Even in a normal-sized season, playing the predictions game can be dicey. There are just so many variables that go into the game of hockey that pinning down which teams will have success based on last year's numbers, a docket of offseason roster moves and intuition is usually a fool's errand. But the futility of prognostication weighs even greater when every team's schedule is sliced nearly in half.
As Patrick demonstrated in tremendous detail over the weekend, puck luck, hot streaks and ill-timed injuries will largely dictate how this season's standings shake out. Perceived conference powers will fall out of the playoff picture should their scorers run cold. Bad teams will make the postseason on the back of their goalie standing on his head for a month. Rookie head coaches will be hailed as geniuses if their teams fortunately click at the right moment. All of these things and more will happen so you might as well get used to it now.
But predictions, at least in this context, should really be more about having fun and previewing teams ahead of the season than betting large sums of money on whether a fluke year from James Reimer means the Leafs will end their Stanley Cup drought. So, without further ado, here are the teams I think will finish 11th through 15th in the Western Conference this season. I look forward to being proved completely wrong.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets
In: F Brandon Dubinsky (trade, NYR); F Artem Anisimov (trade, NYR); F Nick Foligno (trade, OTT); D Tim Erixon (trade, NYR); D Adrian Aucoin (UFA, PHX); D Ryan Murray (draft); G Sergei Bobrovsky (trade, PHI)
Out: F Rick Nash (trade, NYR); D Marc Methot (trade, OTT)
2011-12 finish: 29-46-7, 65 points, 15th in West
Despite the shortened season introducing massive amounts of uncertainty into the standings, I don't think this is a pick I really need to justify. What's surprising (and has to be immensely frustrating for Blue Jackets fans) is that this looked like a solid team on paper at the start of the 2011-12 season. A top six that included Nash, Jeff Carter, and Antoine Vermette was skilled and varied and had the potential to mask some of the team's deficiencies on the back end and in goal. A year and a half later, all three of those players are gone, with the terrible Jack Johnson one of the only pieces they have to show for it. I'm one of the few who likes the return Scott Howson received for Nash and I've always been a huge Fedor Tyutin fan so I don't think the Jackets are completely hopeless. But with Steve Mason still on the roster, Johnson and James Wisniewski likely the first pairing (good lord) and zero high-end forward talent, another last-place finish looks to be in the cards.
14. Calgary Flames
In: F Jiri Hudler (UFA, DET); F Roman Cervenka (UFA, Europe); D Dennis Wideman (UFA, WSH)
Out: F David Moss (UFA, PHX); F Tom Kostopoulos (UFA); D Scott Hannan (UFA, NSH)
2011-12 finish: 37-29-16, 90 points, 9th in West
Honestly, a finish this low would likely be a welcome reprieve for much of the Calgary fanbase and the throng of media covering the team. After years of consistently ending the season a middle-of-the-pack club, the Flames could use the injection of talented youth into a relatively shallow prospect pool that a high draft pick would bring. The problems in Calgary are familiar ones: unless Roman Cervenka, who was a solid scorer in the KHL last season, or Mikael Backlund surprises, there still isn't a natural center to play with Jarome Iginla. Iginla himself isn't the player he once was. His offense has yet to fall off a cliff but his effectiveness as an even-strength outscorer certainly has. Granted, Brent Sutter probably shouldn't have been using Iginla and Olli Jokinen like they were Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk last season, which is likely part of the reason he was replaced with Bob Hartley, but it's also tough to blame him for that decision. The fact remains that, outside of potentially Backlund, there is no one on this roster who can play tough minutes.
At least no one up front who can. On defense, Jay Bouwmeester and Chris Butler are a shutdown pairing in the sense that they can handle heavy minutes against the Halls and Hossas of the conference while being slightly dominated rather than violently slaughtered. Losing Scott Hannan is probably addition by subtraction at this point while the Dennis Wideman signing was puzzling for more reasons than the ridiculous contract Jay Feaster handed him alone. Wideman was a third-pairing defenseman for the Capitals by the end of their playoff run last spring because he's a horror show in his own end; I doubt he'll do much to help a defense that was already among the worst in the league at surrendering shots. Also unlikely to alleviate the Flames' possession woes is the loss of possession demon David Moss. In net, as Kent Wilson detailed a week ago, Miikka Kiprusoff is coming off a terrific year but hasn't posted back-to-back above-average seasons since 2007. It's unlikely he repeats his 2011-12 performance.
There are some definite building blocks here. I love Backlund's game and T.J. Brodie is already a very good puck-mover on the back end. But apart from those two, this team is largely a combination of over-the-hill veterans and questionable free agent signings. I doubt that's a recipe for success.
13. Anaheim Ducks
In: F Daniel Winnik (UFA, SJS); F Brad Staubitz (UFA, MTL); D Sheldon Souray (UFA, DAL); D Bryan Allen (UFA, CAR)
Out: F Jason Blake (UFA); F Niklas Hagman (UFA); F George Parros (UFA, FLA); D Lubomir Visnovsky (trade, NYI); D Sheldon Brookbank (UFA, CHI)
2011-12 finish: 34-36-12, 80 points, 13th in West
Despite the fact that the Ducks finished in this spot last season (and that I despise them with every fiber of my being), it's tough for me to predict that Anaheim ends up 13th in the conference again. This was a downright competent team after Bruce Boudreau took over in December and they'll bring back all of their key pieces. Unfortunately for the Ducks, they'll also return to the ice with most of their biggest issues still glaring. Their forward depth is as shallow as ever and unless a youngster in Devante Smith-Pelly or Kyle Palmieri makes an unprecedented impact, Anaheim is stuck with one elite line, a 42-year-old Teemu Selanne and absolutely nothing else up front. Winnik should somewhat staunch the bleeding defensively but he can't score either.
On defense, I like the addition of stay-at-home type Bryan Allen. Sheldon Souray, less so. Souray is still an effective crease-clearer, particularly shorthanded, and passably impersonated a first-pairing defenseman alongside Stephane Robidas last season. But he's 36 and his performance with any Star other than Robidas a year ago indicates that the NHL game may have passed him by. Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler comprise an underrated first pairing but, just like with the Ducks' forward corps, where are depth contributions going to come from on defense? Allen can soak up defensive-zone starts against good opposing forwards but who can Boudreau reliably pair with him? Luca Sbisa is barely NHL-caliber while Toni Lydman is 35 and coming off a terrible season. Lubomir Visnovsky is a bigger loss than you might think.
A dependable trump card for the Ducks since 2008 has been Jonas Hiller, who was arguably the best goalie in the NHL from the start of his career through the end of the 2010 calendar year. But since his bout with vertigo shortly after that date, Hiller hasn't been the same and compiled by far his worst season in North America in 2011-12. Whether that was simple variance or Hiller is damaged goods at this point has yet to be determined. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, along with Anaheim's still-lethal power play, should keep them in the playoff hunt for much of the season and I wouldn't be shocked to see them carried to the postseason by their stars a la 2010-11. But with gaping holes at every position, I don't expect them to be a top-eight team in the West.
12. Edmonton Oilers
In: F Nail Yakupov (draft); D Justin Schultz (UFA, ANA); D Mark Fistric (trade, DAL)
Out: D Cam Barker (UFA, VAN)
2011-12 finish: 32-40-10, 74 points, 14th in West
As Tyler Dellow showed in a series of posts last week, the Oilers probably weren't quite as bad as their record indicated a season ago. Measures like 5v5 goal difference and score-adjusted Fenwick revealed they were a poor team but not crazytown bananapants awful like in the two years prior. They probably had a true talent level closer to an 85-point team than the 74-point squad they ended up as. Unfortunately for Edmonton, 85 points pro-rates to about 50 over a 48-game season and that won't be sufficient to make the playoffs. Did the Oilers do enough during the offseason to bridge that gap?
The short answer is no. Their defense is still a mess with Justin Schultz, he of 0 career NHL games, slated to begin the season playing top-four minutes. Devan Dubnyk is still an unknown quantity in goal and, should he falter, Plan B is Grandpa Vodka. There's obviously ridiculous skill up front, especially with Nail Yakupov now in the fold, but these kids are going to have it in tough on the road. As Jonathan Willis pointed out a few days ago, opposing coaches will be salivating to get their best scorers on the ice against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins when they have last change. Steve Tambellini's failure to add an established top-four defenseman (that first overall pick would have been an incredible trade chip) to the roster along with growing pains from the young guns probably dictates that this is a non-playoff team again. I'm also less confident than ever in Edmonton's ability to take that step to become the next in a line of tank-jobs-turned-champions as long as Tambellini remains employed.
11. Minnesota Wild
In: F Zach Parise (UFA, NJD); F Mikael Granlund (prospect); F Torrey Mitchell (UFA, SJS); F Zenon Konopka (UFA, OTT); F Jake Dowell (UFA, DAL); D Ryan Suter (UFA, NSH)
Out: F Guillaume Latendresse (UFA, OTT); F Nick Johnson (UFA, PHX); D Mike Lundin (UFA, OTT); D Kurtis Foster (UFA, PHI)
2011-12 finish: 35-36-11, 81 points, 12th in West
As you'll recall, the Wild were a terrible team last season. Their successful first half was a mirage masking the faults of a club with little depth at any position who had an extremely difficult time breaking out of their own end with any semblance of regularity. Injuries played a part in their demise as well but the Wild were a fundamentally flawed hockey team and have been so for a while now. The question is going to be to what extent Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikael Granlund and a full season of Tom Gilbert can change that.
Parise and Suter were pegged as worth around two wins each last offseason (it's obviously less in a 48-game campaign). Even if Granlund, Gilbert and a healthy Mikko Koivu add another two wins above replacement on top of that, Minnesota will likely still only be on the precipice of a playoff berth. And that's with some fairly generous assumptions about player value. As much as I like Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, there isn't much in the way of proven depth on that defense corps and their bottom six up front is underwhelming outside of Cal Clutterbuck. Like any other team in this shortened season, the Wild could potentially catch fire and ride a hot streak to the playoffs. I think they'll have a better shot at competing next season, though, after their legion of new recruits has 48 games and a full training camp to figure out how to play together.