The middle of the Western Conference is nearly impossible to predict this season, even aside from the added wrinkles thrown in by a shortened schedule. There are probably six or seven teams that could each finish anywhere from 7th to 13th and I wouldn't bat an eye. So with that serving as something of a disclaimer, here's my take on who finishes 6th through 10th in the West in 2013.
10. Colorado Avalanche
In: F P.A. Parenteau (UFA, NYI); F John Mitchell (UFA, NYR); D Greg Zanon (UFA, BOS)
Out: F Ryan O'Reilly (RFA); F Peter Mueller (UFA, FLA); F Jay McClement (UFA, TOR); F Kevin Porter (UFA, BUF)
2011-12 finish: 41-35-6, 88 points, 11th in West
If Greg Sherman screws this up, I'm not sure how anyone can make the argument that he deserves to be an NHL GM. I realize the Avalanche operate on an internal budget but I don't see how you can sign a player as mediocre as David Jones to a $16 million contract while leaving your 21-year-old likely MVP out to dry. The puck drops on the 2013 NHL season in two days and Ryan O'Reilly still isn't signed. Well, that's not true. He is under contract in the KHL through 2014. That's how bizarre negotiations have become between the Avs and their prized restricted free agent. Without O'Reilly in the fold, the organization's greatest strength—center depth—would be whittled down to two talented players coming off disappointing seasons in Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene.
There are certainly holes on the blueline where I wouldn't be confident playing any of their current defensemen in a top-pairing role but assuming Joe Sacco spreads the tough minutes among his top six, they could be in decent shape. Semyon Varlamov is a talented and underrated goalie who should provide the Avs with above-average netminding, as should J-S Giguere whose value can't be understated in a shortened season. The engine driving this team will be the offense, however, and I'm not sure how well it will run with one of its most important parts missing. If Colorado can sign O'Reilly within the next week or sooner, I think they have the forward depth, special teams and goaltending to push for a playoff spot. If not, their upside is likely that of a bubble team.
9. Nashville Predators
In: D Scott Hannan (UFA, CGY); G Chris Mason (UFA, WPG)
Out: F Alexander Radulov (KHL); F Andrei Kostitsyn (UFA); F Jordin Tootoo (UFA, DET); D Ryan Suter (UFA, MIN); D Francis Bouillon (UFA, MTL); D Jack Hillen (UFA, WSH)
2011-12 finish: 48-26-8, 104 points, 4th in West
On the spectrum that ranges from everything going right for a team to everything going wrong for a team within a given season, the Predators' 2011-12 campaign fell far closer to the former than the latter. Despite being the second-worst possession team in the league and compiling only a plus-5 5v5 goal differential, the Preds finished fourth in the conference and were in contention for the Central division title until the bitter end. Understanding that discrepancy between their underlying play and their actual results is key to projecting Nashville's chances for the upcoming season.
First of all, the team posted the highest power play percentage in the league. Unfortunately for Nashville, that likely wasn't the product of a fundamentally solid man-advantage unit. Shot generation is essentially the only repeatable aspect of power play success and the Preds were 22nd in the NHL by that measure, relying on an unsustainable 16.8% 5v4 SH%. They won a lot of close games, which is why they were able to outperform a poor even-strength goal difference, but that was almost entirely thanks to Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback combining to post a .939 SV% in score-tied situations last year. Rinne is awesome but there's no way that happens again. I do suspect Barry Trotz's system produces a shot quality outlier to some extent and I think Rinne is the best goalie in the conference so I doubt Nashville completely bottoms out. Still, especially since the loss of Suter likely makes them even worse territorially, I can't consider them any more than a bubble team. There's just no high-end talent up front and no depth on defense.
8. Dallas Stars
In: F Jaromir Jagr (UFA, PHI); F Ray Whitney (UFA, PHX); F Derek Roy (trade, BUF); F Cody Eakin (trade, WSH); D Aaron Rome (UFA, VAN)
Out: F Mike Ribeiro (trade, WSH); F Steve Ott (trade, BUF); F Adam Burish (UFA, SJS); F Jake Dowell (UFA, MIN); F Radek Dvorak (UFA); D Sheldon Souray (UFA, ANA); D Adam Pardy (trade, BUF); D Mark Fistric (trade, EDM)
2011-12 finish: 42-35-5, 89 points, 10th in West
Another team, another key unsigned RFA. But unlike in the negotiations between the Avs and O'Reilly, the Stars and the Jamie Benn camp appear to be close to a deal. They'll need him since, like the Avalanche, Dallas will have to lean heavily on their deep forward corps to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. That might be an odd thing to say about a team that finished 22nd in goals per game last year but after swapping Ribeiro, Ott and Burish for Roy, Jagr and Whitney, the Stars decidedly have more offensive firepower in their arsenal than they did a season ago.
It's easy to joke that Whitney and Jagr would fit in better at a retirement home than an NHL team's top line at this point in their respective careers but Whitney is coming off a prolific season in Phoenix while Jagr was elite at generating zone entries for the Flyers in 2011-12. Jagr's unparalleled ability to drive the net should also ensure Benn can be in position to use his shot more often rather than be stuck doing the dirty work on his line. The Stars were a plus-possession team after the All-Star break last season when Glen Gulutzan reinvented his deployment strategy. Despite a paper-thin blueline, I think Gulutzan will find ways to use his troops effectively once again. Lehtonen is one of the most talented goalies in the conference and should be a great last line of defense when their back end falters. I'd still like to see the team add a top-four defenseman but I'm willing to gamble on Dallas as an under-the-radar pick to squeak into the postseason.
7. Phoenix Coyotes
In: F Matthew Lombardi (trade, TOR); F Steve Sullivan (UFA, PIT); F David Moss (UFA, CGY); F Nick Johnson (UFA, MIN); D Zbynek Michalek (trade, PIT);
Out: F Ray Whitney (UFA, DAL); F Daymond Langkow (retirement); F Taylor Pyatt (UFA, NYR); D Adrian Aucoin (UFA, CBJ); D Michal Rozsival (UFA, CHI)
2011-12 finish: 42-27-13, 97 points, 3rd in West
Don Maloney is really good at his job. He had maybe the most quietly brilliant offseason of any GM last summer, picking up some incredibly useful, underrated talent for pennies on the dollar. He added an even-strength scorer who can also play a host of roles on the power play in Sullivan, a possession monster in Moss and a tough-minutes, shutdown defenseman in Michalek and it cost him nothing of value. Yesterday's trade to bring Lombardi back into the fold was a terrific no-risk, medium-reward move as well.
But are those moves enough to ensure the Coyotes stay in the playoff picture after losing leading scorer Ray Whitney and a pair of heavily-used defensemen in Aucoin and Rozsival? I think they should be. Mike Smith's numbers are likely in line for a regression after last season's excellence and the team's special teams are quite awful. But Dave Tippett has in place a system that ensures his club can compete with anyone at even-strength and he once again has the personnel to make certain that's the case. Antoine Vermette should have a nice rebound year, there is little evidence Radim Vrbata's successful 2011-12 was a mirage and Oliver Ekman-Larsson should continue to develop into an eventual Norris winner. They almost certainly won't repeat as division champions but I think Phoenix makes the playoffs, if barely.
6. Detroit Red Wings
In: F Mikael Samuelsson (UFA, FLA); F Jordin Tootoo (UFA, NSH); F Damien Brunner (UFA, Europe); D Carlo Colaiacovo (UFA, STL); G Jonas Gustavsson (UFA, TOR)
Out: F Jiri Hudler (UFA, CGY); F Tomas Holmstrom (retirement); D Nicklas Lidstrom (retirement); D Brad Stuart (UFA, SJS)
2011-12 finish: 48-28-6, 102 points, 5th in West
At even-strength in 2011-12, the Detroit Red Wings scored 54 more goals than they allowed. That's bonkers. I realize Lidstrom is gone and no one is going to dispute that he's one of the greatest of all time but even the most starry-eyed fanboy with a Lidstrom altar in his closet is going to admit that losing St. Nick doesn't make the Wings 54 goals worse. Yes, their defense is an open-ended question (that question being, "is that Kyle fucking Quincey on our second pairing?!?") and the impact of losing Lidstrom certainly causes a ripple effect throughout that lineup. But where a team we looked at yesterday in Minnesota was so awful last season that even adding two All-Stars likely won't be enough for them to make the playoffs, the Wings were so dominant a year ago that losing a Hall of Famer likely won't be enough for them to miss the dance.
Detroit didn't do a whole lot last offseason but I like the move to bring back Samuelsson as Mike Babcock can once again reliably roll four lines. Colaiacovo is perpetually injured but he's a useful puck-mover when he's in the lineup. Gustavsson in net is a joke and this team is probably toast if Jimmy Howard gets injured again. Assuming that doesn't happen though, and as much as I'd love to see the Wings fail, counting out a team that still boasts Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk strikes me as silly and premature.