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NHL PREVIEW / WESTERN CONFERENCE

Will this finally be the year the Sharks win the Stanley Cup?

The Sharks look poised to finish at the top of the Western Conference, but San Jose has a history of falling flat in the playoffs. The Red Wings and Canucks should finish at the top of their respective divisions.

October 05, 2010|By Helene Elliott

WESTERN CONFERENCE TEAM PREVIEWS

In predicted order of rankings (division leaders are 1-2-3)

San Jose Sharks

2009-10 record: 51-20-11, 113 points.

Power play: 21.0% (fourth). Penalty killing: 85% (fifth).

Team goals-against average: 2.51 (eighth).

Leading scorer: Joe Thornton 20-69—89.

Outlook: Another strong regular-season performance ended short of the Cup, in a conference-final sweep by the Blackhawks. Will it ever be their year? The Canucks are the popular choice to emerge from the West but the Sharks still have an exceptional defense corps despite the retirement of Rob Blake. GM Doug Wilson secured Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski before they could become free agents and kept his core. The big change is in goal. Evgeni Nabokov was allowed to walk as a free agent and Wilson signed Antti Niemi away from salary cap-strapped Chicago and Antero Niittymaki from Tampa Bay. Neither can be called great but both of last season's Stanley Cup finalists got there with goaltending that was merely OK.

Detroit Red Wings

2009-10 record: 44-24-14, 102 points.

Power play: 19.2% (ninth). Penalty killing: 83.9% (10th).

Team goals-against average: 2.48 (seventh).

Leading scorer: Pavel Datsyuk 27-43—70.

Outlook: Injuries, not age, slowed them early last season. They won 16 of their last 21 games and got to the second round of the playoffs and have essentially the same team. The key addition is center Mike Modano, who is past his prime at 40 but should provide depth up the middle. Goalie Jimmy Howard ranked among the league leaders with a 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage as a rookie. They're older but only giveaway-prone Brian Rafalski shows signs of wear.

Vancouver Canucks

2009-10 record: 49-28-5, 103 points.

Power play: 20.9% (sixth). Penalty killing: 81.6% (18th).

Team goals against average: 2.63 (13th).

Leading scorer: Henrik Sedin 29-83—112 (league leader).

Outlook: Henrik Sedin, twin Daniel and winger Alex Burrows (a career-high 35 goals) were a potent line last season, but Burrows will start the season on injured reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Canucks do have some depth — Ryan Kesler is a monster and Mikael Samuelsson brought 30 goals and a wealth of winning experience last season, but they don't have much toughness after waiving Darcy Hordichuk. They were smart to sign defenseman Dan Hamhuis, and Alexander Edler has shown signs he can eat minutes. They've learned to play without Sami Salo (injured Achilles' tendon) and can do it again.

Chicago Blackhawks

2009-10 record: 52-22-8, 112 points.

Power play: 17.7% (16th). Penalty killing: 85.3% (fourth).

Team goals-against average: 2.43 (fifth).

Leading scorer: Patrick Kane 30-58—88.

Outlook: Their new name is What's-left-of-the-Blackhawks after a series of moves dictated by salary cap concerns. They had to trade or dump a lot of their depth players and probably will feel the loss most come playoff time. They still have a great core in Kane, playoff MVP Jonathan Toews, Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook but will miss the size and grit they lost. Defenseman Brian Campbell will miss the first month of the season after spraining his knee late in training camp, giving 19-year-old Nick Leddy a job.

Los Angeles Kings

2009-10 record: 46-27-9, 101 points.

Power play: 20.8% (seventh). Penalty killing: 80.3% (20th).

Team goals-against average: 2.52 (ninth).

Leading scorer: Anze Kopitar 34-47—81.

Outlook: Many players made their playoff debut last spring and should be better after experiencing the quick tempo, significance of every play, and the importance of holding leads. GM Dean Lombardi fortified a solid defense by signing free agent Willie Mitchell, who should help Drew Doughty win the Norris trophy. A productive second-line center and winger would make them dangerous and they could get those parts by trading a goalie once they settle the Jonathan Quick-Jonathan Bernier duel. Assistant coach John Stevens had excellent penalty killing units in the minor leagues and if he can get a slight improvement it could make a big difference.

St. Louis Blues

2009-10 record: 40-32-10, 90 points.

Power play: 16.9% (20th). Penalty killing: 86.8% (first).

Team goals-against average: 2.61 (12th).

Leading scorer: Andy McDonald 24-33—57.

Outlook: Acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens was an excellent move that should provide stability for a team that took a step backward last season after a strong 2008-09. Erik Johnson is a franchise player and leader of a young but promising defense. They score by committee rather than relying on one line, and they'll need David Backes to be the physical force he was on the U.S. Olympic team and Brad Boyes to end a goal-scoring decline from 43 to 33 to 14. The Blues were 23-15-4 after Davis Payne succeeded Andy Murray as coach so the potential is there for them to continue an upswing.

Phoenix Coyotes

2009-10 record: 50-25-7, 107 points.

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