1.) Vancouver Canucks: The biggest problem the Canucks have heading into the 2012-13 season is that they have two of the top goalies in the world under contract. The back-to-back defending President Trophy winners shored up their d-core with the addition of Jason Garrison and should see youngster Chris Tanev patrolling the back end on a nightly basis. Ryan Kesler’s injury is worrisome, but his early season absence is mitigated by the overall weakness of the Northwest division.
2.) Los Angeles Kings: The Kings emerged as a powerhouse team during the 2011-12 post season. And with almost the entire Stanley Cup winning roster returning for the 2012-13 season, there is every reason to believe the Kings will finish atop their division. It will be interesting to see whether the Kings can maintain the torrid offensive output which saw them cruise to the cup last spring, but with Jonathan Quick between the pipes the Kings will have an opportunity to win each and every game.
3.) St. Louis Blues: The Blues were the surprise of the 2011-12 regular season. Everyone expected good things from them, but nobody expected the team to succeed the way it did under new head coach Ken Hitchcock. The Blues boast a young and talented core anchored by future Norris Trophy winner Alex Pietrangelo. They are rock solid between the pipes and boast impressive depth up and down their roster. They were outclassed last post season by the more experienced Kings. However that loss should only fuel their desire to break through to the next level.
4.) Detroit Red Wings: Nothing can replace the gaping hole left in the Red Wings blue line following the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom. That being said, Niklas Kronwall has shown that he is ready to assume #1 duties in a defence by committee system. Though ageing, the forward group remains as deep and talented as any in the league. With this group of savvy veterans and Mike Babcock behind the bench, the Red Wings will once again rank among the leagues best teams.
5.) Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks will enter the 2012-13 season with the same core as their championship winning squad. With the fire sale that robbed them of their depth long in the rear-view mirror, the Blackhawks will once again be challenging for the Stanley Cup. The only real question mark is in goal. Corey Crawford struggled at times last year, including when it counted most in the playoffs. They should pile up the points in the regular season, but the jury is out on Crawford’s ability to handle the big pressure situations.
6.) San Jose Sharks: Despite some inconsistency last season, the Sharks should regain their form as an elite Western Conference team. And while the Kings remain the top dog in the division, the Sharks are a clear #2. Lead by a bevy of talented forwards the Sharks boast no real weaknesses. At this point, any hurdles impeding their success are purely mental. Their team has the talent, but do they have the will?
7.) Minnesota Wild: Everybody knows that Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are going to have a tremendous impact on the Wild’s success this year. But GM Chuck Fletcher also shrewdly brought in Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka to round out his bottom six. With solid goal tending and incredible depth at the forward position, the Wild’s only concern is the relative youth and inexperience of their defence. There will be improvement this season, but the Wild are still a year away from seriously contending.
8.) Nashville Predators: Similar to the Red Wing’s situation, the Predators see themselves faced with the task of filling the hole left by an irreplaceable player. However if any franchise can make it work, it is the Predators. The Preds are a team better then the sum of its parts and will find a way to stay competitive in the ultra tight Western Conference. It also does not hurt that they draft defence year in year out.
9.) Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are one team poised for a resurgence in the 2012-13 season. Jonas Hiller showed some of his pre-vertigo form down the stretch and their “big 3″ of Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan can not possible play any worse then they did last season. With Teemu Selanne’s return, some spark plug young forwards trying to crack the roster, and an improved d-core, the Ducks will be right in the mix for the final playoff spot in the west.
10.) Dallas Stars: The Stars are in an interesting situation. With the new ownership committed to putting a winning team on the ice, the Stars are trying to rebuild their roster around Jamie Benn. However Benn remains unsigned and the 2nd line centre they brought in to relieve the pressure is could be out until the new year. Do not expect anything from the Stars this season and you will not be disappointed.
11.) Phoenix Coyotes: The 2012-13 Coyotes will be playing the same trap style they did last year en route to a division crown. However they only ranked 6th in the conference in points earned and both the Sharks and Kings were hot on their heels. Both important points to keep in mind. They already were a low scoring team, so the loss of the “wizard” is going to hurt… a lot. The Coyotes will remain a tough team to play against on a nightly basis, just expect a lot more of those 1 goal games to go against them this time around.
12.) Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche are an example of a rebuilding team without an identity. Since Joe Sakic retired, no one has really stepped up and become the face of the franchise. For a while it looked like Paul Stastny might, but then he never duplicated the success he of his rookie campaign. Matt Duchene looked like he might, but then he struggled to find his role in an injury riddled season last year. Erik Johnson looked like he might, but then he… well… looked like he always has. I guess maybe
3rd 4th time is the charm with Gabriel Landeskog.
13.) Edmonton Oilers: I hate to be the one that crushes all of the optimisim surrounding this iteration of the Oilers, but I will. The Oilers tank year in year out, draft in the top 5, and then expect things to turn around the next season. Building through the draft is a sound theory, but the team still needs to address its needs. The Oilers will not contend in the uber-competitive Western Conference until they shore up their defence and goaltending. They have a long way to go before recapturing the magic of the 80′s.
14.) Calgary Flames: The Flames are no longer a relevant team in the West. 3 seasons ago when they should have started a rebuild, the Flames’ ownership instead insisted on trying to contend on an annual basis. Iginla and Kipprusoff are not getting any younger and there is no one on the horizon to take over the reigns. The Oilers may not challenge this season, but at least there is some optimism for the future. For the Flames, things are looking bleak.
15.) Columbus Blue Jackets: Where to begin. The Blue Jackets are well below average at every position. They lack any game breaking talent on the front end, relying on heart and soul guys like Umberger, Foligno, and Dubinsky to fill scoring roles that they are unfit for. They boast an offensively minded d-core that lacks defensive awareness. And they have two very shaky, unproven net minders vying for the #1 position. The Blue Jackets may once again have last place locked up by Christmas.