Vancouver Canucks look to repeat as the No. 1 seed in the West this season. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
TEAMS LISTED IN PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
The Vancouver Canucks had the best record in the West last season and won the Presidents' Trophy for ranking No. 1 overall but were quickly bounced from the playoffs by the Kings. The No. 2-seeded St. Louis Blues and No. 3-seeded Phoenix Coyotes met the same fate. But it might not be as easy as 1-2-3 for the Kings again. A look at how the conference shapes up:
2011-12: 51-22-9 (111 points); 1st in West.
Will they trade goaltender Roberto Luongo? If they do, they should be fine with Cory Schneider, who replaced Luongo during the playoffs. The Canucks made a good add with free-agent defenseman Jason Garrison and have depth to withstand the indefinite absence of center Ryan Kesler (wrist and shoulder surgeries).
2. ST. LOUIS
2011-12: 49-22-11 (109 points); 2nd in West.
Another fine regular-season team that got a wake-up call in the playoffs. The Blues had the NHL's best goals-against average (1.86) and bring back goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Ken Hitchcock upped their physicality and was voted coach of the year last season. Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to add skill.
2011-12: 40-27-15 (95 points); 8th in West.
The first No. 8-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup returns nearly its entire roster, but the resources will be tested early without defense-minded defenseman Willie Mitchell (knee) and center Anze Kopitar (knee). Goalie Jonathan Quick, the playoff MVP, said he's fine after back surgery, but Kings fans will hold their collective breath until he proves it. Jeff Carter can fill in at center until Kopitar returns, probably in a week or two.
4. SAN JOSE
2011-12: 43-29-10 (96 points); 7th in West.
If the Sharks are ever going to win it all, this must be the year, because core players Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are getting well past 30. This team always turns out to be less than the sum of its parts but might have a push left with the additions of gritty Brad Stuart and Adam Burish.
2011-12: 45-26-11 (101 points); 6th in West.
Team captain Jonathan Toews and winger Marian Hossa have recovered from concussions, good news for a team that retained a strong core. The Blackhawks must improve their power play (26th last season) and penalty killing (27th). Goalie Corey Crawford (2.72 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) doesn't inspire much confidence, but their offense figures to be a big strength.
2011-12: 48-28-6 (102 points); 5th in West.
It's difficult to picture the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, whose retirement ended a marvelous career. They're still dangerous up front thanks to the magical Pavel Datsyuk and new team captain Henrik Zetterberg, but they have holes on defense and could be in a battle to make the playoffs.
2011-12: 35-36-11 (81 points); 12th in West.
Adding mobile, productive Ryan Suter should boost a power play that ranked 27th last season and bring leadership to a young defense corps. Winger Zach Parise (31 goals with New Jersey) will energize an offense that scored a league-low 177 goals last season. Watch for skillful Finnish rookie center Mikael Granlund to have an impact.
2011-12: 48-26-8 (104 points); 4th in West.
Losing Ryan Suter to free agency creates a huge hole on defense. The Predators are well coached by Barry Trotz and are always speedy and tenacious, but they lack a game-breaker up front. Mike Fisher (24 goals), Martin Erat and David Legwand must carry the offense again.
2011-12: 42-27-13 (97 points); 3rd in West.
Goalie Mike Smith (2.21, .930) had an outstanding 2011-12 season, and Coach Dave Tippett worked his usual magic to get a lot out of not much. Losing top scorer Ray Whitney (24 goals, 77 points) to free agency will be tough to make up. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 21, is a tremendous talent.
2011-12: 42-35-5 (89 points); 10th in West.
Wingers Ray Whitney (24 goals, 77 points with Phoenix) and Jaromir Jagr (19 goals, 54 points with Philadelphia) are both 40 but have defied age. If they can keep up with youngsters like Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, the Stars will be in the mix for a playoff spot.
2011-12: 41-35-6 (88 points); 11th in West.
Winger Gabriel Landeskog is precocious. The 20-year-old Swede was voted the NHL's rookie of the year last season and was named the Avalanche's captain. He and Matt Duchene are among the intriguing pieces on a team that needs strong leadership and stronger goaltending to crack the top eight in the West.
2011-12: 34-36-12 (80 points); 13th in West.