The 2017-18 NHL season is upon us. Which means it’s time to figure out what the hell is going on in the Western Conference, which is slightly less confusing than explaining the symbolism in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” while on a morphine drip.
The Central Division is a collection of flawed, unpredictable teams. The Pacific Division has an actual expansion team (Vegas) and one that’s been basically stripped down to one (Vancouver). How many points will their division mates snag from them?
Here are our picks for the Metro and Atlantic divisions in the Eastern Conference.
And now, our picks for the Central and Pacific divisions, such as they are.
1 – Minnesota Wild
Fun fact: When given a full season of games, Bruce Boudreau has never coached a team to less than a 100-point pace in the standings. So yeah, we’re playing the percentages here.
But we’re also enamored with a four-lines-deep roster with two sturdy defensive pairings, in front of Devan Dubnyk, who was fifth for the Vezina last season. This is the right balance of players just in the twilight of their primes and burgeoning young standouts.
2 – Dallas Stars
The essential question about the Dallas Stars is how much Ken Hitchcock and Ben Bishop can paper over an unexceptional group of defensemen (Klingberg excepted). They’re going to be better than that 3.17 team GAA they posted last season. How much better could be entirely contingent on The Hitchcock Effect. And in Year 1, it’s always good to err on the side of Hitch. Before, you know, they tune him out.
3 – St. Louis Blues
I made this pick before the Robby Fabbri injury, and before I really considered the totality of the Blues’ injuries at the start of the season. But the pick is made, and there’s no going back. There’s plenty to still like about a team that posted 99 points and seems to have found goaltending stability in Jake Allen (finally). But I’m a little concerned about them being the Team That Gets Off To The Horrific Start And Then Can’t Recover. They’re going to ask a lot from the kids in the lineup, to be sure. Oh, and Sign Jagr.
Yeah, I’m not quite willing to write off Chicago quite yet, which I know is the major trend in preseason predictions. On paper, this might be the worst Blackhawks team in over a decade, especially on the backend. But I like the reacquisition of Saad, I think Alex Debrincat is going to star across from Kane and I’m hoping Joel Quenneville can figure out a way to bring this all together. This could easily be a massive dose of denial that the Blackhawks’ reign is either done or interrupted, but then they have a funny way of surpassing those dire expectations.
5 – Winnipeg Jets
In theory, this is the season when the Jets miss the playoffs and fire Paul Maurice, but it seems like he might still be the coach there when Patrik Laine retires. This is an interesting team: One incredible line, a pretty darn good blueline and the Steve Mason experiment in goal. It’s a team you root for, because getting the Jets back into the playoffs would be fun from a personnel and atmospheric standpoint. I just don’t know if they have enough to make it there.
6 – Nashville Predators
Look, I’ve seen a multitude of predictions that have the Predators winning the division. I pray they’re right and that I’m wrong. But recency bias is a hell of a drug, and we just saw this team gut it out for four rounds and play some spectacular hockey after being a 94-point bubble team. We saw a lot of guys at the height of their powers, and we’re expecting them to do that again for 82 games.
This is the roster of a division champion? Subtract Mike Fisher and James Neal and Ryan Ellis (for four months) and it just feels different. And a post-Stanley Cup Final hangover can be just as achy for the runner-up.
Again, this is hunch. Well, an educated guess, given some of the modeling I’ve seen on the season. I want to be wrong. I quite enjoyed that hot catfish during last year’s playoffs.
7 – Colorado Avalanche
I still have no idea where this team is going, what this team is doing and what the prevailing philosophy behind the roster is. So, in summary, Free Matt Duchene.
1 – Anaheim Ducks
I’m still trying to figure out how they managed to keep this defense together despite the expansion draft outside of some sort of sensitivity blackmail. It’s an outstanding group, arguably the best in the conference, in front of a goalie battery of John Gibson and Ryan Miller. They were third in team GAA last season (2.40) and there’s no reason they can’t be again. Hence, there’s no reason they can’t add another division champions banner to the rafters.
2 – Edmonton Oilers
The points predictions for this team are all over the map, but it’s safe to say that with a healthy Connor McDavid, the same effort from Cam Talbot and Leon Draisaitl establishing himself as a second-line anchor there’s no reason they can’t be over 100 points again. Especially in this division.
3 – Los Angeles Kings
Yeah, I’m the guy with the Blackhawks and Kings in the playoffs. “Speed game, stop living the past, yadda yadda” … look, did you see those grosses for Stephen King’s “IT”? Nostalgia is huge right now.
This is a pick that says the removal of Darryl Sutter from the bench helps these guys find their smiles again. I’m fond of John Stevens, and happy to see him get another crack at it. I believe in the Kopitar bounce back and the stabilizing presence of Jonathan Quick. They’re still possession monsters. They just need their horrific shooting percent to improve.
4 – San Jose Sharks
There’s still way too much to love about this roster to read last rites for the Sharks, just because Marleau is gone and Joe Thornton is an elongated whisker away from retirement. This is a playoff team, and if things break the right way, one that could make significant noise. And is there a more underrated player in the NHL right now that Logan Couture?
5 – Calgary Flames
This breaks my heart, because there’s so much to love about this roster, and I want nothing more than my sweet boy Johnny Gaudreau to dazzle in the postseason. I want to see Matthew Tkachuk pissing off people on the big stage. All the pieces are there … except in goal. Ask the Carolina Hurricanes how a promising roster can be undercut by below average goaltending. Hell, ask the Flames.
6 – Arizona Coyotes
There’s every chance this team surprises everyone and makes a strong playoff push, what with the incredible collection of young players and some smart additions in the offseason (Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson). They might be a year away from the big jump, but I don’t begrudge anyone that has jumped into the saddle on this dark horse.
7 – Vancouver Canucks
It’s really a time for celebration in Vancouver, as the Canucks have finally dropped the pretense and gone into a rebuild. There’s fun to be had in this forward group, less so on the blue line. Whatever happens, it will all of course be Loui Eriksson’s fault.
8 – Vegas Golden Knights
Yeah, it’s not going to be pretty, but it’s also never going to be boring. They could have been competitive straightaway, but that’s not the plan. Here’s hoping some of their 25 defensemen find suitable homes.
WESTERN CONFERENCE DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF TEAMS: Minnesota, Dallas, St. Louis, Anaheim, Edmonton, Los Angeles.
WESTERN CONFERENCE WILD CARD TEAM: Chicago, San Jose.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Anaheim