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NHL PREVIEW | WESTERN CONFERENCE

A New Crop Should Rise

October 02, 2005|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The mighty have fallen in the Western Conference.

Age, hard mileage and the constraints of the new salary cap have weakened the Avalanche, Red Wings and Stars, who won six of the last nine Stanley Cup championships. By contrast, the Flames might be better than they were during their surprise run to the 2004 final, the Oilers got stronger after a barely failed playoff run, and even the Blackhawks are stirring after years of poor management.

"For our team in Calgary, there is higher expectations, and it is a change," Calgary forward Jarome Iginla said. "Before, we had expectations of just trying to scrape into the playoffs. Now we believe we're a playoff team. We have to go prove that, and after that, we want to win."

The physical and emotional toll of an 82-game season and playoff marathon have become so steep that few teams in the last decade have been competitive the season after they reached the final. But precedents might not mean much this season, which follows the unprecedented cancellation of a season because of a labor dispute.

The extended rest afforded by the lockout might benefit older players such as Detroit's Steve Yzerman, but he -- like countless others -- pulled a groin muscle while trying to get back into game shape.

Players who competed in Europe or the minor leagues during the lockout -- especially youngsters -- gained experience that could help them this season.

It's also impossible to predict the impact of rule changes the NHL has instituted to promote scoring. Small players such as Paul Kariya, who left Colorado for Nashville, may see their stock rise if they have room to maneuver. Puck-moving defensemen such as Chris Pronger, who was traded from St. Louis to Edmonton, are valuable commodities.

"Teams are going to look great on paper and teams that have made a lot of moves and feel like they have improved their clubs a lot, nobody really knows how teams are going to play under the new rules," Pronger said. "It's kind of a crapshoot right now."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

IN ORDER OF PLAYOFF PROSPECTS

1. CALGARY FLAMES

* Coach: Darryl Sutter, third season.

* 2003-04 record: 42-30-7-3, 94 points, third in Northwest Division.

* Player to watch: Right wing Jarome Iginla emerged as a franchise player during the Flames' run to the final. The sturdy right wing signed a three-year deal, showing a commitment to a young team.

* Outlook: Right wing Tony Amonte should boost the offense, Darren McCarty ups the toughness quotient for all those division games, and Roman Hamrlik brings depth to a formidable defense corps that includes Jordan Leopold and can withstand the projected monthlong loss (sprained knee) of Robyn Regehr. Right wing Chuck Kobasew flourished in the American Hockey League during the lockout. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff led the league in 2003-04 with a 1.69 goals-against average and tied for the best save percentage, .933.

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2. SAN JOSE SHARKS

* Coach: Ron Wilson, third season.

* 2003-04 record: 43-21-12-6, 104 points, first in Pacific.

* Player to watch: Goalie Evgeni Nabokov compiled a 1.71 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in carrying the Sharks to the conference final. He won at least 30 games in three of the four seasons before the lockout and should match or top that.

* Outlook: They're fast. They're playoff-seasoned. They're young and they have an effective motivator in Wilson. There's a lot to like about the Sharks, although they might need help on the blue line after the departure of Mike Rathje. Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo shared the team lead in 2003-04 with 28 goals, and neither has peaked. Good financial and strategic planning has put the Sharks in position to excel under the cap and offense-friendly rules.

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3. DETROIT RED WINGS

* Coach: Mike Babcock, first season.

* 2003-04 record: 48-21-11-2, 109 points, first in Central and overall.

* Player to watch: The Red Wings sweated while center Pavel Datsyuk considered playing in Russia. They couldn't have replaced the team-leading 30 goals and 68 points he had in 2003-04.

* Outlook: Someone has to win the Central and get the No. 3 seeding. Steve Yzerman is 40 and starts the season with a groin injury. Chris Chelios will be 44 in January, two days after Brendan Shanahan turns 37. This is a veteran group, and there's not enough young talent to step in and keep the Red Wings among the elite. They had a setback last week when defenseman Niklas Kronwall suffered a knee injury and will undergo surgery. He'll be out four to six months. That will put more pressure on Chris Osgood, back for a second stint in goal.

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4. VANCOUVER CANUCKS

* Coach: Marc Crawford, seventh season.

* 2003-04 record: 43-24-10-5, 101 points, first in Northwest.

* Player to watch: Todd Bertuzzi. His suspension for a blindside hit of Colorado's Steve Moore was lifted by Commissioner Gary Bettman, but will he shy away from contact? If he does, his effectiveness will be limited. He's also facing a lawsuit filed by Moore, a potential distraction.

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