Western Conference Ripe For The Taking

Marc Elliott

WACOUTA…. Good morning friends. Yes sir, the hockey dog days of summer are upon us. The Cup tourney is long over, the Awards have been handed out, the Entry Draft is over and the annual Free Agent frenzy (if you can call this years free agency period that) is pretty much done and over with too. There will be a few salary arbitrations coming up, some odds and ends roster filling out type signings and then September will arrive and training camps will open throughout the hockey universe. All a guy can do now is relax, sip on some iced tea and dream about the upcoming season to be.

In so doing and in assessing the chances and opportunities available for our Minnesota Wild, I have come to the conclusion that the clubs chances for upward movement could be at an optimum level for the year. I’m hoping that this is not an opinion borne out of sheer “homerism”, but that I have made this conclusion with some thought and logic behind it, tinged with a spot of speculation. I look at this with the current knowledge that for each team in the West, about 98% of their roster for next year is already set. Then considering some young players moving up, trades made, free agents signed, available cap space to make roster moves utilized, that what we are seeing now for team depth charts is pretty much it.

So lets do a quick elimination of teams that I do not believe will get one of the available playoff positions for next years Stanley Cup tourney. In the Pacific division, do not look for Arizona, San Jose, or Vancouver to get into the tourney next year. Arizona is still rebuilding, San Jose, even with the addition of  G-Martin Jones still won’t have enough defense to get in, and while former UMD Bulldog goalie Alex Stalock has a strong opportunity to become the number one net minder, I don’t think he is quite at his prime as a pro goalie yet, the real deal for the Sharks is that 1 thru 6, they still won’t be good enough defensively. And I’m not even considering the possibility that their team-organizational dysfunction has been cleared up and I am looking at the Canucks as a team in decline, their window is closing.

So that leaves Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary and Edmonton as next years Pacific playoff entrants. Yeah, you read right, Edmonton will get a playoff spot. In the Central division, I don’t see Colorado, St. Louis or Winnipeg getting in. For the Avalanche, not enough scoring or defense, and their goalie Varlamov can only prop them up for so long. They will achieve a bit more then they should with Patty Roy behind the bench, but not enough, the roster isn’t there. STL Blues? They will score, they may defend, but I think once again their goaltending will be their Achilles heel. I think that to the point that it might keep them from their annual playoff spot. Having a coach on a one year deal won’t be helping their cause either. They opted to not re-sign D-Jackman, who goes to Nashville, and traded fan favorite TJ Oshie whose game may have plateaued in STL.
Winnipeg? My main question about them is whether or not they will get the goalkeeping to keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot. I really like their Head Coach Paul Maurice but can he push this group thru 82 games to play at a peak and make it in? I’m not sure. I see Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville and Dallas as the 4 teams in for a playoff spot here. For the defending Champion Blackhawk’s, first off, teams just don’t repeat anymore, they will get in, but… And due to cap restraints and some roster shuffling I see some chance for other teams to move past them. They lost forwards Sharpe and Saad and might not be done yet in terms of roster moves. Nashville has a very strong defense, can get scoring when needed and have all-world net minder Pekka Rinne. If he returns to previous form, look out.

With the Dallas NorthStars ability to score, even though I would want them to be better defensively and between the pipes, they may get in. I don’t think you can go very far in the tourney with scoring alone, but they probably have enough to get in. For the Wild? They have had cap challenges as well, preventing them from making any “big splash” moves in the off-season, but with the group they have returning buoyed by newly re-signed G-Dubnyk, and pretty much returning the same defense pairings, and offense, minus Matt Cooke, the team could make the WCF and possibly win.

Certainly the team was in trouble before the Dubnyk trade was made, and did play with desperation for the remainder of the regular season after he arrived. However, they were one of the best two teams in the league after his acquisition and you can say what you want about that, but you have to have a pretty good team to be able to do that. It wasn’t an accident. I think the team is even better starting off at camp with the group intact and ready to go. Obviously they had their struggles in the Hawks series, but I maintain if they finish their chances better may have been able to win. They will ice one of the best defensive teams in the league next season.

I also believe that with the emergence of some of the young defensive talent the club has, that it is time to dial back Ryan Suter’s TOI totals to a more acceptable level. I think 24-25 minutes per game is good for him. Playing more then that pushes him down to a more methodical, paced level of play and that’s not when he is at his best. The NHL game is now an all out affair for 60 minutes and pacing yourself will lead to problems. That’s what I saw in Suter’s game last year. Yeah I know, Duncan Keith can go like an energizer bunny for 30 minutes a game and my response to that is that he is a genetic freak and one of few that can play at the pace he does for that long and maintain. I don’t see that in Suter. He will be a more effective player with less time, not more.

So, Wild in the WCF and maybe SCF? Yes, this year that door is wide open for them. PEACE