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Let’s Get Puck’d: NHL Western Conference Preview

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Welcome, as we march on with the second half of this year’s NHL previews, this time shifting our focus to the Western Conference.

To me, the West is wide open this year. Chicago, the league’s reigning Cup champs, had to have a fire sale in the off-season to relieve their salary cap crunch, which should bring them back to the middle of the pack in the conference. Detroit and San Jose always seem to be amongst the best in the West each year, and young teams like Los Angeles and Phoenix hope to improve on their breakout campaigns of a season ago. But in my mind, there’s one team whose roster trumps all of the teams I’ve mentioned so far.

As I did with the Eastern Conference Preview article, I’ll dish out my team outlooks in the order I see them finishing this season. Agree? Disagree? Let me hear it in the Comments section.

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks

I present to you, my Stanley Cup choice this year… the Vancouver Canucks. They boast the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Henrik Sedin, along with his very talented twin brother Daniel who is no slouch, coming off a very solid 85-point season that included missing 19 games with injuries. They also have probably the most talented goaltender in the conference in Roberto Luongo, to go with a revamped blue line brigade that added former Panther Keith Ballard and shutdown defender Dan Hamhuis to their lineup. I like everything there is to like about the Canucks heading into this season. They celebrate their 40th anniversary this season, and in my mind, they’ll be wrapping up that season in June when they hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in victory.

#2 Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings reached at least the Conference Finals in four straight seasons heading into last year, as hopes always ride high in the Motor City for their hockey squad. But injuries ran rampant up and down the Detroit roster, which put even a playoff berth in jeopardy for much of the ’09-’10 season. On a late season surge led by rookie of the year nominee Jimmy Howard in goal however, the Wings earned themselves a spot in the playoffs, and even got past a talented Phoenix team to reach the second round, where they eventually fell to San Jose in five games. This season, they come back healthy and hungry to get back to making the deep playoff runs that the city of Detroit is accustomed to. Age may play a factor, but as long as this team can avoid a rash of injuries similar to that of last season, “Hockeytown USA” should be buzzing well into the springtime.

#3 San Jose Sharks

The Sharks finally got the “playoff goat” label off their backs last season with a trip to the Conference Finals, eventually losing out to the Blackhawks. They should contend for the top spot in the West yet again, as they bring back a roster loaded with offensive firepower, highlighted by former Bruin Joe Thornton, winger Dany Heatley, and re-signed centerman Patrick Marleau. Where the Sharks may struggle is on their back end. Gone from the San Jose locker room are defenseman Rob Blake, who hung up his skates for good in the off-season, and veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who made a homecoming, returning to Russia and signing with St. Petersburgh of the KHL. San Jose will hope that Stanley Cup winning goalie Antti Niemi, paired with fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki, will be able to hold down the crease duties this year.

#4 Los Angeles Kings

There’s plenty to like about the L.A. Kings coming into this season, and they may have been the odds-on favorites in the West, if their off-season plan had come to fruition. Instead, after setting their sights on bringing Ilya Kovalchuk to La-La Land, the winger re-signed a huge deal with the Devils, leaving the Kings one sniper short of being a legitimate Cup favorite. But that doesn’t mean GM Dean Lombardi won’t add some scoring punch to the team before the March trade deadline. If he can add to a roster that already includes talented forwards like Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth, along with young defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, this team will go a long way. The net is in good hands with former Umass goalie Jonathan Quick manning the crease, but look for his workload to drop from the 72 games he appeared in last season. The Kings will lean on up-and-comer Jonathan Bernier to take the pressure off Quick this year, creating a goalie tandem that could rival any other team in the league.

#5 Chicago Blackhawks

Nearly half of the Stanley Cup winning roster has left the Windy City since their championship, leaving the Blackhawks with very little depth to compliment their batch of top-tier stars, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa. Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Brian Campbell remain on defense, but otherwise, many of the role players that played such a big part in the Cup run for Chicago last season will be wearing different sweaters this season. In goal, GM Stan Bowman opted to let playoff hero Antti Niemi pack it up and head to San Jose, rolling the dice with veteran Marty Turco instead, signing him to a cap-friendly one-year deal. They say that the only thing harder than winning a championship is repeating. It’ll be a tall task for the ‘Hawks to bring home a second championship this season, but the top-end talent they were able to retain is still good enough to keep them in the middle of the playoff picture.

#6 Phoenix Coyotes

Sure, the ownership situation might be a huge mess for the Coyotes, but the on-ice situation for Phoenix has nothing messy about it. Many “experts” had the ‘Yotes pegged for the Western Conference cellar last season, but 107 points in the standings later, Phoenix enters this season with big expectations. Phoenix added former Carolina winger Ray Whitney to an offense that was already ahead of the curve. If they can find a defenseman that can step up their game and fill the void that Zbynek Michalek left when he exited the desert for free agency, and if they can fix their powerless power play from a year ago (ranked 28th in the NHL at an awful 14.6%), this team could contend in the loaded Pacific Division. They’ll at least make the playoffs, there’s little doubt about that.

#7 Anaheim Ducks

They missed the playoffs last year by six points. They lost their top defenseman when future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer announced his retirement. So how do the Ducks improve this year and get back into the playoff picture? Simple… their top trio of young forwards play even better than they have already. Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf will be leaned on heavily this year to bring this Ducks team to the promise land, and I think they can do it. They have solid veteran forwards behind them in Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, and even with the departure of Niedermayer, they still have a decent group of blue liners, led by Lubomir Visnovsky, Luca Sbisa, and the newly acquired Toni Lydman. Jonas Hiller will be the main man in goal, and I liked what I saw of him last year at the Olympics. They may not be as “mighty” as they used to be, but I still see Anaheim squeezing their way into the West’s eight best by season’s end.

#8 St. Louis Blues

Losing Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya doesn’t sound like it’d be a good thing, right? Well, that’s what happened to the St. Louis Blues this off-season, with Tkachuk retiring and Kariya lost for the year (and possibly for good), dealing with post-concussion syndrome. So how will the Blues improve? Similar to Anaheim, they’ll look towards their young forwards to step up their game. Former Bruin Brad Boyes will look to bounce back after a major regression last season. Before last year, Boyes scored 76 goals in his previous two seasons with St. Louis, including a 43-goal year. David Backes also took a step back last year, scoring just 17 goals after putting 31 pucks in the net the previous year. If the offense can get back on track, the Blues will go far. On top of that, I love their acquisition of Jaroslav Halak in goal. Halak will be out to prove all year long that the Canadiens chose the wrong goalie to keep. I’m considering Halak a sleeper Vezina Trophy candidate this year, that’s how much I like him in St. Louis.

#9 Colorado Avalanche

I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how the Avalanche rose from the depths of the Western Conference last season. The previous year, they posted a West-worst 69 points, but improved their standing by 26 points last year, earning the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. But how did they do it, really? Their offense went well, scoring the sixth most goals in the league, but with who? Paul Stastny is their leader, but I’m not sure he’ll blow anyone away. They lost a bunch of veterans in the off-season and didn’t really replace them with anybody. Maybe the ‘Lanche find a way to sneak their way up the standings yet again, but I see this team regressing this year and ending up on the outside of the playoff picture.

#10 Calgary Flames

I want to like the Flames, I really do. But I can’t. Beyond Jarome Iginla, the team just doesn’t have a ton of talent built around him. Sure, they decided to bring back forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, but both were big disappointments last season. They’ll need to see more out of their big money defenseman Jay Bouwmeester as well, who dropped off big time last season with just three goals and 29 points. Miikka Kiprusoff is a workhorse in net, but even he has been in a downward trend the past few seasons. Beyond Vancouver, the Northwest Division is pretty weak, but I still don’t see Calgary being able to do much out West.

#11 Nashville Predators

Quick, name me three Nashville Predators. I know… you can’t do it, right? Honestly, there is no more forgettable team in the league than the Predators. There are worse teams, but none are more forgettable. The team’s leading scorer a year ago, Patric Hornqvist, put 30 pucks in the net last season, and he does have the potential to improve on that number, but who is going to feed him the puck? The Preds did add a pair of forwards with names you’ve at least likely heard of, bringing in Matthew Lombardi from Phoenix and Sergei Kostitsyn from Montreal, but neither are game-changers on offense. On defense, Nashville lost Dan Hamhuis, the team’s top blue liner a year ago, who went to Vancouver. New captain Shea Weber and talented youngster Ryan Suter will have to step up their games in front of newly re-signed Pekka Rinne, who will have the starting goaltender job all to himself after the Predators let Dan Ellis head south to Tampa in the off-season. But really, if Nashville doesn’t make the playofs this season, will anyone really miss them?

#12 Dallas Stars

The Stars are in full rebuilding mode now, after an off-season where they dumped the two faces of the franchise, goalie Marty Turco and long-time Dallas Star, Mike Modano. GM Joe Nieuwendyk will hope that his youth movement will pay dividends fast enough to keep his job intact, with the goaltending duties handed over to Kari Lehtonen and former Bruin Andrew Raycroft. Their offense shouldn’t be too much of an issue with Brad Richards leading the way, but their defense is very young and very untested. If Lehtonen can shine in goal, the Stars could knock on the playoff door, but otherwise, having to deal with being in the toughest division in the league will likely spell doom for Dallas this season. A bright future isn’t too far off though.

#13 Minnesota Wild

On paper at least, this year’s edition of the Wild should be better than the team that last year finished 11 points out of a playoff spot in the West. They really didn’t lose too much this off-season, not bringing back aging winger Owen Nolan or defenders Shane Hnidy and Derek Boogaard. The team still has a few “ifs” to overcome though. If Martin Havlat can rebound from a rough first year in Minnesota, if Pierre-Marc Bouchard can come back from a season where he missed all but one game with post-concussion syndrome, if newly acquired centers Matt Cullen and John Madden can contribute to the offense, and if Nicklas Backstrom can return to star goalie status after a disappointing ’09-’10 season, this Wild team can give the well-deserving Minnesota hockey community a fun team to root for. It’s just too many “ifs” for my liking. They’re at least a year or two away from getting back in the playoff hunt.

#14 Edmonton Oilers

Without the addition of top overall pick Taylor Hall, I don’t see how Oiler fans could be excited about this team. Sweeping changes from top to bottom happened in Edmonton over the off-season, and they’re hoping that a new coach and a revamped, young roster can at least keep fannies in the seats up in Edmonton. Their roster is full of holes to pick on, but I’ll just take aim at the goaltending mess for now, and leave the other Oilers alone. Top netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who is well past his prime but still has three years on his contract, faces potential jail time in Arizona for a DUI charge. Who does that leave? Household names like Jeff Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Gerber, that’s who. Yikes. The Oilers seem like they’re in line for another top pick in next June’s draft, and that might not be a bad thing.

#15 Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets enter their tenth season as a franchise, and other than a surprise season two years ago that put them in the bottom of the playoff bracket, Columbus has yet to produce a consistent winner for their fans. They dipped back down to 14th in the West last season, which you would think would point them to an active off-season, trying to fix things, right? I guess not. Columbus really didn’t make too many changes over the summer, with the exception of adding former Oiler Ethan Moreau to their forward lines. Unless Steve Mason can return to his rookie form, when he posted 10 shutouts and a 2.29GAA, it’s going to be a long, long, long year in Columbus, Ohio.

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