While the Colorado Avalanche may have something to say about it, the Western Conference is pretty much set. Let’s take a look at some of the teams and what to expect in hockey’s second season…
It is looking more and more like the Ducks will be facing off against the Wild – a team that has been hotter than they have since Christmas. The Duck have been hampered by injuries, however – and now the team is finally back to full strength. Last season, Chris Pronger’s offensive production shot up in a big way in the playoff, and Todd Marchant also experienced a sizable increase. Andy McDonald’s production slipped. Keep those points in mind when you sit down for your playoff draft. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin may have just 27 points, but 11 have come in his last 11 contests. He is also worth a bump.
The Flames will (likely) ride into the postseason on the hot play of Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla. Kiprusoff had actually been a mere mortal over the first few months of the season, but the past month has seen him really catch fire. The team has a lot of scoring depth – four players could hit the 80-point mark – so unlike the Calgary teams of old. Thinking that Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius are not playoff-type players? Think again. Both players actually saw their production increase last season in Calgary’s abbreviated playoff. They are not to be overlooked. It was Matthew Lombardi and Dion Phaneuf who actually saw their numbers drop when it mattered most. Both can be excused, as they are young players, but just file that away come draft day.
This team has been all defense all year. With the exception of the past three weeks. The Stars have really been scoring goals – Brenden Morrow is now healthy, ditto for Mike Modano. This opens up a new line of scoring, freeing space for other players who had been struggling. Mike Ribeiro, for instance, has been on fire. He has nine points in his last four games and 12 in his last seven. Dallas is still getting a lot of offense from the defense, particularly Sergei Zubov. Once again, the veteran is turning it on down the stretch and he was one of the few Stars to turn it on in the postseason last year. If Marty Turco flounders again in two weeks, expect him to be chased out of town.
Will he or won’t he? Pavel Datsyuk has gone 21 playoff games without scoring a goal. He has just nine assists in that span. Will he snap out of it this year? You know he will eventually, but why not let someone else in your pool take the chance on him? Niklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg also saw their production drop when they hit the postseason last year. While Lidstrom will likely bounce back, Zetterberg is battling a sore back and is a huge injury risk. Do not take him early, you may get burned when he is forced to stay off the ice in Game 3 to rest his back.
The Wild have been the hottest team in the league since Christmas, with the exception of the Canucks. This is because Marian Gaborik is back and fully healthy. A lot of people would shy away from betting on this team in the playoff, so you probably would not have a hard time selecting quite a few of them on draft day and riding them into the third round is not far-fetched. One dark horse I would recommend for a late round? Wes Walz. He will log tons of ice time against the other team’s best players and he will get more than one point for every two postseason games.
It seems like the teams that stumble down the stretch always get it together when the postseason arrives. Nashville better hope so because they are stumbling (4-5-1) and slowly watching their seeded position slip down the standings. Steve Sullivan (and his back) is one giant question mark, but this team is deep enough to overcome his absence. The offensive torch from the backend has been passed to Shea Weber from Marek Zidlicky. The latter is no longer a fantasy asset while the former is improving with every contest. Alexander Radulov has been hot and his playing time has been increased with Sullivan’s absence. He deserves a bump way up your draft list.
This team has been getting better and better as the season wears on. They have finally decided on a goaltender – it seems as though Evgeni Nabokov will get the call throughout the playoffs. If he ever stumbles, Vesa Toskala is not much of a downgrade – if any. Joe Thornton (knock on wood) will finally enter a postseason without having to play through a nagging injury. His last two playoffs saw him play through pain and his production slipped in a big way. That won’t happen this time around. With the arrival of Bill Guerin, you have seen Joe Pavelski’s and Ryane Clowe’s production slip – steer clear of them.
As detailed quite thoroughly in last week’s column – these guys have Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison, Kevin Bieksa and the Sedin twins for offense. You will likely not see a lot of return if you draft any of the other layers. This team is all Roberto Luongo.