NHL Western Conference Preview: SB Nation's Best in the West

Last week, the powers that be got us Western Conference bloggers together and gently coerced each of us into ranking all 15 teams in the conference from 1st to last. Here's the full list with average position by voting.

Team Overall Rank Average Rank
Vancouver Canucks 1 1.43
San Jose Sharks 2 2
Detroit Red Wings 3 3.29
Chicago Blackhawks 4 4.36
Los Angeles Kings 5 4.57
Nashville Predators 6 6.86
St. Louis Blues 7 7.29
Columbus Blue Jackets 8 8.29
Anaheim Ducks 9 8.64
Minnesota Wild 10 10.29
Phoenix Coyotes 11 11.64
Dallas Stars 12 12
Calgary Flames 13 12.71
Colorado Avalanche 14 13.14
Edmonton Oilers 15 13.5


As one of the five best teams in the conference, we'll be looking at the competition for the top: what kind of strengths and weaknesses Detroit has against their competition, and what we can expect this year out of the West.

Canucks_medium

The reigning Western Conference and President's Trophy Champions return for the 2011-12 season with a roster every bit as dangerous as they iced last year. Veteran blueliner Christian Ehrhoff flew to greener paychecks in Buffalo, but the Canucks have one of the deepest defensive corps in the league and their forwards ain't too shabby neither.

Strengths Against Detroit: For all of the jokes at Roberto Luongo's expense and all the excuses about what may be relative value, Roberto Luongo is a better goaltender than Jimmy Howard. He more consistently makes big saves and lets in fewer bad goals. The Canucks also have a more-proven forward corps overall.

Weaknesses Against Detroit: While Vancouver has three very solid defensive pairings, they lack a true shutdown pair that can keep Detroit's top two lines off the board consistently. Also, Alain Vigneault may have a Jack Adams, but I wouldn't trust him to hold Mike Babcock's clipboard.

Place Within the Top Five: On paper, Vancouver can match up well with any top team in the conference. Despite last season's Western Conference Finals result though, I believe the Sharks could handle them in a rematch.

Place Within the Conference: Look back at the overall ratings in the conference and find the 2nd-place team in the Northwest Division by our rankings. That would be Minnesota in 10th. The Canucks are going to win the top seed going into the playoffs thanks to their cupcake division.

Sharks_medium

San Jose has knocked off the Wings for two years running now, as the team that was built specifically to beat the Wings has lived up to that goal without being able to take the next step into the Stanley Cup Finals. Gone are Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi; arrived are Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. With an aging core still intact and a solid group of youngsters coming up, this may be the most dangerous team in the West.

Strengths Against Detroit: San Jose has the size at forward, the skill, and the aggression to wear down the Red Wings and force mistakes which can end games. To go along with the size, they are also a speedy team across all four forward lines and have youngsters which need to continue to live up to expectations rather than a return to that level.

Weaknesses Against Detroit: Brent Burns made the Sharks' defense a bit more mobile and dangerous in the offensive zone, but I'm convinced their biggest weakness is going to be the ability to keep goals out of their net when teams figure out how to get an effective breakout against them. The patience of Detroit's blueliners as well as their ability to start transition will be key for Detroit's success against San Jose this season.

Place Within the Top Five: San Jose is every bit as tough as Vancouver. They have the depth at forward and the pieces on defense to beat any team in the league. Woe be to the team that has to face them in the upcoming postseason.

Place Within the Conference: Unfortunately, San Jose also plays in what could be the toughest division in hockey this season. The tough competition is going to cost them points and they'll end up the 2nd seed going into the playoffs.

Chicago_blackhawks_medium

Whatever you do say about Chicago, don't say "Cup hangover". What happened to Chicago last season was they were a team that had lost a big piece of their identity and it took them nearly half a season to find it. They showed how dangerous they were in the playoffs by taking the Canucks to the brink of elimination. They brought back their entire core and surrounded those guys with the gritty type of assholes nobody likes to play against.

Strengths Against Detroit: The Hawks were one of about 100 teams last season that got better goaltending than the Wings did. Until Howard proves he can play as well as he did in his rookie season, that's going to remain a weak point for the Wings. Chicago has a definite stable of top-six forwards and one of the best defensive tandems in the league.

Weaknesses Against Detroit: For all of the strength at the top of the lineup, the Hawks are still vulnerable in their bottom lines and pairing. Coach Quenneville leans extremely on his stars and likes to change lines as often as Marian Hossa changes phone numbers so he doesn't have to take calls anymore from Tomas Kopecky.

Place Within the Top Five: Chicago is a dangerous team that can make any series into a war of attrition, but all things being equal, they're the 4th-best team in the conference.

Place Within the Conference: Chicago will have to fight to stay above the rest of the hard-fighting Central Division and that will cost them points they might otherwise be able to use to leapfrog a superior team in the standings.

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The Kings entered last year's playoffs in a tough spot as they lost their team's best offensive threat in Anze Kopitar before the postseason even started. Losing such a big piece will always make it tough on a team, but the Kings added some depth which will take some of the load off Kopitar's shoulders. Having last year's Flyer's Captain and former Selke finalist Mike Richards centering the 2nd line brings this team up from an also-ran to a contender.

Strengths Against Detroit: The Kings are a much more physical team than Detroit in all areas of the ice. Their size and aggression will make it difficult for the Wings to create openings to exploit. When the Wings do find those holes, they're still going to have to shoot on Jonathan Quick, who very well could turn out to be a dark horse Vezina candidate this season.

Weaknesses Against Detroit: Even with two dangerous lines, the Kings do not have the forward depth to consistently keep momentum on their side. To score goals, they're going to need to activate their defensemen and are going to have to have Quick ready to come up huge against odd-man rushes.

Place Within the Top Five: The Kings are definitely the most-improved team among the top-five, but they still have holes in their roster that's going to make it difficult to completely run the Western Gauntlet and make a run for the cup.

Place Within the Conference: As you can see in the drop-off between consensus #5 voting and the sixth-place Predators, the Kings belong exactly where they are. The tough Pacific Division is going to challenge them, but it's nothing they can't handle to lock down a decent playoff seeding.

*          *          *

So how will Detroit do as the consensus third-best team in the Western Conference? Ultimately, they have some questions about the ability of their mid-six forwards to compete as top-six guys and whether their third defensive pair can develop into the solid D-men that Mike Babcock thinks they can be. Jimmy Howard also needs to show that he can perform like he did in his rookie season and that last year was an aberration of team style and personal distraction.

Like any other team in the conference, the Wings will need a lot of things to go right for them in order for them to still be playing in June. However, what separates them from the Hawks, Kings, and ten other teams in the conference is that they would also have to have a lot go wrong for them to take them out of contention for the league's best team.

I think they're going to be limited by the improvements of the Central Division this year, which I think will wrestle the title of the West's toughest division away from the Pacific, but the Wings will anchor themselves solidly as one of the teams to beat.

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