Monday, August 31, 2009

Balance of Power

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

The Wild Wild West continues to shake, long after July 1st, as the Canucks added three defensemen last week: Schneider by free agency and Lukowich and Ehrhoff in a courteous Sharks salary dump.

Daniel, half of last year's western playoff seeds have experienced some cosmetic surgery this summer, including our Ducks. Looking at the rosters now, which of the West's elite eight do you think will miss the cut or, alternatively, jump to the top of their division this year?

Any talk about the final standings for next year have to begin and end with the Presidents' Trophy winning San Jose Sharks. On paper, the team isn't very different, and that's why I think they'll still win the division. Since the arrival of Scott Niedermayer, all Ducks teams have been built for the post-season, not the regular season. Anaheim will make a jump out of the 8th seed and take up residence somewhere in the 4-5 range. Dallas may have gotten Morrow back, but he won't be enough to turn the ship around now that Turco is dissolving between the pipes. Still, the Stars are unpredictable, and stumbles by St. Louis and Columbus this year will have them in the playoffs as a 6-8 seed. Finally, I think this is the year the Kings join their California brethren in the playoffs. Scuderi and Smyth might be the veteran leadership the franchise needs to get the young stars going. The Pacific might send four teams to the playoffs this year.

The Northwest will still yield only two teams this year, but Calgary takes home the division crown. Luongo's a great netminder, no doubt about it, but Calgary's defense is going to dominate this year. They don't have the scoring depth to make it all the way to the top, but I could see them as a solid 2 seed. Vancouver will be fighting it out with Anaheim, and the loser of the Chicago/Detroit battle for positioning in the 4-6 slots. The Canucks may have gotten stronger on D, but nothing about this team convinces me they have what it takes to get it done in the trenches.

Now for the wildest division in the West: the Central. No one knows how the loss of so many players will affect Detroit. They might not miss a beat, as their fans hope, or the new talent might have trouble performing over a long 82 game season. Either way, Chicago's kids are a year older and still the most talented core in the west, maybe the league. Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa, just doesn't seem fair, really. I know Hossa will be out for the first month or two; if the Red Wings can get off to a ridiculous start and put enough space between themselves and Chicago, maybe they hold on to the division. Otherwise, Chicago will usurp Detroit and battle San Jose for the top seed in the West. Columbus isn't deep enough up front or on the blue line, and as a result, Steve Mason will experience a sophomore slump that takes Columbus out of the top 8. St. Louis still has the potential to be a playoff team. Adding Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya for the long haul will be great. I'm just not sold on Chris Mason or the blue line corps in front of him. If St. Louis struggles, they'll be getting golfing tips from the Kings, who will take their spot in the playoffs.

I agree that this is Chicago's year to make a run, but I think they'll take it all the way to the Presidents' Trophy. They added some role players and kept, literally, everyone not named Khabibulin or Havlat. The Hossa upgrade may not arrive until winter, but when you factor in the number of contract-year players the 'Hawks will put on the ice, they can easily fill that void and will probably end up the most win/loss-centric team in the NHL.

That isn't to say Detroit won't give them a run for their money, but the acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi is emblematic of a team that feels anemic after bleeding forwards all offseason. And I think San Jose will fall just enough with their slightly tweaked lineup for the Blackhawks to make up the 13-point difference that separated the teams last season.

On the other side of the coin, I don't think Columbus has done enough to keep their playoff spot. The upgrade from Peca to Pahlsson is a positive, but too many teams were chomping at the playoff bit last season to be held back, even by the likes of Sammy Pahlsson. I agree that St. Louis will find itself beating back surging teams in the Pacific, the Kings and a dangerously healthy Stars squad, but I think both teams will get the best of the Blues.

Finally, the Northwest seems like a mess. There are major changes in Minnesota and Edmonton that are just as likely to tank the teams as turn them around. And while, on paper, Vancouver's acquisitions of Schneider, Ehrhoff and Lukowich seem a desperate attempt to replace Ohlund, they're really a sign of how precious little the Canucks have to do to stay atop their division. Calgary will make a push, but some key contract-year players will make the difference for Vancouver.

There are definitely more moves to come,-- someone out here has to take Heatley --but I'd expect to see no more than two new playoff faces out West.


Joe said...

Pretty much agreed on all points, except that I think Vancouver is more dangerous than anyone gives them credit for. Honestly, last year, I was afraid they'd knock off Chicago and meet the Wings in the West final. Maybe its just bad experiences against CGY and ANA, but big money goalies scare me, and Luongo certainly qualifies. Not only that, but VAN has the personnel I think to play that sort of physical "step off the boards and I'll kill you" defensive style that the Ducks, Oilers, and Flames all used to beat the Wings earlier this decade. When you add that up with a goalie like Lou, you've always got a chance.

Anaheim Calling said...

I think Ohlund is a serious loss. If they can't move Demitra for a good young forward, then they still can't get past Chicago. They certainly can't slow Chicago down.