Western Conference Intrigue: Ranking the Forwards

As we get ready for the 2011-12 season, we continue our series breaking down the Western Conference. On Sunday night we ranked the groups of defensemen around the league, and now we’ll evaluate the forwards in the conference.

Some of the biggest names in the NHL dominate the landscape in the Western Conference. The last two Hart Trophies have been won by Western Conference forwards – Henrik Sedin and Corey Perry. Henrik and Daniel Sedin have won the last two Art Ross Trophies. And Ryan Kesler ended three consecutive Selke Trophy wins for Pavel Datsyuk.

And we haven’t mentioned names like Toews, Kane, Hossa, Nash, Thornton, Kopitar, Richards, Heatley, Duchene, Stewart…

There were a number of epic trades that impacted enormous change in the conference this summer. The Philadelphia Flyers donated two of their best young players, captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, to the Western Conference in two trades. San Jose imploded the top of their depth chart, and Minnesota benefitted from the Sharks change of heart.

With all the moves from the summer (so far) in mind, here are our rankings of the groups of forwards around the Western Conference.

1. Los Angeles Kings
Last year, the Kings finished the regular season averaging 2.55 goals per game, good for only 25th in the NHL. So what did they do to improve? How about trading for fomer Flyers captain Mike Richards (23 goals, 43 assists) and adding Simon Gagne (17 goals, 23 assists). If Dustin Penner can return to his 60-point form, the Kings will be three lines deep with top-tier scoring.
X-Factor: Dustin Penner – could be the player that puts them over the top.
Key Additions: Mike Richards, Simon Gagne
Key Departures: Ryan Smyth, Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn

2. Chicago Blackhawks
The turnover wasn’t as major this summer up front, but the Hawks were able to add a number of veterans on short-term deals that will give coach Joel Quenneville options this season. With Patrick Sharp locked-up long term, the core in Chicago is in place. If Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa can stay healthy, and Michael Frolik bounces back, there could be five or even six 20-goal scorers in Chicago.
X-Factor: Marian Hossa – if he’s healthy all year, he could be an 80-90 point player.
Key Additions: Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo, Rostislav Olesz
Key Departures: Troy Brouwer, Tomas Kopecky, Jake Dowell, Ryan Johnson

3. Detroit Red Wings
Not many changes here, but when you finished last year ranked second in the NHL in scoring you don’t need to mess with something that isn’t broken. As long as Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Franzen are terrorizing opponents, the Red Wings will be near the top.
X-Factor: Health – the Red Wings need to keep their core on the ice.
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: Kris Draper, Mike Modano

4. St. Louis Blues
Pop quiz: which team ranked third in the NHL, averaging 3.30 goals per game after the All-Star Break? If you guessed the Blues, you would be right. St. Louis is going to be a big, physically skilled team in the future after moving Erik Johnson to the Avs in exchange for a king’s ransom. Chris Stewart, who had 23 points in 26 games with the Blues after being acquired, may be the ultimate prize from that trade as he could become an elite power forward in the coming years. They just need to stay healthy.
X-Factor: TJ Oshie – should-be superstar needs to figure it out this year.
Key Additions: Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jonathan Cheechoo
Key Departures: Paul Kariya

5. Vancouver Canucks
They still have both Sedins, but Ryan Kesler’s hip issue could be a major problem. The Canucks also lost a lot of their physical play with the departures of Raffi Torres and Tanner Glass leaving town. How they’ll respond to a short summer after a disappointing finish to their postseason will be interesting.
X-Factor: Manny Malhotra – the longer Kesler is out, the more they need him.
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: Raffi Torres, Tanner Glass

6. Anaheim Ducks
The top stays the same in Anaheim, where Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and defending Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry present perhaps the most dangerous line in the Western Conference. From there, the Ducks have some questions, though. The secondary scoring was an issue for them at times last year, and if Teemu Selanne doesn’t have another ridiculous season they’ll need someone else to step up.
X-Factor: Andrew Cogliano – will he ever become a 20-goal scorer?
Key Addition: Andrew Cogliano
Key Departure: Todd Marchand

7. Minnesota Wild
The Wild’s leading scorer, Martin Havlat, had 62 points last year. In a series of trades with San Jose, the Wild added Dany Heatley (64 points) and Devin Setoguchi (41 points) to a team that suddenly could have three solid scoring lines. The 48 combined goals coming into town from San Jose, as well as the potential of prospects Michael Granlund and Charlie Coyle joining the mix, could make for an interesting season in Minnesota.
X-Factor: Guillaume Latendresse – has been dynamic when healthy.
Key Additions: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Darryl Powe, Charlie Coyle
Key Departures: Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette

8. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers didn’t make a big-time move this summer, but may have added just the right pieces to help their baby-faced core take the next step. Ryan Smyth, Ben Eager and Eric Belanger are all solid veterans that will play roles in an up-tempo team this year. The burning question in Edmonton will be the future of Ales Hemsky, but the Oilers will go as far as Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle can carry them.
X-Factor: Alex Hemsky – how long is he in Edmonton?
Key Additions: Ryan Smyth, Ben Eager, Eric Belanger
Key Departures: Andrew Cogliano

9. San Jose Sharks
Replacing Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi with Martin Havlat is… interesting. Expecting Michal Handzus to be a third center, or James Sheppard to contribute – or even be healthy – leaves a lot to be desired. Frankly, San Jose GM Doug Wilson raised a lot of eyebrows this summer, and there’s a lot to be seen if his moves pay off.
X-Factor: Martin Havlat – can he replace Heatley’s regular season production?
Key Additions: Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, James Sheppard
Key Departures: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Jamal Mayers

The Rest
10. Colorado Avalanche: They’ll have to outscore people again this year, but might have enough depth to pull it off.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets: Jeff Carter next to Rick Nash will be nice, but losing Kristian Huselius for the beginning of the season was devastating.
12.  Dallas Stars: Jamie Benn is the best player you’ve never heard of.
13. Phoenix Coyotes:
Added Raffi Torres to a quietly effective group.
14. Nashville Predators: They needed to add more than just Niclas Bergfors. 
15. Calgary Flames: Another year of Jarome Iginla without a decent center.

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