The San Jose Sharks ended the Chicago Blackhawks’ and Los Angeles Kings’ battle to be the Western Conference champions last postseason, earning a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. San Jose lost the series to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but put the NHL on notice that they are back as a top contending team in the Western Conference.
The 2016 postseason included a changing of the guard, as none of the final four Western Conference teams remaining had won a playoff series since 2013, and none of the four had made the Conference Final since the Sharks did in 2011. Recent years have seen the Blackhawks and Kings regularly dominate the Western Conference, serving as the two “must-beat” teams in the league. Now the Sharks will look to take over that mantle, but until they prove they can, the league appears to be wide open.
Looking at the Blackhawks and Kings, the pair of teams appear to be moving backward rather than forward. Both teams exited the postseason in the first round in 2016, while the Kings missed the playoffs the year prior. Chicago’s offense has lost key pieces in Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, and Teuvo Terravainen in the past few of offseasons, while the Kings have seen Milan Lucic, Slava Voynov, and Justin Williams exit the organization for various reasons.
While the teams have attempted to restock their cupboards by signing undrafted talents or finding cheap replacement options, the likes of Richard Panik cannot be used to replace Brandon Saad, for example. With the mega-extensions being handed out to Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Toews, their respective organizations are dealing with salary cap issues and depth issues as a result. The lethal organizations are now stumbling giants, ready to be knocked down for good.
Perhaps the team Patrick Sharp was dealt to, the Dallas Stars, or the regular season Western Conference runner-up Anaheim Ducks could become new giants in the West.
The Stars finished with the most points for good reason — their offense was filled with firepower and their defense was anchored by the impressive duo of Alex Goligoski. However, heading into the 2016-17 campaign, Dallas lost Goligoski in free agency, saw Jason Demers leave for the Florida Panthers, and did nothing to solve their goaltending conundrum that cost them in the postseason.
The Stars did add Jiri Hudler to the mix, but the losses on defense and lack of a goaltending solution points to a step back, not forward.
As for the Ducks, Anaheim hired Randy Carlyle as their new Head Coach, signed Antoine Vermette, and lost Frederik Andersen, Jamie McGinn, David Perron, and Brandon Pirri. While they appeared to be on the rise as recently as last April, Anaheim appears to be trending in the wrong direction.
Of the 2016 playoff teams, only the Sharks, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators remain. Taking a look at the Minnesota Wild, the hockey state’s team let Thomas Vanek go, replacing him with Eric Staal. A cosmetic move for a team that squeaked into the postseason should not make enough of a difference to label the Wild as a Western heavyweight, though the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as Head Coach could be a key maneuver.
San Jose and Nashville met in the second round of the playoffs, and the two teams could find themselves as the strongest contenders to take over the west. The Predators swapped out Shea Weber for superstar defenseman P.K. Subban, improving the team that finished with the best season in franchise history.
Nashville boasts eight forwards and five defensemen under the age of 30, and did nothing to worsen their chances this offseason. Their standing should rest on the shoulders of Pekka Rinne, a tall task for the declining goaltender.
San Jose will see the final year of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton’s contracts play out at the same time as their young talent hope to win regular spots in the lineup. Martin Jones has proven to be a top NHL goaltender, Brent Burns will be looking to win the Norris in his contract year, and Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl, and company are only improving.
Like Nashville, San Jose managed to maintain the majority of their roster from last season, so they should expect to compete as well as they did. If there is a giant in the Western Conference, it is the San Jose Sharks, but the West appears to be wide open.