Saturday, April 10, 2010

On the Road to Nowhere, Part 2: The Western Conference

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict! A few days ago we talked about all the non-playoff teams in the East, giving them all one last look before everyone completely forgets their existence (barring any GM or coach firings, of course). Many of the outlooks for the Eastern teams looked particularly grim; of the 5 teams we covered, only the Carolina Hurricanes were rated as having a High chance of returning to the post-season next year. Tampa Bay & Toronto came in with Moderate ratings, while Florida & the Islanders were rated Low. Today, as we look at the non-playoff teams in the West, we will once again see how the conference is so much better than the East. Consider this: the Dallas Stars, who are 12th in the West, would be tied for the final playoff spot in the East. The 9th place Calgary Flames would not just be in the playoffs, but would actually be in 6th! This of course speaks to the dominance of the West in intra-conference play this season. When you consider that the West has a staggering FIVE teams with at least 100 points and the East only has one, it makes it all the more impressive.

Of the teams who missed last year, almost all of them save maybe Edmonton will have a decent chance to make it back to the playoffs. That’s little consolation to the players, but they can be rest assured, next year they could be playing playoff hockey again instead of golf. Of course, you also have to wonder, of eight teams who are in this year, who is going to miss next year? The powerhouses (San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver, even Detroit who would have been higher without all the injuries) all have their franchise players locked-up for the foreseeable future. The rest of the teams are, for the most part, very young teams who are only going to get better. Of course, we all said the same things last year about St. Louis & Columbus and both of them managed to drop out, so anything can happen. Still, when you look at that top 8 and try to think who might miss next year, there’s really no one who jumps out at you, and that’s a problem for all of the teams we’ll be talking about today.

We’ll be looking at three areas for each team: first, before we can discuss their future prospects, we’ll take a look back at just went so terribly wrong this season. Then, we’ll look at what they SHOULD do to try and get things turned around in the off-season. Finally, we’ll rate their chances of making the playoffs next year as either High, Moderate, or Low.

Calgary Flames
(40-31-10, 90 points, 9th in East, 4th in Northwest, 29th in Offense, 4th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: This team is by far the easiest when it comes to why they won’t be playing playoff hockey this year. Simply put, the Calgary Flames could not put the little, round black object into the big white net, and considering that’s the point of this sport of ours, that would in fact be a problem. Calgary’s GM Daryl Sutter made blunder after blunder, starting with trading away Matthew Lombardi and their first-round pick to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen at last year’s trade deadline. To justify his decision to trade for Jokinen and allow him to sign free-agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, Sutter then allowed Mike Cammalleri (he of the 39 goals) to walk right on over to Montreal for nothing in free agency. Of course, losing 39 goals is hard enough for any team to overcome, but Sutter probably assumed a full year of Jokinen and acquiring Bouwmeester (who hit the elusive 15-goal mark for a defenseman 3 times in Florida) would equal, if not surpass, Cammy’s totals. Guess what? He was wrong. Jokinen had just 12 goals before he was shipped off to the Rangers just before the Olympic break, in exchange for another forward who lost his scoring touch in Chris Higgins and the 3 million dollar-a-year-for-2-more-years Ales Kotalik. The deal was even more absurd when you realize that Kotalik had been a healthy scratch for almost 10 games in a row prior to the deal; Rangers fans rejoiced that 6 million dollars came off the books in exchange for a pending-UFA, while Flames fans groaned.

It was not the first time Flames fans had groaned that weekend, either. Dion Phaneuf, he of the NHL 09 cover and the Norris trophy nomination at just 20 years old, was traded to Toronto. In exchange for Luke Schenn, maybe? The rights to Nazem Kadri? No, that would imply Toronto gave up something they had an intention of keeping. Instead, Calgary received the proverbial bag of pucks. For a guy who, despite a couple of so-so seasons, still carries with him the potential to be a franchise defenseman, the Flames took third-line center Matt Stajan, woefully inconsistent scorer Niklas Hagman, aging 4th liner Jamal Meyers, and a decent but undersized defenseman who was admittedly having a career year in Ian White. Of course, Calgary was so impressed with this package of free agents Burke had no intention of resigning anyway that they threw in one of their best prospects and a very useful third-to-fourth liner too. The excuse given was they wanted to finally find a center to play with Jarome Iginla; in response to this explanation, Flames fans everywhere asked “So why in God’s name did you trade for MATT FRIGGIN’ STAJAN, dipshits?” Of course, Stajan didn’t come close to playing well with Iginla, and for this abject failure he was swiftly punished with a 14-million dollar contract, only about 13.5 million more than any sane person would give to Matt Stajan.

You’ll notice that we’ve yet to mention Jay Bouwmeester since we talked about his signing. That’s because the 15-goal man currently sits at just THREE goals in his first year with the Flames, going scoreless from November to March. Calgary’s defensive system choked all of the offense right after him, and suddenly the Flames found themselves, at 6.8 million, paying him almost 2.5 million per goal! Even poor Jarome Iginla finally cracked, coming up dry in 9 straight games down the stretch.

Add all this up and you have possibly one of the most disastrous years in the history of any franchise. Yeah, 9th place is certainly respectable in a conference where the 8th place team has 94 points, but now the damage has been done. The Flames are stuck with a team that can’t score, very little room under the cap to solve the problem, and a cupboard that isn’t just bare but has spider webs hanging inside. This is a team that has all the potential to be one of the worst teams in the NHL for a good half-decade. Only by the grace of Miika Kiprusoff (who might as well be God as far as the Flames fans are concerned) and his Vezina-like season did the Flames avoid finishing much, much worse.

What should they do now?: Well, now that I’ve finished writing a small book on Calgary’s horrific season, I suppose it’s time to discuss what they should do next. First of all, they must satisfy the Flames’ passionate fanbase and their thirst for blood. GM Daryl Sutter being shown the door should be a given, but there should be a good, long look taken at letting his brother Brent go as head coach as well. While it’s true he only had a single season to work with this team and they never seemed to buy 100% into his system, the fact remains that his system is a problem to begin with. We are currently in the middle of the most wide-open era in NHL hockey since the early ‘90s; defense-first just can’t get it done anymore. If you look at the top 10 defensive teams in the NHL as far as the GAA/per game goes, most of the top 10 are there not because they play a waiting, clog-up-the-neutral-zone kind of game. Rather, almost everyone has copied Detroit. Puck possession is preached above all else, with the idea being very simple: if you’re always in their end taking it to them offensively, how are they ever going to score? Of course the argument is always there that they don’t have the personnel to play that kind of game, and it’s true to a point. But I guarantee you that if Jay Bouwmeester was given the opportunity to join the rush and make plays the way he was in Florida, he would be right back at that 15-goal range. Considering it’s generally not a good idea to sign defensemen to 6.8 million dollar deals for three goals, getting him going again should be a huge priority.

Regardless of what happens to the coach, once Daryl Sutter is fired and someone else is brought in, patience must be stressed and chance must be made. This is a team that has spent the past 5 years living off the reputation of their magical 2004 run from 8th place to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. While they’ve made the playoffs every year since then, they have also been knocked out in the first round every single one of those years. Coaches have been changed more often than some people change underwear. The fact that they finally took the next step down and missed the playoffs entirely this year should really come as no surprise, even though many pundits picked them to do more. The Phaneuf trade was a partial admission that something about that locker room just wasn’t right, but it’s clearly not enough. Considering they will go into this year’s draft without picks in the first two rounds and next year’s draft without a first-rounder as well, it is time to tear this thing down and rebuild. Without their draft picks this will have to be another Toronto-style unconventional rebuild, and they are not in the same position as Toronto to be able to sign coveted undrafted free agents. Instead, it’s time to do what was previously unfathomable and trade Jarome Iginla. Not only would you give the 32-year-old a legitimate shot at winning a Stanley Cup (something it doesn’t look like he’ll have anytime soon in Calgary), but you’d hopefully recoup a first-round pick and/or a top offensive prospect, as well. With all that sad, I highly doubt anything like that will happen. The Flames will point to how close they were and stand pat, a mistake in the long-run.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. Like I said, I’m expecting them NOT to go down the rebuild road, even though that’s what they really need for the long-term health of the franchise. Assuming there’s no rebuild (yet), any team with Miika Kiprusoff will always have at least a decent shot at making the playoffs. But considering how many good young teams there are in the West, I wouldn’t place any bets on it.

St. Louis Blues
(40-32-9, 89 points, 10th in West, 4th in Central, 17th in Offense, 13th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Of all the teams who missed the playoffs this year, in both conferences, the Blues are perhaps the toughest ones to figure out. St. Louis rallied late in the season last year to make the playoffs as the single best team in the NHL in the second-half of the season, got swept by the Canucks in the first round, and promptly came out of the gate almost as slowly this year. The weirdest thing of all is they had one of the best road records in the NHL, and yet the single worst home record. It was this home record that got Andy Murray fired as head coach despite finishing as a runner-up for the Jack Adams award just one season earlier. After rookie coach Davis Payne came up from the minors, he turned the team around somewhat in the same way other young coaches have found success all over the NHL, but ultimately there just wasn’t another magical second-half run in this team. Too many of their rookies who were so great last year had the traditional Sophomore Jinx (which should probably have Colorado Avalanche fans scared considering they’re the team in the top 8 carried primarily by rookies this year), and not enough of their aging veterans played well enough to make up for it.

What should they do now?: Not a whole hell of a lot, actually. Their kids will get every chance to rekindle that rookie magic next year, and until they start having a weak third year it’s not time to panic and assume they won’t be able to do it. They have one of the best one-two punches in net in the entire league, a young defenseman who looks like a star in the making in Erik Johnson, and a prospect cupboard that is still stocked pretty well from all their years of being bad-to-awful. Keith Tkachuk has already confirmed his retirement following the season and a few others could follow, opening up more roster spots for those young players. Their best plan of action is to probably write this season off as an anomaly and give their young guys another shot to get it done before making any drastic changes. It’s not like they even missed by that much this year, anyway.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. It’s going to be really hard to get a High out of me for any team in the West, just because of how strong the conference is top-to-bottom, but of all the moderate-ranked teams the Blues are the closest to High. If they get the kind of goaltending they got this year plus a quick and painless shaking-off of the various sophomore jinxes, they will not only be back in the post-season next year, but they should be able to make a bit more noise this time, as well. Unlike another team who’s missing with the word “Blue” in their name, last year wasn’t a mirage. This is still a good, young team with a ton of upside.

Anaheim Ducks
(38-32-11, 87 points, 4th in Pacific, 11th in West, 12th in Offense, 22nd in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Everyone knew the defense of Anaheim, legendary in its stinginess that largely carried them to bring the entire state of California its first Stanley Cup in ‘06-07, was going to take a huge hit with the trade of Chris Pronger. But can anyone honestly say they expected this team to drop all the way down to TWENTY-SECOND in the league defensively? That’s not just a drop, that’s a freefall. All year long this team failed to maintain leads and lost games they should have won at home, and ultimately it cost them a playoff spot. This year wasn’t a total bust, however. Giguere’s monstrous contract was taken off the books thanks to Toronto and when all three were healthy, the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line was one of the best in the NHL. This is a team that struggled to find secondary scoring all year long, but when Teemu Selanne & Saku Koivu were both actually in the lineup at the same time, they largely managed to rekindle their Finnish Olympic team chemistry after a slow start, giving them a second-line threat down the stretch to the point where Teemu managed to hit the 600-goal mark and surpass childhood idol Jari Kurri (which for Ducks fans used to being in the playoff hunt this time of year was a welcome distraction). By then it was too little, too late, but there’s still plenty of reasons to like this team’s chances going forward. That is, of course….

What should they do now?: …..if their veterans want to come back and play one more year. No indication has been given one way or another if the trio of Scott Neidermayer and the aforementioned Finnish Flash & his Finnish Friend will return. So really we have to give two answers here: if they come back, again this is a team I don’t do much to outside of the odd tinker here or there. With a full year of secondary scoring and trade deadline pick-up Lubomir Visnovsky (who played really well for them down the stretch), I would expect this team to make the playoffs. If the triumvirate of indecision decides not to come back (and I fully expect there to be a domino effect here where if one announces their retirement, the other two will quickly follow, and vice-versa), however, it’s probably best to unload some of their other veteran pieces and make a go at a real rebuild here. Considering they will have two picks in the first round of the next two drafts thanks to the Pronger trade, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy rebuild, either; especially if prospect Luca Sbisa, picked up from Philly in that same trade, is ready to go at the NHL level full-time within a season or two.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Look above at the same two-pronged answer: High if the aging trio comes back, Low if they don’t. I just don’t see how this team replaces the secondary scoring of Selanne & Koivu and the veteran presence of Neidermayer in one summer, and even with all three of them they narrowly missed this year. If they keep them and Selanne & Koivu have healthier campaigns, they will more than likely be a playoff team again. If they decide to walk away, because the prospect cupboards are relatively bare, it will probably be a long season for them. But again, with two picks in the first rounds of the next two drafts, they’d be in pretty good shape to start filling those cupboards up relatively quickly.

Dallas Stars
(36-31-14, 86 points, 5th in Pacific, 12th in West, 11th in Offense, 23rd in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: A lot of the same things that went wrong for Anaheim, actually. This is another former defensive powerhouse that suddenly found themselves in the bottom-third of the league in GAA/per game. Despite a good offense, they couldn’t overcome their problems defensively and their incredible inconsistency. Dallas was the only team in the entire NHL who failed to have at least a three-game winning streak at any point in the season. They were the definition of mediocrity; win two, lose two, win one, lose one. It went on like that for the entire season. The fanbase, once looked at as a shining example of the NHL’s success in the south, largely stopped caring, and both live attendance and TV ratings suffered greatly. The problem is, Dallas is a HUGE market with a ton of options for fans’ sport & entertainment dollar, so a hockey team that’s nearly 8 million dollars below the salary cap and clearly not doing all it can to win right now is going to turn many of them off. The problem is, owner Tom Hicks is having serious financial difficulty and suddenly finds himself unable to maintain his previous commitment to winning (and spending the money it takes to do so). In the end, Dallas had some good pieces, but they seem to have been stuck all season long in a limbo between a young and hungry team and a complacent veteran team. Not a good place to be, to be sure.

What should they do now?: Rebuild, and that’s exactly what it appears first-year GM Joe Nieuwendyk is doing as we speak. He traded for the injury-prone but still full of potential former 1st overall pick Kari Lehtonen from Atlanta, clearly indicating veteran backstopper Marty Turco won’t be back next season. Other veterans like Mike Modano (who had a very touching tribute shown on the screen during the Stars’ last home game Thursday, resulting in a nearly three-minute-long standing ovation from the 18,000 fans in attendance that brought him to tears) are strongly considering retirement. Now it’s time to trade away some of the guys with attitude problems (yeah, that’s you Mike Riberio) and some of the underachieving veterans, and really tank next year. It’s the right move and I fully expect it to happen. There just isn’t enough talent or youth on this team right now to compete in a Western conference that’s suddenly become about young talent over everything else.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. Like I said, it will likely be a rebuild year for these Stars, and that means not coming even this close to making the playoffs. Don’t let their point total fool you: they were almost never really in the race since December or January. The only thing they did was lessen their own draft position, and next year they will probably look to avoid that by stripping this team down and starting over.

Minnesota Wild
(38-36-7, 83 points, 4th in Northwest, 13th in West, 20th in Offense, 21st in Defense)

What went wrong?: Before we talk about the season that was in the State of Hockey, it’s important to get a few disclaimers out of the way first. This team was pretty much the exact opposite of Dallas: where Dallas’ record looked better than it actually was, Minnesota’s looked worse. They were battered by injuries down the stretch and lost more games than they probably would have if so many of their top guys weren’t out injured. Many will point to the way former coach Jacques Lemaire guided the Devils towards another Atlantic division title while Minnesota’s new offense-first approach failed to ignite it past 20th and crippled their former defensive prowess. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Devils won the Atlantic before Lemaire got there last year, too; the real test of his mettle in 2010 as a coach will come in the playoffs, where the Devils and their defense-first philosophy has struggled since the lock-out (two 2nd round exits followed by 2 1st round exits). Stressing offense and puck possession is clearly the right way to go long-term, but to do it successfully you need your best player to have a much better start than Martin Havlat did. Letting Marian Gaborik, injury-prone as he may be, walk for nothing to the Rangers certainly hurt them too; he set a new career-high in points (86) and matched a career-high in goals (42). Add those numbers to Minnesota’s offense, which was bolstered significantly by the renaissance of former Hab Guillaume Latendresse, and they’d be one goal ahead of the San Jose Sharks for 4th in the West in goals for/per game. Without Gaborik and with Havlat’s early-season struggles (he picked up his play in a big way in the second-half after coming back from an injury), they simply did not have the firepower to get it done in the Western conference.

What should they do now?: Look around and find some more offense in the off-season. Cam Barker was a great pick-up from the Blackhawks at the trade deadline- he’s a young, offensively gifted defenseman, just the kind of guy the Wild desperately needed on their blueline. He’s been injured for most of his stay with the Wild so far, but I think with a full year of him playing first- or second-pair minutes, you can count on him to chip in 10 to 15 goals. Add another top 6 forward through either trade, free agency, or their own (slowly restocking) system, and this becomes a team that’s at least knocking on the door of a playoff spot. Luckily for the Wild, goalie Nicklas Backstrom’s numbers didn’t drop off nearly as badly as some people thought they would without Lemaire’s trapping system in front of him, so at least they can be reasonably confident they’ll get the goaltending they need to make a run at it again next year.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. The biggest concern for the Wild will be finding that top 6 forward they need, as it’s a pretty weak free-agent class this year. Signing Ilya Kovalchuk is probably not financially feasible even if he wanted to come to Minnesota (and he doesn’t), and there’s simply not a lot of pure goal-scorers behind him. If they manage to get that top 6 forward, a full year of Barker, Latendresse doesn’t turn out to be a one-hit wonder, and Havlat gets off to a better start, they will likely be a playoff team. Problem is, those are way too many ifs to give them a High ranking, but I like their chances. Certainly the rabid hockey fans of Minnesota, who have kept the insane sellout streak at Xcel Energy Center alive even with back-to-back lost seasons, deserve it.

Columbus Blue Jackets
(32-35-15, 79 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West, 19th in Offense, 24th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: After teasing this team as a mirage when talking about the Blues all the way back at 10th, now I can explain just why the Blue Jackets flamed out in far more spectacular fashion. Like their Central division counterparts from St. Louis, the Jackets also went from surprise playoff team last year to missing the post-season this year. However, the similarities between the two teams are far outweighed by the differences. To understand why the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs this year, one has to understand why they made the playoffs last year, and his name is Steve Mason. The NHL’s Calder trophy winner last season, Mason had an amazing rookie season. While Ken Hitchcock, coach of the team at the time, got a great deal of the credit for guiding the Jackets to their first playoff berth in their decade-long existence, in actuality we can see now that almost all of that credit belonged to Mason. The problem is, rookie goaltenders have a long history in the NHL of having incredible rookie seasons and then dropping off the face of the Earth for the rest of their careers. There’s a reason why no one in Washington remembers Jim Carey and the people of Toronto are still trying to forget Andrew Raycroft (who, to his credit, played probably his best season since his rookie campaign backing up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, which probably has a great deal to do with the utter lack of pressure that position comes with). Both goalies had fantastic rookie seasons and immediately followed that up with horrible year after horrible year. When it comes to goaltenders, it can often be more than your typical sophomore jinx. Rather, for whatever reason, there’s a long pattern of goalies never getting close to the level they played at in those magical rookie seasons.

Now, with all that said, once Hitchcock was finally fired and all the pressure of having even a shot in hell at making the playoffs was off Mason’s shoulders, he did play a LOT more like the rookie sensation for the rest of this season. The problem now is no one knows whether or not he’ll be able to get back to that level when the games start again. What we all learned is a lesson we should have all known as hockey fans to begin with: goaltending is not just the most important position in hockey, but arguably the most important position in all of sports, and it can provide a mirage of an overall team game that’s a lot better than it actually is. True, the Jackets bought into Hitchcock’s defense-first system somewhat better than they did this year, but that kind of defense-first mentality is going to end up falling on deaf ears on your skilled players anyway. This is especially true when the aforementioned message is delivered ham-over-fist by one of the most legendarily hard-assed coaches hockey’s ever seen. For a team that has drafted pretty badly for most of the decade, it’s ill-advised to drive off your latest first-round pick, especially when they have as much raw offensive talent as a Nikita Filatov. But Hitchcock rode Filatov hard throughout the first-half of the NHL season for not playing well defensively, overlooking the dynamic offensive presence he could have (and arguably SHOULD have) brought to a hockey team that desperately needed it. Add that up to an even more significant sophomore jinx than usual for young center Derrick Brassard, who went from averaging more than a point-a-game in his injury-shortened rookie campaign to falling to around 30 points during a full season, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a disastrous year. The team in general played better once Claude Noel was brought up for the minors to replace Hitchcock on an interim basis, but going from a hard-ass coach like Hitch to a player’s coach like Noel is always going to result in an early jump. This is especially true for a team whose playoff hopes were already fantasy by then. No one’s fooling for the mirage this time.

What should they do now?: Honestly? I haven’t the slightest idea. The Jackets are one of the most poorly-run franchises not just in hockey but in all of major sports. Their drafting and talent-developing has been awful. You’d think that a full decade out of the playoffs other than last year (and it’s not like they were picking 29th overall when they were promptly swept out of the first round by the Red Wings, either) would have resulted in more than one franchise player, and unless Mason completely reverts back to his rookie form (which as we mentioned is, historically, highly unlikely), you’d be wrong. This is a team that is screaming out for a franchise blueliner, and yet none of their homegrown talent would crack one of the first two pairings on a good team. Barring a miraculous return to form for Mason & Brassard next year, they will probably have no choice in what they do next. They will continue to be a bad team, and they will try to get better mileage out of their high draft choices. The problem of that is, being in the West is going to hurt where they draft, since the West is always so much better than the East. Even though they are second-to-last in the Western conference, if the season ended today they would likely be drafting 6th overall. Luckily for them this year’s class is fairly deep in talent, but the top 5 is still the strongest we’ve seen in probably 5 years, and barring a draft lottery shocker, they would likely just miss out on it. Not a good thing for a team in desperate need of some young talent. The fans in Ohio want to support a good hockey team, but there’s no reason to believe this franchise won’t continue to leave them out in the cold.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. I just don’t see a way for this team to leapfrog all of the other teams above them who AREN’T in the playoffs this year, let alone any of the top 8. I suppose it’s possible if Mason & Brassard both rebound and they can get production from their backend (one of the most important parts of being a good team in today’s NHL, and the Jackets rank in the bottom 5 in the league), but it’s definitely far from likely. This is just a hockey team that’s not particularly good at anything, offense or defense, and that’s a recipe for disaster when you play in the same division as the powerhouse Blackhawks, the still-great Red Wings, the solid-as-a-rock Predators, and the young and hungry Blues. I can’t see this team making it back to the playoffs anytime soon.

Edmonton Oilers
(26-46-8, 60 points, 5th in Northwest, 15th in West, 27th in Offense, 30th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: The real question when it comes to the 2009-2010 Oilers is, what DIDN’T go wrong? This was not a particularly great team to begin with- they had one Cinderella run in the 05-06 season coming out of the lockout, going in as the 8th seed and going all the way to Game 7 of the Cup finals (ironically the very same thing their southern Alberta rivals in Calgary did in 03-04 right BEFORE the lockout). Thinking this was a team he had to keep together so they could make another run at the Cup in the future, then-GM Kevin Lowe went utterly insane, signing everyone he could to bloated, ridiculous contracts. Now, there should be a disclaimer here: people really do not want to play in Edmonton, so the fact that they had to overpay to keep guys like Shawn Horcoff coming out of their Cup run should come as no surprise. The problem is, this core wasn’t worth keeping together to begin with, and without stud blueliner Chris Pronger (who reportedly forced the hand of management to deal him to a warmer climate in order to appease his wife, making her the most hated woman in Edmonton in the process; Pronger, of course, went on to immediately help the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup) this was just not a very good hockey team. They proceeded to miss the playoffs every year since, though it was usually by a narrow margin.

Now take that mediocre team and give half of them the swine flu, have their newly signed starting goaltender injure his back mere weeks into the season and miss the entire rest of the campaign, and have their star forward tear his ACL in November for good measure. Guess what that equals? If you said “the worst team in hockey and very nearly the worst team in franchise history”, you’re right! If you said “aforementioned goalie gets a DUI”, well, you’re right too. There isn’t much else to say about the Oilers. They were not a good team. About the only bright spot was Dustin Penner FINALLY scoring at the same pace he scored at for Anaheim when Lowe made the offer-sheet that would get him ridiculed by Brian Burke (then GM of the Ducks, of course) for years to come.

What should they do?: I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this answer by now, but it’s rebuild time in Edmonton. Luckily for Oiler fans, they already have a bit of a head start. Several of their prospects are already turning heads in the lower leagues and competitions. Jordan Eberle dazzled for the Canadian team in this year’s World Junior tournament, while last year’s first-round pick Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson is having a good rookie campaign in the Swedish Elite League playing with men. In addition, the Oilers will finish the season in 30th, so they will likely pick first and will definitely pick no lower than 2nd should another team win the lottery. That means no matter what happens, they will get a chance to draft a rookie sensation in Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, two players who are expected to jump into an NHL lineup and immediately make them much, much better. They are being called possibly the best 1-2 to go in a draft since Ovechkin and Malkin in 2004, so obviously there’s a ton of potential there. Of course, if they draft first and have to choose between them, that’s a choice that will be second-guessed for years, especially if the one they don’t pick clearly outperforms his counterpart in the first few seasons. But this is still a team with a lot of good, young prospects, and more help is clearly coming.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. Of all the teams in both conferences, the only one I can look at and say “You will not make the playoffs next year.” is the Oilers. You can point at Colorado and Phoenix rising from 15th and 14th into playoff position this year all you want, but the fact of the matter is, neither of those two teams were tied down with utterly ludicrous contracts like this Oilers team. They are paying a bunch of third- and fourth-line guys first- and second-line money, and that’s a recipe for disaster in today’s salary cap world. The Oilers will be hard-pressed to move any of those contracts, and they don’t have the financial muscle of a Toronto team required to bury these contracts in the minors. Even if they had money to spend, last year’s Dany Heatley fiasco reminded everyone that almost no one ever chooses to play for the Oil, which also necessitates a slow, in-house rebuilding project. Next year may see some immediate improvement from adding Hall or Seguin, hopefully getting the Bulin Wall rebuilt, and getting Ales Hemsky back in their lineup. But asking this team to go all the way back to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons coming off this disastrous campaign is likely asking more than a little too much. Still, those contracts will start to come off the books in a few seasons, and once those awful deals and bad veterans have been flushed out of their system, this could be the next young team to build a contender through the draft in the same vain as the Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks, and others who are on their way there already. Two to three years from now, the Oilers may finally become the Northwest division-winning team many had pegged them to be going into the 08-09 year.

Alright folks, it’s rejoicing time, because this incredibly long blogumn (that’s John Buccigross’ saying and I kinda love it) is finally over! I hope you’ve learned something about the 7 teams who are not going to be in the playoffs in the Western conference this season, because barring a major firing, they will likely never be spoken of again here until it’s time for next season’s preview.

The playoffs are almost here, and I’m sure you can all taste it. To help you gear up for the nonstop thrill ride that is playoff hockey, we’ll be back with a new blog as soon as the playoff match-ups are set (late Sunday). I’m also excited to announce the return of CIA Radio, a podcast I briefly headed up last season. We’ll be returning Monday night at 9 pm EST, and I’ll make sure to post the live Talkshoe link on here and on my Twitter & Facebook accounts so you can join us to talk all the playoff match-ups. You’ll hear not just my opinion on who’s going to the Cup final, as we’ll have a three-man (well, two men and one woman) booth to break it all down for you piece-by-piece. Until then, enjoy the last two days of regular season hockey!

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