By: Luke Johns
The NHL regular season begins Wednesday with two Western Conference showcases in St. Louis at Chicago and Los Angeles vs. San Jose. With the player and coaching turnover that occurred last summer, there’s plenty of intriguing storylines to look at in the Western Conference.
The Favorite: Chicago Blackhawks.
I still think you have to consider the Blackhawks the favorites in the Western Conference despite their first round exit because they are the deepest team at all positions. Sure there’s questions about who Joel Quennevelle wants to play as the top-line left winger and if Brian Campbell have a successful second stint in Chicago playing top-four minutes. Overall though this team is just too talented that whether a young forward plays on the top-line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa or if Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin are split up, this team won’t skip a beat and will thrive no matter what the top-six looks like. Above all else the Blackhawks having the reigning Hart Trophy winner, Calder winner, three number one defensemen talents and a goalie that was on the World Cup winning roster, it’s hard to pick against the Blackhawks.
Team to keep an eye on: Arizona Coyotes.
Don’t get me wrong, the Coyotes are not going to sniff the playoffs this season, but the work management has done to the roster over the last two years is outstanding leaving the Yotes stacked with young talent that are going to make them a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific Division before we know it.
Max Domi and Anthony Duclair will undoubtedly be the faces of the franchise for a long time and will soon be household names among NHL superstars. Other young forwards such as Tobias Reider, Christian Dvorak and Ryan MacInnis will serve as valuable role players in the coming years.
John Chayka strengthened the up-and-coming blue line by acquiring veteran Alex Goligoski to be the perfect veteran on the back end for the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Anthony DeAngelo, Connor Murphy, etc. and made moves drafting Clayton Keller and trading for Lawson Crouse to just add to the young forward depth. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: this team is STACKED with young talent.
Once Arizona’s done with Chris Pronger, Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland’s contracts, it appears that a goalie is the last piece to the puzzle before this team is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. So keep an eye on them now so that when they steamroll your team in a few years you can at least say you saw it coming.
Team(s) that will regress: St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
I couldn’t decide which of these teams are more likely to regress more so I chose both. The loss of David Backes is going to hurt the Blues immensely both on the ice and in the locker room making leadership a question mark. Ken Hitchcock announced this would be his last year coaching and the Blues already hired his successor, Mike Yeo, as an associate head coach. That unusual coaching staff structure to go along with a new captain definitely makes me wonder who’s going to have control of the locker room.
Anaheim got back together with its ex and brought Randy Carlyle back for another stint. Bob Murray decided that Bruce Boudreau wasn’t the right man for the job anymore and Carlyle, who wasn’t productive with Toronto (unless you count being so bad they got Auston Matthews) and wasn’t behind an NHL bench last season, was. Factor that in with the Ducks not improving their overall core, I’m predicting Anaheim to take a step back.
Other Notable Teams: Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks
The Preds are the real deal and newly acquired P.K. Subban is the main reason. Subban is one of the best two-way defensemen in the league and the pairing of him and Roman Josi is going to be electric on both ends of the ice. Like Subban and Josi, Nashville has a lot of core players that are wither in or entering their prime such as Ryan Johansen, Colin Wilson, James Neal and also has Philip Forsberg who is just 22.
Dallas still has all the offensive firepower they had last season when they led the league in scoring. The thing with them is they’re going to have to rely on the offense to carry the load again since they lost Goligoski and Kris Russell on defense and nobody feels great with Kari Lehtonin and Anti Niemi as your two goalies.
The Sharks aren’t getting a whole lot of attention for being the defending Western Conference Champions, but they still have three dominant forwards in Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture and Brent Burns who is expected to have another outstanding season as the number one defenseman. As long as the Sharks don’t let their age and the potential Stanley Cup hangover get to them, I don’t see any reason why they can’t make another deep run in the playoffs.
Rookies To Watch: Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk
In many other drafts Laine would be the number one pick, but nonetheless the Jets have another young winger. Laine has enjoyed International tournament success and the Jets are hoping that his final year in Finland will translate to NHL success. He has great hands and a great shot so he’s poised to have a strong rookie season.
Tkachuk is the real deal who should fit in nicely with the Flames young talent. Tkachuk has racked up points at every level he played at so based on that track record and his overall talent I’m thinking it’ll translate this season.
Players Due For A Breakout Season: Nathan MacKinnon, Robby Fabbri
MacKinnon was the number one overall pick in 2013 and has put up two 20-goal seasons in the NHL, but I still don’t think he’s reached his full potential yet. He’s still very young at age 21 and had an outstanding World Cup of Hockey scoring two goals in three games and made his presence felt on the ice. Now having three years under his belt, this should be the year he puts it all together and goes off for an incredible season.
Fabbri played in all but 10 games for the Blues last year as a rookie and showed flashes of brilliance with outstanding speed and awareness all while notching 37 points. Expectations are going to be high for him this season as he’ll need to fill the scoring void left by David Backes and take the pressure of Vladimir Tarasenko. But after a good rookie season and a strong playoff showing, I believe he’s up for the challenge.
Prediction for who wins the West: Calgary Flames
A bit of a bold prediction, but I love what the Flames were able to do in the off-season. They locked up Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan who are going to be a year better, Sam Bennett will also be a year better as the second-line center and added Troy Brouwer via free-agency and Matthew Tkachuk with the number six pick to form a dangerous top-six. I’m all-in on Tkachuk and think he’s going have a great career based on watching him in the World Championships and the talent he’s going to be surrounded with. The defense had ups and downs last season but they have good players in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. Having a true number one goalie this season should go a long way to making them a better defensive team.
Speaking of which, the Flames acquired Brian Elliot for just a second-round pick, which was a very smart move. Elliott led the Blues to a Western Conference Final appearance and will put an end to the Flames goalie troubles they’ve had in recent years. It would be quite the jump from last season, but with everything they have going for them right now the Flames are a dark horse team in the West and my pick to win the Clarence Campbell Bowl.
(Featured Image: Sarah A, Flickr)