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Sharks look poised to pass Canucks for top spot in NHL Western conference

It was a short, sad summer for the Vancouver Canucks after their Game 7 loss on home ice to Boston in the Stanley Cup final, and now it's time to try again with most of the same players.

The Canucks remain a force in the NHL Western Conference with twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin on one line and big centre Ryan Kesler anchoring another.

There's goaltending, defence and depth up front, so only injuries or fatigue would prevent Alain Vigneault's squad from being a Cup contender again.

"There is no reason we can't get back there," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "We know it's obtainable.

"We know if we don't get back there with pretty much the same team it's because it's our fault. That's motivating enough."

But there will be challenges from improved teams in San Jose and Chicago, and the Detroit Red Wings can never be written off.

Here's a look at the Western Conference in their predicted order of finish:

1. San Jose Sharks

Last season: 48-25-9, 105 points, 2nd seed in West, lost in conference final to Vancouver

Breakdown: The Sharks have had a maddening run of playoff disappointment, including losses in three conference finals, despite amassing 100 or more points in six of the last seven seasons. There has to be a breakthrough one of these years, and this could be it. Dealing the fading Dany Heatley and scorer Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota and getting back defensive ace Brent Burns and playmaker Martin Havlat suggests they;ve bolstered their defence without giving up too much on attack. With Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe and others, there is plenty of firepower and an exceptional top four on defence.


2. Vancouver Canucks

Last season: 54-19-9, 117 points, 1st seed in West, lost Stanley Cup final to Boston.

Breakdown: The most significant piece gone from last season's first overall team is Christian Ehrhoff, their top scoring rearguard with 50 points. The back line remains strong with Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard and they still have size and skill up front in the one-two punch of the Sedin twins line followed by Ryan Kesler's unit. Having Mikael Samuelsson back from injury will help, as well. With Roberto Luongo in goal, the team remains one of the NHL's best on paper. How it deals with fatigue and the mental shock of their playoff disappointment could determine of they can do it again.


3. Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 44-29-9, 97 points, eighth seed in West, lost conference quarter-final to Vancouver

Breakdown: Salary cap woes prompted a rebuild after their 2010 Cup victory and the Blackhawks look ready to challenge again. The core of the championship team remains in Jonathan Teows, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa up front and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defence. Added this summer was tons of toughness in Jamal Mayers, Sean O'Donnell and Dan Carcillo, plus defence help in Steve Montador and an extra scorer in Andrew Brunette. Corey Crawford will need to continue his strong work since taking over the starting goaltender's job.


4. Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, third seed in West, lost conference semifinal to San Jose.

Breakdown: Stalwarts Kris Draper, Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood are gone and Niklas Lidstrom, who needs one more Norris Trophy to tie Bobby Orr's eight, turned 41 in April. For any other team, the departures may be devastating, but there is a reason the Red Wings have not missed the playoffs since 1990 and it is their ability to renew themselves. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen remain, but they will be looking for young players like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm to pick up the pace. Ty Conklin moves in to replace Osgood as backup to Jimmy Howard.


5. Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 46-30-6, 98 points, seventh seed in West, lost conference quarter-final to San Jose.

Breakdown: The signing of rising star defenceman Drew Doughty to an eight-year contract this week should send a quickly improving Kings team into the season on a high. The summer acquisition of two-way centre Mike Richards and sniper Simon Gagne adds to a potent forward group that includes Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner. Prospect Andrei Loktionov may also be ready to bring his skills to the NHL on a regular basis. Doughty and Jack Johnson provide an impressive top two on defence. Jonathan Quick is solid in goal. Their deals cost them Wayne Simmonds and prospect Brayden Schenn, and veteran Ryan Smyth has returned to Edmonton.


6. Anaheim Ducks

Last season: 47-30-5, 99 points, fourth seed in West, lost conference quarter-final to Nashville.

Breakdown: Much of the excitement comes from the development of young blue-liners Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa to go with top rearguard Lubomir Visnovsky, who is coming off a 68-point season. Having big first line centre Ryan Getzlaf back from injury to rejoin Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry and 30-goal man Bobby Ryan will also help. Getting goalie Jonas Hiller back to full health should also be a plus if he regains his top form. But perhaps the best news was that 41-year-old Teemu Selanne, who had 80 points in 73 games last season, is back for another year to skate with veteran centre Saku Koivu. Newcomer Andrew Cogliano gives them extra strength at centre.


7. Calgary Flames

Last season: 41-29-12, 94 points, 10th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: Although he had back trouble in camp, captain Jarome Iginla showed last season he is not slowing with age with a 43-goal, 86-point season. He will team again with Alex Tanguay and perhaps prospect Mikael Backlund or veteran Olli Jokinen on a top line that scores timely goals. Lee Stempniak has been added for some extra scoring up front. Veteran Robyn Regehr is gone, but Scott Hannan moves into a defence anchored by Jay Bouwmeester. Everything depends on solid goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who played 71 games last season.


8. St.Louis Blues

Last season: 38-33-1, 87 points, 11th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: The Blues will see how much veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner have left after adding their experience to a talented young roster. Last season went downhill when sparkplug forward T.J. Oshie was lost to injury for most of the campaign. Scorer Andy McDonald is also back to help big scoring leader David Backes. The young defence duo of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo is a source of optimism, and they know they'll get consistent goaltending from Jaroslav Halak. After two seasons out of the playoffs, the Blues should be ready.


9. Nashville Predators

Last season: 44-27-11, 99 points, fifth in West, lost conference semifinal to Vancouver

Breakdown: Goaltender Pekka Rinne and the first-rate defence pair of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, along with savvy coaching from Barry Trotz took the Predators to the second round of playoffs for the first time last spring. Now they have to do it again with a team whose top scorers, Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat, each had only 50 points, which will be a challenge. A healthy David Legwand and the late-season acquisition of centre Mike Fisher should help that. They added talented but streaky forward Niklas Bergfors. There are some fine prospects on the way up, including forward Blake Geoffrion and puck-moving defenceman Ryan Ellis and Jonathan Blum.


10. Minnesota Wild

Last season: 39-35-8, 86 points, 12th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: Bold moves were made to land Heatley and Setoguchi from San Jose, but it cost Burns, who logged 25 minutes per game of ice time, and Havlat, the team's co-leader in scoring with 62 points. Rearguard Cam Barker is also gone. The power play could improve with new wingers for star centre Mikko Koivu, and it should help to have winger Guillaume Latendresse back from injury. Adding checking forward Darrol Powe should also help. And there's a new coach with a history of producing overachievers in Mike Yeo.


11. Dallas Stars

Last season: 42-29-11, 95 points, ninth in West, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: Star centre Brad Richards is gone and replacing the free agent's 77 points will be a challenge. It makes a first-line centre of Mike Ribeiro for the first time, and he could have his old Montreal linemate, free agent Michael Ryder, on his wing. There's also support from scorer Loui Eriksson and captain Brenden Morrow. They'll look for a step forward from 22-goal man Jamie Benn. Alex Goligoski gives them a strong power play point man, and they've goaltending with Kari Lehtonen and prospect Jack Campbell.


12. Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 34-35-13, 81 points, 13th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: The arrival of Jeff Carter from Philadelphia could make a potent top line with scoring ace Rick Nash, and when new rearguard James Wisniewski finishes serving his eight-game suspension, it could make for a solid power play. Much will depend on secondary scoring from the likes of Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and youngster Jakoc Voracek. The defence remains suspect, and the once-promising Steve Mason is coming off a campaign of average numbers.

13. Phoenix Coyotes

Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, sixth in West, lost conference quarter-final to Detroit.

Breakdown: Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has gone to Philadelphia and it will be Mike Smith starting in goal. It's not good news for a team whose best goal-scorer was veteran Shane Doan with 20. The good news was that Keith Yandle took another step toward becoming an elite defenceman. And there is plenty of young talent in the organization, led by forward Kyle Turris, who will look for a big boost from his 11 goals in 65 games. There's also promising defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They've lost Ed Jovanovski and forward Vernon Fiddler, but added gritty Raffi Torres.


14. Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 25-45-12, 62 points, 15th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: The ever-popular Ryan Smyth is back and his experience should be a boost to all the young talent the Oilers have amassed. No. 1 overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joins 2010 top pick Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark and others on a team that should keep getting better for the next several years. Adding experience on defence in Cam Barker and Andy Sutton should help, and there's new muscle in Ben Eager. Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin takes care of the net.


15. Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 30-44-8, 68 points, 14th in West, missed playoffs

Breakdown: It's all about young talent, starting with rising centre Matt Duchene who led the team with 67 points. Now second overall pick Gabriel Landekog is in the picture. It points to a bright future, especially with Paul Stastny and veteran Milan Hejduk to add offence and more talented youth in Erik Johnson and Ryan O'Reilly. But they're betting on inconsistent Semyon Varlamov and veteran J.S. Giguere in goal, and they lost stalwart Adam Foote and John-Michael Liles from the defence.


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