NHL Futures Preview Part V: The wild, wide-open West
There’s been a significant power shift in the NHL over the past few years. Gone are the days of the "heavy" Western Conference powerhouses, as they’ve passed us by and made way for the Eastern Conference salad days we’re currently living in.
Of the 10 seasons immediately following the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, seven of them ended with a team from the West hoisting Lord Stanley. We saw two teams in particular, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, dominate. Just a few years later, and the two franchises are now going up against Father Time, who to this day remains undefeated.
That isn’t to say that neither Los Angeles nor Chicago will be good in 2017-18, but rather that they don’t punch at the same weight that they did earlier this decade as the rest of the conference has slowly caught up and, in some cases, surpassed the one-time torch bearers.
All odds provided by Pinnacle
If you spend a lot of your time thinking about gambling or studying the markets, you’ll be sure to hear the word "overreaction" bandied about so much that you’ll start to consider it cliche. Well, what we’ve got at the top of the Western Conference is a clinical overreaction.
The Edmonton Oilers are a good hockey team. Mostly because they have the NHL’s most dynamic player in Connor McDavid. You likely know about him already, so we won’t spend any more time him on him other than to say, he’s a true game-winning talent and is the main reason Edmonton will be around into the spring. Edmonton also has a good, probably great, goalie in Cam Talbot, but he is coming off a season in which he played in 73 games, followed by 13 more in the playoffs, and that’s a concern. Additionally, the Oilers traded away one of their three best forwards in Jordan Eberle and didn’t do much to shore up a mediocre defense. When the odds-on favorite for the entire conference is as deeply flawed as the Oilers are, it makes you wonder about the rest of the West.
In the next tier are the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild. There are arguments to be made for a bet on each of these teams to win the conference.
As mentioned above, the Blackhawks are dealing with a very skilled, but aging core. If Chicago wants to keep kicking around with the class of the Western Conference, it will rely heavily on Patrick Kane, Jonathon Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. Like Talbot, Crawford is one of the league’s best puck-stoppers and if he stays on path, the Hawks should collect points at a good enough clip to safely make the postseason. But the haul of another marathon season is not going to be easily navigated by a team with plenty of players on the wrong side of the mountain.
There was a chance the Ducks could be the favorite to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals, but they’re going to be dealing with some injuries to key players Ryan Kesler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm to start the year, so it may take some time before they get going. Anaheim will be a force if they get the full squad going, but at these odds it’s not worth a take. However, one thing to keep an eye on with Anaheim is that if they do get off to a slow start and their odds do lengthen, they could be worth a punt.
After missing the playoffs last year, Dallas is expected to be the bounce-back team in the conference. The Stars were hit hard by injuries last year, and their goaltending didn’t help much, either. But GM Jim Nill reinforced the already dynamic forward group with Alex Radulov and Martin Hanzal, and they added Ben Bishop to hopefully stabilize their blue paint situation. The team also returned their cup-winning coach, Ken Hitchcock, to oversee things behind the bench. Hitchcock coaches with defense on the mind, so how he adjusts to working with a team so loaded offensively will be interesting. Even after a 79-point showing in ’16-17, it isn’t surprising to see the Stars held in high regard coming into the new year, and a bet at these odds is certainly within reason.
Last year’s Western Conference champions, the Nashville Predators, have one of the league’s best defenses, even with Ryan Ellis on the shelf for four months, and a slew of ultra-talented forwards — especially the team’s top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The questions that will be asked of the Preds will start with their goaltending situation. Pekka Rinne followed up a terrible performance in 2015-16 with a stable one in 2016-17, but he’s going to be 35 around Thanksgiving and that doesn’t bode well. Juuse Saros is waiting in the wings behind his fellow Finn, but at 22 we don’t know how he will handle the workload if he goes from deputy to sheriff at Bridgestone Arena.
The Minnesota Wild had the best goal differential in the West last year and put together a stellar season only to come undone thanks to a series-stealing performance from St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen in last year’s playoffs. That loss only added to the narrative that coach Bruce Boudreau can’t figure things out in the playoffs, but the man can flat out coach, and he’s got a very good team in front of him again this year. What the Wild lack in billboard talent, they make up for with a solid roster backed up with a top-10 goalie in Devan Dubnyk. That seems a fair line for Minnesota. The listed odds give them an implied probability of just under 10 percent, and there’s not enough of an edge to fire on them.
As we cross the 10/1 threshold we get to our next tier of teams: Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Calgary and Winnipeg.
The Kings come into 2017-18 with a new coach and a new general manager, but their familiar core remained largely intact. For LA to compete, they’re going to need Anze Kopitar to rediscover his form. The Slovenian center had the worst year of his career last year and seemed to deviate from the path that turned him into one of the league’s most dominant centers. If Kopitar does bounce back, he’ll lead a great top-six that will be backed up by a good defense and a decent goalie in Jon Quick. The bottom of the Kings’ lineup is definitely cause for concern and their lack of depth, coupled with the unpredictability of a team playing under a new coach make them an unattractive bet at this number.
San Jose is a season removed from their first-ever Western Conference title, but it does feel like the Sharks have lost some of their oomph. Up front, it will be the big three of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture running the show. It remains to be seen how much losing Patrick Marleau will hurt, but I tend to think that his production will be replaced by Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier. On the blueline, it’s hard to find a better top-two than Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Even if Burns is the bigger name, Vlasic is a superstar defensive-defenseman and takes on the toughest minutes every night. Without Vlasic, Burns isn’t able to be deployed in the way he is and probably doesn’t have a Norris Trophy on his mantle. In goal, Martin Jones is a tough read. He looked good in his first year in the Bay Area but wasn’t anything special in his second year and has played an awful lot of minutes since signing with the Sharks. Behind him, the unheralded Aaron Dell has looked decent, but it’d be foolish to pretend to know if he’s capable of handling a 20-25 game burden this year. The odds above give San Jose a 7.5 percent chance to win the West. If anything that may be a smidge too high, so no play San Jose.
In all honesty, there probably isn’t much separating the Blues from the teams at the top of the conference, but here they are listed ninth on the board. St. Louis is very deep up front and head coach Mike Yeo is one of the few coaches in the league who can roll four skill lines on a nightly basis. At the very top, Vladimir Tarasenko is a game-breaker and with him and Jaden Schwartz leading the way, the Blues should create plenty of opportunities every night. Even after losing Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis has two elite rearguards in Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, but after them it’s a bit of a mess. Jay Bouwmeester is clearly on the downswing and Robert Bortuzzo, Carl Gunnarsson and Joel Edmundson aren’t going to turn heads. In goal, Jake Allen had as helter skelter a season as you could have in 2016-17. He started the season off horribly but then was brilliant in the second half and then stole a series for the Blues in the playoffs. Who the hell knows with goalies. The Blues will be in the mix, but their lack of depth is alarming and figures to be their undoing.
Update: The Blues will now be without Robby Fabbri for the entire season, which is a big blow.
There’s one thing holding Calgary back from jumping to the top of the conference, but it’s a big thing. Offensively, the Flames are good enough. Matthew Tkachuk, Michal Frolik and Mikael Backlund were perhaps the league’s most underrated line in 2016-17, and in Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary has two terrific scorers. The Flames’ real strength is their defense. Calgary’s top four of Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic could be the best in the league, and they will need to play that way because the Flames’ goaltending is downright scary. Calgary opted to bring in a 35-year-old Mike Smith from Arizona and Eddie Lack, who has been abysmal the past two years, to backstop what figures to be an elite defense. The thinking is plain to see, with a defense that good, the Flames probably don’t need a great goalie, but still it’s a problem and one that could derail everything.
That brings us to Winnipeg. The Jets are up there with St. Louis and Dallas in terms of skilled forwards and, along with Carolina, should be among the NHL’s most watchable outfits this year. While Patrik Laine is the headliner in Manitoba, his supporting cast is stacked. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are stars. They may not register across the league as such, but their numbers suggest we should be bowing down Wayne’s World style at their feet. If he wasn’t on the same team as Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers would get a lot more attention. The 21-year-old Dane finished his sophomore year with 64 points, which tied him with Laine for third on the team behind Scheifele and Wheeler. But wait there’s more. Matthieu Perrault is a play-driving maniac and Bryan Little is a very good second-line center. After their top six, things don’t look so picturesque, but their top two lines should be good enough to render that point relatively moot. On defense, the Jets are probably a top-15 unit, but their top heavy. Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba lead the way and both Tyler Myers and Tobias Enstrom are fine as long as they are playing softer minutes. Dmitry Kulikov was very bad last year in Buffalo, but his game should tick up a notch with a better group around him. And Josh Morrissey, a first-round pick in 2013, put together a terrific rookie campaign last year. If he takes it to the next level, he could give Winnipeg a very strong top-four. In goal is where things become a bit unclear for the Jets. Steve Mason has been good before, but he’s also coming off a down year in Philadelphia. He will battle for minutes with Connor Hellebuyck in the crease. If one of these two, most likely Mason, can turn in just a respectable season, Winnipeg becomes a dangerous crew. According to their odds, they have a 5% chance to win the West. I find that to be an underestimation and think there’s value on backing this team to make it to the Cup.
After the Jets, it’s a group of also-rans including the Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and the Vegas Golden Knights.
Colorado is expected, according to these odds at least, to the cream of this crop. And while the Avs will certainly improve on their 48-point season last year, it’s hard to imagine them staying above water for very long.
We’ve already previewed Arizona, and they could be in the conversation for a wild card spot, but even with an improving young squad, it’d take a minor miracle for the ‘Yotes to win the conference.
The tank is in full force in Vancouver and the Canucks are now a few years away from relevancy in the West.
We’ve also talked quite a bit about Vegas in our preview series and while it would be fun to see a team in the betting capital of the world shock everyone, it just ain’t going to happen.
[Photo: Terrance Lee, USA Today]