NHL Western Conference outlook

NHL Western Conference outlook
September 26, 2013, 12:00 pm
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Jonathan Quick and the Kings defeated the Blues in six games in last year's Western Conference quarterfinals. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

The Sharks have been in the playoffs nine straight years, but are yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Is this their year? (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Pacific Division

*1 – Los Angeles Kings: Most NHL teams dream of having a tandem like Jonathan Quick in goal and Drew Doughty on defense, and add a highly skilled and tough-as-nails forward group, and the Kings still look like a Stanley Cup contender.

*2 – San Jose Sharks: The Sharks could be the strongest NHL team at the center position, and can boast of a deep defensive unit in front of one of the league’s best goaltenders in Antti Niemi. Their biggest weakness is depth up front, especially at wing, and that’s already taken a hit with Raffi Torres’ ACL injury.

*3 – Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks, who made one of the summer’s biggest trades by sending Bobby Ryan to Ottawa, could be energized by Teemu Selanne’s farewell tour. They will miss Ryan’s production, though, even though young Jakob Silfverberg is an intriguing prospect.

*4 – Edmonton Oilers: These guys are due, aren’t they? Another new coach and an upgraded defense will mean the Oilers’ talented young guns will finally get into the postseason after years of disappointment leading to high draft picks. David Perron was a nice offseason addition, too.

5 – Vancouver Canucks: Sharks fans got an up-close look at the decline of the Canucks, and Vancouver’s offseason moves did nothing to help. Pressure will be on Roberto Luongo in his return as the undisputed starter, and forward depth is an issue in what looks to be a very top-heavy offense.

6 – Phoenix Coyotes: The addition of Mike Ribeiro was significant in that it should help a weak offense, and showed new ownership plans on being much more aggressive than when the Coyotes were still league-owned. Mike Smith and the Coyotes’ defense remain a strong suit, but there aren’t nearly enough goal-scorers here.

7 – Calgary Flames: A good candidate for worst team in the league. There isn’t much of anything to look forward to this season at the Saddledome, as the Flames enter a rebuild.

Central Division

*1 – St. Louis Blues: Had they not faced the Kings in the first round of the playoffs, the Blues could very well have made a deep playoff run. This team looks like it’s ready to be a serious challenger, and may have the deepest blue line in the NHL. Getting veteran Brenden Morrow at a reasonable salary was a shrewd move, too, and he’ll help get head coach Ken Hitchcock’s message across.

*2 – Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks probably won’t waltz through the regular season like they were able to in 2013, but the team that’s on the brink of a dynasty will still be among the NHL’s best. They did lose a few players such as playoff hero Dave Bolland, but it wasn’t nearly the same as the dismantling of their 2010 championship squad.

*3 – Minnesota Wild: After adding Ryan Suter and Zach Parise last summer, a first round exit was disappointing for the Wild. Still, with a full training camp this season, the Wild should be much better out of the gate and will be in the mix for a playoff spot.

*4 – Dallas Stars: The defense is still incredibly thin, but the Stars aggressively remade their look up front when they acquired Tyler Seguin from Boston. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin has been described by some as the most NHL-ready of the players drafted in June, and Kari Lehtonen is still steady enough in net.

5 – Colorado Avalanche: Rookie Nathan MacKinnon will jump into a young offensive group, but like Dallas, defense is a major weakness for the Avalanche. The goaltending, too, leaves a lot to be desired.

6 – Nashville Predators: All eyes will be on rookie Seth Jones, whom the Predators hope develop into Suter’s replacement. Pekka Rinne remains an elite goaltender, although he is coming off of a down season in 2013. There isn’t enough skill up front for Nashville to contend.

7 – Winnipeg Jets: The Jets aren’t in compete disarray like some other teams, but someone’s got to bring up the rear in the Central, right? Winnipeg’s roster features too many good-but-not-great players, including offseason addition and former Shark Devin Setoguchi.

* = playoff team

Conference Finals: Blues over Blackhawks