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Assessing the Prey in the West

So much for the thinking that the salary cap would prohibit teams from making trades during the season, eh? Yet again, NHL general managers have thrilled fans across the continent today with their Bacchanalian festival of talent-swapping that, for roughly half the league, provides a fresh optimism for the stretch drive not unlike when teams break training camp at the start of the season. Obviously, the volume of analysis and coverage is immense, and there are many spots along the blogroll at right where you can get in-depth, comprehensive breakdowns for all the trades (for starters, consult Spector, Mirtle, Kukla, and just click your way around). For the moment, I thought I'd take a look at things from the perspective of the Nashville Predators, and how the deadline deals affect their standing vis-a-vis their rivals in the Western Conference...

DETROIT: While the acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi raised the most eyebrows, the Jason Williams-for-Kyle Calder trade is what should really help the Red Wings. Williams never took the next step forward that Detroit has been looking for, so in that respect, there is very little downside to the deal. Calder can generate the hard-work goals that the Wings have failed to produce in the last few playoff seasons, and if they can nurse Bertuzzi along to have him ready to contribute within the next few weeks, the Red Wings may well present the most dangerous offense in the West. Just imagine if Bertuzzi could create room on the ice for Datsyuk and Zetterberg like he did for Marcus Naslund and Brendan Morrison in years past! This added toughness up front could pose a challenge for a youthful Nashville blueline corps in the playoffs. Perhaps the best bet for the Predators in that kind of matchup is to play a puck-possession, keepaway type of game much like Detroit used to do to more physical teams in the late '90s.

ANAHEIM: You have to admire Ducks GM Brian Burke for saying that the rent-a-player prices were too high (just as most GM's said just before going ahead and making a deal), and actually sticking to his guns and not making a major acquisition. Something smells a bit fowl, er, foul in Anaheim, however (rimshot, please!) and there's reason to believe that this regular-season powerhouse might be ripe for an early playoff exit. Exhibit A? Their lofty place in the standings is due in large part to 10 OT/SO losses, and without those bonus points, the Ducks would be looking up at both Dallas and San Jose in the Pacific division. Exhibit B? Their style of play will have to change in the playoffs, wherein fighting is kept to a bare minimum. They won't be so quick to intimidate opponents physically if that means giving up lots of power play opportunities, and that's where the Peter Forsberg acquisition is so critical for Nashville. The Predators power-play has been mediocre all season, and unless that changes, opponents won't be shy about roughing them up.

DALLAS: This is the team that perhaps did the best job in the West of setting themselves up for a long playoff run. Starting with the top team defense in the Western Conference, they added a talented winger up front to add a little scoring punch in Ladislav Nagy, then plucked Mattias Norstrom out of Los Angeles, the ideal "veteran defensive blueliner" that teams always covet heading into the playoffs. Whoever faces the Stars will have a tough time avoiding a steady stream of 2-1, 1-0 games that tend to frustrate gifted offensive lineups like Anaheim, Detroit and Nashville.

SAN JOSE: Much like Dallas, they added a scoring winger in Bill Guerin and defensive depth in Craig Rivet. The question with the Sharks is that since they're not as tight defensively as Dallas, will they have the enough offense to carry them through? The key will be to maintain their special teams performance, which has been top-notch all season. For Preds fans, the encouraging news there is that Nashville does a pretty decent job avoiding the penalty kill by staying out of the box.

VANCOUVER: They've been on a nice run lately, but I don't see the Canucks as a major threat. If you look at the Goals For/Goals Against ratio and their Conference win/loss record, there's not much there to suggest their Western counterparts should be concerned. While the playoff debut of goaltender Roberto Luongo is eagerly anticipated, the rest of the team is average at best, and the acquisition of Bryan Smolinski won't change that overnight. Looking at a potential matchup with the Predators, I just don't see the Canucks keeping pace with a steady offensive opponent over the course of a seven-game series.

MINNESOTA: They don't seem to be quite the "gritty little team that can't score" like they have been in years past, but they did just go pick up Dominic Moore, who is, well, a gritty little forward who can't score. Apparently, Wild management is playing the safe road towards building a long-term contender rather than bolster their chances this season. Given the gap between the Northwest and their Central and Pacific opponents, that's probably a wise move.

CALGARY: Aside from adding David Hale for blueline depth, the major moves in Calgary came in earlier weeks, with the acquisitions of Craig Conroy, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. Personally, I wonder if making those deals sooner will benefit the Flames in terms of having more time to build familiarity within the team. The results haven't shown so far, as Calgary is a mere 4-4-2 in their last 10 games, but if that chemistry does manifest, watch out - this team could be a real menace come playoff time.

To sum it up from a Nashville perspective, I'd say the Preds ability to win the Central division is key to their playoff hopes. If they win, they are looking at a likely 1st-round matchup with Vancouver or Minnesota, which should be a very winnable series. If not, it's a 4/5 slot versus Dallas or San Jose, neither of which are pleasant prospects.

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