NHL West: Still a Gauntlet
As the NHL heads into the holiday season and prepares to take a higher profile to the casual fan with its slate of outdoor spectaculars, the Western Conference is shaping up pretty much the way most people thought it would.
There is one exception: the Colorado Avalanche.
Too bad teams don't get style points for skills competitions. Current Calder holder Nate MacKinnon would really be pulling his weight then:
After a surprising regular season last year, the Avs were upset in the first round of the playoffs by Minnesota and now find themselves in last place in the Central Division. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has been injured most of the season, which hasn't helped. Coach Patrick Roy's charges have serious ground to make up if they're to be in the mix for another division title. It'd help if Ryan O'Reilly would snap out of his doldrums and earn some of the drastic dosh his contract calls for.
Favorites St. Louis, Chicago, and Nashville are at the top of the division, with the Preds playing much better lately for new coach Peter Laviolette. The Blues have been bolstered with the addition of goaltender Marty Brodeur, while the Blackhawks are streaking, having won nine of ten.
Their recent triumph at Anaheim is indicative of the sort of play they're bringing to the rink every night:
And, for chrissakes, North American media! Learn how to pronounce this Swedish d-man's name! How hard is it to ask? Dude's been around long enough, and the game does have a global audience.
WInnipeg has been an early suprise, as they try to become a legitimate playoff contender, while Minnesota has struggled. Their big signing of Thomas Vanek has been a bust so far, which isn't helping the cause. Dallas has also started slowly, and even though they sneaked into the playoffs last season and have an experienced coach in Lindy Ruff, they'll will be hard pressed to get in this season. Fireball Tyler Seguin is doing his part, though, both on the ice and the PR trail.
The Pacific Division has been topsy-turvy from the start, but the top team, Anaheim, looks ready to finish the job they fell short of doing last season. The Ducks just got goalie John Gibson back and signed Ilya Bryzgalov to back him up, so they believe they're finally set in net. Vancouver has suprised many and is second in the division. The free-agent acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller has given the Canucks a big boost, and with the Sedin brothers staying healthy, Vancouver could return to the playoffs this season.
The Kings and the Sharks are next in line. Everyone knows that wherever Los Angeles sits in the standings, they'll be a force in the playoffs. San José, however, has never advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. Until they do, the Sharks will never be considered a serious contender, especially after last spring's collapse.
The remaining teams -- Arizona and Edmonton -- have already fallen 'way behind in the standings. The Coyotes figured to be better and will need goalie Mike Smith to be more consistent to do so. The Oilers keep getting a top draft pick every spring and yet keep looking up at everyone else in the standings. Things will have to change soon, or General Manager Craig MacTavish will be forced into a change, himself. It's getting ugly up north:
As the New Year approaches, the West race is tight, but everyone's already looking at Los Angeles and Chicago as teams they do not want to play in the playoffs. Anaheim won't be a desirable draw, either. St Louis has sputtered in springtime the past few years and needs to advance a few rounds to avoid being labelled as Sharks Midwest.
Speaking of that, captains or no, how long can San José keep its current version intact if it keeps tumbling out of the playoffs' late stages? They have the talent and, like the Leafs, are eternally wondering if maybe this could be the year.