So here I am, once again, with my annual regular season predictions that you've waited for and really needed to get your season going, am I right? Sure, you've all read the The Hockey News, McKeen's, and other publications' previews but do they have the prognostication skills that you require to be fully confident, to believe in, and to understand. Well, I hope so because you're not going to get that here, but mine is more entertaining right? No, O.K. we'll all move on shall we?
So this is how I predict that the Western Conference will go down in 2011-12:
1. Chicago Blackhawks (112 points)
After spending the past season in transition the 'Hawks are ready once again to aim at being amongst the "elite" within the NHL and they shouldn't disappoint. The biggest acquisition may be the return on Norris form Duncan Keith, if that happens the Blackhawks posses the deepest blueline in the league that should give the tandem of Crawford and Emery an outside chance at the Jennings. With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland and Micheal Frolik to lead the offensively to go along with newcomers Andrew Brunette (UFA) and Ben Smith (the rook) the Chelsea Dagger CD will get plenty of use.
2. Vancouver Canucks (106 points)
Last season everything went perfectly for the Canucks until Dave Bolland showed up. And once they got past that it looked like it was finally going to be a happy ending in Vancouver for the first time in 40 years, but then they found out that Luongo couldn't stop anything in Boston either and thus everything got turned over and burnt to the ground. What a riot! Still after that demoralizing loss the Canucks still boast the top 1-2 punch in the league (regular season of course) in the Sedins, with Ryan Kesler patrolling the second line, and one of the game's best faceoff men in Manny Malhotra. Solid all around with the possibility of Corey Schneider taking the controls as the Canucks go to guy come playoff time.
3. San Jose Sharks (103 points)
After another humiliating loss in the Conference Finals the Sharks looked poised to make the next step, but to get there they decided that offence wasn't much of a necessity and unloaded sniper Dany Heatley and playoff hero Devin Setoguchi in exchange for Martin Havlat and offensive minded Brent Burns. And because of this it appears the GM Doug Wilson will be counting on more production from Marleau and Thornton, but can they? Will Logan Couture take the next step or suffer the sophomore slump? Will goaltending be an issue with Niemi and Nittymaki? I expect enough of these to go positive enough for the Sharks to win the Pacific.
4. Detroit Red Wings (108 points)
Look who's back for another, it's none other than 7-time Norris Trophy winner in Nick Lidstrom and that should help the Wings ease into their defensive transition now that Brian Rafalski has moved on. Look for rookie Brendan Smith to step in and make an immediate impact and impress. With more expected out of Darren Helm and Justin Abelkader can they improve or will they falter? Is this the year Valteri Filippula emerges as a top notch centre? Many questions, but still a great team.
5. Anaheim Ducks (100 points)
After a disappointing loss to the Predators in the first round the Ducks continue to look to improve and they should with the return of Jonas Hiller, who may be the favourite to win the Vezina this year, and a healthy dose of Ryan Getzlaf. The trio of Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan give the Ducks one of the best lines in the game today that can dominate games thoroughly, and along with the secondary unit of Selanne, Koivu, and newcomer Cogliano the Ducks should fill the net. Look for Cam Fowler to continue his improved play with offensive threat Vishnevsky giving the Ducks a formidable defence.
6. Los Angeles Kings (99 points)
After the acquisition of Mike Richards, the Kings have become the "sexy pick" of the NHL but there are still too many holes within that lineup to ignore. Is Kopitar a legitimate PPG player and can achieve that next level status? What about Drew Doughty and what compensation will Lombardi receive if he is forced to deal him? How will that affect the PP and the transition game? Is Bernier finally ready to take over the top spot in the goal? Kings surprisingly struggle at times during the year but still make the playoffs.
7. Calgary Flames (96 points)
Once Darryl Sutter was removed from the equation the Calgary Flames went on a tear on their way in making a late playoff push, but can they continue? A lot is going to be expected again out of Jarome Iginla and once again he won't disappoint as new centreman Micheal Backlund has the playmaking skills that should feed Iggy's needs. Alex Tanguay, coming off a resurgent year, looks to duplicate the numbers he put up last year and D Mark Giandano looks to improve and receive Norris consideration. Look for Kiprussoff to put up better numbers late in the year due to more rest at the beginning with rookie Henrick Karlsson get his share of starts.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets (95 points)
Finally the Jackets showed their fans and Rick Nash that winning is a priority and spent money foolishly on D James Wisniewski. But contrary to popular belief, the Wiz really helps jumpstart and enigmatic PP and along with Jeff Carter who will tear it up offensively with Nash the Jackets will return to the postseason after a 2 year absence. Look for Derrick Brassard to improve his production along with Matt Calvert. Goaltending should improve as well with Mason as the defence corps is a little more solid and rounded out with the acquisition of Wisniewski.
9. Minnesota Wild (94 points)
Once again knocking on the door but failing to get in as the Wild just narrowly miss the postseason. The additions of Setoguchi and Heatley improve the Wild offensively but the loss of Brent Burns hurts defensively. Nicklas Backstrom looks to rebound and if he can maybe the Wild can climb further up the standings, but the question is can he? Mikko Koivu puts up career numbers with Matt Cullen improving after a dismal campaign, but still lack the offensively firepower to win consistently and get into the playoffs.
10. Nashville Predators (92 points)
It's hard to win when you can't score and that's what will ail the Preds this season as the likes of Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, and J.P. Dumont take their acts somewhere else - that's a ton of offence. Expected to take their place are Blake Geoffrion and Nick Spalding and in there lies all the problems. You can't expect to raid Milwaukee and receive immediate results every year and this year it kills them. The Shea Weber saga eventually becomes something to watch along with the Fisher goalless streaks. But hey, you still have Carrie Underwood.
11. Colorado Avalanche (90 points)
A year after losing the entire the second half of a season the Avalanche come back to what they are and that's a team that's slightly better than .500. After acquiring Varlamov for a hefty price from Washington, the Avs' finally believe they have found their goaltender for the future and have Stanley Cup winner in Giguere to back him up and mentor him. Young defensive stud Erik Johnson begins to climb up the charts amongst the game's top rearguards and Paul Statsny and Matt Duchene continue to rake up the points. This is team that could really surprise this year and find their way back to the postseason.
12. Dallas Stars (84 points)
After losing Brad Richards to free agency, the Dallas Stars look to rebuild and reload. And that might be the biggest problem of all as now it all rests with Ribero, Morrow, and Benn. Can they carry this team? Probably not. Can Kari Lehtonen continue to improve and show some consistency this season and can Andrew Raycroft step in if cannot? The Stars are a puzzling team that could really slide down the ranks throughout the year, but I'm guessing the defence led by underrated and under appreciated Stephane Robidas cure some of the ailments that hurt the Stars. Challenge for a playoff spot most of the year, but fall short in the final weeks.
13. Phoenix Coyotes (80 points)
What are we going to do with you? No ownership, bad lease, bad goaltending as Bryzgalov departed to Philadelphia, and now an attendance that can announced by name. Surprisingly through all of that, coach and master motivator Dave Tippett will get the most of the this team led by D Keith Yandle, but in the end won't have enough talent and resources to keep longtime legend Shane Doan, who may be dealt at the deadline this year. The NHL is be asking Quebecor, who fast can you build that new arena? Hello, Seattle?
14. Edmonton Oilers (75 points)
Another year, another losing filled season with a few brightspots along the way. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle continue to improve and give the Edmonton faithful a little something to smile about along with a (maybe) healthy Ales Hemsky the Oilers have one amazing first line to count on, but after that it's very limited. Defensively it's a disaster and the Oil will be counting on long time bust Cam Barker to be in the top-4. Not a good situation to go along with Nikolai Khabibulin to return from jail and dormancy. Another top pick coming their way.
15. St. Louis Blues (72 points)
Oh, what has come of this franchise? Back in 2006 the Blues and Blackhawks were neck and neck in futility, now one is a Stanley Cup Champion and the other is back to the drawing board. If only the Blues have drafted Toews, eh? ... Well, they did make some noise by finally anointing the Inglorious Backes as their new captain and signing the likes of Langenbrunner and Arnott from the dead but in the end there is not enough offence, defence, and consistent goaltending to prevent this franchise from hitting rock bottom. Halak? Better find his 2010 playoff groove and stay healthy as Tank Elliott will most secure they first pick by himself if counted on for any long stretch of time. Not a good season in St. Louis.