a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

08/08/12 Dropping Out of the Top Eight


If teams like the Oilers are ever going to make the playoffs, at least one team (and quite probably more) will need to miss. So what teams in the Western Conference are likely to fall from the lofty heights of the top eight?



Making the playoffs is a tough thing to do in the west. The lowest goal differential of the top eight teams was Chicago's +10 (Edmonton was -27), and there are plenty of extremely solid teams in this group. But one or two face the possibility (or even the likelihood) of falling off.

Phoenix Coyotes: I know, I know. I predicted that Phoenix would miss the playoffs in 2011-12 and all they did was go to the Western Conference Final. But now the Coyotes will really be in tough. They've already lost their leading scorer, Ray Whitney, to the Dallas Stars and also face the possibility of life without Shane Doan. With Doan's agent confirming that Doan has been offered a four year deal worth $7 million per, it's easy to imagine him leaving the desert. The Coyotes scored just four more goals than the Oilers in 2011-12, so the key for them will be defense and goaltending.

And therein may lie the problem. Mike Smith was brilliant this past season, posting a career-high 0.930 Sv% and 2.21 GAA. But Smith was a 0.906 Sv% goalie over 162 games before this year. Chances that Smith continues his 0.930 performance? Not great. He started 67 games in 2011-12, but no goalie since the lockout has maintained a 0.930 Sv% over at least 100 games. The Coyotes were 28th in the league in shots against this past year, so Smith is going to have to play out of his mind to keep Phoenix in the playoff picture.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks still have 33 year olds Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, as well as some other big names up front, but the team slipped to seventh in the West in 2011-12. Adding Brad Stuart is a boost, but the Sharks were already eighth in the league in goals against per game. Nothing has been done yet to bolster that offense, and this is a team that appears to be sliding in the wrong direction. Oh, and Dan Boyle just turned 36.

Nashville Predators: There was no way that the Preds could let Shea Weber go to Philadelphia. How important is Weber to the team? Aside from playing massive minutes he was also fourth in points in the music city. However, Ryan Suter was fifth on the team, played a similar role to Suter and is now gone. So too is Jordin Tootoo, Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn. Without both Weber and Suter, the Predators would have lost 95 points and their new defensive leader in TOI per game would be Kevin Klein. So year, there's no way Weber could be allowed to leave. Barry Trotz always seems to find a way to keep this team competitive, and Pekka Rinne remains between the pipes, but the Predators will be in tough.

***

It's a long, unpredictable season, and anything could happen. You could make a case that almost any of the top teams in the West will lose a step. Detroit's core is getting old and lost both Lidstrom and Stuart from the defense. St. Louis rode 0.940 Sv% goaltending from Brian Elliott and made the dance while being 21st in goals scored. Chicago can still score a ton of goals, but suffer from defensive woes. Only Vancouver and Los Angeles seem like total locks for playoff position.

But the teams in the top the West don't have to be better than the other playoff teams until it gets to playoff time; they just need to be better than the bottom feeders. Are the Oilers today a better team than any of Phoenix, Nashville, San Jose, St. Louis, Chicago or Detroit?

Probably not, but time will tell.

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