[Ed. Note: Stats valid as of Jan. 1. Sorry for the delay in posting, holiday schedule blah, blah, blah.. -CK]
Record: 29-8-5, 63 points, best in the West
Team Leaders: Captain Duck Ryan Getzlaf (20g-27a-47 pts), Corey Perry (22-21-43), Nick Bonino (11-16-27); Jonas Hiller (2.42 GAA, .914 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: It would appear that the big guns in Anaheim picked the right guys to dish $135 million out to. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are having spectacular seasons with the Ducks, and they have been responsible for a solid amount of the offensive output this year. Players such as Jakob Silfverberg, Mathieu Perreault and Cam Fowler have also been breaking out this year and making significant contributions to the team. Anaheim has scored 82.2% of their goals this season in even strength situations, the highest such percentage in the Western Conference.
In addition, the goaltending situation is as good as anyone could ever ask for. If Jonas Hiller can't play, Viktor Fasth is more than capable of taking the reins. If he's out, Frederik Andersen will be ready to go with his 1.98 GAA and .927 save percentage. If Hell freezes over and two of these guys are unable to suit up for some reason, we have American Hero John Gibson over in Norfolk to take the call. Overall, this team is very well rounded, top to bottom, and if the Ducks can continue to run a train through the NHL like they did during the first half of the season, they may find themselves claiming their first Western Conference championship in seven years.
Why They Won't Win the West: One of the downsides of the Ducks has been reflected in Corsi ratings. For those who don't know, Corsi ratings measure the shot difference between a team and their opposition in 5-on-5 situations. This makes implications on how good a team is at maintaining puck possession. Anaheim sits 19th in the league with a 49.8 Corsi For percentage, and even though they're still winning a lot of games, I'm sure everyone still remembers last season when the team's possession woes caught up to them and aided the
stupid always competitive Detroit Red Wings in the elimination of the Ducks from the playoffs last season. If Anaheim runs into a team in the playoffs that knows how to possess the puck a lot better than them, they could be taking an extended summer again.
Questions: How is this defense going to be affected by Sheldon Souray's return? The D, while surprisingly deep this season, is still considered to be one of the glaring weaknesses of this Ducks team. Souray brings a veteran leadership to the blue line, but how will he contribute?
Record: 28-7-7, 63 points, 2nd in the West
Team Leaders: Patrick "Party Starter" Kane (23-30-53), Patrick Sharp (22-19-41), Jonathan Toews (15-25-40); Corey Crawford (2.47 GAA, .907 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: Simply put, this team is stacked. The Chicago roster is eerily similar to the one that took home the Stanley Cup back in May, and their play thus far has been putting themselves in a great position to repeat. From the beginning of the preseason to today, many hockey experts and fans alike have upheld their opinions on the Blackhawks being a very strong favorite to end up winning it all once again, and I would be asinine to disagree.
Why They Won't Win the West: The Hawks clear strength is their firepower, but inversely, their defense hasn't been able to match that contribution to the club. Despite boasting D-men such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nick Leddy as they've been allowing just under three goals a game this year. The Chicago penalty kill, in particular, is an issue they need to address, as they currently sit at 28th in the league with a 76.4% kill rate. While no other team in the league can match their offensive production (#1 in goals per game, #3 in power play conversion), teams that can light the lamp almost as consistently as them, such as Anaheim, St. Louis, or San Jose, could spell trouble for the Blackhawks in the playoffs.
Questions: Is that Stanley Cup hangover ever going to catch up to the Hawks? They've been producing points as consistently as they did last year, with the Ducks hot on their tail. I'm confident in saying that they'll win the Central, but the competition in the West is thick enough that I wouldn't be completely surprised to see a first or second round upset in the playoffs.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Record: 27-7-5, 59 points, 3rd in the West
Team Leaders: Alexander Steen (24-14-38), T.J. Oshie (6-27-33), David Backes (16-14-30); Jaroslav Halak (2.40 GAA, .907 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: The Blues average 3.5 goals per game and let up 2.3. Their special teams are just as successful, boasting a 23% power play and an 84.1% penalty kill. All of these numbers rank in the top 10 in the league, making St. Louis a dangerous team in any and all game situations. A deep blue line consisting of players like Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk complement the offense of Steen, Oshie, Backes and more. From a statistical standpoint, the Blues are a terrifying team, and if they can keep those figures up, they can very well be making a run to their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1970.
Why They Won't Win the West: The Blues are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. Out of all these statistics, St. Louis doesn't lead the league in any of them. If a series ends up turning into a firefight against Chicago, or a defensive battle against Los Angeles to name a couple examples, the Blues could end up on the wrong end of those battles.
Questions: How much do statistics really matter? I've been referencing them a lot, and I do look at them to be very credible to a certain extent. On paper, St. Louis plays the strongest, most well-rounded hockey today, and a deep run would, in my eyes, reinforce those statistical standpoints, while an earlier exit would say otherwise.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Record: 25-9-6, 56 points, 4th in the West
Team Leaders: Joe Thornton (5-39-44), Patrick Marleau (17-20-37), Joe Pavelski (16-21-37); Antti Niemi (2.43 GAA, .912 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: The Sharks, like a lot of these other teams, are such a dangerous offensive team. You would imagine that being the majority owners of the Pacific Division of the last decade, yet having to watch the other two California teams win the Stanley Cup within the last decade has to provide some sort of motivation to prove themselves. San Jose would be better off than most in a playoff series in which they have home ice advantage. So far this season they are 14-1-3 in their barn, boasting the second best such record in the West behind... well, you know.
Why They Won't Win the West: The goaltending depth of this team is one of its bigger weaknesses. If Antti Niemi gets injured, the Sharks could find themselves in trouble. Alex Stalock doesn't have nearly enough NHL experience to make me believe he could lead a San Jose charge through the playoffs. Harri Sateri would likely be called up from Worchester, but with a .895 save percentage and a 2.86 GAA, this last case scenario would, in all likelihood, end up going poorly for the teal faithful.
Questions: Can the Sharks finally take the next step? In 5 seasons, Todd McLellan has led this team to three division titles, two conference final appearances, a President's Trophy, yet they've never made it to that final round. This team is capable of beating any and all of these teams in the playoffs, but after all of those consecutive years where the teal faithful claim that "this is our year!", is it actually, or are they just going to go through the same motions that they have been every postseason?
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Record: 25-12-4, 54 points, 5th in the West
Team Leaders: Anze Kopitar (13-21-34), Mike Richards (6-22-28), Justin Williams (13-12-25); Jonathan Quick (2.35 GAA, .905 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: The Kings, as they've shown over the last two seasons during their back-to-back Western Final appearances, are a team that knows how to play postseason hockey. This is also a team that's deep down the middle, featuring centers such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and even the young gun Tyler Toffoli. The Kings are also the best team in the NHL in terms of puck possession according to their Corsi For rating, as they flaunt a percentage of 56.1%. I'm not a guy who lives and dies by the more advanced statistics, but this has got to be a big reason why Anaheim's been having trouble with these guys lately.
In addition, the goaltending depth chart up the street is looking almost as good as Anaheim's. Jonathan Quick, considered by many to be the best American-born goalie in the game today (when he's healthy), is a game changer by himself, and I'll still make the argument that he and he alone was the #1 reason why the Kings snuck into the playoffs back in 2012 when they won it all. Backup Ben Scrivens is no slouch between the pipes either, as he boasts a 1.76 GAA and .938 save percentage this season. If Scrivens is unavailable, enter wunderkind Martin Jones, the rookie who's been turning heads after winning his first eight games in the big show.
Why They Won't Win the West: The Kings have played more of a defensive team under Darryl Sutter. When it comes to goals scored, they're lengths behind the big guns in the conference (Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis), but they've also allowed a couple dozen less than these teams as well. They say defense wins championships, which they showed as they won it all in 2012, but with all the firepower they'll be going up against this season, a playoff series involving the Kings could end up resembling the classic "unstoppable force meets an immovable object" conundrum, and I don't know how long that Los Angeles could hang around in that fight.
Questions: Will the Kings make a third consecutive trip to the Western Conference Finals? Ignoring any possibility that the Kings take the 1 or 2 seed in the West, I believe that they have as much of a chance as pulling an upset as they do being on the receiving end.
Record: 23-11-7, 53 points, 6th in the West
Team Leaders: Daniel Sedin (13-22-35), Henrik Sedin (9-26-35), Ryan Kesler (15-12-27); Roberto Luongo (2.24 GAA, .920 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: The Canucks don't really change that much compared to other teams. With consideration to their five consecutive division titles, it's a pretty nice perspective for the optimistic Vancouver fan. The relatively consistent roster plus a myriad of playoff games in the last few years has gotten these guys very familiar with the postseason scene, which always turns out to be a concern when it comes to younger players who haven't played in the win-or-go-home scenario in the big show yet. This team is very broken in when it comes to the postseason, and those playoff jitters won't be found on too many faces on the Canuck roster. With Henrik and Daniel Sedin leading the charge, the Canucks are always a threat who can eliminate a team with ease if they're not ready for them.
Why They Won't Win the West: The pessimistic outlook on the above statement is the obvious one that this same roster can't ever win a Stanley Cup. If they couldn't do it those years they won the Presidents Trophy or any of these other years, how could they do it now? Frankly, aside from their League-leading penalty kill, the Canucks are a very average team when compared to their competition, and the path that they'd have to take to get to the Final will likely prove to be too much to them.
Questions: Can Tortorella and the Canucks silence their critics? During the offseason, Vancouver fired their coach who just can't win in the postseason and hired a guy who... just can't win in the postseason. The roster is always talented, they've never been seeded lower than 3rd in the playoffs in the last five years, and as much as people love to hate on them, the Sedin twins are pretty good at hockey. So why do they always come up empty at playoff time?
Record: 24-11-4, 52 points, 7th in the West
Team Leaders: Matt Duchene (16-20-36), Gabriel Landeskog (12-16-28), Ryan O'Reilly (13-14-27); Semyon Varlamov (2.38 GAA, .926 SV%)
Why They Can Win the West: With the benefit of having a home at altitude, the Avs have an extremely well conditioned team. Like LA, Colorado has some dangerous depth at center with Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Paul Stastny, and the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, Nathan McKinnon. With 21-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog joining the charge, Colorado's high-octane offense can wear down even the best defenses.
The netminder situation in Colorado is also improving by leaps and bounds. The duo of head coach/Hall of Fame tendy Patrick Roy and legendary goalie coach Francois Allaire can take credit for the stellar play of Semyon Varlamov this season (compare his stats to 3.02 GAA and .903 SV% from last season). Our old friend Giggy started the year 6-0 as well, the first goalie in Avalanche history to do so.
Why They Won't Win the West: The offense is dangerous, the goaltenders are sturdy, but like our concerns about our Ducks at the beginning of the season, the Avalanche blue line isn't very good. Colorado allows its opponents an average of 32 shots per game, the highest out of any of these teams mentioned. Even though Varly's save percentage has been very impressive, his goals against average reflects the workload he and Giguere have been bearing this season. With some of the offensive juggernauts Colorado would almost certainly see in the playoffs, their tendies are probably not going to be able to bail them out of a seven-game series if the defensive situation doesn't improve.
Questions: Can Colorado recreate the effort that led to their hot start out of the gate this season? Since the beginning of December, their play has been rather mediocre. Within the last month, they posted a record of 5-5-4 that kicked off with a 8-2 murking at the hands of the second best team in all of Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers. As the hockey world witnessed moreso back in October, this team definitely has the talent to make a strong push up the standings during the latter half of the season, but they'll need to straighten the ship if they hope to do so.
Also, can the Avs look for another play-by-play announcer? John Ahlers might get a bad rap, but you'll hear no bigger display of homerism than you will with Mike Haynes.
Honorable Mention/Dark Horses: Minnesota Wild, Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars
Regardless of who ends up being the West's representative in the Stanley Cup this season, one thing is certain when it comes to the Eastern Conference:
We're better than you! (via James Russell)