We're back with Western Conference picks ... but first, a tribute
My favorite hockey writer is dead.
Jack Falla died on Sept. 14 while visiting family in Maine. He was 64. For a man who was endlessly in love with sports metaphors, especially in hockey, it is no surprise that Falla died a sudden death, from a heart attack.
Falla wrote my favorite hockey book called "Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds." The book was more about family life and community than hockey. He also penned a novel called "Saved." Falla's latest book was "Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer." You should buy and read each one.
Falla covered the NHL for Sports Illustrated in the 1980s. At Boston University, he taught sports writing and sports communications, something I hope to do in the future somewhere in America. BU's journalism department chairman Lou Ureneck said students enjoyed Falla's lessons because of how much passion he had for sports and teaching.
Whenever I have mentioned Jack Falla in this space, I have invariably received an e-mail from a former student of Falla from somewhere in the world, speaking glowingly of his or her favorite professor.
I never met Falla in person, but spoke with him on the phone a couple of times. I also exchanged a handful of e-mails with him and received a couple of hand-written letters (it was clearly his favorite mode of communication transportation). When I was about to start writing my first hockey book, "Jonesy," Falla was the first person I called for financial and writing advice.
Falla loved sports, rock and roll, writing, teaching, family, solitude, independence and being just outside the mainstream of society. The quintessential New Englander. That's what I call a role model. And a hero.
This is a huge loss for us in the hockey community, a huge loss. And my fear is we are not replacing lost hockey treasures like Falla, especially in the United States.
To honor the memory and words of Jack Falla, I am going to include an excerpt from Falla's classic, "Home Ice" in every column this season. It will usually be just prior to the mailbag. This week, it will kick off another season of columns.
"I understand it better now, but on the February morning when I was 10 I remember thinking it was odd, probably irreverent -- maybe even sinful -- to be shooting a puck against a wall a few hours after my mother had died. My mother lost what journalists tend to call 'a long battle with cancer.' I thought of it more as a street fight -- no rounds, no rules, no draws, and nobody to break it up. I was saddened by my loss, angry about my mother losing. As the rest of the morning disintegrated into a chaos of doorbells and phone calls, I escaped to the back yard."
Can we climb this mountain?
I don't know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let's take it easy
Easy now, watch it go
-- "When You Were Young" by The Killers
The vibe: Hope. I know it sounds strange, but I like the Kings' position. They have very good young players who also appear to have some character. They are collecting high-end assets. They have loads of cap room that they should protect like an otter protects its young. And anyone who wants to play with that -- the cap room, the ice time to develop and get a true read on the young players -- should be slapped across the face with the said otter tail. Repeatedly. Like seven times. The defense is young and the goaltending, over the full season, is unproven. That's why I have the Kings here; but when you have a young team, it makes it hard to predict the final point total. What if Anze Kopitar is one of the three best players in the West this season? What if Dustin Brown never scores 33 goals in a season again? What if he scores 47 this season? It's like trying to predict the career curve of the Jonas Brothers. Although I think we know how that will end up. I think the Kings are more Killers. The Killer Kings. Someday. Probably not today.
I've lost dreams that won't come back
memories fading fast
I should save the ones I have
What's the use, most of them are bad
-- "I'm Not The Man I Used To Be" by Fine Young Cannibals
The vibe: Boredom. What was once a must-see team on the NHL's Center Ice package is now at the end of an impressive run in the 21st century. The Canucks have had 100-plus-point seasons, exciting players, emotional singing of national anthems and playoff appearances in five of the past seven seasons. But they have aged and have yet to produce that exciting young forward who can excite a fan base and transform an offense. Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison are all gone now. Their highest-paid forward is Pavol Demitra at $4 million. The Sedin twins are free agents after this season. Mattias Ohlund is also up after 2008-09. Roberto Luongo, the highest-paid Canuck at $6.75 million, is up after next year.
The Canucks are in the midst of a major transformation. They could go a couple of ways. They could tinker with veterans and stay respectable, or they could clean house and start over. Get younger and start collecting assets. Do they sign the Sedins to a five-year, $25 million-ish deal, or trade Daniel and Henrik this season? And do they trade Luongo for a sleigh full of goodies if they believe Cory Schneider could be a No. 1 goalie? With so many young players getting locked up long-term, fewer top-level free agents will be available. Although Jay Bouwmeester is still set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and would look real nice in blue and green.
13. St. Louis Blues
I'm on repeat
I'm emptied out
You trusted me
I want to show you
I don't want to be the hollow man
-- "The Hollow Man" by R.E.M.
The vibe: Stagnant. St. Louis has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history. There is little reason to believe the Blues won't make it four straight this season. They went all out to win a championship in the pre-salary cap era with trades and free agents, and are now paying the price. Here is where the Blues have picked in the first round over the past few years:
2008 -- No. 4: Alex Pietrangelo
2007 -- No. 13: Lars Eller
2006 -- No. 1: Erik Johnson
2005 -- No. 24: T.J. Oshie
2004 -- No. 17: Marek Schwarz
2003 -- No. 30: Shawn Belle
2002 -- None
2001 -- None
2000 -- No. 30: Jeff Taffe
The Blues are another one of those franchises that lacks the big-time young offensive player to build a team around. Those years with no first-round picks, and late first-rounders who would have been fifth-round picks in the Original Six era, have the Blues where they are today. The numbers have been getting lower, which is how they are going to get better. But these players better become frontliners because the Blues need frontline players. They also lack the veteran player to build around. So they have to win with defense. The ACL/MCL injury to Erik Johnson is devastating. It weakens their defense and slows the development of what looks to be a big-time NHL defenseman.
If the Blues have the stomach for it, this is what should ideally happen: The recently drafted players will make a quick ascent, the Blues will get another single-digit draft pick, they will deal Paul Kariya or Keith Tkachuk for more assets, and then have loads of cap room to make a move next summer. This season looks like a speed bump.
12. Phoenix Coyotes
I don't want to feel so different,
but I don't want to be insignificant
and I don't how to see the same things different now.
-- "Insignificant" by Counting Crows
The vibe: Improving. The Coyotes have such a negative financial situation, suffering huge losses annually, it's hard to gauge what their stomach is for this whole NHL-in-the-desert thing. One would think they will stay where they are cap-wise, and one would think that, if they have a growing-pain season, they wouldn't turn down any interest in Ed Jovanovski, who is set to make $6.5 million each of the next three years.
Whether it was out of financial necessity or understanding the benefits of going young 10 minutes after almost every other NHL team, the Coyotes are finally starting to collect good, young talent. How quickly and completely Martin Hanzal, Peter Mueller and 19-year-old rookie Kyle Turris develop will define the rest of this decade, and beyond. Turris has a leg up on every rookie in the NHL because he is the only rookie who will live at Darren Pang's house this season.
PANG Chung's career stats as an NHL goalie: 81 games, 27-35-7, zero shutouts, .859 save percentage, 4.05 GAA.
Don't forget Vera PANG was a rookie of the year finalist. An ACL injury forced One Night in PANGkok to retire early. PANG the drum slowly is doing color commentary for the Coyotes. Hey, PANG, it's a parking lot. Everybody have fun tonight, everybody PANG Chung tonight. Wu PANG Clan. Chitty Chitty PANG PANG. PANG a gong, get it on. PANG on, Sloopy. Astronauts drink PANG.
The trade to get Olli Jokinen was probably the right gamble, although the blue line did take a hit. Jokinen gets $5.2 million each of the next two seasons. He should really help the power play on the point. It took 91 points to make the playoffs in the West last season. With big years from Shane Doan, Jovanovski, Jokinen and Ilya Bryzgalov, it is not inconceivable that the Desert Dogs could sniff 91, but my vibe doesn't include the playoffs. (For the record, my initial vibe of Counting Crows' latest CD was also not positive. That has changed. "Insignificant" was the most-played song in my car from Aug. 3-Sept. 21.)
It's looking like a limb torn off
Or altogether just taken apart
We're reeling through an endless fall
We are the ever-living ghost of what once was
-- "No One's Gonna Love You" by Band Of Horses
The vibe: St. Louis Blues plus Paul Stastny. Scanning the rosters, I don't see a major difference between the Blues and Avalanche. If healthy, the Avs will score more goals and Stastny is a better-than-a-point-per-game young guy the Blues don't have. But after that, the Avs are relying on older players and unproven goaltending. And when you read that sentence, one also thinks of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the past few years. Wait, Darcy Tucker is on the Avs? And Andrew Raycroft? The Avs do have lots of jam, lots of sandpaper, lots of Metallica in their game. But the NHL is a skill/talent league, and the Avs are going to have to be healthy and on their game every night. Like almost every team in the West, if everything goes right and the vets have big years and Marek Svatos and Wojtek Wolski blossom, then the Avs will have a chance. But it looks like they have a roster that may have issues with speed and skill.
I'd never want to see you unhappy
I thought you'd want the same for me
-- "Almost Lover" by A Fine Frenzy
The vibe: Almost. I am an NHL atheist. I don't have a favorite team that I live and die for. As my "NHL 2Night" hosting duties accumulated and when this column was born in 2001 and after meeting players and GMs and fans, I became an overwhelming fan of the people and values of hockey. Plus, my son's youth teams are always my favorite hockey teams, anyway. Every year, I do get crushes on teams and those teams get the lion's share of my focus. These are teams with interesting and entertaining players. Announcers also help for me.
I went to high school and college in Ohio. I have more good friends in Ohio than any other state. A lot of those friends are in Columbus. As I've written before, I interviewed for the Blue Jackets' play-by-play job when they entered the NHL. I didn't get it and was thus banished to a small cable operation in Connecticut trying to carry Barry Melrose around for 12 years and getting him another NHL coaching job. I would love to see the Blue Jackets make the playoffs. I would like to see Columbus host Stanley Cup playoff games. It would be one of the louder rinks in the postseason. But I make these predictions with no bias because ESPN.com pays me per correct prediction.
I like the Jackets' forwards. They have speed, sturdiness and some skill. Their goalie, Pascal Leclaire, had nine shutouts in 54 games last season. The question is on defense. The Blue Jackets' defensemen scored 10 even-strength goals last season; only the Thrashers scored fewer. Fedor Tyutin has nine even-strength goals in 250 career NHL games; but, at age 25, he should be entering his prime and some believe he has No. 1 defenseman game in him. Mike Commodore's $3.75 million cap hit for the next five years is one of the most inexplicable contracts in recent NHL history. He's not a power-play guy, has never been a high-minute guy and his stride will never be confused with Scott Niedermayer's. But perhaps, as $9-$10 million is the going rate for average starting pitchers, $3.75 million is now the rate for average defensemen. Commodore seems like a good dude, so I'm ecstatic his financial dreams have come true.
The Blue Jackets play such a safe, defensive system, they don't ask their D-men to do a lot. A reason to pick the Jackets to make the postseason is the positives that we talked about, and the fact they have over $8 million in cap room. They can add that top-level offensive defenseman who could really make them a dynamic team.
We're talking 'bout the dollar bill
And that old man who's over the hill
Now what are we all to do
When money's got a hold on you
Money's too tight to mention
-- "Money's Too Tight To Mention" by Simply Red
The vibe: Money. The Predators have had so many battles off the ice, from selling enough tickets to strange ownership stories, it's easy to forget they have made the playoffs for four straight seasons. Barry Trotz is in his 10th season as coach. But the Preds have yet to win a playoff series and they barely qualified for last season's playoffs. They had the same amount of wins as Edmonton. And while the Oilers and others seemed to have improved, the Preds have once again stood pat for the most part.
Marek Zidlicky, who led the Preds' defensemen in points, is the latest subtraction. The Preds do have loads of cap room, $12 million strong. They also have Steve Sullivan, Radek Bonk and Greg de Vries coming off the books after the season -- that's $7.2 million more. If this team ever had the financial DNA to spend to the cap, they could really make a move in the next two to three seasons. What they still haven't been able to do is draft and develop a face for the franchise. A young, exciting, vibrant personality to transform the organization.
They picked second (David Legwand) in the thin 1998 draft after the Lightning picked Vincent Lecavalier. Nashville picked sixth in the dreadful 1999 draft. In 2000, the Preds picked sixth again (Scott Hartnell), long after Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik were gone. They picked 12th in 2001, sixth in 2002, seventh in the very strong 2003 draft (passed on Dion Phaneuf for Ryan Suter); the draft numbers kept getting bigger from there. The Preds have actually been too competent. They would have been better off having Larry the Cable Guy run the franchise for the first five to seven years. They would have had those No. 1 overall picks to get Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and the like. Now, they have cap room, but so many great players are tied up for so long, the waters have been overfished. Gaborik and Martin Havlat should be there, but are both health risks. One thing is for certain: With their assets and cap room, the Preds are a very attractive buy.
After the fire the fire still burns
The heart grows older but never ever learns
The memories smolder and the soul always yearns
After the fire, the fire still burns
-- "After the Fire" by Roger Daltry
The vibe: Trepidation. The Western Conference is deep, and like most years, seeding the teams from No. 10 through No. 7 is a very close call. I got to tell you, I don't have a great feeling about the Flames. Scanning their roster, it appears thin. Their point totals have gone from 103 to 96 to 94. Will it go down again this season? If so, the playoffs are in jeopardy. So why pick them for the playoffs? Two gigantic reasons: (1) Jarome Iginla and (2) Dion Phaneuf.
Iginla is in the absolute prime of his hockey life. He is in that oval-shaped intersection where his talents and experiences now coexist like a giant ball of fury. The Flames captain had a career-high 98 points last season and scored 50 goals, but he is pretty much alone up front. Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay are gone. Iginla will once again have to have a career year for the Flames.
Two fellow employees of mine here at ESPN are having an e-mail debate on who would you rather have this season, Phaneuf or Nicklas Lidstrom. Thinking about that makes my head hurt. But what is clear is Phaneuf is now entering the Norris Trophy portion of his career. His points total has gone from 49 to 50 to 60. He is an ice-time eater, a double-digit power-play goal scorer, a bodychecker, at times a fighter, and is now also connected to Hollywood starlets. For me, to have such dominant players up front and out back gives the Flames the playoff tiebreaker. But an injury or substandard campaign from Iginla and/or Phaneuf, and this cap-strapped team will be in trouble.
When you lost all hope and excuses
And the cheapskates and losers
Nothing's left to cling onto
You got to hold on yourself
-- "Hold On" by Green Day
The vibe: Hope. The Oilers have been a below-average franchise recently. They have missed the playoffs two straight seasons and four of the past six. Despite this, Craig MacTavish is still the coach and considered by some in the NHL world as one of the league's better coaches. He has won three playoff series in seven years. As an organization, the Oilers have won three playoff series in the past nine postseasons. Those three were in the same year (2006). If the Oilers don't make the playoffs this season, they should clean house.
I don't think they will have to do that. I like this roster from top to bottom. It has balance, youth, experience, grit and, allegedly, good coaching. Erik Cole seems tailor-made for Edmonton's ice and game. The power play, with a 16.6 percent conversion rate in 2007-08, should be very good. It's time for Ales Hemsky to give us a 31-61-92 season. Their goaltending is not spectacular, but Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson have both had moments of above-average play. Early in the season, when I see the Oilers on the Center Ice package lineup, I'm going to watch.
Don't you try to pretend
It's my feeling we'll win in the end
I won't harm you or touch your defenses
Vanity and security
Don't you forget about me
I'll be alone, dancing you know it baby
-- "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds
The vibe: Hunger factor. A sturdy defense in front of a very good goalie keeps the Ducks among the NHL elite. Over the past three seasons, Anaheim's point total has been 98, 110 and 102. Their challenge to be a playoff force is goal scoring. They had only three 20-goal scorers and zero 30-goal scorers last season. I've never been impressed by Bobby Ryan, going back to his U.S. World Junior appearance, but he is only 21 and sometimes bigger players take longer to develop and at times appear not to be trying their best. The Ducks will probably need something out of Ryan -- 20 goals -- if he is on the big club for most of the season. They could also trade him for someone more ready now. They also need 30 goals each out of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
We know the Ducks. They are what they are. We know how they will play and what they will look like. What we don't know is how desperate and hungry they will be.
Just when you think you're in control,
Just when you think you've got a hold,
Just when you get on a roll,
Oh, here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again
Oh, here it goes again
-- "Here It Goes Again" by OK Go
The vibe: Risky business. The Sharks took a big chance in firing Ron Wilson. Here are the Sharks' point totals over Wilson's four seasons as coach: 104, 99, 107 and 108. Todd McLellan is their new coach. McLellan replaced Wilson, who last season guided San Jose to the league's second-best record behind Detroit before losing in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season.
The Sharks are a lot like the Ducks. They score about the same, give up about the same, are reliant on a couple of players up front, had three 20-goal scorers and no 30-goal scorers a season ago, and have a sturdy and experienced defensive corps in front of a very good goalie. Like the Ducks, the question for the Sharks is how big of a year the big players have and what kind of years the supporting and younger players have. There really isn't anything else to say. Sorry.
In my infliction
Take us to glory
I think about it now
-- "Come On Feel The Illinoise" by Sufjan Stevens
The vibe: The adventure continues. The last time the Blackhawks won a playoff series was 1996. They've made the playoffs once in the past 10 NHL seasons. But as last season showed, the Blackhawks are finally back and are primed to return to their first glory years since the early 1990s. The Hawks had 88 points last season. They should have more in 2008-09.
Martin Havlat missed 47 games. Jonathan Toews missed 18. Healthy years from those two, and the addition of Brian Campbell, should get the Hawks into the mid-90-point range. They also have a goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, to trade. The Hawks should be in a position to trade for what they need come trade-deadline time.
The terrifying speed of this franchise's resurrection is one of the great stories in all of sports. It is a great example of what energy and vision can do. In my feeble mind, life is all about energy. It is about looking and moving forward, glancing at times to the past, and constantly exercising the mind, body and soul in order to excel, adapt and grow.
Excel, adapt and grow the body, mind and soul, using the energy inside us and outside us. That's the key to life. That's what the Hawks have done.
Hey, don't write yourself off yet
It's only in your head you feel left out or
looked down on.
Just try your best, try everything you can.
And don't you worry what they tell themselves when you're away.
-- "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World
The vibe: Transition time? I vacillated on the Wild. The Gaborik contract situation is dicey and the loss of Brian Rolston will be felt. He was versatile and productive. They are so dependent on Gaborik offensively, any drop in his production or concentration will find the Wild battling to make the playoffs.
What makes the West so strong is that it seems like every team has a nice group of defensemen in front of a good goalie. The Wild are another one of those teams. If I am the Wild and I cannot get a contract down with Gaborik soon, I look to trade him for multiple offensive weapons. Gaborik, and Chicago's Havlat, are both in the last years of their contracts, which could make for a juicy trade season. Imagine if the Rangers, or Canadiens, or Penguins again, make a deal for one of these two flashy forwards.
Back to the Wild. They have defense, smarts and some veterans up front. It should be a fun, close battle between Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota for the division and, really, anyone could walk away with the title and the No. 3 seed.
2. Dallas Stars
I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I
Wanna talk about number one, Oh my me my
What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see
I like talking about you you you you, usually, but occasionally
I wanna talk about me
-- "I Want To Talk About Me" by Toby Keith
The vibe: Frat party. Brett Hull has always been an interesting dude who says interesting things. We should have forecasted that the Stars would become more interesting, and they have. In the spring, they acquired the incredibly competent Brad Richards and added Sean Avery (Hull's former roommate in Detroit) over the summer. The Stars went from the Scandinavian Stars to more of a night out at the rodeo. With Brenden Morrow, Avery and Steve Ott, the Stars will have plenty of jam for the rest of the team to play. They should be entertaining and productive up front. Last season, the Stars scored 242 goals and they should have no problem duplicating that this season.
The question is on defense. Sergei Zubov is working out in the team's therapy pool and is out at least four weeks after his hip procedure. Are Philippe Boucher, Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas enough to match some of the other defensive groups in the West? Time will tell. Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen are in the wings, as well. Behind all of them is goalie Marty Turco, who has had solid back-to-back playoff seasons. I get the sense his career has a chance to take a tick upwards. Add his personality to the rest of the Stars organization, and suddenly Dallas is one of the more interesting teams in the league and another example of why the West is so deep and so interesting.
You're looking down again
and then you look me over
we're laying down again
on a blanket in the clover
the same boy you've always known
well I guess I haven't grown
the same boy you've always known
-- "The Same Boy You've Always Known" by The White Stripes
The vibe: Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. Really. What can I possibly say here? What's to preview? The last time the Wings missed the playoffs was 1990. They have won four of the past 11 Stanley Cups. They have eclipsed 100 points eight straight seasons with three different coaches. They added Marian Hossa over the summer. The Wings are the best franchise and the best team in the NHL. But as we know, it doesn't mean they will win the Stanley Cup. It's hard to win the Stanley Cup. But this team certainly has the best chance. I know what you are saying. "Thanks, tips."
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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