NHL Western Conference preview

Dustin Brown, left, and Jonathan Quick hope to hoist the Cup again this season.

It was a moment that will be etched into the annals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Los Angeles Kings had just dispatched the Phoenix Coyotes from the Stanley Cup playoffs on the night of May 22, 2012.

Shane Doan, the captain of the Coyotes, pulled his counterpart, Dustin Brown, in for a pointed conversation as the two teams engaged in the traditional handshake line following a bitter five-game Western Conference final. It was a departure of the norm until factoring in the West’s history.

The Western Conference is a fascinating amalgamation of current powers and burgeoning superpowers, stable and unstable franchises, contemporary and imminent superstars and those who are falling from their accustomed perch.

Metro gives you our picks for how the season will shake out.

1. Los Angeles Kings: With apologies to UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer, the reigning, defending NHL champions return everyone that won the franchise’s first Cup last June. The forward corps possesses every attribute needed to be successful. The defensive pairings perfectly complement each other. Conn Smythe-winner Jonathan Quick is among the five best at his position. Darryl Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray last December, has the team’s respect. And Dean Lombardi may be among the league’s boldest GMs.     
2. Vancouver Canucks: Arguably the NHL’s most polarizing team, the Canucks are still trying to find the formula for the franchise’s first Cup. The Canucks signed Jason Garrison to a six-year, $27.6 million UFA deal in July in order to add a heavy point shot to one of the league’s best power plays. The two overriding issues will be Ryan Kesler’s health and whether GM Mike Gillis will be able to deal Roberto Luongo.   
3. St. Louis Blues: The good: St. Louis’s 109 points were tied with the Rangers for second most in the league. The bad: The Blues were swept by the Kings in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The league’s stingiest team — they averaged a league-low 1.89 goals against — will benefit from the expected offensive production of highly regarded prospect Vladimir Tarasenko.
4. Minnesota Wild: Following another failed season, the Wild made the biggest splash in free agency signing the top-2 free agents on the market — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — to similar 13-year, $98 million pacts. Minnesota also signed depth players Jake Dowell, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell. It will be interesting to see how Wild players react to owner Craig Leipold, who was part of the NHL negotiating committee. 
5. San Jose Sharks: Is the Sharks’ window closing? Among the NHL’s premier teams for nearly a decade, San Jose finished 2011-12 seventh in the West with a 43-29-10 mark before being eliminated in five games in the conference quarterfinals by St. Louis. General manager Doug Wilson signed right wing Adam Burish and stay-at-home defenseman Brad Stuart to provide the Sharks with some bite.
6. Detroit Red Wings: The pre-eminent franchise in professional team sports the last two decades — 21 straight years of qualifying for the playoffs — is faced with an almost impossible task: Finding a replacement for one of the top-10 defenseman of all-time after Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement last May. Long one of the NHL’s favorite destinations for players, Detroit lost out on Ryan Suter and was beaten to Matt Carle by the Lightning. The task to fill the gap left by Lidstrom’s retirement falls to veteran Niklas Kronwall, who has played his entire 467-game career with the Red Wings.   
7. Chicago Blackhawks: It was not sweet home, Chicago in 2011-12. GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville feuded. The Blackhawks fell to 22nd in goals against average (2.82). Patrick Kane made headlines for his off-ice exploits more than his goal scoring (scored just 23 goals, the second fewest in his career). Marian Hossa suffered a season-ending concussion in Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals due to a flying hit from Coyotes forward Raffi Torres, and was only cleared by the Blackhawks medical staff in December. Did we mention that UFAs Martin Brodeur, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter all passed on Chicago in free agency?  
8. Phoenix Coyotes: Don Maloney and Dave Tippett have surpassed Nashville counterparts David Poile and Barry Trotz as the NHL’s best GM-coach tandem to do more with less. The Coyotes have a 135-78-33 record with three playoff appearances in the three full seasons of the Maloney-Tippett partnership. As good as the duo and the team has been, prospective owner Greg Jamison needs to finish the deal to purchase the financially beleaguered franchise and keep it in Glendale, Ariz. Otherwise, the rumors about the Coyotes relocating to Seattle will kick into overdrive.   
9. Dallas Stars: Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the Stars’ collective age after signing 40 year olds Jaromir Jagr (one year, $4.55 million) and Ray Whitney (two years, $9 million) over the summer.
10: NASHVILLE PREDATORS: All eyes are on Shea Weber. The Norris finalist signed a 14-year, $110 million RFA offer sheet with the Flyers that the Predators matched weeks after his former defense partner, Ryan Suter agreed to a 13-year, $98 million UFA pact with Minnesota in free agency.
11. Edmonton Oilers: It is not a matter of if with the Oilers, rather it is when Edmonton’s precocious coterie realize their potential. Edmonton already had Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the fold before winning the draft lottery. The Oilers used the No. 1 overall pick on Sarnia Sting (OHL) right wing Nail Yakupov. A week after the draft, highly coveted University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz decided to sign with the Oilers.       
12. Ahaheim Ducks: The Ducks’ fortunes lay with the top line of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Arguably one of the NHL’s top trios, Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry will have to be dominant in order for the Ducks to compete for a playoff berth.  
13. Colorado Avalanche: It has been a long time since the Avalanche’s heyday. But there is hope in Denver. Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, was named team captain in September. Now 20, Landeskog is the youngest captain in NHL history and is coming off a Calder Trophy-winning season (82 games, 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points and a plus-20 rating).
14. Calgary Flames: It’s clear to everyone but Flames management that the rebuild must begin immediately. Instead, GM Jay Feaster signed right wing Jiri Hudler (four years, $16 million) and defenseman Dennis Wideman (five years, $26.250 million) to deals that will clog the Flames’ cap.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets: The rebuild has begun in Columbus. The Blue Jackets selected Everett Silvertips (WHL) defenseman Ryan Murray with the No. 2 overall pick. Columbus also added Artem Anisimov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Tim Erixon in three separate trades with the Rangers, Senators and Flyers. Veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin was signed as a free agent. Most important was the hiring of John Davidson in October as the president of hockey operations.

Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.


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