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Western Conference preview

September 28, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, two talented forwards who play in the Eastern Conference, have been on the fast track to becoming the faces of the new NHL for a while now.

And rightfully so, based on their early success.

But news flash to the league: The Western Conference has a bunch of young phenoms too, starting with the Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Colorado's Paul Stastny and the Kings' Anze Kopitar.

Throughout the West, every team seems to have a youngster with enough size and skill to dominate offensively and enough grit to be known as a solid two-way player. How quickly they develop will go a long way toward determining who wins the Western Conference this season.

The Ducks hold the distinction as defending Stanley Cup champions, but for them to become the conference's first repeat winner since the Dallas Stars in 1999-2000, they are going to have to hold off several Cup-ready teams.

The San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings thought they were ready last season and are determined to take the next step this season. Colorado, Vancouver, Minnesota and Calgary believe this could be their time, while teams such as St. Louis, Dallas and even the Kings, think that they are good enough to surprise.

In predicted order of finish, with the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs:

1 Ducks. Even with the retirement status of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne up in the air, Coach Randy Carlyle's team has enough pieces in place to repeat. Everything starts with goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has been slowed by off-season hernia surgery. Carlyle's no-nonsense approach will keep the Ducks focused.

2 San Jose Sharks. It's time for goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to win a big series in the playoffs. Behind the all-around play of Joe Thornton, San Jose finished with 107 points in the regular season but was knocked out of the second round of the playoffs by Detroit. The Sharks return nearly the same lineup and will be in the hunt again.

3 Detroit Red Wings. The return of veteran goalie Dominik Hasek was important and the Red Wings have enough firepower to challenge. But Detroit can't expect veterans such as Chris Chelios and Hasek to carry the load every game. The key to the Red Wings' season will be whether players such as Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula are ready to dominate every night.

4 Minnesota Wild. The one-two scoring punch of Marion Gaborik and Pavol Demitra leads an opportunistic offense, but the Wild needs goaltender Niklas Backstrom to take his game to the next level. A difference-maker may be center Mikko Koivu, who has the ability to be a major standout in the league.

5 Colorado Avalanche. Led by Stastny, the Avalanche is loaded with young players who can play, which blends well with veterans such as Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan. Colorado failed to make the playoffs last season but finished with victories in 14 of its last 18 games. The question for the Avalanche is whether Jose Theodore or Peter Budaj can play well in goal.

6 Vancouver Canucks. Everything starts and ends with goaltender Roberto Luongo, who gives the Canucks a great chance to win every game. But they have to find a way to get better offensive balance to go along with Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Markus Naslund.

7 St. Louis Blues. Coach Andy Murray has put together a solid gritty team that added Paul Kariya during the off-season. The Blues have a solid core of defensemen led by Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer. If young Erik Johnson can step up, the defense will make goalie Manny Legace's job easier.

8 Kings. If young players such as Jack Johnson and Kopitar can step up this season, the Kings may finally end their playoff drought. Of course, Coach Marc Crawford has to get better production in net, which is no guarantee. But think about it: the Ducks vs. Kings in a first-round playoff matchup. That would be nice.

9 Calgary Flames. Winger Jarome Iginla and the Flames have a new coach in Mike Keenan, who was brought in to shake things up. With Mikka Kiprusoff starting in goal, Calgary should be a force.

10 Dallas Stars. Coach Dave Tippett's team still has proven players such as Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Mattias Norstrom, but the Stars will rely on new forces such as Jussi Jokinen and Stephane Robidas to carry them this season.

11 Edmonton Oilers. Joni Pitkanen and Sheldon Souray are new faces on defense and former Ducks forward Dustin Penner is one of the new guys up front. Dwayne Roloson remains at goaltender and he's joined by Mathieu Garon.

12 Chicago Blackhawks. If Martin Havlat can stay healthy and the Blackhawks' youngsters such as Tuomo Ruutu play well, Chicago could be a surprise team.

13 Nashville Predators. With Peter Forsberg's future undetermined, Nashville is counting on players such as Jason Arnott, Alexander Radulov and J.P. Dumont to carry the load.

14 Columbus Blue Jackets. Rick Nash may be one of the game's most underrated forwards but the Blue Jackets need big seasons from players such as Nikolai Zherdev, Many Malhotra and Sergei Fedorov.

15 Phoenix Coyotes. Coach Wayne Gretzky's team lacks depth and a proven goaltender, but other than that, the Coyotes should be better than last season.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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