Here are our picks for the Western Conference this season. (Eastern picks can be found HERE.) Remember, all of our selections are made for entertainment purposes only, kind of like those fantasy pools you and 1,500 of your closest friends gather together for each fall.
1. Nashville Yes, questions remain regarding the Predators' youngish defense and about the leadership skills of marquee off-season acquisition Jason Arnott. Still, there's no denying a healthy Tomas Vokoun is one of the top five goalies in the NHL and few teams can match Nashville's offensive weaponry. Since the Red Wings are treading water, anything less than the Central Division crown would be a major disappointment for the Preds.
2. Anaheim Although Â“Everybody Hates Chris (Pronger)Â” remains the top-rated show in Edmonton, it's been nothing but a jacked-up jamboree for the big blueliner since he was dealt to Anaheim. And why not? His presence has made the Ducks most people's odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. But there's lots more to like: the elite management team of GM Brian Burke and coach Randy Carlyle, the veteran savvy of Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, the youth and skill of Dustin Penner, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. We could go on, but that'd only encourage more malicious emails from northern Alberta.
3. Calgary The Flames had NHL's top-rated defense last year. Their offense? Um, third worst in the league. Former Avs sniper Alex Tanguay certainly will help, but let's not get silly here Â– Calgary won't be on the winning side of many 6-5 games this season. Lucky for them, they've got a 21-year-old leviathan (Dion Phaneuf) on the blueline and the most recent Vezina Trophy-winner in net (Miikka Kiprusoff). Together, they make new head coach Jim Playfair much, much smarter.
4. San Jose Short of trading Ville Nieminen, Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff for Alex Ovechkin and half of Ted Leonsis' net worth, there's little GM Doug Wilson could do this summer to top the act of larceny that brought Joe Thornton to San Jose. Instead, Wilson went about adding complementary pieces such as Mark Bell, Mike Grier and Curtis Brown. If Wilson can coax new acquisition Vladimir Malakhov out of retirement, a defense corps that still skews a little youngish will add some veteran know-how.
5. Dallas With Arnott, Bill Guerin and Niko Kapanen Â– 59 goals and 151 points between them last year Â– out of the picture, the American Airlines Center will no longer be the best little scorehouse in Texas. However, after the Stars' first-round playoff embarrassment at the hands of Colorado, it was clear Dave Tippett's team needed more defense. GM Doug Armstrong went out and got him some (Jeff Halpern, Jaroslav Modry) in the off-season, leaving no excuses left; another letdown of a year from this crew, and it could be Â“blow-Â‘er-up-and-start-overÂ” time.
6. Detroit Wanna know how desperate the cap-crippled Red Wings were for a goalie this summer? Look no further than Dominik Hasek. Wanna know what kind of teammate Hasek can be? Look no further than Brodeur: Beyond The Crease, the new book co-authored by Devils star Martin Brodeur and Toronto Star sportswriter Damien Cox. Wanna wager GM Ken Holland will rue the day he brought back the soon-to-be 42-year-old for tour No. 3?
7. Phoenix Sooner or later, even the unrivaled reputation of Wayne Gretzky will be called into question if his Coyotes don't make a post-season appearance. It shouldn't come to that, because the coach and GM Mike Barnett now employ one of the league's top young bluelines (including Ed Jovanovski, Nick Boynton, Keith Ballard and Derek Morris), as well as two veterans (Owen Nolan, Jeremy Roenick) who each have something to prove. Like an increasing number of teams, the Â‘Yotes will be in a dogfight all season long to make the playoffs. But if Curtis Joseph's goaltending props them up, they should take the next step.
8. Minnesota The Wild had the fifth-best defense in the league in 2005-06, and the sixth-worst offense. (Insert sarcastic Â“I'm shockedÂ” face here.) Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish were brought in to change that, and along with fellow new acquisitions Kim Johnsson and Branko Radivojevic, they'll bring balance and depth to a team that should be expected to make its second playoff appearance in team history.
9. Columbus In Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule, Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean might have the best trio of young offensive talents in the business. He also acquired a pair of big wingers (ex-Bolt Fredrik Modin and former Canuck Anson Carter) who'll help bump Columbus' offense out of 27th overall. Nevertheless, his starting goalie (Pascal Leclaire) has exactly 35 games of NHL experience and his backup (NHL virgin Fredrik Norrena) played in Sweden last year. You'd have to be one mother of an optimist to believe that duo can backstop the BJs to their first-ever playoff berth. And we're not.
10. Edmonton Look on the bright side, livid Oilers fans Â– Screen Shots likes your team more than The Hockey News Yearbook does. Two whole spots in the standings more, as a matter of fact. That means we think there's less chance Dwayne Roloson will be hampered by that knee injury, and the loss of so many veterans who aided in Edmonton's amazing Cup run won't hurt them quite so much. (Here's hoping this information will stem the tide of aspersions cast on the marital status of this writer's mother at the time of his birth.)
11. Vancouver If new starting goalie Roberto Luongo thinks he's escaping the blizzard of rubber he routinely dealt with as a Florida Panther, he's got another thing Â– and a lot of puck-related bruises Â– coming. The Canucks' defense is anything but imposing and with Todd Bertuzzi, Anson Carter and Ed Jovanovski now elsewhere, Alain Vigneault's charges could spell trouble. The removal of Bertuzzi from Vancouver's dressing room will make it seem like a keg party in comparison, but is the change in atmosphere enough to make up for the big winger's missing offense?
12. Los Angeles When Dean Lombardi became GM of the San Jose Sharks in 1996, the franchise took a step backward (going from a 34-win campaign in 1997-98 to a 31-win year in '98-99) before it vaunted to the top of the Pacific Division for a few seasons. We suspect the same thing will happen to Lombardi's Kings this year. They've got an underrated blueline and some fine prospects, but their offense is puny and liable to have sand kicked in its collective face by the Western Conference's heavyweights.
13. Colorado The Avalanche is like a late-career Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi: where once they scared the pants off people, now they inspire more pity than anything. At least Jordan Leopold and Tyler Arnason will provide healthy competition for Jose Theodore in the race to become Colorado's Underwhelmer Of The Year.
14. Chicago We forgive GM Dale Tallon for signing Martin Havlat to that three-year, $18-million monstrosity of a contract, even if half the GMs in the league won't. After all, it's easy to get anxious when Tuomo Ruutu's health history makes Peter Forsberg look like Doug Jarvis and when starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was a not-for-stop-it charity last year. Ruutu already is injured, but the news isn't all bad Â– Patrick Lalime is hurt, too.
15. St. Louis Maybe the collection of cast-offs new Blues president John Davidson will come together and stun the hockey world by making the playoffs. It'd sure make for great copy Â– not to mention a nice reward for solid NHL citizens Jay McKee and Manny Legace Â– but our cynical hamstrings prevent us from taking that leap of faith. Odds are they'll stink again, although the odor should be less pungent this time around.
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