NHL realignment could make the west a little less wild this season.
Gone are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, with the Winnipeg Jets getting their wish for a geographical relocation to the Western Conference. Fourteen teams will compete for the West’s eight playoff spots, compared to 16 in the East.
The Central Division has the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Jets. The Pacific has the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks.
With almost the same team back that won it all last season, the Blackhawks are favoured to win the Central again. But the Blues are a chic Cup pick thanks to goaltending, coaching and an intriguing mix of youth and veterans.
In the Pacific, the Canucks and Oilers have new coaches and different expectations. Roberto Luongo is back as Vancouver’s starting goaltender, this time under coach John Tortorella, making for plenty of unpredictability in Vancouver.
Under the new playoff format, the top three teams from each division make it, along with the two teams with the next-highest point totals. The top wild-card team plays the division champion with the most points, making for cross-over potential.
Here’s a look at the Western Conference in the predicted order of finish by division (asterisk indicates wild-card playoff teams):
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 36-7-5, 77 points, 1st seed in West, won Stanley Cup
Who’s gone: C Dave Bolland, F Viktor Stalberg, RW Michael Frolik, LW Dan Carcillio, RW Rostislav Olesz, G Ray Emery
Who’s new: G Nikolai Khabibulin
How they make the playoffs: It’s not “The Streak” Part 2, but everything goes according to plan. GM Stan Bowman works toward long-term contract extensions for Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews, which are completed in the summer.
How they miss the playoffs: Corey Crawford crumbles under higher expectations, and the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover costs the Blackhawks valuable points. Depth forwards counted on to step up are unable to do so, and injuries lead to a disastrous season in Chicago.
2. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 29-17-2, 60 points, 4th seed in West, lost in conference quarter-finals to Los Angeles
Who’s gone: LW David Perron, F Andy McDonald, D Kris Russell
Who’s new: F Magnus Paajarvi, C Derek Roy, LW Brenden Morrow C Maxim Lapierre
How they make the playoffs: Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak find harmony as No. 1 and No. 1A goaltenders, and Ken Hitchcock continues to prove he’s one of hockey’s brightest coaches. Jay Bouwmeester thrives with less pressure on him.
How they miss the playoffs: Goaltending injuries and struggles thrust Jake Allen into the starting role, and the 23-year-old can’t handle it. The forward mix of stable veterans and young unknowns isn’t quite right.
3. Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 24-21-3, 51 points, 9th in East, missed playoffs by 4 points
Who’s gone: RW Antti Miettinen, D Derek Meech
Who’s new: RW Devin Setoguchi, RW Michael Frolik, C Mark Scheifele, D Jacob Trouba
How they make the playoffs: It finally comes together for a young core led by Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd. Scheifele and Trouba provide sparks, and MTS Centre gets to host a Stanley Cup playoff game for the first time.
How they miss the playoffs: Much-maligned goaltender Ondrej Pavelec can’t stop the puck, putting coach Claude Noel on the hot seat in the process. The Jets find out that while travel is easier, things are much harder in the Western Conference than in the Southeast Division.
4. Dallas Stars
Last season: 22-22-4, 48 points, 11th in West, missed playoffs by 7 points
Who’s gone: RW Loui Eriksson, LW Eric Nystrom, D Philip Larsen, G Richard Bachman
Who’s new: C Tyler Seguin, C Rich Peverley, RW Valeri Nichushkin, C Shawn Horcoff, D Sergei Gonchar, G Dan Ellis
How they make the playoffs: GM Jim Nill’s moves all come up gold, as Seguin blossoms into a No. 1 centre, and Gonchar provides veteran experience on the blue-line. Kari Lehtonen manages to stay healthy and gets into the discussion among elite goaltenders.