The west is a very intruiging mix this year. Because of how few teams there are in the west, the races will be very, very tight after the number two slot in each division.

The Pacific Division:

The Phoenix Coyotes:

Good news is there is no more ownership drama. The better news is the roster was filled out a little bit more with the addition of the fiesty Mike Ribiero and at least currently with David Rundblad on the backline.

Bad news is they are an above average roster on paper in a division with several teams who are on paper better.

Anaheim Ducks:

Good news: Depth was added to the forward group over the summer, last years home grown young players are more developed as well.

Bad news: With the exile of Bobby Ryan, this team that was for so long Getzaf, Ryan, Perry, up front will have to recreate their on ice identity.

San Jose Sharks:

Good News: The teams core group is still intact.

Bad news: With the exception of Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this group is aging rapidly, and prone to breaking down in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings:

Good News: The roster is changed very little since they won the cup. Tyler Toffoli is in, Dustin Penner is gone.

Bad News:  They are bad news for their opponents.

Vancouver Canucks:

Good news: No more “1a and 1b starters”, better depth at center.

Bad news: A backup that no one can name or recognize who hasn’t proven he’s NHL ready

Edmonton Oilers:

Good news: The defense has finally been upgraded. Finally.

Bad news: They still need to learn how to play defense as a team.

Calgary Flames:

Good news: Leadership finally acknowledged they need to rebuild.

Bad news: The job they are doing with that rebuild is still iffy.

 

Top three teams:

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks.

If the Ducks can get solid performences from the guys after Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne, like Kyle Palmeri and Matthieu Perreault upfront, and on the backend Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm the division is there to be taken. If they can’t the Kings will grab it.

While I don’t see the Bruins trading Rask any time in the near future, the possibility does exist that with all the key contracts up this off season the Bruins will need to move someone to make it work. He’s an RFA to be with arbitration rights, and he’s put in some impressive numbers in limited play. There are several teams who need a goalie either right now or soon. The Bruins could go for either a short term deal that let them fill in for a long term injury or was a move designed to put the team over the top. A long term deal would almost have to include tow or three pieces coming to Boston that fit into the three year plus plans, it could be draft picks, highly regarded prospects, roster players or some mix.

One of the more interesting bits of speculation going around is a Tuukka Rask for Zach Parise deal. This one has floated around for a good two years, maybe longer. The fact that the Broduer Era is essentially over, and their current backup is even older than he is just provides more fuel for it. Take the Devils inability to sign Parise to a long term deal, and you’ve got all that is needed for an unkillable discussion. Parise is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and arguably the biggest fish in the sea. For the Bruins pulling the trade off in season not only gives them the best left wing depth in the NHL, if he fits in, the team is just short of a lock to become the first back to back cup winner in the salary cap era. Getting an inside track on negotiations before he hits the open market July 1st is just icing on the cake.  For New Jersey they get arguably the best backup in hockey, who is also young enough to still be in his prime as Larsson, Henrique and other youngsters peak.

The Florida Panthers may not need goaltending now, but Jose Theodore has highly variable seasons, Scott Clemmensen has never started even half the games in a season, despite playing his first NHL game in the 01-02 season. Worse from their prospective is that Clemmensen is signed only through the end of this year, and Theodore through the end of next year.  Both have played well so far, but neither is exactly young. They do have Markstrom who his young, and played his first NHL games this season, but clearly they don’t think he’s ready. The team has surprised a lot of people, and maybe in win real soon mode, but you can’t help but wonder what Dale Tallon’s long term plan is. Swapping Rask for Markstrom and Garrison. or Markstrom and draft picks is something that works both ways.  Markstrom would get to develop behind a completely different style goaltender and wouldn’t face the same pressure as Rask will in stepping into Thomas’s shoes, Rask get’s to take over the reigns on a team that is clearly on the way up now.

The Minnesota Wild have to be considered the biggest positive surprise in the whole western conference this year. Everyone knew the Oilers had the offensive goods to beat up teams who weren’t wary, but I’d be willing to bet not many people had the Wild in the Northwest division drivers seat, nor leading the NHL a day before Thanksgiving. They are a team more in need of goalscoring today than they are goaltending, but they have two UFA to be goaltenders. One is the 33 year old Backstrom, the other the 27 year old Harding. It’s likely that Backstrom is retained, but he’s played a shrinking number of games over the last three years from a high of 71 to just 51 last year due to injuries. Harding has grown into his responsibilities, and has pretty solid regular season numbers with just one playoff game to his credit. Assuming the Wild are giving up Harding, for Rask, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bruins wanted a long term project like Charlie Coyle and a 2nd round pick in the deal.

The Tampa Bay Lightning thought they had a solution in Dwayne Roloson. Not so. The offensively gifted team has been let down by a goalie who time has caught up to.  Their backup is career journeyman. They could stand to beef up their defensive depth, but priority one is finding an answer in the crease.  Enter Tuukka Rask. With him they’d arguably have the best goaltender in the division, certainly the best young goaltender in the Southeast Division. While reuniting Tim Thomas with St Louis as the return for Rask is certainly fit to make Bruins and University of Vermont followers have a fangasm, he is 38 years old with a largeish contract for three more years. Ryan Malone is another intriguing forward the Bolts might move, he does currently have an NMC, but climate aside, I can’t see him complaining about the chance to play in Boston. They don’t have a great deal of prospect depth,  but shoring up one position has to make it easier to focus on the rest.

I can’t see the Bruins trading Rask within the division, but the crease in Toronto eclipses even the Islanders for chaos, and is significantly lower in talent. Not even the Columbus Blue Jackets have given up more goals than the Leafs. What would the Bruins get in return? Good question. The defense is as faulty as the goaltending, and the forward crew seems to only work there. The number of guys who have been discarded by other teams with cause is amazing. I don’t think a straight Rask for draft picks is a good investment, but Burke has been a willing trade partner.

The other divisional team that might be clamoring for a goalie is the Senators. I don’t think they’ve had an elite goaltender in their history. They have a surprising amount of depth in skaters, but an NHL ready goaltender is one thing they don’t have. The potential returns range from prospects like Rundblad and Cowen or Zibenajad to an NHL veteran like Alfredsson. If the return is picks, and not yet NHL ready prospects, maybe the talented but oft injured Milan Michalek is worth taking a gamble on.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

The Senators had one of their worst seasons last year. Not just statistically, but in terms of performance of those on the ice. They weren’t fun to watch, and it was clear even with all the walking wounded and star eyed AHL prospects levied into the roster that more than one veteran was counting the days until they didn’t have to interrupt their golfing, hunting and self pity with hockey. There were some bright spots, Bobby Butler put up 21 points in 36 games while shuttling between Ottawa and Binghamton, Erk Karlsson nearly doubled his points production in a fifth more games, and Jason Spezza ended his season with a four game points streak and healthy.

 

High Card:

Key veterans are all motivated to stop being the division punch line. Given age, health and consistency concerns among Aldredsson, Spezza and Anderson it’s hard to say which  (if any) will emerge as the rock the teams upward climb from last seasons futility will rest upon.  All three are capable of carrying play and team for stretches, who knows maybe they all get in the zone at once.

Wild Card:

Youth, youth, youth. If Zibanejad, Karlsson, Butler, Cohen, Rundblad, and the enigmatic Filatov can play near potential this year the Senators are going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The Sens Sixpack has all the talent to be the core of the team for the next ten years and could easily spark a Chicago like renaissance. But, given what has been said about the attitude of certain players in Ottawa, the vast age gulf between them and team captain Alfredsson, and the lack of a true #1 defenseman to guide the backend, one wonders what this group will do and how well.