Puck drop is tomorrow and it's always a slugfest in the powerhouse Western Conference. Here's who I think will make the postseason (in no particular order).
PROS: Who could argue that a team with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler at centre and Corey Perry on the wing wouldn't be a playoff threat? The Ducks finished with the best record in the West last season and were favourites to go to the Cup Final. They added speedster Carl Hagelin and dependable centre Mike Santorelli. Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Simon Depres and Sami Vatanen are burgeoning studs on the blue line and they have a veteran presence in the locker room now with Kevin Bieksa. Frederik Andersen looks to improve on a fairly solid 2014-2015 campaign and the team also has John Gibson waiting in the wings.
CONS: Despite regular season success, Bruce Boudreau-coached teams never seem to be able to win the big one. Anaheim had two chances to close out the Western Conference Final last season and failed. The health and effectiveness of Ryan Kesler will be important to the Ducks this year as it will help ease the load off Getzlaf.
PROS: On paper, the St. Louis Blues are a team built for the playoffs. They have the grit and leadership with David Backes and Tory Brouwer and some serious offensive skill with Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen and Jaden Schwartz. If Paul Stastny can regain his 2013-2014 form and Robby Fabbri grows into the next T.J. Oshie, the Blues offense will be a scary one. Their backend is solidified with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and the steady, veteran presence of Jay Bouwmeester further bolsters the blue line.
CONS: Much like Bruce Boudreau, Ken Hitchcock's teams have a reputation for choking when it comes to winning in the postseason. It also doesn't help that the Blues aren't exactly solid in net with a platoon of Brian Elliot and Jake Allen.
PROS: They're the Chicago Blackhawks and despite having to constantly navigate around the cap, they're the closest thing to a modern day dynasty the NHL has. They have the quintessential captain in Jonathan Toews and workhorse Duncan Keith patrolling the blue line. The supporting cast isn't bad either with the likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw. The most important thing is that the core of the team is made up of guys who know how to flat out win and that includes Corey Crawford.
CONS: The constant cap juggling means that Chicago often has to sacrifice key parts of their organization (Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, etc.) and filling those holes is a difficult task. The off-ice antics of Patrick Kane work against the Hawks as the distraction no doubt permeates the dressing room.
PROS: The Dallas Stars narrowly missed out on the playoffs last year but it wasn't for lack of talent, at least not from a defense and forwards perspective. Tyler Seguin has become a bonafide NHL superstar and you couldn't ask for a better captain than Jamie Benn. Jason Spezza may be on the downside of his career but he can still put up fairly decent numbers (62 pts in 82 games last season). The Stars were also the beneficiaries of Chicago's cap crisis when they landed Patrick Sharp, who is also on the downside of his career but is a three-time Stanley Cup Winner and a good leader. Dallas may have lost stalwart Trevor Daley but they got Johnny Oduya, Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg to lean on on defense.
CONS: Goaltending. It's a common theme for many teams but goaltending was by far Dallas' biggest issue last season. Kari Lehtonen shows flashes of brilliance but is far too inconsistent to rely on for a full season. Hopefully the acquisition of Anttii Niemi will solve some of the Stars' recent net woes.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
PROS: Despite the Kings missing the playoffs last season, their core remains largely intact. That core is one that has won two Cups in three years. Many suggested the Kings ran out of gas due to how much hockey they've played the last four years but make no mistake, all of the off-ice fiascos that plagued the team had an affect on their performance. The 70's line of Toffoli, Pearson and Lewis has another year of experience under their belt and you can bet they'll be even better this season. The Kings also got a bit tougher by adding LW Milan Lucic this summer; he'd look pretty good flanking Kopitar.
CONS: LA plays a run-and-gun style of game which can be dangerous in a stingy Western Conference. Winning one-goal games will be this team's bread and butter this season.
PROS: Dougie Hamilton. The Flames got an early Christmas present when Boston graciously traded the young defenseman for three drafts picks. With a healthy Mark Giordano, that's a formidable combination on the backend. For the first time in a long time, Flames fans can forget about Jerome Iginla with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett. Reliable veterans Matt Stajan and Jiri Hudler are still in the mix and the addition of Michael Frolik should add to the Flames offensive arsenal.
CONS: Goaltending. Jonas Hiller was supposed to be the successor to Miikka Kiprusoff but was supplanted at times last season by Karri Ramo, who's been named Calgary's opening day starting goaltender. The Flames currently have a cluster of goalies in the mix as Joni Ortio is still on the roster.
PROS: Pekka Rinne, Seth Jones, Roman Josi, Shea Weber; as long as those four guys are playing, Nashville will do just fine keeping goals out of their net. Super-Swede Filip Forsberg will only get better and Craig Smith quietly put together a decent 2014-2015 season.
CONS: Offense. Outside of Forsberg, Smith and Wilson, the Preds are loaded with middle of the road players. Mike Ribeiro and a healthy Mike Fisher should help a bit but goals may be hard to come by this year for Nashville.
PROS: Like the Predators, the Wild are flush with talent on the backend, which is lead by Ryan Suter. Look for Matt Dumba to make a leap this year and be a staple on the Wild blue line. Zach Parise had a tough year, personally, but still managed to put up 62 points in 74 games. Captain Mikko Koivu may be getting a little long in the tooth but he still puts up 40+ points a season.
CONS: It's clear that Niklas Backstrom's best days are behind him and though he put up Vezina-worthy numbers after the deadline, Devan Dubnyk has yet to prove he's a bonafide number one goalie. Darcy Kuemper is a decent back-up option but if Dubnyk gets injured or has an off-season, it's unclear whether or not Kuemper could carry the weight of a season.