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Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Breaking down the Western Conference

By John Buccigross
ESPN.com

Last week, we gave you the Eastern Conference. Now, here's my breakdown of the West.

15. Colorado Avalanche



Woke up today to everything grey
And all that I saw just kept goin' on and on
Sweep all the pieces under the bed
Close all the curtains and cover my head
-- "What You Wish For" by Guster


There were rumblings about a Patrick Roy return to this special American community of Denver, Colo., over the summer. And while he is certainly an emotional person who sometimes has let that human element get the best of him, he is not stupid. This is probably not the time to take over the Colorado Avalanche. But that day is coming soon if they play their cards right.

Colorado is in great position to build another championship team if it stays patient and smart (and if it stays terrible for one or two more seasons). With Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene, the Avalanche are set at center for the next 10 years. They both appear to be high-end centers and that is gold in hockey.

I do think the Avs are overpaying Stastny by about $1-1.5 million a year. I just don't see how a 23-year-old gets that kind of extension without proving durability and consistency, but that's small potatoes. That being said, Stastny should have a better than 50/50 chance of earning most of his money.

Duchene, the third pick in this past summer's NHL draft, is the real deal and his personality is a perfect fit for Colorado. There will be times when he reminds some Avs fans of Joe Sakic on the ice. Off the ice, he has a bounce to his step and an obvious joy and love for the game. His feet are magic and I see big things out of him in a couple of years; you will see the glimpses of that promise this season. I don't know if they will be a Sakic-Peter Forsberg combination, but they could be in the ballpark.

Contract-wise, the Avs are in good shape. Only Stastny is locked up long term and there is plenty of cap space coming to be able to add the right pieces when the time is right. And that time could be next summer. For the time being, play and develop the kids, trade any veteran another teams wants, and lose, lose, lose this season. Get another top-three draft pick for June and start thinking about next summer's free-agent class now. Don't do anything stupid. Don't overpay a player you don't see as a championship contributor. It's not worth it.

Either way, the Avs must start getting better at drafting and developing. They have been dreadful in that department. Their last good draft was 1998, when they had four first-round picks. Now, I understand they've been good for a long time and have traded some No. 1 picks to go for championships, but they should have done better. It's still a little early for the past couple of drafts. If they can get a couple of value pieces out of there and another stud next summer and add two free agents, this team will rise fast and Roy will love to jump on the ship. But it might be too late. GM Greg Sherman and coach Joe Sacco might get this thing going sooner rather than later, and Patrick might, for the first time, be on the receiving end of a shutout.

14. Phoenix Coyotes



I thought about this for a long time
I never had the chance to try and make it better
My heart is waiting for a new you
And there's no other option on the schedule
-- "Consolation Prizes" by Phoenix

I played golf with former Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky this summer. It happened about a month ago, before he resigned from the bench.

The foursome was me, Gretzky and Ray Ferraro and Russ Courtnall. That is 1,599 career NHL goals sniping and shoving Titleists for four hours, which has got to be close to a record goals total for one non-NHL person playing golf with three former NHL players. Unless Kenny G or someone played golf Wayne, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull somewhere snazzy. My record would have been obliterated -- 2,325-1,599.

Observations from our round at Sherwood Country Club:

1. Wayne is a little bigger than I thought. He is listed as 6-foot, but he seemed bigger than that to me.

2. He is an excellent putter, employing the claw grip on this day. He putts like a tour pro built for fast greens.

3. His mood never changed the whole day. It was bright and fun. You could not ask for a better golf companion. I actually played pretty well, and to hear Wayne Gretzky say, "Nice shot," well, that was a bit too much for me to handle.

4. Of course, we all talked hockey all day. Wayne loves hockey. He told interesting and funny stories and had strong opinions on certain issues. This man is alive and still simmering with a passion for the game. He shall return.

5. His sons are great athletes. The older son recently earned a college golf scholarship and his younger son is an outstanding baseball player and also a quarterback. He also has a hat trick of daughters.

With all of the bankruptcy proceedings in the news recently, what was lost was that the Coyotes were actually in a decent position just as Gretzky got kicked to the curb. They are starting to accumulate single-digit draft picks. They are kind of like Colorado in that regard, although I would put the Avs in a slightly better position. Both teams need a goalie. Gretzky never had a goalie in Phoenix, so he never had a team. You can't overcome pedestrian goaltending in the NHL.

The Coyotes' cap situation is in good shape going forward. Only Shane Doan is signed after next season and his cap number is only $4.5 million, which is precisely why I would look to trade him.

I can't believe there aren't teams banging down the door to get Doan for three years at $13.5 million at age 33, 34 and 35. He has figured things out over his 965-game career and kept getting better, eclipsing 70 points in each of the past two seasons. I would think the Coyotes could get very good return in a Doan trade. He would be a great second-line player on a number of teams and I'm sure Phoenix could get a good prospect, draft pick or both.

You hate to trade a player that you want every other player to be like, but the Coyotes, or whatever they will be called in the future, are at a point where a good trade here and a good draft there can get them to a point where they could finally have a chance not to be a good team, but a "great one."

13. Minnesota Wild



Darlin', I'm tired and I should be leavin', leavin'
You know I'm tired, and I should be leavin'
-- "As Tall As Cliffs" by Margot & the Nuclear So and So's

The only coach the Wild had ever known is no longer around. Jacques Lemaire left town after eight seasons and now coaches the Devils. Todd Richards and the new organizational blood promise a more aggressive, attacking style of play. It's about time. Their fans deserve more entertainment and more playoff wins. The Wild have won two playoffs series in their history and those came during the same spring of 2003. This is a new era of hockey and you have to score goals to be among the elite in the NHL. Minnesota had 214 goals last season (22nd overall in the league).

And so, the question is can the Wild score more goals with a new system or do they need new players? Martin Havlat was a great sign at $5 million a year. He is 28 and, if healthy, should score 30 goals a season for Minnesota, 40 if it can start scoring more on the power play. He had 24 even-strength goals last season and just five on the power play. He is not Marian Gaborik in terms of pure skill, but he is in the neighborhood and has some emotion to him. He also wears a beard well.

What is striking to me is how many average teams like the Wild are capped out. The ability, or inability I should say, for some GMs to assess talent and price it is just astonishing to me. Pierre-Marc Bouchard has a $4 million cap hit for four more years. He is an average all-around player. You get a couple of these contracts and, man, it drags your team down.

Bouchard, Kim Johnsson and Marek Zidlicky make a combined $12.3 million; that's more than 20 percent of the team payroll. Until they get franchise players that are locked up, teams have to give themselves flexibility so they don't just continue to skate in place. By hiring a veteran coach and playing defensive hockey, the Wild assured themselves of not being entertaining and not being awful. In just about every case, you have to be awful to get an icon, and then you have to add the right pieces.

Obviously, the best way to do that is through the draft. But unless your team is awful and gets a No. 2 or No. 3 overall pick, you are prisoner to the depth of a given draft and stuck in "just over .500 land." Here is the Wild's first-round draft history:

2000: Not a great draft, but they selected Gaborik at No. 3 overall.

2001: The Ilya Kovalchuk draft. The Wild picked sixth overall and selected Mikko Koivu in a solid but not spectacular draft. Koivu was probably the best pick for the Wild to make. Can't debate this one.

2002: The Rick Nash draft. Again, not a great draft. The Wild took Bouchard eighth overall. Other than Cam Ward at 25, you really can't go overboard on them taking anyone else.

2003: Finally, a great draft; and, lo and behold, the Wild pick 20th overall. Brent Burns is a good player, but Minny misses out on Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Zach Parise and Ryan Getzlaf, all taken before the Wild get on the board.

2004: Not a very good draft after Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. The Wild selected Minnesota native A.J. Thelen, who will probably never play a game in the NHL. Everybody missed on Mike Green, who the Caps took at 29th overall.

2005: The Crosby draft looks hit and miss right now, although these players are still young. The Wild got its highest pick, fourth overall, since their first draft. They took Benoit Pouliot and, right now, that doesn't look like a fourth-overall pick.

2006: This has a chance to be a very good draft. The Wild took James Sheppard and the jury is still out.

2007 to the present: Too early to tell.

The point is, the Wild have never picked first or second, and history has shown that's where you get a franchise player. Otherwise, it is part skill and luck guessing on an 18-year-old and hoping for a deep draft. The Wild have been short on both. They have not drafted and developed a young core like the Flyers, who have picked in worse positions than the Wild. Minnesota's first-round picks have yielded close to nothing. The Bruins have emerged out of nowhere the past couple of seasons because of second-round picks like Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.

So, the Wild are stuck on the treadmill, waiting for their Minnesota savior to arrive. He could be 15 years old. He could be 5.

12. Edmonton Oilers



Think of me
Anyway you want
I can be
The problem if that's easier
In your head
Move the pieces around
Things I've said
Turn the memory upside down
-- "Time" by Ben Folds

Craig MacTavish had a long leash in Edmonton. He was coach for eight seasons and the Oilers advanced beyond the first round just once over that span, in the spring of 2006, when the Oilers reached the Cup finals before losing in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes. But I don't think much will change this season under new coach Pat Quinn.

While the effort to build the Oilers has been there, it doesn't seem like it was done with much of a plan in mind. Sometimes, GMs think the best thing to do is to go out and get a bunch of stuff and then expect the coach to make it all work. A talented interior decorator doesn't go to the local Pottery Barn and buy a bunch of stuff to take to a house they've been hired to improve. They visit the house first. They see what's already there. They get a feel for the place. Then they act. Some things might be expensive and some things might be a $5 lamp. There is a vision and a budget, and those two things are balanced to get the most desirable result.

Now, let's face it, Chris Pronger's decision to leave Edmonton following the Oilers' 2006 Cup run was a vital blow. Apparently, the paradise that is Philadelphia in the winter was OK. Pronger was Edmonton's one star, their best player, and the psychological effect of his departure on a team that otherwise has no stars is real. The Oilers haven't been to the playoffs since Pronger left. Since Pronger was traded to St. Louis from Hartford at age 21, he has never missed the playoffs. He is good.

Stuff happens in life, however, and you have to move on. The Oilers just haven't made the right trades and the right free-agent signings as they have tried to stay, understandably, competitive. But now they have multiple players who are overpaid and no young players you could label as "franchise." This is why the Oilers sought out Dany Heatley. They needed a dependable scoring star. But they are still a capped-out, average team who needs everyone to perform at their peak level and/or exceed their usual average.

The Oilers actually have a decent defensive corps in front of Nikolai Khabibulin. If they can somehow improve their special teams, they will be in the playoff hunt. If that happens, we have our coach of the year.

11. Dallas Stars



Are times getting tough?
Are the roads you travel rough?
Have you had enough of the old?
Tired of being exposed to the cold?
-- "Wilco (The Song)" by Wilco

The Stars are in that precarious tweener stage. They still have enough pieces from "the good ol' days" to feel like the old Stars and have slowly introduced some new pieces. Currently, they are in a freefall in the points department, going from 112-107-97-83, respectively, over the past four seasons. The question now is, where do they go from here?

It's kind of interesting that the Stars went six seasons with Bob Gainey beginning the season behind the bench. Then, they had Ken Hitchcock behind the bench for six openers. Then, it was Dave Tippett behind the bench for six seasons. Marc Crawford is now the coach heading into this season.

Dallas has had a good run since moving from Minnesota to Dallas for the 1993-94 season. They have won a Stanley Cup, missed the playoffs just three times and have eclipsed 100 points eight of the past 12 seasons.

But times are changing, and the Stars are in the beginning stages of a significant shift. This is the last year of Mike Modano's contract ($3.4 million) and I would think this will likely be his last NHL season. He turns 40 next summer and is a lock to make the Hall of Fame. I think this is a perfect time to go out. Marty Turco's $5.7 million number also ends after this season. If Dallas fails in the postseason, there could be a change in net, as well.

The Brad Richards trade has not worked out well. I've always been a big Richards fan, but he had a scoring line of 18-41-59 in 68 games coming into this season. For a $7.8 million cap number. He has two years left on his contract.

Going forward, the Stars are in a great position cap-wise to keep valuable assets and retool their team. They can make moves for free agents like Kovalchuk next summer, or be aggressive with restricted free agents like Erik Johnson in St. Louis. This flexibility enabled Dallas to sign Loui Eriksson to a six-year extension, encompassing his prime years at a cap number of just more than $4 million. It's risky after a small sample size, but the financial risk is relatively small if Eriksson doesn't live up to that consistent 30-goal scorer status the Stars paid for. I list this signing as good.

What about this season? Dallas has a forward group that is varied and solid. They have youth, veterans, sandpaper and skill. I'm not crazy about their mix of centers and I think teams will be able to score on the Stars. Crawford wants to open things up and score more goals, which Dallas needs to do. This team is not constructed to be a defensive-minded team. By opening things up, they will give up even more goals because their defense and goaltending can't handle the wave of offensive chances by opponents.

I think every team in the West outside of Phoenix and Colorado has a real chance to make the playoffs. My rankings here are based on my probability of it happening for the rest of the West. Dallas has enough to put it all together if it is in perfect harmony. While they are in a good position going forward, not everything adds up here for me right now.

10. Nashville Predators



I've been roaming around, I was looking down at all I see
Painted faces fill the places I can't reach
You know that I could use somebody
You know that I could use somebody
-- "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon

This is Season 11 of the Nashville Predators and they have yet to win a playoff series. Nashville has made the postseason four times, losing to the Sharks and Red Wings twice apiece in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Last season's problem was goal scoring. The Preds could use somebody in that department. Nashville scored 213 goals. The league average was 239. This is why Nashville missed the playoffs. The team's leading scorer was J.P. Dumont with 65 points.

People forget Nashville had constructed a very good offensive team before last season. They had back-to-back 100-point campaigns and then 91 points in 2007-08. You can't do that post-lockout without goal scoring. Paul Kariya was the one star this organization had, and his signing gave the Preds star power and a scoring leader to set an offensive tone. He is now in St. Louis.

Nashville's slip back toward non-elite status occurred because they are once again a below-average offensive team. Three players no longer wearing a Preds sweater come to mind right away: Kariya, Scott Hartnell and Alexander Radulov. All three brought a different dynamic to the offense: Kariya, the experience; Hartnell, the around-the-net power-play presence; Radulov, the pure rising star who one expected to be a 30- to 40-goal scorer by now.

So, this Nashville team that has solid goaltending, defense and coaching will be hoping to simply score enough to be in the playoff hunt. Key players like Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan are 35 now. Injury and missed time has to be expected, not just because of their age, but also because they will have to play a lot, which only increases the chance of injury.

Unless Martin Erat and David Legwand and Dumont and the rest produce way above their means, Nashville will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

9. Los Angeles Kings



I'm hanging by thread and I'm feelin' like a fool
I'm stuck here in-between
The shadows of my yesterday
I want to get away
I need to get away
-- "Back Against the Wall" by Cage the Elephant

The Kings have missed the playoffs for the past six seasons. The first season of that stretch, they had 78 points. Last season, the Kings had 79 points. This is slow progress.

But the Kings have improved over the past three campaigns. Their point totals have gone from 68 to 71 to 79. The question coming into 2009-10 is can they make that 12- or 13-point jump to become a playoff team? Obviously, they need improvement somewhere.

First of all, the Kings have to score more. They had a paltry 207 goals last season, which is why it was a bit bewildering the Kings discounted the acquisition of someone like Heatley. Dependable, high-level goal scoring is what they really needed. Maybe their concerns over Heatley will one day come to pass. I doubt it. The first concern in talent acquisition should be talent!

What is Anze Kopitar's ceiling? We will find out in the next couple of years. He is 22 and has 237 NHL games under his belt. It's just about time to go. Is he a 35- to 40-goal scorer? That would sure help things.

Alexander Frolov has hit the 30-goal mark two of the past three seasons. What about Dustin Brown? He is a great young leader, but the Kings also need him in the 28- to 32-goal range. Can Ryan Smyth pump in 25 to 30 goals? The Kings' top-four goal scorers netted 101 goals last season. The first step now is getting Kopitar, Brown, Frolov (if he plays the whole season in L.A.; he's a free agent after this season) and Smyth to combine for 120 goals or so. That's a good place to start.

The next step is for this team to get a presence in net; this has been part of the reason for its playoff drought. If this can happen and the Kings can get the offense going, they have a real shot at the playoffs. They also have cap space to give the team a jolt down the stretch.

A month ago, I thought the Kings would be able to end their playoff drought. But after studying things a little more, I have them outside the top eight.

8. Anaheim Ducks



Pity, take pity on me
'Cause I'm not half the man that I should be
Always turning to run,
from the people I should not be afraid of
-- "A Diamond and a Tether" by Death Cab For Cutie

As we mentioned in the Oilers' capsule above, since Chris Pronger exited Edmonton following their Stanley Cup playoff run, the Oilers have not returned to the postseason. Will the same happen in Anaheim now that Pronger is in Philly? Pronger is "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" on the ice. Well, not long term perhaps, but the Ducks are now in a position to sweat it out even more than last season when they barely got in with 91 points.

Anaheim has been one of the more successful franchises over the past six NHL seasons:

2003: Lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
2004: Missed the playoffs.
2005: Lockout. No hockey. Chris Pronger kills small game with bare hands in Northwest Territories and eats them raw. For sport. Brian Burke is so impressed, he begins his plot to acquire him.
2006: Lost in conference finals to the Oilers.
2007: Won the Stanley Cup.
2008: Lost in first round of the playoffs.
2009: Lost in second round of the playoffs.

This season's team will have a much different feel with the absence of Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Rob Niedermayer and Samuel Pahlsson are out of the picture from a defensive forward standpoint, as well. Anaheim's cap situation is in great shape going forward, but it is no longer an elite defensive team, so it needs to score. Can they score enough to offset their rising goals-against total? If it's a problem, they can sign anyone they want next summer. A skilled free-agent forward next summer can sign with the Ducks and have high-end forward teammates and great weather. That's enticing.

When the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, they gave up 206 goals in the regular season. Looking at their team now, it looks like it might be a challenge to keep from giving up 240 to 250. You don't make the playoffs when you give up 250 goals in the regular season. If you are even close to that number, you better light the lamp often.

From a fantasy hockey standpoint, we might have plus/minus and goaltending issues here. I better stop writing now, or I'm going to talk myself into switching the Ducks with one of the teams above. But this is what should make the West exciting; it's really wide open.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets



I can taste your fear
It's gonna lift you up and take you out of here
And the bone shall never heal
I care not if you kneel
-- "Intervention" by Arcade Fire

Columbus finally made the postseason last season, its first trip in its eight-year history. The chances are pretty good the Jackets will return this season.

The Blue Jackets have good depth and better-than-average skill at the forward position. The defense is slightly below average and the goaltending is young. Young goaltending is like a 19-year-old Hollywood actress or pop star; it doesn't always end well. I don't think Steve Mason will be partying like a rock star with Shop Boyz, Pitbull and Lindsay Lohan in West Hollywood, so there is hope. Hopefully, his idea of a good time is a late-night run to the Polaris Waffle House in central Ohio with Derick Brassard and the valedictorian of Heidelberg University.

Now, it's one thing to make the playoffs; it's quite another to have a team that can actually win a series, or four. For Columbus to be that kind of team, it needs to score a little more and give up a little less. Last season, the Jackets scored 226 goals and gave up 230; that's first-round loss territory. Getting to that 235-220 area would be good; that was Carolina last season and it reached the conference finals. Columbus reminds me a bit of Carolina; good skill up front, an OK defense and a good goalie. What Carolina had over Columbus last season was better skill from its defensemen.

Now, Fedor Tyutin has progressed offensively. His points have risen from 14 to 20 to 34. If he can get to that 40-point area that would be huge. It is very hard to generate consistent offense without a couple of dynamic defensemen. Remember, Columbus has plenty of cap room. The Jackets will easily be able to take on a contract at any point this season as teams look to dump contracts.

As far as the goal scoring, yes, it is possible for a Ken Hitchcock-coached team to score goals. When the Stars won the Stanley Cup, they were an above-average offense. Same with the 2004 Flyers, who lost Game 7 to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals. Hitchcock is not Lemaire. He doesn't suppress scoring to ridiculous measures. Columbus should score and win a little more this season.

6. St. Louis Blues



The serotonin's rushing, I'm coughing
Well, I kinda caught the blues
But you won't catch me complaining
To the super or the moon
Because the carrot's gonna dangle
Until the diamond is appraised
-- "Endless Entertainment" by Bright Eyes

I wrote this two years ago for the Blues preview:

John Davidson is a smart and confident hockey man who has seen every nook and cranny of the hockey business. His boss, Dave Checketts, is a polished, smart businessman with a fine head of hair and a politician's aura in the mold of Mitt Romney. Under coach Andy Murray, a smart hockey dude, the Blues finished 27-18-9 last season and missed the playoffs by 15 points. Everything seems to be looking up.

In last season's preview, we talked about how the draft history of the Blues put them in a bad spot (when they went for a championship every year) and then a good spot:

2008 -- No. 4: Alex Pietrangelo
2007 -- No. 13: Lars Eller
2006 -- No. 1: Erik Johnson (and Patrik Berglund 25th overall)
2005 -- No. 24: T.J. Oshie
2004 -- No. 17: Marek Schwarz
2003 -- No. 30: Shawn Belle
2002 -- None
2001 -- None
2000 -- No. 30: Jeff Taffe

We are now in the "up" stage two seasons later. The 2005 and 2006 drafts, getting Andy McDonald for Doug Weight and trading Dennis Wideman for Brad Boyes (the ultimate "great trade for both teams" deal) has put the Blues in a great position going forward. Kariya's $6 million comes off the books after this season, as does Keith Tkachuk's $2.1 million. This gives St. Louis the option of being a player for someone like Kovalchuk, or bringing back Kariya and Tkachuk at reduced prices. Both are at the point where their salaries will decline going forward.

That cap space may also be used for goaltending. That is the one mystery surrounding the Blues. Right now, they pay their goaltenders $4.3 million combined. As long as they are performing, that is a great way to have depth elsewhere (the Rangers pay their goalies $7.5 million; the Ducks $7.3 million). The Blues also have a little bit of cap space to do something this season.

It's a great time to be a Blues fan. Not only are they improving, not only are they a playoff contender, but they are also interesting. This team has an attraction to it. The young players are cool. And Kariya and Tkachuk have late-1990s star power still to this day. Their names sound like hockey.

Hockey matters in St. Louis again. Cool.

5. Vancouver Canucks



Hear the ol' whistle blowin'
They're pulling the plug
We got to get goin'
They got our hole dug
Are you ready?
-- "Are You Ready" by The Tragically Hip

The Canucks were a 100-point team last season. They were a good balance of offense and defense and had a real chance to be a playoff force. A couple of big saves by Roberto Luongo and the Canucks could have beaten the Blackhawks in the postseason.

As far as this season …

Will Alex Burrows ever score 28 goals again? Probably not, but low 20s would be acceptable. But other than that, I think this team is pretty solid and balanced. They still lack that big-time player to lean on over the balance of a regular season, so, once again, the Sedin twins need to remain healthy and productive (Daniel and Henrik didn't miss a game and each posted 82 points last season). If they are not, there could be problems.

But even if injuries came to key players, there is depth and sturdiness here. There is not a lot of "spectacular" in the Canucks' lineup, which is why Luongo gets so much attention. And also because his name is Roberto Luongo. Back-to-back three-syllable names are very pleasing to the ear. Especially when they end in the letter "O." Robertooooo Luongooooo. I feel less tense already. And it's cheaper than a spa day. If his name was Harvey Beckmeyer, he would get a lot less attention.

The defense lacks some speed and, again, the forwards lack a real sniper. I don't know if the Canucks were ever in on Heatley, but he would have been a great fit here. The Canucks have to scratch and claw for everything they get. It would be nice to get some easy, talent-based goals every now and then.

Without catastrophic injuries, making the playoffs should not be a major problem. But unless last season's surprising production from certain players continues or rises a little bit, I think the Canucks are a bit shy of the elite.

4. Detroit Red Wings



I'd like to make myself believe
That planet Earth turns slowly
It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep
'Cause everything is never as it seems
-- "Fireflies" by Owl City

The Red Wings have had three consecutive deep playoff runs. In 2007, they lost in the conference finals to the Ducks. In 2008, they won the Stanley Cup. In 2009, they lost to the Penguins in Game 7 of the Cup finals on home ice.

That should make any team feel good. But last season's finals has to hurt a lot. Detroit probably should have won that series. They were up 2-0 and 3-2. They won 5-0 in Game 5. They then lost back-to-back games 2-1. Their goal scorers in Games 6 and 7 were Kris Draper and Jonathan Ericsson, respectively. Everyone else disappeared.

Now what for the Wings?

Well, they're still good. They have two big-time stars to lean on in Pavel Datsyuk (turns 32 years old next July) and Henrik Zetterberg (turns 29 on Oct. 9). Johan Franzen (turns 30 in December) would score 40 goals if he could ever play in 80 games. This is a good start. On defense, Nicklas Lidstrom (40 next April) and Brian Rafalski (36) give the Red Wings experience and offensive acumen on the back end. These five players also account for $30 million of cap space and are in an age bracket in which injuries happen and recovery time is longer.

The Red Wings scored 295 goals last season. They will not repeat that number, so to hold on to first place in the Central Division, they will need to play better defense. Last season, Detroit was 19th in goals against and 25th in penalty killing and gave up 244 goals in the regular season.

One way the Wings have managed the salary cap, besides the descending contracts that we know will end up with the player either "retiring" or being bought out, is they don't pay for goaltending. Their goalies make a combined $2.1 million. This will likely get exposed this season because of the offensive hit the Wings will feel in their goal totals. It will be interesting to see if the Wings do anything midseason to deal with this possible issue.

Age, the cap and goaltending all make this an interesting season. The Wings have lost a bit of their drafting magic. They took Zetterberg in the seventh round of the 1999 draft; but since then, Johan Franzen (third round in 2004) is the only high-impact player on the roster who the Wings drafted. Niklas Kronwall (29th overall in 2000 draft) has seen his numbers increase every season he has been in the league, but is completely overshadowed. The Wings have him at a $3 million cap number for three more years. What a steal.

Lidstrom's $7.4 million comes off the books next season, which gives the Wings some cap relief. There will be a lot of relief if he retires (hello Kovalchuk-Datsyuk line?), and a little if he accepts a reduction in his contract. I'm real curious to see how Detroit deals with its immediate future. One thing we do know about Mike Ilitch-owned teams: they always go for it.

3. San Jose Sharks



If something's old, I wanna put a little shine on it
When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it back again
When something's broke, I wanna put a little fixing on it
If something's bored, I wanna put a little exciting on it
-- "The Fixer" by Pearl Jam

The San Jose Sharks have broken the 100-point barrier in four of the last five seasons. They should be able break 100 again this season and win the Pacific Division. This division is not a strong swimmer; the Sharks won it by 26 points in 2008-09. They can score, and prevent, goals.

For a team which perpetually seems to be missing something, there is a lot to like with this year's lineup. For one, Heatley gives them a real scoring star. If he plays his 80 games and gets his 300-plus shots, he should be in that 50- to 60-goal area. He is also playing for his reputation, and there's no better center to help him do that than with pass-first Joe Thornton. Thornton had 139 shots on goal last season, less than two per game.

Others are also playing for contracts. Evgeni Nabokov, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi are all entering the last years of their deals. They all have motivation to bring it every second of every night. These are all good signs for San Jose fans.

An area of concern for the Sharks is their depth. It looks like they will be going with some inexperienced players to start the year. This can lead to mistakes at crucial times in close games, but overall, it shouldn't derail what they have. They also are not deep at defense. Having a young player step up at either forward or defense will help define this season. Most special seasons include surprise stories.

I've always been a big fan of Nabokov. He has had some of the most acrobatic saves the past few seasons and is building a résumé that could be included in a Hall of Fame discussion if it ever includes a Cup, five more seasons of play and 160 more wins.

But one thing is troubling. I went back and compared Nabokov's regular-season and postseason save percentages. In every season, his playoff save percentage decreased from the regular-season number. Look at Martin Brodeur -- his save percentage is almost always better in the playoffs. Same with Chris Osgood, Dominik Hasek, Tom Barrasso (during Pittsburgh's Cup runs), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (during Anaheim's 2007 Cup run) and most other top-level goalies. Some of this might be team-related, but at some point, Nabokov has to simply be better in the postseason for the Sharks to succeed.

We won't know the answer to that question for six or seven months.

2. Chicago Blackhawks



Hey, look around it's all so clear
Hey, wherever we were going, well we're here
Hey, so many things I never thought I'd see
Happening right in front of me
-- "Welcome to the Future" by Brad Paisley

It is still quite surreal to think about the Blackhawks in these 2009 terms -- as a team that can really, actually, win a Stanley Cup. The team missed the playoffs nine out of 10 seasons and then ... BAM! ... a trip to the conference finals.

From 2001 to 2008, with the exception of 2005, the Hawks drafted a player who contributed in some way to the Hawks' success last season. Three out of four years, they had a top-3 pick. They got Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in back-to-back drafts, selections that can set up an organization for 10 years. The Hawks are hot and should remain so for years to come.

As this incredibly surprising success story continues, it will slowly morph with rising expectations. The Hawks haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1961. The one before that came in 1938. And the only other one was won in 1934. For now, it is all still a party. Eventually, it will become a cause. These Hawks really did it all last season; they scored, they defended, they hit and they fought. They were entertaining. And they will be again this season.

Three keys:

1. Cristobal Huet: So far, not good. Last season, he was outplayed and lost his starting job. His career had a nice, steady arc before last season's expectations. So it is reasonable to believe he can return to form. But can you picture him as a Stanley Cup-winning goalie? If you can, then this team has as good a chance as any.

2. Marian Hossa: This was a monster signing by Chicago. Assuming he returns to form from offseason shoulder surgery, Hossa could be the move that puts the Hawks over the top. I compare it to the Yankees signing Mark Teixeira last winter; It looked like he was on his way to Boston to play with the Red Sox. When the Yankees swept in, they added an important piece to their team and took Teixeira away from the Red Sox. These moves are sometimes overstated, but when you are talking about an elite player, it isn't. Teixeira was the difference in the regular season and will likely be the difference in the playoffs and World Series.

Once the Hawks have a healthy Hossa, it should give them an actual roster edge, as well as a psychological one. This doesn't guarantee success, but the Hawks definitely improved their chances over the next three to four seasons by signing Hossa. He is a high-level, two-way player and was a big reason the Penguins and Red Wings respectively reached the Cup finals the past two seasons. He scored 41 points in 43 playoff games.

The Hawks' Stanley Cup window is now officially open.

1. Calgary Flames



How do you like me now?
Now that I'm on my way
Do you still think I'm crazy?
Standin' here today?
-- "How Do You Like Me Now?" by Toby Keith

Jay Bouwmeester has thrown himself right into the Canadian fire by signing with the Calgary Flames. He could have gone into a less pressurized situation than this Alberta oven, but choosing to come here says a lot about the young man. It shows that, at 26 years old, he is confident, determined and ready to make the next step as possibly the game's most complete defenseman. He thought it all through. So many athletes make dumb free-agent decisions -- Bouwmeester appears to have made a smart one. This is exactly what free agency was designed to do and be.

Culturally, Calgary could not be more different from South Florida, and it obviously suits Bouwmeester to a T-shirt. He can drive his Toby Keith-approved Ford 10050 to and from work and feel apart of the Canadian community. I'm sure at times, however, he will miss the South Florida Februarys.

Once he gets to work, Bouwmeester joins a deep, defensive group that is strong, sturdy and very Canadian. He is one of the boys, and he doesn't have to do it all. In his frozen cubicle, he blends in like a roll of Scotch tape.

It will be interesting to watch the Flames in 2009-10. Last season, they scored a lot and gave up a lot. Miikka Kiprusoff's goals-against average has gone up every year he has been in Calgary. The past four seasons, his games played looks like this: 74-74-76-76. That is insane. He turns 33 later this month. He can't sniff that amount of games and expect to finish the season with a kick. Kiprusoff is obviously a grinder. He takes every goal to heart. Having him play that amount of games wears down his brain, and anyone who believes otherwise doesn't understand goalies or people like Kiprusoff. He is not a John Deere tractor on the Sutter farm. He is a man, he's 33 and he needs to be handled better this season or he will have another .884 playoff save percentage like this past spring.

Offensively, it will be interesting to seeg who scores for Calgary. They essentially "traded" Mike Cammalleri's salary for Bouwmeester's. And remember, Cammalleri led the Flames in goals last season (39). Thirty-nine! Another human and a better power play can replace some of those lost goals. The Flames had a below-average power play in 2008-09. That should improve with the addition of Bouwmeester and a full year of Olli Jokinen, who should be in that 30-goal, 80-point area this season.

How good can the Flames be? Well, we've given some reasons why they are among the elite of the NHL and we haven't even mentioned Jarome Iginla. This is a good sign. This is the team to beat out West.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.