NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the former general manager of the Calgary Flames, takes a look at how Western Conference teams will fare during the 2010-11 season.
Check back each day as more analysis from Button is added.
Anaheim Ducks -- GM Bob Murray knows the importance of having good defensemen. Without the luxury of watching Scott Niedermayer anchor the defense, one that was instrumental in the Ducks' past success, the level of comfort and confidence in the defense will be diminished. It is a competent group of varying degrees on the blue line, but the undeniable fact is that players of Scott's ilk control the game and make everybody around them that much better. His absence will be profound.
The Ducks are a competitive team capable of making the playoffs, but they fall in with a group of other teams in the Western Conference with no certainty of qualifying. The can give themselves a better chance by cutting down on their penalties (third-most penalty minutes per game in 2009-10) and by allowing fewer shots per game (second-most allowed in 2009-10).
Calgary Flames -- It was a tale of two seasons for the Flames in 2009-10. A superb first half (24-12-5), when they were considered serious Stanley Cup contenders, followed by a dismal second half (16-20-5), during which the roster was overhauled with the aim of adding more scoring; the scoring actually declined, however, and they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
So are the Flames withering? Not so fast.
Miikka Kiprusoff arguably is the best goaltender in the NHL. Simply, he gives the Flames a chance to win each and every game he starts. The incomparable Jarome Iginla had a down season by his standards but remains a formidable challenge for opponents to shut down and is their unquestioned leader. Jay Bouwmeester remains a very good defenseman who can impact the game with his skating. The Flames have a blend of skill and physical presence in their defense group and do not give up many scoring chances.
While many have been left scratching their heads wondering how GM Darryl Sutter could bring back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, they are but two players in a bigger picture. The fortunes of the Flames do not lie solely in those two players, but in a collective forward group that needs to generate more scoring chances and pressure on their opponents. They were 29th in goal scoring last season and scored a dismal 2.20 goals for per game in the second half.
The Flames will be hard-pressed to qualify for the playoffs if that trend carries through to this season. If they do improve their scoring, they will be a dangerous team come the playoffs.
Chicago Blackhawks -- Now for the encore!
The expectations of winning the Stanley Cup have been replaced with expectations of repeating. No easy task as that feat last was accomplished by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.
There was significant change in Chicago following their Stanley Cup celebration, but Blackhawks fans need not despair. GM Stan Bowman has done a masterful job of retooling his team without having to rebuild the engine. Yes, there are good players no longer in Chicago, but the key players remain. The captain, Jonathan Toews; Patrick Kane; the top four defensemen in reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson; along with productive two-way forwards Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland, make Chicago every bit as formidable as they were last season.
The ability to make changes without impaling your core group is no easy task, yet Stan did it while being able to add some good, young players and draft picks. This is of critical importance if a team desires to remain a contender year after year.
Not to forget about the accomplishments of goaltender Antti Niemi, because his play was stellar during the playoffs. When you take a look back to the Red Wings following their Cup victory in 1997, they had parted ways with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood assumed the reins and helped the Wings repeat as champions. Marty Turco is a very good goaltender and the Hawks will have the added benefit of his superb puck-handling skills. Combine everything with the coaching excellence provided by Joel Quenneville and the Hawks are in a very favorable position to defend their championship.
Colorado Avalanche -- Entering last season, the Avalanche were a team in transition, albeit one with a promising future, but nonetheless with expectations of growing pains. The pains were not so evident and that promising future came together very nicely last season. Coach Joe Sacco did a marvellous job of helping a young team adapt to the challenges of the NHL and grow as a team.
The thought of a great 1-2 punch at center with Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene can be rebranded as a great 1-2-3 punch with the emergence of Ryan O'Reilly. Add the scoring skill of Milan Hejduk, the power and force of Chris Stewart, the speed of T.J. Galiardi, and in a League where things happen very quickly, the Colorado forwards give opposing defensemen a lot to think about -- and worry about.
The defense can join the rush and support the offensive thrust, and while the group may not be sexy, they complement one another nicely, and with a season of playing together as a group, they will be improved. Colorado also has the luxury of a goaltender, Craig Anderson, who can face a heavy workload and clean up mistakes. His play may have been a revelation in some circles last season, but his record in Florida prior to that suggests he was a shrewd acquisition by the Avalanche.
GM Greg Sherman has managed his salary cap extremely well, and with the flexibility he has created, he can be patient and determine what can strengthen his team in terms of acquisitions without any unnecessary salary-cap pressures.
While last season was a coming out party, this season will serve as confirmation that this proud franchise is on the march back toward championship-caliber status.
Columbus Blue Jackets -- Entering last season fresh off their first playoff appearance, the Blue Jackets played with a confidence befitting an organization that had every reason to believe it had turned the proverbial corner toward respectability. After the first 20 games, Columbus had a record of 12-6-2 and certainly there was no doubting the capabilities of the team. What transpired from this point forward was a team incapable of building on the foundation over the previous 100 games. The Blue Jackets won only 20 games during the remainder of the season, which led to sweeping change in the coaching office.
Scott Arniel begins his NHL coaching career with a team largely unchanged from the disappointment of 2009-10. It can be said that the maturity of the Blue Jackets is ongoing and that a nucleus of young players, led by Rick Nash, is better equipped to help Columbus climb the standings in the Western Conference.
Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard and Nikita Filatov have to be contributors and not merely learning on the job. A healthy Rostislav Klesla can help stabilize the defense corps and Steve Mason must return to his Calder Trophy-winning ways if the Blue Jackets are going to show they are playoff worthy. Columbus was the second-worst team in even-strength play, a reflection of goals for and goals against when playing at even strength.
If progress is not shown by the young players, Mason plays more like last season than the season previous, and the overall team play does not improve significantly, the playoffs will not be a reality and sweeping change may be found throughout the roster.
Dallas Stars -- Consecutive seasons out of the playoffs has put a different face on this organization. The Stars, a perennial top-four team in the Western Conference has stumbled upon some difficult times and now finds itself among the group of hopefuls trying to make the playoffs.
When you think of the Stars, one thinks of Mike Modano. He is synonymous with Stars hockey and the success it has enjoyed in Dallas largely has been through his on-ice skill and flair as well as his off-ice personality. The decision to move forward without Mike leaves no doubt a new era is under way in Dallas. Change doesn’t stop at Mike. Jere Lehtinen, one of the premier two-way players in NHL history, has not decided whether he wants to continue his career. Along with Marty Turco's departure, the face and faces of the Dallas Stars are much different.
Not to despair, though, as the Stars have a group of players ready to assume the leadership of the team. Brad Richards is a tried and true first-line center who has the ability to create offensive magic. James Neal and Loui Eriksson are gifted scorers and Jamie Benn looks like a player capable of being a star in the League. As captain, it is Brenden Morrow's team, and if the team can reflect his personality of competitive, determined, hard play -- a hallmark of the glory days of the franchise -- this team can find its own successes.
There are not any household names on the blue line, but like Morrow, the underrated Stephane Robidas is a determined competitor willing to contribute in any manner to ensure victory. If young defensemen Matt Niskanen, Niklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Trevor Daley can continue to improve, this group can meet the challenges of any type of game. Goalie Kari Lehtonen has always had the promise, but injuries have not allowed him to fulfill it. If the Stars want to be playoff participants come April, it is imperative Lehtonen stay healthy and realize his vast potential.
Detroit Red Wings -- Despite a spate of injuries to key players throughout last season, a rookie assuming the starting goaltender position and the departures of productive offensive players, the Red Wings continued their run of excellence by recording yet another 100-point season. Following the Olympic break, with seven players participating at the Olympics, the Wings had a .762 winning percentage, by far the best during this period.
They significantly improved upon their goals-against average, team save percentage and penalty killing records from 2008-09, a testimony to the Red Wings' focus on always looking to improve and not be complacent. The "Red Wings Way" is successful because it emphasizes a focus on being smart and competitive and always putting yourself in a position to succeed, whether it is about the individual or the team.
While teams around the League have seen player departures, the Red Wings are welcoming players. Jiri Hudler returns from a one-season hiatus in Russia, and Detroit native Mike Modano joins them after spending his entire career with the Dallas Stars organization. These are two gifted players who fit the Red Wings' philosophy and only are asked to be part of the contributions, not have unrealistic expectations thrust upon them. This makes for a deep forward group and creates multiple challenges for opponents. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are incomparable and lead this very talented group.
Niklas Lidstrom still is an elite defenseman and capable of controlling a game. Alongside Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronvall and Brad Stuart, it is an elite group, and with the addition of Ruslan Salei, it will be a force of strength. Jimmy Howard showed that he is more than capable in the net and will return with the confidence of knowing he can help this team win.
Detroit has been a perennial Stanley Cup contender for almost 20 years, and it will be no different this season.
Edmonton Oilers -- Since losing in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, the Oilers have fallen on hard times, failing to qualify for the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. They are coming off the worst season in franchise history with the NHL's fewest points in 2009-10. But the "in every cloud there is a silver lining" idiom becomes prevalent because it can't be any worse.
To suggest there is a reward for being the worst team in the league is counterintuitive, but in the case of the Oilers, the reward comes in the shape of first draft pick Taylor Hall. He is an enormous talent who has demonstrated the ability to lead his teams to championships and seems just like the tonic for what ails the Oilers. The burden of helping turn around the fortunes of a franchise will not fall solely to Hall, as he has some company with junior talents Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi. It becomes easier, in a sense, to contribute to the success of the team because you can work in tandem and not be isolated.
The Oilers have a premier talent in Ales Hemsky, and losing him to injury last season left a massive hole in their lineup. Shawn Horcoff is a very capable player who can play in multiple situations. If Dustin Penner can play to the level he demonstrated last season, this team has three forwards who can ease the burden on the young players. Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Gilbert Brule were the young and promising players not so long ago and it is necessary for them to demonstrate the capabilities that led to excitement for their arrivals.
The defense is relatively inexperienced, with Ryan Whitney leading the way. Nikolai Khabibulin was able to mask a lot of the shortcomings of the team last season before having season-ending back surgery in November. The Oilers are going to need goaltending that can make up for the mistakes of youth and not affect the confidence of the team. Khabibulin is capable of being that and it is necessary for him to fulfil on that capability.
The excitement is justified in Edmonton, and while the playoffs are no guarantee, the future certainly looks bright.
Los Angeles Kings -- Hockey is alive and well in Los Angeles and the Kings give every reason for their faithful to believe that this is a team that is getting better and positioning themselves to be a Stanley Cup contender for years to come.
What's not to like? Drew Doughty is a star and Jack Johnson is on the verge of becoming one. They can be pillars of the blue line for a long time. Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene add combativeness and the willingness to do the "heavy lifting" that is necessary to be successful as a team. The Kings don't give up a lot of shots, (27.6 shots against per game and 3rd best in 2009-10) and this is a testimony to the efforts of their defense. The signing of free agent Willie Mitchell is a coup and only strengthens this group. There are some very good young prospects in the system and it is almost an embarrassment of riches.
Anze Kopitar is now a top center and demonstrated that he can take hold of a game. Dustin Brown is a "heartbeat" player who takes the game and finds a way to impact it in some way, shape or form. Young players can play in the league but when they mature is when they can become the difference between winning and losing and Kopitar and Brown are that difference for the Kings. They have balance throughout their forward group with the ability to play any way the game requires. They can skate, score, play defense, be physical and have a will and determination about them that is difficult to deter. Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus are part of a collection of forwards that don't leave the Kings short in any aspect.
Jonathan Quick emerged as a bona fide No. 1 and displayed the stamina of a workhorse goaltender. Jonathan Bernier waits in the wings, learning and maturing and in time this could develop into one of the best tandems in the league.
I am unabashed about my belief in this team. Terry Murray is an excellent coach and I feel they are ready to establish themselves as serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. How about a Stanley Cup Parade in Tinseltown?
Minnesota Wild -- One would probably come to the conclusion that the departure of a gifted goal scorer from your lineup, would result in a decline in goal scoring. But the Wild matched exactly there previous season average of 2.61 goals per game, despite Marian Gaborik leaving in free agency.
The defining characteristic of the Wild has been a disciplined defensive style that allowed them to be one the leagues' best in goals against. There was a significant drop off in their defensive record last season, falling from 2nd best in goals against per game to 21st. This was significant factor for them not qualifying for the playoffs.
Niklas Backstrom was recovering from off-season hip surgery and wasn't able to find the rhythm in his play that led to Minnesota being a top defensive team. A full summer of training should go a long ways towards regaining the form that made him one of the league's best goaltenders. Josh Harding's knee injury suffered during the preseason, which will sideline him for a long period of time, creates a gap in what is a very strong tandem.
Brent Burns is a strong skating defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the rink. His presence gives the Wild an advantage in so many important areas but his remaining healthy will be a key if the Wild are to improve on their defensive shortcomings. Marek Zidlicky is a dynamic power-play performer and the addition of Cam Barker should give them plenty of offensive production.
Mikko Koivu is a premier player and contributes in every important area of the game. He is the unquestioned leader of this team and with a long term contract extension; Wild fans can rest easier. Guillaume Latendresse was a revelation after being acquired from Montreal and he should be able to build on that success. Martin Havlat was supposed to replace the offense lost when Gaborik left. He needs to rebound from a subpar season because his skills dictate that he is capable of much more and the Wild are expecting that. A healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard will help the offense and take some of the pressure off Koivu.
If the Wild want to return to the post season, they are going to have to improve their scoring significantly or reduce their goals against. They don't have to sacrifice an "attack" mentality on offense but re-establishing a defensive determination will be an important factor in qualifying for the playoffs.
Nashville Predators -- After missing the playoffs in 2009, the Predators found their way back with a 47 win, 100-point season. If there was ever a team which exemplified a "survival of the fittest" mentality, it would be the Predators. They change, they adapt and they find their way toward being successful. Regardless of the challenges they confront, GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have instilled a belief throughout the organization that they will be competitive.
They boost two of the league's best young defensemen. Captain Shea Weber is that unique blend of power and finesse and is a presence in the game because of his capability to deliver in any regard from a big shot or big hit. The retired Rob Blake was the last player who combined such lethal weapons. Ryan Suter is the other pillar on the blue line and while not as combustible as Weber, he is every bit as lethal because of his cerebral and smooth approach to methodically picking apart the opponent. The lost Dan Hamhuis to free agency, but were able to re-acquire former 1st round pick Ryan Parent in the process and should benefit due to his maturity and experience playing deep into the playoffs.
Steve Sullivan is an electrifying player who has an indomitable will to win. His return to health was a great bonus and maintained a balance in the forward combinations. Patric Hornqvist's 30 goals were no accident and combined with his ability to score timely goals gave the team the edge to win some close games. Nashville has the mix of forwards that allows them to be successful in various types of games, another testimony to their ability to adapt. Jordan Tootoo provides energy, David Legwand is a good two-way player and Martin Erat and JP Dumont contribute offense. Free agent acquisition Matthew Lombardi adds speed and quickness and his ability to use his skating as a threat keeps opponents on their heels. If Colin Wilson can progress in his game, the Predators will have strength through the middle.
Pekka Rinne is their No. 1 goalie and his ability to make the timely saves and perform under pressure is just as important as Hornqvist's timely goals.
Everything works in unison in Nashville. They are a sum far greater than their parts and this season will find them, once again, working together as a team and finding success along the way. Hopefully they can be successful deeper into the playoffs.
Phoenix Coyotes -- While the news from Phoenix was focused on off-ice happenings, the Coyotes made quite the headlines on the ice with a 50-win season. Dave Tippett's arrival as coach saw him develop this team and when you look at their accomplishments they were good in so many different areas.
The Coyotes evolved into one of the best defensive teams with the league's 3rd best goals against per game as well as the league's 3rd best team save percentage. This was achieved in no small measure to the superb goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov. The Coyotes led the league with 29 one-goal game victories as well as a league high fourteen shootout victories. Phoenix was not a high scoring team (24th in goals per game) and with the team in so many close games, Bryzgalov made a difference to winning.
Free agency saw the departure of Matthew Lombardi, but also the arrival of Ray Whitney who will more than help the offense especially the 28th ranked power play. There is a combination of skill, speed and size within the forwards and it seemed as if each game brought forth a different hero. That is a testimony to balance with captain Shane Doan leading the way. While Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, Taylor Pyatt, Scottie Upshall, Vern Fiddler may not be household names, they were contributors to the overall success of the Coyotes and their value can't be underestimated.
The defense is very capable. Ed Jovanovski plays the game with enthusiasm and a has that coveted blend of skill and power. Keith Yandle showed that he is more than capable of being a top defenseman in the league and Derek Morris seems to have played some of his best hockey in the desert. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a top prospect who may be able to crack the lineup, but will not be put in positions where he may be overwhelmed.
The beauty of having success is that it afforded the Coyotes to allow their young players to develop without the pressures of performing at the NHL level. While nobody predicted a fifty win season, this team is positioned, with a stable of very good prospects, to be a very good for years to come.