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Luongo a potential distraction, but Canucks have few on-ice worries

VANCOUVER - Kevin Bieksa is not willing to talk about his team's Stanley Cup chances.

But the Vancouver Canucks defenceman is confident that his team's veteran core will help it succeed following a lockout that threatened to cancel an NHL season for a second time.

"A lot of us haven't been playing over in the European leagues and over in the AHL," Bieksa said. "So we've got to use our experience and brains off the bat when, maybe, our legs aren't there. So it's definitely going to help."

The Canucks, the top regular-season club the past two seasons, again rate as the team to beat in the Western Conference. While other squads try to introduce significant changes in a brief training camp, Vancouver has fewer on-ice worries.

Here's a look at the Western Conference in the teams' predicted order of finish.

1. Vancouver Canucks

Last season: 51-22-9, 111 points, 1st seed in West, lost in conference quarter-final to Los Angeles.

Breakdown: The Canucks have become known for slow starts, but also possess the advantages of a veteran lineup, familiar playing system and proven coach in a shortened season. The most significant challenge is to find an adequate replacement for injured centre Ryan Kesler on the second line. The anticipated Roberto Luongo trade may help resolve that issue. Luongo's presence at training camp poses a potential distraction. But if he is still around at the start of the season, it should not affect the win-loss column significantly, unless new No. 1 goaltender Cory Schneider struggles. As with all teams, fitness will be an issue following the lockout-induced layoff. But super-fit Daniel and Henrik Sedin will not give coach Alain Vigneault any cause for concern. They should be up to speed quickly, and can help carry their teammates as they often do.

2. St. Louis Blues

Last season: 49-22-11, 109 points, 2nd seed in West, lost in conference semifinal to Los Angeles

Breakdown: The Blues had a remarkable turnaround last season after coach Ken Hitchcock took over from the fired Payne Davis. The young Blues should get off to a much better start this time round. T.J. Oshie, David Backes and David Perron can put up respectable numbers in a system that emphasizes forechecking and strong two-way play. The defence corps is also dependable, and goaltender Jaroslav Halak ranks among the NHL's best when he is at the top of his game.

3. Phoenix Coyotes

Last season: 42-27-13, 97 points, 3rd seed in West, lost conference final to Los Angeles

Breakdown: The Coyotes will get third overall again by virtue of finishing first in their division. Coach Dave Tippett's squad showed last season that it can excel in spite of limited fan support in a non-traditional market. Much of the focus will be on Shane Doan as the 36-year-old captain tries to maintain his form after spending much of the lockout involved in labour negotiations.

4. Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, 5th seed in West, lost in conference quarter-final to Nashville

The Red Wings definitely will not look the same, especially on the blue-line. Former captain Nick Lidstrom retired in May, and the Wings lost fellow rearguards Brad Stuart (San Jose) to free agency. New additions to the blue-line brigade include former Toronto Maple Leaf and St., Louis Blue Carlo Colaiacovo and Brendan Smith, a second-year pro who has excelled in the minors after playing 14 games with Detroit as a rookie. Up front, the Wings have to make do without newly-retired winger Tomas Holmstrom and centre Jiri Hudler, who signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent in July. But Detroit always finds a way to win.

5. Anaheim Ducks

Last season: 34-36-12, 80 points, 13th in West, missed playoffs

The Ducks are poised to make a drastic turnaround from 2011-12, when they missed the playoffs. Accordingly, they should be the surprise of the West in the shortened season. They are too young, fast and talented to repeat their sub-par effort of a season ago. Scoring leaders Corey Perry, the 2010-11 NHL most valuable player, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf should have much better scoring output after a disappointing season.

6. Nashville Predators

Last season: 48-26-8, 104 points, 4th seed in West, lost in conference semifinal to Phoenix

To move up in the standings, the Preds must avoid the slow start that befell them in 2011-12. But they face a difficult task in a lockout-shortened season. As usual, a lack of offence remains an issue for coach Barry Trotz. Top scorers Martin Erat, David Legwand and Mike Fisher, who are all back, could not crack the 60-point mark last season, and they do not have much of a supporting cast to work with this time round. The Preds will again rely on a defence crew led by captain Shea Weber.

7. Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 40-27-15, 95 points, 8th seed in West, won the Stanley Cup

The usual Stanley Cup hangover has been compounded by the 113-day lockout and an injury to top centre Anze Kopitar. He hurt his knee while playing in Switzerland during the lockout and is expected to be out three to four weeks. There was little buzz off the ice after the Kings won their first-ever Stanley Cup, and there likely won't be much excitement on it until Kopitar returns. In other words, L.A.'s historic eighth-to-first run will be but a distant memory, and demanding coach Darryl Sutter will have to find unique ways to motivate a team that is no longer an underdog.

8. Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 32-40-10, 74 points, 14th in West, missed playoffs

The youth-laden Oilers stand to make the biggest improvement thanks to an usual situation during the lockout. A key part of their offensive core—Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and rookie defenceman Justin Schultz—played together with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, a team that deploys the same system as the Oilers in NHL-sized rinks. Most veterans from other clubs were scattered across Europe, playing on a bigger ice surface, while others had to settle for playing shinny with teammates or fellow NHLers who happened to live in the same place. Nugent-Hopkins also captained Canada at the world junior championship. Meanwhile, several other players toiled in Europe.

9. Dallas Stars

Last season: 42-35-5, 89 points, 10th in West, missed playoffs

Fellow 40-year-olds Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney represent intriguing free agent signings in an era—not to mention an abbreviated season—that emphasizes speed and youth. But it appears doubtful Jagr and Whitney can lift the Stars to the required playoff heights. Loui Eriksson and restricted free agent Jamie Benn, presuming he is re-signed quickly, should provide consistent production, but the Stars lack scoring depth.

10. Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 45-26-11, 101 points, fifth seed in West, lost to Phoenix in conference quarter-final

Pending a possible trade for Luongo, goaltending will be a focal point in Chicago. The Blackhawks have a capable offence with the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, among others, and a dependable defence anchored by former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. But starting netminder Corey Crawford has yet to generate the magic expected of him when the Hawks walked away from Antti Niemi's arbitration award after he backstopped them to a Stanley Cup title in 2009-10.

11. San Jose Sharks

Last season: 43-29-10, 96 points, 7th in West, lost in conference quarter-final to St. Louis

Sharks coach Todd McLellan is having trouble motivating the Sharks the way he used to. After a slow start last season, San Jose struggled to get into the playoffs and then bowed out in the opening round. Veterans Joe Thornton, who averaged better than a point per game in Switzerland during the lockout, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley will face pressure to produce early. The Sharks will also need offensive help from the likes of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski and a solid showing from goaltender Antti Niemi.

12. Minnesota

Last season: 35-36-11, 81 points, 12th in West, missed playoffs

Many observers expect the Wild to leap up the standings after luring winger Zach Parise away from New Jersey and defenceman Ryan Suter out of Nashville. After years of frugality, Minnesota signed Parise and Suter to identical 13-year, $98-million contracts, testing the theory that money can buy a championship-calibre team. But coach Mike Yeo is also introducing a culture change and continuing to develop an offence-oriented system in a limited number of games. Such efforts can take a full season, if not longer.

13. Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 41-35-6, 88 points, 11th in West, missed playoffs

The Avalanche will continue a youth movement led by 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog, the 2012 NHL rookie of the year. Like the Oilers, the Avalanche has a chance to reap big gains this season, but Colorado's core did not have the luxury of playing together during the labour dispute. Also, it remains to be seen whether the Avs have enough depth to make a strong run down the stretch.

14. Calgary Flames

Last season: 37-29-16, 90 points, ninth in West, missed playoffs

Captain Jarome Iginla's future will be the biggest question surrounding the Flames. He is entering the final year of his contract, and the next one will likely be the last of his career. GM Jay Feaster must decide whether it's in the franchise's best interests to re-sign Iginla, 35, or trade him and use the proceeds to further a rebuilding process that is far from over. Development-wise, the Flames can't afford to let him play out the final year of his pact and risk getting nothing in return.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 29-46-7, 65 points, 15th in West, missed playoffs

The Blue Jackets will try to adjust to life without Rick Nash. The former captain was traded to the New York Rangers in a summer deal that did not see big names head to Ohio. With Nash gone, the Jackets will rely offensively on the likes of R.J. Umberger (40 points in 2011-12 while earning $4.6 million) and Brandon Dubinsky (34 points in 77 games with the Rangers) and Artem Anisimov, who was also acquired in the big trade following a 36-point season in the Big Apple. Tim Erixon, another part of the deal with New York, will try to help strengthen a wonky defence and support suspect goaltending that saw the Jackets surrender 60 more goals than they scored last season. Sergei Bobrovsky, acquired in a draft-day trade from Philadelphia in June, is expected to challenge incumbent Steve Mason for the starting goaltender duties.



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