Folks, Griggsy is a beast. Just let his analysis speak for itself. Holy crap. This is also the first time I’ve used the “more/jump/split” feature. So…make sure to keep reading after the jump.
With the greatest sport in the world less than a week from puck drop, the Gripes takes a break from normal format and now gives you an NHL season preview and playoff predictions. The Gripes will go back to normal over the weekend. Until then, enjoy this primer for the 2011-12 NHL season. And Let’s Go Pens!
Below are capsules about each team. They will be listed from the bottom of the standings up to the top. I’ll give you my thoughts on each team, a key player for their success (or lack thereof), and best and worst case scenarios for their season. After that, I’ll give you my playoff predictions, culminating with a Stanley Cup Champion being crowned. These are my thoughts. Pick them apart, leave feedback with
who you think will be there, and most importantly, take everything I say with the requisite grain of salt….
–>Columbus Blue Jackets (West #15, Central #5): The Blue Jackets probably weren’t as bad as you think they were last season. They finished 13th in the West, but were shockingly only 16 points out of a
playoff spot. That is a fair distance out, yes. But I guarantee that you thought they were 30 points out.
Rick Nash steers the ship, as always. He still is the superstar you don’t know, or care about. But this season, he actually has a little bit of help for the first time in a while. Jeff Carter came over in a trade from Philadelphia. Combine those two with R.J. Umberger, another Philly castoff, and there might actually be some talent on the front end. The back end, however, is a different story. Steve Mason is in goal (more on him in a moment), and the D is led by miscreant James Wisniewski and the underrated Fedor Tyutin. Beyond that, there’s some dude named Clitsome. The less said, the better.
Key Player: Steve Mason, G — He had a great rookie season. He had awful sophomore and junior seasons. There is very little behind him in the organization, depth-wise. It’s all on his shoulders again. (Cue the gulp from Blue Jackets fans, all seven of them.)
Best-Case Scenario: Mason returns to first-year form, Nash and Carter work together to put up major points, and the defense chips in. They sneak into the playoffs and nearly pull an upset, taking a division winner to seven games before bowing out.
Worst-Case Scenario: They end up right here where I have them. Can’t get any worse than that.
–>Phoenix Coyotes (West #14, Pacific #5): The Coyotes have had a couple of quietly good seasons, making the playoffs with big point totals. They weren’t great seasons, though, because they bowed out in the first round each year, falling to the Red Wings. Sadly, those two playoff appearances are probably now the high-water mark for the team’s (likely ending) time in the desert.
Ilya Bryzgalov has left Phoenix, and his replacements are Mike Smith, Curtis McElhinney, and Jason LaBarbera. I’ll wait till you clean up after throwing up in your mouth. Back yet? Yeah? Good. No matter who gets the starting job, there will not be a playoff-caliber netminder in the pipes this season.
On defense, Keith Yandle returns, and if he plays up to his Norris Trophy level, it will definitely help the men in net. The rest of the defense is decent, but will not overwhelm you. The forwards are about
the same, too. They are a team full of mid-level offense talents, looking to outscore you by committee. It’s worked within the system previously, but that was with a world-class goalie.
Key Player: Shane Doan, RW — The team’s captain is now 34 years old. This is about the age where players start to experience a decline in skills. If Doan continues that trend, the offense will likely be a mess. If he can defy the odds, though, he might be able to provide a spark that carries across all four lines.
Best-Case Scenario: One of the three goalies gets on a hot streak, taking the starting job by the reins. The offense keeps scoring just enough. Yandle leads the defense to play inspired. The Coyotes make the playoffs and upset the Red Wings to make it to Round 2.
Worst-Case Scenario: None of the goalies gets on a hot streak, leading to a complete mess. The offense can’t score nearly enough while Yandle takes a big step back. The Coyotes finish dead last in the West, and are then sold to a group that moves them to Kansas City.
–>Edmonton Oilers (West #13, Northwest #5): The Oilers were once again in the basement in the Western Conference. They allowed their young players to grow together, though, and strides were made individually and as a team. This will be a similar year for them.
The youngsters up front (Hall, Paajarvi, Eberle, etc.) will be supplemented by a couple veterans, including returning favorite son, Ryan Smyth. They will continue to go through growing pains, but
consistency will start to develop this season. The defense still is a mishmash of veteran castoffs and young homegrown players. Consistency is not a word you’ll hear mentioned for them, unfortunately.
Goaltending will be the big question mark, as it often has been. Nikolai (Vodka) Khabibulin returns, as does youngster Devan Dubnyk. Khabibulin’s best days are behind him, Dubnyk’s best years are in front of him. No matter who they go with, most nights there will be one too many pucks going in the Edmonton net.
Key Player: Ladislav Smid, D — He’s young (25), and the team’s best stay-at-home defenseman. He will need to set an example for the rest of the unit, or else the goalies will be under siege all season.
Best-Case Scenario: The young players all develop quicker than expected. Dubnyk and Khabibulin only show off their strengths, while hiding each other’s weaknesses. Smid and company play strong defense. The Oilers are in the playoff race down the stretch, and just fall short by a point on the last day of the season.
Worst-Case Scenario: The defense and goaltending play at an awful level, and there is no way the talent up front can cover for it. They finish just behind Columbus in the standings, but only get the third overall pick in the 2012 Draft after Columbus wins the lottery.
–>Colorado Avalanche (West #12, Northwest #4): After Craig Anderson carried the Avalanche to a playoff spot two seasons ago, the bottom fell out on them last season. Anderson fell apart, the offense wasn’t able to pick up the slack, and the defense didn’t help at all. Will this season be different? Well, the names have changed, but more of the same seems likely.
Anderson’s gone, after being traded late last season. Peter Budaj is gone as well. Instead, between the pipes will be the combination of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Giguere has been inconsistent since leaving Anaheim, and Varlamov has had serious health concerns. They will be lucky to get what they need from this pair. The defense should essentially be called “Erik Johnson and the No-Names”, with lots of inexperience and mediocrity surrounding the former first-rounder. The less said about them, the better.
The offense will be anchored by Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk. One is a young star in the making, the other is a talented player whose star is fading. Can they lead the offense to a turn-around? It’s a tall order to ask, and they probably won’t have enough to off-set a weak defensive team behind them.
Key Player: Paul Stastny, C — He’s shown many flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but he’s also proven to be extremely injury-prone. If he lives up to his talent, he adds another dimension to the Avalanche scoring attack. If he gets injured or proves ineffective, this is a thin scoring lineup, and another minus-61 goal differential (or worse) is likely.
Best-Case Scenario: Stastny and Varlamov stay healthy. Hejduk fights off Father Time, and Duchene continues his career arc upwards. The Avalanche get back in the playoffs, with sellout crowds in Denver. They don’t have quite enough to win in the playoffs, but the positives lead to long-term success.
Worst-Case Scenario: In front of record-low crowds, the Avalanche continue their downward trend, finishing dead last. Stastny gets injured (again), Varlamov and Giguere prove to be ineffective, and
Hejduk gets traded at the deadline, to Detroit, where he helps them win another Stanley Cup.
–>Calgary Flames (West #11, Northwest #3): The Flames ran out of gas (that’s a good pun right there) at the end of the 2010-11 season. Miikka Kiprusoff played too many minutes, as always, and the team paid for it down the stretch, with Kipper letting in too many soft goals, and a lack of scoring depth not allowing for the team to compensate. Kiprusoff, Jerome Iginla, et al, are back, with some tweaks around them. It felt like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Instead of hitting the iceberg, though, the Flames keep hitting the salary cap ceiling, sending their seasons sinking to the bottom.
I love Miikka Kiprusoff, but the Flames must play Henrik Karlsson more. A more legitimate split of duties will maximize their goalies’ play. Hopefully Brent Sutter will realize this. On defense, the Flames traded away Robyn Regehr, leaving Jay Bouwmeester as the last man standing. There is some talent in the ranks, though, with Anton Babchuk and Mark Giordano standing out. Without Regehr, though, the stay-at-home capabilities will suffer.
Iginla is still a fantastic scorer, no matter who plays with him. Rene Bourque, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Brendan Morrison all are in support, but that list is full of feast-or-famine guys, mostly famine lately. Overall, the team had a positive goal differential, so they must have done enough right offensively. But I still don’t think there is enough consistent scoring depth to win games.
Key Player: Mikael Backlund, C — He’s being anointed as the next big thing for Calgary. He’s young and talented, and will play between Iginla and Tanguay. If he can put it all together in his second full season, he could make one huge impact this season.
Best-Case Scenario: Kiprusoff plays 60 games, and plays at his world-class level. Iginla scores 50, with Backlund feeding him the puck perfectly. The defense fits together well with Bouwmeester as the leader. The Flames challenge Vancouver for the division title down to the wire, falling short in the last game. They end up in the 6th spot, and take the 3 seed San Jose to another epic seven-game series before being eliminated. The Oilers finish last in the West.
Worst-Case Scenario: Kiprusoff is over-played early, and falls apart late, which leads to a nasty groin injury in March. Iginla scores a bad (by his standards) 30 goals on the year, because Backlund can’t hold up as #1 Center. The defense plays poorly, including Bouwmeester proving that he was only a top D-man in Florida because it was Florida. The Flames finish neck-and-neck with Colorado, well out of
the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Oilers eek into the last playoff spot in the West.
–>Dallas Stars (West #11, Pacific #4): The Stars were in the playoff hunt all season long, before a terrible last-day loss to also-ran Minnesota eliminated them while Chicago got in. A mid-season trade
brought in Alex Goligoski, who played extremely well in his new increased role. Kari Lehtonen played above his head for most of the season, leading them to a respectable middle-of-the-pack finish in goals allowed. The offense was top-two-lines heavy, which may prove to be a problem after Brad Richards has moved on to New York.
The forwards this year will need to find someone to step up and help shoulder the load. Michael Ryder comes over from the Stanley Cup champions, while Jamie Benn, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, and Brenden Morrow return. Is that enough scoring? It better be, because it’s thin behind them. The defense is top-heavy as well, with Goligoski and Stephane Robidas taking on big minutes. Trevor Daley could prove to be very important, especially if either of the two ahead of him suffer an injury.
As for the goaltending….
Key Player: Kari Lehtonen, G — It is absolutely crucial, for any potential success for the Stars this season, that Lehtonen continue his strong play. He hadn’t shown consistent success prior to this, though, so it’s hard to expect Lehtonen to keep this up. If he plays as well, or improves, then the Stars are likely a playoff squad. If he drops off at all, though, the playoffs become just a pipe dream.
Best-Case Scenario: Lehtonen does indeed improve. Someone, anyone, from the Stars’ forward depth chart steps up and helps carry the load. Goligoski explodes in a full season in Dallas. The Stars not only get in the playoffs, they get in comfortably, ending up in a 4-5 matchup against Chicago. They knock off the 2010 Cup Winners, before exiting in Round 2.
Worst-Case Scenario: Lehtonen falls back to earth, Robidas gets hurt, and the forwards can’t shoulder the load Richards left behind. Things quickly fall apart from there, and the team falls to 5th in the division, with the Coyotes even finishing in front of them.
–>Minnesota Wild (West #9, Northwest #2): Aside from their win to knock Dallas out of the playoffs, the entire 2010-11 season was utterly forgettable for the Wild. Todd Richards was let go by Chuck
Fletcher, and another ex-Wilkes Barre coach, Mike Yeo (long ago an assistant in WB-S) was brought in. Last season, he ran the Wild’s AHL team in Houston to a successful campaign. That’s great, but this isn’t the AHL.
Playing up front for the Minnesota Sharks….er, wait, Wild, are Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, fresh from San Jose. It is hoped that they can provide a consistent scoring punch to complement Mikko Koivu, the leader of the team. The Wild did have to give up Brent Burns and Martin Havlat to get those guys, and it still doesn’t fix a lack of scoring depth up front.
The defense is weaker without Burns, but they still have Marek Zidlicky and Greg Zanon on the back end. They may have to rely on them too much, however. Niklas Backstrom still sits between the pipes (the one who stops pucks from going in his own net, not the one who puts them there), and that gives Minnesota a chance in every game.
Key Player: Mike Yeo, Coach — Yes, I’m going off the board here. Minnesota needs to put the puck in the net more. Yeo needs to figure out ways to do that, both within his system, and on the power play. Yeo was always the power play scapegoat as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. The talent isn’t quite as good in Minnesota, but it might be a better fit for him. We’ll find out soon enough.
Best-Case Scenario: Heatley, Setoguchi, and Yeo all work out as Fletcher had hoped. The Wild turn out to be an offensive team this season, while Backstrom flourishes with less pressure on him every night. Minnesota makes the playoffs, and actually upset #2 seed San Jose on their way to a surprising Western Conference Finals run.
Worst-Case Scenario: Heatley and Setoguchi struggle for long stretches. Yeo’s schemes don’t go as planned. Backstrom is still living and dying on every shot hefaces. He keeps them in games, but the team doesn’t win nearly enough of them. The Wild just barely edge out Colorado for 4th in the Northwest, but all that does is give them 12th overall in the conference.
–>Saint Louis Blues (West #8, Central #4): The Blues very quietly finished 11th in the West last season, getting some decent performances from players, but not quite enough in a stacked conference. Jaroslav Halak responded to being handed the reins by struggling at times. He’s talented enough, but it will be interesting to see if he can handle the mentality of a full-time #1 goalie in the NHL.
After a trade with Colorado last season, Erik Johnson is no longer the team’s anchor on defense. The team has opted to do things by committee, and it may work if the players can fit into Davis Payne’s system. On offense, there is tons of potential. Chris Stewart came over in that trade with the Avalanche, and he will fit in well with players like David Backes, Matt D’Agostini, and Alex Steen. If those forwards play to their capabilities, then this could all hinge on….
Key Player: Jason Arnott/Jamie Langenbrunner, F — These two gentlemen will likely determine where the Blues’ season ends up. Both are towards the tail end of their careers, but both have shown so much throughout those careers. If they can both muster up a decent season, while not being relied upon to do it all, there could be reason for celebration in Saint Louis.
Best-Case Scenario: The Blues get contributions from all those forwards, while Halak really seizes the opportunity in net. In a tough Western Conference, the Blues not only hang with the big boys, they start knocking them off. The Blues get into the playoffs and win a round, setting things up for a big year in 2012-13.
Worst-Case Scenario: Halak never becomes the #1, the offense is inconsistent, and the defense is exposed for being average at best. What looked like a promising year ends up with the Blues on the outside of the playoffs looking in once again.
–>Anaheim Ducks (West #7, Pacific #3): The Ducks rode great years from Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne to take 4th place in the conference, but didn’t get enough goaltending to go any further. That was the case because Jonas Hiller battled serious health issues for the majority of the 2nd half of the year. He appears to be healthy now, and with many of the great players from last season returning, including Selanne, there is much in the way of optimism in Orange County.
When Hiller went down with Vertigo issues, the Ducks tried to go with Ray Ellis, or was it Dan Emery? Regardless, it didn’t go well in the playoffs. Now, Hiller is back, and Ellis is his backup. He is protected by a solid defense, including Norris candidate Lubomir Visnovsky. Luca Sbisa and Cam Fowler both have tons of talent. But talent isn’t enough, and those two youngsters will have to get it done against a tough Western Conference.
Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Selanne, Koivu. Not many teams go that deep with talented forwards. Perry won the Hart Trophy. He is also the most annoying forward in the NHL (especially with Sean Avery reportedly on the outs in New York). Getzlaf is balding, but still is a great do-it-all center. Ryan has great talent, and is still so young. Selanne may be older than Father Time, but he’s still going to get 35+ goals. Meanwhile, Koivu just hums along, doing all the little things you need a guy to do in order to win.
Key Player: Jonas Hiller, G — You can’t talk about him enough. The offense kept producing, but the goaltending couldn’t help the team win with Hiller out. If he plays his normal workload, the Ducks have a lot of potential to do damage.
Best-Case Scenario: Hiller plays as expected. The offense delivers as expected. Visnovsky continues his great play, while the young defensemen make a big impact. The battle for the Pacific Division is won by the Ducks. They get 2nd in the conference, and cruise to the Western Finals, before falling to Vancouver in a classic series.
Worst-Case Scenario: Hiller has those health issues return. Ellis can’t handle the pressure. The offense tries to pick up the slack, but Selanne can’t seem to get it going this season. Visnovsky gets little help from the rest of the defense, and slumps back a bit. The Ducks are decent, but decent only gets you into the hunt. They fall short of the playoffs by 3 points.
–>Nashville Predators (West #6, Central #3): Barry Trotz keeps maximizing his team. Every year, he squeezes blood from the stone. And last season, the team finally won a playoff series. Now, I want to say that this will be Nashville’s last season of success, because they can’t possibly keep their amazing goalie AND their fantastic defenseman. I want to say that, but Trotz just keeps getting results, so maybe 2011-12 isn’t the last season for Nashville to see the playoffs.
The amazing goaltender mentioned above is Pekka Rinne. He plays extremely well and is perfect for the system (sound familiar, Ilya Bryzgalov?), which really allows him to thrive. In front of him, the defense is solid top to bottom, with a top pair that rivals any in the league. Shea Weber will get paid big (thank you, Drew Doughty), and plays a game worthy of that pay day. Ryan Suter is a perfect complement, and isn’t given enough credit for it.
The offense took a hit with the losses of Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan, but there are still players who can put the puck in the net. Mike Fisher has contributed well since arriving from Ottawa, Sergei Kostitsyn made huge strides last year, and Patric Hornqvist lights the lamp while driving opposing teams nuts. Martin Erat and David Legwand are still around, making contributions, and Blake Geoffrion looked great at times during his first long stretch in the NHL.
Key Player: Ryan Suter, D — I figure now’s a good time to give Suter that credit. He frees up Weber to be a contributor on both ends of the ice. Despite missing 12 games, he scored 39 points and was a +20. He’s due to get better, too. He’s now 26 years old, entering his prime. Expect a bump in his numbers, and a visible improvement in his overall play.
Best-Case Scenario: Rinne and Weber play at their best, no matter whether they stay or leave beyond this season. Suter takes that step forward. The offense gets a new contributor every night. The Predators finish the season in the 4th spot in the West. With home ice in the first round, they win another series. But, then they win another series. And in the conference finals, they win that, too. They’re in the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lose a tight series to the Penguins.
Worst-Case Scenario: Rinne and Weber are distracted by their contract issues. Suter gets injured and misses a large chunk of the season. The offense can’t get enough production when they need it most. They just aren’t able to get in the playoffs, finishing 9th. Barry Trotz is let go because he couldn’t get it done yet again.
–>Chicago Blackhawks (West #5, Central #2): The Blackhawks struggled with their Championship Hangover. Most of the season was spent trying to get healthy and consistent. Finally, down the stretch, they put it all together, and made it into the playoffs on the last day. They promptly fell behind 3-0 in their series against Vancouver before pushing it to OT of Game 7. It was a good season and a disappointing season, all at once. Where do they go from here?
Well, the offense will still be strong, despite overhauls over the last couple offseasons. Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa are all still around. Frolik and Olesz, removed from Hockey Hell (AKA Florida), will be given opportunities to make big plays. And the depth will be there, it appears. The defense also returns their top-end talent. Keith and Seabrook will take on the big minutes. Brian Campbell was traded away to Florida, but Hjalmarsson and Lepisto should step right in to provide necessary depth.
As for between the pipes….
Key Player: Corey Crawford, G — He played really well last year, no doubt. But this season, there is much more pressure. Expectations are elevated after the way last season finished. Also, Crawford has no real backup at this point. Ray Emery is there, but he proved not to be NHL-caliber in the preseason. There will be tons of pressure on Crawford to get his team two points every start.
Best-Case Scenario: The team stays healthy, Crawford is solid in net, and the offense lights it up again. The Hawks walk away with the division, survive a couple tough series, and find themselves back in the Cup Finals, this time against the Washington Capitals. After an intense but short series, the Hawks raise the Cup on home ice.
Worst-Case Scenario: Health issues abound, Crawford is up and down, and the offense struggles. The team sneaks into the playoffs again, and this time the hated Detroit Red Wings eliminate them in Round 1. The Red Wings also go on to win the Cup. The cries of Hawks fangirls ring out across the country.
–>San Jose Sharks (West #4, Pacific #2): The Sharks once again fell short of the Stanley Cup, and they once again tried to change things up enough to get to their goal without blowing up the team. This might be the last try at it, before there is no choice but to blow it up. In are Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, and Brent Burns. Out are Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Time will tell if that will be enough to accomplish their goal.
Despite the changes, the offense still boasts quite a returning cast. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, and Clowe all come back, allowing Havlat and Handzus to come in without nearly as much pressure as you’d expect for players of their caliber. With that list of 7, expect goals to be easy to come by. If they need any help, though, Burns and Dan Boyle are capable of putting up massive points from their defensive spots. The only concern is whether they will play enough defense. Seems counter-intuitive, but if you’ve ever watched Boyle and Burns play, you understand.
In goal, there are a couple of Finns. Clearly, this is a team after Griggsy’s heart. Antti Niemi will get a majority of the starts, while Antero Nittymaki (once he recovers from injury) will be the primary backup. Niemi is good, not great, and thrives on having a lead to work with. This is the right team for him, for certain.
Key Player: Douglas Murray, D — As mentioned, the concerns that exist with the Sharks revolve around whether their defensemen can play enough defense. Well, this guy brings the defense. He also brings vicious hits and is borderline dirty at times. Teams always want a player like that in their defensive corps. He may not be able to cover up for both Burns and Boyle, but he will definitely be the stay-at-home companion to one of them.
Best-Case Scenario: We all know this one. It’s winning the division, winning in the playoffs, getting to the Cup Finals, and winning the big one. Nothing less than that.
Worst-Case Scenario: I could simply say “anything less than the Cup”. But here goes nothing. They struggle out of the gate, with the new guys not fitting in. Niemi goes through struggles. The team barely pulls it together to make the playoffs as the 7 seed, then gets eliminated in the first round with no fanfare.
–>Detroit Red Wings (West #3, Central #1): While the Sharks haven’t accomplished anything close to their desires, they have managed to knock the Red Wings out of the playoffs the last two seasons. The Wings also have lofty playoff goals, so two straight second round exits to San Jose don’t sit well. The problem, however, is that the team as a whole has become too old, while the goaltender is still too young.
That goaltender is Jimmy Howard. He has shown flashes of the talent that got him the job in the first place. But he hasn’t been able to put it all together game-to-game. He needs to find that consistency soon. Luckily for Howard, the defensive corps is still good as a whole, despite getting up there in age. Lidstrom, Stuart, Kronwall, all are 30 or older, but they still have the skills necessary to make it tough on opposing forwards.
Detroit also has a gray-beard squad of forwards. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Cleary, and Franzen are all north of 30. That may become an issue, health-wise, as the season wears on. They also are supplemented by players like Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, and….
Key Player: Justin Abdelkader, LW/C — Abdelkader will absolutely need to step up this season, because of who is ahead of him. As pointed out, the potential for injury is very high in this group, so Abdelkader will be asked to take on a bigger role for stretches. He’ll need to do much better than the 19 points he had in 74 games last season.
Best-Case Scenario: Howard makes the leap, the old men come together for one last run, and they start things off by claiming the President’s Trophy. They follow that up by easily getting through the first two rounds. Then they knock off the Blackhawks to claim the Western Conference. Finally, in the rubber match of Cup Finals, the Wings defeat Pittsburgh in 6 games, once again celebrating with the Cup on Pittsburgh ice.
Worst-Case Scenario: Howard stays inconsistent, the old men start to break down, guys like Abdelkader don’t quite fill the void, and the Red Wings find themselves in the 8th seed in the West, staring down the Hawks in Round 1. The Hawks make short work of their foes, and go on to their second Cup in three years. Red Wings fans whine about how they got screwed. Oh, wait, they do that anyway.
–>Los Angeles Kings (West #2, Pacific #1): The Kings are the trendy choice this season. After injuries killed their playoff chances last year, the team returns just about everyone from last season, including defenseman Drew Doughty (at an absurd price tag). The young players are gaining experience, the veterans are talented, and Jonathan Quick looks like he’s ready to become the next great goaltender in the NHL. But you know how overhyped teams can sometimes just disappoint. The Kings have to battle that this season.
On offense, Ryan Smyth, Michal Handzus, and Wayne Simmonds depart, but everyone else returns, including the pair that were injured going into the playoffs, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Those two will make a huge difference, as they did up until their injuries. They also add a big name in Mike Richards. The former Flyers captain wore out his welcome in Philly, but he is a welcome addition to the Kings’ lineup. Kopitar will definitely feel less pressure, and that may free him up to become a top scorer in the league.
The defense has two top-end talents in Doughty and Jack Johnson. Both add an offensive dimension that is needed for the team to succeed. The men surrounding them round out the corps well. Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, Andy Greene, and Alec Martinez all acquit themselves extremely well in front of Quick. The American net minder is….
Key Player: Jonathan Quick, G — Quick’s stats for last year are great. 2.24 GAA and .918 SV%, those are hard to top. But he may need to take it to another level for the team to do well in the playoffs. During the series against San Jose, he struggled mightily, with a GAA of 3.14. Does Quick have the ability to raise his game in the playoffs?
Best-Case Scenario: Richards fits right into the Kings’ lineup, Doughty doesn’t miss a step despite missing preseason, and Quick continues his strong regular reason play. Kopitar wins the Art Ross Trophy, and the Kings take the top spot in the West. After dispatching the hated Ducks in the first round, the Kings knock off the Sharks next. In the conference finals, the Kings gain a measure of revenge from two years back, knocking off the Canucks. In the Stanley Cup Finals, the Kings defeat last year’s champs, the Bruins, and the Cup finally comes to Los Angeles.
Worst-Case Scenario: Richards’ locker room issues follow him to L.A., while Doughty struggles early on due to missing camp. Kopitar experiences more injury concerns, and Quick lets the bad taste from the playoffs linger, being extremely average all season. The Kings have the talent to make the playoffs, but only as the 5 seed, where they get knocked off by the 4 seed, Anaheim Ducks.
–>Vancouver Canucks (West #1, Northwest #1): The Canucks came so close to bringing the Cup back to Canada, but fell one game short. Then Vancouver was destroyed. (Riots: Not just for Montreal natives anymore.) Fortunately, the Canucks were allowed to live, so they come back this season hoping to cause winning riots. The team is so close to the same as the one that won the West last season.
The Sedins and Ryan Kesler obviously steer the ship offensively. They are joined by Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, and Mikael Samuelsson to form a very formidable offensive force. They also have very talented grinders and pests, making them very difficult to play. There is no downtime against this team. Defensively, they are just as difficult to face. Christian Ehrhoff has moved on, but they still have the likes of Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, and Keith Ballard. No one will jump off the page with their talents, but they are a fantastic team on defense.
You know where this is heading….
Key Player: Roberto Luongo, G — We’ve seen him stand on his head. We’ve seen him fall flat on his face. We’ve heard that freaking annoying noise that the Canucks fans yell when he does anything in net. He could fart loudly, and all their fans would chant “Luuuuuuu!” Regardless, when he’s good, he’s really good. When he’s bad, he’s Andy Chiodo level awful. Will he be good or bad this season? The answerwill tell you how far he goes, and how far the team goes.
Best-Case Scenario: See 2010-11 Season. Replace Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss to win. Riots.
Worst-Case Scenario: Luongo collapses. Everyone but Vancouver laughs. They get the #3 seed and get knocked off in the first round. Riots.
So, that’s all, right? WRONG. Here are Griggsy’s predictions for the Western Conference playoffs:
(1) Vancouver def. (8) Saint Louis, 4 games to 1;
(2) Los Angeles def. (7) Anaheim, 4 games to 3;
(6) Nashville def. (3) Detroit, 4 games to 3;
(5) Chicago def. (4) San Jose, 4 games to 2
(1) Vancouver def. (6) Nashville, 4 games to 3;
(2) Los Angeles def. (5) Chicago, 4 games to 3
Western Conference Finals-
(2) Los Angeles def. (1) Vancouver, 4 games to 2
Los Angeles represents the West in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Coming tomorrow: The Eastern Conference Preview, Eastern Playoff Predictions, and a Stanley Cup Champion Crowned