Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, left, stops Chicago Blackhawks' Brandon Saad (20) in the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013 in Detroit. NHL realignment could make the west a little less wild this season.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Duane Burleson
NHL realignment could make the west a little less wild this season.
Gone are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, with the Winnipeg Jets getting their wish for a geographical relocation to the Western Conference. Fourteen teams will compete for the West's eight playoff spots, compared to 16 in the East.
The Central Division has the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Jets. The Pacific has the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks.
With almost the same team back that won it all last season, the Blackhawks are favoured to win the Central again. But the Blues are a chic Cup pick thanks to goaltending, coaching and an intriguing mix of youth and veterans.
In the Pacific, the Canucks and Oilers have new coaches and different expectations. Roberto Luongo is back as Vancouver's starting goaltender, this time under coach John Tortorella, making for plenty of unpredictability in Vancouver.
Under the new playoff format, the top three teams from each division make it, along with the two teams with the next-highest point totals. The top wild-card team plays the division champion with the most points, making for cross-over potential.
Here's a look at the Western Conference in the predicted order of finish by division (asterisk indicates wild-card playoff teams):
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 36-7-5, 77 points, 1st seed in West, won Stanley Cup
Who's gone: C Dave Bolland, F Viktor Stalberg, RW Michael Frolik, LW Dan Carcillio, RW Rostislav Olesz, G Ray Emery
Who's new: G Nikolai Khabibulin
How they make the playoffs: It's not "The Streak" Part 2, but everything goes according to plan. GM Stan Bowman works toward long-term contract extensions for Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews, which are completed in the summer.
How they miss the playoffs: Corey Crawford crumbles under higher expectations, and the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover costs the Blackhawks valuable points. Depth forwards counted on to step up are unable to do so, and injuries lead to a disastrous season in Chicago.
2. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 29-17-2, 60 points, 4th seed in West, lost in conference quarter-finals to Los Angeles
Who's gone: LW David Perron, F Andy McDonald, D Kris Russell
Who's new: F Magnus Paajarvi, C Derek Roy, LW Brenden Morrow C Maxim Lapierre
How they make the playoffs: Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak find harmony as No. 1 and No. 1A goaltenders, and Ken Hitchcock continues to prove he's one of hockey's brightest coaches. Jay Bouwmeester thrives with less pressure on him.
How they miss the playoffs: Goaltending injuries and struggles thrust Jake Allen into the starting role, and the 23-year-old can't handle it. The forward mix of stable veterans and young unknowns isn't quite right.
3. Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 24-21-3, 51 points, 9th in East, missed playoffs by 4 points
Who's gone: RW Antti Miettinen, D Derek Meech
Who's new: RW Devin Setoguchi, RW Michael Frolik, C Mark Scheifele, D Jacob Trouba
How they make the playoffs: It finally comes together for a young core led by Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd. Scheifele and Trouba provide sparks, and MTS Centre gets to host a Stanley Cup playoff game for the first time.
How they miss the playoffs: Much-maligned goaltender Ondrej Pavelec can't stop the puck, putting coach Claude Noel on the hot seat in the process. The Jets find out that while travel is easier, things are much harder in the Western Conference than in the Southeast Division.
4. Dallas Stars
Last season: 22-22-4, 48 points, 11th in West, missed playoffs by 7 points
Who's gone: RW Loui Eriksson, LW Eric Nystrom, D Philip Larsen, G Richard Bachman
Who's new: C Tyler Seguin, C Rich Peverley, RW Valeri Nichushkin, C Shawn Horcoff, D Sergei Gonchar, G Dan Ellis
How they make the playoffs: GM Jim Nill's moves all come up gold, as Seguin blossoms into a No. 1 centre, and Gonchar provides veteran experience on the blue-line. Kari Lehtonen manages to stay healthy and gets into the discussion among elite goaltenders.
How they miss the playoffs: Distracted by his snub from Canadian Olympic camp, Jamie Benn struggles early, and the rest of the offence can't compensate. It's another year of growth for young players, while veterans like Ray Whitney and Horcoff see another season wasted.
5. Minnesota Wild
Last season: 26-19-3, 55 points, 8th seed in West, lost in conference quarter-finals to Chicago
Who's gone: C Matt Cullen, RW Devin Setoguchi, F Pierre-Marc Bouchard, RW Cal Clutterbuck, D Tom Gilbert
Who's new: LW Matt Cooke, RW Nino Niederreiter, D Keith Ballard
How they make the playoffs: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are among the best players at their respective positions. Defenceman Jonas Brodin makes more noise in his second season, and goaltender Niklas Backstrom plays 50-plus games for the first time since 2010-11.
How they miss the playoffs: Not enough talent behind Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu and Brodin costs the Wild too many games. The problem is offence, as young players like Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund aren't yet ready to assume major roles.
6. Nashville Predators
Last season: 16-23-9, 41 points, 14th in West, missed playoffs by 14 points
Who's gone: LW Sergei Kostitsyn, F Matt Halischuk, D Jonathan Blum, RW Bobby Butler
Who's new: F Viktor Stalberg, C Matt Cullen, LW Eric Nystrom, F Matt Hendricks, D Seth Jones
How they make the playoffs: Shea Weber and Jones form the most formidable defensive pair since Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Pekke Rinne has a Vezina-calibre season, and the Predators win a lot of 1-0 games.
How they miss the playoffs: A lack of offence frustrates even defensive-minded coach Barry Trotz, who's forced to hand major minutes to too many bottom-six forwards. Without a capable NHL backup, Rinne gets fatigued from playing too many games.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Last season: 16-25-7, 39 points, 15th in West, missed playoffs by 16 points
Who's gone: RW David Jones, D Shane O'Brien
Who's new: LW Alex Tanguay, C Nathan MacKinnon, D Cory Sarich
How they make the playoffs: In MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny, the Avalanche boast strength down the middle that leads to immediate offensive improvement. New goaltending coach Francois Allaire turns Semyon Varlamov into a goaltending star, and Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic show they know what they're doing.
How they miss the playoffs: Varlamov continues his career trend of getting injured, hanging well-past-his-prime Jean-Sebastien Giguere out to dry behind a mediocre-at-best defence. The Avalanche get another high draft pick and this time look toward the blue-line.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 27-16-5, 59 points, 5th seed in West, lost in conference final to Chicago
Who's gone: LW Dustin Penner, C Brad Richardson, D Rob Scuderi, G Jonathan Bernier
Who's new: F Matt Frattin, LW Dan Carcillo, G Ben Scrivens
How they make the playoffs: Goaltender Jonathan Quick, with a brief Sochi appearance in between, has a consistent season even with Bernier gone. Some minor roster changes show that some turnover is good after winning a Stanley Cup in 2012.
How they miss the playoffs: The same injuries that depleted the Kings in the playoffs refuse to go away. Quick somehow falls apart, and this gritty group of forwards wasn't assembled to win high-scoring games every night.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Last season: 26-15-7, 59 points, 3rd seed in West, lost in conference quarter-finals to San Jose
Who's gone: C Derek Roy, C Maxim Lapierre, D Keith Ballard, G Cory Schneider
Who's new: C Brad Richardson, C Bo Horvat, D Yannick Weber
How they make the playoffs: Coach John Tortorella's defence-first, shot-blocking system makes Roberto Luongo look like Ken Dryden in his prime. Daniel and Henrik Sedin score plenty of goals in transition and cash in on contract extensions.
How they miss the playoffs: The Sedins don't like playing Tortorella hockey, which isn't a fit for such a skilled group of forwards. Luongo can't get his act together and GM Mike Gillis wonders if he made the right choice in trading Schneider to the Devils.
3. San Jose Sharks
Last season: 25-16-7, 57 points, 6th seed in West, lost in conference semifinals to Los Angeles
Who's gone: F T.J. Galiardi, F Tim Kennedy, G Thomas Greiss
Who's new: F Tyler Kennedy
How they make the playoffs: Antti Niemi shows his Vezina Trophy finalist season was no fluke, giving a talented group in front of him a chance to win every time he starts. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski pick up the slack as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau age.
How they miss the playoffs: The conversion of Brent Burns to a forward doesn't pay dividends on the score sheet and hurts the Sharks badly on the blue-line. Beyond Dan Boyle, there isn't much defence in front of Niemi, and things go terribly wrong.
4. Anaheim Ducks*
Last season: 30-12-6, 66 points, 2nd seed in West, lost in conference semifinals to Detroit
Who's gone: LW Bobby Ryan
Who's new: F Jakob Silfverberg, D Mark Fistric
How they make the playoffs: Still in their primes, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry continue to put up impressive numbers, joined by Silfverberg, who is almost as good as Ryan. The goaltending situation with Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller works itself out.
How they miss the playoffs: Sheldon Souray's wrist injury is a crushing blow to the Ducks, especially on the power play. They miss Ryan's scoring ability as a lot of games turn into shootouts.
5. Edmonton Oilers*
Last season: 19-22-7, 45 points, 12th in West, missed playoffs by 10 points
Who's gone: F Magnus Paajarvi, C Shawn Horcoff, C Eric Belanger, G Nikolai Khabibulin
Who's new: LW David Perron, F Steve McIntyre, C Boyd Gordon, D Andrew Ference, D Denis Grebeshkov, G Jason LaBarbera
How they make the playoffs: Dallas Eakins looks like the perfect young coach to get this team over the hump. The core of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov plays well together and Edmonton gets back in it for the first time since 2006.
How they miss the playoffs: The same reason as years past: the defence isn't good enough. Justin Schultz is still a young player, but the Oilers can't stop opponents from scoring goals in bunches, and Devan Dubnyk isn't the answer.
6. Phoenix Coyotes
Last season: 21-18-9, 51 points, 10th in West, missed playoffs by 4 points
Who's gone: C Boyd Gordon, G Jason LaBarbera
Who's new: C Mike Ribeiro, F Tim Kennedy, G Thomas Greiss
How they make the playoffs: Ribeiro makes things happen offensively, most notably as a power-play star. The combination of stable ownership and a contending team makes for a great in-arena atmosphere and a bright future in Arizona.
How they miss the playoffs: Mike Smith falters when forced to steal games for the Coyotes, who don't have enough firepower up front. Beyond Norris Trophy candidate Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the defence is a mess.
7. Calgary Flames
Last season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 13th in West, missed playoffs by 13 points
Who's gone: LW Alex Tanguay, D Cory Sarich, G Miikka Kiprusoff
Who's new: C Sean Monahan, RW David Jones, F T.J. Galiardi, D Kris Russell, D Shane O'Brien, G Karri Ramo
How they make the playoffs: Everything goes right, as Ramo turns into a star after his stint in the KHL and leads the league in shutouts. Injuries ravage the rest of the Pacific Division, while young players like Monahan grow up fast.
How they miss the playoffs: Goaltending is, predictably, a disaster, and a team lacking in talent from top to bottom has a historically bad season. New president Brian Burke has his patience tested on a full rebuild, but a top-three draft pick helps for the future.