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Western Conference Ones to Watch

by Brian Compton

NHL veteran Jeremy Roenick has put off retirement to try to collect the five goals he needs for 500 as a member of the Sharks.
Never short of talent or intense rivalries, the Western Conference will surely provide enough storylines to last what is primed to be another exciting season in the NHL.

With the 2007-08 season set to begin, here is’s list of Ones To Watch in the Western Conference:

Anaheim Ducks: Jean-Sebastien Giguere “Jiggy” still has Chris Pronger in front of him to provide help, but Scott Niedermayer is nowhere to be found — at least for now. If Niedermayer pulls a Roger Clemens and decides to play at some point during the season, Giguere’s life will become a heck of a lot easier. Until then, though, more pressure will be placed on Giguere’s pads this time around.

Calgary Flames: Matthew Lombardi The 25-year-old had a career year last season, reaching the 20-goal plateau for the first time. The addition of Owen Nolan should be beneficial for the third-year pro — both on and off the ice. But like his teammates, Lombardi is going to have to produce more on the road this season if the Flames plan on contending.

Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews The third overall selection in the 2006 Entry Draft enters his first professional season after leaving the University of North Dakota, where he put up 46 points in 34 games during his sophomore year. A solid skater with two-way capabilities, Toews could be one of the guys responsible for turning things around in the Windy City.

Colorado Avalanche: Ryan Smyth — A phone call from Joe Sakic convinced one of the NHL’s best power forwards to head to Denver. The New York Islanders did everything in their power to keep No. 94 after dealing away two of their top prospects and a first-round draft pick to acquire him on deadline day. But the chance to head back to the West and play with his good friend Sakic proved to be too much for Smyth to pass up. Smyth and his teammates have the task of getting the Avs back to the postseason after missing by a point last season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Michael PecaColumbus will be Peca’s fourth home in the last four seasons after stays in Long Island, Edmonton and Toronto, but his leadership skills cannot and should not be underestimated. While coach Ken Hitchcock certainly won’t be relying on Peca to fill the net — he had just four goals in 35 games last season for the Leafs — the Blue Jackets bench boss will definitely lean on the two-time Selke Trophy winner to guide a franchise that has yet to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Dallas Stars: Niklas HagmanFans in Dallas and across the United States will be eagerly anticipating Mike Modano becoming the all-time American leading goal scorer, but Hagman is a key if the Stars are to improve their 107-point season. The Finnish forward had a breakout season in 2006-07, scoring 17 goals, while appearing in all 82 games. Not bad for a guy who was acquired for a seventh-round pick from the Florida Panthers in 2005.

Detroit Red Wings: Jiri Hudler This is why there is always playoff hockey in Motown — because the Wings always draft well. A second-round pick in 2002, Hudler scored 15 goals for Detroit in his rookie season, helping his club earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Four of those goals last season were game-winners — and he’s still only 23.

Edmonton Oilers: Dustin Penner Oilers GM Kevin Lowe threw the kitchen sink at Penner to lure him from Anaheim as a restricted free agent, so big things will be expected from the big wing. At 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds, the power forward posted eight points in 21 playoff games to help the Ducks win the Stanley Cup. The pressure will be on in Edmonton, where rabid fans will be demanding plenty from the man who signed a five-year contract worth $21.25 million.

Los Angeles Kings: Mike Cammalleri The 25-year-old built off his strong campaign in 2005-06 (26-29-55) by tallying 34 goals and 46 assists last season. Very strong on special teams (16 power play goals in 2006-07), Cammalleri will need another strong season if the Kings plan on making the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Minnesota Wild: Niklas Backstrom Signed as a free agent in 2006, the 29-year-old enjoyed a solid rookie campaign last season, going 23-8-6 with a phenomenal 1.97 goals-against average. Because of his age, his NHL window won’t be open as long as some others, but while he’s here, the Wild can contend. Backstrom only won one of five playoff games last April, but he could hardly be blamed for Minnesota’s quick exit (2.22 GAA, .924 save percentage in series loss to Anaheim).

Nashville Predators: Chris Mason With last season’s starter, Tomas Vokoun, dealt to the Florida Panthers during the off-season, Mason is finally a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. After spending the majority of the past decade playing either overseas or in the minors, Mason, 31, has finally been blessed with a tremendous opportunity. In 40 appearances with Nashville last season, the former fifth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils won 24 games and posted a 2.38 GAA and .925 save percentage.

Phoenix Coyotes: Mike ZigomanisSigned as a free agent in the summer of 2006, Zigomanis came out of nowhere to score 14 goals for the Coyotes last season. The tricky part for the 26-year-old center will be a repeat performance. After all, he only had three career NHL goals prior to last season’s breakout — and he must prove to Wayne Gretzky & Co. that last season wasn’t a fluke.

San Jose Sharks: Jeremy Roenick -- I’m retiring. No, I’m not. Yes, I am. Wait … I’m not. It seemed like that type of summer for the charismatic Roenick, who gets a chance in the Shark Tank to prove he has something left in his tank. The 37-year-old scored 11 goals in 70 games last season for the Phoenix Coyotes, so Roenick should be able to play more often than not. The issue here will be whether he has any scoring touch left.

St. Louis Blues: Erik Johnson -- At 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, the 19-year-old defenseman will be trying to make an impact in his rookie season. The top pick in the 2006 Draft, Johnson possesses tremendous stickhandling abilities for a defenseman and is known for his smooth skating. His size should help him clear opposing forwards from in front of the net.

Vancouver Canucks: Taylor Pyatt It took six seasons, but Pyatt finally turned into a 20-goal scorer in 2006-07, with 23 goals in 76 games, most of which were played on a line with the Sedin twins. If he can do it again, it will prove to be a steal for the Canucks, who gave the Buffalo Sabres only a fourth-round draft pick to acquire Pyatt in July 2006. Let’s not forget that even though Pyatt is entering his seventh NHL season, he’s still only 26.

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