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NHL PREVIEW

Let's Drop The Puck

October 09, 2008|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The NHL's Eastern Conference produced many of last season's major award winners, but Western Conference teams have won the last two Stanley Cup championships -- the Ducks in 2007 and Detroit last season.

The most prolific teams were from the East: Montreal (262 goals) and Ottawa (261). West teams, however, ranked 1-2-3 in team goals-against and 1-5 in penalty killing.

East is east and west is west and the twain will meet more often, thanks to a long-overdue schedule reconfiguration. That's about all we can be sure of in the NHL's 91st season.

A look at the NHL by conference:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Don't be surprised if . . .

* The Detroit Red Wings repeat as Cup champions.

They added Marian Hossa to a prolific offense and watched Henrik Zetterberg blossom into the NHL's top two-way forward. Chris Chelios, 46, has a broken leg and will miss the first six weeks of what might be his final season. But that's what everyone said 10 years ago, too.

* The Kings improve but still miss the playoffs.

New Coach Terry Murray is asking forwards to help a raw but promising defense that includes Drew Doughty, 18, and Jack Johnson, 21. Forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll should lead the offense. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, sent to the American Hockey League, will push Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg.

* Brian Burke leaves Anaheim after this season.

The GM is far from his four oldest kids, who live on the East Coast, and he'd like to cut his travel. Love him or hate him, he won the Cup in 2007 and put to rest the myth that sun and surf prevent California teams from winning. The Ducks can contend for the Cup if Brendan Morrison's surgically repaired knee holds up.

* The San Jose Sharks don't win it all.

They won't win anything, ever, until they find some guts. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are elite players but this team has made too many early playoff exits to be taken seriously.

* The Chicago Blackhawks make a run at a playoff spot.

GM Dale Tallon has loads of talent, most notably rookie of the year Patrick Kane, 20-year-old team captain Jonathan Toews and defenseman Brian Campbell. But goalie Cristobal Huet is inconsistent.

* The Calgary Flames are tougher this season.

Defenseman Robyn Regehr called out some of his teammates for lacking gumption. So the Flames added Todd Bertuzzi after he was bought out by the Ducks, former King Mike Cammalleri and rugged winger Rene Bourque.

* The Predators are competitive again.

Coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile do the most with the fewest resources. They've had to trade some young standouts but continue to replenish the talent.

* The Phoenix Coyotes are exciting but a flop at the gate.

Wayne Gretzky has gathered speed and skill, and the addition of long-suffering Olli Jokinen (723 NHL games without appearing in the playoffs) was smart. Unfortunately, their fan base has dwindled. Name to remember: Viktor Tikhonov. Grandson of the legendary Soviet coach, the right wing was a first-round pick in June.

* Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo discovers the only impact of being the team captain is he gets the check at team dinners.

The first goalie to be named captain in more than 60 years. The move is symbolic and may set the tone for the season.

* The St. Louis Blues miss the playoffs by a lot.

Imagine, Andy Murray having a great impact over the short term and then wearing out his welcome. This isn't completely his fault, though. Erik Johnson's injury leaves the Blues thin on defense.

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

Don't be surprised if . . .

* The defending East champion Pittsburgh Penguins don't get rolling until Christmas.

They lost Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone to free agency and won't have defensemen Ryan Whitney (foot surgery) and Sergei Gonchar (shoulder surgery) for a while. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will carry them past any bumps.

* Washington's Alexander Ovechkin improves on last season's 65-goal, 112-point effort.

He is that good. And the Capitals have some fine talent around him, notably forward Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green. Coach Bruce Boudreau, who toiled in the minors for years, deservedly was voted coach of the year last season.

* Ron Wilson, the Toronto Maple Leafs' new coach, tires of the scrutiny at the Center of the Hockey Universe.

He has a tough job with a team that may be waiting until Ducks General Manager Brian Burke's contract expires. Mats Sundin hasn't committed to returning. Who can blame him? The Leafs' 41-year Stanley Cup drought will continue.

* The Montreal Canadiens have an exceptional season.

They need 21-year-old goaltender Carey Price to take another step up and the kid just might deliver. They've added enforcer Georges Laraque to discourage runs at the little guys up front.

* After a big leap forward, the Philadelphia Flyers slip a bit.

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