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Western Conference Preview

We are a little over 24 hours from the opening puck-drop on the season, so I guess it’s time for some predictions…

Tier 1: Contenders

1. Los Angeles Kings
I like… The overall makeup of this team. There’s just been one change to the Stanley Cup roster from June.
I don’t like… Jonathan Quick’s chances of duplicating his Conn Smythe numbers, but even then he should contend for the Vezina.
X-factor… Jeff Carter. If he can iron out his inconsistencies, the Kings’ offense shouldn’t have the goal-scoring issues they experienced last season.
2. Vancouver Canucks
I like… Cory Schneider taking Roberto Luongo’s place in goal, especially for the playoffs.
I don’t like… Alexander Edler, Ryan Kesler and David Booth being injury-prone from the season’s onset.
X-factor… Zack Kassian. Acquired for Cody Hodgson last spring, the Canucks need more from the big, young, physical winger.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
I like… Their firepower. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith – what’s not to like?
I don’t like… Their schedule. Chicago will open up the season with nine of the first 11 games on the road, where they played .500 hockey a season ago.
X-factor… Corey Crawford. He must bounce back from a forgettable sophomore campaign.
4. St. Louis Blues
I like… Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko adding offensive flare to a Blues forwards corps that could use a jolt.
I don’t like… Brian Elliott repeating his All-Star quality season from 2011-12, where he posted a 1.56 GAA.
X-factor… Chris Stewart. It’s time for the power forward to decide whether he’s a go-to scorer or just another secondary producer.

Tier 2: Playoff-caliber

5. Nashville Predators
I like… Barry Trotz and staff keeping this versatile team in the Central Division race all season long.
I don’t like… The power play finishing first overall for a second straight season. This may be where Ryan Suter’s absence hurts the most.
X-factor… Roman Josi. How quickly can he and Shea Weber gain chemistry?
6. Phoenix Coyotes
I like… The defense corps. The organization is so rich with young talent that Keith Yandle is considered expendable.
I don’t like… The loss of Ray Whitney, who was an invaluable piece the last two seasons.
X-factor… Antoine Vermette. Can he pick up where he left off from last postseason?
7. Detroit Red Wings
I like… Henrik Zetterberg as captain. He’s not Nick Lidstrom, but he was the best choice.
I don’t like… Ken Holland’s conservative off-season, which has left the defense shorthanded and inexperienced – but it will help their future.
X-factor… Damien Brunner. The Swiss rookie needs to lend a helping hand up front.
8. Minnesota Wild
I like… The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Dany Heatley.
I don’t like… The fragility of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.
X-factor… The entire blue-line not named Ryan Suter, who need to step their game up as a whole to contend in the West.
9. Colorado Avalanche
I like… Semyon Varlamov to break through. He was solid late last season and in the KHL during the lockout.
I don’t like… The P.A. Parenteau signing. Can he succeed away from Long Island?
X-factor… Matt Duchene. After 28 points in 58 games last season, it’s time for the former No. 3 overall pick to take the next step.
10. San Jose Sharks
I like… Logan Couture. Forget Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Pavelski – Couture is the Sharks’ best and most valuable player.
I don’t like… Their chances to keep up in the Pacific. There just seems to be something missing here.
X-factor… GM Doug Wilson, who needs to improve the Sharks’ depth up front.
11. Anaheim Ducks
I like… Jonas Hiller to have his best season since 2008-09.
I don’t like… Looming free agency of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry creating an elephant-in-the-room atmosphere, particularly if the team struggles.
X-factor… Cam Fowler. Is he ready to be a main cog on both ends of the ice?

Tier 3: Need some breaks

12. Edmonton Oilers
I like… The potential offensive explosion with Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz and Yakupov all being in game shape.
I don’t like… New bench boss Ralph Krueger having limited time to install his system and to get to know a young team.
X-factor… Sam Gagner. Can he keep up with the aforementioned youngsters around him?
13. Dallas Stars
I like… Jamie Benn being the offensive leader, once he gets under contract.
I don’t like… The defense corps. It’s thin, it’s shaky, it’s average at best.
X-factor… Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Ray Whitney. The faster they get acclimated in Big D, the better chance the Stars have to break their four-year playoff drought.

Tier 4: Lottery bound

14. Columbus Blue Jackets
I like… Cam Atkinson to seriously contend for the Calder Trophy.
I don’t like… Todd Richards being promoted from interim to full-time head coach. But maybe he’ll fare better than he did in Minnesota?
X-factor… Sergei Bobrovsky. How much the Jackets compete depends on how much of an upgrade in net Bobrovsky turns out to be.
15. Calgary Flames
I like… Very little about this roster. But hey, Sven Baertschi has a high ceiling. That’s a start.
I don’t like… When a GM gives Dennis Wideman a five-year, $26.25 million contract.
X-factor… Jiri Hudler. Which version of Hudler will Calgary be getting?

Playoff predictions

Eastern Conference finals: Penguins over Rangers
Western Conference finals: Blackhawks over Kings
Stanley Cup final: Penguins over Blackhawks

Awards

Hart: Steven Stamkos, Lightning
Vezina: Tuukka Rask, Bruins
Norris: Shea Weber, Predators
Calder: Justin Schultz, Oilers
Jack Adams: Kirk Muller, Hurricanes

 
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