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An early 2008 NHL playoff preview?

There's an interesting poll going on over at James Mirtle's blog, where you get to predict the eight playoff teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences. In his first look at the early returns, the voters clearly believe the Nashville Predators will be on the outside looking in. I voted them in, but it's not a sure thing, so let's walk through some of the logical choices in the Western Conference as I see it:

1. Anaheim and San Jose are seemingly locks to make the playoffs, and Dallas is likely to finish right alongside them. The Stars weren't far off the pace set by the Sharks and Ducks last year, and missed Brendan Morrow and Mike Modano for significant stretches. Combine that with what I think should be another solid effort by Marty Turco (who in my book at least has shrugged off the "can't perform in the playoffs" label), and the Stars should be major contenders.
2. Detroit is the obvious favorite to win the Central.
3. Vancouver is a leader in the Northwest, and Minnesota should be improved if Nicklas Backstrom keeps up his pace and Marian Gaborik stays healthy.

That right there gets us to six playoff teams, with only two spots remaining. I feel confident excluding Edmonton, Phoenix, Columbus, Chicago, and L.A. from consideration (the Kings may be improved, but they're stuck in the toughest division in the NHL). That leaves St. Louis, Nashville, Calgary and Colorado in the running.

St. Louis: While Andy Murray is an excellent choice to lead the Blues back out of the darkness, I don't think they've put enough pieces together yet to mold a winner. Keith Tkachuk seems unlikely to ever hit 30 goals again, and while Paul Kariya is still effective, his best days are behind him as well. Besides any offensive improvement PK may bring to the team, the Blues will also need to tighten up on the defensive end significantly just to break even.

Calgary: This is the biggest crapshoot in the league, with Iron Mike Keenan taking over behind the bench. Will he inspire a lunchpail work ethic that carries this team to new heights, or alienate his players and oversee a brutal train wreck? One thing to remember is that the Flames snuck into the playoffs with only three points earned during shootouts, one of the lowest totals in the league. Even a modest boost in that area should help them secure a spot.

Colorado: Yes, Mr. Smyth has gone to Colorado, but I don't recall the Avalanche having trouble scoring goals last year, as they tied Nashville for Goals For in the west. The team still has Jose Theodore and his MVP-like contract hanging over them, and unless he gets bonked on the head and suddenly believes it's 2002 all over again, I think the Avs will lose a bunch of exciting, 6-5 games. The alternative would be to give young Peter Budaj more of the workload, but that loosy-goosy defense might not be the best to put a developing goaltender behind. I'm forecasting a repeat of last spring's suspenseful, yet ultimately futile, run for the playoffs.

Nashville: Losing Steve Sullivan for at least the first two months of the season is a brutal blow to a team that already lost a great deal of offensive talent via trades and free agency this summer. Responsible veterans like Greg de Vries, Radek Bonk and Martin Gelinas will keep the Predators an above-average defensive team, and while Chris Mason appears to be ready to take over the #1 job in goal, there's always risk associated with making that transition. Still, there appears to be enough left in place for this team to outscore the opposition over the long haul, albeit not as much as last season (when they scored 272 goals and yielded 212). My guess here is that they score somewhere around 250 goals, and give up around 225, which should still be enough to earn a trip to the playoffs.

So that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Out of those final four I'm going with Calgary and Nashville to make the playoffs, with Colorado and St. Louis left on the outs for one more year. Of course, injuries, coaching changes, and mid-season trades could change things immensely, but take a walk through the scenarios as you seem them, and head over to James' blog to cast your vote. Once he closes the polls, it will be interesting to look back next spring and see whether the "wisdom of crowds" fares better than the experts.

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