The western conference will kick off the playoffs with the Anahiem Ducks and Dallas Stars facing off in 1st versus wild card matchup. The Jamie Benn led Stars crossover from the Central Division to face Corey Perry and his west winning Ducks. Of the 1 vs Wild Card matchups this is the one where the first place team should be safest. The Ducks are deeper and have more playoff experience, but showed last season they lacked killer instinct. The Stars are clearly underdogs but I doubt this series is over in four or five games.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks started the season strong and spent the opening months of the season sparring for first in the division without sliding below second. The new year opened with them on top of the division, as did every month after. Their padding waxed and waned as the Sharks got hot and cool, but here we are. The Ducks are a remarkably healthy bunch especially when you factor in the extra games and travel their Olympians played. If there is a weakness to the armor of the Ducks it is their special teams, something they’ll likely point to recent Cup winners of and dismiss calmly.

Best Players:

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are the Superman & Batman tag team of the NHL. They play physically, pass, skate, cycle, score, and defend at least as well as any two players who normally take shifts together.

X-Factor

D-E-P-T-H. If Bruce Boudreau uses his second and third lines as well as his full defensive compliment the Ducks are a very tough matchup for any team. Nick Bonino, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Kyle Palmeri are all capable NHL players. Teemu Selanne has already said he’s ending his NHL career, is well rested and knows how to win, he could play a much larger part in the playoffs.

Dallas Stars

Lindy Ruff’s team is a bit of a surprise entry in the NHL playoffs this year. With just 91 points they didn’t amass the most intimidating record in the NHL this year. Offense is where the team shines finishing the season regular 10th in scoring. The team boasts two 30 goal scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but will enter the second season without Rich Peverley lost to a cardiac event and subsequent heart surgery. Alex Goligoski might just have gotten some recognition for a stellar offensive season if Seguin and Benn hadn’t turned in so much offense of their own.

Best Players

Jamie Benn can play any forward position and be in the top tier of the league doing it, but his playoff experience is nil in the NHL. Tyler Seguin has a lot of playoff experience, but we shouldn’t forget the reasons he was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Dallas Stars. Alex Goligoski has seen the playoffs, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and done respectably.

X-Factor

Goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is not a consistent goaltender, he’s put in one his best years to date, but given how often Lindy Ruff saw Tim Thomas when both worked for other teams, might he be tempted to go to the elder statesman  if Lehtonen falters. Comparing the playoff numbers of the two, no one could blame him for doing so.

 

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.

The Anahiem Ducks had an enormous regular season. Then in the playoffs they fell to the weaker Detroit Red Wings when they couldn’t push the dagger into finish the series and advance. Since then they have traded away Olympian, and consistent 30 goal man Bobby Ryan. In exchange they got even younger adding Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen, and a first round draft pick in the 2014 draft. The team already had youngsters Kyle Palmieri, Nick Bonino, Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem. Teemu Selanne is not signed, David Steckel and Matthew Lombardi are even less likely to return. Jonas Hiller crept back towards his previous career save percentage, and turned in a very solid seven games in the playoffs. Pushing him every step of the way was Victor Fasth who if he’d been a bit younger or played a few more games might just have won an individual award last year.

The Ducks season starts with a three game road trip taking them to visit the Avalanche, Wild and Jets. They open at home and host the New York Rangers and their new head coach. After that they throw down with the Ottawa Senators and old friend Bobby Ryan.

Number of Days 1-5: 11

Number of Cities: 4

Best Opponent: Toss up, there isn’t muchto separate the Senators and Wild

Weakest Opponent: Avalanche

Home Games: 2

Projected points: 5+

Overall the season outlook is very good for the Ducks, their own youngsters are maturing and got a taste of the NHL playoffs and Silfverberg should slide in nicely having gotten his second taste of the NHL playoffs last season. Cam Fowler’s game is rounding out to a more well rounded three zone game than in his debut season. And they have two solid goalies going into the season.

With the NHL draft this weekend we know three things a: There will be trades 2: there will be “off the board” picks and d: all bets are off on sane prices being paid to get starting goalies and top four defenseman. Some of the names being talked about are Scott Clemmenson of the Panthers, Cory Schnieder of the Canucks, and Rich Peverley of the Bruins as trade bait. Your guess is as good as any on which move where.

What We Know (by the new divisions)

Division A:

Anaheim: There are more rumors surrounding the Ducks and Bobby Ryan going to at least 41 other NHL teams than in at least a year. Capwise they can probably afford to keep him, in reality they need a 2nd line center, to resign Palmeri and of course the Ducks aren’t a cap ceiling team.

Calgary: While we’re all sympathetic to the flood devastation in the Flames home arena, it might just be considered a metaphor for what ownership and management have been doing to the team for a decade. Free agency will likely bring one or two more contracts like Wideman’s. They do have a good deal of cap space, and if the move Cammalleri, they’ll gain six million more. What they’d get in return is a mystery but based on recent trades…

Edmonton: They desperately need a viable defense, which is why they’ve been linked to every goaltender on the planet. With the 7th pick of the first round a player like Darnell Nurse would be a great find, if history holds true expect a forward to be drafted. Unfortunately the UFA market doesn’t hold much hope of pulling in a blueliner or two that would help, and the best name linked to Edmonton in rumors is Braydon Coburn.

Los Angeles: They need to get faster, and their cap hit needs to get slimmer. They have 10 forwards and 5 defenseman signed, and only six million in cap space. It’s likely several of he free agents like Dustin Penner, Rob Scuderi, Brad Richardson and one or two of the RFA’s have played out there string. With Martinez, Muzzin, and Lewis as yet unsigned and the Kings having no first round pick, a trade or two might be a solid solution for cap and talent reasons.

Phoenix: The more I watch this saga, the less convinced I am the Glendale city council wants a sports team in town. Four picks in the first three seventy five gives a solid chance for moving the roster forward, no matter what happens to the franchise.

San Jose: As the only one of the California teams not to have won a Stanley Cup the pressure on the franchise has to be mounting. With their aging core, leadership should be mighty nervous. They really need to find a way to move a big contract or two, and get back some younger, cheaper talent in return. Talent that doesn’t wilt in the playoffs would be a bonus. It is not unfair to say that if the Sharks don’t extend Couture in the immediate future that they are playing with fire and someone is likely to end up yajibuka.

Vancouver: Never a dead or a dull quiet moment in Canuckville. In addition to the ever present rumors of Luongo being traded or bought out, Cory Schneider’s coffle has been dragged to the auction block as well. With the Sedin’s aging poorly, Kesler unable to stay healthy, only 17 players signed for next year and $47,222* in cap space, this team is ready to be fleeced.

Division B

Chicago: While the celebration continues in the streets, the corner office has to make some tough choices. They have seven million in cap space and no backup goalie, no Bickell, no Kruger, no Stalberg and neither Leddy or Rozsival signed there’s likely to be turnover. It doesn’t project to be as deep at four summers ago when less than half the championship roster returned to the ice in October, but some big names and fan favorites might be pulling on another jersey this fall.

Colorado: Despite deep and pressing needs at defense, the team has said they would not take Seth Jones at number one. This could mean they intend to trade down and take him at 2-4, or it could just be another case of not having a clue. Cap wise the team is one of the few in an enviable state with 22 players signed and over $11 million in space.

Dallas: With three picks in the first forty, it is possible the Stars will find a center to go with high end wingers Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, and maybe just maybe a solid young defenseman to play with Alex Goligoski. They too have a lot of cap space if they are able to spend higher and could end up doing quite well in trades against some of the teams feeling the cap crunch.

Minnesota: The Wild have been rumored up and down the Twittersphere to be moving iconic hit maker Cal Clutterbuck this weekend. Having finally reached the playoffs after a long layoff, the team is loaded with talent, and also high end contracts. They have less than 3.5millon in cap space. Clutterbuck’s qualifying offer would be less than two million, but he’s unlikely to sign for less than 2.5 in my book.

Smashville Nashville: To call last season a disappointment is a bit of an understatement. After making themselves a playoff fixture, the team took two steps back and ended up in the lottery. If the fates are kind, or the general managers ahead of them smart, they will get a much needed dynamic forward in the draft. Respectable centers are needed for the top two lines, and some goal scoring. A trade that saw them land a center for an immediate push back towards contention would be a savvy move for the general manager of team USA and the Nashville Predators, might such a trade involve a Team USA veteran and a cap strapped western rival?

St. Louis: The Blues are in need of more offensive minded and able forwards. They presently have arguable the best defense in the conference, certainly top 3, but just can’t score enough. Vladimir Tarasenko should help the offense, but priority one for this team this off season isn’t the draft or any forwards, it is locking up Alex Pietrangelo for as long as they can. Simply put he’s one of the two or three best defensemen under 25 with  complete game, and his best years ahead of him.

Winnipeg: The Jets need depth. Depth at center, depth at wing, depth at goal, depth in warm winter coats. The honeymoon phase of the midnight train from Georgia is pretty much over and the fans are going to expect production. With both roster spaces and almost thirty million in cap space, the Jets are in good position to exploit the trade and free agent markets for what they possess. The Dustin Byfugelien trade rumors continue which makes zero sense at this point even if he’s stated he will never sign another contract there.

This summer look for my series on increasing NHL scoring without sacrificing fundamentals of the game.

 *According to Capgeek

Filling out the Team USA roster will require a mix of youth, international experience, and attitude. The Russians, the Canadians, and the upper echelon of European teams will not be intimidated by half the roster returning, or even two thirds. Part of what will be needed is a bit of familiarity, so anyone who has played with likely players wins the tie breaker over complete outsiders.

Top Priority:

  • Craig Anderson, he’s played with Erik Johnson, he’s the best goaltender in the NHL this season, and he’s got enough of a different style from both Miller and Quick that if the coach has to make a change, the opposition will have to make adjustments.
  • Dustin Byfuglien, big body, can play defense and forward, has won the Stanley Cup has played with Patrick Kane.
  • Jason Pominville, an infusion of skill is needed and this guy has it.
  • John Carlson, is highly talented, knows the tendencies of several of the big names from some of the other national teams.
  • Max Pacioretty has turned into one of the most interesting players in the NHL. Almost a point per game player on a team that has been injury prone over the last two seasons.

Priority:

  • Kevin Shattenkirk, has played well in the very defensive system in St Louis, has also played in the more free wheeling Colorado system in the past.
  • Seth Jones, has won World Junior gold, will likely be part of team USA for years to come, even if he only plays seven or eight minutes a game, good experience for the future.
  • Alex Galchenyuk, has played with Jones internationally, and plays with Pacioretty on the Habs.
  • Rob Scuderi, no international experience, but has won Stanley Cup’s in two radically different systems, the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, among the leaders for US born defenseman in shorthanded ice time.
  • James van Riemsdyk has had solid international experience, currently playing with 2010 Silver Medalist Phil Kessel.

Possible:

  • Alex Goligoski, the Dallas Defenseman gets overlooked a lot, but it should be noted he’s putting up almost identical offensive numbers on the far less talented Dallas team as he did with the Penguins. Has a small amount of international experience.
  • Justin Faulk, great young defenseman burdened by a poor defensive team. Has played under the flag, plays in all situations, like Jones will likely be around for the next three Olympic cycles, has played with Gleason.
  • Drew Stafford, scored 52 points in 62 games including 31 goals two seasons ago, plays with Pominville, some international experience.
  • Erik Cole, former Olympian, World Championship experience, two time thirty goal scorer, played briefly with Galchenyuk, and a season with Pacioretty.
  • John Gaudreau, speedy little pure goal scorer,
  • John Gibson, WJC tournament MVP, stud goaltender.
  • Rocco Grimaldi, speedy, agile, had two goals in the WJC win over Sweden.
  • Blake Wheeler, great reach, good speed, plays in all situations.
  • J.T. Miller, played in on the WJC gold team with Gibson, Gaudreau, Grimaldi, Jones, playing for the Rangers and getting compliments from John Tortorello.

Long Shots:

  • Emerson Etem has proved himself at the junior level in the WHL, he’s yet to make a big mark in the NHL, but he’s got speed to burn and plays on the same team as Bobby Ryan, some games for the NAHL national team.
  • Tyler Myers if he can somehow get his grove back he’s undeniably talented, has developed some aggression, and is both a good skater and puck handler.
  • Brandon Dubinsky, has had a downturn in production lately, but had a good World Championship and is a great two way player.
  • Jack McCabe, captain of the gold team, solid defender, but the defense is the area where the team is likely to have the least turnover.
  • Jimmy Howard no slight on his talent, but he’s about the fourth best American goaltender in the NHL right now. National development team veteran.
  • T.J. Oshie, depending on how the top lines shake down he might find himself tapped to captain the penalty kill effort, also plays with Backes, some national experience, plays physical.
  • Kyle Palmeri has a hat trick this season, and half of his goals have been game winners, national experience, and plays with Bobby Ryan.
  • Paul Gaustad, incredible faceoff man, great penalty killer, like Oshie could end up as a “role player”, team guy.

Given the eventual composition of Teams Canada and Russia, ensuring there is a viable penalty kill, players at all positions who can skate, and guys who won’t wilt under physical play or the bright lights of Olympic play take priority over pure skill with questionable fortitude. With a deep enough team, playing against the weaker teams gets easier because you can use your whole bench and stay reasonably fresh for the games where one bad five minute stretch can bounce you from the metal round.