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2011-2012 Western Conference Prediction: Will the Canucks Stay on Top?

Jason LewisCorrespondent IIOctober 4, 2011

2011-2012 Western Conference Prediction: Will the Canucks Stay on Top?

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    The Western Conference is no place for a team that is faint at heart. It's going to be a dog fight in many of the divisions this season with multiple teams capable of grabbing division crowns. Even more compelling are the many story lines building up to the season.

    Can Vancouver recover from last seasons disappointment? Can Los Angeles prove they are ready? Is it finally the year for San Jose? Are the Blackhawks ready for a bounce back year? Is the reign of Detroit finally coming to a close?

    Whatever team you may have in this fight that is the Western Conference, it is shaping up to be an extremely exciting and competitive season. With many things to look forward to, and many teams tossing their hats into the mix of things, let's get down to business with how this whole thing will shape out.

15. Edmonton Oilers

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    There is just no reason to believe that the Edmonton Oilers can dig themselves out of the Western Conference basement.

    Why you ask? One reason is because they have done very little to improve their defense this offseason. The only notable additions are Cam Barker, who was bought out by Minnesota, and Andy Sutton, who was traded for Kurtis Foster, just one year into his two year contract with Anaheim.

    Yes a healthy Ryan Whitney will make a big difference to the Oilers but there is still a lot of work to be done to get them out of the basement in the defensive categories of: goals against per game, five-on-five goals for/against ratio and penalty kill.

    Edmonton does have some exciting and youthful forwards in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, but the bottom six is still very limited in its depth.

    It will be another year of learning for the kids of the Oilers, another high draft pick and another stepping stone to the future. Don't worry Edmonton fans, the dawn is coming.

    Players to watch: F Taylor Hall, F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F Jordan Eberle 

14. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    No doubt Columbus made a big splash this offseason acquiring forward Jeff Carter and overpaying adding defenseman James Wisniewski to the roster. But was it enough?

    Short answer: No

    Long Answer: Columbus is going to have to rely on much more then chemistry between Rick Nash and Carter if they want to be led to the promised land. Aside from Carter and Wisniewski, the Blue Jackets added just one other player to the team that played more then 50 games last season, and that was Radek Martinek.

    This is a team that struggled defensively last season and made almost zero changes to that area. They are also still looking for goaltender Steve Mason to find the form that earned him a Calder Trophy in 08-09.

    Bottom line is this: two players are not going to make a big enough difference to this Columbus team. More work needs to be done. A lot more. The only benefit here is that Jeff Carter can escape whatever ghosts that haunted him in Philadelphia when his play started to slip.

    Players to watch: F Rick Nash, F Jeff Carter, F Matt Calvert

13. Phoenix Coyotes

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    It's going to be a rough season in Glendale. The Coyotes, by all accounts, overachieved the last two seasons. And when it came time for playoffs, it really showed. Granted they had to play Detroit both of those series.

    Coach Dave Tippett should be commended for the job he has done here with the group in Phoenix, as should captain Shane Doan for his commitment to the organization. But this offseason saw a lot of departures and only a few arrivals to help plug the holes in the leaky ship. 

    One big hole has been left in the wake of Ilya Bryzgalov heading to Philadelphia. Splitting time for starts will be career back-ups Jason LaBarbara, and recently acquired Mike Smith. Don't look for either of these two to steal many games for Phoenix this year.

    The Coyotes have mixed up the forward crew essentially replacing, Vernon Fiddler, Lee Stempniak and Eric Belanger, with Daymond Langkow, Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Not exactly the biggest of upgrades.

    All Phoenix can hope for is good seasons from the likes of Yandle, Hanzal and Boedker, and an end to the holdout of Kyle Turris. Other then that, it looks as though a partial rebuild isn't far off for the Yotes.

    Players to watch: D Keith Yandle, F Martin Hanzal, F Mikkel Boedker 

12. Dallas Stars

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    Statistically, Dallas was middle of the road in both offense and defense, which is probably why they finished middle of the road in the standings. And in the offseason, they didn't exactly add a whole lot either way.

    They did however lose Brad Richards. And that is going to hurt. They are going to have to turn to Mike Ribeiro to center the top line. A role he isn't exactly suited for. Ribeiro is indeed a talented player, capable of some dandy playmaking, but he is going to have his work cut out for him now that he faces top shutdown units. 

    There are a lot of things to look forward to though with the Stars, Jamie Benn is coming off a standout year, Alex Goligoski is looking very solid and Loui Eriksson is proving he is a real star in this league.

    However, all things considered, Dallas was middle of the road last year, and they are the same team this year except for one thing: They don't have their former All-Star elite No.1 center. They also will struggle in a Pacific division that is top heavy in talented teams.

    Players to watch: F Jamie Benn, F Loui Eriksson, G Kari Lehtonen

11. Colorado Avalanche

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    Colorado fans have a lot to look forward to. And even this predicted finish comes with a big asterisk. They could finish much higher than this, but there are too many factors yet to be seen. Which is why we play the sport on ice and not on paper.

    A young core of Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reiley and Erik Johnson have been established in Denver, and they have added Semyon Varlamov and Gabriel Landeskog to that. 

    Where the unpredictable nature of the Avs comes in is with Peter Mueller, Kyle Quincey and David Jones.

    Mueller, and Quincey figured to be big parts of the Avs future, however both have struggled with injuries that have put them out for extended periods of time. Mueller is set to return this season with the Avs and Quincy also is healthy and ready to contribute.

    David Jones came out of nowhere in the wake of a struggling Colorado team last season and posted 27 goals. Can he repeat that kind of performance? If he can it would be a huge boost to the teams offense.

    A year of transition and feeling out will be in line for the Avs. A lot of injuries, and changes have taken place in the last couple seasons and they will adjust themselves back in to playoff contention soon. Just not this year.

    Players to watch: F Matt Duchene, D Erik Johnson, G Semyon Varlamov

10. Minnesota Wild

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    Minnesota had its difficulties last season in goal scoring. They weren't exactly a powerhouse offense team, nor were they anything more than an average defensive team. However, with the offseason acquisitions of Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and a healthy Guillaume Latendresse, the Wild are going to move forward this year.

    Heatley and Setoguchi will have to continue the type of play they brought to San Jose and bolster the meager top six of Minnesota. And for someone like Mikko Koivu or Pierre-Marc Bouchard that is music to the ears.

    On the defensive side of the puck Minnesota holds together their mid-table defensive crew but have youngsters Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk creeping their way towards the NHL. And as usual, Minnesota can expect solid starts from the tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.

    It will be a turn in the right direction this year for Minnesota but they'll come up just shy of a playoff berth.

    Players to watch: F Guillaume Latendresse, F Dany Heatley, G Niklas Backstrom

9. Nashville Predators

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    Nashville is a good hockey team. No doubt. They have a fantastic goalie, a great defense and an offense that scores in a gang rather than by individual performance.

    So why ninth? Why do they finish out of the playoffs? The Predators will become a victim of a numbers game in the West. Too many teams ahead of them have much more capability. It's not fair to call Nashville a one trick defense first hockey team. But to an extent it's true.

    This team prides itself on tough defense and offense by numbers, but those numbers are thinning. This offseason they lost timely goal scorer Joel Ward, and veterans Steve Sullivan and Marcel Goc. They may not seem like the most significant losses, but when you rely on scoring by committee it makes things tough, when there are no replacements.

    But this is a team that could edge themselves into an eight spot if they get good years from youngsters Nick Spaling, Colin Wilson and Matt Halischuk, and of course, another Vezina worthy year from goalie Pekka Rinne.

    Nashville will fight hard, and much respect must go to Barry Trotz, but they will have to fight their way into the playoffs carrying a little less of an arsenal.

    Players to watch: D Shea Weber, F Martin Erat, G Pekka Rinne

8. Calgary Flames

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    Calgary made a fantastic run last season and nearly squeaked in to the playoffs. But a late stumble down the stretch coupled with Anaheim and Nashville rising to the occasion left Calgary with their Flames doused.

    But this is a new year for Calgary. And a new year for captain Jarome Iginla. In fact last year, Calgary was a team in the bottom eight of the conference with a plus goal differential. It really was that close. 

    The Flames have the same old reliable work horses to count on, as well as some fresh new faces to help.

    The additions of Chris Butler from Buffalo, and Scott Hannan from Washington are going to be a big help to an already nasty back line that consists of puck mover Jay Bouwmeester and hard hitting Mark Giordano.

    And on the offensive side of the puck the Flames add Lee Stempniak who should be good for a solid 20 goals. They also get 22 year old sophomore forward Mikael Backlund with a year under his belt.

    Adding these elements to the existing core of Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque and a revitalized Alex Tanguay, is a formula for success. And that success will come in the form of the teams first playoff berth since 08-09.

    Players to watch: F Jerome Iginla, F Mikael Backlund, G Mikka Kiprusoff

7. Anaheim Ducks

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    As much as it pains me as a lifelong Kings fan to say, Anaheim will be back. And they will be the same nasty team they were a year ago.

    This offseason was probably pretty boring if you were a Ducks fan. Aside from the addition of Andrew Cogliano and J.F. Jacques there wasn't a whole lot to talk about. Aside from that whole Teemu Selanne guy coming back for another year...

    This is a Ducks core that is essentially the same as it was last year. Except they will have a healthy Ryan Getzlaf and more importantly, a healthy Jonas Hiller.

    There is also a bit of youth in Anaheim to be excited about. To go along with already young and impressive Cam Fowler, and Luca Sbisa, are forwards Brandon McMillan and Kyle Palmieri.

    Anaheim changed little from the formula that worked them into fourth in the conference last year, except other teams have made some big improvements. They will continue on and make their fifth playoff appearance in six seasons.

    Players to watch: F Teemu Selanne, F Corey Perry, G Jonas Hiller

6. St. Louis Blues

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    I think this is the season we see the St. Louis Blues breakout.

    For many seasons it's been one shortcoming after another that has kept them out of the post season. And last year was no different. But from the trade deadline on they posted a 10-8-2 record, which was a good turn around for the team down the stretch.

    St. Louis boasts a very talented group of young forwards like Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie, Chris Stewart, David Perron and Matt D'Agostini. But this offseason they took it to another level by adding veteran forwards Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and Jason Arnott. Not to mention they have David Backes, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen to toss in to this mix.

    And on the defensive side they will look to be led by youngsters Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, while relying on the steady Barret Jackman and Roman Polak

    St. Louis has all the pieces in place but must ultimately ask goaltender Jaroslav Halak to take control this season and show his worth. If they can get performances from Halak circa Montreal 2010, then things are looking good in the Gateway to the West.

    Players to watch: F Chris Stewert, G Jaroslav Halak, D Alex Pietrangelo 

5. Detroit Red Wings

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    Yeah, the Red Wings will fall off this year, and lose the Central, but it's not going to be a plummet from Everest. Detroit has two things that always keeps them up in the top of the league; experience, and a great coach in Mike Babcock.

    Detroit, no matter how old they seem to get, still have a number of elite players on the team that never seem to look slow. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are still two of the best two way forwards in the game, Todd Bertuzzi is still showing he has some life, and they get worthy contributions from guys like Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm and Johan Franzen.

    The Red Wings will also have the same defensive core they always have, with Niklas Kronwall, Vezina winner Nick Lidstrom, Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson. But you can toss in the names Mike Commodore, Ian White and the young Jakub Kindl this season.

    I don't think there is much to worry about this year if you are a Detroit fan, yea the coming future may be a bit of a scary thing to ponder, but as for right now plan on seeing the wing come May for another year.

    Players to watch: F Pavel Datsyuk, G Jimmy Howard, F Johan Franzen 

4. Los Angeles Kings

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    The biggest stories of this offseason have all circled around the Kings. First it was the trade for star center Mike Richards, then it was the holdout of Drew Doughty. But when all is said and done, the Kings have come away from last year making significant strides.

    What the team lacked last year was offense. And Dean Lombardi made sure to address that by trading away some promising young upstarts in Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, for established goal scorer Mike Richards. He followed it up with the signing of Simon Gagne as well.

    These additions come to the Kings who already had a decent array of forwards with All-Star Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Dustin Penner.

    What the Kings have established with their offseason moves is a competitive top six, and one of the deepest groups down the center in the West. However, their might still be some question to the quality of the bottom six.

    With the Kings keeping intact all six of last seasons defensmen, and continuing to go forward with the strong goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, they look to take a big stab at going deep.

    Players to watch: F Mike Richards, F Anze Kopitar, D Drew Doughty

3. Vancouver Canucks

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    Vancouver will not repeat as Western Conference champions. They may have won the Presidents trophy, and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. But ultimately it was one step forward, two steps back the for Vancouver Canucks.

    But let's not act like this isn't a great team. The Sedin twins have both won the MVP, they have standout defensemen in Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, and a solid one-two goaltending tandem in Luongo-Schneider.

    The biggest thing Vancouver lacks is depth. They make up for it with the huge amount of talent they do possess, but their lack of depth will truly be tested early in the season with both Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler out til somewhere around December. It also hurts the Canucks to lose blueliner Christian Erhoff, who was a prominent figure on the teams powerplay.

    They have youngsters Cody Hodgson and Chris Tanev waiting in the wings though, and a healthy Dan Hamhuis and Mikael Samuelsson will also help   

    The Canucks will also benefit, like they have before, from a weak division, where they will play over a quarter of their games this season.

    It feels like the same great team that Vancouver has had over the years but with just a little bit less this time around.

    Players to watch: D Kevin Bieksa, F Henrik Sedin, F Daniel Sedin

2. San Jose Sharks

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    The San Jose Sharks took the offseason and built on an already solid team, who had a solid year.

    The usuals of San Jose are all returning, Thornton, Pavelski, Clowe, Marleau and Couture. But they have added a fresh face to this top six that bodes well for both the offensive game but more so the defensive side of things. Martin Havlat.

    As well as adding a big name from Minnesota to the forward group, in a separate trade they added Brent Burns, one of the best puck moving D-men out west. The idea of a powerplay containing both Brent Burns and Dan Boyle is one that is a little intimidating.

    But like Chicago, the quality isn't in the stars, it's in the supporting cast. 

    San Jose has locked down their blueline with veterans Jim Vandermeer and Colin White, and are also looking to get a solid season from up-and-comer Jason Demers. On the forward side of the puck Michal Handzus as well as Havlat look to be prominent fixtures on the teams penalty kill, which was a dismal 24th in the league.

    In reality San Jose has not changed all that much to their lineup from last year, except with a few pieces here and there. But what they have done is add the right pieces to the right places.

    Players to watch: F Joe Pavelski, F Logan Couture, D Brent Burns

1. Chicago Blackhawks

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    It's time for a bounce back year for Chicago. The team that is full of young talent looks primed to return after what was a very difficult year of transition.

    Yes, they had to gut their roster, yes they struggled last year, yes they barely made the playoffs. But this is a Blackhawk team that still has incredible talent, and they have done well in adding to it this offseason.

    The Hawks still sport the usuals; Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp up front, and Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson in back.

    But where the Blackhawks have put it all together is the accompaniment. With additions of steady veteran play like Jamal Mayers, Sean O'Donnell, Andrew Brunette and Steve Montador, and sandpaper grit like Dan Carcillo, the task no longer falls on the small group of talent to get it done.

    The steady build up and acquisition of players like Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz are also starting to look like great ideas.

    Chicago now wields a pretty powerful line up top to bottom. Where they will get a lot of questions marks though is with goaltender Corey Crawford. However, the 26 year-old posted decent numbers last year and had a very solid post season. Expect him to do just fine.

    Moving forward, this might be a Chicago team that overshadows the championship team of 2009-2010.

    Players to watch: F Patrick Kane, G Corey Crawford, D Duncan Keith

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