Free Agency in the West: Who is standing tall?

With the bulk of the trades and free agency being wrapped up for the most part, there have been plenty of big moves and subtle changes throughout the entire league. Although the Western Conference didn’t have such star-studded and power-shifting moves as the East with the fight for Richards and the return of a legend, Jaromir Jagr, there have been plenty of deals and inkings being worked out in the wild wild west. Here’s my take on the top five teams of the West to this date based on trades, re-signings, and free agent signings.

5. Edmonton Oilers – A team of youngsters and rookies gets some much needed back up.

Why? Well, Edmonton has talent. They really do. Despite the fact that they had a pretty horrendous season last year… and the year before that… and the year before that… etc etc. The problem is lack of experience. They’re just too young and lack the experience in the big league to get anything going for themselves. Thankfully this year they’re taking a step in the right direction by bringing in some grizzled veterans of the sport for some much needed back up and protection for their young talent with signings such as the gritty and energetic left-winger Ben Eager from San Jose, the toughness of left-winger Darcy Hordichuk from the Panthers, and the massive defenseman Andy Sutton from Anaheim. Also picked up in the mix were talented defenseman Cam Barker from Minnesota and center Eric Belanger from Phoenix.

Will they make the playoffs? Doubtful. They have the talent, and with the newly acquired experience and toughness they’re definitely moving forward, but I don’t see them being much of a contender for at least a few more seasons.

Will they be a cup contender? I don’t see it happening for a number of seasons down the road, and definitely not this season. I guess there is always the chance of a cinderella story, I just wouldn’t get my hopes too high.

4. Phoenix Coyotes – Re-signings, a dash of toughness, and a new hope in net.

Why? Phoenix is by no means a bad team. If anything they’re an extremely underrated team in the West, maybe the entire league. Even despite the financial struggles and various problems throughout the organization that has been a burden on the team’s back for the last few seasons, they’ve still managed to keep pushing forward and making things happen. They’ve already got some star power in captain/right-winger Shane Doan and defenseman Adrian Aucoin, and will also have some more star power returning this season after re-signing all-star defenseman Keith Yandle to a five-year deal as well as right-winger Radim Vrbata to a multi-year deal. Probably the biggest move the ‘Yotes made this year was ill-favored, that being star netminder Ilya Bryzgalov being traded away to the Flyers. Being that the Bryz was a huge reason the ‘Yotes did as well as they did last season, I still have hope for them in goaltender Mike Smith being signed on for a mult-year contract, along with a bit more toughness thrown in with the acquisition of tough guy left-winger Raffi Torres.

Will they make the playoffs? Last year the Coyotes made it to the playoffs only to be eliminated within the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. This was largely in part to the work of the Bryz between the pipes, but I don’t think his leaving will be the end of the Coyotes. Mike Smith definitely isn’t the best goalie out there, but I have faith that he can get the job done. I also can see the rest of the team stepping up their games as well, knowing that they don’t have a solid Bryz wall in front of the net. I can see them making it back into the playoffs this year assuming Mike Smith flips his career around and lives up to his expectations in net.

Will they be a cup contender? It’s hard to say right now. They have what it takes, but bringing in a new goaltender is a huge risk on the dynamics of a team. I can see them making the playoffs again this year, but I don’t see them going much farther than the first or second round again.

3. Dallas Stars – Star power in the Lone Star State.

Why? Why not? Dallas has a great line-up. They have the players they need to get the job done. They may not be the prettiest team in the conference, or the league for that matter, but they know how to play hockey and they’re capable of getting the job done. The already skillful line-up of the Dallas Stars will only be adding more to its fine collection this year, with the most notable signing being that of right-winger Michael Ryder after his great year with Boston last season. Also joining the Stars line-up this year will be former Chicago center Jake Dowell, skilled center Vernon Fiddler out of Phoenix, right-winger Radek Dvorak from Atlanta, and two more bodies on the blue-line in ex-Oiler Sheldon Souray and former Calgary defenseman Adam Pardy.

Will they make the playoffs? Last season the Stars came about as close as you possibly can to making the playoffs without actually doing so. The season came down to the very last game in which they needed to defeat the Minnesota Wild in order to steal away the final spot in the playoffs from the defending champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. They failed in doing so, but this year things could be much different. With the added power it’s hard to imagine them not making the playoffs.

Will they be a cup contender? Probably not. They have talent, quite a bit of it to be honest, but compared to the powerhouses that are Vancouver, Washington, Pittsburgh and so on, they still have a lot of work to do before they’ll be making an appearance in the finals.

2. Vancouver Canucks – Re-signings galore.

Why? The ‘Nucks are already a powerhouse. They don’t need to pick up anyone else to continue to be a heavily favored Cup contender for years to come. The loss of the talented and vital Christian Ehrhoff is but a minor dent on the surface of the winning machine that is Vancouver. Returning this season alongside the force of the Ryan Kesler and the Sedin twins comes the incredibly talented and notorious Kevin Bieksa after agreeing to a 5-year re-signing, the incredibly-annoying-to-other-teams center Maxime Lapierre, heavy hitting defensemen Andrew Alberts and Sami Salo, and left-winger Chris Higgins. Although they don’t need the new signings, the Canucks also picked up veteran left-winger Marco Sturm from the Capitals.

Will they make the playoffs? Does that even need to be asked? After their performance last season and despite being defeated in Game 7 of the finals by the Boston Bruins in an absolutely incredible battle, the Canucks are only going to come back hungrier than ever. There is no reason the Canucks shouldn’t make the playoffs again this year.

Will they be a cup contender? Most definitely. Again, after the season they had last year and only suffering minor losses in the off-season, everyone knows they’re going to come back fighting harder than ever for their first taste of cup glory in 41 years of operation in the NHL. The only thing stronger than the desire for a return to Stanley Cup glory is the desire for that first taste.

1. Chicago Blackhawks – Grit and the art of defending the core.

Just to clear things up off the bat, yes I am a Chicago Blackhawks fan. Born and raised. For life. But, I assure you that is not why I have chosen them as the ultimate winners of the West. I had a hard time making this decision. It came down to the Vancouver or Chicago, and I was stuck. But in the end I went with Chicago based off the fact that although Vancouver had some great signings, they were almost all re-signings where as the Blackhawks’ signings were new additions to the already powerful roster.

Why? This year is all about grit for the young and talented Blackhawks line-up, as anyone can see immediately while looking at the players they have picked up so far. Joining the star-studded line-up of such players including Johnathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Marian Hossa will be the rough-and-tumble former San Jose left-wing enforecer Jamal Mayers, veteran left-winger Andrew Brunette from Minnesota, center Brett McLean who has been playing in the Swiss league the last couple seasons, and also veteran defender Sean O’Donnell from the flyers. And then there’s the controversial signing in former Philadelphia instigator Dan Carcillo. Personally, still not sure how I feel about him playing for Chicago, but he adds some much needed grit they so desperately need. Besides the surprising Carcillo deal, the biggest splash Chicago made comes in the form of veteran defender Steve Montador. The former Buffalo blue-liner comes off a season leading the Sabres in blocked shots and brings plenty of experience, grit, and protection the core of the Blackhawks’ line-up. Also worth noting is the 3-year deal Corey Crawford inked with the Hawks earlier this year. Three more years of Crawsomeness, baby.

Will they make the playoffs? Chicago has made appearances consecutively in the last three seasons, and took home the Cup in the 2010 season. Just like Vancouver, there’s no reason they shouldn’t make it to the playoffs this year despite barely scraping by last season. The young talent has another year under their belts, and with the added grit and experience, the Hawks should be a force for years to come.

Will they be cup contenders? I like to think they will. Of course I’m a Blackhawks fan and want to see them be a contender every year, I think they have what it takes to go back for more Cup glory this season. New players are starting to click, experience has been gained, new stars are shining in Ben Smith and Nick Leddy, and the worry between the pipes has seemingly been solved. Any one of the next few seasons could see Chicago return to the finals and take home another championship.

Keep in mind these are personal opinions and there is still a lot of time before the season even starts to see other big moves around the conference, and throughout the league. Anything can happen this season, just as any season, and I’m as excited as ever to see what happens over the course of the next eight months.