Western Conference Strength: Ranking the Blue Lines

Free agents have signed, most trades have happened, and now the longest month of the summer is upon hockey fans. The preseason begins in mid-September, and the sports world has basically succumed to football.

To get ready for the coming NHL season, however, we’re going to look ahead. In a series of articles, we’ll rank the depth each team has ready for the new season up front, on the blue line, and between the pipes.

In this first piece, we’ll rank the groups of defensemen in the Western Conference. Thanks in large part to Nicklas Lidstrom’s seven wins, the Norris Trophy has come out of the West all but two seasons since the year 2000. Will the award stay in the West this year?

There have been a number of major changes in the defensive groups in the Western Conference this summer. Other teams have stayed put pretty well, or only made minor tweaks to their rosters. Some, like Nashville, are looking at a potential free agent armageddon next summer and will have some tough decisions coming up this season.

Here are our rankings of the blue lines in the Western Conference heading into the 2011-12 season.

1A. Chicago Blackhawks
One of the biggest questions in the NHL heading into this season is how the Hawks will replace Brian Campbell on the blue line. Last year, the Hawks’ options were limited financially and struggled with depth issues when players like Campbell missed time. This year, however, GM Stan Bowman did a fantastic job of adding veterans to the group and coach Joel Quenneville will have a rotation this year.
Top Four: Keith-Seabrook, Hjalmarsson-Leddy/Montador
Key Player: Nick Leddy – can/will he replace Campbell?
Additions: Steve Montador, Sami Lepisto, Sean O’Donnell
Departures: Brian Campbell, Chris Campoli, Jordan Hendry

1B. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings didn’t make any dramatic changes to their defensive group, but are hoping to get a bounce-back season from young superstar Drew Doughty. If he can return to the form that had him skating top-pair minutes with Duncan Keith at the Olympics in 2010, the Kings will have a chance to win the Western Conference. They also have a very good, deep group with Willie Mitchell, Davis Drewiske and Alec Martinez battling for bottom-pair minutes.
Top Four: Doughty-Scuderi, Johnson-M. Greene
Key Player: Doughty – if he’s worth the money he’s asking, the Kings are a tough out.
Additions: none
Departures: none

3. Detroit Red Wings
This season may be the end of things as they have been known for quite some time in Detroit. With Brian Rafalski already retired, the 2011-12 season may be a victory lap for Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings went out and landed a couple solid veterans, but they still need figure out who will be Rafalski’s replacement. The other question in training camp is what they’ll get from Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl this year. Is one of them ready to step into a prime-time role?
Top Four: Lidstrom-TBD, Kronwall-Stuart
Key Player(s): Ian White/Mike Commodore – who replaces Rafalski?
Additions: Ian White, Mike Commodore
Departures: Brian Rafalski

4. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks need their forwards and goalie to stay healthy for this to be a successful season, but the focus on their blue line will be the development of Cam Fowler. After a fantastic rookie season, Fowler may be asked to skate heavy minutes in more pressure situations this year. While Fowler was stealing the attention, Lubomir Visnovsky was quietly one of the best defensemen in the game last year. He could be a Norris candidate this year.
Top Four: Visnovsky-Lydman, Fowler-Beauchemin
Key Player: Fowler – if he gets better, the Ducks are dangerous.
Additions: Kurtis Foster, Matheiu Carle
Departures: Andy Sutton, Andreas Lilja

5. San Jose Sharks
Sharks GM Doug Wilson may have rolled the dice enough this summer with a perennial conference finals roster that the NHL has a new definition for “the Dougie.” While the major alterations were made up front, the biggest addition to the roster came in the form of Brent Burns from Minnesota. If Burns is indeed the missing link, then Wilson will look like a genius. If not? Who knows….
Top Four: Boyle-Burns, Demers-Vlasic/Murray
Key Player: Burns – is he worth what the Sharks paid to get him?
Additions: Brent Burns
Departures: Ian White, Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin

6. Nashville Predators
After heading to arbitration with Shea Weber – who was subsequently handed a king’s ransom - the Preds are now looking at having to pay Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne next summer out of a bank account that’s been losing money. With some good young talent developing, the Preds may answer one of those questions prematurely; Suter may not finish the coming season in Nashville. But there are elite young prospects coming to replace him. However, they’ll likely regret trading away Cody Franson.
Top Four: Weber-Suter, Klein-Bouillon/Blum
Key Player: Jonathan Blum – one of their top young players needs to step up.
Additions: Jack Hillen, Ryan Ellis?
Departures: Cody Franson

7. Vancouver Canucks
After losing in the Cup Finals, most thought both Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff would take a discount to stay in Vancouver. Bieksa signed quickly (with little/no money missing from his deal), but Ehrhoff is now skating in Buffalo. The Canucks didn’t replace him, hoping to have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Sami Salo and Alex Edler on the ice for more than 70 games this year. That’s a big gamble.
Top Four: Bieksa-Hamhuis, Edler-Salo
Key Player: Alex Edler – can he be on the ice enough to replace Ehrhoff?
Additions: none
Departures: Christian Ehrhoff

8. St. Louis Blues
In what could prove to be a franchise-defining trade, the Blues moved former top overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado last year. In the package St. Louis received was, among others, youngster Kevin Shattenkirk, who, with Alex Pietrangelo, could give the Blues a couple of the better puck-moving defensemen in the conference for the next few years.
Top Four: Jackman-Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk-Polak
Key Person: Ray Barile, head trainer – if St. Louis is healthy they could compete
Additions: Kent Huskins
Departures: Ian Cole

9. Phoenix Coyotes
Keith Yandle stayed in the desert, but the Coyotes might not after this season. In Yandle, the ‘Yotes have a 24-year-old potential Norris finalist and captain to build around. But beyond him, the range of age (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 20, to Adrian Aucoin, 38) and experience could make this an interesting season on the blue line in Glendale. The loses of Ed Jovanovski and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will add to the questions for the Coyotes this year.
Top Four: Yandle-Morris, Ekman-Larsson-Rozsival/Aucoin
Key Player: Ekman-Larsson – is he ready to be a prime time defenseman?
Additions: none
Departures: Ed Jovanovski, Sami Lepisto

The Rest
10. Edmonton Oilers: Are Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert ready to be elite?
11. Columbus Blue Jackets: Is James Wisniewski the missing piece?
12. Colorado Avalanche: Is Erik Johnson worth what the Avs paid?
13. Minnesota Wild: Who replaces Brent Burns?
14. Dallas Stars: Depth chart is ugly after Robidas and Goligoski.
15. Calgary Flames: Giordano, Bouwmeester and…. Scott Hannan?

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