Commentary

ESPN The Magazine: Western Conference previews

Updated: September 26, 2007, 12:04 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

You don't win a Stanley Cup in the spring -- you win it in the summer, when the acquisition of even one player can turn a contender into a champ. (Exhibit A: Scott Niedermayer and his title-defending Ducks.) This past offseason, more than a few clubs signed a dynamic skater or two, giving them real hope for playoff glory. Who's got the best shot? To answer that question, we asked former Flames GM Craig Button to evaluate every team's key offseason move, then I helped add it all up.

The bottom line: an Original Six finals that might bring some Broadway back to hockey.

Central Division
1. Detroit Red Wings (Last season: 50-19-13; Coach: Mike Babcock)
Key acquisition: D Brian Rafalski is a complete player who contributes in all situations. He's a playmaker from the point in the power play. He's been a big part of two Cup winners. Adding a right-hand shot makes the Red Wings more balanced and dangerous at the same time. It definitely eases the load on Nicklas Lidstrom.

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Key to the season: Gray Wings Nicklas Lidstrom (37 years old, plus-40, fifth Norris), Dominik Hasek (42, .913 SP) and Chris Chelios (45, 20:06 mpg in the playoffs) nearly helped Detroit to another Cup. Of course, those geezers complement the club's new stars: W/C Henrik Zetterberg (26, 1.08 ppg) and C Pavel Datsyuk (29, 1.1 ppg). GM Ken Holland got younger on D, replacing Mathieu Schneider (38) with FA Rafalski (34). Up front: F prospect Igor Grigorenko, 24, disappointed in camp, but C Valtteri Filppula, 23, continues to impress. He'll get more ice time and join their good young core.

Key stat: 9.2. Per-game shot differential between the Wings and their opponents last season (33.8 and 24.6), largest in the NHL.

2. Nashville Predators (Last season: 51-23-8; Coach: Barry Trotz)
Key acquisition: LW Martin Gelinas has lived through rebuilding teams. Although his numbers may not stand out, he's a winner, and he's a great example of how to prepare and compete every night.

Key to the season: Bummer summer. Owner Craig Leipold decided to sell, so GM David Poile was directed to cut payroll. He did: G Tomas Vokoun, D Kimmo Timonen, F Scott Hartnell and LW Paul Kariya are history. Amazingly, the Preds remain a playoff team. Here are four reasons why: G Chris Mason (.925 SP), who established himself as No. 1 ready; D's Ryan Suter (plus-10) and Shea Weber (plus-13), who helped him get there; and sophomore sniper Alexander Radulov (18 goals), who's got moves he hasn't even thought of yet. Watch for a surprising spring.

Key stat: 2. Number of shorthanded goals allowed by the Predators last season, fewest in the league.

3. St. Louis Blues (Last season: 34-35-13; Coach: Andy Murray)
Key acquisition: LW Paul Kariya brings skill and excitement, but a lack of playoff success -- other than the 2003 Finals -- marks his career. The youth movement in St. Louis probably won't change that.

Key to the season: An in-season coaching change -- Murray in, Mike Kitchen out -- worked. The Blues went 27-18-9 after the move. The team now hopes the arrival of FA sniper Kariya (76 points) and whiz kid D Erik Johnson (the 2006 draft's No. 1 overall) will juice the league's 29th-rated PP and end a two-year playoff drought. Johnson will earn minutes on an improved blue line that includes Eric Brewer and Jay McKee, which should please G Manny Legace. Can these revived Blues make the playoffs? No, but call it a work in progress.

Key stat: 16. Number of power-play goals the Blues scored on the road, the league low. They allowed 52, tying for the league high.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (Last season: 31-42-9; Coach: Denis Savard)
Key acquisition: GMs gamble on former high draft picks, hoping they can unlock potential. That's why the Hawks signed LW Sergei Samsonov (a 1997 first-rounder). In this case it's a bad bet.

Key to the season: Talented F's Jonathan Toews (19, 2006's No. 3 overall; out a couple of weeks with a broken finger), Patrick Kane (18, 2007's No. 1 overall) and Jack Skille (20, '05's No. 7) generate buzz, but fans need a reality check. Point-a-game-but-brittle RW Martin Havlat, Samsonov, and FAs Yanic Perreault and Robert Lang must bolster an anemic offense (29th) and PP (30th). Wishful thinking. G Nik Khabibulin does what he can (2.86 GAA) with a thin D. So, to sum up: The playoffs? Out of the question. The rookie class? Out of sight.

Key stat: 25. Number of goals scored by Blackhawks leader Martin Havlat last season, lowest total for any team leader.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets (Last season: 33-42-7; Coach: Ken Hitchcock)
Key acquisition: C Mike Peca is a soul-and-substance guy. He does unspectacular things that help teams win. But he won't have as much impact here, because Columbus needs help everywhere.

Key to the season: New GM Scott Howson is asking for patience. That's reasonable. Hitchcock is asking that his team be more competitive. That's achievable. But making the playoffs? That's impossible. To improve, the Jackets must ramp up their 28th-ranked offense. Star wing Rick Nash scored 27 goals, but he needs to score more. Finding him a playmaking pivot is Howson's No. 1 priority. No. 2: figuring out if G's Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena are good enough to overcome a grit-free D. Our advice? Rent, Scottie, don't buy.

Key stat: 16. Times Columbus was shut out, the most shutouts since Pittsburgh (18) and Chicago (20) in 1928-29.

Northwest Division
1. Colorado Avalanche (Last season: 44-31-7; Coach: Joel Quenneville)
Key acquisition: LW Ryan Smyth, who willed his teams to many victories in Edmonton, brings scoring, toughness and heart to a vastly more talented group in Colorado. This is a perfect fit for team and player. His addition positions the much-improved Avalanche for serious Cup consideration.

Key to the season: There's a lot to like about what's going on in Colorado. Start with a stretch run that nearly landed the team in the postseason. Then there's ageless (okay, 38) captain Joe Sakic (100 points, again), flashy soph Paul Stastny (78 points) and surprisingly steady G Peter Budaj (31-16-6). Better still: This offseason, GM François Giguere signed FAs Smyth (36 goals) and Scott Hannan, who brings size (6-foot-1, 220) and the nasty streak to use it. Translation: The Avs have turned themselves into the class of the Northwest Division, this season the toughest in the NHL.

Key stat: 1. From Feb. 27 to season's end, the Avs had the NHL's best record (15-2-2), but fell one point short of the playoffs.

2. Calgary Flames (Last season: 43-29-10; Coach: Mike Keenan)
Key hire: New coach Mike Keenan is about winning. He'll demand effort. He helps talent find success, making him a good fit with Calgary, an underachieving team.

Key to the season: The Flames were an enigma last season: great at home (30-9-2), awful on the road (13-20-8). And in the playoffs, they were gone after Round 1 for the second straight year. Keenan's goal is to light a fire under a roster that features all-world RW Jarome Iginla (39 goals), D-man Dion Phaneuf (13 PPGs) and G Miikka Kiprusoff (40 Ws, .917 SP). GM Darryl Sutter added vet D's Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin to the mix. Will the pieces fit? That's why they hired Iron Mike, who builds winners (when he's not ticking people off).

Key stat: 11. Last season the Flames had more different players score shorthanded goals than any other team in the league.

3. Vancouver Canucks (Last season: 49-26-7; Coach: Alain Vignenault)
Key acquisition: Nothing wrong with your eyes: They made no moves. Is that a big deal? Last season's signing of G Roberto Luongo lifted the Canucks. Where will the lift come from this season?

Key to the season: After a much-hyped arrival, G Luongo didn't disappoint, enjoying a career season (47 wins, .919 SP). How good was he? The PK unit went from 19th to best in a single season. Rock-solid D's Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell had something to do with that. Up front, C Henrik and LW Daniel Sedin provide legit first-line punch (81 and 84 points respectively), but the club needs more scoring from F's Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison. If they get it, the Canucks will get some hype that's truly earned.

Key stat: 12. The Canucks won five more games in overtime last season than any other team in the league.

4. Minnesota Wild (Last season: 48-26-8; Coach: Jacques Lemaire)
Key gamble: G Niklas Backstrom's scintillating second half (1.97 GAA) has made him the No. 1. Fine, but if he falters, Josh Harding, with all of 10 games of NHL experience, is Plan B. That's risky.

Key to the season: Imagine what dynamic RW Marian Gaborik might do if he could stay healthy the entire season. Last season, in just 48 games, he chalked up 57 points, and his team went 33-9-6. The Wild's skilled attack includes F's Pavol Demitra (25 goals), Brian Rolston (31 goals) and Mikko Koivu (54 points). The team has no big names on D, but Backstrom (league-best .929 SP) gave up the NHL's fewest goals. It will make the playoffs and contend in a tough division, but we wonder if it's playoff-tough.

Key stat: 15. The Wild defensemen combined for the fewest goals in the league from the blue line.

5. Edmonton Oilers (Last season: 32-43-7; Coach: Craig MacTavish)
Key acquisition: Bold move stealing Dustin Penner away from the Ducks. Too bad he doesn't arrive in Edmonton with the keys to his Anaheim success: linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Key to the season: GM Kevin Lowe desperately wanted to improve his league-worst offense. So he restocked his back line with offensive D's Sheldon Souray (26 goals) and Joni Pitkanen (39 assists), which will help jump-start the league's 27th-ranked PP. Both, though, are defensive liabilities. That's bad news for G Dwayne Roloson (.909 SP). On the flip side, maybe RW Penner can revitalize C Shawn Horcoff, whose production dropped 22 points in 2006-07. Bottom line: The Oilers will be more fun to watch this season, but they won't make the playoffs.

Key stat: 195. The Oilers scored fewer goals and put fewer shots on goal (2,193) than any other team in the league.

Pacific Division
1. San Jose Sharks (Last season: 51-26-6; Coach: Ron Wilson)
Key acquisition: C Jeremy Roenick in his prime would have been an ideal addition to this talented but underachieving team. But he's past it, and the Sharks are in a win-or-else season. No current Shark has won a Cup anywhere, which makes winning the franchise's first especially difficult. San Jose's most important deal will be its next one.

Key to the season: After another playoff flop, GM Doug Wilson needed time to calmly evaluate his team. "I didn't want emotion to cloud my thinking," Wilson said. In early July, he decided against a total makeover. Good move. Smooth pivots Joe Thornton (114 points) and Patrick Marleau (78 points) and dangerous wings Jonathan Cheechoo (37 goals) and Milan Michalek (26 goals) form the league's second-rated PP, while G Evgeni Nabokov (.914 SP) keeps the Sharks in every game. The team has plenty of cap space -- $12M -- to deal for a player with Cup cred. Note to GM: make it happen.

Key stat: 30. Goals Cheechoo scored with an assist by Joe Thornton, the best teammate total in the NHL.

2. Dallas Stars (Last season: 50-25-7; Coach: Dave Tippett)
Key promotion: Niklas Grossman, 22, shores up a blue line that needs his size (6'4'') and youth. A stay-at-home D in the mold of former Stars star Derian Hatcher, he just needs more of an edge.

Key to the season: Some say Stars are falling. Not us. If F's Mike Modano and Brenden Morrow hadn't missed significant time last season (65 games in total), they might have won the division. G Marty Turco (.910 SP) returns to brace the NHL's third-best (tied with the Devils) D, which includes puckmover Sergei Zubov and tough-guy Mattias Norstrom. They must improve their 21st-ranked offense, and young F's Jussi Jokinen (24), Loui Eriksson (22) and Joel Lundqvist (25) have the skill to do it. These Stars will still be shining come playoff time.

Key stat: .652. Mike Modano's health is key. The Stars were a woeful 11-10-2 in games he missed but 39-19-5 when he played.

3. Anaheim Ducks (Last season: 48-20-14; Coach: Randy Carlyle)
Key acquisition: You can't replace Scott Niedermayer, but Mathieu Schneider will be a nice addition when his broken ankle heals. And his signing takes a top D from Detroit, the Ducks' most serious rival.

Key to the season: Just days after winning the Cup, top Ducks Niedermayer (D) and Teemu Selanne (RW) told club brass they might retire (both remain undecided). To fill the potential void, GM Brian Burke signed veteran FAs Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi. Goalie J-S Giguere (.918 SP) and D Chris Pronger (plus-27) will be back to anchor a stingy D, while 22-year-old F's Ryan Getzlaf (25 goals) and Corey Perry (17 goals) are ready for bigger roles. Still, without Niedermayer and Selanne, we don't see another Finals in their future.

Key stat: 9. No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champ since the Red Wings did it nine years ago this past June.

4. Los Angeles Kings (Last season: 27-41-14; Coach: Marc Crawford)
Key acquisition: The Canes couldn't get D Jack Johnson to leave college. So the Kings took advantage of their frustration. They made a trade, signed Johnson and now have a Thoroughbred in their stable.

Key to the season: GM Dean Lombardi made a lot of off-season moves -- adding F's Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy and Kyle Calder and D's Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing -- but he failed to address his crease issues. Last year, five Kings stoppers combined for a woeful .886 SP. The best one they have -- Jonathan Bernier (19) -- isn't ready. As bad as they are, that's how good super-soph C Anze Kopitar (the best 20-year-old not named Crosby) and rookie D Johnson will be. The Kings are one player away from contending. A big player, but still.

Key stat: 17. The Kings led the league in regulation losses after holding a lead.

5. Phoenix Coyotes (Last season: 31-46-5; Coach: Wayne Gretzky)
Key acquisition: Until Phoenix gets a quality goalie, the team will have more L's than W's. David Aebischer is adequate, but he's not the answer. Call it a good stopgap move for a rebuilding team.

Key to the season: New GM Don Maloney aims to get Phoenix on track, bringing in young talent to mold. This year, baby-faced F's Martin Hanzal (20), and Peter Mueller (19) join vets RW Shane Doan and D Ed Jovanovski. The kids -- who include D's Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek (both 24) -- must be handled properly by Gretzky, this season and going forward. Phoenix has a number of top picks in the system, chief among them C Kyle Turris (2007's No. 3 overall). That's great news ... in four or five years.

Key stat: 45. Games last season in which the Coyotes allowed four or more goals, eight more than any other team.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.