With the season finally getting underway today, I thought I would pass along this story I saw on the wire as I worked my Deseret News sports desk shift.
From the L.A. Times’ Helene Elliott:
The Vancouver Canucks had the best record in the West last season and won the Presidents’ Trophy for ranking No. 1 overall but were quickly bounced from the playoffs by the Kings. The No. 2-seeded St. Louis Blues and No.3-seeded Phoenix Coyotes met the same fate. But it might not be as easy as 1-2-3 for the Kings again. A look at how the conference shapes up:
2011-12: 51-22-9 (111 points); 1st in West.
Will they trade goaltender Roberto Luongo? If they do, they should be fine with Cory Schneider, who replaced Luongo during the playoffs. The Canucks made a good add with free-agent defenseman Jason Garrison and have depth to withstand the indefinite absence of center Ryan Kesler (wrist and shoulder surgeries).
2. ST. LOUIS
2011-12: 49-22-11 (109 points); 2nd in West.
Another fine regular-season team that got a wake-up call in the playoffs. The Blues had the NHL’s best goals-against average (1.86) and bring back goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Ken Hitchcock upped their physicality and was voted coach of the year last season. Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to add skill.
2011-12: 40-27-15 (95 points); 8th in West.
The first No. 8-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup returns nearly its entire roster, but the resources will be tested early without defense-minded defenseman Willie Mitchell (knee) and center Anze Kopitar (knee). Goalie Jonathan Quick, the playoff MVP, said he’s fine after back surgery, but Kings fans will hold their collective breath until he proves it. Jeff Carter can fill in at center until Kopitar returns, probably in a week or two.
4. SAN JOSE
2011-12: 43-29-10 (96 points); 7th in West.
If the Sharks are ever going to win it all, this must be the year, because core players Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are getting well past 30. This team always turns out to be less than the sum of its parts but might have a push left with the additions of gritty Brad Stuart and Adam Burish.
2011-12: 45-26-11 (101 points); 6th in West.
Team captain Jonathan Toews and winger Marian Hossa have recovered from concussions, good news for a team that retained a strong core. The Blackhawks must improve their power play (26th last season) and penalty killing (27th). Goalie Corey Crawford (2.72 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) doesn’t inspire much confidence, but their offense figures to be a big strength.
2011-12: 48-28-6 (102 points); 5th in West.
It’s difficult to picture the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, whose retirement ended a marvelous career. They’re still dangerous up front thanks to the magical Pavel Datsyuk and new team captain Henrik Zetterberg, but they have holes on defense and could be in a battle to make the playoffs.
2011-12: 35-36-11 (81 points); 12th in West.
Adding mobile, productive Ryan Suter should boost a power play that ranked 27th last season and bring leadership to a young defense corps. Winger Zach Parise (31 goals with New Jersey) will energize an offense that scored a league-low 177 goals last season. Watch for skillful Finnish rookie center Mikael Granlund to have an impact.
2011-12: 48-26-8 (104 points); 4th in West.
Losing Ryan Suter to free agency creates a huge hole on defense. The Predators are well coached by Barry Trotz and are always speedy and tenacious, but they lack a game-breaker up front. Mike Fisher (24 goals), Martin Erat and David Legwand must carry the offense again.
2011-12: 42-27-13 (97 points); 3rd in West.
Goalie Mike Smith (2.21, .930) had an outstanding 2011-12 season, and Coach Dave Tippett worked his usual magic to get a lot out of not much. Losing top scorer Ray Whitney (24 goals, 77 points) to free agency will be tough to make up. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 21, is a tremendous talent.
2011-12: 42-35-5 (89 points); 10th in West.
Wingers Ray Whitney (24 goals, 77 points with Phoenix) and Jaromir Jagr (19 goals, 54 points with Philadelphia) are both 40 but have defied age. If they can keep up with youngsters like Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, the Stars will be in the mix for a playoff spot.
2011-12: 41-35-6 (88 points); 11th in West.
Winger Gabriel Landeskog is precocious. The 20-year-old Swede was voted the NHL’s rookie of the year last season and was named the Avalanche’s captain. He and Matt Duchene are among the intriguing pieces on a team that needs strong leadership and stronger goaltending to crack the top eight in the West.
2011-12: 34-36-12 (80 points); 13th in West.
The best thing about having an NHL season is the chance to watch Teemu Selanne. The fabulous Finn, 42, still has great hands and greater love of the game. He had 26 goals and a team-high 66 points last season. Winger Bobby Ryan is good for another 30-goal performance, but center Ryan Getzlaf (11 goals, 57 points, minus-11 defensively) must make a big comeback. They’re thin after their top four or five forwards and iffy on defense.
2011-12: 32-40-10 (74 points); 14th in West.
The Oilers have a dazzling group of young forwards and could supplement that corps with No. 1 draft pick Nail Yakupov. Free-agent defenseman Justin Schultz could be a power-play quarterback, but they need better goaltending after ranking 23rd last season with Devan Dubnyk getting most of the minutes.
2011-12: 37-29-16 (90 points); 9th in West.
The Flames are caught in between: They have young talent coming up but still rely heavily on veterans like 35-year-old right wing Jarome Iginla and 36-year-old workhorse goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Expectations are high for Swiss left wing prospect Sven Baertschi, but the Flames are too weak up the middle to reach the playoffs.
2011-12: 29-46-7 (65 points); 15th in West.
Poor Blue Jackets. They got adequate players but no standouts when they traded winger Rick Nash to the New York Rangers and they have no real scoring threats. Former Flyers backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can’t be worse than Steve Mason (3.39, .894). Another long season is in store.
The New Jersey Devils hope history repeats itself on two fronts. They won the Stanley Cup in 1995, after the NHL’s first lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule, and they won the East last season as the No. 6-seeded team. But if Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby is healthy and Rick Nash scores the goals the New York Rangers couldn’t manufacture last season, the Devils won’t win another lockout-asterisked championship. In fact, they might not even make the playoffs. A look at how the conference shapes up:
1. N.Y. RANGERS
2011-12 finish: 51-24-7 (109 points); 1st in East.
Acquiring burly winger Nash from Columbus should give the Rangers the scoring they lacked last season. He’s a two-time 40-goal scorer and can be a presence physically. The Rangers will need another big season from Henrik Lundqvist (1.97 goals-against average, .930 save percentage), who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie.
2011-12 finish: 42-32-8 (92 points); 7th in East.
Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t been the high-scoring Ovie of old, which was widely blamed on clashes with coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter. Boudreau was fired, Hunter went back to the junior ranks and Adam Oates was hired to coach this underachieving team. Oates was a generous and smart player. If he carries that over to coaching, the Capitals should be fine.
2011-12 finish: 49-29-4 (102 points); 2nd in East.
The Bruins have depth and scoring power up front and size and mobility on defense. Young center Tyler Seguin (29 goals, 67 points) was smart to play in Switzerland during the lockout and stay active. Right wing Nathan Horton, hampered by head injuries the last two seasons, appears ready to play for the first time in nearly a year. His return would improve the balance of their four lines.
2011-12 finish: 51-25-6 (108 points); 4th in East.
MVP and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin (50 goals, 109 points) played in Russia during the lockout and should be sharp. Crosby didn’t go to Europe but worked out regularly and has said he feels fine. The Penguins traded Jordan Staal but got some promising defense prospects for him. Signing veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun will allow Coach Dan Bylsma to avoid overworking Marc-Andre Fleury.
2011-12 finish: 47-26-9 (103 points); 5th in East.
Claude Giroux (28 goals, 93 points) and Scott Hartnell (37 goals, 67 points) were the heart of this team and should continue in those roles. The Flyers’ defense is solid enough to withstand the loss of Chris Pronger, who was limited to 13 games last season and might not play again because of concussion-related woes. The key to their success will be goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s ability to bounce back from a wildly erratic season and show some focus and consistency. Good luck with that.
2011-12 finish: 41-31-10 (92 points); 8th in East.
Coach Paul MacLean did an impressive job last season with a team that wasn’t expected to do much. Veteran forward Daniel Alfredsson is back, and Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson established himself as someone to watch, but their goaltending is underwhelming. Prospect Robin Lehner might eventually emerge over Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop.
2011-12 finish: 33-33-16 (82 points); 12th in East.
The Hurricanes always look better on paper than they turn out to be on the ice but adding Jordan Staal in a trade with Pittsburgh gives them an exceptional No. 1 center and makes for a happy reunion with his brother, Eric (24 goals, 70 points). General Manager Jim Rutherford took a big gamble by signing winger Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7-million contract after a 21-goal, 54-point season with Washington. The Canes have a mobile defense and should be able to grab a playoff spot.
2011-12 finish: 38-26-18 (94 points); 3rd in East.
The Panthers were a surprise division winner last season, benefiting to an extent from Washington’s inconsistency. They lost defenseman Jason Garrison (16 goals, 33 points) to free agency but should be able to compensate. Watch for speedy, skillful 19-year-old winger Jonathan Huberdeau, a star in the making.
9. NEW JERSEY
2011-12 finish: 48-28-6 (102 points); 6th in East.
Losing 31-goal scorer Zach Parise to free agency will hurt beyond compensating for his 31 goals and 69 points. He was a clutch player, but the Devils couldn’t match Minnesota’s 13-year, $98-million free-agent deal. They have a solid defense corps and a budding star in center Adam Henrique, a finalist for rookie-of-the-year honors. Winger Ilya Kovalchuk (37 goals, 83 points) did well in Russia during the lockout and should be primed for another big season.
2011-12 finish: 39-32-11 (89 points); 9th in East.
The Sabres missed the playoffs by only a few points last season but another miss could mean dismissal for General Manager Darcy Regier and Coach Lindy Ruff, who have become fixtures in Buffalo. The Sabres have a fine goaltending tandem in Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth but they need scoring. Trading center Derek Roy to Dallas for pugnacious Steve Ott ups their peskiness quotient but might not do much for their offense.
11. TAMPA BAY
2011-12 finish: 38-36-8 (84 points); 10th in East.
The Lightning had the NHL’s worst team goals-against average last season — a bloated 3.34 — and tried to address that over the summer by trading for Nashville backup Anders Lindback. He’s considered promising but there’s no telling how he will hold up as a No. 1 goalie. Center Steven Stamkos led the NHL with 60 goals and was runner-up in the scoring race with 97 points, and he’s only getting better. Winger Martin St. Louis (25 goals, 74 points) seems ageless at 37. There’s some potential if the Lightning can keep the puck out of its own net.
12. N.Y. ISLANDERS
2011-12 finish: 34-37-11 (79 points); 14th in East.
Center John Tavares (31 goals, 81 points) is a legitimate star, and Matt Moulson (36 goals, 69 points) has shown a great nose for the net in scoring 30 or more goals in three straight seasons. But this team doesn’t have much depth up the middle. In addition, defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky has said he wants to stay with Bratislava of the Kontinental Hockey League this season rather than join the Islanders, who acquired him from the Ducks in a trade he unsuccessfully tried to negate. He could help the Islanders, who ranked 28th in goals scored last season.
2011-12 finish: 31-35-16 (78 points); 15th in East.
New General Manager Marc Bergevin made a bold statement by telling underproductive forward Scott Gomez to stay home and wait to be bought out next summer. Bergevin, who brought in Michel Therrien to coach, must restore some pride to this once-glorious franchise and re-sign restricted free agent P.K. Subban, a dynamic defenseman. Goaltender Carey Price (2.43 goals-against, .916 save percentage) has a decent defense corps in front of him and youngsters like forward Alex Galchenyuk should upgrade their energy and skill.
2011-12 finish: 37-35-10 (84 points); 11th in East.
The Jets were a huge box-office success last season, their first in Winnipeg after moving north from Atlanta. They had a good start but faded out of playoff contention and their fate doesn’t appear much brighter this season. Realignment that would have moved them to the West was delayed by the lockout, so they will have a tough travel schedule again. In this short but all-intraconference schedule they’ll travel many miles. Defenseman Zach Bogosian is likely to miss the first month while recovering from wrist surgery, and he will be missed.
2011-12 finish: 35-37-10 (80 points); 13th in East.
Firing Brian Burke as their general manager days before the season was to start emphasized how inept the Maple Leafs’ organization is. Burke’s no saint but why not make the change in time to give new GM David Nonis time to build something and fix the problems behind their second-half slide last season? Phil Kessel (37 goals, 82 points) has proved himself, and they should be decent up front but their defense and goaltending have too many holes for the Leafs to contend for a playoff spot.