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Western Conference team-by-team preview

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It’s always called the wild, wild West. Now we know why.

Five seasons have been played since the lockout ended and all 15 teams have qualified for the postseason at least once. In the past two years alone, all but three teams have appeared in the conference quarterfinals. And stretching back to the spring of 2008, only the Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoff party all three years.

The Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks are the only teams to have reached the playoffs each of the past five years, and they’re the only two teams to win the past five regular-season conference crowns (three for the Wings, two for the Sharks).

More parity? The Stanley Cup champions have come from the West in three of the past four years, and it’s been three different teams – Chicago, Detroit and Anaheim. Where is this all going? Expect the unexpected in the West when it comes to the chase for the eight playoff spots in 2010-11.

Anaheim Ducks

The Core: With perennial Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Scott Niedermayer(notes) retired, the mantle of leadership and focus has been passed to a young group of forwards led by Ryan Getzlaf(notes). Along with Corey Perry(notes) and Bobby Ryan(notes), the 25-year-old Getzlaf looks to bounce back personally from an injury-hampered season and lead Anaheim back to the postseason. Goalie Jonas Hiller(notes) carries a lot of responsibility, but he’s got to jell with a new-look defense.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: A defense not long ago that featured names such as Pronger, Niedermayer, Beauchemin and Schneider now boasts Lubomir Visnovsky(notes), Andy Sutton(notes), Toni Lydman(notes), Brett Festerling(notes), Sheldon Brookbank(notes) and Danny Syvret(notes). Pick a No. 1 out of that group. In the meantime, the ongoing love affair between Teemu Selanne(notes) and the Orange County fan base will last at least another year.

The Outlook: This could be a long year for the Ducks, but not for coach Randy Carlyle, who could be the first to get fired once the season starts. The defense is not playoff quality, and all other facets of Anaheim’s game will suffer until the blue line get refortified.

Calgary Flames

The Core: Interestingly, general manager Darryl Sutter has been given a number of chances to rebuild this team. This time it meant reaching into its recent past when that recent past hasn’t exactly worked out so well. The Flames re-acquired veteran forwards Olli Jokinen(notes) and Alex Tanguay(notes) as free-agent signings. Tanguay was fine, but Jokinen didn’t exactly fulfill expectations, scoring 19 goals and 50 points in 75 games between 2008-10 before getting shipped to the Rangers. What matters most, of course, is the continued production and leadership of Jarome Iginla(notes), who is 33 years old but still has two more years on his contract after this season. The other key is whether goalie Miikka Kiprusoff(notes), also 33, doesn’t fall into his recent trap of ineffective and inconsistent stretches.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The Flames have gotten away from the reputation as a tough team to play in their own barn, and maybe the additions of Raitis Ivanans(notes) and Tim Jackman(notes) will offset the losses of Eric Nystrom(notes) and Jamal Mayers(notes) in terms of team toughness. The Flames’ questionable offensive attack will receive a boost if prospect Mikael Backlund(notes) contributes and Daymond Langkow(notes) can rebound from fractured vertebrae in his neck.

The Outlook: The Flames figure to remain in the hunt in the closely contested Northwest Division, but if they don’t finish among the top two they will be looking in from the outside when the postseason begins.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Core: Yes, nine regulars are gone, mostly because of the salary cap, but consider who is still here: Jonathan Toews(notes), Patrick Kane(notes), Marian Hossa(notes), Duncan Keith(notes), Brent Seabrook(notes), Patrick Sharp(notes), Brian Campbell(notes), Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes), Troy Brower and Dave Bolland(notes). The guts of what won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961 is back and ready to defend in a division they could easily rule and in a conference that could again be theirs for the taking.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The biggest question mark is Marty Turco(notes), the longtime Dallas Star, who may have only received a one-year, $1.3 million deal on the unrestricted free-agency market, but he earned it from the defending champs. We may never know if the ‘Hawks really wanted their goaltending to go this way – and see postseason hero Antti Niemi(notes) land with rival San Jose – but this could work out in the short term if Turco rediscovers his game. The question is, if the current supporting cast doesn’t complete the mix – and quickly and with what room under the cap – will GM Stan Bowman be able to fix things on the fly?

The Outlook: It’s hard in October to boldly predict a repeat of last year’s glory, especially considering it was 49 years in the making, but the ‘Hawks have every bit as good a shot as anyone else in the West. The hangover factor will certainly be something Chicago has to overcome. But the talent and confidence is not lacking so expect to see this team play deep into the playoffs again.

Colorado Avalanche

The Core: The Avs surprised everyone last season, maybe even themselves, when they reached the playoffs. But it was no fluke. Young forwards Matt Duchene(notes) and Ryan O’Reilly(notes) played beyond their tender years and zero NHL experience. That set the tone, and sent a feeling of confidence throughout the lineup. The most difficult challenge facing Colorado this season is how they handle success and expectations. If they don’t focus on a hard work ethic from the very start they could be last season’s St. Louis Blues. That being said, you have to hand it to the Avs’ scouting department and decisions at the draft. They’re building this team the right way, and helping fans move on from the great recent teams led by Joe Sakic(notes), Peter Forsberg(notes) and Patrick Roy.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Aside from captain Adam Foote(notes), 39, and Scott Hannan(notes), 31, the Avs are young and relatively green on the blue line, which has to be a concern considering the two elder statesman can’t be expected to log the big minutes they piled up in their prime. Craig Anderson(notes) made a smooth transition from backstopping an annual non-playoff qualifier in Florida to leading a young team into the postseason during his first season in Colorado. He’s only 29, in the prime of his career, and someone to keep an eye on for Vezina consideration if he plays any better this season than last. It gets interesting because this is the final year of Anderson’s contract.

The Outlook: Nothing comes easy in the West, and assuming the Avs will improve on a 95-point season is no guarantee. But Edmonton and Minnesota are still going to struggle so there are points to be had. The Avs look to fight for a playoff spot to the bitter end, and anything less than 95 points will leave them short.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Core: An interesting offseason followed a disastrous 27th-place overall finish one year after reaching the playoffs for the first time. The Jackets replaced the coaching staff – Scott Arniel calls the shots from behind the bench – and did virtually nothing to the roster (claiming Ethan Moreau(notes) off waivers hardly counts). So it’s clearly up to captain Rick Nash(notes) and young goalie Steve Mason(notes) to show the way. On paper, there is talent up front – Kristian Huselius(notes), Antoine Vermette(notes), Nikita Filatov(notes), Derick Brassard(notes) and Jake Voracek join Nash as top-six skaters. But the game is played on ice, not paper. They have to prove they can mesh and win.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: There should be concern that the blue line will be challenged to do what Arniel wants – join the rush without losing their defensive posture. It’s not the fastest skating group, and teams that are plodding on the back end often struggle to keep the puck out of their zone. Mason is counting on a strict offseason regiment to drop weight and get in better shape to rediscover the form he displayed while winning the Calder Trophy two years ago.

The Outlook: Points in the division are tough to come by when one considers all four of Columbus’ rivals – Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville – probably start out better than the Blue Jackets. It’s too much to overcome as Columbus will fall short of the top eight.

Dallas Stars

The Core: No more Mike Modano(notes), no more Jere Lehtinen(notes), no more Marty Turco. Now it’s up to the likes of Brenden Morrow(notes), Brad Richards(notes), James Neal(notes), Mike Ribeiro(notes), Loui Eriksson(notes) and Stephane Robidas(notes) to rally the Stars back to the postseason for the first time in three years and get over the fact they’ve been surpassed by San Jose, Phoenix and Los Angeles, if not Anaheim, too. Coach Marc Crawford needs to show the team is moving in the right direction, the penalty kill is improved and that he can shed the reputation of relying too heavily on veterans.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Kari Lehtonen(notes) faces two kinds of pressure – staying healthy and playing well enough to make Stars fans forget about Turco. It’s been a long time since there’s been a big question mark hanging over the Dallas goal, but it’s there now. A change of ownership leads the franchise into the great unknown. Richards is in the final year of a big-money deal. Will the new owners look to lock him up or does the veteran center become trade bait at the deadline?

The Outlook: There’s not enough offense, not enough defense and too much of a question mark in net to expect anything other than a third straight non-playoff finish. And that doesn’t bode well for a region that expects a winner or the support could be lacking.

Detroit Red Wings

The Core: The names are familiar – Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Henrik Zetterberg(notes), Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Brian Rafalski(notes), Johan Franzen(notes) and Tomas Holmstrom(notes) – and the expectations haven’t changed. There’s no reason to think this group can challenge not only the defending Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, but anyone else who gets in their way. The scary part is because the Red Wings were eliminated in the second round last spring, they had more time to regroup, rehabilitate and reload than in any of the past three offseasons.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: It’s hard to find any bad and ugly unless you’re not a fan of old Joe Louis Arena, but it sure works for the Wings. It’s hard to find a weak link on the blue line where roles are clearly defined among Lidstrom, Rafalski, Brad Stuart(notes), Niklas Kronwall(notes), Jonathan Ericsson(notes) and newcomer Ruslan Salei(notes) or rookie Jakub Kindl(notes). Imagine, too, if Mike Modano enjoys a bit of a rebirth playing in his home state. He could center an interesting two-way third line that could include Jiri Hudler(notes) and Dan Cleary. And it doesn’t drop off with Darren Helm(notes), Justin Abdelkader(notes) and Patrick Eaves(notes) rounding out the lines. The mantle in goal has clearly been passed from Chris Osgood(notes) to Jimmy Howard(notes), who displayed the promise the Wings had envisioned when they were being patient with his development.

The Outlook: Detroit has been part of the postseason party since 1991 and a threat to win it all many times. There no reason to look at this team otherwise this time, too.

Edmonton Oilers

The Core: It’s going to look different in the heart of Oil country, as it should following a pathetic 62-point season. Tom Renney succeeds Pat Quinn behind the bench, No. 1 draft pick Taylor Hall(notes) jumps straight from junior hockey to a first line in a closely scrutinized market and Edmonton is counting on veterans Shawn Horcoff(notes), Ales Hemsky(notes) and Dustin Penner(notes) to lead the way on and off the ice. Pittsburgh and Anaheim castoff Ryan Whitney(notes) anchors a defense that really needs others to step up, and Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) is set to tend goal apparently regardless of age, 37, his health (disk surgery last season) and pending a possible jail sentence for DUI in Arizona.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The optimistic view is that youngsters Hall, Jordan Eberle(notes) and Magnus Paajarvi(notes) provide an upgrade in skill to the forward mix. It’s a lot to ask of inexperienced players when the team will be looking to jell and find confidence early. On defense, the mix suggests the Oilers might have trouble keeping up with speed, and isn’t that what everyone is moving toward these days? Edmonton, too, figures to have better luck with injuries this season. Last year they lost a whopping 531 man-games.

The Outlook: Improving significantly on a 30th-place finish will be difficult. If Edmonton were to finish 20th overall that would be quite a first step, but still leave them short of the playoffs. That’s about the best the Oilers can hope for, however.

Los Angeles Kings

The Core: The team’s best players – Anze Kopitar(notes), Drew Doughty(notes), Jack Johnson(notes) and Jonathan Bernier(notes), all original L.A. draft picks – have arrived at the right time and should have the Kings on the rise even coming off an impressive sixth-place finish in the West last year. Bernier hasn’t supplanted Jonathan Quick(notes) in goal, but he does give the Kings an outstanding 1-2 punch. His day will come. Doughty was a Norris Trophy finalist at the age of 20 last year. He is the game’s next superstar, and he’s due to be a restricted free agent at season’s end. Time for GM Dean Lombardi to draw up one of those long-term big-bucks contracts the league just loves to scrutinize.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The Kings should be solid in goal, on defense (very nice mix now with the late-summer signing of Willie Mitchell(notes)) and explosive on the top line. The question is who will provide secondary scoring? L.A. lured Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes) in the offseason, but the Leafs’ castoff is a better fit for a third-line role with Michal Handzus(notes) and the always improving Wayne Simmonds(notes). Jarret Stoll(notes) figures to get a shot at centering a second line that could include Scott Parse(notes) and Justin Williams(notes). They will need to chip in or the Kings will need to look for other answers.

The Outlook: The Kings have the best shot of unseating the San Jose Sharks at the top of the division. They also have to guard against overconfidence and heightened expectations creeping into their thoughts. Bottom line, the Kings keep the division race close and may finish as high as fourth in the conference for home ice in the first round. And yes, they could be a dangerous playoff opponent.

Minnesota Wild

The Core: Most of the key names are the same – Mikko Koivu(notes), Brent Burns(notes), Niklas Backstrom(notes), Andrew Brunette(notes), Martin Havlat(notes), Cal Clutterbuck(notes) and Nick Schultz(notes) – and all of the concerns – goal-scoring, defensive play and injuries – remain unchanged as well. The Wild would certainly benefit from the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes); he’s skating and showing improvement from post-concussion syndrome. The team has already lost backup goalie Josh Harding(notes) for the season to a serious knee injury, so Jose Theodore(notes) was brought in to spell Backstrom.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The Wild added grit in Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz(notes) along with veteran savvy in John Madden(notes), but it’s mostly the bad and the ugly here because the team lacks depth to overtime injury and ineffective play. The Wild simply needs stronger play from its blue line. Burns needs to avoid injury while Marek Zidlicky(notes) and Cam Barker(notes) need to find consistency. Minnesota is keeping its fingers crossed Matt Cullen(notes) can center a supporting second line and that Guillaume Latendresse(notes) maintains the heightened scoring potential he delivered after arriving last year from Montreal.

The Outlook: If the Wild doesn’t get off to a decent start all facets figure to come under the microscope, including the coaching staff. Minnesota has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, it’s sellout streak was snapped in the preseason and there’s no more margin for error. The Wild are a long shot to be in the postseason hunt.

Nashville Predators

The Core: Talk about the strength of the Predators, and it continues to be the blue line even with the departure of Dan Hamhuis(notes) and Denis Grebeshkov(notes). Captain Shea Weber(notes) just keeps getting better, and now he’s in the Norris Trophy conversation (as is teammate Ryan Suter(notes)). The concern is who belongs in this group up front – Steve Sullivan(notes), J.P. Dumont(notes) and David Legwand(notes) certainly have seniority, but there are a lot of new faces to join them. How can we keep Barry Trotz and David Poile out of the conversation? They’re the only coach and GM, respectively, the 13-year-old franchise has ever known.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The Preds have consistently found themselves in the postseason mix of late, but they can’t get over one hump – actually winning a playoff series. They’re 0-for-5, and that includes losing to the eventual Cup champs in each of their last two tries. We bring this up because it might be a struggle to get that opportunity this season. Nashville doesn’t appear deep on offense. Jason Arnott(notes) has been replaced by Matthew Lombardi(notes), who has scored 20 goals once and maxed out at 53 points last year for a career high. And that’s Nashville’s projected first-line center. The Preds are counting on forwards who had subpar seasons to rebound. We’ll see. Otherwise there’s a lot of pressure on workhorse Pekka Rinne(notes) to stop the puck.

The Outlook: There would appear to be a gap between Chicago-Detroit and the rest of the division, so Nashville must be better than St. Louis and Columbus to have a chance at the postseason, and even that might not be enough. The Preds figure to fall around 92-95 points, which will be right on the fence for eighth place in the conference.

Phoenix Coyotes

The Core: For the longest time it was Shane Doan(notes) and not nearly enough help, but that has all changed with the goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov(notes), the maturing of a talented and versatile defense led by the emerging Keith Yandle(notes) and veteran Ed Jovanovski(notes), and a forward group that basically has been assembled from outside the organization. Relative newcomers Lee Stempniak(notes), Wojtek Wolski(notes) and Ray Whitney(notes) look to help the Coyotes follow up the best regular season in 30 years of franchise history (107 points).

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: What turned this franchise around was the hiring of Dave Tippett as head coach just before the start of last season. His expertise, knowledge of personnel in the division and conference, handling of young players, etc., gives the Coyotes an edge. Then the NHL's executive of the year, GM Don Maloney, followed up with the signings of Eric Belanger(notes), Whitney and Stempniak. Everything may not fall into place quite as well as last season, but no one doubts the Coyotes’ work ethic and ability to put all distractions (i.e. eventual franchise move?) out of their minds.

The Outlook: Could easily join San Jose and Los Angeles for a dogfight in the Pacific. All three clubs appear postseason-bound. Phoenix just needs to avoid injury and complacency and it should be contending for a top-four finish in the West.

St. Louis Blues

The Core: The safety net otherwise known as Keith Tkachuk(notes) and Paul Kariya(notes) is gone, but it was time. The Blues have transformed into a young team, but that’s not a bad thing when that young talent is anchored by the likes of David Perron(notes), Brad Boyes(notes), T.J. Oshie(notes), Patrik Berglund(notes), David Backes(notes) and Erik Johnson(notes). Doug Armstrong replaces longtime GM Larry Pleau and Davis Payne goes into a full second season behind the bench after racking up an impressive 23-15-4 record (including 13-5-2 at home) upon replacing Andy Murray at midseason.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: It seems like the Blues have been searching for a No. 1 goalie for the longest time, and that opportunity falls on the shoulders of Canadiens’ castoff Jaroslav Halak(notes), who could benefit from playing outside the fish bowl known as Montreal. Halak and Ty Conklin(notes) give St. Louis a capable combo in goal. The Blues are expected to have only three players over the age of 29 on their opening-night roster, and one of those is the backup goalie. With youth comes mistakes, but you don’t see anyone complaining in Pittsburgh and Chicago over recent youth movements.

The Outlook: Boyes and Backes need to rediscover their goal-scoring ways and the blue line needs to live up to its potential. If those things come together, St. Louis could nose its way to third in the division and into the fight for a playoff spot.

San Jose Sharks

The Core: Well, here we go again. Joe Thornton(notes), Dany Heatley(notes), Patrick Marleau(notes), Joe Pavelski(notes), Dan Boyle(notes), Antti Niemi … there’s just no shortage of top-flight caliber talent on the roster, but is it enough? Is this the year? Or has general manager Doug Wilson simply built only a very good regular-season team that just can’t get over the hump in the postseason? Thornton and Marleau are 31 years old now and Boyle is 34. Is age suddenly a concern?

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: The retirement of Rob Blake(notes) left a need for a new captain and removed the threat of a big shot from the point on the power play. Boyle is creative and Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) is improving, but there is a void on the unit that needs to be filled. In addition, San Jose’s blue line is fine for now, but definitely could use an upgrade by the spring. The goaltending situation could be interesting with free-agent Finns Antero Niittymaki(notes) and Niemi replacing longtime Shark Evgeni Nabokov(notes).

The Outlook: The Kings figure to be biggest threat to the Sharks’ hold on the Pacific Division, but San Jose should have enough to secure one of the top three seeds in the conference. From there it’s anyone’s guess. San Jose has the talent to make a run for the Cup, but one would think this really is the last chance for the current cast to get the job done.

Vancouver Canucks

The Core: It’s pretty easy to identify the Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik – along with Roberto Luongo(notes), Ryan Kesler(notes), Alex Burrows and Mason Raymond(notes) as the players the Canucks will turn to on most nights to make a difference. But what you have to really like about this team is the pieces it added to an already dangerous lineup. The Canucks added Manny Malhotra(notes) and Raffi Torres(notes) to build a solid third line, and bolstered the defense by adding veterans Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard(notes).

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: There’s not a lot of holes here. Luongo may carry less of a workload if Vancouver sticks to a plan to give promising backup Cory Schneider(notes) 20-25 games. That might give Luongo more energy when it matters most because he has struggled in recent postseasons with consistency from series to series. The Canucks are deeper on defense, a real key since they’ve been hurt by injury late in recent seasons. There’s a nice mix of skill and grit up front and the roles are clearly defined. What’s not to like?

The Outlook: The Canucks are a legitimate threat in the West if this team plays to its potential. There’s no reason to doubt Vancouver’s chances in late spring. They’re favorites in the Northwest Division and a team that can play with Chicago, San Jose and Detroit. Yes, the Cup is within reach.

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