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NHL Western Conference 2014-15 season preview

While the Kings prepare to defend the Cup, it is not a given Los Angeles can plan for a parade in June.

Drew Doughty It won't be easy to unseat Drew Doughty and the defending champion Kings in the West.
Credit: Getty Images



Drew Doughty was holding courta few minutes after closing out the Stanley Cup Final last season when he was asked to assess the quality of competition in the final round, compared to Los Angeles' opponents in the first three rounds.



"The other ones were tougher," Doughty told reporters. "This series was probably the least physically demanding, without a doubt."



The Kings needed the maximum 21 games to get past San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago before dismissing the Eastern Conference champion Rangers in five games.



So while the Kings prepare to defend the Cup, it is not a given Los Angeles can plan for a parade in June with potential roadblocks residing in Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis and Dallas.



As part of Metro New York's season preview package, we've examined the Western Conference — the NHL's best.



1. Chicago Blackhawks: As usual, Chicago should find itself in the Stanley Cup contender mix this season after losing to Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final last spring. Ex-Ranger Brad Richards provides additional skill and experience as the presumptive second line center. The only question about this team is who will be traded to free up cap space. As of this writing, Chicago was $2.216 million over the cap ceiling.





2. Los Angeles Kings: The reigning, defending, undisputed Stanley Cup champions return intact outside of the free agency loss of Willie Mitchell. Los Angeles possesses every attribute a team can have, and the duo of GM Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter are on the short lists of the league's best in their respective roles.



3. St. Louis Blues: Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane has referred to Major League Baseball's postseason as "a crapshoot." Forgive the St. Louis Blues if they feel the same way about the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Blues have had their previous three seasons end in either the first or second rounds. While additional depth was acquired with Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera and Carl Gunnerson, is the goaltending good enough to get the Blues into late May and early June?



4. Anaheim Ducks: Like St. Louis, goaltending will be a season-long theme for the Western Conference's best team in the regular season. Frederik Andersen and John Gibson only played in 31 regular season games in 2013-14, and another 11 in the playoffs.



5. Dallas Stars: General manager Jim Nill had an offseason that would make Cowboys owner Jerry Jones envious. Nill was able toaugment a club on the rise byadding skilled center Jason Spezza in a trade with Ottawa, and signed top-six winger Ales Hemsky. Unlike Jones, Nill hasn't been lampooned on "South Park." So the Stars general manager has that going for him.



6. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are the odds-on favorite to be the league's most fascinating case study in 2014-15. The Sharks blew a 3-0 first-round series lead to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings, prompting GM Doug Wilson and Todd McClellan to decide to strip Joe Thornton of the captaincy and Patrick Marleau of the alternate captaincy. Rumors circulated both were on the trading block, but two-thirds of San Jose's top-line are still wearing Sharks sweaters. As CSN Bay Area reported in August, unnamed players complained to management during exit interview meetings that they felt as if they were "co-workers instead of teammates."



7. Minnesota Wild: Minnesota is a mix of established stars (Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) and promising youth (Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella). Still, the Wild's unsettled goaltending looks to be a season-long issue.



8. Colorado Avalanche: Believers in analytics and traditionalists spent the 2013-14 season debating the merits of the Leafs vis a vis advance statistics. While the argument hasn't waned, the sides have agreed to settle on a new team for the upcoming season: the Avs. Those who believe in analytics point to Colorado's fourth-worst Fenwick rating as a reason the Avs may regress from their 112-point season in 2013-14, while the disbelievers scoff at the relative value of the metrics.



9. Vancouver Canucks: The John Tortorella error is over. Team president Trevor Linden fired Tortorella after a 36-35-11 season that saw the Canucks miss the playoffs. The hires of GM Jim Benning and coach Willie Desjardins should create an organizational atmosphere that is not as acrimonious as the one under Tortorella and former GM Mike Gillis.



10. Edmonton Oilers: A trendy preseason pick last year, the 2013-14 Oilers authored a campaign that rivaled a Michael Bay movie for being an unwatchable debacle. Edmonton improved its back end depth with a trade for Nikita Nikitin and the free agent signing of Mark Fayne. Benoit Pouliot could help Edmonton's puck possession stats.



11. Nashville Predators: It is a new day in Nashville. Barry Trotz was fired as coach, and replaced by Peter Laviolette. GM David Poile traded Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh for top-six forward James Neal, and signed free agent centers Mike Ribeiro and Olli Jokinen.



12. Arizona Coyotes: Here's the good news: Ownership changed the team's name from the Phoenix Coyotes to the Arizona Coyotes in an attempt to expand its fanbase statewide. The bad news is the ownership announced last week it is holding "discussions with an unsolicited potential investor."



13. Calgary Flames: A squad built upon a blue collar ethos still needs an influx of skill, although Hobey Baker-winner Johnny Gaudreau should bring goal scoring and point production.



14. Winnipeg Jets: General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is building for tomorrow. But that means short-term growing pains, especially in a conference with Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis and Dallas, among others.



Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.
 

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