Come playoff time, the road through the Western Conference to the Stanley Cup final goes through Los Angeles or Chicago. The defending-champion Kings and still-in-their-prime Blackhawks remain the standard.
The regular season? That’s a different story.
Remember, last season, it wasn’t even the St. Louis Blues who won the Central Division but the upstart Colorado Avalanche. In the Pacific, the Kings and San Jose Sharks had the memorable first-round series, but the Anaheim Ducks get the division champions banner.
Those teams—beginning with the Ducks, Blues and Avalanche and continuing down to the Dallas Stars—are already focused on making that next step to competing against the Kings and Blackhawks.
Over the grind of an 82-game season, it’s a daunting task for any team outside last year’s playoff field to crack the top eight.
“It is tough and it’s getting tougher,” Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. “It seems like over the summer every team in the West adds more pieces that make them deeper.”
There’s no doubt the West is deep, and even with 14 teams there will be at least one or two out in the cold come April who could make a run in the East.
Here’s a look at the Western Conference in the predicted order of finish by division (asterisk indicates wild-card playoff teams):
1. St. Louis Blues
Last season: 52-23-7, 111 points, second in Central, lost in division semifinals to Chicago
Who’s gone: G Ryan Miller, LW Brenden Morrow, D Roman Polak
Who’s new: C Paul Stastny, D Carl Gunnarsson, D Chris Butler
Outlook: After trading Jaroslav Halak and counting on Miller down the stretch and in the playoffs backfired, the Blues go into this season with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Unlike Miller, they’re used to coach Ken Hitchcock’s system and how few shots St. Louis likes to give up. Up front, Stastny and captain David Backes combine for a nice one-two punch down the middle and there’s plenty of talent on the wings. On defence, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester lead a group that’s at least five strong.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
Last season: 46-21-15, 107 points, third in Central, lost in conference final to Los Angeles
Who’s gone: C Michal Handzus, F Brandon Bollig, D Sheldon Brookbank
Who’s new: C Brad Richards
Outlook: This might be the best top six in the NHL with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Bryan Bickell and Richards. And that’s still a crazy-deep defence, led by Norris Trophy-winner Duncan Keith. Injuries contributed to last year’s third-place finish, but this is a group that knows to turn it on when it matters. Chicago is a Stanley Cup favourite even if it doesn’t win the Central or even finish second.
3. Dallas Stars
Last season: 40-31-11, 91 points, fifth in Central, lost in division semifinals to Anaheim
Who’s gone: G Tim Thomas, RW Alex Chiasson, D Aaron Rome
Who’s new: C Jason Spezza, RW Ales Hemsky, G Anders Lindback, F Patrick Eaves
Outlook: Jim Nill won the off-season by getting Spezza from the Ottawa Senators for Chiasson, two prospects and a second-round pick and signing Hemsky. Dallas, as a result, is a chic pick to be one of the most improved teams in the NHL and ready to play with the big boys in the West. Much of that depends on the health of goaltender Kari Lehtonen and the play of a virtually anonymous defence led by Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley. Second-year winger Valeri Nichushkin could also make a substantial leap.
4. Colorado Avalanche*
Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, first in Central, lost in division semifinals to Minnesota
Who’s gone: C Paul Stastny, RW P-A Parenteau, D Andre Benoit, G Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Who’s new: RW Jarome Iginla, D Brad Stuart, C Daniel Briere, F Jesse Winchester
Outlook: Captain Gabriel Landeskog and Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon in separate interviews within an hour said the Avalanche may not get 112 points this year, but they expect the team to be better. It’ll be hard to match last season’s out-of-nowhere success, unless goaltender Semyon Varlamov keeps up a superhuman pace and stays healthy. More likely, Colorado is fighting until the final days for one of the final playoff spots in the West.
5. Minnesota Wild
Last season: 43-27-12, 98 points, fourth in Central, lost in division final to Chicago
Who’s gone: G Ilya Bryzgalov, LW Matt Moulson, LW Dany Heatley, D Nate Prosser, D Clayton Stoner
Who’s new: LW Thomas Vanek
Outlook: Goaltending was a huge part of why the Wild made the playoffs last year, and depth in the form of Darcy Kuemper helped them get to the second round and give the Blackhawks a small scare. Minnesota is now counting on Josh Harding returning and Niklas Backstrom staying healthy. Young talent keeps piling up, like centre Mikael Granlund and defenceman Jonas Brodin, and the addition of Vanek should give Mike Yeo’s team a bit more of an offensive punch.
6. Nashville Predators
Last season: 38-32-12, 88 points, sixth in Central
Who’s gone: F Patric Hornqvist, F Nick Spaling, D Michael Del Zotto, F Patrick Eaves
Who’s new: RW James Neal, C Olli Jokinen, C Derek Roy, C Mike Ribeiro, D Anton Volchenkov
Outlook: Under new coach Peter Laviolette, the Predators will play a much different, more up-tempo style and have some more weapons with which to do so. Goalie Pekka Rinne being healthy makes a big difference, and Seth Jones should be a year improved learning from Shea Weber. Problem is, this is still the Western Conference, and Nashville is in the toughest, deepest division there is. The Predators will contend, but they have to prove they’re better than Minnesota or Colorado.
7. Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 37-35-10, 84 points, seventh in Central
Who’s gone: C Olli Jokinen, RW Devin Setoguchi, G Al Montoya
Who’s new: C Mathieu Perreault, F T.J. Galiardi, D Keaton Ellerby
Outlook: Meet the new Jets, same as the old Jets. Blake Wheeler said coach Paul Maurice instituted a more professional atmosphere around the team when he took over last year, but the necessary talent to be a playoff contender is still lacking. It would take monster jumps from centre Mark Scheifele and/or defenceman Jacob Trouba and a strong year from goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to make that even a possibility. Pavelec might even need to play more with rookie Michael Hutchinson as his backup.
1. Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 54-20-8, 116 points, first in Pacific, lost in division final to Los Angeles
Who’s gone: G Jonas Hiller, D Stephane Robidas, C Nick Bonino, RW Teemu Selanne, LW Daniel Winnik, D Luca Sbisa, C Mathieu Perreault
Who’s new: C Ryan Kesler, LW Dany Heatley, F Nate Thompson, D Clayton Stoner
Outlook: By adding Kesler to Ryan Getzlaf down the middle, the Ducks are trying to match the Kings’ one-two punch of Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. That’s a move that is geared toward a potential playoff series. In the 82 games before that, coach Bruce Boudreau’s bunch is already made to succeed in the regular season. One variable there is rookie John Gibson (and Frederik Andersen) replacing Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. If they’re as good or better, another division title is the expectation.
2. Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third in Pacific, won Stanley Cup
Who’s gone: D Willie Mitchell, C Colin Fraser
Who’s new: RW Adam Cracknell
Outlook: The biggest question the champs face is the healthy of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who had off-season wrist surgery that caused him to remain off the ice for more than two months. If Martin Jones is as good as he was for a short spurt last year, or the Kings are so good in front of any goaltender that an shooter tutor could succeed, everything will be fine. Marian Gaborik is back for the long term, so this group is even better than the one that started last season.
3. Vancouver Canucks
Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, fifth in Pacific
Who’s gone: C Ryan Kesler, D Jason Garrison, LW David Booth, C Mike Santorelli
Who’s new: G Ryan Miller, RW Radim Vrbata, C Nick Bonino, D Luca Sbisa, C Linden Vey, LW Derek Dorsett
Outlook: Call 2013-14 the worst of times for the Canucks. Injuries hit, John Tortorella lost his mind and tried to storm the Calgary Flames’ locker-room and the season went to hell. Roberto Luongo got traded, Mike Gillis and Tortorella got fired and a new regime took over. With president Trevor Linden, GM Jim Benning and coach Willie Desjardins in place, things should be more stable. Miller will be better facing more shots than he did in St. Louis, and Vey and Sbisa should replace Kesler just fine.
4. San Jose Sharks*
Last season: 51-22-9, 111 points, second in Pacific
Who’s gone: D Dan Boyle, RW Martin Havlat
Who’s new: F John Scott, D Taylor Fedun, F Tye McGinn
Outlook: On paper, the Sharks are still one of the best teams in the NHL. But the roster doesn’t indicate the state of upheaval they’re in. Joe Thornton has been stripped of the C and Patrick Marleau an A, but each veteran still has a no-trade clause on his new contract that kicks in this season. Wilson talked up a rebuild and made Scott his biggest off-season addition, but San Jose could be the most dysfunctional team to make the playoffs.
5. Arizona Coyotes
Last season: 37-30-15, 89 points, fourth in Pacific
Who’s gone: C Mike Ribeiro, RW Radim Vrabata, G Thomas Greiss
Who’s new: C Sam Gagner, G Devan Dubnyk, C Joe Vitale, F B.J. Crombeen
Outlook: Dave Tippett is going to have to work some magic after the Coyotes moved Ribeiro, bought out because of what GM Don Maloney called behavioural issues. Gagner—who cost almost nothing in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning after the Edmonton Oilers jettisoned him—will be counted on to do a lot. Mike Smith might be a system goaltender, but with Tippett’s disciplined team in front of him, he can get the job done.
6. Edmonton Oilers
Last season: 29-44-9, 67 points, seventh in Pacific
Who’s gone: C Sam Gagner, F Ryan Smyth, F Ryan Jones
Who’s new: D Nikita Nikitin, LW Benoit Pouliot, D Mark Fayne, C Leon Draisaitl, D Keith Aulie
Outlook: It seems like every year the young Oilers look ready to make that next step. Edmonton’s identity has become the potential of winning, but the results have been filled with losing. Pouliot and Fayne were smart signings, and goaltending should be at least a little better with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. But until the core of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz show evidence they can make the Oilers contenders, they’re still tomorrow’s team, not today’s.
7. Calgary Flames
Last season: 35-40-7, 77 points, sixth in Pacific
Who’s gone: F Michael Cammalleri, D Shane O’Brien, D Chris Butler, G Joey MacDonald
Who’s new: G Jonas Hiller, LW Mason Raymond, RW Devin Setoguchi, D Deryk Engelland, F Brandon Bollig
Outlook: Bob Hartley’s team works hard, but somebody’s got to be last. Hiller is an upgrade over last season’s goaltending, and there are pieces in place at various ages. Sean Monahan is growing, Johnny Gaudreau will be fun to watch, and, if Sam Bennett makes the team, the future will get a test drive. But it’s still rebuilding time in Calgary under president of hockey operations Brian Burke and new GM Brad Treliving. Flames’ fans will have their patience tested but won’t be ashamed of this group.
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter