The Colorado Avalanche, losers of four of the past six games, are running the risk of falling back into the pack, but generally speaking the battle for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference has been portrayed as a seven-way battle between clubs that are currently separated by nine points.
The Calgary Flames you know about, but what about the other half-dozen presumed contenders in the race to presumably start the playoffs in either Chicago or San Jose? In this group you’ll find a couple of recent-vintage Cup winners, a couple of former Western powers that are now consorting with the riff-raff, a team trying to regain respectability and a club that somehow manages to rank as a surprise each and every winter.
Let’s have a cursory look at the other guys and how they got to this point, shall we?
Detroit Red Wings
The Motown gang still packs mean brand-name clout but its actual performance is a square-root value of the level Detroit fans have become accustomed. It’s natural for opponents to instictively flinch when they think about Detroit but every up-close encounter with the team (such as Tuesday’s visit to the Joe by the Flames) is a reminder that these are not your father’s Red Wings.
Let’s face it, any club forced to give premium minutes to Todd Bertuzzi these days is not in peak form. The Wings were dangerously thin a year ago but managed to remain healthy enough and the Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Lidstrom continued to be sublime enough that Detroit won its division and came within a game of pulling off a Cup repeat.
Now, after another off-season of attrition — so long Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, Marian Hossa — and some injury woes this season, the Wings are just another hockey team. At the very least, they’re no longer the Detroit Freaking Red Wings that once could afford the luxury of using guys like Robert Lang and Ray Whitney as support players..
Funny thing is that after years of getting by with pedestrian goaltending — an aging Dominik Hasek, Chris Osgood — the Wings are getting very good work from Jimmy Howard this season. Howard’s even-strength save percentage is better than Martin Brodeur’s and very close to the numbers posted by Ryan Miller and Henrilk Lundqvist.
The Predators are a little bit like the Montreal Expos were in the final 15 years or so of their existence. Nashville keeps losing big-name players, the pre-season expectations from the experts are always low and attendance is always a concern, but Barry Trotz — the Felipe Alou of Music City — keeps his club in the thick of things every year.
Quick — who is currently the only plus player with more than 15 goals on the Predators roster? The answer is Patric Hornqvist, which explains why there’s a Little-Engine-That-Could Vibe to this team. General manager David Poile’s you-can-never-have-enough-defencemen attitude has laid the foundation for the franchise and the rest involves cobbling together enough Marcel Gocs and Jerred Smithsons and Francis Bouillons to give Trotz a fighting chance.
Key stat for the Preds? Among Western Conference teams, only San Jose and Los Angeles have more road wins.
Not so long ago, the Stars were perennial kings of the Pacific Division and one of the NHL’s crown jewels. Now they’re the type of organization that briefly hires Brett Hull as general manager and replaces Dave Tippett with Marc Crawford as head coach.
The Stars lost again Wednesday and had it not been for a mini-miracle comeback against the Capitals earlier this week would be dangerously to the last-rites stage for this season. Since the lockout, the Stars’ season win total has dropped from 55 to 51 to 45 to 36 and it’s not out of the question that the victory tally will drop against this year.
Netminder Marty Turco’s numbers are not horrible, but he has become very erratic in the past couple of seasons, so much so that Dallas has rolled the dice by acquiring the once-highly regarded but oft-injured Kari Lehtonen.
The encouraging news is that franchise mainstays Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen, who have next to nothing left in the tank, are almost surely in their final days with the organization and Jamie Benn, James Neal and Loui Eriksson are a pretty good starter kit to a major rebuiulding plan.
St. Louis Blues
First, it was the Chicago Blackhawks. Then it was the Los Angeles Kings. The next doormat with a significant chance to become a serious Western Conference contender could well be the St. Louis Blues. A horrendous home record (12-16-5) and a power play that ranks 14th out of 15 Western Conference clubs sabotaged any chances for the leap to happen this year but St. Louis has a lot of talented players aged 25 or younger (David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund, David Perron with Lars Eller and Alex Pietrangelo on the way) and Paul Kariya and his $6 million come off the books this summer.
Some of that money should probably be spent on a goalie. Chris Mason, 33, is a free agent and Ty Conklin is a fine backup but a lousy option for No. 1 duty.
Marian for Martin. That, along with parting company with the only head coach the franchise has ever known, was the calculated gamble the Wild took heading into the 2009-10 season. When Marian Gaborik tore out of the gate with his new club, the Rangers, Martin Havlat got off to a disastrous start (two goals and minus-14 through the first two months of the seasons), the decision looked like it was going to rank right up there with New Coke.
Havlat has since turned things around since then but this is still a team in transition. Getting Cam Barker from the cap-crunched Blackhawks for UFA-to be Kim Johnsson gives Minny a good head start on next year (and with four teams to overtake for eighth spot, this is defintely starting to get to next-year time for the Wild).
Concussion issues — Brent Burns last winter, Pierre-Marc Bouchard this year — have taken a big chunk out of the Wild for the past two seasons.
The Mallards won the Stanley Cup three years ago and had nine players (and seven medallists) at the 2010 Olympics, but the franchise is spinning its wheels. A four-game losing streak coming out of the break has put the Ducks in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2004, which was Mike Babcock’s last season behind the Anaheim bench. Coincidentally, there is talk that this could be the end of the line for Randy Carlyle as the Ducks are headed for a third straight year with a decline in points.
Positivity looking ahead — the Ducks’ three best forwards (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan) are all under 25 and there has to be some good karma associated with the fact Todd Bertuzzi, who was bought out a couple of years ago, comes off the books next season.
Negativity looking ahead — the defence is very underwhelming, even if Scott Niedermayer decides to extend his career and remain in Orange County.