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Ducks difficult to dethrone but Wings still strong and Sharks hungry @NHL

There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks as a new NHL season begins.

All-star defenceman Scott Niedermayer, the playoff MVP, didn't attend training camp while contemplating retirement, the offence has lost a combined 77 goals with the departures of Teemu Selanne and Dustin Penner, and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and checking centre Sammy Pahlsson are rehabbing off-season hernia surgeries.

That's a lot of uncertainty.

Should the champions falter, Detroit and San Jose are the teams most capable of skating into the Western Conference spotlight.

Colorado is perhaps the most improved team in the conference, on paper at least, and Calgary appears stronger.

Here's a look at how things in the West could wind up, with teams listed in order of predicted finish (with 2006-2007 rank and record in parentheses):

1. Detroit (1st, 50-19-13, 113 points)

The Red Wings will again feast on the weak Central

Coach Mike Babcock's players allowed the second-fewest goals against in the league last season, and team defence will be even better now that former Devil Brian Rafalski has been inserted alongside perennial Norris Trophy winner Nick Lidstrom.

Add the offensive brilliance of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and scoring depth throughout, and this is a well-rounded lineup.

There'll be worries that injuries might hamper Dom Hasek, who turns 43 on Jan. 29, but similar concerns were expressed a year ago and The Dominator was outstanding.

The Wings gave Anaheim a scare in the 2007 conference final and they are better on paper today than 12 months ago.

2. Anaheim (2nd, 48-20-14, 110 points)

The Ducks have so much talent depth that, even if Niedermayer officially retires, they'll still have enough to take a run at a second straight championship.

Andy McDonald emerged as a star during the playoffs, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are becoming impact players, and the line of Paulsson between Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen is the best checking unit in existence. They can score, too.

Oh, and Chris Pronger returns to the blue-line with a strong supporting cast.

Another thing: Randy Carlyle proved with his adept line matching during the Stanley Cup run that he's as good a bench manager as any head coach in the sport.

3. Calgary (8th, 43-29-10, 96 points)

Welcome back, Iron Mike.

Head coach Mike Keenan reappears with whip in hand and a fresh injection of lineup grit helps restore the tough-as-nails persona the Flames got a touch away from last season.

The blue-line brigade is more menacing with the insertions of Adrian Aucoin and Cory Sarich, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is among the best.

Look for captain Jarome Iginla to have a huge year.

The Flames can retake the Northwest if they improve on the road, where they won only 13 games last season, and Keenan will settle for nothing less. This team underachieved last year and is set to rebound.

4. San Jose (5th, 51-26-5, 107 points)

The Sharks came close to taking the Pacific last season and will again battle the Ducks for the division crown.

This is a well-balanced and big team that was fifth in goals against and sixth in goals for last season for coach Ron Wilson. Best power-play conversion rate in the conference, too. Joe Thornton will again challenge for the scoring title and combines with Patrick Marleau for a superb 1-2 punch down the middle.

Evgeni Nabokov will shoulder the goaltending load with the departure of Vesa Toskala to Toronto.

The Sharks have been solid for several years and might be ready to take the next step up in the post-season.

5. Colorado (9th, 44-31-7, 95 points)

Getting rambunctious Ryan Smyth reinvigorates the offence and moves the Avalanche back into contention. It'll be a joy to watch the gung-ho Smyth skating on a line with the wily Joe Sakic.

Calder Trophy finalist Paul Stastny is a blooming star. Coach Joel Quenneville might use him with another youngster, Wojtek Wolski, and productive Milan Hejduk on a second line that would provide umph.

If Jordan Leopold can stay healthy after missing all but 15 games last season, a defence bolstered by the insertion of Scott Hannan will be just fine.

The key will be Peter Budaj, who gets the No. 1 goaltending job from Day 1 this season. If Budaj comes through, the reconfigured Avs will be transformed into a contender.

6. Dallas (6th, 50-25-7, 107 points)

A Dave Tippett-coached team is always difficult to play against because it works its collective butt off at both ends of the rink. Add a fine blue-line corps and Marty Turco's solid goaltending and the Stars continue to be a top-eight Western entry.

Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano missed big chunks of last season and their full-time presence would boost the Stars, who need more offence than they generated last season.

The Stars should be back in the playoffs again, but remain short of enough big-time scorers to do much post-season damage. This might be the last stab at a good run by an aging lineup.

7. Vancouver (3rd, 49-26-7, 105 points)

The Canucks have something no other NHL team possesses - the goaltending of Roberto Luongo. His presence and coach-of-the-year Alain Vigneault's cunningly implemented defensive schemes keep them in most games.

For this team to fare as well as last season, Daniel and Henrik Sedin have to continue evolving into team leaders, Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison have to post larger numbers, and offensive production across the board has to go up. The prospect of unrestricted free agency next July might spur Naslund and Morrison.

The Canucks surprised by finishing first in the Northwest last season. It'll be tough to do that two years in a row.

8. St. Louis (10th, 34-35-13, 81 points)

The Blues awoke after Andy Murray took over as head coach last winter and the improvement should continue.

Getting Keith Tkachuk back and signing Paul Kariya boosts an offence that was 26th in goals scored last season. Rookie Erik Johnson, the No. 1 draft pick in 2006, will augment a blue-line corps that shouldn't be decimated with as many injuries as last year. Goalie Manny Legace is looking good after recovering from knee surgery.

The Blues might just be the surprise team in the West this year.

9. Minnesota (7th, 48-26-8, 104 points)

The Wild are on the bubble most years and this one is no different. This is a well-coached team, downright boring at times under the guidance of stickler Jacques Lemaire, but always competitive.

Goalie Niklas Backstrom helped Minnesota top the league in goals-against average last season and a repeat performance would enhance chances of making the playoffs.

There were five players with 20 or more goals in the lineup last season so the Wild have the scoring potential necessary to squeeze into the post-season. Lemaire can only hope that star attacker Marian Gaborik can survive the entire schedule, which he's had trouble doing in the past.

10. Nashville (4th, 51-23-8, 110 points)

The roster fire sale that has preceded the impending ownership change has torn apart a lineup that skated into the playoffs for the first time last spring. Coach Barry Trotz won't have Tom Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya or Scott Hartnell, and Steve Sullivan is out until December recuperating from back surgery.

Jason Arnott leads a ragtag offence, Shea Weber tries to assume some of Timonen's lost leadership on the back end and Chris Mason tries to offset the loss of all-star goaltender Vokoun. Flashy sophomore Alex Radulov provides some excitement.

There's no way Nashville can mount the challenge to Detroit in the Central that it did last season.

11. Los Angeles (14th, 27-41-14, 68 points)

The Kings have made wholesale changes but they have a steep mountain to climb after being 20th in the league offensively and 27th defensively.

Up front, Mike Cammalleri and Alex Frolov carry most of the ammunition and Anze Kopitar looks to build on his excellent rookie campaign.

Highly-touted rookie Jack Johnson joins a revamped defence that now includes Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing, and Rob Blake looks to rebound from a poor season.

Jason LaBarbera might finally get a shot at a No. 1 NHL goalie's job if the Kings don't yield to the temptation of dropping teen Jonathan Bernier into the big-league fire. If the goaltending holds up, coach Marc Crawford's crew could surprise.

12. Edmonton (12th, 32-43-7, 71 points)

Gone are Smyth, last season's leading goal scorer, top point-getter Petr Sykora, and captain Jason Smith, and Fernando Pisani is ill and out indefinitely.

That's a lot to replace on a team that was last in goals scored. Dustin Penner was an impressive acquisition but he's no Gordie Howe.

Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen will help a poor power play but the two were a combined minus-53 last season so goalie Dwayne Roloson will have to be at his best to withstand the onslaught.

Coach Craig MacTavish had to improvise often last season due to injuries. Ethan Moreau lost nearly the whole season and Steve Staios, Jarret Stoll and Ales Hemsky missed a lot of games. If they can play more often and if rookies such as Andrew Cogliano can contribute, things might not turn out quite as bad as they look on the surface.

13. Chicago (13th, 31-42-9, 71 points)

It's all about the future rather than the now.

The Blackhawks have some of the best prospects - recent high draft picks Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Jack Skille up front - and a big, young defence that can only get better. But this is a rebuilding project that will take years to bear fruit.

It might be entertaining watching it happen. Tuomo Ruutu looks to avoid the injury bug that keeps biting him. He'd look great between Toews and Kane.

Martin Havlat remains among the league's top artistes. He can only hope he doesn't get stuck on a line with floaters Sergei Samsonov and Robert Lang.

14. Columbus (11th, 33-42-7, 73 points)

Ken Hitchcock, as astute a coach as there is, and new GM in Scott Howson create an optimistic buzz, but look at the conference and try to find teams the Blue Jackets might pass in the standings.

Still looking?

Rick Nash can score and David Vyborny has been consistently good, but that's about it up front. Sergei Fedorov lost his impact long ago. Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule have to continue improving for the Jackets to make offensive headway.

Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena are not an intimidating goaltending tandem, and they'll be behind defencemen of whom fans will recognize only Adam Foote.

Hitchcock's patience is going to be tested.

15. Phoenix (15th, 31-46-5, 67 points)

Wayne Gretzky appears ready to stick it out behind the bench as the Coyotes go with youth.

The offence was so weak last season that Shane Doan was the only player to get more than 50 points.

The defence will be better if Ed Jovanovski can avoid the injuries that ruined 2006-2007. The goaltending isn't up to par with most other teams.

Phoenix will get a high draft pick again next summer and they can continue to rebuild with whomever that will be as well as 2007 first-rounder Kyle Turris. In the meantime, empty seats will mean more losses in the tens of millions.

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