Predicting the 2019-20 NHL Season: Western Conference Edition
The second half of our NHL season preview brings us to the wild, wild Western Conference. It was the weaker of the two last year, with three teams (Dallas, Vegas, Colorado) finishing lower in the standings than Montreal (96 points) who missed the playoffs in the East.
This year, the Central figures to be insanely deep, with all seven teams having a legit case for the playoffs. The Pacific is a polar opposite - every team has a weakness that could easily lead to their demise. Here's who I see emerging from the dust to play deep into April.
1. St. Louis Blues (2018-19: 3rd in Central, Won Stanley Cup)
After a summer of playing Gloria, the defending champions head into the fall ready for another run. Minus Pat Maroon, everyone from last year's squad is back for another go. Next summer may be different, as Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo's contracts are up. But the Blues are set to ride last summer's momentum to more consistent regular season success this year, so long as Jordan Binnington returns anywhere near last year's form.
2. Nashville Predators (2018-19: 1st in Central, Lost in Round 1)
For some, the Predators are a potential fall-off team that never looked amazing last year and were beaten soundly in round 1. But despite losing P.K. Subban, the Preds defense is still sound as ever, with Dante Fabbro in line to take his place. The addition of Matt Duchene gives Smashville one of the deepest forward cores in the league. Even if Pekka Rinne begins to show cracks, Jusse Saros should be ready to take the keys to the crease. There are so many options to produce on both ends of the rink that I see Nashville still being a legit threat in the Central.
3. Colorado Avalanche (2018-19: 5th in Central, Lost in Round 2)
Despite losing more than they won a year ago, the Avalanche took a step forward with a strong playoff showcase. They've improved their depth behind that elite top line of Landeskog, MacKinnon, and (the unsigned) Rantanen, adding Nazem Kadri and Joonas Donskoi. Cale Makar and Bowen Byram will be studs on the backend someday, but losing Tyson Barrie stings for now. Philip Grubauer proved he's ready to be a starter, which is good because there's no safety net behind him anymore. The Avs should be good once again, but I still think they're a year away from being the class of their conference.
4. Dallas Stars (2018-19: 4th in Central, Lost in Round 2)
Their not f*cking horsesh*t anymore. Dallas may have been the champions of the offseason in the west, adding Joe Pavelski to complement their top line and taking low-risk, high-reward fliers on Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. The growth of Miro Heiskanen, combined with John Klingberg and Ben Bishop should push the Dallas to the top of the charts in goals against. Their depth isn't great, and Phillies fans like myself will warn you that even the best laid plans of mice and GMs can often go awry. Still, the Stars are in great position to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2003-08.
5. Winnipeg Jets (2018-19: 2nd in Central, Lost in Round 1)
Sixteen months ago, the Jets looked like the next budding powerhouse ready to storm the NHL for rings. But after a season where things just felt "off" way too often, the Jets lost a lot over the summer. Their right side on defense went from stacked to concerning, and with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still unsigned their foward depth is also concerning, especially down the middle. Though Connor Hellebuyck is still a great young goalie, the Jets don't have the defensive talent or forward depth (even if the RFAs sign) to keep up with the rest of the division.
6. Chicago Blackhawks (2018-19: 6th in Central, Missed Playoffs)
If there's one team I feel like I might have ranked too low, it's Chicago. It may just be a product of the stacked Central, but it just feels like the Hawks won't stay down for long. Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford form one of the better tandems in the league. Olli Maatta and Calvin de Hann add experience and talent to the backend (though the Jokiharju trade was puzzling at best). If youngsters like Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome continue their star status, I wouldn't be shocked if the Blackhawks make this ranking look silly.
7. Minnesota Wild (2018-19: 7th in Central, Missed Playoffs)
Hot take: the Wild aren't bad. In fact, if they were in the Pacific, I might have even picked them to be a playoff team. But in a division this deep, you need something that makes you stand out, and other than massive contracts, the Wild don't have that. They should be able to keep the puck out of the net, thanks to a stellar top four and a return to form for Devan Dubnyk. But unless Zach Parise proves last year was for real and someone else in that forward core breaks out, it's looking like a long line of mediocrity going forward for the Wild.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (2018-19: 3rd in Pacific, Lost in Round 1)
I don't feel great about this pick. Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, and Brayden McNabb are solid defenseman, but there's nothing but mediocrity and inexperience behind them. Marc-Andre Fleury can't fend off father time forever, and Malcom Subban and Garret Sparks haven't exactly lit up the NHL level. But you can score your way out of a lot of problems, and the Knights practically have two first lines. If Cody Glass lives up to the hype, Vegas might boast the best forward core in the NHL. Even if he doesn't, the Knights are in good shape to go three for three in playoff appearances to begin their history.
2. Calgary Flames (2018-19: 1st in Pacific, Lost in Round 1)
The haters will say they're due for regression, and they're right to some extent. Mark Giordano and Elias Lindholm probably aren't cracking 70 points again, but the rest of the team has a talented track record. I really like Calgary's high-end talent and depth, though signing Matthew Tkachuk is paramount. David Rittich and Cam Talbot aren't sieves - both have been starters at points in their career before. Calgary has an ideal balance of young talent and grizzled veterans that should make a return to the playoffs easier than some might think.
3. San Jose Sharks (2018-19: 2nd in Pacific, Lost in Round 3)
Last year felt like the Sharks last, best chance to win a Cup with their current core, but we've set that plenty of times before. With Erik Karlsson back under (an expensive) contract, the Sharks defense remains stacked. It came at the expense of much of their forward depth, which is weak and isn't expected to get a boost from Patrick Marleau. But Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier's team-friendly contracts make contention possible, and the Sharks have a knack for turning prospects into producers. Let's see if they can do it again.
4. Arizona Coyotes (2018-19: 4th in Pacific, Missed Playoffs)
Last year the Hurricanes, next year the Sabres, this year the Coyotes are the long time losers ready to take the next step. Despite injuries to literally half the team, eight of their twelve fans, and Howler, Darcy Kuemper darn near dragged them kicking and screaming to the dance. Phil Kessel and a bounce-back from Clayton Keller should be enough to boost the offensive out of the basement. I'm bullish on the Yotes depth across the board and see them slipping into a playoff spot. Which probably means they'll be tanking by Thanksgiving.
5. Vancouver Canucks (2018-19: 5th in Pacific, Missed Playoffs)
Many people may be grumbling that the Vancouver Canucks are trying to rush their rebuild, but I think ownership and Jim Benning are in the right to take a shot. They got off to a promising start last year, have gobs of young talent across the ice, and an outstanding goalie tandem in the low-risk Jacob Markstrom and the high-reward Thatcher Demko. They need to get Brock Boeser signed, or else they've likely struggle to score goals even with J.T. Miller now in the fold. I could easily see the Canucks jumping all the way to the playoffs, but I'll leave them a little short for now.
6. Anaheim Ducks (2018-19: 6th in Pacific, Missed Playoffs)
It's almost certain that Anaheim's window to be true contenders has closed. They're busy changing the guard right now, saying goodbye to the older Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler and hello to the talented Brendan Guhle, Max Jomes, Maxim Comtois, Sam Steel, Troy Terry, and more. With John Gibson in net, the playoffs should be within reach. But expect Anaheim's growing pains to leave them on the outside looking in.
7. Los Angeles Kings (2018-19: 8th in Pacific, Missed Playoffs)
It's time for the Kings to pay up for their two Stanley Cups earlier in the decade. So many albatross contracts locked up to players on the wrong side of thirty. There's more in the pipeline than you might expect for a team that's been as successful as they've been lately. But there's no depth on defense, Jonathan Quick is aging, and their putrid offense is likely to remain just that. What could go wrong?
8. Edmonton Oilers (2018-19: 7th in Pacific, Missed Playoffs)
I'm mad at this team, and you should be too. They have become the LA Angels of NHL. They were gifted the best player the NHL has seen since Crosby and are wasting him because they couldn't be bothered to give him more than two competent wingmen. The Oilers don't have the cap space to make things better for themselves, and even if they get it, do you really trust them to do anything smart with it? My boldest prediction for the 2019-20 season: Connor McDavid asks for a trade.