- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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During the past few weeks, the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off the improbable, the awards handed out in Vegas did not stay in Vegas, John Tavares went at the top of the draft and the opening days of free agency came with some fireworks.
In the Western Conference, at least, it was a busy offseason even before any of that happened. In the Northwest Division, four of the five coaches from last season are gone, leaving Vancouver's Alain Vigneault as the last man standing behind his bench. There have been front-office shake-ups in Minnesota, Dallas and Colorado. The Phoenix Coyotes' situation has so many subplots involving legal and ego issues, it could be the next reality show. And, unlike what's-his-name and Kate, at least you've heard of Wayne Gretzky.
Here's a look at the events in the West and where they leave everyone. The order is a highly conditional predicted finish in the conference next season. It also disregards the automatic seeding of division champions in the top three playoff slots.
Yes, the Game 7 loss on home ice to the Penguins was a shocker. But this is still the league's elite organization, and GM Ken Holland has shown a willingness to make tough decisions, and the right ones, in the prioritization process. So although the Wings have lost Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky and Ty Conklin, and told Chris Chelios they can't use (or re-sign) him, this is still the class of the conference.
After the signings of Hossa, Kopecky and John Madden, among the things that can derail the Blackhawks are youthful overconfidence and a hangover effect after such an exhilarating season, and complacence after Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews land long-term extensions at some point. It's also possible Hossa's remarks about not having to worry about contract issues for 12 years (thanks to his front-loaded, $62.8 million deal) are hints he could end up going into cruise control. Cristobal Huet still has to prove he's worth his huge deal in the wake of Nikolai Khabibulin's departure. That's quibbling. The league's best recovery story likely will continue.
The Sharks could go 27-2-2 in their first 31 games next season, yet coach Todd McLellan would frequently be fielding questions about whether any of that success mattered. Actually, overcoming the image of playoff underachievers was the underlying theme for the Sharks last season, and McLellan welcomed, rather than sidestepped, it. He'll have to do it again in 2009-10, and as bitter as the first-round loss to the Ducks was, the worst mistake would have been overreaction, beyond the minor housecleaning involved in not making qualifying offers to Marcel Goc, Tomas Plihal and Lukas Kaspar. The roster, with both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, deserves one more crack.
Mike Keenan tried keeping a relatively low profile in his latest coaching stint, but that didn't keep him on the job, either, after a first-round loss to the Blackhawks. The most compelling reason for GM Darryl Sutter to step back behind the bench was that, given the history here, his looming shadow potentially undercut any coach. Now the strength of those Sutter family bonds might give Brent Sutter an extra measure of authority another coach might not have.
After Darryl's savvy move of acquiring Jay Bouwmeester's rights and signing him before free agency opened, the Flames should, and will, win the Northwest -- unless Miikka Kiprusoff's horrible play against the Blackhawks turns out to be an indication he's not just slipping but careening downhill.
Former player-turned-agent Mike Gillis showed a lot of immediate moxie after taking over as GM. One of his best moves was keeping the faith with Vigneault during trying times, and he was able to lock up the Sedin twins and sign Samuelsson. They still have Roberto Luongo, of course, and the Canucks and Flames will benefit from what is becoming a bottom-heavy division, reminiscent of the Central of a few years ago.
Those were the real Ducks down the stretch and in the playoffs, and Ryan Getzlaf is headed for Olympic glory. Despite the trade of Chris Pronger to the Flyers in the wake of Scott Niedermayer's decision to return as well as inactivity in free agency, the Ducks will remain at least a playoff team. And count me among those who believe goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere will get his act in order and earn back the job from Jonas Hiller.
Instead of whining about injuries this past season -- some teams in the same boat wanted us to believe they were the only team in the league to lose more than one regular since the Original Six days -- the Blues persevered. With Erik Johnson out because of the dreaded golf-cart accident, St. Louis figured out who else could play and sped the development of its young talent. Keith Tkachuk is coming back (he was good enough last season to make that a good thing), and Brad Boyes, so renowned for being underrated, is no longer underrated. Conklin could end up pushing Chris Mason in net.
8. Dallas Stars
The revolution led to the installation of the untested Joe Nieuwendyk as the general manager and Marc Crawford as the coach, and the way the cycle works, Dave Tippett was portrayed as too nice a guy and Crawford as the man who can provide the needed sharper edge. That means when Crawford is ousted, he will be portrayed as an inflexible pain who turned off the players, and his successor will be billed as the sort of "players' coach" the roster sorely needs (and Tippett was). But that's for down the road. With the Sean Avery imbroglio out of the picture, Nieuwendyk and Crawford will look great next season because last season was an aberration. And there's still enough talent here -- including Mike Modano -- unless Marty Turco has completely lost it or owner Tom Hicks' problems create Phoenix-like distractions.
Rick Nash had been saying all the right things about playing in Columbus and for coach Ken Hitchcock, but there were times, including when Hitchcock tried him at center last season in a motivational ploy, when it was natural to wonder whether Nash frequently wondered what he could do under someone else. Now that he has signed a long-term extension, it means he won't be approaching unrestricted free agency this season and won't be asked 27,284 times whether he could picture himself in a Maple Leafs sweater. Now, the only asterisk is whether it comes down to having to pick between Nash and Hitchcock if they don't get along; we all know what the choice will be. Samuel Pahlsson gives the Jackets a checking center Hitchcock can love, and Mathieu Garon can be a solid backup for Steve Mason.
Even after the acquisition of Ryan Smyth and signing of Rob Scuderi, holes still exist, but the young talent -- the fiery Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Alexander Frolov -- is coming together. If the Kings keep Jack Johnson healthy and get good goaltending from Jonathan Quick, they even could jump higher than this. After the Chicago revival, this is the next big-market success story that could help the entire league.
With three defensemen anybody in the league would take -- Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter -- there still is that solid foundation. But unless GM David Poile finds ways to get the Predators some scoring, they'll miss the playoffs again.
12. Edmonton Oilers
So, can the Oilers hypnotize (or con) Nikolai Khabibulin into believing Edmonton has an option to dump him and void his deal after each season in his latest four-year contract? After his reawakening in a contract year with the Blackhawks, the issue isn't whether he has anything left; it's his motivation. Craig MacTavish, for the most part, did good work under often trying circumstances, but GM Steve Tambellini brought in the graybeards, Pat Quinn and associate coach Tom Renney, to succeed him. That gives the Oilers a bit of a Canucks East feel, and makes it potentially awkward because Tambellini worked under Quinn in the front office at Vancouver. It would help the Tambellini-Quinn-Renney triumvirate look good if Shawn Horcoff plays up to the standards of his six-year deal.
13. Minnesota Wild
Jacques Lemaire realized he had worn out his welcome and departed, and still-settling-in owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Doug Risebrough. Rather than recycle, Leipold has brought in Chuck Fletcher, most recently the Penguins' assistant GM, as GM, and San Jose assistant Todd Richards as coach. With AHL head coaching in the Pens' organization on his résumé, Richards is more new wave than old school. There were a lot of nights when I left the arena after watching the Wild, shaking my head and wondering how many goals a healthy Marian Gaborik would score if turned loose. He might be (and even stay healthy), but not with the Wild. In this economy and with all the other options for hockey interest in Minnesota, one more nonplayoff season will put the Wild's sellout streak at risk.
14. Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes fooled me, and a lot of other folks, last season. With their impressive young talent, I thought they were about to jump into the upper echelon of the conference. They didn't, and although I still believe they could be only a year behind schedule, the ownership/location soap opera is distracting and draining on everyone involved ... including Gretzky.
Tony Granato is the luckiest man in Colorado. He had two years left on his contract and won't have to coach this team. The "family" reason Patrick Roy cited when turning down the Avalanche's virtually carte blanche offer to be coach was probably that he didn't want his family to see him so miserable in such a bad situation. Under ousted GM Francois Giguere, the Avalanche continued their mishandling of both the salary cap and personnel decisions, leaving little opportunity for short-term fixes under new GM Greg Sherman (like Giguere, a former accountant).
The good news for promoted Lake Erie coach Joe Sacco is that expectations are limbolike low, and owner Stan Kroenke is a basketball guy now caught up in the success of the Nuggets. Joe Sakic's retirement announcement is coming Thursday. Decent goaltending from Craig Anderson -- signed from Florida -- or the beleaguered Peter Budaj will help Colorado avoid complete embarrassment. Under the circumstances, the Avs would be best advised to keep Matt Duchene, the third overall choice in the draft, with Brampton for another season.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "The Witch's Season." He can be reached at email@example.com.