A look at the Western Conference

This is going to be a 2-part posting looking at the Western and Eastern conferences to date and also looking ahead with all 30 teams. I'll give my opinions on each team and summarize their starts to the season. I'l start with the Western Conference

As always the Western Conference is the picture of parity with seeds 5-12 separated by a mere points. The tightness in the standings means one doesn't want to go on an extended losing streak.

More after the jump

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks (16-8-4; 36pts 2nd in Western Conference) Next 5: @NYI vs. SJ @MIN vs. ANA vs. CGY

Here's a team smelling blood and clearly motivated for redemption after a heartbreaking loss in the Stanley Cup playoffs vs. Vancouver. In fact one could make the argument that the Canucks did the Blackhawks a favor by beating them the way they did. All last season Chicago struggled to find its motivation/game after winning the Stanley Cup. Now Chicago finds itself second in the Western Conference. Marion Hossa has bounced back after a so-so year in 2010. Goalie Corey Crawford has been solid in net and captain serious Jonathon Toews has led the charge. Even Patrick Kane who likes to beat up taxi drivers in his spare time has appeared focused. Yes the Blackhawks are back and are a force to be reckoned with.

Detroit Red Wings (16-8-1; 33pts 4th in Western Conference) Next 5: @STL vs. PHX vs. WPG @PIT @NAS

After a rocky start to the season where concern was raised about the play of Henrik Zetteberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings have turned things around thanks to some solid goaltending from Jimmy Howard and are right back to challenging for the Central Division title. This is a veteran team with a few aging stars including Captain Nick Lidstrom and Todd Bertuzzi. Provided they remain healthy and manage minutes the Red Wings will be a dangerous team to face in the Playoffs.

St. Louis Blues (14-9-3; 31pts 6th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. DET vs. ANA vs. SJ vs. NYR @NAS

St. Louis meh. They haven't been playing terrible but they haven't exactly been lighting up the league either. Their a low-scoring team and they limit the goals they allow. Like in Vancouver the back-up goalie (Brian Elliott) is outplaying the starter (Jan Halak). St. Louis has a tendency to take penalties. They'll be in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots but they'll be golfing early. An interesting note: the team has basically been the same for the past 5 seasons.

Nashville Predators (12-10-4; 28pts 11th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. PHX @CBJ vs. NAS vs. CGY vs. DET

The Nashville organization should be patting itself on the back for patience and perseverance. They had their best season as a team in 2010 finally cracking the second round of the playoffs AND they did it with the only head coach in Barry Trotz the team has ever had. Nashville has always been a low-scoring, opportunistic team. Their style of play involves them hanging around and then like, well a Predator they go in for the kill. It certainly helps having an athletic 6'8" goalie in Pikke Rinne between th pipes. The next 2 seasons will be pivotal in Nashville with three superstars set to test the free agent market (Rinne, and stalwart defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In order to have a hope in signing all three to long-term deals the Predators will need to convince one or more to take a home-town discount which will mean they need success in the playoffs this year and next.

Columbus Blue Jackets (7-16-3; 17pts 15th in Western Conference) Next 5: @MTL vs. NAS vs. BOS vs. VAN vs. LA

What can be said about Columbus? Generally it doesn't make for success when you can't score and when your goalie can't stop a beach ball. Steve Mason is having an awful season stopping just 87.5% of the shots he's faced. Beyond Rick Nash and Jeff Carter the hopes for offense dry up pretty quickly. Look for Nash and Carter to be representing Canada at the world championships in April. Another big reason why Columbus is struggling is a token to the poor drafting by the team. It also doesn't help being on a budget when it comes to signing free agents. The next 3 years at least seem pretty bleak for this organization.

Pacific Division

LA Kings (13-9-4; 30pts 8th in Western Conference) Next 5: @ANA vs. MIN vs. DAL @BOS @CBJ

The LA Kings should be kicking themselves for playing hardball with star Drew Doughty and allowing him to miss the first month and a bit of the season. The Kings deeply missed his point shot and his defensive acuity. It will be interesting to see if fatigue is a factor as the season wears on seeing as how they started in Europe and thus have an extra hard travel schedule this year. To conserve energy look for the Kings to play a more defensive style and to rely on goalie Jonathon Quick to stop the puck. LA will be fighting for the final spots of the playoffs.

Phoenix Coyotes (14-9-3; 31pts; 7th in Western Conference) Next 5: @NAS @DET vs. MIN @PHX vs. EDM

Gary Bettman's oops I meant the NHL'S team has been a pleasant surprise this year. Despite all the ownership conundrum the Coyotes have banded together as a lunch-bucket crew playing every game as though it is the last in Phoenix. In the season series vs. Winnipeg, the team it replaced in 95-96, the teams are tied at one win apiece. I love the mix of players on this team from Shane Doan, a lifetime member to gritty Raffi Torres to the resilient Taylor Pyatt who endured losing his fiancée a couple of years back in a car accident. Goalie Jason Labarbera is getting the opportunity to get the bulk of the work following the trade of Ilya Bryzgalov. Expect Phoenix to make the playoffs but not advance past round 1 due to lack of depth. Dream Stanley Cup Final: Winnipeg vs. Phoenix with Winnipeg taking it to snub Bettman for getting out of the Winter city in the first place (not going to happen though because if it does EA has to destroy its stimulator).

Anaheim Ducks (7-14-5; 19pts 14th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. LA @STL @NAS vs. PHX @ CHI

A couple of very surprising things are happening with this team. First goalie Jonas Hiller has been an utter disaster in net, partially explainable by the mental challenge of coming back from dizzy spells. What's more troubling is the play of reigning league MVP Corey Perry and his linemates Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf. Their struggles directly resulted in the dismissal of head coach Randy Carlyle who was recently replaced by Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau is not an easy coach to work under and surely he will cause tension in the locker room which can't bold well for this struggling team. If Anaheim continues in this fashion let the fire sale begin, perhaps starting with Bobby Ryan or Teemu Selanne.

San Jose Sharks (14-8-1; 29pts 9th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. MIN vs. DAL @STL @CHI @COL

For the San Jose Sharks this season won't be measured in the regular season but rather in the playoffs. Like the Canucks the Sharks are a team that traditionally perform well in the marathon but falter in the sprint to the finish line. This year they added solid top-4 defenseman Brent Burns to the mix while deleting the underachieving Devin Setoguchi and locker room cancer Dany Heatley. They also had to take on another locker room cancer in Martin Havlat. For this team its mind over matter battle of the wills. Until they win the Stanley Cup they will forever be known as chokers.

Dallas Stars (15-10-1; 31pts 2nd in Western Conference) Next 5: @SJ @LA @NYR @NYI @NJ

The future of the Dallas Stars is looking a whole lot brighter with the recent purchase of the team by new Owner Tom Gaglardi who recently lost a court appeal in an attempt to purchase his hometown Canucks. Sheldon Souray has provided stability to a youthful back end and goalie Keri Lehtonen has been solid between the pipes. Look for Dallas to be a dark horse in the playoffs.

NW Division

Vancouver Canucks (15-10-1; 31pts 5th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. COL @MTL @OTT @CBJ @CAR

As has been the case for the past several seasons, the Canucks got off to a slow start in October/November. This led to the Canucks changing things up via trade with Florida seeing the struggling Mikael Samuelsson leave town along with free agent bust Marco Sturm. In their place the Canucks received David Booth and Stephen Reinprecht. Booth is starting to gel with friend Ryan Kesler and fellow American Chris Higgnis. The recent return of Mason Raymond from a broken back can only add to the explosiveness of the line-up. At the moment the biggest concerns facing the Canucks is consistent goaltending from Starter Roberto Luongo, playing a sixty minute game, and a lack of toughness. Luongo has very much been Jekyll/Hyde this season at times flashing his all-star form and also being prone to giving up more than the occasional bad goal. Luckily back-up Corey Schneider has been brilliant thus lighting a fire under Luongo's butt. With regards to the question of toughness, the Canucks lost a fair chunk of grit from their line-up with the departure of Raffi Torres to Phoenix and the recent season ending shoulder surgery to Aaron Volpatti. The Canucks will once again be judged by their performance in the playoffs, much like the Sharks.

Calgary Flames (11-13-2; 24pts 13th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. CAR vs. COL vs. EDM @NAS @TB

Its the same old same old for the Calgary Flames. They don't score a lot and they have a tendency to take a lot of penalties. Center Brendan Morrison is once again bothered by a wonky knee. They ride Miikka Kipprusoff hard and by the end of the season he is too fatigued to be effective. They Flames are very much a veteran team and they have few solid prospects down in Abbotsford. Also Head Coach Brent Sutter is the wrong one for this team. His success came at the junior level and this is a veteran team he is leading. Sorry Flames fans but your team is a ways away from contending again (2-3yrs at least).

Edmonton Oilers (13-11-3; 29pts; 10th in Western Conference) Next 5: vs. CAR vs. COL @CAL @PHX @SJ

The Edmonton Oilers are a good young hockey team who is starting to show signs of becoming a formidable opponent. This Oilers line-up is full of blue-chip prospects from this years 1st overall pick and Calder trophy candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Sam Gagner to Taylor Hall. For the Oilers speed is the name of the game. Coach Tom Renney has done a great job developing the kids. Veterans like Ryan Smyth and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who has provided solid netminding so far, have also been great leaders for this group. Once Edmonton makes the playoffs, be it this year or the next they will have a great chance to do some damage. For now its about getting the young players lots of minutes and continuing to improve as a team. The Oilers window to win might be soon as their blue-chip prospects will eventually become free agents and command big bucks.

Minnesota Wild (17-7-3; 37pts 1st in Western Conference) Next 5: @SJ @LA @PHX @WPG vs. CHI

TThe Minnesota Wild have been a pleasant surprise this season as they are first in the Western Conference where many pundits would have picked them to struggle again. GM Chuck Fletcher is looking like an Absolute genius for acquiring locker room cancer Dany Heatley and the struggling Devin Setoguchi in exchange for locker room cancer Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. Heatley in particular looks especially motivated at this time, whether it continues remains to be seen. It's really helped that the goaltending tandem of Nikolai Backstrom and Josh Harding has been equally solid thus far. As is usually the case with this team they wait for the other team to make a mistake then capitalize. They don't score a lot but they don't give up a lot of goals either. I expect the Wild to make the playoffs at this point but they won't make it past round 1.

Colorado Avalanche (13-13-1; 27pts 12th in Western Conference) Next 5: @VAN @CGY @EDM vs. SJ @SJ

When your letting in more goals then you can score chances are you'll be near the bottom of the conference. This is the case for Colorado as Peter Budaj has not looked good this season. Colorado has several blue chip prospects in their line-up including Matt Duchene and hard-hitting Defenseman Erik Johnson. Rookie coach Joe Sacco has definitely shown his lack of experience when it comes to coaching. The Avs are a couple of years away from being competitive. In the meantime if they need help having a good time they can always turn to Mr. Party Animal Shane O'Brien for advice.

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