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Red Wings still the team to beat in ultra-competitive NHL West

The Detroit Red Wings had no sooner raised the Stanley Cup last spring when talk began of whether any team could stop them from making it two in a row.

The voices only grew louder when Marian Hossa, a star goal-scorer from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team they beat in the final, signed a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent with the Wings this summer.

But for all their talent, experience and leadership, the Red Wings will have to get through the tough NHL Western Conference, where powers like the Dallas Stars, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks stand in the way of a repeat.

Detroit won two in a row in 1997 and 1998, and then won another in 2002. But the grind of an 82-game season has been too much for any other club to keep the Cup for more than one year since the days of long strings of championships ended with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.

Kirk Maltby, one of five Wings to play on all four Cup winners since 1997, says that if any team can do it, it's this one.

"I've been here since 1996 and it seems like whether we win the Cup or not, the following season teams are using us as a measuring stick," the checking forward said. "That's a credit to the type of team we keep putting out there year after year.

"So I don't think this is any different. I think that's what allows us not to have a hangover or anything like that, because we know we have to be prepared every game."

Maltby, Nik Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom and Darren McCarty have much to tell younger stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brian Rafalski and Johan Franzen about what it's like to win two straight.

The Red Wings certainly have the personnel to do it.

"We're excited about the opportunity," said coach Mike Babcock. "We think we've got a good hockey club.

"But it's going to be battle like it is every year. There's unbelievable parity in this league."

Nowhere moreso than in the West, starting with the club that made them sweat through the conference final in May, the Dallas Stars.

Centre Mike Ribeiro finally found his focus and used his considerable skills to build an 83-point season in 2007-08 and become an offensive leader, along with Brad Richards and Brenden Morrow, on a team that is otherwise not strong on attack.

This season, the unpredictable Sean Avery arrived from New York to keep things interesting.

The strength is in goal with veteran Marty Turco and on defence, with Sergei Zubov, Stephane Robidas and rising youngster Matt Niskanen.

While Detroit dominates the weak Central Division, the real action happens in the Pacific, where the Stars battle the 2007 Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and the gifted San Jose Sharks, as well as the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings.

The Ducks looked like they suffered from a Stanley Cup hangover with an early playoff exit last spring, but they still have a big, skilled team with solid goaltending from J.S. Giguere.

Late deals to get under the salary cap saw them ship out defencemen Mathieu Schneider and Sean O'Donnell and take in Ken Klee, but it is the play of former all-stars Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer that needs to get back to 2006-07 levels.

The Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf duo leads a deep lineup on attack.

The Sharks might have gone into a slide when rushing defenceman Brian Campbell bolted to Chicago as a free agent, but instead, general manager Doug Wilson picked up an equally gifted puck mover in Dan Boyle as well as 38-year-old Rob Blake.

With Joe Thornton leading a speedy attack, the Sharks will be in the hunt.

The dark horse in the west may be Minnesota, the favourite to win the Northwest Division ahead of the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche.

Picking up Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marek Zidlicky on defence and Andrew Brunette on attack will help. Jacques Lemaire is finally getting the on-ice talent to put his considerable coaching skills to work.

The Oilers should also jump back into the playoffs with power winger Erik Cole and defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky added to an impressive group of young players that includes Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert and Kyle Brodziak.

As well, big-shooting Sheldon Souray is back on the point after missing last season with injuries. But is Mathieu Garon the answer in goal?

The Flames may have a tougher time keeping their playoff spot after the departures of scorers Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius, but they picked up Mike Cammalleri and they still have Jarome Iginla, the big defence pair of Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr and Miikka Kiprusoff in goal.

The Canucks are the talk of hockey after naming star goalie Roberto Luongo as their captain. A ton of experience left in the off-season in Trevor Linden, Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund, although they picked up Pavol Demitra. The question is whether twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin can carry the attack.

The Avalanche have been inching down the standings since their years of dominance ended with the 2004-05 lockout, and that isn't likely to change with Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft as their goaltedning duo.

They still have guns on offence though, with Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth, Paul Stastny, and others.

A team to watch is the Blackhawks, where Campbell joined from San Jose to give the young trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp big support on the rush. If they can keep Martin Havlat healthy, the Blackhawks could be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Another team of interest is the Coyotes, who picked up former Florida star Olli Jokinen. He'll help young talent like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris develop, while Ilya Bryzgalov will keep Wayne Gretzky's team competitive in goal.

The rest of the conference will likely need miracles to see the post-season.

The Nashville Predators lost Zidlicky, then saw young forward Alexander Radulov sign with a Russian club.

The Columbus Blue Jackets picked up some useful veterans like Huselius, R.J. Umberger. Raffi Torres and Fedor Tyutin and should finally begin moving upward.

The St. Louis Blues may have been a playoff team, but a nasty off-ice knee injury to rising defence Erik Johnson may have put their revival on hold.

And the Los Angeles Kings have some impressive talent, like Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson, but it is all still very young.


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