The Western Conference: A Marvelous Mass of Mediocrity

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There are certainly at least two really good teams in the NHL's Western Conference. Defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit and fast-starting San Jose appear in the clear to duke it out for the right to play for the Stanley Cup later this year.

Of course, we know that anything can happen in a best-of-seven series. In addition, we still have half a season left to play. What we don't know is which team in this conference is set up to challenge either the Red Wings or Sharks. They've beaten - at least once - pretty much everyone who has stood in their way, including each other.

While the top of the conference appears to virtually locked in place at this point, there are still serious battles to be fought, especially for the last four positions in the West. Currently, eight teams are separated by just six points. St. Louis, the last-place team in the West, is just nine points out of eighth.

With that in mind, let's examine the field. For the sake of argument, we'll leave Nashville (20-23-3, 43 points), Los Angeles (17-20-7, 41 points), and St. Louis (18-23-4, 40 points) out, even though they're far from out of the race.

Records are through Monday, January 19.


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The Upstarts

Steve Mason Columbus Blue Jackets Rick Nash otherworldly numbers

Surprising? Absolutely. Columbus was an afterthought before the season started. Yeah, they have a solid, Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock. But no one knew how they were going to keep the puck out of the net. As long as Mason is the answer there, the Blue Jackets have a serious shot at this. On the down side, injuries have left this team dreadfully thin, especially up front. The loss of Derick Brassard, a promising youngster, may spurn the Blue Jackets to go shopping before the trade deadline. Of course, that's assuming they're still in the race by then.

Meanwhile, amid stories of financial ruin and dumb puppet gimmicks, the Phoenix Coyotes (23-19-5, 51 points) continue to sit among the top eight in the West. They may not draw flies to Arena, but they do have some real talent. Ed Jovanovski continues to anchor the blue line, but he has gotten some help. Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek have both played well, and veteran Ken Klee is sitting at a nifty plus-nine in 36 games for the 'Yotes. Captain Shane Doan and offseason acquisition Olli Jokinen lead the offensive attack, but youngsters like Peter Mueller and Mikkel Boedker are also finding the net.

The problem? Well, besides money and fans, it's goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to solve the Coyotes' woes in net, not make them sort of worse. But his maddening inconsistency, combined with a defense that's improved but still a bit thin, could doom the Coyotes before it's all said and done.

It's probably weird calling a team like the Edmonton Oilers (23-19-3, 49 points) an upstart. After all, they played for the Stanley Cup just three years ago, and there are veterans all over the place. However, there is also a good group of younger players who don't have the experience of even making the playoffs yet.

The Oilers don't have great defense. They don't have great goaltending. They don't have stars along their top line. They aren't very good at all on special teams. Instead, they just find ways to win. Forwards Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, and Andrew Cogliano are leading the way. Offseason acquisition Erik Cole is coming on strong, and fellow newcomer Lubomir Visnovsky has been nothing but solid on defense.

In all, Edmonton boasts seven players who have reached double digits in goals, while 14 players have at least 10 points each. It's a balanced group, and as long as goaltender Dwayne Roloson can keep them in games, they're going to be in the mix.

The Enigmas

They won a Stanley Cup in 2007, but things haven't been rosy for the Anaheim Ducks (23-19-5, 51 points) since. They were lucky to avoid a sweep against the Dallas Stars last year. At this point, it's not a total certainty they'll even make the playoffs this year.

What's gone wrong? Well, Anaheim's penalty kill is quite pedestrian so far, and star defensemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer are each sitting at minus-three, which is quite odd for them. Meanwhile, Jean-Sebastien Giguere has a 3.04 goals against, ranking him ahead of only Marty Turco among Western Conference goalies with at least 30 appearances.

There is still plenty of good, as Ryan Getzlaf continues to round into form as a perennial All-Star type of player. Bobby Ryan is averaging a point per game, and Corey Perry is having a very nice season. Pronger and Niedermayer aren't likely to be minus players forever, and the Ducks may use more of effective backup goalie Jonas Hiller if Giguere continues to struggle.

The assumption was that signing Mats Sundin and getting Roberto Luongo back would make a world of difference for the Vancouver Canucks (22-19-6, 50 points). I drank the Kool-Aid, thinking that Vancouver had become a legitimate contender in the West.


Sundin has been fine, and Luongo will be fine, but the Canucks may have too many other warts. It's hard to tell, because every time I see them play really well, they turn around the next game and lay a massive egg. The top line and the power play still click thanks to the Sedin twins, but Daniel and Henrik can't do it all themselves. Vancouver still needs more out of the likes of Pavol Demitra, Ryan Kesler, Kyle Wellwood, and Mason Raymond. The Canucks have an impressive challenge in the amazingly tight Northwest Division, and if they can earn a playoff spot out of that bloodbath, a first-round series against either a Northwest foe, Detroit, or San Jose awaits. It's a tough road for an inconsistent team.

Of course, a healthy and effective Luongo changes all of that. We'll see.

Improvement has been there in recent weeks. Let there be no doubt of that. However, the Dallas Stars (19-18-7, 45 points) still have a long way to go. They've crept within four points of a playoff spot thanks to improved play in the back. Turco wasn't going to get worse, and his numbers have indeed started to moderate. Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro are playing better, Loui Eriksson and James Neal have been scoring goals at an impressive clip, and the defense is getting better despite the fact that Sergei Zubov hasn't played since November 30. Give credit to guys like Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen, and Darryl Sydor, who continue to battle against long odds.

The Stars are terrible on the power play, worse on the penalty kill, and are still facing an uphill battle to reach the playoffs.

Turco, however, has made a career out of his up-and-down play. Unless something really odd happens and Turco stops the trend, the Stars probably don't have enough offense to make the playoffs.

The Gritty, Gutty

For different reasons, these teams still have a shot, despite a pile of injuries and plenty of questions.

Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny headline the missing bodies, but the Colorado Avalanche (23-22-1, 47 points) forge ahead. Even with two star forwards out, they're still scoring goals. Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk, who each hit 300 for their career in Sunday's game against Calgary, are atop the team leaderboard. The Avalanche work hard defensively, and they have gotten serviceable, but not great, goaltending out of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft.

Besides the goaltending, the major wart on Colorado is their special teams. Both the power play and penalty kill are ranked in the bottom third of the league. If it doesn't improve soon, it's hard to imagine Colorado staying in the race until the end of the season.

(Even if they bring Peter Forsberg back.)

Missing a player of Marian Gaborik's caliber is enough to sink most teams. It almost sank the Minnesota Wild (23-19-3, 49 points). However, Jacques Lemaire continues to find ways to coax wins out of a team that many people justifiably left for dead a long time ago. All-Star goaltender Niklas Backstrom has been the key. Whether the Wild score one goal or six, they have a chance to win with Backstrom in net. His .928 save percentage is not a fluke. He does get help from a rather nondescript but stout defense. Brent Burns played forward for a time, but has settled back to the blue line, and he gets help from Marek Zidlicky, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and steady ironman Nick Schultz.

Up front, Mikko Koivu is averaging nearly a point per game, and veterans Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan have both played well. But only Koivu, Brunette, Nolan, and Antti Miettinen have hit double digits in goals. The Wild are living with their defense, goaltending, and special teams. It's a dangerous formula, because if one of those three units has a bad night, they're probably screwed.

But it's a formula Lemaire is capable of winning with. A lesser coach, and this team is probably in a hopeless state. Instead, they have as good a chance as anyone of making the playoffs.

The Western Conference: A Marvelous Mass of Mediocrity originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Tue, 20 Jan 2009 15:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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