In this woeful season, where serious injuries are piling up at an alarming rate, one of the most significant is the upper body injury to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. With the exit of the best player on the best team in the Western Conference, anyone, even lowly Phoenix has a chance to win the Western Conference.
This year there is a significant difference in the quality of play between the two conferences. Teams in the Eastern Conference play competitive hockey, while the western teams mostly play stumblebum style. Only the Blackhawks had the winning record the best eastern teams have. It is the mediocrity of the west that is keeping bad teams at the bottom of the conference like Phoenix still alive for the playoffs and even to reach the top.
Of the remaining teams, only St. Louis and San Jose, last year’s conference finalists have respectable winning records. The rest hover a few games above and below the .500 mark.
Almost all the remaining teams have some merit that gives them hope to win this mediocre conference. As noted above, San Jose and St. Louis are trying to build on their break-through playoff performances of last year. Los Angeles is trying to find the elusive formula of a few years ago that allowed them to win their first two Stanley Cups. Nashville made the big trade for P. K. Subban from Montreal but still has not found any consistent winning chemistry. Edmonton has finally put in an overdue appearance after drafting all those number one picks for the past decade. Anaheim might be back after rehiring its Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle. There is mediocre team Minnesota who have hired mediocre coach Bruce Boudreau. Winnipeg got an A-1 draft pick in Patrik Laine but they do not have much other talent.
But even without Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks are still the team to beat. They have won it all three times before so they know how to keep their poise in difficult circumstances. They have Joel Quenneville’s great coaching and they still have lots of other star players, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa. But Toews’ injury is a real blow.
If a Western Conference team wants to make a statement and get hot, there is not a more opportune time. There is no time set for Toews’ return. Can Chicago hang in there until he comes back? Will they fall without him? The western team that can right itself and put together a long winning streak will be the beneficiary.