There is something slightly futile about trying to project playoff matchups and outcomes even in January and the beginning of February, because sometimes rosters look nothing like what they do when March begins. Or are altered in some way at least. Just look at the Hawks. A week ago they didn’t really have a bottom six, even when Kruger returns, and had a huge, gaping hole dripping gravy on the blue line (might still have that one). Now they might have the deepest forward group in the West.
Now that we know pretty much what everyone is going to look like when the playoffs begin, we can get a much better idea of the path the Hawks have to (and likely will) walk. I’ve written all season that even though the Hawks were not the team they were last year, there really hadn’t been a team that stepped into the gap that I thought for sure were a major threat. The Stars are fun but totally flawed, the Blues have remained the Blues, the Kings had some questions, and the Ducks couldn’t get out of their own way. Has any of that changed now?
Short answer: No. But we’ll go longer for you and look at all the direct contenders in the Western Conference.
Dallas: So you have a leaky defense that has a nasty habit of giving up a touchdown and no goalies to stop the bleeding. What do you do, hotshot? You make your defense worse by flipping Jyrki Jokipakka for Kris Russell. I cannot stress how bad of a trade this is. Kris Russell sucks. He sucks deep pond scum. He sucks like that thing from Yellow Submarine that destroys all the scenery. He’s the suckiest suck that ever sucked. This is a player who got shelled at a higher rate than the Calgary Flames, and all the Flames do is get shelled. He’s 5% behind the team-rate and their team-rate blows. And this is while not having to deal with the competition that Giordano and Brodie soak up.
What the Stars needed was a top four guy to play free safety for either Goligoski or Klingberg. They cannot keep playing them together, because they’re too similar. Or they needed an actual goalie because both Niemi and Lehtonen are bad. They got none of this. Their forwards will see they score a lot. They’ll give up more.
St. Louis: You may want to check and see if there isn’t a mass bridge-jumping down I-55 today. GM Doug Armstrong should have that one guy from Major League II yelling at home about how he has no marbles. The Blues did absolutely nothing, and nothing with a team that has won no playoff games beyond the first round in a decade isn’t acceptable. His quotes are even better, as if he already knows he’s boned. This is a team that isn’t far away from being pretty damn dangerous. It needs more creativity to score when it matters. It certainly could have figured something out for Eric Staal if Armstrong hadn’t completely borked his cap situation. Still, this is a team that values Ryan Reaves, so I don’t know why I expected any different. Fleischmann actually would have been a good fit for this team, though Hitch would have hated him. It needs more speed on the blue line, but will continue to watch J-Bow and Pietrangelo not keep up with the premier forwards it can’t avoid in the playoffs. This is still a deep team, and should be making noise. But that depth doesn’t spike terribly high above the surface of the water, which has only been the problem there for four or five seasons.
L.A.: Strangely, they’re laughing about the Scuderi-for-Ehrhoff trade as much as we are, which makes me think it’s not going to work out for either side. I don’t know how Versteeg is going to fit in there unless Sutter is actually going to live with some of his Versteeg-ness, and that’s just not going to happen. If his acquisition means that Marian Gaborik isn’t coming back, then the Kings are just slightly worse than the version that I thought wasn’t good enough anyway. Unless they really think Vinny Lecavalier is going to be a help in the playoffs. They’ll go as far as Doughty and Kopitar can take them, which is pretty far. But they look just a bit too slow and dumb to beat the Hawks should it come to that. And I’m not thrilled by their bottom two lines either.
Anaheim: Speaking of dumb…
I suppose if I squint, and if John Gibson plays as well as he has for most of the season, this is the biggest threat. They didn’t do a whole lot, I don’t know if Pirri is actually going to play on this team or not when he’s healthy. They certainly didn’t trade for a coach who won’t shit himself when a series gets tight. They’d already made their big move with Perron who has annoyingly fit in well on the top line with the Lannister children. There are four lines here of competence. I still don’t buy their defense in the least because Bieksa is definitely going to set his and others’ eyebrows on fire at some point, however much I like Lindholm and Despres. And overall, this team is just too stupid in too many places to trust fully. Though I fully expect them to win the division now, that would still mean going through Los Angeles and we know how that’s going to work out in Games 6 and 7.
San Jose?: I’m basically putting them here because I like Joe Thornton that much, and they’re better than I thought they’d be. They’re an excellent road team, and their coach is actually quite good and can choke the life out of a lot of teams. They have a more solid top four than I realized, though I think Vlasic is doing a lot of heavy lifting for Braun. There’s certainly a more than useful top six, though they have to stop playing Marleau at center. I don’t know that they have the forward depth to throw a real scare into Anaheim or L.A. and they’ll have to beat both. But again, I wanted to be nice.
So as you can basically see, it’s all out there before the Hawks.