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Sizing up the West. Pt. 2

by Peter Zuurbier / Calgary Flames
Teams in the bottom half of the Western Conference have the unenviable task of having to outplay one of the teams from Part I in order to even reach the playoffs, only then to probably win the right, as St. Louis and Columbus did last year, to be sent home with a quick, painful lesson. For these teams, contending for a Stanley Cup may be a long ways away, but if building a champion is a process, these teams are just slightly further behind.

Part II – The bottom half (Last season’s golfers)

Minnesota (40-33-9)
In: Martin Havlat, Shane Hnidy, Wade Dubielewicz, John DiSalvatore, Ryan Lannon, Jamie Fraser, Jaime Sifers, Nathan Smith, Ryan Lannon, Kyle Brodziak
Out: Marian Gaborik, Kurtis Foster, Krystofer Kolanos, Corey Locke, Peter Olvecky, Stephane Veilleux, Nolan Schaefer

The Deal: Our divisional rival is undergoing a rebirth. New General Manager Chuck Fletcher has committed to developing a team in the exact opposite image of his predecessors’. Gone are the days of defensive trapping and slow, plodding play. Wild fans have been told to anticipate a fast, crisp team who will skate with, and outscore the best in the West. Unfortunately, the new boss’s team looks suspiciously like the old boss’s team, so the transition may not happen as quickly or as smoothly as the Wild faithful would like. The most notable roster change has been Martin Havlat, who was brought in to replace Marian Gaborik, who may have been forgotten about anyway after missing so much of the last few seasons. Havlat is not exactly made of steel, but he proved his worth giving everything he had to the Blackhawks last season, and he must be only the first step for a team that is not only rebuilding, but redeveloping its entire sense of self. Sounds like a long, existential season in Minnesota.

Nashville (40-34-8)
In: Ben Guite, Peter Olvecky
Out: Radek Bonk, Vernon Fiddler, Ville Koistinen, Drew MacIntyre, Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer, Greg Zanon

The Deal: Shrewd drafting, sound player development, and strong coaching have kept the Predators in the mix for a number of seasons now, as they continue to do more with less than many of their contemporaries. Unfortunately, this may be the season where they cannot confound any longer. The financial turmoil throughout the United States has to be particularly tough on the Predators, who maybe could not, but certainly did not bring in any reserves to support the cavalry. The other teams at a similar juncture in their development programs are basing their strategy on what occurs on-ice, unfortunately the Preds seem to be compelled by off-ice matters.

Their defence is still one of the best in the business, meaning they will give their opponents fits and remain in the playoff mix until the very end. But regardless of whether they fall short or sneak in, they lack the skill and depth up front to compete with the heavyweights in the West.

Edmonton (38-35-9)
oilersIn: Nikolai Khabibulin, Chris Minard
Out: Dwayne Roloson, Dany Sabourin, Ales Kotalik, Matthew Roy, Kyle Brodziak, Tim Sestito

The Deal: The biggest offseason addition made up north was bringing in Pat Quinn and Tom Renney to readjust the mindset of a team who had obviously tuned out their former coach. The rejuvenated Quinn should be able to light a fire under the indifferent Oilers, and Renney will make sure it’s burning properly. The two of them should conjure up a few more wins for the Oilers, but with the other bubble teams making strides, it may not be enough. Replacing Dwayne Roloson with Nikolai Khabibulin was a smart pre-emptive move, as Roloson looked suspiciously close to his expiry date last season despite his solid record.

The Oilers are in a difficult position, as they are good enough to be competitive, but certainly not elite calibre. At the same time, they are simply too good to not ice a decent team every night, meaning they will never receive a high draft pick. Match that with their bad contracts, and the seeming reluctance of any top-tier player to join the team, and the Oilers seem stuck in hockey purgatory. If there is going to be improvement it’s going to have to come from within, and the kind of improvement required to squeeze into the top eight this season may be too tall an order.

Dallas (36-35-11)
In: Warren Peters, Karlis Skrastins, Jeff Woywitka, Alex Auld
Out: Sergei Zubov, Steve Begin, Chris Connor, Joel Lundqvist, Brendan Morrison

The Deal: Going into the upcoming season, the Stars’ biggest addition will be a familiar face. Captain Brenden Morrow tore his ACL in November and missed the remainder of the season. His presence (along with Sean Avery’s absence), will keep the Stars pointed straight ahead, whether they are heading in the right direction however, is up for debate. New General Manager (and Flames hero) Joe Nieuwendyk wanted to put his stamp on the team, and as such replaced former head coach Dave Tippett with Marc Crawford. While Tippett had a rough season, especially in his handling of Avery, his replacement hasn’t exactly been a model for success in any of his recent stops. If Tippett’s approach was the source of the Stars’ problems, the team may rise above last year’s calamitous campaign and into the playoffs. If last year was an aberration, the Stars’s program may be set back for another season by bringing in Crawford.

Despite the money, prestige, fame, and competitive satisfaction that comes from being one of only 30 people on earth to be a starting goalkeeper in the NHL, Marty Turco admitted he wasn’t entirely focused last season. When he can fend off distraction, Turco is one of the top ‘keepers in the league, and while Alex Auld is a capable backup who can keep the Stars competitive temporarily, Turco, when motivated, is one of a select few who can almost single-handedly will his team to victory.

Phoenix (36-39-7)
In: Adrian Aucoin, Jim Vandermeer, Radim Vrbata, Stefan Meyer, Vernon Fiddler, Jason Labarbera
Out: Brian McGrattan, Brandon Prust, Steven Goertzen, Steven Reinprecht, Ryan Lannon, Garth Murray, Joakim Lindstrom, David Hale, Todd Fedoruk

The Deal: Since Coyotes players aren’t entirely certain they’ll be playing in Glendale this season, it is understandable, though unfortunate, that this team will likely continue to underachieve. Last season the team displayed flashes of being very competitive, but as the months wore on they simply could not muster any consistency, and faded out of the playoff picture. With the ownership fiasco ongoing, the tenure of any and all players, management, as well as concessions and parking staff, is completely up in the air, making it impossible for the young players to focus on the task at hand, improving and winning hockey games. Arguments have been made that Gretzky is just hitting his coaching stride, but rumours of his sacking continue to abound. If players and coach can band together in defiance of the odds, there is enough promise in the roster to make for difficult nights for opposing teams. The additions of Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer, as Flames fans will attest to, will help solidify their blueline, and hopefully provide some stability in the locker room.

Los Angeles (34-37-11)
In: Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi, Brandon Segal
Out: Brian Boyle, Kyle Quincey, Tom Preissing, Matt Moulson

The Deal: With the recent success of young players, the burden of expectation has suddenly been thrust upon the Kings, who feature an unmatched collection of young talent. Though they have accomplished much less than teams of a similar age, the Kings face as many expectations, if not more. To help the young bucks learn the ropes, the Kings brought in Ryan Smyth, whom they hope can return to form as the consummate leader and deflection machine he was in Edmonton, as well as recently minted Stanley Cup Champion Rob Scuderi. The question in most hockey minds is not if, but when this team will begin wreaking havoc on the rest of the league. While the hope is that this won’t take place for another season at minimum, if Jason Quick is up to the task and Ryan Smyth can lead the way, there is no reason this team can’t mimic St. Louis and Chicago’s success from last season.

Colorado (32-45-5)
In: Craig Anderson, Darren Haydar, David Koci, Brett Skinner, Kyle Quincey, Tom Preissing
Out: Joe Sakic, Tyler Arnason, Ian Laperriere, Jason Bacashihua, Andrew Raycroft, Michael Vernace, Lawrence Nycholat

The Deal: The Avalanche had to say good bye to the greatest player in the history of their franchise this offseason when Joe Sakic hung up his skates. As such, it is probably the ideal time to begin a complete rebuild for the team that used to strike fear into the hearts of the West. While the glory days may be gone, there are strong pieces on which to build a foundation. Third overall pick Matt Duchene, who was a lifelong Avalanche fan and has been compared to Sakic, is not a bad place to start, Kyle Quincey, acquired for Ryan Smyth, isn’t too shabby either. Hopefully Craig Anderson can provide some stability in goal, and the team can take their regular beatings with a strong chin, knowing another high draft pick is on the way. With Sakic gone the Avalanche are starting anew, and at least they aren’t kidding themselves about it any longer.

Click here for Part I.

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