After taking a look at the East earlier, here is a rundown of how I see the Western Conference shaking out this season…
1. Vancouver Canucks Difference-maker: Alex Burrows… Burrows missed the first handful of games of 2010-11 and wasn’t as effective as he had been in previous years. With Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond recovering from injuries, look for Burrows to elevate his game. Final outlook: This is a very talented team that enters the season with a chip on their shoulder after falling one win short of the Cup. But can they put it all in the rear view mirror and climb that mountain again? It won’t be easy. Prediction: 108 points; 1st Northwest Division; Western Conference Semifinals 2. San Jose Sharks Difference-maker: Brent Burns… Last postseason, particularly against Vancouver in Round 3, it was evident that Dan Boyle needed some help on defense. In comes Burns to save the day (Sharks fans hope), who was an All-Star last season for Minnesota. Final outlook: GM Doug Wilson is rolling the dice and moving his chips to the center of the table. Will his re-tooling finally deliver a title to the Bay Area? That question won’t be answered for at least seven months, but the pieces are in place. Prediction: 106 points; 1st Pacific Division; Western Conference Semifinals 3. Chicago Blackhawks Difference-maker: Duncan Keith… In 2009-10, Keith had a career year and won a Norris Trophy as a result. He was one of many that suffered from the Cup hangover last season, but he is in line for a bounce-back year. If I had to pick a Norris favorite today, I’d take Keith over Shea Weber by a hair. Final outlook: The ‘Hawks relied too much on their skill last year. So what did GM Stan Bowman do this summer? He added some grit and experience to the lineup, which should make a difference. They have the horses to win the rugged Central Division, and to make a run at another Stanley Cup. Prediction: 103 points; 1st Central Division; Western Conference champion 4. Los Angeles Kings Difference-maker: Dustin Penner… Penner’s first impression in L.A. was horrid, to be frank. But the off-ice distractions seem to be a thing of the past for Penner, who is in a contract year and has impressed in preseason action. Is a 30-goal season on the horizon? Final outlook: We’ll see pretty soon just how much the holdout will affect Drew Doughty. That said, it shouldn’t have an effect on a team that is well-built for the West. The Kings make the leap and become a legit Cup contender this season. Prediction: 104 points; 2nd Pacific Division; Western Conference Finals 5. Detroit Red Wings Difference-maker: Pavel Datsyuk… Datsyuk’s magician-esque skills make him the most complete player in the NHL; his two-way ability is unmatched. If the Wings can get a healthy season out of Datsyuk, he could be a dark horse for the MVP. Final outlook: Everyone is expecting, at some point, Detroit to take a slide due to their age. While I half-agree with that, this is still a dangerous threat in the West. It’s hard not to pick them to win the Central, given their annual success. They’ll be right there once again. Prediction: 101 points; 2nd Central Division; One-and-done 6. Anaheim Ducks Difference-maker: Bobby Ryan… I don’t know how realistic it is that Corey Perry scores 50 again. Yet, the Ducks’ offense is still potent. Ryan has averaged 33 goals over the last three years and could be primed to score a lot more in 2011-12. Final outlook: If you even out their March surge last year, this is a team that would have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And they didn’t really improve this summer. The playoffs are no sure thing, but they have too much talent to not put them here. Prediction: 99 points; 3rd Pacific Division; One-and-done 7. Nashville Predators Difference-maker: Patric Hornqvist… Hornqvist had a nine-goal drop-off from his 2009-10 total of 30; he categorized his 2010-11 season as a frustrating one. Look for him to get some of the breaks he got two years ago and come close to 30 goals again. Final outlook: Who was the NHL’s best this preseason? Nashville, at 7-1-0. Shea Weber and company got a taste of the second round last spring and want to get that same feeling again. They’ll have to continue to grind out goals, but Pekka Rinne will steal enough wins to put the Preds in the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. Prediction: 98 points; 3rd Central Division; One-and-done 8. St. Louis Blues Difference-maker: Jaroslav Halak… In his first eight starts in 2010-11, Halak went 6-1-1 with a miniscule 1.71 GAA; in his final 10 starts, he posted a 5-3-1 record and 2.29 GAA. In the other 39 starts, Halak went 11-16-5 with a 3.01 GAA. More consistency will push St. Louis into the postseason. Final outlook: Is this finally the year that the Blues put it all together and crack the conference’s top eight by season’s end? They have the talent to do so. With David Backes steering the ship as captain, there will be no excuses and no passengers. Prediction: 95 points; 4th Central Division; One-and-done
----- 9. Minnesota Wild Letdown player: Niklas Backstrom… Backstrom’s numbers post-Jacques Lemaire haven’t been great (.909 save percentage, 2.69 GAA in 108 starts). Expect more mediocrity from the Finn. Final outlook: New bench boss Mike Yeo has had good opening reviews, but the biggest test is ahead. The defense is filled with a bunch of no-names, but the offense is finally a threat to score with some frequency. They’ll come close to a playoff berth. Prediction: 93 points; 2nd Northwest Division 10. Calgary Flames Letdown player: Olli Jokinen… This is the obvious choice, right? The Flames are still looking for him to be a difference-maker; yet, if the marriage in Calgary hasn’t worked by now, what makes them believe it ever will? Final outlook: You know what you’re going to get from Jarome Iginla, but that’s about it. Miikka Kiprusoff is over the hill, the core is old, the defense is average and Brent Sutter flat-out isn’t a great coach. Iginla will keep them in the picture, but he can’t do it himself. Prediction: 90 points; 3rd Northwest Division 11. Dallas Stars Letdown player: Kari Lehtonen… Last year’s 68 starts and 2.55 GAA were career-highs for Lehtonen, who has had trouble staying healthy (and consistent) in the past. I don’t see him having as much success in his second full year in Big D. Final outlook: Dallas is being overlooked by a lot of pundits. In fact, if there is one of these non-playoff teams in the West that I think could be the biggest surprise, it’s the Stars. However, too many things have to happen for the Stars to snap their brief playoff drought. Prediction: 89 points; 4th Pacific Division 12. Columbus Blue Jackets Letdown player: Steve Mason… Columbus’ ‘future’ backstop has been a big disappointment in each of the last two years. He doesn’t have much competition behind him, which could either be a good or bad thing. Go with the latter. Final outlook: The organization invested a lot of money in improving the on-ice product over the summer, most notably trading for Jeff Carter. Though the Jackets have a nice mix of talent, youth and experience, a poor back end won’t keep enough pucks out of the net. Prediction: 85 points; 5th Central Division 13. Colorado Avalanche Letdown player: Erik Johnson… Johnson, who never really fit in with the Blues, would have been better off getting dealt to a team that already had a stud defenseman. Colorado relying on Johnson to be ‘the guy’ on defense is asking for it. Final outlook: Colorado is another team that is being overlooked, mostly because of their shoddy second half of 2010-11. Before that collapse, they were a playoff contender. Look for a happy medium with this year’s Avalanche. Prediction: 80 points; 4th Northwest Division 14. Phoenix Coyotes Letdown player: Ray Whitney… Whitney simply isn’t the steady 20-goal, 60-point player he was in Carolina for a handful of years. This is the final season that Whitney will play on the right side of 40 years old. Look for his production to begin on a gradual decline. Final outlook: The hard-working Coyotes have had a lot of breaks go their way in the last two years. While all the doubters could motivate this experienced team, there are a few substantial question marks that will be in the way of a third consecutive playoff appearance. Prediction: 76 points; 5th Pacific Division 15. Edmonton Oilers Letdown player: Ales Hemsky… The talented winger has never played a full 82-game season. While he is almost a point-per-game player when in the lineup, if he goes down to injury again, it will be an irreplaceable hole (in-house, at least) in Edmonton. Final outlook: GM Steve Tambellini and company have gathered a lot of premium prospects during their rebuild. Ryan Smyth makes a return to mentor the youngsters. The Oilers’ time to return to postseason contention will come – eventually. Prediction: 73 points; 5th Northwest Division
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