Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Western Conference Playoff teams.

The Playoffs and golf courses are almost upon us, and while I am curious which member of the Florida Panthers (my bet is on Stephen Weiss, as he has every May to practice) has the best tee shot, I am more interested in who is most primed for a long post-season run, and what aspects of each team's game, may help or hinder their pursuits.

I feel that it is only right for the Western Conference to be featured first. They are the vastly superior conference, as their inter-conference dominance clearly proves. They are 57 games over .500 against the East this season, while the East is only 15 games over .500 against the West. I know I know, those overtime games through all these calculations off, but the numbers are still telling. Also, the top ten teams in the West would qualify for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, despite having to play against each other consistently.

So without further ado:

1. Vancouver Canucks: How on earth is this team under the salary cap?!?! They have the most explosive top two lines in the NHL, a defence corps that is six deep with actual talent, (not overpaid checkers, that were popular in Montreal and subsequently rewarded a five year contract with a no movement clause by a rival team) and one of the best and most expensive goalies in the NHL.

Strengths: Their depth. Nobody has been more crippled by injuries on the back end than the Canucks. Salo, Edler, Ballard, Bieksa, and Hamhuis have all missed at least 15 games this season, and they still have not missed a beat. Also on the offensive side, they have  top end talent that only the Capitals, Sharks, Lightning, Ducks and Blackhawks can match. (Will the Pens ever get Malkin and Crosby to play a full season together again). Also, Luongo has proven in the Olympics that he has the ability to be a big time goaltender, and on this team it looks like he just will have to ensure that he doesn't play a brutal game. Their greatest strength though is obvious: the telepathic connection between their dynamic twin pack.

Weaknesses: Luck. Injuries have decimated their defence and their checking forwards, and have taken a significant toll on this team. Luckily, aside from Burrows missing the first ten games of the season, none of the top tier offensemen have missed any time. But with the luck they have been having, you simply never know.

On that note, I would like to wish Manny Malhotra a speedy and healthy recovery. We are all rooting for you.

2. Detroit Red Wings: The most experienced team in the NHL simply never goes away. With the longest streak of playoff appearances amongst the four major sports, this team defines consistency. While they have a lot of has-beens like Modano, Bertuzzi and Kris Draper, they do possess a lot of young talent, that provides the spark of energy that keeps those old legs running. (It also helps that Modano hardly played this season. Maybe with the fresh legs, he will be a difference maker for the first time since 2006. Shh, don't let him in on the secret that he is washed up: he may be the only one that has not noticed).

Strengths: Experience. They have done it so many times before. To put this in perspective Nicklas Lidstrom, Thomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper won a Cup for this team when Jeff Skinner was five years old. He had not even begun elementary school! Also, they have so much goal scoring firepower from the offence and the defence, it is very difficult to stop their attack when everyone is healthy. Another strength of this team is their coaching and management. They are coached by perhaps the best coach in the NHL, since another Detroit legend, Scotty Bowman.

Weaknesses: Simply put, their goaltending is more than suspect. Jimmy Howard, the number one goaltender by default, has not shown that he is reliable in pressure-filled situations. Even with such a strong defence in front of him, none of his peripheral statistics are amongst the top thirty goaltenders. It would be hilarious, yet not surprising, if we ended up seeing Joey McDonald in the Playoffs. (Update: Not gonna happen after Thursday nights performance, where he let up seven goals!)

3. San Jose Sharks: Remember how awful this team was for the first half of the season? The only players on the team that were showing up were Ryan Clowe, Logan Couture and Anterro Nittymaki (where did he go?!?) and they were treading in tenth place in the Western Conference. Since the first forty games of the season, this team has been the hottest in the NHL and after last season's trip to the Conference Final, they look primed to make another deep run into the playoffs.

Strengths: It should not be underestimated, the importance of peaking at the right time in the NHL season. Just look at the Flyers from last season for a perfect example of this. They got hot at the right time and went all the way to the Finals, only to lose at the hands of the least dramatic Cup-Winning goal of all time. The Sharks have only lost four times in regulation since January 15th and have been winning because of their combination of strong goaltending and the semi-rejuvenation of their once unstoppable top line.

Weaknesses: The Sharks have gone through significant stretches where Marleau, Thornton and Heatley have done absolutely nothing. Heatley will not even crack the 30 goal plateau (he is at 24) after having at least 39 in every full season he has played since he was a rookie. If the big boys choose not to show up in the Playoffs and Pavelski, Clowe and Couture are leading this team, count them out first round. Unless Niemi can continue his strong play since his 15.36 GAA (that number might actually be an understatement) in the first twenty games. Wouldn't Hawks-Sharks be the most intriguing first round matchup? Remarkable!

4. Phoenix Coyotes: They did it again! Yandle, Bryzgalov, Doan and who else?? On paper they may be tied with the Panthers and Thrashers for the most dull lineup in all of hockey. They buy into the system that the coaching staff has instituted, and they execute it to perfection. Their success should be a ray of hope for teams that cannot afford to spend to the salary cap, or just simply have no talent.

Strengths: They have a phenomenal grasp on the team game and a goalie that has proven throughout the last two regular seasons that he has the ability to stand on his head. While the offence on this team looks anemic (on the surface, but the sum of their parts is much better than they are individually), they have an extremely deep defensive team. Yandle, Aucoin, Morris, Klesla, Jovanovski and Roszival is as good a defensive group that you will find outside of British Columbia.

Weaknesses: Special Teams is going to kill this team. They rank only 22nd in the NHL on the PP and are 26th on the PK. For a team that will probably have a more difficult time scoring goals in the Playoffs then most, it will be necessary for them to improve on these numbers. Also, they have been shorthanded 284 times this season, which is the 11th most in the NHL, a number they definitely need to improve on.

5. Los Angeles Kings: At the beginning of the season, people would have been surprised to see the Kings this low on the conference seedings. Until the last six weeks, things have not gone according to plan for this team. Bernier has not taken the starting job (Quick has been a great goalie this season) Simmonds and Stoll did not provide the offence that most were hoping, and most significantly Doughty did not have the big breakout season that everyone expected. All in all though, this team has the talent (or had with Kopitar and Williams) to make some noise in the playoffs.

Strengths: They play a fantastic defensive game. With Doughty, Jack Johnson leading a talented backend they  are 4th in penalty kill and 6th in goals against respectively in the NHL. While they have not received the offence from d-men that they may have expected, their coverage in their own zone hase been outstanding.

Weaknesses: Injuries. Kopitar is done for the rest of the season and the playoffs. This is a huge blow to their chances at playoffs success. He does everything for their team. When he got injured he was leading the team in goals,points,shots,GWG and perhaps the most telling statistic +/-. He is an impossible piece to replace, and combined with the injuries that Williams sustained, it will be almost impossible for them to overcome these losses.

On the positive side, look for this team to be the second best team in the West next season, with a more experienced lineup. You read it here first!

6. Nashville Predators: This team is built in a similar fashion to the Pheonix Coyotes. Very good goaltending, a star defenceman surrounded by a very strong group around him, and a bunch of no-name slightly above average forwards. Surprisingly this team has made it to the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, and has never won a playoff series. Barry Trotz runs a remarkable system, in which he maximizes value from his players in the regular season, but it seems like he just never has enough talent to win in the playoffs. I am not sure their luck will change if they end up drawing the loaded Sharks in the first round this year either.

Strengths: They have fantastic defensive play. Pekka Rinne has been the most underrated goalie in the NHL and should finish as the runner up for the Vezina behind the remarkable Tim Thomas. Shea Weber and his fantastic linemate Suter, lead a young and talented group of defenceman that allow the third fewest goals per game in the NHL, and have the sixth best PK. Another strength of this team is their play on home ice. They are only one of three teams in the NHL along with Boston and Vancouver, to have less than ten losses at home. If they can sneak into the fourth seed, maybe they will be able to finally win a series!

Weaknesses: One word Offence. They are the only team in the NHL(not including the Senators which frankly post trade deadline are not NHL caliber), that does not have a player with 20 goals or 50 points on their roster. For them to have any extended success they need to receive more production from their top players. Mike Fisher has not provided that spark this team has needed since he came to Nasville to play for this team ( maybe he came just to be close to Carrie Underwood). On the positive side though, Martin Erat is playing the most inspired hockey of his career, and leads the team in points despite missing fifteen games.
P.S. David Legwand- the world is still waiting for you to prove that you are more than a massive bust.

7. Anaheim Ducks: This team has shown a remarkable amount of resiliency all season. They lost Getzlaf for an extended period of time with what essentially was a broken face injury. Their All-Star goaltender Hiller, has been injured for the last six weeks with vertigo and fatigue. Yet, they have continuously stayed in the hunt, due to the magnificent play of Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne. If they can get Hiller back, they can cause some serious noise in the first round.

Strengths: They have fantastic firepower at the top of their lineup. Selanne, Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan, may be the best group of four forwards on any team in the NHL. Also, they have a very solid combination of offense and defence from the backend. Toni Lydman, in what may be the biggest surprise of the season, has the highest +/- in the league, and Lubomir Visnovsky has the most points in the league as well with 64. And with Fowler and Beauchemin on the second line, this team is better defensively than most people give them credit for.

Weaknesses: The top six forwards on this team are, Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Selanne, Koivu and Blake. Name one of their bottom six forwards? (They just picked up Ruutu, so not sure if I count him).......... I would venture to say that only 20 percent of hockey fans outside of California are able to do it. They are absolutely awful. Against some of the powerhouse teams out West, those lines will get completely exposed. Don't feel embarrassed to look up their bottom six forwards, nobody else knows them either.

8. Chicago Blackhawks: The Stanley Cup champs are in the eight hole, and with the prospects of facing the best team in the league in the first round, the all-difficult repeat will be a daunting task. After the Marty Turco experiment was a colossal failure, they decided to return to their formula of success: a random old rookie goalie, that comes out of nowhere and plays well. So far it has worked for them. Corey Crawford is one of the main reasons this team will even be in the Playoffs in two weeks from now.

Strengths: Star talent. With Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp on offence and Keith, Seabrook and Campbell on the backend, this team has the stars to match up with anyone. Also, they all are Cup Winners, and know exactly what it takes to get to the finish line. For the new guys that do not know what the experience is like, I am sure they can just ask Hossa, after he had spent the previous three seasons searching for that Cup.

Weaknesses: The salary cap robbed the Hawks of a dynasty. The loss of Ladd, Versteeg and Byfuglien were all a product of the new era that we live in. The replacement players have been playing pretty well, but have not provided that secondary spark the stars were accustomed to receiving. Unless guys like Michael Frolik, who has only 7 points since coming over in a trade from Florida can elevate their game, Lord Stanley's mug will not return to downtown Chicago. Other than that, this team has strong talent, and their main weakness is their seeding due to their poor play in the beginning of the season. I do not think that Vancouver would be particularly enthralled with the idea of playing the Hawks in the first round of the Playoffs.

All of these eight teams, possess either remarkable talent, or remarkable team play and whatever the match-ups turn out to be, I can guarantee one thing: No series will be easy for any team. Cannot wait for the games to begin!!

Hope you enjoyed!!

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