BY JEFF ANGUS
Let’s take a look at the favourites – and a sleeper team to watch for – in the three divisions that make up the NHL’s Western Conference: the Northwest, the Central, and the Pacific.
THE FAVOURITE: Vancouver (-172 to Win the Northwest Division)
The Canucks will once again ice a formidable roster in 2012-13. Their forward group is deep and balanced (when Ryan Kesler is healthy, at least), and they have one of the better defensive cores in the NHL. In goal, they can count on elite play from Cory Schneider (and Roberto Luongo, if he is still around when the puck drops on opening night). They aren’t a great value pick to win the Northwest, but if you are a fan of betting on the heavy favourites, they have as good a shot as any NHL team to win their division. The Canucks have had one of the best power plays in the league over the past few years, and many expect the NHL to start cracking down on obstruction once again. If that ends up being the case, expect Vancouver to benefit more than most other teams.
THE SLEEPER: Edmonton Oilers (+340 to Win the Northwest Division)
The Oilers are probably a year or two away from taking a major step forward, but they could really surprise this year if a few things go their way. Can Justin Schultz dominate at the NHL level like he has been able to in the AHL? Is Devan Dubnyk ready to start in the NHL, and if not, will the motivation of a contract year get Nikolai Khabibulin back on track? Can the Oilers get enough offense from their secondary scorers? Can their young players handle tougher minutes against the top opposing players? If the answer to a few of those questions ends up being yes, Edmonton could make some noise in the Northwest in 2012-13. And with all of the hype that Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz, and Taylor Hall receive, people forget about solid offensive players like Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner.
THE FAVOURITE: Chicago Blackhawks (-143 to Win Central Division)
Even with average goaltending (at best), the Blackhawks are one of the better teams in hockey. Led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, they have arguably the deepest defensive group in the league. Up front, their star power rivals any team outside of Pittsburgh. Chicago has bumped up stalwart checking center Dave Bolland to the second line, and that will allow Patrick Kane to return to his natural position of right wing. Marian Hossa is fully healthy and ready to go after suffering a serious concussion during the 2012 postseason. The Central Division is quickly becoming the toughest in hockey, and Chicago will have their hands full with the likes of Detroit and St. Louis.
THE SLEEPER: Columbus Blue Jackets (+4900 to Win the Central Division)
The Blue Jackets managed to score an impressive haul for Rick Nash last summer, considering the maligned star forward only really had eyes for the Big Apple. Columbus won’t be an easy victory this season – their roster is chalk-full of grit and toughness. The team hopes that Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can step in and play with some consistency in between the pipes – former Calder winner Steve Mason has been arguably the worst starting goaltender in the NHL over the past few seasons. Mason reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter than he was last season, as he obviously sees the writing on the wall – it is put up for shut up time for him as an NHL goaltender. Keep an eye on winger Cam Atkinson, too. The undersized scorer has a nose for the net and is ready to make a name for himself in the NHL.
THE FAVOURITE: Los Angeles Kings (-118 to Win the Pacific Division)
The reigning Stanley Cup champs return the exact same roster to the ice for this season. Injury-prone winger Simon Gagne is back and playing (for now), and the team will have to make do without superstar center Anze Kopitar (knee injury) for the first few weeks of the season. Rugged defenseman Willie Mitchell is also expected to miss some time with a knee injury. The Kings are a big and physical team, and they are also really deep. That depth is going to come in handy this season more than ever, as injuries and fatigue set in with such a condensed schedule.
THE SLEEPER: Phoenix Coyotes (+800 to Win the Pacific Division)
Although the Coyotes earned a trip to the Western Conference Final last year, they still don’t get the respect they deserve from most preseason predictions. They have a great defense, a goaltender in Mike Smith who exudes a ton of confidence, and a balanced group of forwards (although they are going to miss Ray Whitney’s playmaking on the power play). Phoenix is expected to move a defenseman (potentially Keith Yandle) for a forward at some point this season. Even if the Coyotes move Yandle, they still have future Norris contender Oliver Ekman-Larsson to build around. The Coyotes are also coached by one of the smartest men in hockey – Dave Tippett. He is a master at getting the most out of his players, and that is imperative for a Phoenix team that lacks any sort of star power up front.