The second installment in this Western Conference preview features teams that are just below the contenders’ tier: quality teams that have solid rosters but with more obvious holes or deficiencies. Of course, with hockey’s unpredictability I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of these teams put it together and make a run for the Cup next spring so it’s not really fair to consider them “dark horses” but for simplicities sake, we’ll assume that they are on the outside track.
I know, it’s counterintuitive to think that last season’s first seed and the winner of three Stanley Cups in the last decade isn’t a contender. But several departures have hit the team hard this summer, the most significant of which is the trade of Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Panarin burst onto the NHL scene two years ago and has done nothing but produce since, scoring 151 points in 162 regular season games while forming a deadly pair with Patrick Kane. The Russian forward was a great fit in Chicago but was forced out at least in part due to the salary cap crunch and hiss likely expensive contract that would have come up in a few years. Also gone are Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger, and Scott Darling, all of whom ended up in Carolina, longtime defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, and star forward Marian Hossa, who may never play again due to a skin disorder.
Now, it’s not all bad for the Hawks. They managed to snag Brandon Saad from the Blue Jackets and the hope is that reuniting him with Jonathan Toews will reignite the captain’s scoring prowess, which has waned since Saad’s departure. Also back after a two year hiatus is Patrick Sharp, who signed a friendly one year contract. This team still has questions though; will Anton Forsberg, he of ten games worth of NHL experience, slide into Scott Darling’s backup role? Will Richard Panik be able to approach his career high twenty-two goals from last year? Who will fill depth roles now that more top end players like Hossa and Hjalmarsson are no longer available? The lack of depth was exposed in last year’s sweep to the Predators and will be a problem again this year if Chicago cannot find enough goals to compensate for the players they lost.
After they went on a bit of a tear at the end of last year, I boldly predicted the Flames were a team that could surprise everybody and make it to the Final- a prediction that was proven embarrassingly false four games against the Ducks later. Still, the pieces are there for Calgary; Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan run the offense while Matthew Tkachuk has already established a reputation as one of the conference’s biggest pests. The addition of Travis Hamonic makes their defense among the best in the league, and when the team is clicking, the Flames are an efficient, entertaining team that can kill you with their creativity and speed.
That’s the good news. As we saw in the playoffs however, Anaheim was able to bully them into submission and effectively neutralized Gaudreau and the Flames’ 5v5 play the whole series. One of their main problems was undoubtedly goaltending, with Brian Elliott just not cutting it in general last year. Brad Treliving decided that Mike Smith and Eddie Lack were the answer, acquiring both early this summer. I’m just not sold on Smith, the thirty-five year old that has been out of the playoffs five out of his six years as the Coyotes’ starter. He had an MVP worthy season in 2011-12 but his numbers have hovered around league average since then. A lot of people seem to think that his mediocre numbers mostly reflected some bad Coyotes teams and that he’ll thrive behind a good defense in Calgary. Of course, that reasoning doesn’t always work out- just ask Ryan Miller and 2014 Blues.
This team honestly doesn’t jump out at you as anything special. While they don’t really have any dynamic superstars they are just solid top to bottom. Nine players hit at least forty points last year, and Mikael Granlund looked as though he could finally be ready to break out as the team’s leader on offense. However, things kind of went off the rails late in the season, and after battling most of the year for the President’s Trophy, they ended up ceding first in the division to the Blackhawks then won a single playoff game in a quick exit at the hands of the Blues. Call it the Bruce Boudreau effect.
Going forward, the Wild still have a solid team but it’s been three years since they won a game in the second round. Sure, they were unlucky to run into a red-hot Jake Allen last year but their late season decline was disappointing. They gambled at the trade deadline, acquiring center Martin Hanzal, and lost, losing Hanzal in free agency to Dallas. Eventually, the twin $98 million contracts given to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will be a problem and will limit the team’s financial flexibility. Even despite the investments into their forwards, the Wild still essentially go as goalie Devan Dubnyk goes, which can be a double-edged sword. And of course, Minnesota’s season last year did nothing to deviate from the narrative that Boudreau is a regular season champion that can’t get it done past game 82. Expect the Wild to comfortably make the playoffs but it’s hard to see them making a Cup run unless Dubnyk stands on his head.