After close examination it appears as if the competition for a Western playoff spot is getting even tighter if you can believe it, while the overall depth may drop off. Teams like Columbus, St. Louis and Edmonton are going to be more of a threat, Calgary should plateau, but other teams may take a step backward and widen the gap between competitors and the second tier. Ownership issues in Dallas have cost what was a very promising team to be a non-playoff foregone conclusion. Unless something drastic happens in Colorado they could, despite a ton of young talent, fall further in the rankings next year, and there's only one more spot for them to drop. Minnesota has got all the tools, and moe offensive depth than they get credit for, but somehow year after year they manage to thwart themselves...looking at the general landscape you want to hope they are a playoff contener, but they just aren't. I only see two teams from last year's top 8 dropping out: Phoenix, who have lost their cornerstone goalie, and Nashville, who have over-achieved too greatly to compete with the three rising powers in the West as well as the regulars. Who will take their places? Who will narrowly miss out? We start in order of last years playoff ranking:
9: DALLAS - The Big D has ownership issues. Hockey in this state has been a great success for the NHL and I hope the ship is righted soon. If they could've been organized to retain Richards than this is a playoff team. They made a bold move shipping out James Neal last year, a bonified scorer, but I feel they won the trade. Alex Goligoski, the prized former-Pens D-man is going to blossom with top-pairing minutes in Dallas, but not enough to propel the rest of the group in to the playoffs. Kari Lehtonen is sometimes great, more often adequate, and the cupboards are pretty well bare for prospects. They have some underrated skill and grit upfront, but will fall greatly to 14th this year and the future does not look friendly beyond that. Expansion teams that have slumped have had fan-base problems; I hope that, coupled with ownership issues isn't the stat of a downward spiral. GM and recent hall of fame inductee Joe Niewendyk will have his work cut out for him.
10: CALGARY: Calgary will be solid enough to compete for but not secure a playoff spot. Iggy had a great second half, and they've brought back the playmaking left winger Alex Tanguay. Mikael Backlund looks like he might just be a top six forward and Matt Stajan has got to be better than what he showed last year. Big rumors about Buowmester and they've shipped off Regher. Bourque and Moss need to perform to their max, and they probably will, and Glencross needs to improve on last year's breakout season. They won't be fun to play against, they may prove me wrong, but I just can't pencil them in to a playoff spot with the improvements other teams have made. They need a bonafide top centre (still) and I don't see it happening. They'll probably stay right in 10th next year, and years to come.
11: ST.LOUIS: St.Louis wouldn't be grouped with the rest of their non-playoff piers from last year if Perron and Oshie were healthy all year. I see the silver lining in their setback as they then were forced to make a bold move trading future Norris candidate Erik Johnson to Colorado for Christ Stewart (who will be the next great power forward...I mean GREAT) and svelt puck mover Kevin Shattenkirk. Johnson is a rare combination of size and skill, with more mean than most people realize -- he could be Pronger re-incarnate, but this was a great trade for St. Louis, who might be the deepest team up front in the league when healthy. They also have probably the deepest group of offensive prospects and their back-end is very solid. Jaro Halak should play more like the man who started last season on fire, especially behind this solid group. St. Louis is going to be a big mover and a perennial cup contender over the next decae. This year they'll definitely make the playoffs and will challenge Detroit and Chicago for the Central Division, and winning it. St. Louis will jump from 11th to 3rd next season.
12: MINNESOTA: I really want this team to make the playoffs. I like the way they're built, but they've been handicapped by some unlucky, perhaps ill-thought moves, specifically at the draft table. That said they've managed to acquire or retain some young prospects, and their pro-scouting have acquired the likes of Greg Zanon and Martin Havlat! But with their attempts to give Cam Barker his unconditional release, a deal that cost them Nick Leddy, it shows a real split-personality for their talent identification. I think Miko Koivu is among the five most underrated players in the league, and Cal Clutterbuck should continue to improve as a scorer, but not enough now or anytime soon to push Minny in to the ever tightening race. They'll slide one spot next year, but I've got a soft spot for 'em.
13: COLUMBUS: Blockbuster summer for CBJ. They've added Jeff Carter, a premier centre, to compliment talented wingers Nash, Husselius, MacKenzie, Calvert and the up and coming Johansen. They are strong down the middle, a little weak on D, especially in the puck-moving department, and Steve Mason needs to regain his Calder trophy form behind a much improved team, but it should be enough to get them in to 8th next year, even in what may prove to be the tighted division in the NHL.
14: COLORADO: Adding Erik Johnson to a strong group of young D propsects was a costly move, but one that may pay off if they can keep the already well travelled Johnson around long term. He's a franchise D-man waiting to happen, luckilly for Colorado St. Louis had one already in Alex Pietrangelo. They have weak goaltending, and a developing back-end. Upfront they're undeniably strong down the middle, the mark of great teams, and they have a few good wingers but it won't be enough to get them in to the playoffs this year. They will likely take a step back even to 15th. The long term forecast is bright with the newly drafted Gabriel Landeskog on the horizon. Hopefully their fan-base can remain through this tough transitional time. They must all be as confused as I am after this same group made a valiant playoff push two years ago only to fall flat last season -- the rebuild is on, the pieces are in place, they must find a goalie.
15: EDMONTON: I made a bold, albeit wrong, prediction before last season that this young group had enough scoring and goaltending to squeak in to the playoffs. It was a tough, injury filled year, but the Oil will take their sophomore group and make a wild run in to the playoffs. It will be up and down with their combination of inexperience and thin-D, but Nikolai Khabibulin will hold the fort and a healthy Oiler D should prove they are underrated. They just locked up Smid and added David Musil and Oskar Klefbom via draft as well as Colton Teubert in a swap with LA that sent power forward Dustin Penner closer to his new bride in Lotus Land. They have a huge crop of young talent, upfront and on the back end, but in the immediate future the skill level we saw exhibited last year, combined with the return of fan favorite Ryan Smyth and a little bit of luck in the health department and this team will challenge for 8th, however, I can see them just missing in a pack that includes CBJ, CGY, NSH, PHX to name a few. Edmonton to place 9th,but barely, and miss the playoffs for the last time in this decade.
So, baring huge RFA/UFA changes here's how the West shapes up:
2 SAN JOSE
3 ST. LOUIS
4 LOS ANGELES