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Ten to watch in the Western Conference

by Adam Schwartz

Every season there are players that elevate their game to the next level and emerge as forces in the NHL. Some doubted the abilities of Henrik Zetterberg, Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier when they were younger, but all three were afforded an opportunity to play and took full advantage of it to become superstars.

The following is a list of 10 Western Conference players who could enjoy breakout season in 2008-09.

David Backes, St. Louis Blues -- At 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, Backes is an intimidating force, but still has soft hands. His deft touch enabled him to score 13 goals and add 18 assists in 72 games last season.

In addition to his offensive ability, Backes plays a gritty game. He led the Central Division and was fifth in the League with 240 hits while adding 99 penalty minutes. With the loss of right wing Jamal Mayers to the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, Backes should get the chance to play on the Blues' second line.

Daniel Carcillo, Phoenix Coyotes
-- Carcillo led the League with 324 penalty minutes while playing just 57 games last season. Since the Coyotes signed rugged Brian McGrattan as a free agent this summer, Carcillo won't need to be quite as liberal mixing it up.

In addition to Carcillo's physical presence, he was second among Pacific Division rookies with 13 goals while averaging just 12:43 of ice time per game. McGrattan's arrival should put Carcillo in a position to increase that total this season.

Ryane Clowe, San Jose Sharks -- Clowe missed 67 games with a knee injury last season and had just 3 goals in 15 regular-season games, but he took his game to the next level in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Clowe was tied for the team lead with 5 goals and was tied for second on the club with 9 points in 13 playoff games. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson didn't add any wings in the offseason, a sign he believes in Clowe's ability to play a full season as a top-six forward.

Dan Ellis, Nashville Predators
-- Last season, Ellis had to wrestle the starting job away from Chris Mason, and when the playoffs started it was obvious he was the man in Nashville and the Predators pushed the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings to six games before being eliminated.

Predators General Manager David Poile showed more confidence in Ellis when he traded Mason to the Blues for a fourth-round draft pick over the summer. The job is Ellis' to lose this season, and barring a spectacular push by backup Pekka Rinne he should play more than the 44 games he did last season.

Loui Eriksson, Dallas Stars -- Eriksson can play either wing for the Stars. With Dallas losing Niklas Hagman, Antti Miettinen and Brad Winchester this summer, Eriksson should see more ice time.

Eriksson played 10 more games last season than he did in his rookie campaign, and more than doubled his goal total from 6 to 14. He also posted a career-best 31 points, and turned around his plus-minus from a minus-3 in 2006-07 to a plus-5 last season. With an increase from the 14:01 he played last season, he could increase those numbers again in 2008-09.

Valtteri Filppula, Detroit Red Wings
-- The Red Wings might have the deepest forward corps in the NHL, which leads to a top-quality player like Filppula, a third-year center, being overlooked.

Filppula, drafted No. 95 in 2002, had 19 goals and 36 points in 78 regular-season games last season. He also proved he could produce in pressure situations by recording five goals and 11 points in Detroit's 22-game playoff march to a Stanley Cup victory.  

Tom Gilbert, Edmonton Oilers -- Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' president of hockey operations, liked Gilbert's play so much last season that he signed him to a six-year contract in April.

Gilbert, an offensive defenseman, led Edmonton blueliners with 20 assists and 33 points, and he made a major contribution on special teams. He had 3 goals and 9 points on the power play, and should see even more time on the man-advantage unit this season.

Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings -- Johnson had a minus-19 rating last season, but was taking on more responsibility than most 21-year-olds in the NHL. Johnson was paired with star defenseman Rob Blake and averaged the third-most ice time on the Kings at 21:41 per game.

This season Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky -- the other Kings defenseman to average more ice time than Johnson last season -- are gone, but hopefully their mentoring has paid off.

Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild -- Koivu had 31 assists and 42 points in just 57 games last season. He would have had more points if it weren't for a two-handed slash from Vancouver defenseman Mattias Ohlund which kept him out of the lineup for 24 games with a knee injury.

With Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston leaving Minnesota over the summer, Koivu was promoted to top-line center. If he stays healthy, the Wild offense shouldn't miss a beat. But Koivu only has played more than 65 games once -- in 2006-07, when he had career-highs of 34 assists and 54 points in 82 games.
Wojtek Wolski, Colorado Avalanche
-- Wolski has been a consistent offensive threat for the Avalanche, totaling 40 goals and 98 points in 153 games during the last two seasons, and his plus-10 rating last season was better than any Colorado skater who played at least 75 games.
The Avalanche have to be happy with Wolski's maturity. On an injury-plagued team, Wolski played 77 games, and posted similar numbers his rookie season. The biggest jump came in his plus-minus, which increased from plus-2 as a rookie in 2006-07.

Wolski also finished fourth on the team in playoff scoring with 5 points despite playing just 7 games.

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