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The Official Site of the Calgary Flames

Sizing up the West. Pt. 1

by Peter Zuurbier / Calgary Flames
As August begins to wane,  Calgarians begin their transition into rabid Flames fanaticism. Because there is no such thing as autumn here in Calgary, locals get ready early for their only refuge from a long, sometimes barren winter.

The Flames have been one of the busiest teams in the offseason; General Manager Darryl Sutter has assembled a team worthy of Stanley Cup aspirations and expectations. With training camp only weeks away, teams have made the majority of their moves and rosters are almost set. The West is firmly entrenched as the rougher, tougher, deeper, and more talented of the two conferences; the Flames will face brisk competition almost every time they face-off against a western foe. But as they say, the road of a champion is never easy, unless you play in the Eastern Conference...

There may be a shift in the balance of power in the West, as some teams have taken steps to place themselves among the conference elite. The Flames hope to be one of those teams, read on to see how the rest of the West stacks up against the best (us):

Click here for Part II.

Part I - The top half (Last year's playoff teams)

San Jose (53-18-11) last season
In: Joe Callahan, Dwight Helminen, Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer
Out: Riley Armstrong, Mike Grier, Claude Lemieux, Travis Moen, Jeremy Roenick

The Deal: Sharks GM Doug Wilson went into the offseason with a similar plan to that of Flames GM Darryl Sutter. Both intended to evaluate the team from top to bottom, find out what caused their respective clubs to be recent playoff disappointments, then remedy the situation. While Sutter made bold strides to improve his team, after evaluating a series of options, Wilson has chosen to basically stand pat for the time being. The Sharks have a daunting roster and there is an argument to be made that giving the team as constructed another shot will allow them to relax and continue to develop together, which may be all the talented group needs to excel. Expect them to be among the class of the conference for the first 82 games, but whatever regular season success the Sharks achieve is moot, as the weight of expectation for this team will grow more cumbersome with each passing game. Nothing short of an extended playoff run will suffice in Northern California, but is the team as constructed tough enough for said extended playoff run?

Detroit (51-21-10)
In: Jason Williams, Doug Janik, Kris Newbury, Jeremy Williams
Out: Marion Hossa, Ty Conklin, Darren Haydar, Tomas Kopecky, Mikael Sammuelsson

The Deal: One thing the Red Wings will not lack as they enter the 2009-10 Season is motivation. The team seemed to lose steam over the course of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the offseason hasn’t been particularly kind to them either. Marion Hossa, last season’s leading scorer, left for division rival Chicago. Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Sammuelsson also moved on to greener salaried pastures, but their largest loss may be Ty Conlklin, whose steady play allowed the Wings to rest Osgood sufficiently. Osgood himself is another issue; he played exceptionally well last season, but will be 38 early in the season. Without a proven backup, can he continue to handle the workload and pressure?

That said, Jason Williams should slide in seamlessly, and expect the offensive losses to be offset easily by the deep and talented roster. Some may be eager to write the Wings off as Cup contenders, but even whispers to that effect should be ample fuel to fire up a team that may have merely lulled itself to sleep last season with all of its recent success. The Red Wings will certainly be in the mix, but their over-reliance on Osgood may cost them when the games really matter.

Vancouver (45-27-10)
In: Mikael Samuelsson, Andrew Raycroft, Lawrence Nycholat, Tanner Glass, Michael Funk,
Out: Mattias Ohlund, Jason Jaffray, Mark Cullen, Curtis Sanford, Jason Labarbera, Ossi Vaananen, Mats Sundin

The Deal: The team that claimed the Northwest Division title in the final weekend of last season is back largely intact. The Canucks had a bittersweet summer, they managed to sign the Sedin twins to reasonable contracts, but weren’t able to add another player of their calibre in free agency. The team will miss Mattias Ohlund more than they either realize or are ready to admit (especially when they face the Flames), and their defence looks glaringly one-dimensional at the moment. Mikael Samuelsson was an excellent pickup, as was Andrew Raycroft to backup Roberto Luongo, who will undoubtedly backstop the Canucks to another trip to the post-season. Whether or not they have the horses to go any further is very much up for debate.

Chicago (46-24-12)
In: Marion Hossa, John Madden, Tomas Kopecky, Mark Cullen, Danny Bois
Out: Martin Havlat, Nikolai Khabibulin, Samuel Pahlsson, Matt Walker, Pascal Pelletier

The Deal: No team is looking forward to getting on the ice more, or sooner, than the Blackhawks, who suffered through one of the more bizarre offseasons in recent memory. After a fantastic playoff run, the team looked poised to slide among the conference Elite through sheer natural progression and development. However the Hawks may have stunted that development when they made the biggest splash of free agency, signing Marion Hossa to a colossal deal to replace Martin Havlat. Hossa has subsequently undergone shoulder surgery and will miss the beginning of the regular season, and though his skill is undeniable, adding Hossa’s salary may have constrained the ‘Hawks ability to keep their young nucleus together. With many of their rising stars coming up for new contracts soon, this promises to be a major distraction in one of North America’s largest media markets. Add to that a series of serious contractual slipups by the front office, very public infighting within the same front office resulting in the subsequent demotion of their former GM Dale Tallon, and the issues surrounding Patrick Kane’s nocturnal behaviour, and the Hawks may want to lace em’ up while they still have some goodwill left in the Windy City.

Fortunately for the team, on the ice, optimism abounds. Their young corps, upfront and on the blueline, remains the envy of the league, and the additions of Hossa, as well as John Madden, Tomas Kopecky and Mark Cullen will all bolster the line-up, especially come playoff time. The concerns that new starting goaltender Cristobal Huet will not be able to match his predecessor may be largely unfounded, as Huet was clutch in the past for both Montreal and Washington. The larger issue is his backup, who will almost certainly be required to contribute a number of quality starts between the pipes. If they can overcome these issues the sky is the limit, but they also may be teetering on disaster.

St. Louis (41-31-10)
In: Ty Conklin, Brendan Bell, Barry Tallackson
Out: Jay McKee, Trent Whitfield, Jeff Woywitka

The Deal: The St. Louis Blues were playing with house money last season when they made a fantastic run to the playoffs, and they’ve apparently decided to let it ride. Rather than make any flashy additions, the Blues have wisely decided to give their impressive young crew a chance to develop. They may still be more than a year away from making any noise in the West, so allowing the team to progress at their own pace will not only give management an opportunity to see what areas need to be addressed, it also allows them the patience to wait for the ideal superstar to complement their existing core, while limiting the pressure and scrutiny placed on them. If Ty Conklin can continue to play as he did last year, they’re as likely as anybody to make the playoffs. And while anything short of last year’s success may seem like a step back for the Blues, a little tough love this season may provide the spark the team needs to move into the upper echelon of the conference.

Columbus (41-31-10)
In: Mathieu Garon, Samuel Pahlsson, Pascal Pelletier, Mathieu Roy
Out: Jason Williams, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Wade Dubielewicz, Aaron Rome

The Deal: Locking up Rick Nash eliminated a great deal of the off-ice distractions for the Blue Jackets, who enjoyed their most successful season in franchise history last year. Providing Chris Mason can continue to frustrate opposing offences, this is a team to be reckoned with. Samuel Pahlsson should provide the perfect complement to Nash, in terms of both play and leadership, and Mathieu Garon will fill in admirably for Mason, as long as it’s not long-term. Suffering defeat at the hands of the Red Wings was an ideal lesson for the developing Jackets, who received a taste of the type of intensity required for success in the playoffs. Head coach Ken Hitchcock is known throughout the league for being unrelenting in his demands and expectations, so the playoffs will probably not be enough to satisfy him, or the Blue Jackets fan base, which also got their first taste of playoff hockey, and undoubtedly want more than just another sip.

Anaheim (42-33-7)
In: Joffrey Loppul, Luca Sbisa, Saku Koivu, Nick Boynton, Justin Pogge, Evgeny Artyukhin
Out: Chris Pronger, Francois Beauchemin, Josh Green, Jason King, Drew Miller

The Deal: Last season the Ducks were a testament to the talent and depth of the Western Conference, taking down President’s Trophy winners the San Jose Sharks, and pushing the Detroit Red Wings to their absolute limit in the second round. This year they will catch no one by surprise, and if they can avoid a slow start, they won’t have to. The Ducks have an ideal balance of veterans and youngsters, the majority of whom have recent, extensive playoff experience.

While the loss of Chris Pronger will get the headlines, the departure of Francois Beauchemin hurts almost as much. The two of them combined with Scott Niedermeyer to form the most imposing defence in the NHL, and while Sbisa and Boynton are no slouches, it may take them a while to develop a similar chemistry. Saku Koivu may end up being one of the more underrated moves of the summer, as he is primed for a resurgence playing in a (comparatively) pressure-free environment, with good buddy Teemu Selanne, on a team with as good a shot as any at the Stanley Cup. The Ducks are a very, very dangerous group.

Click here for Part II - The bottom half. We'll take a look at the teams that didn't make the playoffs last season and decide if any of them are up for it this time around.

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