Caps News (Updated) / 2009-10 NHL Western Conference Predictions

September 26, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

Caps News

Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post had this Caps update from Saturday morning’s practice at Kettler Ice Plex. Here is the summary of a very informative blog from an outstanding beat writer:

Defensemen Sean Collins has cleared waivers and appears destined for Hershey

Forward Chris Bourque plans to play in Sunday afternoon’s last pre-season game against the Rangers at the Verizon Center at NOON (not 7pm) with a roster spot on the line

Center Brendan Morrison skated and appears ready to give it a go as well against the Rangers

Injured forward Eric Fehr (shoulder surgeries) is still not medically cleared for contact

Calder Cup winning goalie Michal Neuvirth is apparently hurt but it is not believed to be serious

So there is a lot happening with the Caps and Sunday’s tilt will be the last chance for General Manager George McPhee and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to form or change any opinions on the 30 players left on the roster before having to commit to 22 or 23 of them for the season opener in Boston on Thursday night (October 1, 7pm on VERSUS).

By the way, the Caps held their first ever convention today at the Gaylord Center in National Harbor and they sold out 5,000 tickets at $40 a piece. UPDATE: Nestor was there and has a great video up on WNSTv where he talks with former Cap Kellly Miller, owner Ted Leonsis, and long time Caps broadcaster Smokin’ Al Koken. Also here is a  good writeup on what the Caps had planned for the banners that used to hang in the Verizon Center. I was unable to attend (I had made plans to take my 3 year old daughter to Dutch Wonderland on Saturday) but I did squeeze in 15 minutes during the afternoon to talk about the Caps on WNST’s new Saturday sports show, Section 410, with host Eric Aaronson. Section 410 is a very good weekend show on WNST (it is nice that someone is finally filling the void left by the talented Mark Suchy on Saturday afternoons) and Eric and I promised to continue to talk hockey throughout the season. So if you tune in to his show from 11am to 3pm (and he talks all things purple too!) you will likely hear about the Caps sometime during the broadcast.

2009-10 NHL Western Conference Predictions

This NHL season, set to begin on Thursday, October 1, is going to be an interesting one from a scheduling standpoint due to the 14-day Olympic break in February (the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are in Vancouver). Several teams will have to deal with multiple star players logging 82 regular season games but also several high intensity contests for their respective countries. So teams that can handle the Olympic break correctly could end up going deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now with that intro to the 2009-10 season, it is time to bring you my NHL regular season predictions. Tonight we will start with Western Conference, which last season was won by the San Jose Sharks (President’s Trophy winners for best NHL regular season record), who were then eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings would go on to win the Western Conference in the playoffs knocking off an up and coming Chicago Blackhawks team in the conference finals. There were numerous player movements over the summer so we’ll factor them in and see where things stand, at this point in time (the NHL trade deadline, which is set for 3pm on March 3rd, will clearly have some impact on things). Please note that the top 3 seeds comprise the three division winners.

1. San Jose Sharks – The recent addition of forward Dany Heatley from Ottawa for forwards Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek puts the Sharks over the top for next season as they now have two very dangerous lines (Joe Thornton-Heatley-Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau-Ryane Clowe-Joe Pavelski). Their defense will rely heavily on 39 year-old Rob Blake and 33 year-old Dan Boyle with Marc-Edouard Vlasic continuing to gain experience at just age 22. In net, Evgeni Nabokov carries the bulk of the load and he will have to be careful not to burn himself out because he has the inside track on being the goalie for Team Russia in the 2010 Olympic Games in Febuary. GM Doug Wilson brought in Coach Todd McClellan from the Red Wings last year and he did everything right during the regular season and then the Sharks could not raise their level of play to post season level (much like some of the Caps teams of the 1980’s were unable to do when mentioned as potential Stanley Cup favorites). I am going with the Sharks to win the west again and I am also picking them to go to the Stanley Cup Finals and take it all in 2010. If they do not win, you can bet GM Doug Wilson will break this team up, if he isn’t let go himself.

2. Calgary Flames – The biggest non-secret heading into last off-season was that Brent Sutter was going to quit coaching in New Jersey and come back home to Alberta and help get his brother Darryl Sutter out of hot water with the fans in Calgary. The Flames faithful have grown impatient with four straight first round playoff exits. Sutter, in his defense, can blame the pressure of the fans and some front office personnel for some of those exits since the majority of them clamored for the team to shed much of its defensive posture and look to score more goals. So Sutter brought in Alex Tanguay and then Mike Cammalleri (who have both since departed) and while Calgary increased their scoring output, their defense went down the tubes under head coach Mike Keenan, who managed to get goalie Mikka Kiprusoff and young defensemen Dion Phaneuf to regress. Enter Darryl’s younger brother and the shrewd acquisition by the GM of former Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and you can bet that Calgary will be a very tough team to score goals against this season, something that bodes well for them in the playoffs as well. Look for Phaneuf to a have a monster year as he reunites with his junior coach at Red Deer. With Robyn Regehr and Corey Sarich rounding out the top 4 defensemen this blue line is as good as any in the NHL. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, and Daymond Langkow give Calgary three elite forwards. The biggest issue for Calgary will be the salary cap as they have roughly just under $44M allocated to the 8 players I have mentioned so far. That leaves just over $12M for the remaining roster which means the Flames must find the right role players to augment their stars and the team has to stay healthy, something it did not do down the stretch last spring.

3. Detroit Red Wings – I still can’t believe the Red Wings blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads in the Stanley Cup Finals and allowed another Pittsburgh team to win a championship, something we Baltimoreans do not like! Detroit is an aging team and their captain and best defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom, turns 40 during the first round of this seasons playoffs (April 28) but the four time Stanley Cup Champion and six time Norris Trophy winner still is one of the NHL’s elite players. With Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen up front they have incredible fire power and #40 and #13 can play both ends of the rink as well as anyone. Detroit did lose some good players in Marian Hossa (Hawks), Jiri Hudler (Russia KHL), Mikael Samuelsson (Canucks), and Tomas Kopecky (Hawks) so they will take a hit but GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill always seem to find quality replacements (perhaps Darren Helm and Ville Leino?). Goaltending is where the Wings are weakest with an aging Chris Osgood and 25 year old Jimmy Howard (2nd round pick in 2003 NHL Entry draft) as the backup. I still see the Wings winning their division but it is not the cakewalk it used to be!

4. Chicago Blackhawks – Lots of people are on this team’s bandwagon as evidenced by their appearance on the cover of ESPN the Mag. Put me in the column of people who thinks this team is slightly overrated at this point in time. The primary reason is goaltending. Cristobal Huet, who signed a monster four year contract in the summer of 2008 (and George McPhee is thanking his lucky stars that he let him go), has a career playoff record of 6-10 and has never won a post season series in the NHL. They have great young players in captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick “20 cent” Kane plus they acquired Hossa and Kopecky from the Wings and three time Stanley Cup winner John Madden from the Devils. Add in some other good forwards in Kris Versteeg (23) and Patrick Sharp (27) plus a front of the net presence in Dustin Byfuglien (24) to go with a top 4 defense of Brian Campbell (30), Cam Barker (23), Duncan Keith (26), and Brett Seabrook (24) and you have a good young hockey team that will be tough to beat most nights. But I still don’t believe in Huet so this team will be up and down all year but will make the playoffs easily. After this season they are in salary cap jail, but that is a story for another time.

5. Anaheim Ducks – This team will be still be a force because of its’ goaltending. Jonas Hiller took over for former Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winning goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere last spring and nearly took the Ducks past the Red Wings until losing in the 7th game of round two. You can expect that Giguere will want his job back this season and that will only make this tandem even better. Last season the Ducks had a major distraction in GM Brian Burke, who has since moved on to the same role in Toronto, but new GM Bob Murray has taken over the reigns and done a very good job of gathering assests for the future and keeping what was an aging team, and still is in some areas, in contention for the Stanley Cup. Veteran defenseman Scott Niedermayer and forward Teemu Selanne are both back for what appears to be one more season and a potent group of young, big, and strong forwards in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and the emerging Bobby Ryan make this a tough team to defend as well. They also added Saku Koivu and received Joffrey Lupul in the Chris Pronger trade so they have two very good forward lines. After Niedermayer and James Wisniewski on defense things get a little shaky. Ryan Whitney needs to prove he is fully recovered from the foot injury that kept him out of most of last season before being shipped to the Ducks from Pittsburgh, Luca Sbisa (another asset acquired in the Pronger deal with Philadelphia) is only 19 and is still learning, and they also have journeymen Nick Boynton (Florida last season) and former Cap Steve Eminger (Flyers, Lightning, and Panthers last season) on their blueline.

6. Vancouver Canucks – Goalie Roberto Luongo and forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin all garnered long term contracts to stay with the team in the off-season and now it is time for them to step up and produce. GM Mike Gillis added Samuelsson from the Wings and it appears he will be the guy who will play with his fellow Swedes. After that, I am not a fan of this group of forwards other than Ryan Kesler and the scrappy (and sometimes dirty) Alexander Burrows. It will be interesting to see if Corey Hodgson, who is only 19 and played for the Manitoba Moose against Hershey in the Calder Cup finals, makes the team out of training camp. Hodgson, according to the NHL scout I spoke with, has a good hockey mind and work ethic and is projected to be a good player in the league. The Canucks defense is loaded with name players and they added Mathieu Schneider and Christian Erhoff to a blue line that already included Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieska, Sami Salo, and Willie Mitchell (Mattias Ohlund signed in Tampa Bay as a free agent). This team, which gave Calgary fits last year, will be the Flames primary challengers again and will win the divison if Sutter’s crew struggles or has injury issues.

7. St. Louis Blues – President John Davidson’s crew made the playoffs last year with an amazing stretch run and now they get forward Paul Kariya (and according to what JD told the Sporting News he is in great shape) and young defenseman Erik Johnson back from injury. Center Andy McDonald took less money to stay in St. Louis and they still have the big Keith Tkachuk up front. I think forward Patrick Berglund is a star in the making and Head Coach Andy Murray is a very good tactician. It will be interesting to see if 19 year-old defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, who made the Blues out of camp last year before being sent back to juniors, stays with St. Louis all season and can contribute. The weakness is goaltending and they are going with Chris Mason and Ty Conklin, two journeymen guys who must be solid for this team to stay in the playoff picture.

8. Dallas Stars – Sean Avery really wrecked this club last year and team captain Brendan Morrow’s season ending knee injury didn’t help their cause either. Throw in an up and down year from goalie Marty Turco and the front office turmoil (co-GM’s Brett Hull and Les Jackson were reassigned after the Avery debacle)  and one can see why a very good coach like Dave Tippett lost his job (bad move though, in my opinion). The new GM is former Star Joe Nieuwendyk and the new head coach is 1996 Stanley Cup winning (Colorado) Marc Crawford. The aging Mike Modano is back at forward along with Mike Ribiero (needs to rebound from a subpar 2008-09), Brad Richards (wrist injury slowed him considerably last season), Steve Ott (19G and 135 PIMs), and Jamie Neal (who scored a surprising 24 goals last year) but everything revolves around Morrow, who eats rocks for breakfast. The defense has some decent young players in Trevor Daley (25), Nicklas Grossman (24), and Matt Niskanen (22) to go with 32 year-old Stephane Robidas and 35 year-old Karlis Skrastins (in Florida last season). Turco is backed up by Alex Auld. Two prospects to watch are Swedish Fabian Brunnstrom, who played in the NHL last season with some success, and Jamie Benn (2007 5th round pick), who played for the Kelowna team that lost to Windsor in the 2009 Memorial Cup.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets – This club made its’ first ever playoff appearance this past spring getting swept by the Wings in four games but just getting to the post season was a big step in Columbus for hockey, especially since the team is not in good shape financially. Because of that the Jackets need to get back to the post season but can rookie sensation goalie Steve Mason carry this team again? I think it will be tough although with superstar Rick Nash, R.J Umberger, the returning from injury Derrick Brassard and second year man Jakub Voracek this team has some talent at forward. The enigmatic Kristian Huselius can score and they brought in free agent forward Samuel Pahlsson (Hawks and Ducks) to help stymie other teams top lines. When I look at their group of defensemen the first word that comes to my mind is “Huh?” Because of that and the inevitable drop-off for Mason this club misses the playoffs.

10. Los Angeles Kings – Coach Terry Murray’s crew is a team on the rise and a trendy pick to make the playoffs but to get right to the point, they won’t make it because of goaltending. 27 year old Erik Ersberg and 23 year old Jonathan Quick shared the load last season but if GM Dean Lombardi had his way he would want 21 year old Jonathan Bernier to step up and grab the top spot. LA spent some money in the off-season signing defenseman Rob Scuderi from the Pens and trading for crease crasher (and expensive) Ryan Smyth. Scuderi joins a very young but talented defense that includes 19 year-old second year man Drew Doughty and 22 year old Jack Johnson (injured much of last season). Lombardi also still has 20 year old Thomas Hickey, who they went off the board on to pick one spot ahead of Washington’s Karl Alzner in the 2007 NHL Entry draft, on the roster right now. Alexander Frolov (27), Anze Kopitar (22), team captain and power forward Dustin Brown (24), and Jarrett Stoll (27) will team with Smyth to give the Kings two good lines. Murray is a great coach and if he gets decent goaltending this team could sneak in to the playoffs.

11. Nashville Predators – GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz will try and find a way to get this low budget team into the playoffs again after missing last season. The Preds have a very good defense led by the powerful Shea Weber (24) and the solid and steady Ryan Suter (24). Dan Hamhuis (26) rounds out the trio of solid d-men. Up front team captain Jason Arnott is flanked by J.P Dumont, Martin Erat, and the return of a more than two year absent Steve Sullivan (35). Forward David Legwand, the 2nd player taken in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft,  is now 29 and needs to have a monster year for this team to have a chance to make the playoffs. Pekka Rinne (26) had a great year in net last season and Dan Ellis (29), who seized the job in the spring of 2008 only to lose it to Rinne last year, is trying to get the #1 goalie job back.

12. Edmonton Oilers – In the summer of 2008 GM Kevin Lowe was roundly praised for his off-season moves yet the Oilers still missed the playoffs by 6 points. This summer Lowe tried to get Heatley from Ottawa but the forward told everyone where he thinks this team is headed when he blocked a potential trade to the Oilers. The GM did upgrade his goaltending by signing former Stanley Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin (36) and he has $5M plus each into defensemen Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky. At forward Shawn Horcoff and the talented but injury prone Ales Hemsky lead the team, which is also counting on young guns Andrew Cogliano (22) and Sam Gagner (20) to contribute much more this year.

13. Minnesota Wild – New GM Chuck Fletcher’s biggest move was hiring a new coach and he went with his former Wilkes-Barre Scranton head man in Todd Richards (was an assistant with the Sharks in 2008-09) . His next biggest move was overpaying forward Martin Havlat (can’t stay healthy) but fortunately for Fletcher he has an outstanding goalie in Niklas Backstrom locked up for 4 years at $24M. Defenseman Brent Burns looks to rebound from an underachieving 2008-09 and aging forwards Andrew Brunette and Petr Sykora were inked to score but they are well past their primes. I can’t see this team making the playoffs as configured currently.

14. Phoenix Coyotes – Lots of good young forwards here in Peter Mueller (21), Martin Hanzal (22), Kyle Turris (20), and Mikkel Boedker (19) plus they still have power forward and team captain Shane Doan (32). Ed Jovanovski anchors a very suspect defense and Ilya Bryzgalov (29) will be the man in net. The big problem is the off ice issues with ownership and financial problems and that is a huge distraction. Wayne Gretzky is out as coach due to the whole ownership fiasco and Tippett is in. I am on record several times as being a fan of Tippett but he can’t work miracles in a bad environment.

15. Colorado Avalanche – This team was one of the elite in the West for years but now they are bottom feeders. Joe Sakic, who was injured just 10 games into last season, has retired so Adam Foote, at age 38, and forward Milan Hejduk (33) are all that is left from the Avs glory days. 23 year-old Paul Statsny is a star in the making and he is the future of this hockey team along with 3rd overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Matt Duchene. After that you have a bunch of cast-offs and re-treads from forward Darcy Tucker to defensemen Tom Preissing to goalie Craig Anderson. Anderson played well at times for the Panthers last year and he looks to try and beat out the inconsistent Peter Budaj.  It looks like a long year in Denver for this team!