SUN Hockey Pool

Changing of guard in wild, wild West

STEVE MacFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

During the last NHL season, the Western Conference was Detroit's for the taking.

The Red Wings had the best record in the league when the regular season ended and were primed to roll through the playoffs en route to another Stanley Cup championship.

Then the youthful Calgary Flames stepped in, taking out the elderly squad in the second round and rolling to the final series before being ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7.

That Stanley Cup final was the last top-level professional hockey played in almost 15 months and will be remembered for ushering in a new era in the NHL.

Speed, skill and youth -- qualities displayed by both the Lightning and Flames in what was a shocking but exciting matchup -- are qualities the reborn league will showcase after the lost season.

And the Western Conference has all those things in bulk.

The Northwest Division is arguably the best in hockey. The Flames, after their magical run in 2004, are the early favourite but the Vancouver Canucks are loaded with offensive talent made even more potent by the obstruction crackdown mandated by the league.

Colorado lost defenceman Adam Foote and the dominant Peter Forsberg but the Avalanche still boast stars Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake.

The Edmonton Oilers made bold moves, trading for blueliner Chris Pronger and centre Michael Peca.

In Minnesota, there are young stars waiting to shine.

The Pacific Division contenders in Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim aren't to be taken lightly, either. The Stars have an elite goaltender in Marty Turco and a mixture of youthful prospects and veterans who are hungry for another championship while there's still time.

San Jose and Anaheim are two teams that could thrive this year.

The Sharks have an abundance of skilled players while, in Anaheim, new GM Brian Burke promises to adopt an exciting style of up-tempo offence, which will suit stars Sergei Fedorov, Sandis Ozolinsh and free-agent signing Scott Niedermayer just fine.

Detroit still stands alone atop the Central Division but will be challenged by gritty teams in Nashville and Columbus.

And Chicago opened its chequebook, inking Nikolai Khabibulin in the off-season to lead the Blackhawks out of the basement.

With the open ice expected under the new NHL, it will indeed be the wild, wild West.


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