Minnesota Hockey Magazine

Western Conference Preview

MHM Associate Publisher Pete Waggoner breaks down the Central and Pacific divisions and looks at what’s in store in 2013-14.

A sports dynasty as defined is a team that dominates their sport or league for multiple seasons or years. The National Hockey League was known for its dynasty runs over the years from the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, and Edmonton Oilers.

That means championships and one has to reach back to the 1997 and 1998 seasons when the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. The last team to win three or more Stanley Cups in a row was the New York Islanders who captured four straight from 1980-1983. They accomplished that right after the Montreal Canadiens won four straight Cups from 1976-1979.

The 2013-14 season is underway and the Chicago Blackhawks are looking as though they have a legitimate shot at taking a run at a potential dynasty. While back-to-back titles may ‘technically’ qualify as a dynasty, this writer’s self imposed definition is three straight or more. Let’s get to the second in a row, and we can begin the discussion.

In the Western Conference that is comprised of the Central and Pacific Divisions, there are a number of teams that have retooled and will be a factor. Regardless, the Stanley Cup still runs through Chicago and all teams will be gearing toward that goal.

New rivalries and a new playoff format should yield a terrific 2013-14 season.

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks

2012-13 (36-7-5) 1st in Central

Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup

General Manager:Stan Bowman

Coach: Joel Quenneville

Outlook:The defending Stanley Cup champions, winners of two of the last four titles (2010 being the other), may become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. The new era of the salary cap has made the ‘dynasty’ a difficult thing to achieve for teams. Still, with limited losses to the core of their 2013 Stanley Cup team, the Blackhawks are the team this year’s Cup goes through.

They traded forwards David Bolland and Michael Frolik this past summer and lost Viktor Stalberg and goalie Ray Emery to free agency. Beyond that, the Hawks are offensively balanced and have a legitimate superstar in Patrick Kane who lit it up this past post season. The Hawks blue line has depth and skill with goalie Corey Craword back to anchor the crease.

Grizzled veteran Nikolai Khbibulin returns for his second stint in a Blackhawk uniform and will be a steady back up for Crawford. He is well suited for that role with the ability to take the reins and is more than capable to carry the club for stretches of the season. Emery was a sterling 17-1-0 with three shutouts last year and will be missed. He took his skills to the Philadelphia Flyers this summer.

Key Additions: Nikolai Khabibulin, Mike Kostka, Theo Peckham.

Key Departures: David Bolland, Daniel Carcillo, Ray Emery, Micheal Frolik, Viktor Stalberg.

Colorado Avalanche

2012-13 (16-25-7) 5th in the Northwest

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager: Greg Sherman

Coach: Patrick Roy

Outlook:

The Avalanche missed the playoffs for the third straight season which is the first time in more than two decades the franchise has experienced that level of drought. From year-to-year each of the past three seasons, things seemed to deteriorate more and more each season. The good news for the Avalanche and their fans is things may have bottomed out and the uptick for them is beginning.

With Matt Duchene and latecomer to the scene last year in Ryan O’Reilly, the Avalanche relied on PA Parenteau, their key free agent sighing the summer of 2012 to add to their offensive production. Parenteau did to the tune of (18g-25a-43pts) as he and Duchene led the team in points. Beyond them, there was little else to look to. Defensively, they struggled mightily both from their forwards and with a nondescript defensive corps which played into struggling goaltending.

Coach Joe Sacco was relieved of his duties this past offseason in favor of the mercurial Patrick Roy. An impressive coaching resume follows Roy to Denver with a Memorial Cup to his credit with the Quebec Ramparts. Franchise legend Joe Sakic took the position of vice-president of hockey operations which is code for he can be the general manager but not be on the hook for it.

Alex Tanguay is back for a third stint in Colorado as he was obtained via trade and Cory Sarich joins the club with a Stanley Cup ring to his credit from his days in Tampa Bay. Both will provide veteran leadership but the reality is their contributions will give way to a younger core of players that will need to develop over the next few years.

One such player is Nathan MacKinnon who was selected first overall from the Halifax Mooseheads and will be relied on out of the shoot to contribute with the Avalanche. With MacKinnon added to the mix of Duchene, Parenteau, O’Reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche will be well on their way back to the franchise they are known for.

Key Additions: Andre Benoit, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Cory Sarich, Alex Tanguay.

Key Departures: David Jones, Shane O’Brien, Aaron Palushaj, Greg Zanon.

Dallas Stars

2012-13 (22-22-4) 5th in the Pacific

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager: Jim Nill

Coach: Lindy Ruff

Outlook: A .500 team that finishes last in a division of five teams is nothing to be ashamed of. Convert a few ties or losses to wins and the Dallas Stars were a playoff team last year. Nonetheless, this franchise is not messing around and looking to get back to its 1999 Stanley Cup form as they have missed the playoffs for five straight seasons.

The purge of veteran talent began at the trade deadline last year as they moved Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Morrow and Derek Roy. They’ve also moved on from the likes of mainstay Loui Eriksson and the popular Eric Nystrom.

Joe Nieuwendyk was let go as the team’s general manager and Jim Nill, a key component to the Detroit Red Wings’ success was hired. He promptly added Lindy Ruff to be the team’s bench boss. While it will be odd watching Ruff coaching another team for the first time since 1997, he is the perfect fit for the Stars.

Still productive veterans Shawn Horcoff and Sergei Gonchar were added to the Stars through trades and then there was the jaw dropping deal that landed Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverely. They remain relevant as players and Horcoff give the Stars a Lindy Ruff type of well rounded center that fits well. Jamie Benn remains a mainstay and is young.

With a complete overhaul from the logo, to the front office, to the bench boss, and the roster, the Stars are a team that could surprise plenty and create some issues. The main question is, will they keep the puck out of the net.

Key Additions: Dan Ellis, Sergei Gonchar, Shawn Horcoff, Chris Mueller, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin.

Key Departures: Richard Bachman, Loui Ericksson, Matt Fraser, Philip Larsen, Eric Nystrom, Reilly Smith.

Minnesota Wild

2012-13 (26-19-3) 2nd in the Northwest

Playoffs: Lost to Chicago in Western Conference Quarterfinals

General Manager: Chuck Fletcher

Coach: Mike Yeo

Outlook: Depending on who one talks to, the Wild either met expectations or failed to meet them. If qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2008 was the criteria for meeting expectations, the Wild succeeded. Things were looking up for the Wild as they were in the driver seat; but then along came April. They had to win the final game of the season in Colorado to hold off the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot in the West.

They did take the Blackhawks to a pair of overtime games in the first round, winning one of them, but did not have the depth or playoff experience to overcome the eventual Stanley Cup winners.

When putting Minnesota side by side with the other teams in the Western Conference, they have as much depth as any club. They have sprinkled in the highly touted young talent that they have been lauded for and made some key moves this off season in signing Matt Cooke from the Pittsburgh Penguins, dealt for Nino Niederreiter from the New York Islanders, and added veteran blue liner Keith Ballard from the Vancouver Canucks.

Charlie Coyle has shown every bit of promise in the middle and more during the preseason. Currently, he anchors the second line and as a big body with Dany Heately, the Wild have two legitimate lines that will be difficult to keep off the board. The line of Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, and Torrey Mitchell is well rounded with a pair of players that can score goals in Cooke and Brodziak.

Defensively, Ryan Suter was arguably the best defenseman in the NHL this past season and he was joined by another player that arguably was the best rookie in Jonas “don’t call me Yo-nas, it’s JOE-nas” Brodin. Ballard and Jared Spurgeon offer an interesting mix of offensive skill and grit as do the likes of Clayton Stoner and rookie Matthew Dumba. Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella will also be in the mix this year.

Signing Backstrom may have well been the best free agent singing of the summer by Minnesota. Harding will back things up again and keeping the number of games down for Backstrom will be key as he appeared in 42 of 48 games last year.

Things will not be easy for the Wild this season as every team in the Central Division has found ways to get better. Minnesota has too, and it will be a battle to the end.

Key Additions: Keith Ballard, Jonathon Blum, Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter.

Key Departures:Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk.

Nashville Predators

2012-13 (16-23-9) 5th in the Central

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager: David Poile

Coach: Barry Trotz

Outlook: After a slow start last season, the Predators found a way to remain relevant in the playoff hunt in the mid section of the season only to see it fade to close out the campaign. The void on the blue line that Ryan Suter left as he signed with Minnesota never was filled last year and this year will be about filling that spot.

First round pick Seth Jones has the potential to be a main contributor out of the box for the Predators on the blue line this year. Roman Josi offers a potential solution on the blue line as well. He played with the Wild’s Nino Niederreiter in the World Championships this past spring.

With a roster that will not be top-end loaded with offensive flair, the Predators will be in the position to play ‘station to station’ hockey under the usual tight defensive discipline that coach Barry Trotz employs. They are loaded with two-way forwards in Mike Fisher, the newly acquired Viktor Stallberg, Patrick Hornqvist and Colin Wilson. Matt Cullen had a terrific year in Minnesota and certainly is on top of his game. He will add offensive help and leadership both on and off the ice. Blaine native Matt Hendricks has seen his share of quality ice time in Washington and Colorado while Eric Nystrom will be another forward that will add to the character of the club.

Like the Dallas Stars, the key to Nashville will be keeping the puck out of the net and generating enough goal scoring production to be relevant in the playoff chase. Never bet against a Barry Trotz coached club.

Key Additions: Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Bryan Rodney, Viktor Stalberg.

Key Departures: Jonathon Blum, Bobby Butler, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Jeremy Smith, Brandon Yip.

St. Louis Blues

2012-13 (29-17-2) 2nd in the Central

Playoffs: Lost in the Western Conference quarter-finals

General Manager: Doug Armstrong

Coach: Ken Hitchcock

Outlook: The tag-team of general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock are back again and they are no strangers to each other as they worked under the Bob Gainey regime in Dallas that captured the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Falling in the quarterfinals last year is a clear disappointment to the highly talented and well-rounded Blues team. A year removed from a Central Division title and appearance in the conference semifinals, the Blues underachieved when it counted most last year.

Much of it can be attributed to injuries and they had to battle their way into the playoff picture as they were out of it entering the final month of play. The additions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline made an impressive blue line even better. It was enough to spark the Blues to a terrific finish to the season only to stumble in the postseason. Remember, they owned the 2-0 lead in the opening series to the LA Kings and lost four straight to be ousted from the playoffs.

Armstrong addressed that by adding skill and grit up front as Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy were signed as free agents. The talented Magnus Paajarvi was also traded for as the highly regarded David Perron was sent to the Oilers. While they are and will be hard to play against, the one knock on the Blues is the lack of a bona-fide goal-scoring threat. Only three players had 10 or more goals last year led by Chris Stewart’s 18. It will be on Roy, Paajarvi, and Morrow to pick up the goal scoring efforts as Perron and Andy McDonald are gone.

Jarsolav Halak, who was hurt part of last year and Brian Elliott are among the NHL’s best one-two punches in goal. It is well documented that Halak and Hitchcock had a heated battle outside the locker room during game four of the Blues and Kings series. The relevance of this is these dust ups between Hitchcock and top players has been a theme throughout the years. Will this be a trend or water under the bridge?

The Blues have the ability to be very difficult to score on and play against. Can they score is the question and if they do, look out.

Key Additions: Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Bolduc, Maxim Lapierre, Brenden Morrow, Magnus Paajarvi, Derek Roy.

Key Departures: T. J. Hensick, Jamie Langenbrunner, Andy McDonald, Andrew Murray, Scott Nichol, David Perron, Kris Russell, Jeff Woywitka.

Winnipeg Jets

2012-13 (24-21-3) 2nd in the Southeast

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager: Kevin Chevaldayoff

Coach: Claude Noel

Outlook:Entering their third season in Winnipeg, the Jets are hoping the shift to the Western Conference will ease their travel burden and land them a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Like a number of teams, the Jets are not dynamic in their offensive output yet are a well-rounded club, ranking in the midsection of the NHL in goals for. Signing the likes of Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian and Blake Wheeler was step one to the Jets game plan this off season as they are building and growing from within.

The additions of Devin Setoguchi from the the Wild and Michael Frolik from the Chicago Black Hawks will have impact on its forward crew and may be enough to make a difference in their push to a playoff spot. Setoguchi will help with some offensive spark and Frolik is the prototypical two-way forward who excels on the penalty kill.

The Jets are good enough to be relevant in the Central and it is yet to be determined what kind of footprint they will make in their return to the Western Conference.

Key additions: Michael Frolik, Devon Setoguchi.

Key Departures:Nik Antropov, Alex Burmistrov, Ron Hainsey, Antti Miettinen.

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks

2012-13 (30-12-6) 1st in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost in the Western Conference quarter-finals

General Manager:Bob Murray

Coach: Bruce Boudreau

Outlook: The impressively consistent Anaheim Ducks will be a factor in the Western Conference again. They can also thank the NHL Brain Wizards for moving the wart in their history known as the Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference and have a chance to move deeper in the post season.

Much like the Minnesota Wild, the Ducks deliver a nice blend of veterans and new talent to their rosters. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu Selanne make up the group of veterans that are dependable and are incredibly productive. Selanne is in what has been dubbed his farewell tour and once again will prove that he is the heart and soul of this team.

Francois Beauchemin has taken over the top spot on the blue line for the Ducks and Cam Fowler is a solid number two. With the goaltending in the hands of Jonas Hiller and super rookie Viktor Fasth, the Ducks will always be a difficult team to score on.

The addition of Dustin Penner from the LA Kings and Zack Stortini gives the Ducks more strength up front. They already are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL and they took that up a notch.

They are poised to be the favorites in the Pacific Division and also are legitimate Cup contenders.

Key Additions: Mark Fistric, Dustin Penner, Jakob Silfverberg, Zack Stortini, Nolan Yonkman.

Key Departures:Bobby Ryan, Harry Zolnierczyk.

Calgary Flames

2012-13 (19-2-4) 4th in Northwest

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager:Jay Feaster

Coach: Bob Hartley

Outlook:Jay Feaster is tasked with keeping the Flames competitive yet rebuilding the franchise to its Stanley Cup contending form. Gone are legends Jerome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff as Calgary says so long to an era.

Some impressive off season moves were made to add 20-goal scorer David Jones from the Colorado Avalanche in a four-player deal this past summer. Sharks forward TJ Galiardi joins the likes of Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Hudler, and Curtis Glencross up front. They have the ability to create some offensive output and be competitive each night.

Defensively, added to the mix via the Colorado deal was Kris Russell. He will join Dennis Wideman, Mark Giordano, and T.J. Brodie on the blue line who will be working in front of Karri Ramo who takes over for the legendary and now retired Kiprusoff. That is a precarious situation and depending how Ramo responds to the challenge could potentially make for a long season. If he plays well, they Flames could surprise but those will be big shoes to fill.

The interesting thing for the Flames is they added Brian Burke as the President of hockey operations. He will be overseeing Feaster as they manage their cupboard that is full of high draft picks from this last draft year.

Key Additions: TJ Galiardi, David Jones, Shane O’Brien, Kris Russell.

Key Departures:Roman Cervenka, Cory Sarich, Alex Tanguay.

Edmonton Oilers

2012-13 (19-22-7) 3rd in Northwest

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager:Craig MacTavish

Coach: Dallas Eakins

Outlook: The Oilers have been in the midst of a youth movement for nearly seven years. That is the last time they qualified for the playoffs and, at some level, it has to be getting old for Oilers fans as the wait has continued on.

That patience wore out as general manager Steve Tambellini was sent packing and first year coach Ralph Krueger was collected as well. New general manager Craig MacTavish jettisoned Krueger and brought in the highly regarded Dallas Eakins who coached the Toronto Marlies to successful playoff runs in the AHL.

The man known as MacT was responsible for some impressive runs as coach of the Oilers and he embodies what the Edmonton Oilers are about. He went to work and started cleaning house on his roster. Out were 10 players and in were nine new faces, none that will be of the earth shattering variety but some will be key components to bringing together the bevy of young talent this team has assembled.

The key addition was David Perron from the the St. Louis Blues who should work well with the high end talent such as Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner.

Defensively MacTavish flushed out immobile defenseman and added Andrew Ferenece who is a well-rounded player and owner of a Stanley Cup ring while with the Boston Bruins in 2011. Former Wisconsin Badger Justin Schultz is also teed up to have a great season.

It feels as though the same thing can be said for the past three to four years and that is the Oilers should be ready to break through for their first playoff berth in seven seasons.

But, then again …

Key Additions: Richard Bachman, Andrew Ference, Boyd Gordon, Denis Grebeshkov, Ryan Hamilton, Jesse Joensuu, Jason LaBarbera, Phillip Larsen, David Perron.

Key Departures: Yann Danis, Mark Fistric, Dary Hordichuk, Shawn Horcoff, Nikolai Khabibulin, Magnus Paajarvi, Theo Peckham, Lennart Petrell, Andy Sutton, Ryan Whitney.

Los Angeles Kings

2012-13 (27-16-5) 2nd in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost Western Conference Final

General Manager:Dean Lombardi

Coach: Darryl Sutter

Outlook:More than any Western Conference team over the past three seasons, the Los Angeles Kings consistently return the same lineup and for good reason. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, they fell to eventual Cup champion Chicago last year in the Western Conference Final.

Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, and Jordan Nolan anchor a balanced a productive group of forwards. Gone is power forward Dustin Penner, yet they added super pest Daniel Carcillo from the Blackhawks this past summer. Matt Frattin was added up front from the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of a package that sent goalie Jonathon Bernier to the Leafs. Frattin is another piece of an impressive puzzle that general manager Dean Lombardi has assembled.

Drew Doughty is an anchor on the blue line and is joined by the talented Slava Voynov. Many nights the best player on the Kings is goalie Jonathon Quick, and that is saying something give their overall talent.

They will push their cross-town rival Anaheim Ducks for the top spot in the Pacific Division and certainly will be included in the short list of Cup contenders once again.

Key Additions: Daniel Carcillo, Matt Frattin, Jeff Schultz, Ben Scrivens.

Key Departures: Jonathan Bernier, Dustin Penner, Brad Richardson, Rob Scuderi.

Phoenix Coyotes

2012-13 (21-18-9) 4th in Pacific

Playoffs: Did not qualify

General Manager:Don Maloney

Coach: Dave Tippett

Outlook:The team that has been tormented with ownership issues and cash flow problems is looking as though things may be stabilizing. The team was sold to the Renaissance Group and the club will remain in Glendale for at least the next five years.

Shane Doan has known one franchise his entire career and is in the second year of a four year extension he signed last year. The addition of the flashy Mike Ribeiro brings depth and skill at the forward position. With defenseman Keith Yandle leading the way in points last year, the parched Coyotes will look to find more goals up front with Ribeiro. He could aid the likes of Radim Vrbata who has flown under the radar yet is a solid offensive player in the NHL. It also could bring the best out in Mikkel Boedker.

The Coyotes are a defensive minded team that can outlast most teams and generally seal the deal when given a third-period lead. Mike Smith should be healthy and ready to go for another solid season between the pipes.

Phoenix will be on the cusp of a playoff spot this year and don’t forget about their run once they were in just two seasons ago.

Key Additions: Thomas Greiss, Tim Kennedy, Mike Ribeiro, Brandon Yip.

Key Departures:Alexandre Bolduc, Chris Conner, Boyd Gordon, Chad Johnson, Nick Johnson, Jason LaBarbera.

San Jose Sharks

2012-13 (25-16-7) 3rd in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference semi-finals

General Manager:Doug Wilson

Coach: Todd McLellan

Outlook: The Sharks have been so good in the regular season and have let down in the post season. They buried the Canucks in a four game sweep to open the playoffs last year and went out with a thud in the second round to the Los Angeles Kings. With 9 straight playoff berths, the Sharks have been one of the NHL’s most reliable teams during the regular season.

Veteran leadership and production comes from Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. Logan Couture, who is already an all-star, is becoming the cornerstone of the franchise up front. The often-injured Martin Havlat had offseason surgery and will begin the new season on the shelf. Former Wild defenseman Brent Burns will play forward for the second straight season in San Jose.

Dan Boyle and Antti Niemi are key ingredients to the Sharks defensive side of the rink and with 24 wins last season, Niemi tied for the lead league in that category.

In a way, this is a transitional season for the Sharks as they have Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle on the line as unrestricted free agents this summer. It will be interesting to see what direction general manager Doug Wilson goes near the trade deadline and what the future has in store for the long time Shark veteran leaders.

Key Additions:Scott Hannan, Tyler Kennedy.

Key Departures:T.J. Galiardi, Scott Gomez, Thomas Greiss, Dominic Moore.

Vancouver Canucks

2012-13 (25-15-7) 1st in Northwest

Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference quarter-finals

General Manager:Mike Gillis

Coach: John Tortorella

Outlook:It was a crazy offseason for the Canucks after they were dispatched in four straight games by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Shortly after that, head coach Allain Vigneault was shown the door, John Tortorella was hired from the New York Rangers and the goaltending situation was cleared up. The one thing that no one saw coming was that the goalie that was moved was not named Roberto Luongo. Cory Schneider instead was sent to the New Jersey Devils where he can compete with aging legend Martin Brodeur.

If it has a chaotic feel to it the assumption would be correct. The Canucks have not delivered on their regular season success and their fan base is growing impatient.

There have been little changes to the roster as it will be the same core group of players that are a year older yet a year wiser. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are as formidable as ever, Ryan Kelser continues to find ways to improve even when it appears he is as good as he can be, and Alexandre Burrows continues to put the puck in the net.

A quiet strength of this team is the blue line lead by Kevin Bieksa, Aleander Edler, and Dan Hamhuis.

The Canucks enter a division that is deep in the Pacific. They are not getting any younger and now would be the time to make something happen as a motivated Luongo could be a game changer once again.

Key additions: Brad Richardson, Mike Santorelli, Yannick Weber.

Key Departures: Keith Ballard, Cam Barker, Maxim Lapierre, Mason Raymond, Derek Roy, Cory Schneider.