The first round of the Western Conference is now in full swing and the hockey has been fantastic – especially the San Jose/Nashville war. However, for the seven other Western Conference teams, the playoffs are a time to scout other teams, and to formulate a game plan for the off-season ahead. Let's break down each of the bottom seven teams in the West, giving tidbits of information, especially in regards to free agency. Four teams this week (Colorado, St. Louis, Columbus, and Edmonton) and the others (Chicago, LA, Phoenix) next week.
The Avs late season charge for the postseason ultimately fell just short, but the management must be extremely happy with some outcomes of the season. Peter Budaj looks like a legitimate NHL starter, and Paul Stastny’s emergence surprised everyone around the league. Rumors are circulating that the Avs might try and deal talented sniper Marek Svatos at the draft, in hopes of getting some defensive help. Svatos lost his place in the lineup and couldn’t crack the top six by the end of the season. One guy to keep an eye out for is skilled prospect TJ Hensick, who could emerge as a darkhorse for next season. The Avs have a lot of cap space and a few holes; so expect them to be big players during free agency, going after the likes of Drury, Smyth, and Hannan.
The Blues really turned it around after the mid-season hiring of Andy Murray, and things are looking up for next season. They got some bad news when TJ Oshie decided to return to the NCAA for a final season, though. Like Colorado, they have a lot of cap space and some huge lineup holes. Expect them to go hard after a top centre like Drury or Gomez. The Blues have a few under the radar types that are great for fantasy leagues in Lee Stempniak and David Backes. They aren’t going to blow anyone away with their numbers, but expect 50-65 points from each of them. One guy to keep an eye on is Carl Soderberg. The talented Swedish pivot sustained a gruesome eye injury last season, but it sounds like the Blues are trying to get him over in time for the start of next season.
The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs yet again, and were a huge disappointment overall. Both Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev were monumental fantasy busts. The only guy who really played up to his offensive level was David Vyborny. Dan Fritsche was a surprise and may be a regular on the second line next season, so keep him in mind when you are drafting. The Jackets lack a top line centre so expect them (like most other teams) to be going after the top echelon of free agents. This team has nowhere to go but up. Expect a big bounce back season from Rick Nash as well. His offensive output was pathetic in 06-07.
Everyone knows about the horrendous struggles that the Oilers faced after trading Smyth away at the deadline, so I will bypass that. I don’t expect Smyth to re-sign in Edmonton, but anything is possible. The Oilers have the cap money and the assets to make a run at a top centre and top defenseman, two areas they need help in. GM Kevin Lowe has deemed it very important to find someone they can play with Ales Hemsky on the top unit. The Oilers also lack a top-flight defenseman and expect them to make a push for Andrei Markov. They may even go the trade route, as the rumors of Pitkanen to Edmonton have been pretty consistent over the past few months. One thing is for sure, the Oilers are going to have a few important new faces come training camp.