Last week the Netminders took a look at the frontrunners, underdogs and sleepers in the Eastern Conference. Now, with the 2013 NHL season almost a week old, we will take a look at those who are expected to make a splash in the Western Conference, as well as those who will struggle and those who will be on the bubble.

WIN: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago has placed themselves back in contention for a major Stanley Cup run in 2013. Their top offensive foursome, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa have already combined for 23 points and a collective +6 goal differential, with Toews himself at +4.

Secondary scoring has chipped in for the Hawks as well. Center Dave Bolland has found the back of the net twice and had added a helper for 3 points in 4 games, while Brian Bickell has added two assists.

While the offence seems to be firing on all cylinders, the Blackhawks defense is downright scary. Having a defensive core of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Michael Rozsival is never a bad thing, and when 4 of your top 10 scorers are blue liners, fans know thing are looking good.

Oduya currently leads the Hawks in the plus/minus category at +5.

Additionally, D man Nick Leddy, who was drafted 16th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2009, is showing his true potential with the Blackhawks. Last year, Leddy had 3 goals and 34 assists in his sophomore season. This season, the Eden Prairie, MN native leads all defensemen with 4 points (all assists).

Even goaltending is showing up for Chicago this season. Although it is early, young backstop Corey Crawford is tied in wins with Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and San Jose’s Antti Niemi, each with 3 wins. Crawford is also posting an impressive 1.98 goals against average and 0.923 save percentage.

From the top down, the Chicago Blackhawks look great early in the 2013 season. They are certainly going to be a threat in the Western Conference and should be considered for a Stanley Cup run this year.

 

LOSE: Calgary Flames

The flame seems to have burned out for fans in Calgary as the team has begun 2013 with yet another sluggish start. The Flames, who haven’t seen the post season since 2009 look as if they will miss the playoffs again this year, as they have gone 0-2-1 to begin their 2013 campaign.

Despite being impressive on paper, the Flames’ defensive lineup has been unable to keep the puck out of their net. They squad currently sits in a 27th place tie with Detroit and Vancouver in goals against per game, averaging 3.67 each outing. Not one player on the Flames roster is above 0 in the plus/minus category, and go-to defensemen Jaw Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano have combined for a depressing – 7 in that area.

Flames goaltending has not fared any better this season. Once great net minder Miikka Kiprusoff has given up 11 goals on 89 shots this season, leaving him with a goal against average of 3.59. In this area, “Kipper,” is currently ranked 37th in a list of 48 goaltenders who have seen ice time so far this season, and he ranks 39th of 48 in save percentage (0.876).

The Flames’ problems between the pipes don’t end there. The team’s current backup goaltender, 24-year-old Leland Irving, has not started a game this season and has only started in 7 NHL games with a 1-3-3 record. Their only other options include AHL affiliate Abbottsford Heat goaltenders Barry Brust or Danny Taylor, or trying to pull Karri Ramo from Avangard Omsk of the KHL.

Brust has only 11 NHL games under his belt, going 2-4-1 with 3.70 goals against and 0.878 save percentage. Taylor’s only NHL experience came back in the 2007/2008 season, when he played a mere 20 minutes for the Los Angeles Kings and walked away with a 6.00 goals against average.

Ramo has 48 games of NHL experience, but has gone 11-21-0-10 with a dismaying 0.895 save percentage.

It appears that the Flames are going to have to make some major changes if they are going to succeed in the near future. The Sutter brothers likely saw what was forthcoming and this could have enticed them to pack up and get out of the Stampede City. Today, modifications from the office to the roster are the only way the Flames can get back into the win column. The franchise needs to let go of players such as Jerome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Mike Cammalleri in order to turn the page and get back to the post-season.

 

DRAW: Minnesota Wild

Over the past several years, the Minnesota Wild have done everything in their power to again make NHL hockey work in the North Star State, and they have done it the right way; by acquiring some big-name hockey talent. St. Paul rolled out the red carpet, snatching sniper Zach Parise away from New Jersey, and adding Ryan Suter from Nashville to the tune of $196 million.

Entering the 2103 season, the Wild look to be an offensive powerhouse featuring Parise, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu, and Kyle Brodziak. Adding in youngster Mikael Granlund to the mix only serves to improve the group, as these six players have combined for 14 points in their first three games.

Goaltending also looks to be in good form for the coming season. While not touted as the greatest goaltending duo in NHL history, backstops Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are one of the most quietly consistent tandems in the league today. In splitting the duties, Backstrom has recorded 2 wins and 2.52 goals against, while Josh Harding has been perfect in his 1 start this season, shutting out Dallas on January 20.

The two net minders have been equally consistent throughout their NHL careers. Backstrom holds a record of 161-110-0-42 in his career and boasts a career .918 save percentage. While not quite as impressive, Harding sports a 42-51-0-8 record, but has maintained a .916 save percentage to date.

The challenge facing the Minnesota Wild this season is going to be their defensive squad. Yes, the franchise has signed Ryan Suter to a 13-year deal that ensures an anchor on their blue line until 2025. The problem is that the Wild have gambled so much on their offense that they have neglected to see an opening hole on the back end.

The Wild currently have 4 defensemen 24-years of age or under, with 2012 first round draft pick Mathew Dumba a boyish 18- year- old. Dumba himself has not even played yet but the relative inexperience on the blue line may cause problems for the Wild this season. Only two of six defensemen are above 0 in the plus/minus category, and only 2 points have been scored by their D men (Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon have 1 assist each).

While the Wild are unbeaten in their first three games, defense (with the exception of Suter) is likely to be average at best. Minnesota does have the capability of making a run for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2013, and very much have the talent to have a storybook season just as the Kings had last year. I would expect the team to place middle of the pack or lower in the regular season, but their talent could also make them a favorite if they are to make the post-season.

 

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