This division had both western conference finalists last year, despite low point totals from all five teams.

Phoenix: The Coyotes had a really good going until the ran into Quick and Co. Their young players were maturing before the world’s eyes, some of the elder statesman were having career years, and Mike Smith was every bit as good as Quick. Some of their older players have moved on, but the next generation is more than ready to pick up the slack. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker will be household names in the Western Conference by seasons end.

Dallas: The Stars added several names in the off season; Whitney, Jagr, Roy up front should be a huge boost. In a shortened season where Jagr and Lehtonen’s injuries from last season should have had time to heal fully and the pair should have been able to get to full strength and range of motion in all body parts. Now if they’d just get Jamie Benn under contract or traded off for a kings ransom they’d have not only a shot at the division title, but seeing the second round.

Los Angeles; The Kings did it all, and then did nothing. They are returning almost their entire championship roster. One wonders if they lockout will help or hurt this team. Any Cup hangover should be long gone, but not many of the players have played overseas or in the AHL in the extended break. Even with an enormous wealth of talent of his own, and an unmatched blueline in front of him, it is unlikely J Quick has a repeat of last years numbers. This means for Orange County to see a second Cup parade this year, the offense has to actually work more often than one in five games.

San Jose: One way or the other, this is likely the end of the line for this core group. Last year was a big regression over previous seasons. It’s cup or bust, which oddly puts them in a similar position to the Chicago Blackhawks a couple years back, although with a much higher percentage of their roster on the downslope of their career. If Stuart slides into a #3 or #4 role, the team is in good shape, if he’s leading the team in minutes things are quite unlikely to be pretty.

Anaheim:  Last years Ducks were dead on a arrival, fueled partly by persistent scapegoating of Bobby Ryan in lieu of actually fixing the lack of depth at any position. While I like Bryan Allen as much as anyone, and Sheldon Souray was a big slice of what was right in Dallas last year, anyone who looks at this blueline and dreams of drafting thirtieth is probably indulging in a controlled substance. That said, Hiller is entirely capable of stealing a season this short and putting the team in the playoffs with little regard to how well his team plays in front of him, if he’s healthy, and the top forwards are motivated and in sync this team is very dangerous.

Top dog(s): Coyotes and Kings are too close to call.

 This season, a new era begins. No Lidstrom. It has been a whole generation since this was last true. Even the limited player who was on the ice last year is better than anyone likely to replace him.

Good News

  • Datsyuk is still one of the best players in the NHL.
  • Jimmy Howard has come a long, long way and may earn the right to be called elite this season.
  • Jordin Tootoo will provide some physicality, and likely more skill than some expect.

Bad News

  • The defense is going to be ugly after losing not one but two twenty minute a night guys.
  • Last years penalty kill was not great, with the loss of four minutes among the defensemen, that won’t get better.
  • You can’t avoid asking how healthy key forwards on this team will be

Forecast

High: Bubble, if everything goes right, everyone is healthy, and everyone plays to or above their average, the team will sneak into the seven or eight spot at best, and likely end up at the nine or ten spot.

Low:  If things get ugly on he injury front, or the defense is even worse than I expect, the team will bounce down as low as the 12 spot.

X-Factor

This seasons x-factor in Detroit is the CBA. The possibility of a trade, or a the cap changing and causing mass movement of players is about all the fans in Michigan can pin their hopes on for improving this team this season.

The San Jose Sharks are an interesting team. By almost any logic this or last off season were the time to blow the team up. And yet they remain. In fact they grow. Last seasons sixth place finish was hardly what people have come to expect of the team.

Good News

  • The acquisitions were clearly targeted to address their god awful penalty kill.
  • Two seasons ago, before injuries ended their second-season the team looked like it knew how to win in the playoffs.

Bad News

  • The key players on this team are not young. Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Stuart will all be at least 33 before the season closes.
  • Depth?
  • Character of second tier guys, specifically Pavelski who wasted twenty minutes of ice time a night in last years playoffs need to be answered in the affirmative.

Forecast

High: 6-9  Arguably the division has gotten easier with so much talent leaving Phoenix Some  of it landed in Dallas, but the Kings also had a long, long run and could be weaker this year at least in the regular season.

Low: If they don’t fix their penalty kill, or Niemi and Greiss are not average to above average all season, It is likely Todd McLellan and several names off their roster will be going to a different rink before seasons end.

X-Factor

The big one with the San Jose Sharks is can they take the regular season seriously enough to get home ice and then stay healthy in the post season. The trend in the NHL the last three years has been to end long cup droughts, there’s qualifies.

The Bruins have half a lot of choices to make between now and July first. They are on a pure rampaged through the league with a roster very little changed from the one that one them the Stanley Cup. Most of the team is fairly young, and it’s hard to argue that any of the unsigned players are having a negative effect on the team. Of players currently on the roster, there are two RFA, and six UFA’s.

The restricted free agents are Tuukka Rask and Benoit Pouliot. If you stretch the list to Zach Hamill who has done well in his call up games this year, and would likely be less expensive than most players that could be signed from outside. Rask has the most variables attached to his potential deal, he’s got great numbers and is arguably the best backup or 1b option in the NHL. On the other hand he’s yet to have a solid pro playoff season, has never started more than 39 games in a season. Additionally he’s had knee surgery before his 25th birthday.  Given the lack of depth in the system, unless he starts looking for over 3.5 million, I suspect he’s resigned. Realistically, a two year deal at 2.25 a year is desirable from both ends.

Pouliot is in an odd position, if he does well, even if he doesn’t live up to the hype of a fourth overall pick, he can probably get signed just about anywhere for an increase over this years contact. He’s currently on pace for his best pro goals performance, but that’s not exactly world beating. From his point of view, if he does well this season, there’s a lot of incentive to stick around given Julien’s known preference for older players over rookies, he’s likely to improve more in a second year in the system. Hamill, who has been a top scorer in the rather disorganized Providence system for the last two season. Either one could sign for as much as $1.75 depending on the role envisioned.

The unrestricted free agents are where the likeliest roster changes will be made. Chris Kelly is the UFA to be making the most noise at this point, and is one of four UFA forwards including entire fourth line. Campbell and Paille will both be 28 when next season opens, and have been important parts of the penalty kill, with limited offense. Campbell is more gritty, and can usually be counted on for solid faceoff numbers, Paille is much faster and can nearly kill a penalty himself if the other team makes one misstep. Shawn Thornton will turn 35 after his contract will go into effect. His offense isn’t what has Thornton in the NHL, but in that category he dwarfs most similar players. I honestly have no idea what the three could be signed to, but if anyone of the freeMerlot Line signs for as much as two million I’ll be surprised. Kelly, was discussed recently at length.

The defensemen due new contracts monetarily might do best to let the market set their value. With Suter, Brad Stuart, Josh Gorges, Chris Campoli, the resurgent Sheldon Souray and other leading the pack if they sign close on the heels of those players, they might do well for themselves, wherever they sign. Johnny Boychuk is 27, and a former AHL defensemen of the year, last season he didn’t have the offense expected of him, but has bounced back pretty well so far this season. Joe Corvo will be thirty five when his next contract starts and has been very uneven in games this year, he was picked up for a for 4th round pick. Depending on where Boychuk finishes the season points in points and minutes and length of deal, his contract will probably be in the three million neighborhood. With zero goals, and the implications of a 35+ contract, I’m expecting to see Corvo in another uniform next season.

Sergei Samsanov is one former Bruins forward I know many fans miss. He’s currently an unsigned UFA. After time with the Habs, BlackHawks, and Oilers he settled in for a three and a half year stay with the Canes before being dealt to the Panthers. Apparently, guys like Thomas Kopecky, Dan Carcillo, and Benoit Pouliot are more valuable than someone like Samsanov who has averaged more points per game than Ryan Kesler. Surely this undermines the popular perception that a large percentage of the general managers in the NHL are idiots.

Byron Bitz is on the disabled list with a sports hernia that caused him to miss all of last season for the Florida Panthers. This season he’s keeping the Canucks medical staff busy. In his last game on March 27, 2010 he had a line of 0-0-0 with 0 shots on goal, and a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins like 0% faceoff rate.

Joe Thornton who has finally gotten people in the media to realize that he can’t carry a team himself, is off to a slow start with 0-0-0 -1 line to start the season in San Jose. To be fair, his face off winning percentages are obscene through three games: 73.7, 82.7 and 62.5, perhaps he’s saving spare wins to send to the CBC’s latest darling in Edmonton for Christmas?

Brad Stuart is perhaps the best former Bruins defenseman still playing in the NHL, or like Detroit’s goalies perhaps he’s just being carried by a good team. Not exactly known for his offense the soon to be thirty-two year old has still managed to put up good numbers in the playoffs, and tolerate being called Junior by most of the Red Wings roster.

Derek Morris was highly unproductive in for the Phoenix Coyotes in the playoffs last year. Fortunately for him his “out with an injury” excuse left him a much better reason for it than the guys who were on the ice. Despite only playing 58 games for Boston he was pretty productive here before being sent back to the desert where he look up to see Paul Bissionette waiving at him from the pressbox every night.

Former Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft enjoyed what can be called a renaissance the last two seasons and has been quietly going from full time punchline to part time plugger. Interestingly enough he seems to thrive in mediocre teams, which probably means he’s int he right place for the next year or two.

With the guys who might not even move if hell freezes over taken care of, it’s time to tackle the players the Bruins might get some value from trading. While it’s unlikely all of them, or even most will be traded, and the thought of losing some of them is nearly as scary as Brittany Spears as a mother, they would do the club some good one way or another.

While the thought of losing David Krejci fills most Boston fans with the type of feeling you’d get just before you showed Mom & and Dad where the bad man touched you on a dolly, it’s both logical and leaning towards inevitable. He’ll still be an RFA when his current deal expires at the end of next season, he’s an NHL proven high end player who contributes in all three zones, his play making is his most remarked upon skill, but his contributions when he plays on the penalty kill can’t be overlooked and are nearly enough to make some teams drool alone. His $3.75 million cap hit is manageable, and he’s not the type of guy who’s going to get into trouble off the ice, and will play through any injuries he can. While the Bruins probably don’t want to trade him, he’s not (yet?) the playmaker Savard is, he’s not got the speed or shot (do I need to mention hype?) of Seguin, and he’s not got the size, physicality, puck protection or faceoff prowess of Bergeron. He’s also not got a contractual bar to movement.

Andrew Ference, when he first arrived in Boston in the Brad Stuart deal, I was surprised the scrappy little tree hugger was often the best defenseman on the ice. In the last season or two with various injuries, and certain dearly-departed defensive partners we’ve rarely seen his best play. This season, Ference has had two enormous advantages over the last couple seasons, one is the monster lining up on the opposite side of the blueline, the other is simple good health. While he only played 51 regular season games last year, he played the entire playoffs, preseason and the nineteen games so far this season. At a +11 he leads all Bruins in the category, and is undoubtedly enjoying the best play of his career.  His speed, tenacity, and grit make him desirable, his current deal at a cap friendly$2.25 million isn’t going to cause many teams to back away.

Had Marc Savard started the season healthy, it’s very likely Michael Ryder would have been assigned to Providence, or shipped out for a half stick of bubble gum and a roll of stick tape. Most of the Boston Bruins fans would have been willing to drive him to the airport. Today, he’s third in goals, fifth in scoring and has shown the most consistent effort he’s put forward in any stretch since the start of last season. He put in a strong effort no matter who he was lined up with, and had the loan goal in the Bruins recent loss to Tampa Bay.  His four million dollar deal expires at the end of the season, and teams lacking in scoring might be willing to give up a decent draft pick or prospect for the chance to tip them into the playoffs or from playoff team to contender.  He’s got a great shot, has a blazing release, and when he plays well along the boards can create a lot of turnovers.

Blake Wheeler, in this is third season out of college, the 2004 number 5 pick of the Phoenix Coyotes has been shuffled back and forth between wings, from line to line, and now from wing to center. He’s not scored all that much , but has shown some aptitude for playing center at the NHL level. If he stays and Krejci leaves he becomes the number three center by default, if he goes he has the potential to be playing like a number two center for most teams before years end.  With just a $2.2 mil cap hit, the Bruins would probably like to keep him, watch his development until the end of the season and then decide what to do with him. He went to arbitration this past off season, and landed a deal that’s fair. Even if he walks on July 1, 2011 the Bruins didn’t spend anything to get him and any deal where they bring back a pick or prospect is a win.

Dennis Siedenberg, while it’s unlikely that the shot blocking, hit-man who was acquired at the end of last season and signed over the summer will be traded, he’s a valuable player who has boosted his own stock with consistent, quality play and a solid learning curve over the last two or so seasons. His $3.25 cap number is manageable, and even desirable when compared to deals like Wayne Redden, Sheldon Souray and Brian Campbell.

Daniel Paille, who came to the Boston Bruins from the Buffalo Sabres last year has lost a lot of the cache he had when he was drafted. Back in 2002 when he was drafted by Very South Ontario’s team in the first round he was projected to be a top six forward. This season he’s been squeezed out of the lineup by younger players like Marshand and Caron. While he was an indispensable part of last years penalty kill, he’s played less than ten minutes on the penalty kill this year having been eclipsed by the arrival of the son of master of the NHL’s Wheel of Justice. There’s no question that the speedy winger can still play in the NHL, it’s just a matter of if it’s here in Boston, or elsewhere. As mentioned back in October, there are strong reasons to want Paille around, including his affordable cap hit.

Next up unlikely trade pieces and why they might be interesting one way or the other.