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Button breaks down the Western Conference

by Staff / Edmonton Oilers
NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the former general manager of the Calgary Flames, takes a look at how Western Conference teams will fare during the 2010-11 season.

Check back each day as more analysis from Button is added.

Anaheim Ducks -- GM Bob Murray knows the importance of having good defensemen. Without the luxury of watching Scott Niedermayer anchor the defense, one that was instrumental in the Ducks' past success, the level of comfort and confidence in the defense will be diminished. It is a competent group of varying degrees on the blue line, but the undeniable fact is that players of Scott's ilk control the game and make everybody around them that much better. His absence will be profound.

Jonas Hiller has emerged as a solid goaltender capable of winning games. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan may be the best forward combination of skill, size and power in the League.

The Ducks are a competitive team capable of making the playoffs, but they fall in with a group of other teams in the Western Conference with no certainty of qualifying. The can give themselves a better chance by cutting down on their penalties (third-most penalty minutes per game in 2009-10) and by allowing fewer shots per game (second-most allowed in 2009-10).

Calgary Flames -- It was a tale of two seasons for the Flames in 2009-10. A superb first half (24-12-5), when they were considered serious Stanley Cup contenders, followed by a dismal second half (16-20-5), during which the roster was overhauled with the aim of adding more scoring;  the scoring actually declined, however, and they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

So are the Flames withering? Not so fast.

Miikka Kiprusoff arguably is the best goaltender in the NHL. Simply, he gives the Flames a chance to win each and every game he starts. The incomparable Jarome Iginla had a down season by his standards but remains a formidable challenge for opponents to shut down and is their unquestioned leader. Jay Bouwmeester remains a very good defenseman who can impact the game with his skating. The Flames have a blend of skill and physical presence in their defense group and do not give up many scoring chances.

While many have been left scratching their heads wondering how GM Darryl Sutter could bring back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, they are but two players in a bigger picture. The fortunes of the Flames do not lie solely in those two players, but in a collective forward group that needs to generate more scoring chances and pressure on their opponents. They were 29th in goal scoring last season and scored a dismal 2.20 goals for per game in the second half.

The Flames will be hard-pressed to qualify for the playoffs if that trend carries through to this season. If they do improve their scoring, they will be a dangerous team come the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks -- Now for the encore!

 The expectations of winning the Stanley Cup have been replaced with expectations of repeating. No easy task as that feat last was accomplished by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

There was significant change in Chicago following their Stanley Cup celebration, but Blackhawks fans need not despair. GM Stan Bowman has done a masterful job of retooling his team without having to rebuild the engine. Yes, there are good players no longer in Chicago, but the key players remain. The captain, Jonathan Toews; Patrick Kane; the top four defensemen in reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson; along with productive two-way forwards Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland, make Chicago every bit as formidable as they were last season.

 The ability to make changes without impaling your core group is no easy task, yet Stan did it while being able to add some good, young players and draft picks. This is of critical importance if a team desires to remain a contender year after year.

Not to forget about the accomplishments of goaltender Antti Niemi, because his play was stellar during the playoffs. When you take a look back to the Red Wings following their Cup victory in 1997, they had parted ways with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood assumed the reins and helped the Wings repeat as champions. Marty Turco is a very good goaltender and the Hawks will have the added benefit of his superb puck-handling skills. Combine everything with the coaching excellence provided by Joel Quenneville and the Hawks are in a very favorable position to defend their championship.

Colorado Avalanche -- Entering last season, the Avalanche were a team in transition, albeit one with a promising future, but nonetheless with expectations of growing pains. The pains were not so evident and that promising future came together very nicely last season. Coach Joe Sacco did a marvellous job of helping a young team adapt to the challenges of the NHL and grow as a team.

The thought of a great 1-2 punch at center with Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene can be rebranded as a great 1-2-3 punch with the emergence of Ryan O'Reilly. Add the scoring skill of Milan Hejduk, the power and force of Chris Stewart, the speed of T.J. Galiardi, and in a League where things happen very quickly, the Colorado forwards give opposing defensemen a lot to think about -- and worry about.

The defense can join the rush and support the offensive thrust, and while the group may not be sexy, they complement one another nicely, and with a season of playing together as a group, they will be improved. Colorado also has the luxury of a goaltender, Craig Anderson, who can face a heavy workload and clean up mistakes. His play may have been a revelation in some circles last season, but his record in Florida prior to that suggests he was a shrewd acquisition by the Avalanche.

GM Greg Sherman has managed his salary cap extremely well, and with the flexibility he has created, he can be patient and determine what can strengthen his team in terms of acquisitions without any unnecessary salary-cap pressures.

While last season was a coming out party, this season will serve as confirmation that this proud franchise is on the march back toward championship-caliber status.

Columbus Blue Jackets -- Entering last season fresh off their first playoff appearance, the Blue Jackets played with a confidence befitting an organization that had every reason to believe it had turned the proverbial corner toward respectability. After the first 20 games, Columbus had a record of 12-6-2 and certainly there was no doubting the capabilities of the team. What transpired from this point forward was a team incapable of building on the foundation over the previous 100 games. The Blue Jackets won only 20 games during the remainder of the season, which led to sweeping change in the coaching office.

Scott Arniel begins his NHL coaching career with a team largely unchanged from the disappointment of 2009-10. It can be said that the maturity of the Blue Jackets is ongoing and that a nucleus of young players, led by Rick Nash, is better equipped to help Columbus climb the standings in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard and Nikita Filatov have to be contributors and not merely learning on the job. A healthy Rostislav Klesla can help stabilize the defense corps and Steve Mason must return to his Calder Trophy-winning ways if the Blue Jackets are going to show they are playoff worthy. Columbus was the second-worst team in even-strength play, a reflection of goals for and goals against when playing at even strength.

If progress is not shown by the young players, Mason plays more like last season than the season previous, and the overall team play does not improve significantly, the playoffs will not be a reality and sweeping change may be found throughout the roster.

Dallas Stars -- Consecutive seasons out of the playoffs has put a different face on this organization. The Stars, a perennial top-four team in the Western Conference has stumbled upon some difficult times and now finds itself among the group of hopefuls trying to make the playoffs.

When you think of the Stars, one thinks of Mike Modano. He is synonymous with Stars hockey and the success it has enjoyed in Dallas largely has been through his on-ice skill and flair as well as his off-ice personality. The decision to move forward without Mike leaves no doubt a new era is under way in Dallas. Change doesn’t stop at Mike. Jere Lehtinen, one of the premier two-way players in NHL history, has not decided whether he wants to continue his career. Along with Marty Turco's departure, the face and faces of the Dallas Stars are much different.

Not to despair, though, as the Stars have a group of players ready to assume the leadership of the team. Brad Richards is a tried and true first-line center who has the ability to create offensive magic. James Neal and Loui Eriksson are gifted scorers and Jamie Benn looks like a player capable of being a star in the League. As captain, it is Brenden Morrow's team, and if the team can reflect his personality of competitive, determined, hard play -- a hallmark of the glory days of the franchise -- this team can find its own successes.

There are not any household names on the blue line, but like Morrow, the underrated Stephane Robidas is a determined competitor willing to contribute in any manner to ensure victory. If young defensemen Matt Niskanen, Niklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Trevor Daley can continue to improve, this group can meet the challenges of any type of game. Goalie Kari Lehtonen has always had the promise, but injuries have not allowed him to fulfill it. If the Stars want to be playoff participants come April, it is imperative Lehtonen stay healthy and realize his vast potential.

Detroit Red Wings -- Despite a spate of injuries to key players throughout last season, a rookie assuming the starting goaltender position and the departures of productive offensive players, the Red Wings continued their run of excellence by recording yet another 100-point season. Following the Olympic break, with seven players participating at the Olympics, the Wings had a .762 winning percentage, by far the best during this period.

They significantly improved upon their goals-against average, team save percentage and penalty killing records from 2008-09, a testimony to the Red Wings' focus on always looking to improve and not be complacent. The "Red Wings Way" is successful because it emphasizes a focus on being smart and competitive and always putting yourself in a position to succeed, whether it is about the individual or the team.

While teams around the League have seen player departures, the Red Wings are welcoming players. Jiri Hudler returns from a one-season hiatus in Russia, and Detroit native Mike Modano joins them after spending his entire career with the Dallas Stars organization. These are two gifted players who fit the Red Wings' philosophy and only are asked to be part of the contributions, not have unrealistic expectations thrust upon them. This makes for a deep forward group and creates multiple challenges for opponents. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are incomparable and lead this very talented group.

Niklas Lidstrom still is an elite defenseman and capable of controlling a game. Alongside Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronvall and Brad Stuart, it is an elite group, and with the addition of Ruslan Salei, it will be a force of strength. Jimmy Howard showed that he is more than capable in the net and will return with the confidence of knowing he can help this team win.

Detroit has been a perennial Stanley Cup contender for almost 20 years, and it will be no different this season.

Edmonton Oilers -- Since losing in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, the Oilers have fallen on hard times, failing to qualify for the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. They are coming off the worst season in franchise history with the NHL's fewest points in 2009-10. But the "in every cloud there is a silver lining" idiom becomes prevalent because it can't be any worse.

To suggest there is a reward for being the worst team in the league is counterintuitive, but in the case of the Oilers, the reward comes in the shape of first draft pick Taylor Hall. He is an enormous talent who has demonstrated the ability to lead his teams to championships and seems just like the tonic for what ails the Oilers. The burden of helping turn around the fortunes of a franchise will not fall solely to Hall, as he has some company with junior talents Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi. It becomes easier, in a sense, to contribute to the success of the team because you can work in tandem and not be isolated.

The Oilers have a premier talent in Ales Hemsky, and losing him to injury last season left a massive hole in their lineup. Shawn Horcoff is a very capable player who can play in multiple situations. If Dustin Penner can play to the level he demonstrated last season, this team has three forwards who can ease the burden on the young players. Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Gilbert Brule were the young and promising players not so long ago and it is necessary for them to demonstrate the capabilities that led to excitement for their arrivals.

The defense is relatively inexperienced, with Ryan Whitney leading the way. Nikolai Khabibulin was able to mask a lot of the shortcomings of the team last season before having season-ending back surgery in November. The Oilers are going to need goaltending that can make up for the mistakes of youth and not affect the confidence of the team. Khabibulin is capable of being that and it is necessary for him to fulfil on that capability.

The excitement is justified in Edmonton, and while the playoffs are no guarantee, the future certainly looks bright.

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