As we did and went over the NHL’s Eastern Conference, we now get to the eternal gauntlet known as the Western Conference.
The West featured a division last year, the Central, with four teams at 100 pts, and the fifth team just one point shy of that mark. The West has also won the Stanley Cup seven out of the past ten seasons including the last four championships.
So there is a degree of separation between the conferences at the moment.
Needless to say and in perhaps no other sport, is it tougher to repeat than in the NHL. The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks again step up to the mantle, but they’ll have the trials of the West in front of them.
Let’s get to a burning question for them and every other predicted playoff team of my own;
1) Chicago Blackhawks, Last Year: Won Stanley Cup
- How does the team adjust to the youth movement and new acquisitions after the player departures from the summer?
Following the losses of key players from the 2015 Cup run like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and others, the Blackhawks have now partially gone the youth route.
That particularly stems from the Saad trade to Columbus where Chicago acquired Marko Dano, a stalwart wing in the mold of Saad that the Hawks need and a desired 2nd line center in Artemi Anisimov. Artemi Panarin, the top KHL prospect in the league, also joins the fold.
How these pieces fit along with some other top prospects that will eventually come up from the Hawks’ minor league affiliate will determine how far Chicago goes.
Expect a rough start given the new talent getting used to Chicago’s system. Otherwise, a championship core of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and others is still in place to help acclimate these young talented players in time, so it remains to be seen if Chicago should be worried.
2) Los Angeles Kings, Last Year: Missed Playoffs
- Do they coast in the regular season and save their energy for the postseason?
The other recent dominant team in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings, teetered too much on the playoffs borderline last year and ultimately missed out on defending their 2014 Cup.
The whole squad is back now, and has attained that extra rest (from simply not playing an extra two months of hockey). Players like centers Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter as well as perennial Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty lead a deep and talented bunch that also just added the volatile but equally talented wing Milan Lucic.
The Kings are angry and motivated (cliches). If the Kings are going to come back for a prize they think they deserve, there’s no way they can coast in the regular season for a long stretch again.
3) Anaheim Ducks, Last Year: Lost Western Conference Final
- Can they get over the hump of postseason’s past?
Ah the Ducks. The perennial chokers of the recent NHL.
A team that has lost Game 7 at home in its own building the last three years. It seems like the Ducks are on the cusp every year with a high regular season point total and deep forward crop and yet they just seem to find a way to meltdown when it matters most.
Captain Ryan Getzlaf and his line mate Corey Perry are the veteran superstars here and they are the ones that have lead the charge for better or worse.
If the Ducks are to finally climb the mountain again it will have to come through the positive leadership of these two emanating and setting an example with the rest of the group.
The pieces are there, its just a matter of Anaheim not wilting when the lights really come on in the deep stages of the playoffs.
4) St Louis Blues, Last Year: Lost in 1st round
- Do they unravel under lame duck head coach, Ken Hitchcock?
The Blues, otherwise known as the perennial regular season champion of the NHL and a team that has bowed out in the first round of the playoffs the last three years.
Well instead of chaining things up they essentially brought back head coach Ken Hitchcock on a one year prove it deal. A team that could have used a little change in leadership basically brought back the same equation.
The Blues still have one of the deeper teams in the league featuring superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko along with guys like Alex Pietrangelo but for them it’s not about being paper champions.
Its about a mental block where they simply lose something come playoff time. Do they even let Hitchcock get them together for a great cause come Spring?
5) Calgary Flames, Last Year: Lost in 2nd Round
- Can Calgary make the “leap”?
A young rising team, Calgary surprised a lot of people last year in making a postseason run into the 2nd round. Led by young guns like Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames showed some glimpses of the future.
Now comes the return of Captain Mark Giordano to stabilize the defense along with the addition of legit #1 defenseman, Dougie Hamilton. Calgary might now have something to work with here.
A roster that features Giordano, Gaudreau, Hamilton and even someone like Mikael Backlund is not something to not write home about.
The Flames are dangerous and they are on the rise. It’s just a matter of which step on the ladder this young core is on now.
6) Minnesota Wild, Last Year: Lost in 2nd Round
- Can they make it through the Central gauntlet and beat Chicago? Where are the puck moving defenseman?
Minnesota has one of the better rosters in the league. In fact a team that features Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and company is more than equipped for an excellent season. Especially now with a stable goaltender in net (somewhat stable) in Devan Dubnyk.
The only questions that come with this group are whether they have the necessary skill scoring punch and whether they have a deep enough defense to overcome their Spring woes against Chicago.
Outside of Parise and Jason Pominville, the Wild have guys that get more greasy goals than people that can create by themselves. In the playoffs you need that skill and grit. Guys like Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek (“great” signing!) aren’t gonna cut it when you do a face a team with both elements as they ran into Chicago’s buzz saw for the 3rd straight year.
It also remains to be seen if they have enough defensively. Ryan Suter is a nice piece, but he can’t be the guy that anchors your offensive and defensive point if he’s the one that has to take the top assignment night after night.
You saw the wear and tear on the guy in last year’s playoffs for example.
Matthew Dumba on that second pair is gonna have to make a hell of a jump if they have any shot of actually contending for a Cup because the teams above them all have these elements in spades.
The Wild are a nice decent team, but, that might be it. For now.
7) Nashville Predators, Last Year: Lost 1st Round
- Can the young guns make their own “Leap”?
Nashville has probably the deepest defensive corps in the league with Captain Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Cody Franson, and the rising future superstar Seth Jones.
They have one of the best goaltenders in the league with Pekka Rinne who finished as a finalist for the Vezina trophy last year. They also have one of the league’s more explosive young forwards in Filip Forsberg who seems like he’s on his own way to superstardom.
However there are pieces missing if Nashville truly wants to be seen as a contender.
If Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher are your still your two top centers, you have issues.
Your 3rd and 4th lines that feature Paul Gaustaud, Gabriel Bourque, Cody Hodgson, also don’t exactly light things up. The forward crop has significant issues depth and scoring wise and it might not be enough in an increasingly tough West.
What is predicated on the success of Nashville this season is whether guys like Jones or Forsberg become truly elite faster than normal.
Because beyond that, they might be poised to take a step back.
8) San Jose Sharks, Last Year: Missed Playoffs
- How does head coach Peter Doboer round up the bunch?
A rare postseason miss for the Sharks in Joe Thornton era happened last year.
Depth and chemistry issues were all abound. As I have now noted multiple times, the Western conference slate didn’t exactly help either although the Pacific is much less stingy than the Central.
If San Jose is to make any noise this year, guys like Captain Joe Pavelski, Thornton, and defenseman Brent Burns as well as others will have to galvanize the group in their own sense. This team doesn’t have the deepest defense or forward group.
But they have talent that just needs to come together. The talent is nothing truly special in the means of the others in the West, but it is enough to make a push should someone like head coach Peter Doboer be successful leadership wise.
Final Predicted West Finish:
Western Conference Final: Blackhawks over Kings
The two teams who have alternated and combined to win the last four Stanley Cups, seemed set to meet in the Western Final last year before LA ultimately bowed out.
This year, we’ll get the rematch between the Blackhawks and Kings, as both teams have effectively reloaded or in the Kings case rested. The class of the league resides in LA and Chicago and after the 2014 epic West Final, we’ll get more than an effective encore.
The Hawks are on their own mission and while they redeemed themselves for the Kings loss with a Stanley Cup, they didn’t beat the Kings along the playoff road to do it. This time they avenge that loss and more to go on to look to do something they haven’t cemented yet in the Toews-Kane era,
Robert Zeglinski is an aspiring sportswriter who absolutely loves all the nitty gritty that comes with pro sports. He is currently attending Aurora University in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigZags82 or reach him through email (email@example.com) for questions or feedback.
(Sources: blackhawkup.c0m, kings.nhl.com, ducks.nhl.com, blues.nhl.com, wild.nhl.com, predators.nhl.com, sharks.nhl.com)