With the start of the NHL season just days away, only four more sleeps, I wanted to take a look at each conference and make my "bold" predictions for the coming season.
1) Vancouver Canucks - As much as it pains me to say it, I fully expect the Canucks to lead the way in the Western Conference again this season. Yes they have injury concerns to start the season with Ryan Kesler starting the year on the shelf. Yes their defence and bottom six forwards are much weaker then the 2010-2011 edition but it won't matter. Playing in the worst division in the league, will allow them to collect points that no other top team in the western conference can do. Expect another huge regular season from Roberto Luongo as the goaltender will be out to prove a point after his collapse in last year's Stanley Cup Final. You can expect the usual production from the Sedins, 85 -110 points a piece, and for the Canucks to have one of the leagues best power plays. The regular season is nothing more then an after thought for Vancouver this year. They need to get back to the finals and get the job done, in order to silence their fans and critics...I would not count on it.
Breakout Player: Alex Edler - As good as Edler is, look for him to take that next step that will vault him into the discussion of being a true elite NHL defenceman. Already a minute eating machine that plays in all situations, Elder will be ask to do even more with the departure of Christian Ehrhoff. Would not surprise me in the least if the 25 year old rear guard pushes the 60 point mark
Pressure Is On: Keith Ballard - To say Ballard was a disappointment in his first year as a Canuck would be the understatement of the year. The defenceman was god awful more often then not and was a healthy scratch on many nights late in the season and playoffs. Not exactly what Vancouver was expecting when he was signed to a six year deal for that will see him earn $25 million.
2) Los Angeles Kings - After finally signing Drew Doughty to a long term deal the Kings look poised to have a great season. With the off season additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne and a fit and focused Dustin Penner, L.A. seem to have all the pieces in place to make a serious run. Richards and Anze Kopitar give Los Angeles one of the top 1-2 punches down the middle and very few third line centres are as good as Jarret Stoll. Goaltender Jonathan Quick was outstanding last season and the Kings will need more of the same from the 25 year old netminder. Also, do not be surprised to see Jonathan Bernier steal some starts from Quick as the former eleventh overall selection makes a bid for increased playing time. Always a bit of a goalie graveyard, it could be argued that L.A. has the best goalie tandem in the league.
Breakout Player: Dustin Penner - I am sure Kings management and fans alike, are questioning the decision of bringing in Penner last season but the big winger will put all those questions to rest in 2011- 2012. The winger showed up to camp in great shape and I think understands that if he doesn't have a solid year, he can kiss a chance at a nice payday, come July 1st, goodbye. The sky should be the limit for Penner playing with Kopitar and look for the former Oiler to deliver.
Pressure Is On: Drew Doughty - After the talented defenceman decided to hold out and said he was "insulted" with the Kings $6.8 million offer...he better step up his game. He was nothing more then ordinary last season after a stellar sophomore campaign and he must return to form if the Kings are to challenge in the West.
3) Chicago Blackhawks - After going through Stanley Cup winners withdrawal, the Blackhawks snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season and nearly pulled off a first round upset of the Vancouver Canucks. The biggest challenge the Hawks faced last season was having role players that were a huge downgrade from the previous year. They addressed that weakness in the off season picking up players like Rostislan Olesz and Andrew Brunette while signing mid season acquisition Michael Frolik. The addition of these three should allow the Hawks to have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and David Bolland as the clubs top three centres again hence making them a much more balanced team and handful to deal with on a nightly basis. While losing Brian Campbell on the backend hurts, it will give them some cap flexibility. Look for Nick Leddy to take on a major role this season and become a regular on the backend with Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Keith.
Breakout Player: Corey Crawford - After proving he could carry the load during the season, Crawford took his game to the next level in playoff. He led his team back from a 3-1 first round deficit against Vancouver and nearly was able to pull off the comeback. The rookie netminder took hold of the starting job from veteran Marty Turco early in the first half of the season and never let go. The kid is for real and Hawks fans can now breathe easy, after many thought they made a huge blunder allowing Annti Niemi to leave the Windy City.
Pressure Is On: Michael Frolik - The talented 23year old Czech forward, that has been referred to as "Baby Jagr" by many, is finally out of the black hole that is Florida and now has the chance to take a big step in his career. Last season Frolik played a third line role for the Hawks after being acquired from the Panthers but the chance to play a major role in the top six is sitting there for him to take. The sky could be limit for youngster if he finds himself on one of the top two units but it will be up to him to seize the opportunity.
4) San Jose Sharks - The Sharks did a fair amount of re-tooling in the off season but very much like Vancouver, all that matters will be how they fair come playoff time. While they moved forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to the Minnesota Wild, the players the received in return will make them an even better team. I fully expect Martin Havlat to have a big year in his digs. Havlat has always been better when he isn't "the guy" and he definitely will not be that in San Jose. Adding Havlat to the usual cast of characters upfront, Thornton, Marleau, Clowe and Pavelski, not to mention rookie standout Logan Couture, the Sharks will not struggle to put the puck in the net. Another key edition in the off season was Michal Handzus.The veteran centre will be a welcomed addition to the Sharks bottom six and may give them the ability to play their past six forwards on the top two lines.
Breakout Player: Brent Burns - The 26 year old defenceman should get a new lease on life as a Shark. Playing his entire seven year NHL career with always offensively challenged Minnesota Wild, Burns was able to put up two 40+ point seasons. With San Jose, I would be surprised if he, like Edler in Vancouver, doesn't push the 60 point plateau. He always has played a physical game and that will be a welcomed edition to the sometimes timid Sharks defence.
Pressure Is On: Antti Niemi - After a slow start in his first season as a Shark, Niemi found his a game and was money from that point on...that was until the playoffs arrived. Starting in round one against the Kings, the Finn was either lights out or terrible, there was simply no middle ground. Niemi was brought in to help lead the way at crunch time, like he did the previous season in Chicago. Unfortunately for San Jose,he failed to deliver the same performance for them.
5) Detroit Red Wings - Detroit is not the same team they once were but any team that has Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on it, can not be overlooked. When one looks past the Wings star power, this team is now mostly made up of aging veterans and castoffs from other organizations. Johan Franzen continues to put up strong numbers but is much too streaky and goes long stretches without scoring. This may be the year that little spark plug Darren Helm makes a home for himself in Detroit's top six. With head coach Mike Babcock's tendency to use Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the same line, it would not surprise me at all to see Helm bumped up to the second line. Worst case scenario, he will be the regular third line centre and continue to make strides in his overall game.
Breakout Player: Niklas Kronwall - After playing second fiddle for years behind future Hall of Famer Niklas Lidstrom, this should be the year that Kronwall becomes the main man in Detroit. The Swedish rear guard has all the tools and regularly makes highlight reels after throwing huge body checks. Kronwall was able to stay away from a major injury last season, which has always been a challenge for the Swede. If he stays healthy look for him to make a push to reach 60 points.
Pressure Is On: Jimmy Howard - While Howard wins a bunch of games playing for the high flying Red Wings he doesn't come across as a solid NHL starter. Some games he is lights out while other nights he still looks like he should be in the AHL. He has the bad habit of letting in a weak goal at the worst possible time...not a good trait to have as a goaltender. He signed a two year extension with the Wings last season so his leash will be very short as the number guy. If he doesn't become more consistent, he will not last in the motor city.
6) St. Louis Blues - After taking a big step back last season, look for the Blues to right the ship in the coming season. Led upfront by youngsters Backes, Berguland, Oshie and Chris Stewart the Blues should not be to challenged to put the puck in the net. On the blueline, they are led by the emerging Alex Pietrangelo and have a solid netminder in Jaroslav Halak. On the downside, they are still awaiting the return of forward David Perron from a concussion that he suffered in game number ten last season. Adding veterans Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol will help defenceman Barret Jackman in the leadership department.
Breakout Player: Patrick Berglund - The young Swede put up a 50 point campaign last season and seems primed for a breakout year. The big centre had instint chemistry with Chris Stewart after his arrival from Colorado and the duo should pick up right where they left off last season
Pressure Is On: Jaroslav Halak - After being hailed as a saviour by Habs fans for his all world performance during the clubs 2009 playoff run, Halak's first season in the music city would be deemed a disappointment. While his stats were alright (2.48 / .910) his overall game was not what the Blues that they were getting when the acquired the netminder from the Canadiens. St. Louis were expecting the goaltender that carried Montreal in the playoffs...problem being, that may not be the real Jaroslav Halak.
7) Anaheim Ducks - While the Ducks rode a late season hot streak and the MVP performance of Corey Perry, I was not shocked that the club bowed out to in the first round of the playoffs to the Nashville Predators. Anaheim has ridiculous talent upfront with Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and forever young Teemu Selanne but after that they are paper then at best. On the defence they have guys who can put up points in Visnovsky and Fowler but outside of Toni Lydman, they are weak in their own end as well. That is a lot to leave on your goaltender at the best of times but the Ducks starter, Jonas Hiller, is returning from a serious case of vertigo that cost the netminder the second half of last season. Anaheim will score enough to sneak into the playoffs but not much else can be expected from this roster.
Breakout Player: Bobby Ryan - After three consecutive 30 plus goal campaigns look for Ryan to take the next step and push for 50 this season. The kid is a flat out stud and his ability and size will make him a great player in this league for a long time. He saw much less time on the first unit power play last season, as Selanne was on fire with the man advantage. Look for that to change in the coming season.
Pressure Is On: Lubomir Visnovsky - Since coming over from the Edmonton Oilers, Visnovsky has been nothing of exceptional for the Ducks. With the Czech defender another year older and unlikely to duplicate last seasons totals, Anaheim will be expecting only a marginal drop off and that may be a little much to ask from the 35 year old blueliner. He also has had the tendency to suffer an injury every couple of years that force him to miss at least ten games a season.
8) Nashville Predators - The team that seems to churn out high end defencemen and quality netminders at will, finally made it past the first round of the playoffs last season. Led by their dynamic duo on the backend of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and the Vezina worthy play of Pekka Rinne, the Preds ended up tied for fourth place in the Western Conference. The team remains absurdly thin upfront and to make matters worse, playoff standout Joel Ward flew the coup to join the Capitals. Do not be surprised to see the Preds finding themselves below the playoff cut line because of their lacking of scoring depth.
Breakout Player: Jonathon Blum - The young defenceman was rumoured to be part of a deal for the Oilers Ladislav Smid at last seasons deadline, it never materialized and it's a good thing it didn't for the Preds. Once he was recalled late in the season, Blum found a home on the Preds blueline and was logging 20 minutes a night in the playoffs. He has an offensive upside to his game but while Weber and Suter are both in Nashville, his power play time will be limited.
Pressure Is On: Mike Fisher - Brought in to help with the Predators playoff spot chase, Fisher was excellent at times but more often then not seemed in over his head. His situation reminds a lot of what the Oilers asked from Shawn Horcoff for a number of years. The top two centres in Nashville are Legwand and Fisher but neither are top line centres...sound kind of familiar?
9) Calgary Flames - After just missing out on the playoffs for the second straight season, Calgary decided to do a little re-tooling to their salary cap but brought nothing of significance back in. The loss of Robyn Regehr will be felt on the backend and is this finally the year the reduce Mikka Kiprusoff's workload? Upfront they will once again be led by their captain Jarome Iginla, who is coming off a 43 goal campaign. Vets Bourque, Tanguay and Jokinen will all contribute but they need some of the young players to take a step forward in their development. That statement is right at you Mikael Backlund. It might not be fare to ask the 22 year old to improve much from his 43 point season but if he can't the Flames will miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
Breakout Player: Lee Stempniak - With it being a contract year for the newest Flame, I'd look for Stempniak to push the 25 goal mark in search of another long term deal. Seems like a match made in heaven, if he wants a no trade clause included I am sure the Flames would love to add another one to their books.
Pressure Is On: Jay Bouwmeester - The Calgary Flames signed the talented defenceman thinking he would take his game to the next level in a hockey crazy market, that has not been the case. While Bouwmeester is a good player, he is in no way a $6.6 million a year player and that is what the Flames will be paying him for the next three seasons. He has to raise his level of play or the Calgary faithful may eating him alive before his time as a Flame is up. He's paid like an elite defenceman but he isn't the best D man on his own team, that would be Mark Giordano.
10) Edmonton Oilers - Having been the worst team in the league for two seasons in a row has some benefits, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but the time is at hand for the organization to start taking strides towards respectability. They are loaded upfront with skill and have brought in veterans Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth to help the young guys along. The Oilers will be challenged again on the blueline and if Ryan Whitney continues having health issues, it could be another long season in Oil Country. Look for Devan Dubnyk to continue his strong play and work his way towards becoming the clubs number one starter, by next season...at the latest.
Breakout Player: Taylor Hall - The sky is the limit for the second year Oiler and if his drive throughout camp is an indication of what is to come, 2011-2012 could be a very memorable for last years first overall selection. Look for Hall to push the 40 goal mark and take his place among the elite goal scorers in the league. Once the trio of Hall, Eberle and Nugent -Hopkins mature the numbers they put up could be staggering.
Pressure Is On: Linus Omark - Most would say Nikolai Khabibulin but I will go with the creative young Swedish forward. With the inevitable departure of Ales Hemsky, Omark could secure himself a spot in the Oilers lineup with a strong season. He may or may not be a top six forward but he is a force on the power play. If he can not live up to the expectations, he will likely find his way to a new organization.
11) Columbus Blue Jackets - The Blue Jackets were major movers this off season acquiring a top line centre in Jeff Carter and signing UFA defenceman James Wisniewski to shore up the blueline. Both moves will help Columbus compete for a playoff spot but they still do not have the depth necessary to make that jump. If youngsters Derick Brassard and Ryan Johansen are capable of putting points on the board, things may be different but that is a lot to ask..especially for the rookie Johansen. The backend remains paper thin and I would say the Oilers have more depth then the Jackets...that says it all.
Breakout Player: Rick Nash - Calling Nash as a breakout player seems odd even to myself but with the addition of Carter, I am looking at Nash reaching his potential as a possible 90 point player. His career high of 79 points in 2008-2009 is the only season he has broke the seventy point barrier. Never blessed with much talent around him, this could be the year that the NHL sees the Rick Nash that seems to appear whenever he pulls on a Team Canada jersey.
Pressure Is On: Steve Mason - The Columbus netminder has followed his outstanding rookie campaign up with two dreadful seasons. Questions are starting to surface: Does the kid have the mental makeup or game to be an NHL starter. After two seasons of looking more like swiss cheese then the rookie goaltender that the entire league was ga-ga over, Mason has a lot to prove.
12) Colorado Avalanche - The Avs went from leading the division in late December to barely staying ahead of the Edmonton Oilers for the worst record in the league. A collapse of monumental preportion but one that netted them another great young player in Gabriel Landeskog. Colorado's biggest downfall was goaltending and they are hoping former Caps netminder Semyon Varlamov will be the answer to their problems. Moving power forward Chris Stewart to the Blues for D man Erik Johnson seemed to be a curious move but the Avs did need to get better on the blueline. Still stacked upfront with talent, it will be up to Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene to lead the way.
Breakout Player: Erik Johnson - The former number one overall selection never reached his potential in St.Louis but a change of scenary should help him relocate his game. He will be asked to do everything on the Avs backend and the hulking defender should be ready to take the step. Many forget that Johnson is still only 23 years old and most defencemen don't find their games until they hit their mid 20's.
Pressure Is On: Semyon Varlamov - The Avalanche paid a steep price for the Russian netminder, a first rounder in 2012 and a second rounder in 2012 or 2013. If Varlamov struggles in his first year as an Avalanche, not only will the team suffer but they will be giving the Capitals a possible lottery pick. That is a ton of pressure on the shoulders of the young goaltender but he is talented. His biggest issue to date has been his health...which makes the return the Caps were able to obtain out of Colorado even more puzzling.
13) Minnesota Wild - The addition of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to the Wild's top line with captain Mikko Koivu, gives Minnesota a very good first unit. Unfortuantley for Minnesota, they can't just play with one line all night long, like you would in NHL 12 on your PS3 or Xbox. Ouside of the aforementioned three forwards, the Wild have very little and it is even worse on the the blueline. The teams top line and goalie Niklas Backstrom are the only reason they stay out of the basement in the Western Conference.
Breakout Player: Mikko Koivu - For the first time in his career, Koivu will be given linemates that are on the same level as the talented Finn. If he manages to stay healthy, an 85 point season is not out of the question.
Pressure Is On: Dany Heatley - After a poor finally season in San Jose, many are wondering if Heatley's days as a top goal scorer are gone. He looked as though he had lost a step or two last season and he was simply unable to get to spots to use his shot. While the pressure won't be as great in Minny, as not much is expected of the Wild, eyes will be on the former 50 goal scorer to see if he still has it.
14) Dallas Stars - Dallas not only lost their best player in Brad Richards but they brought nothing of significance in to help with his departure. After a great first half of the season the Stars start a dive down the standings that had them miss the playoffs entirely. While they have some nice parts in Jamie Benn, Louie Eriksson, Brenden Morrow and Mike Riberio, they do not have the depth necessary to compete in the tough Western Conference. They brought in veteran Sheldon Souray to help out on the man advantage and look for the former power play specialist to put some points on the board but not enough to make a difference.
Breakout Player: Jamie Benn - The young forward looked as though he was going to put up huge numbers last season but a shoulder injury slowed him down. The power forward still managed to pot 22 goals and it looks as though he has just scratched the surface on his potential. The departure of Richards will make things tougher on the 22 year old but he should be able to reach the 30 goal level at the very least.
Pressure Is On: Sheldon Souray - After being waived thru the league twice last season and one more time on re-callable waivers, Souray must have done some soul searching. Players always think they are wanted throughout the league and that the grass may be greener on the other side. That wasn't the case for the former all star so he jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Stars when Dallas caming calling. No longer the threat he once was, Souray must prove to the rest of the league he can still bring something to the table or this could be his final NHL contract.
15) Phoenix Coyotes - No team will fall as hard as the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2011-2012 season. The Coyotes have found ways in recent seasons to be competitive, despite all the nonsense surrounding the franchise and whether or not they will stay in Phoenix. Much of the clubs success surrounded the play of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and with the netminders departure to Philadelphia, management thought an adequate replacement would be Mike Smith and last seasons backup goalie Jason LaBarbera...good luck with that. Did I mention they also have to deal with Kyle Turris holding out for a contract that would pay him $4 million a season? Does Turris realize what 25 point players make in the NHL? Apparently not.
Breakout Player: Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Touted for sometime as possibly being the next Niklas Lidstrom, the Coyotes have brought Ekham-Larsson along slowly and they hope to start reaping the rewards in 2011-2012. The second year player will be asked to take a more prominent role, with the departure of Ed Jovanovski and the young Swede should thrive with the increased ice time and responsibility.
Pressure Is On: Keith Yandle - After a Norris type season, Yandle will have to be even better to keep the Coyotes competitive. Not sure if that is even possible but that is what it will take for this team to even have a hope.