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Experts split on potential West champion

by Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek

How hungry are the Vancouver Canucks to get back to the Stanley Cup Final after losing Game 7? Do the Detroit Red Wings have another championship run in them? Can the Chicago Blackhawks use the hurt from last season to help them win it all again? Is the time finally right for the San Jose Sharks to advance beyond the Western Conference Finals? Will a new contender emerge?

All are great questions to ponder as the 2011-12 NHL season nears. Another one could be: Is it too early to make a prediction on who wins the Clarence Campbell Bowl?

Nah. It's never too early to make a bold prediction, and that's why we present you with this:
Chicago Blackhawks

Let's just call last season a year off for the Blackhawks, because they're better than having to wait until the final day of the 2010-11 season to learn their playoff fate. They're better than a team that leaves that fate in the hands of another team.

The Blackhawks learned a lot about themselves through adversity last season, which will help them this season when they rebound and get back their title as the best team in the Western Conference.

Think about this for a moment: The Blackhawks didn't win their way into the playoffs -- Minnesota upset Dallas, which handed them the eighth spot -- and they didn't win the first three games of their first-round series against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks, but they still were an overtime goal in Game 7 away from advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals.

It was a remarkable comeback against Vancouver that nearly turned into a miracle. In the end the Hawks lost the series, but not before finding their winning groove again.

The core of the team is back, and GM Stan Bowman added a touch of veteran scoring with the signing of Andrew Brunette and plenty of muscle with the additions of Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O'Donnell.

Brian Campbell is gone, but Steve Montador was signed to replace him on the blue line. Montador doesn't skate like Campbell, but he's a reliable two-way presence.

You have to like the way Corey Crawford played down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. And you have to like him even more now that he's got some NHL experience.

San Jose Sharks

If you want to pick a winner in the Western Conference -- particularly this early -- you'd probably have more success throwing darts in the dark. Really, I could make a legitimate case for several teams in the West.

If I have to make a pre-season pick (and they tell me that I have to), I'll take the Sharks.

Brent Burns
Defense - SJS
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 46
SOG: 170 | +/-: -10
I think we've all been down this road at least once with the Sharks, who have advanced to the conference finals in each of the past two seasons. Over the past several seasons, media chatterboxes like me have taken turns jumping on and off the Sharks' bandwagon. In the end, we always seem to end up on the curb.

Despite those disappointments, coach Todd McLellan does have his team pointed in the right direction. After all, it isn't easy to advance to the final four in back-to-back seasons.

In the offseason, GM Doug Wilson addressed a pressing need by acquiring big, talented defenseman Brent Burns from the Wild. The 26-year-old Burns is a legitimate top four defenseman who can move the puck, rip it from the point and eat big minutes. That's a huge addition.

With Burns and veteran star Dan Boyle at the top of their defensive depth chart, the Sharks have a championship-caliber blue line. Now, fellow defenders like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers can be better slotted down the lineup. And because of that, I think they'll have a better chance to succeed in crunch time.

Wilson also added some veteran depth to his back end by bringing in long-time Devil Colin White and rugged Jim Vandermeer. In total, the Sharks begin training camp with seven very experienced defensemen on their roster. You don't win in this league without a strong defense.

Up front, I like the decision to exchange Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. These days, speed is the name of the game, and Havlat brings just that to the Bay Area. He can push back defensemen and he'll benefit from working with centers like Joe Thornton, Logan Couture or Joe Pavelski.

Maybe the Sharks will bite me again (it won't be the first time), but I think they've found the necessary ingredients to make the next step.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl. Follow E.J. Hradek on Twitter at: @EJHradek_NHL
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