the best young team in the league and their future is extremely bright.
First year ever the Preds will play hockey without Barry Trotz behind the bench. Peter Laviolette steps in this season and he won’t last the 15 seasons that Trotz did. Laviolette won’t even make it 5 years, because that’s not his M O. He is a guy who gets his teams to play up tempo and aggravating. They don’t play too technical of a system. It’ll be a breathe of fresh air for some of those Preds players I’m sure, but I don’t think they have the horses to do what Laviolette will want to do. Riberio and Roy were good bang for your buck UFA’s, but neither guy is close to a number 1 or number 2 center. Roy in particular has been eaten alive since moving to the Western conference. James Neal is a sniper and should fit well with Riberio, but I don’t believe he’s a big upgrade over what they had with Hornqvist. Shea Weber can only do so much and they really need Pekka Rinne to return to form which behind a more high scoring team I doubt he does. I really just don’t like the mix here.
It isn’t as though I believe the Jets suck. I actually like the way they’re built, especially up front. They’re heavy, can skate, and can put the puck in the net. But Kevin Cheveldayoff I think is just being too patient with some of these guys, Pavelec in particular. I’m shocked he’s back between the pipes for them this year. The guy has loads of talent but he’s just so inconsistent. They really are stuck in no man’s land. And who knows what’ll happen with Kane. I was once told that they have been shopping him for 2 years now, but can’t get fair value for him. At some point they’ll have to simply take what they can get because it’s a toxic situation. Fortunately for Jets fans they’ve drafted really well so one of these seasons they will start getting in the playoffs and be a tough out once there. But if you’re going to have a terrible season where you end up rearranging a few pieces to your puzzle, this is the year to do it.
Follow me on twitter @TJ_Soups