For Part Two of our lowdown to the new NHL season, we’re going to travel west and scout the revamped Central and Pacific divisions. The former is led by the current Stanley Cup Champion, Jonathan Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks, who have kept their roster pretty much together a few months on. The Bulin Wall (Nikolai Khabibulin – one of the great nicknames) has replaced Ray Emery as Corey Crawford’s competition. The Hawks managed to keep hold of Bryan Bickell, who had an excellent postseason, and is there a scarier proposition than facing off against the duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane? Chicago should win their division and probably the conference once again.
St Louis are the team that seem the most capable of giving the champions a run for their money. The Blues have an unspectacular yet exceptionally deep and solid-looking roster, backed up by two goaltenders (Halak and Elliott) that have risen to join the league’s elite. Over in Minnesota, the Wild feel that they are getting closer to challenging the top teams in the West. The roster has more depth now and the younger players are improving, so a trip back to the spring dance is not out of the question for this upcoming season.
The other four sides all missed out on the playoffs in 2013. The Colorado Avalanche are stacked with young scorers, including the number one 2013 draft pick, Nathan MacKinnon. It might be a case of ‘we’ll score one more than you’ though, if the Avs want to get back into the playoffs, as their defence was poor last season.
The Winnipeg Jets, who have sensibly moved from the East, had a ding-dong battle with the Washington Capitals for the Southeast Division crown last year and the result was missing out on the postseason altogether. They seem to have most of the pieces in place: lots of scoring throughout the forward lines; some stud defencemen; a young, talented goaltender, and a loud and passionate fan base. If there was any division that you might make the playoffs from, it’d be the Southeast. So it might get even tougher for the Jets this season.
Next up, it’s the Dallas Stars, sporting their shiny new logo, jerseys and star centre Tyler Seguin (from Boston). Other moves they’ve made include the acquisitions of Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar and Rich Peverley. Finally, the Nashville Predators had a miserable 2013 after having some strong playoff-berth seasons recently. What they desperately need is more goals. Have they resolved that problem? Well, Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks were all snapped up and should find the twine a bit. Pekka Rinne also needs to play at his top level for the Preds to get back into the postseason.
We go even further west now to the Pacific Division, to all those teams whose home games you never get to watch because they start at about three in the morning GMT. Perhaps leading the way are the 2012 Stanley Cup champions and 2013 Western Conference finalists: the Los Angeles Kings. Backed up by the outstanding Jonathan Quick, the team from La-La Land’s roster features many of the same faces from those two recent playoff runs, meaning that they should repeat in the spring of 2014.
This could particularly be said seeing as their other divisional title rivals don’t appear to have improved. The Canadian side with the rioting fans, Vancouver, have decided to go with Roberto Luongo in between the pipes and send Cory Schneider off to New Jersey. There have been no significant other moves for the Canucks, who now find themselves in a tougher division (than the Northwest) and may struggle to get a playoff berth.
Their two big rivals also fall into this new Pacific Division. Edmonton are still gaining elite talent year on year and when all the pieces fit in place, they are going to be a major force. Their potential top line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle is scary but questions remain about defence and goaltending. Can Devan Dubnyk be the true number one goaltender for the Oilers? The other Alberta team, the Calgary Flames, are desperate to bring their fan base some much needed joy. They’ve failed to reach the playoffs for the last four seasons and were worryingly fourth in the Northwest Division in 2013. Gone is veteran workhorse Miikka Kiprusoff in net, in comes Karri Ramo who has been playing in the KHL (Europe’s top league). The Flames still really don’t look like challenging for anything other than last place in the division at the moment.
Out in the desert of Arizona, the Phoenix Coyotes have been slowly making a name for themselves with playoff runs. But last season, progress was halted, as Dave Tippett’s men failed to earn a postseason berth. Goaltending and defence seems to be sorted, with Mike Smith now signed up to a long-term contract, and the signing of silky centre Mike Ribeiro will provide an offensive boost.
The final two Pacific sides are both based in California with Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks and perennial playoff bottlers San Jose. The Ducks had a fine regular season in 2013 but came up short in Game 7 in the first round against the Red Wings. They have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league with Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, and elite offensive talent so will be a good bet to repeat their 2013 success and maybe make a lengthier run towards the Cup. Finally, we have the San Jose Sharks who have had a relatively lazy summer. They’ll have to hope that the old timers consisting of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski continue to rack up the points.
Voila, that’s all the Western Conference teams bidding to put their name on Lord Stanley’s famous trophy come May/June 2014. In the Central Division, the defending champions have to be strong favourites to sit in the number one position. St Louis will be up there too and then after that it’s a bit of a lottery. Dallas and Minnesota would be my picks though, as the most likely to make the playoffs.
It’s more difficult to pick a Pacific winner, with Anaheim, LA and Vancouver all in the mix. After their 2013 regular season form, the Ducks could do some damage again and lift the division crown. Look out for Edmonton to maybe get a wildcard or sneak into one of the top three spaces. Two original six teams play the opening game of the season on Tuesday. The puck will drop at the Bell Centre in Montreal at approximately midnight BST when the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs face off.