Jim Cerny's Rink Rap

September 30, 2009 10:39 PM

Western Conference Preview

Armed with a new long-term contract, and fully healthy after being limited to 54 games a year ago, is this the year Roberto Luongo (photo right) takes the Vancouver Canucks on a long springtime playoff ride?

I think it is. But it's not going to be easy as the Western Conference shapes up to be as tough as it ever has been in 2009-10.

Here's my look into the crystal ball, with all teams listed alphabetically...

Playoff Locks (5): Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, and Vancouver.

Ok, I know, these are the same five teams that finished Top Five in the West a year ago. Really going out on a limb, eh Jim?! But let's face it, they are going to be the best five once again. The popular pick to be No. 1 is Chicago, and I think they will have a very strong year, maybe even win the Central Division. But I do not think they will advance to the Cup Finals. I think this could be Vancouver's year to represent the West. But do not discount Detroit. The Red Wings have proven year after year the ability to replace important parts with talented newcomers. If they can once again overcome mediocre goaltending, they'll be a force in the playoffs, though I wouldn't be surprised to see them fall back a bit in the regular season. And watch out for Calgary. They're going to be real good, with an awesome Top Three on defense to compliment Miikka Kiprusoff in goal and a Jarome Iginla-led offense. Plus, I love the addition of Brent Sutter as head coach. As for the Sharks, all bets are off come April. We shall see...

Playoff Teams (3): Anaheim, Los Angeles, and St. Louis

I really like the Ducks this year, though I still think they need to figure out the goaltending situation. It looks great to have two No. 1s, but in reality it can't continue to work long term, especially if high-priced JS Giguere is the one on the bench. Adding Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and, especially, Saku Koivu were great moves for the Ducks. LA is my surprise team here. Goaltending is still a big question mark in La-La Land, but the additions of solid character guys like Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi will help push this very talented young squad into a playoff spot. I think it will be a battle for the 8th seed, but the Blues will have just enough to snag it. A healthy Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson will give the Blues the boost they need.

Slipping Back (3): Columbus, Minnesota, and Nashville

I do like the Blue Jackets, especially their good young nucleus. Plus they will add a potential star in Nikita Filatov this year. But so much of their success in last year's playoff campaign was predicated on Steve Mason being great in goal. I don't see a sophomore slump from Mason, but I also don't think he'll be as good. The Blue Jackets will just miss the cut in the West. Nashville just doesn't score enough in my book, though I am intrigued to see what rookie center Colin Wilson will add to the Preds offense this year. Pekka Rinne, like Mason might slip a bit this year, and, if so, the Preds will fall further back than the 10th place they finished a year ago. Minnesota will have a totally different look without Jacques Lemaire as head coach any more. Expect a more up-tempo exciting brand of hockey. Just don't expect more victories.

No Way Jose (4): Colorado, Edmonton, Dallas, and Phoenix

The Oilers are the best of this bunch, with Nikolai Khabibulin now on the scene to solidify the goaltending. Edmonton could make a run at a playoff spot, but in the end, they are just not good enough, and did not add any vital parts to the mix during the off-season, despite the near-deal for Dany Heatley. Dallas will battle Colorado for last place in the conference. And I think the Coyotes will play well for part of the year, riding some strong play from their talented core of youngsters. But in the end, the ownership mess, bankruptcy, and questions of where the team may play in 2010-11 will bog this team down and push it out of the mix by time the Olympics roll around.

Predicted to Represent the West in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver Canucks

This is a gut call, and so much can take place to sway my decision in another direction over the coming months, but I like Vancouver in the playoffs. But I just have this nagging feeling that the Red Wings will prove me wrong yet again...or that the Ducks will make a run...or the Flames, like them a lot, too...OK, like I said, Vancouver in the Finals.

Thursday: I'll take a look at the Eastern Conference.

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