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Expect a hard-fought battle in the West this season

Monday, 09.28.2009 / 5:00 PM / 2009-2010 Season Preview

NHL.com

 
The San Jose Sharks have added Dany Heatley in order to get over the hump in the Western Conference this season. The Vancouver Canucks retained three of their most important players in Roberto Luongo, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. The Chicago Blackhawks signed Marian Hossa and the Calgary Flames have Brent Sutter and Jay Bouwmeester. And there is the monolith that is the Detroit Red Wings staring down on the competition.

How will the West be won? It's going to be a season-long struggle, to be sure.

In order to clear up the picture, NHL Network analyst Craig Button breaks down what we will see from the West in 2009-10.

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks -- The winds of change have blown into Chicago. The Blackhawks are good, expectations are deservedly high because of the talent that has been assembled and a Stanley Cup is no longer a dream.

The core has returned and the experience of last season, along with the additions in free agency -- especially Marian Hossa -- strengthens a team which has grown together and is maturing into a force.

Joel Quenneville is an excellent coach, but he can't stop pucks, and if Cristobal Huet doesn't provide the goaltending Nikolai Khabibulin did last season, the Hawks will be hard pressed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Columbus Blue Jackets -- Ken Hitchcock likes a big, fast and competitive team. He has that in Columbus and with his guiding, yet uncompromising, hand, the goal has changed from just making the playoffs to winning in the playoffs.

Rick Nash is a force and continues to develop as a complete player. Steve Mason provides the quality goaltending that helps you win games.

The blend of young talent, experience, depth and desire makes the Blue Jackets an unwelcome opponent. They are a team which is not satisfied being close; their desire is to win, and that is not welcome news for the rest of the NHL.

Detroit Red Wings
-- The heartbreak of a Game 7 loss to the Penguins is motivation for the Red Wings. They are a supremely talented team, but is motivation going to be enough?

The departures of key offensive players Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson will not be easy to overcome. The Red Wings' scouting and development has been second-to-none in the league and it will be necessary for some of their prospects to fill the void left by the departing players.

The defense is arguably the best in the league and questions about goaltending have subsided. How the replacements perform will determine if they can erase the memories of that last game.

Nashville Predators -- The Predators have been a model of consistent improvement since entering the League. A patient development plan paid dividends with four consecutive postseason appearances and fuelled hopes of them being a Stanley Cup contender.

Last season saw a halt to the playoff run, and returning to the postseason will not be easy given the rise of Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis. Nashville has a solid nucleus on defense, a number of very good forwards and dependable goaltending.

Under the leadership of Barry Trotz they will always be competitive and capable of making the playoffs, but a move into the group of Stanley Cup contenders does not appear imminent.

St. Louis Blues -- The natural laws of maturity -- physical, mental and emotional -- can't be accelerated. The Blues undertook a building process emphasizing the importance of youth and allowing it to develop. Rewards for that patience are going to become greater and greater.

The collection of talent is impressive and spread throughout the St. Louis lineup. Erik Johnson, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and David Perron are reasons for excitement. Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, Barrett Jackman and Paul Kariya add important skills and considerable experience.

Andy Murray has guided this team through various challenges and has forged a formidable identity for it. The future is bright in St. Louis, and it is now.

Northwest Division


Calgary Flames -- Fans in the Stampede City are excited about the addition of Jay Bouwmeester. They should be -- he strengthens an already good defense.

Fans really want to relive the excitement of the 2004 Final. With the addition of Brent Sutter as head coach, they will have that opportunity. His teams are fully prepared to succeed with a focus on playing to their capabilities, not falling short of them. The Flames will be a smart, disciplined team that doesn't beat itself. Come playoff time they will be positioned to rekindle the excitement of 2004, and perhaps finish it with a Stanley Cup celebration.

Colorado Avalanche -- The adage that "all good things must come to an end" couldn't be more appropriate than it is in Denver this season. The more than decade long run of excellence by the Avalanche has reached that point.

The retirement of Joe Sakic leaves a massive hole on the ice and a leadership gap off the ice. Adam Foote will more than fulfill the role of captain, Paul Stastny is an emerging star and Matt Duchene offers hope for the next great 1-2 punch at center ice. Unfortunately this is a team in transition and there are going to be growing pains.

Edmonton Oilers -- Last season began with much promise, but the optimism may have been too much given the relative inexperience and youth of many players on the roster. Combined with injuries to key players, it ended with the disappointment of a third-consecutive season out of the playoffs.

Pat Quinn asks players to play to their strengths and do what they do best. His experience and demeanor will benefit the players and the team as a whole.

Nikolai Khabibulin is a terrific addition, capable of covering up mistakes and keeping his team in games. The Oilers have a nice blend of skill and power and will be competing for the playoffs.

Minnesota Wild -- GM Chuck Fletcher won't be daunted about what faces him in Minnesota. He has participated in the transformation of teams in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, with the Ducks and Pens going on to championships.

The Wild have a premier goalie in Niklas Backstrom, a complete two-way center in Mikko Koivu, and with the addition of Martin Havlat, they replace the offense of Marian Gaborik.

Their defense is sound and a return to health for Brent Burns will ensure it remains so. They have always been a team that does not beat itself and that won't change under Todd Richards.

The key to making the playoffs will be their young players contributing, not just participating to gain experience.

Vancouver Canucks -- I've got a feeling that this season is gonna be a good, good one for the Canucks.

Roberto Luongo poses challenges for opponents and ensures that the Canucks have a chance to win each and every game. Having that type of player in the goaltending position is a significant advantage for Vancouver.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin are two of the very best players in the NHL. They excel in all aspects of the game and anybody who questions their abilities to win should question only themselves, because they have dispelled this myth. Ryan Kesler is a heart and soul player, and watch for a breakout year from Alexander Edler.

The elements of a championship team are in place. Let the games begin.

Pacific Division


Anaheim Ducks -- GM Bob Murray has re-positioned his team on the ice and astutely managed his salary cap to maximize flexibility with the roster.

Goaltending is solid and competitive and affords the Ducks rest in this important position where travel is heavy.

The emergence of Bobby Ryan playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry is a nightmare for opponents. It also allows Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne to be strong support players.

The incomparable Scott Niedermayer leads a revamped defense capable of being formidable.

Their core knows how to win and I look at the Ducks as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

Dallas Stars -- Expunging the 2008-09 season from the minds of Stars players and fans alike would be welcome.

A new GM, Joe Nieuwendyk, and coach, Marc Crawford, have renewed hope in Dallas. It can be realized, most importantly, if Marty Turco has a return to the form which has made him one of the winningest goalies over the past five seasons.

Significant injuries hampered the Stars, but the silver lining was the emergence of Loui Eriksson and James Neal. This is a team in transition which can make the playoffs, but Stanley Cup aspirations would seem to stretch the greatest of hopes.

Los Angeles Kings -- There is a significant difference between cobbling players together and building a team of players that competes for championships. Dean Lombardi is only interested in a team capable of competing for a Stanley Cup. His approach has been methodical and the Kings are positioning themselves to be a force for years to come.

Anze Kopitar demonstrates the skill of an elite player. Drew Doughty is going to be a star for years to come, and Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth add a winning spirit.

There are no shortcuts, but by resolving to be committed to a process of sustained success, the payoffs are coming and possibly as soon as this season.

Phoenix Coyotes -- Off-ice news aside, the Coyotes have assembled an impressive collection of young talent. A glimpse of that skill and potential has been seen and there is reason for excitement.

While growing pains are inevitable, this group has the makings of developing into a top team, not unlike what has been witnessed in Pittsburgh and Washington.

Shane Doan is a very good player. His leadership is incomparable and so important when helping younger players grow and develop. Ed Jovanovski lends his considerable experience to the defense and Ilya Bryzgalov has demonstrated the ability to win games.  Making the playoffs would represent a tremendous feat, but the Coyotes are a team with a very promising future.

San Jose Sharks -- Regular-season successes have been followed by playoff disappointments. The Detroit Red Wings were not much different in the years leading up to their championship in 1997. Even the questions about winning with Joe Thornton are comparable to those Steve Yzerman faced.

Thornton is a premier player and Dany Heatley will be the primary beneficiary of Joe's playmaking. This duo should be prolific and capable of deciding important games in the Sharks' favor.

Dan Boyle adds dimensions which are difficult to defend against and Evgeni Nabokov gives them excellent goaltending. San Jose is positioned to contend for a championship, but applying the lessons of the past will be a key to ensuring playoff disappointments are part of their past.


Quote of the Day

I got a chance to play a thousand games and that's pretty special to me. To get a thousand [points], it's a great accomplishment. I'm not going to hide my feelings, I'm proud of that. To do it on a win, do it on a goal, I think it makes it special.

— New York Rangers forward Martin St. Louis after scoring his 1000th NHL point on Friday
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