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Plenty of talented NHL teams out West

NHL PREVIEW / WESTERN CONFERENCE

Competition is expected to be at a high level again, as teams rapidly mature, revive or reload.

October 06, 2010|By Helene Elliott

Seven of the NHL's top 10 teams last season came from the West, including the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The West should be competitive at a high level again this season. If the Detroit Red Wings avoid injuries, they could be better than last season's No. 5 seeding. The Kings and St. Louis Blues are on the rise. Perennial power San Jose has reloaded after defenseman Rob Blake retired and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov left as a free agent.

Here are some stories to watch for:

Break up the Blackhawks!

Oh, wait … the Stanley Cup champions did that themselves.

Salary cap concerns, worsened by a high arbitration award to goalie Antti Niemi, forced General Manager Stan Bowman to disperse about a third of last season's team. They have their core — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — but they will miss gritty players such as Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and John Madden.

Marty Turco, hoping a change of scenery from Dallas to Chicago will revive his career, will take over the goaltending while Cristobal Huet gets paid $5.625 million to play in Switzerland and not count against the Hawks' salary cap. What a world.

Seeing Red

The Detroit Red Wings are old. Nicklas Lidstrom must be human: He wasn't a finalist for the Norris trophy after winning that honor six times. And so on.

Write them off at your peril. The Red Wings manage to find gems in the late rounds of the draft, let players get seasoned and learn their system to perfection, and then blend newcomers into the lineup gradually. They were thinned by injuries early last season but were nearly unstoppable after the Olympic break. This season, they will have winger Jiri Hudler back from Russia's KHL and they signed an aging but still useful Mike Modano.

If they can avoid injuries they could go deep in the playoffs.

Once and future Kings

The Kings might be grateful they lost the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Instead of investing $100 million in one scorer, prolific though he is, they can instead retain players in their rapidly maturing young core.

Defenseman Drew Doughty, a finalist for the Norris trophy last season, will have more freedom to push up ice as the Kings try to generate more five-on-five scoring. He could easily beat last season's 16 goals and 59 points. They need second-line scoring but have a surplus of young defensemen and goalies to trade for the scorer they need. Improving a 20th-ranked penalty killing unit would make life easier and that's fixable. If a few things fall right they could be dangerous.

Desert Dogs … or deserted dogs?

The Phoenix Coyotes were the feel-good story of the NHL last season. Despite uncertainty over their ownership and their future — they're still being operated by the league and awaiting a sale — they racked up 50 wins and 107 points behind Coach of the Year Dave Tippett.

Their speed created havoc and their goaltending was superb, behind Ilya Bryzgalov's 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Signing free agent Ray Whitney brought them experience and smarts. They're fun to watch — but unless a buyer steps up by the end of the year and reaches a lease agreement with the city of Glendale, Ariz., they could move next summer.

A nation turns its lonely eyes to them

The Vancouver Canucks are a popular pick to bring the Stanley Cup home to Canada for the first time since 1993, and it's easy to see why.

Henrik Sedin won the scoring title with 112 points and was voted the league's most valuable player. Goalie Roberto Luongo, no longer bearing the responsibility of the captaincy, is expected to better focus on his game after two straight second-round losses to the Blackhawks. Defenseman Dan Hamhuis, signed as a free agent, is an excellent puck mover, and Alexander Edler is an emerging star.

But the defense is kind of thin after those two and Christian Ehrhoff and there's not a lot of muscle in the lineup. They should be able to overcome injuries to defenseman Sami Salo and winger Alex Burrows.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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