NHL Western Conference season preview

Zach Remelius, Courier Staff

 

CENTRAL DIVISION

No. 1 St. Louis Blues: The defending Stanley Cup Champions are set to make another run at a title after singing “Gloria” all summer long. Basically everyone returns (except for Patrick Maroon) and the team added Justin Faulk last week to add to the defense. Faulk will become the power play quarterback and that unit should improve after an embarrassing showing in the playoffs at point. Jordan Binnington will have to prove he is a legit number one goalie with the ever-shaky Jake Allen backing him up. Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk and Vince Dunn will lead a strong defense while the offense hopes young guys like Robert Thomas and Oskar Sundqvist can take those proverbial next steps.

No. 2 Dallas Stars: The team that came the closest to knocking off the champs should be even stronger this year. A streaky offense should be improved with the addition of Joe Pavelski and the young guns like Roope Hintz improving. The top three on defense of John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell is solid, but the bottom three need work. Ben Bishop is back to man the net and he is a Vezina candidate if he can remain healthy, which has been a problem in the past. The Stars are a contender in the west for the first time since 2016 but will need a couple breaks to break through.

No. 3 Nashville Predators: The forgotten team of the Central Division Nashville made a couple of big moves. They traded away P.K. Subban to the Devils and used the money to sign Matt Duchene to bolster the second line. The worst power play in the league will need work and Duchene will certainly help. Pekka Rinne is another year older and his time to win a cup is coming to a close. A strong defense led by Roman Josi will need to replace Subban’s production and the first candidate will be youngster Dante Fabbro. This is a big season for the Preds after last year’s disappointing first round exit.

No. 4 Colorado Avalanche: This team is young, fast and exciting and they are almost ready to break through. A nifty move trading away Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot brought in Nazem Kadri to help with the depth scoring after the big three on the top line. The Avs also brought in Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi to help on the wings. Samuel Girard and rookie Cale Makar will anchor the defense. Makar made quite an impact last year when he was called up for the playoffs and is in consideration for the Calder. This might not be the year the Avalanche are going to win the Cup, but they will be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.

No. 5 Chicago Blackhawks: We all know how awful the defense was last year, so Stan Bowman went out and made some changes by bringing in Olli Maata and Calvin De Haan. In a vacuum, those moves are fine, but they don’t improve things that much. The defense is full of a bunch of second and third pairing guys. The offense is loaded, but Jonathon Toews isn’t going to be a point-per-game guy again. He has only been that once before last season. Robin Lehner was a good acquisition, but it remains to be seen how he does in front of a leaky defense instead of a stout one like he had with the Islanders. The Hawks, however, should be a playoff team with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat leading the way.

No. 6 Winnipeg Jets: Seventeen months ago, this team was getting ready to play Vegas in the Western Conference Final. The Jets were set up to be a dominant team for years and be the next power in the NHL. Here we are getting ready for 2019 and no one is quite sure what this team is. After some hard negotiations, the Jets were able to bring back Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Laine has made some comments that make you question his commitment to the Jets. On defense, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers are gone and Dustin Byfuglien is currently on a leave of absence and no one is sure when he will be back, if at all. That’s a lot to lose and this team is in a transition period.

No. 7 Minnesota Wild: The biggest story about the Minnesota Wild that came out over the summer was a piece at The Athletic done by Michael Russo about the tenure of former general manager Paul Fenton, so it was an interesting offseason to say the least. Mats Zuccarello was added to make offense go and Kevin Fiala is a guy that should improve. The defense is largely fine with Matt Dumba leading the way and Devin Dubnyk isn’t a bad goalie. The problem is that this roster is devoid of big time difference makers and the division is so good that the Wild are in a tough spot.

PACIFIC DIVISION

No. 1 San Jose Sharks: For this iteration of the San Jose Sharks, this may be the final run. Brent Burns and Joe Thornton aren’t getting any younger and young guys like Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are getting ready to be in the prime of their careers. The defense led by Burns and Erik Karlsson is a good unit and the offense, despite losing Joe Pavelski, should be explosive. Martin Jones was terrible last year, if he comes back to being even average, the Sharks are in a spot to win a President’s Trophy and compete again for a title.

No. 2 Vegas Golden Knights: If Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy and can play 60 games, the Golden Knights are going to compete for a President’s Trophy. Their top six forwards are fantastic, led by Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty on the wings. If Alex Tuch can remain healthy and Cody Glass lives up to the hype surrounding him, their third line isn’t too shaky either. They did make some interesting decisions, like keeping Cody Eakin over Nikita Gusev, but this is still a contender. The defense is largely full of solid players but no superstars, so Fleury and back-up Malcolm Subban will have their work cut out for them. The Golden Knights are supremely talented up front and have a chance to make their second Stanley Cup Final in three years.

No. 3 Calgary Flames: An outstanding regular season was ruined by a five game first round loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Largely the same team comes back after that haunting loss and Calgary fans are once again excited. They were able to finally bring back Matthew Tkachuk after a long standoff, but he only signed a three year deal. Mark Giordano won the Norris last year but he is 35 years old and the odds of him being as fantastic as he was last year are low. The goaltending of David Rittich and Cam Talbot is interesting and has the potential to be either really solid or a disaster. The Flames will take a step back from last year, but Calgary again will be rocking the red for the playoffs.

No. 4 Arizona Coyotes: Arizona could not score last year. They almost made the playoffs by playing the trap and limiting opponents chances and hoping for a goal or two. The Coyotes realized that and traded for Phil Kessel. With Kessel, the offense should be better, as attention will be taken away from guys like Clayton Keller and he can have a rebound season. The defense is solid but unspectacular, except for Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Darcy Kemper came out of nowhere to be great for the Coyotes last year and if he can do it again, they can make a run at a top three division spot.

No. 5 Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks made a lot of moves in hopes of making a return to the playoffs. J.T. Miller and Michael Ferland were brought in to bring a physical presence and scoring touch to the wings, and Tyler Myers was brought in to help the back end. Elias Pettersson was a godsend for Canuck fans and he once again should be fantastic. Brock Boeser is healthy again and Vancouver has a lot of offensive capabilities. The defense is still led by Alexander Edler, but Quinn Hughes brings in a youthful punch and the hype around him is extreme. Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko are a solid goaltending duo and Demko in particular is very talented and poised to become the long term number one goalie.

No. 6 Anaheim Ducks: A promising start had Ducks fans hoping for another playoff run, but injuries destroyed this team and they were awful down the stretch. John Gibson did everything he could to keep the Ducks afloat, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. The era of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler no longer exists and the roster is now littered with youngsters. Sam Steel, Max Comtois and Troy Terry are among the go-young movement the Ducks are doing. Cam Fowler leads a shaky defense, but if everyone is healthy, that unit should be better than last year. If a team doesn’t quite know what to do, they should go young and fast, and that is what the Ducks are doing.

No. 7 Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid has been in Edmonton for four years now and this team has still failed to get him adequate NHL wingers. Leon Draisaitl scored 50 playing next to McDavid, but the Oilers would be in a better spot if Draisaitl was the second line center and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on the third line. James Neal is who the Oilers are putting their faith in this year and he was awful in Calgary. The goaltending situation is in shambles and the only way this team is competitive for the playoffs is if McDavid goes nuclear, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

No. 8 Los Angeles Kings: This team fell off a cliff last year and things aren’t looking too bright for this year. The job their GM has done since they realized they are no good has been admirable. They are loaded with talent in the AHL and should be good again in just a few years. The team has enough pieces like Anze Kopitar to make a potential run at a wild card spot. Father time caught up with Jonathan Quick last season and Jack Campbell came in and played really well as the goalie. The Kings could not score last year and it will again be a struggle for them this year.