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NHL preview: How the Western Conference shapes up


October 02. 2013 1:00AM
HELENE ELLIOTT Los Angeles Times



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The Kings learned last season how difficult it is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions; they deserve credit for reaching the West final after losing defenseman Matt Greene for much of the season and defenseman Willie Mitchell for the entire season. Now it’s the Chicago Blackhawks’ turn to attempt a repeat, a feat no team has managed since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. The Blackhawks have a good shot, especially because they’ve stayed intact and brought in some younger players. But St. Louis has the potential to go far and the Kings have kept their 2012 Cup core, so there are no guarantees. Realignment and a new playoff format mean the top three teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs, along with the next two highest-placed teams in each conference. It will be possible for five teams to qualify from one division and three from another. How the West shapes up, in predicted order of finish:


PACIFIC DIVISION

1. KINGS


2012-13: 27-16-5 (59 points), 5th in West


Losing defensive stalwart Rob Scuderi to free agency will hurt and they’ll need Jake Muzzin to step up. They also need Matt Frattin to boost their weak scoring from the left side. He probably will skate alongside Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Jonathan Quick could be the U.S. Olympic team’s starting goalie at the Sochi Olympics. Two concerns: Dustin Brown missed most of camp because of a hamstring pull, a bad start for a player who must be physical to be effective, and center Anze Kopitar must shake the scoring woes that plagued him last season.


2. SAN JOSE


2012-13: 25-16-7 (57 points), 6th in the West.


The Sharks have become Logan Couture’s team since the dynamic forward figuratively took the leadership reins from Joe Thornton. As always, they have tons of talent, a fine goalie in Antti Niemi (2.16 goals-against, .924 save percentage), and excellent centers. Maybe Couture and freewheeling Brent Burns, who ignited the team after he moved up from defense to wing, have the grit to carry the Sharks to the next level.


3. PHOENIX


2012-13: 21-18-9 (51 points), 10th in West.


Coach Dave Tippett and General Manager Don Maloney worked wonders with a small budget while the NHL ran the Coyotes. New owners George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc have brought stability and agreed to sign proven center Mike Ribeiro to add scoring depth. Defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are budding stars. The Coyotes should return to the playoffs after missing last season.


4. DUCKS


2012-13: 30-12-6 (66 points), 2nd in West


If Teemu Selanne regains the form he displayed early last season, if Dustin Penner is revived by being reunited with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and if Jakob Silfverberg shows the skill that persuaded the Ducks to trade Bobby Ryan for him, this could be a good season. But that’s a lot of ifs. And their defense has holes minus the injured Sheldon Souray, who’s out until January. But keep an eye on polished 2012 first-round pick Hampus Lindholm.


5. VANCOUVER


2012-13: 26-15-7 (59 points), 3rd in West.


Despite a season-long saga that pointed toward the exit of goalie Roberto Luongo, he remained and backup Cory Schneider was traded to New Jersey. The biggest change is the exit of Coach Alain Vigneault and the hiring of hard-nosed John Tortorella, formerly of the New York Rangers. Tortorella wants an up-tempo game and the Canucks might not be able to deliver.


6. EDMONTON


2012-13: 19-22-7 (45 points), 12th in West.


So many non-playoff finishes have given the Oilers a ton of high draft picks, but their defense and goaltending remain unreliable. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder surgery) and Sam Gagner (broken jaw) aren’t expected to be ready to start the season, but the Oilers have depth up front. Signing veteran defenseman Andrew Ference was a good move, but this team is still a year or so away from the playoffs.


7. CALGARY


2012-23: 19-25-4 (42 points), 13th in West.


The Saddledome has been cleaned and repaired after suffering extensive flood damage in June, and the Flames are using the recovery effort as a metaphor for their own rebuilding. But while the arena is operable, the Flames still have some sorting out to do. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff retired, leaving former Swiss League netminder Reto Berra and Finn Karri Ramo—back after four seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League—to fight for the No. 1 job. Brian Burke, hired as the president of hockey operations, could be in charge by Christmas if the Flames start slowly.


CENTRAL DIVISION

1. CHICAGO


2012-13: 36-7-5 (77 points), 1st in West and NHL.


The Blackhawks are deep up front and mobile on defense, and goaltender Corey Crawford shared the Jennings Trophy with Ray Emery for fewest goals against last season. Emery is gone, but Nikolai Khabibulin should be a solid backup. Playoff MVP Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain hungry after enjoying early success. The plodding Michal Handzus might not be the ideal No. 2 center, but Coach Joel Quenneville has flexibility to move players around.


2. ST. LOUIS


2012-13: 29-17-2 (60 points), 4th in West.


The Blues may be a solid center away from becoming a serious Cup contender. They have an outstanding defense led by Alex Pietrangelo (who re-signed for seven years), Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk, and they’re rugged up front. David Backes is a strong leader, and signing Brenden Morrow to a one-year deal was smart. They don’t have any dominant scorers, but they’re scrappy and fundamentally sound. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak ran into injuries last season, but the Blues could give the Blackhawks a good run for No. 1 in the division if Halak stays healthy.


3. MINNESOTA


2012-13: 26-19-3 (55 points), 8th in West


The Wild uncharacteristically spent big in 2012 to sign free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter but barely held off Columbus to keep the eighth West playoff spot. Defenseman Suter was a workhorse and provides leadership; Parise had 18 goals and 38 points in the short season. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom has recovered from sports hernia surgery. The Wild needs kids like Nino Niederreiter to step up and be part of a persistent, competitive group.


4. NASHVILLE


2012-13: 16-23-9 (41 points), 14th in West.


Although always well run, the Predators missed the playoffs last season after scoring a league-low 111 goals. They signed free-agent winger Viktor Stalberg to help, but a preseason shoulder sprain might idle him for the first month. Defense will be their strength again, with dominant Shea Weber, talented Roman Josi, and No. 4 draft pick Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. Goalie Pekka Rinne gives them a chance to grab a wild-card playoff spot.


5. DALLAS


2012-13: 22-22-4 (48 points), 11th in the West.


The Stars went to a good source when they needed a new general manager: They hired longtime Detroit assistant Jim Nill, who brought in former Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff. Nill traded for center Tyler Seguin, whose talent has nearly been counter-balanced by his immaturity, and the Stars need a focused, mature Seguin. Forward Valeri Nichushkin, the No. 10 pick in the draft, could make an immediate impact.


6. COLORADO


2012-13: 16-25-7 (39 points), 15th in West.


If only Hall of Famers Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic were in uniform instead of being the Avalanche’s coach and vice president of hockey operations, respectively. Roy and goaltending coach Francois Allaire have tried to revamp the style of goalie Semyon Varlamov (3.02 goals-against, .902 save percentage), which isn’t a bad thing. Colorado has some scoring threats up front in Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly, but the defense is porous.


7. WINNIPEG


2012-13: 24-21-3 (51 points), 9th in East.


The good news is that the Jets will fly fewer miles this season, moving to the West this season after being stuck in the East after their move from Atlanta. The bad news is they’re in a very tough division and forbiddingly competitive conference. They must reduce their goals against (144 last season, among the NHL’s worst) before they can make a push for a playoff spot.




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